South Bend, IN – February 2021… With the Covid shutdown impacting every aspect of live performance, we’ve all been treated to stories of creative solutions to get artists and crew back to work, and bring music and shows to audiences hungry for arts and culture. In the city of South Bend, one production company found a way to create a unique solution to bring not just the music but an entirely new experience of a live show, creating an immersive environment using SPAT Revolution from FLUX:: Immersive.
Employing an innovative 8-channel setup and a lot of creative imagination, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra has created an immersive performance experience that not only brings the listener into the symphony hall, but right up onstage with the orchestra.
The project began life as an inquiry from Halle McGuire with the South Bend Symphony to Matt Teters of Teters LLC, the company that produces the annual Riverlights Music Festival in South Bend. The Symphony wanted to know if it would be possible to create an installed sound system that could accurately reproduce the experience of listening to an orchestra, but could be set up in a space where people could walk through and maintain social distancing.
As McGuire points out, performing arts organizations have been among the hardest hit by the shutdown. “The initial idea was, how can we continue to fulfill our mission as a performing arts organization when we can’t perform live?”
“For us, the challenge was to think outside the box and find a way to make music and employ musicians safely, and bring music to an arts-deprived audience,” explains Eric Friedlander, Sound Designer for the Octet and Production Manager for the Festival. “We had some discussions about potential concepts, and after identifying the boundaries of the project – prospective spaces, sizes of ensembles we could safely record, etc. – I suggested a semi-portable circular sound system where each recorded instrument would be assigned to a loudspeaker. I had already seen a demo of SPAT at an Infocomm show, and I kind of had the idea in my back pocket of creating this 3D experience using SPAT. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
Friedlander continues, “We made a choice early on in the process to really focus on the direct sound of the instrument, and bring that to the listener. Normally you never get to hear a single violin in a section, let alone get within a few feet of one, so we close mic’d each instrument and chose to really hone in on that direct ‘bow-on-string’ sound that most people never truly get to hear. We worked closely with the conductor, Alastair Willis, to choose a repertoire that would make good use of the 360-degree immersive sound system we were creating.”
After presenting proof of concept and getting signoff from the Symphony, the next step was building a semi-portable system, comprising eight JBL CBT50 speakers on tripods. “We utilized an LEA Connect 168D amplifier to power the system,” Friedlander reveals. “Since the LEA amp supports Dante, the entire eight-speaker system is literally running on a laptop, an amp, and a Cat6 cable. The amp also provides some EQ and processing so I was able to do a bit of tuning to ensure each speaker source is fairly flat and has a full-range response. It’s super portable, and the SPAT reverb engine gives us a bit of flexibility in terms of room size and the diameter of circle they set up the speakers in.”
Friedlander utilized the WAVES LV1 platform to record the octet, enabling him to easily import and export to and from Pro Tools using Soundgrid and run SPAT as inserts. “It gave me a ton of flexibility. We routed each instrument through its own output and that was that. The result is a small scale immersive experience that will allow you to experience eight musicians playing in an octet in a way that no one has really been able to experience before.”
“When you’re in the audience, you’re separated by the stage, and the musicians are all on stage,” McGuire observes. “You get the whole sound coming at you but you never get to feel like you’re onstage, and this way you get to feel like you’re sitting on stage with them. Listening to a symphony or a complicated piece of choral music, you never really get to isolate what’s going on. So it’s extra exciting when you get to walk around and think, ‘oh, I think I heard this part, I want to go find it,’ and you get to walk over and totally hone in on it.”
Friedlander agrees. “People will be able to walk around and they’ll kind of be able to mix it themselves. If they like the sound of the viola and cello, they can go hang out in that corner for a bit. They can walk around and hear the interplay between various instruments, stand in the center, and essentially create their own experience.”
“People will be able to hear that an orchestra is truly more than the sum of its parts,” adds Matt Teters. “They’re going to be able to hear each player, sounds like little string rakes and other nuances that you don’t necessarily hear when you’re in the audience.”
“Mixing to SPAT was a blast,” Friedlander enthuses. “It was so exciting to be able to take my flat mix, tuned the way we wanted it, and just expand that out into an immersive and engaging 3D space. Mind you, I had the conductor himself coming by to listen and give his signoff along the way! I made good use of the timbre controls in SPAT, as it was a really neat way to fine tune the sound of the instrument in the immersive space, without necessarily changing EQ and the overall sound that we’d achieved pre-immersive mix. It just was a great way to really polish the mix we had and better fit it into the space to get the realism we wanted.”
Friedlander also gave high marks to the reverb engine in SPAT. “It was a total gamechanger. Having the very clear, very direct sound of each instrument, it gave us a lot of leeway to decide how to best apply the reverb engine and think about what space we wanted to put people in as they were listening. It also really glued the mix together to put everything in the same ‘space’.”
For the Symphony, the promise of this immersive experience goes well beyond merely a temporary solution for coping with the shutdown. As McGuire explains, “This is something really special that we can give to our community in a time when we can’t give them a traditional live performance, but it’s not only relevant during the pandemic; it’s something we can continue to use. It’s completely portable, so we can take it into a school, to a library, we can set it up in a hospital. We can make live symphonic music available to everyone.”
“I’m really pleased not just with the experience we were able to create, but the fact that we were able to create it at all,” Friedlander concludes. “Using SPAT and other mobile tools to build an immersive, object-based mix enabled us to do things that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional mix environment, and give the symphony and the arts community something they can use to provide a new and totally different experience in the future.”