“When Leo Fender built his first guitar, it’s not as if they had Jimmy Hendrix in mind – he had no idea how musicians would use his creations,” mused Michael Case, VP Artist Relations for d&b audiotechnik. “You could say the same about Soundscape. We’re still at the beginning of its journey and have no idea how people may end up using it in the future.”
For the uninitiated, Soundscape is the immersive offering from audio solutions provider, d&b audiotechnik. Using the principles of object based mixing, the system is an alternative to the traditional left and right stereo system. It opens up a plethora of creative possibilities for both the engineer and artist to reinforce their sound, including the extension of the 360 surround dimension.
We’ve already featured several Soundscape performances in TPi, from Björk to the Nevill Holt Opera, and with the reopening of venues last year, the team behind Soundscape is keen to reintroduce artists and engineers to the concept of immersive audio and show that it is a viable option for tours.
For a week in September 2021, d&b took over Brixton Academy for a run of demos showing off what could be achieved in the venue with Soundscape. With Brixton’s reputation of being a challenging venue from an audio standpoint, the idea was that producing a good immersive demo would showcase the power of Soundscape. “Using Brixton also became a study of how quickly we could load into a venue of that size,” stated Case. “For many people who came to those demos, that was a pivotal point, convincing production managers of the tourability of the solutions.”
As well as inviting technical crew to the open days, it was key for d&b to have musicians in the room. “For Soundscape to move to the next level, we need artists to buy into the concept and demonstrate what they can achieve live with their sound over a standard stereo mix,” he stated, musing that this could even change the way artists write music.
“It goes hand in hand with a general change within d&b,” he added. “We’re no longer just a sound reinforcing company, but we’re helping people create their art.”
In line with this more hands-on approach, following the week of open days, planning started on two projects that were treated as showcases for Soundscape’s offering. The first was Twilight Sad, who performed two sold-out headline show at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom.
The second was Groove Armada, who selected four venues – Barrowlands, Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse, Bristol’s Marble Factory and London’s Brixton Academy – to create a unique immersive experience. For both these performances, d&b was on hand to help deliver the shows. Case, alongside his colleague, Jack Page from d&b Education Application Support, was there to provide support for both productions.
“We want to support artists’ creative vision,” stated Page. “With a live Soundscape production, that can start with a phone conversation, discussing what they want to achieve from a sound system, through to experimenting in a rehearsal studio and ending in a venue in front of a room of fans. We’ve experienced a change since the inception of Soundscape. It’s a creative instrument that has brought us a lot closer to the artists, encouraging a deeper collaboration within the whole production.”
With so much contact time with the audio teams of Twilight Sad and Groove Armada, Page was able to delve into the features that Soundscape has to offer.
“En-Space was a revelation to both engineers,” he commented. “The Soundscape convolution reverb engine can transport the audience to a completely different acoustic environment. Rather than having a stereo reverb coming from one end of the room, boundary plane reflections are emulated through the whole Soundscape system. With the ability to choose from nine famed concert halls or venues, both engineers got a lot from this feature set.”
Also aiding in these projects was FE Live, which supplied the technical infrastructure for the Twilight Sad show, and Southby Production, which looked after Groove Armada’s tour.
Chatting to TPi prior to Groove Armada’s Manchester date, FOH Engineer, Robb Allan talked about how this immersive project first came about. “It’s something we talked about during COVID-19 and that’s when I started speaking to Mike from d&b to explore the various options.”
Allan explained that during the immersive shows, he treated the surround sparingly and for maximum effect in that “you don’t want to give all your creative options away in the first song”. He continued: “It’s not until song six, alongside a massive laser drop, when we really start to utilise the 360° system having a single synth line spin around the room.”
For all the immersive shows, Allan operated the show from an Avid S6L, supplied by Paul Hatt of CS Audio. The Soundscape system was supplied by Southby Productions and operated by the company’s Technical Director, Digby Shaw, with Jack Page also overseeing the system. “Mixing an immersive show like this is a two-person job,” said Allan. “You could do it by yourself, but I don’t know why you would want to. It’s best to have a co-pilot so you can focus on the overall mix while someone else ensures all the programmed spatial elements are working correctly.”
All inputs were received from stage and then nearly all channels on the .console were sent as direct outs to the DS100, except for a few groups such as kick drum, snare and a vocal group. “We used a Direct Out Prodigy to do a MADI to DANTE conversion,” explained Page. “All inputs to the DS100 were utilised as Sound Objects and placed in the sound field. Tracking of the object positions was saved in d&b En-Snap software, which was then triggered via timecode for any changes between songs. Robb also utilised several auxiliary channels that were sending signals to moving objects.”
The parameters of these moving objects were controlled via the Pre-Position plug-in in Ableton Live and stored on a song-by-song basis. The sends to these objects were stored in snapshots in the S6L.
Allan shared in Case’s vision that using such a system presents new possibilities for live audio. “The entire band has commented that they have heard elements of tracks that they have never noticed before,” he revealed. “As each aspect of the mix can be in its own physical space, you can have more dynamism and separation than when the whole mix is compressed into a bus.”
Chris Jones from Southby Productions gave his two cents on the tour. Having already toured with Soundscape with Björk back in 2018, Jones has championed the plausibility of touring such a system. That said, he outlined the challenges of touring such a rig in smaller venues such as the Barrowlands and Brixton. “The lack of space and different rigging point availability from venue to venue when compared to an arena tour is one of the bigger challenges,” he explained. “For this run, with proper detailed pre-planning, site visits, CADs and a great team, we were able to tour a system that could flex from venue to venue and provide the full 360° Soundscape experience across any balcony levels.”
For the Groove Armada tour, Southby provided an audio team dedicated to the 360° speaker system consisting of 35 KSL8, 15 KSL12, eight SL-Sub, four V7P, four V10P and 32 Y10P.
Jones stated that one of the most important factors in ensuring the success of this tour was to allow Allan a full week with Southby’s bespoke Soundscape control rack in a 360° Soundscape studio space. “We could work with Robb and his multi tracks to program all the exciting 360° content. Allowing time to experiment and pre-program is critical to making the most of Soundscape for a band such as Groove, who have so much cool audio content coming from the stage.”
Following the tour, all involved from Groove Armada were delighted with the audio result, including Production Manager, Jamie Young. “We’ve now proved that logistically it’s totally manageable in a touring environment and from the very first demo the band had both Andy and Tom were blown away with what could be achieved, it certainly makes for a unique audio experience that’s for sure.”
Andy Cato of Groove Armada discussed his thoughts on the immersive system. “Hearing the tracks in the d&b Soundscape studio was groundbreaking. You spend your whole life listening to stereo sounds and then this whole other dimension arrives. The way we naturally experience sound is like this, and so while stereo’s served us well it just feels totally illogical now – if we’ve got the technology – to not experience music the same way we experience life.”
“What the Twilight Sad and FOH Engineer, Michael Brennan managed to achieve during their Soundscape shows was pretty cool,” reported Case, highlighting the positive feedback he’d received following the band’s Barrowlands performance.
“The comments from that show were that it was almost too intense. In my opinion, if we’re emotionally charging people, we’re on the right track.”
“We wanted to achieve a fully encompassing and immersive AV happening, that cuddled and scared people in equal measure,” stated Brennan who worked on a number of quadraphonic/surround shows in the Barrowlands. “Considering how terrible the last two years had been, we wanted to put an alternative gig experience on the table.”
For those shows, FOH Engineer, Michael Brennan wanted to use a standard left and right system with the addition of a 360° Soundscape system. Every channel on stage was connected to a Yamaha CL5 at FOH via a Rio rack.
“Michael used a combination of direct outs that fed the DS100 inputs and became ‘sound objects’, as well as the left and right buss and a mono sub buss using the DS100 as a Dante matrix,” stated Page. “He also had 16 playback channels which had been pre-mixed using a small eight-channel Soundscape system in his studio – any movement and object placement for these particular playback channels was then rendered to become an eight-channel ‘bed’ that was placed as an object within the Soundscape 360° system.”
The levels for these bed channels were on the console, so Brennan was also able to play with the dynamics of this throughout the show, and any movement was embedded within this. “There were also two auxiliary busses set up for special movement effects,” added Page. “These objects were controlled via the Pre-Position Soundscape plugin available in Ableton Live, and the parameters such as speed and direction were adjusted using a hardware controller.” Brennan also made extensive use of En-Space, Soundscape’s convolution reverb engine – particularly the Cathedral modelled on San Vitale Cathedral, Ravenna. In doing so, he was able to take James Graham’s vocal and play with how expansive he could make him sound, before taking it back down to the reality of The Barrowland’s natural acoustic. “The collaboration with d&b was great,” concluded Brennan. They were very supportive and worked hard with us to make this show happen as well as enabling me to go to the band management with real confidence when advancing the show.”
The future of immersive audio with boundless possibilities certainly seems to be a tantalising prospect. “With all that said, however, the goal of Soundscape is not to kill stereo,” asserted Case. “The aim is to provide artists with an alternative way of delivering a show.”
Allan added: “Don’t get me wrong, I still love mixing in stereo, but I’m a really big fan of working in Soundscape. It’s like comparing fish and chips to a 12-course tasting menu – both are great, but you don’t necessarily want either all the time.”
“It’s great to have audio back at the forefront of conversation once again,” closed Case. “With the buzz and excitement that is being generated with immersive possibilities, it’s easy to imagine audio integrating more deeply with the visual elements of a live show to create a new level of audience experience.“
This article originally appeared in issue #269 of TPi, which you can read here.