The Future of Sound Begins in the Cube

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Home to one of the largest multichannel audio systems in the world, the Cube supports a wide range of audio approaches, from data sonification to spatial sound composition.
Home to one of the largest multichannel audio systems in the world, the Cube supports a wide range of audio approaches, from data sonification to spatial sound composition.

It is difficult to imagine the movie Jaws without its famous theme song. With just two alternating notes repeating over and over, becoming faster and faster as it progresses, the piece communicates suspense and impending danger.

According to Jaws director Steven Spielberg, composer John Williams found the “…signature for the entire movie” with the theme song, crediting it with being responsible for half of the movie’s success.

Sounds can evoke particular places, times, and events. They can be meaningful and emotional, stimulating the senses in a way that visuals cannot.

Sound experiences are a hallmark of the work being done by faculty and students with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. This work happens in the Cube, a unique campus facility highlighted as one of the premiere spaces by researchers, composers, and musicians to uncover new possibilities for all things audio.

A combination of performance space, research laboratory, and studio, the Cube is a multidisciplinary, collaborative research environment located in the Moss Arts Center that offers visualization, motion tracking, and immersive 3-D audio. Here, users can experience total immersion in virtual realities — both visually and aurally.

Researchers have developed immersive environments in the Cube that allow them to interact with anything in the world in real time, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest building. They are now fusing this with full immersive audio.

Adding this dimension of sound opens up an entire new world for immersive environments. In the Cube, users experience spatial sound, which means they can hear everything around them, with sounds actually placed in specific spots in the room. This true 360-degree sound — called 3-D sound — allows users to experience sounds exactly as they would occur in a real environment.

Home to one of the largest multichannel audio systems in the world, with 150 independently operating loudspeakers, the Cube supports a wide range of audio approaches, from data sonification to spatial sound composition. The facility attracts researchers and artists from around the world to use these technical capabilities to advance their work.

“The Cube is adaptable in many ways,” explains Neal Farwell, head of the School of Arts and faculty member in the Department of Music at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. “Its particular attraction is as an ‘instrument’ in its own right, where the types of loudspeakers, their distribution and orientation, their control systems, the physical building and its acoustic properties, and the social milieu all add up together into something special. The Cube is staffed with people who have strong aesthetic ideas of their own but who are very open to and excited by the wide range of alternative ideas and challenges that guests to the Cube can bring.”

Farwell first visited the Cube in 2015 and performed his multichannel media work when Virginia Tech hosted the conference for the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). He then returned in 2016 as an invited researcher for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology’s Spatial Audio Workshop, where he participated in a week of intensive creative practice focusing on the unique capabilities of the Cube.

This work culminated in a performance by Farwell at Cube Fest, an event designed to bring music technology professionals and audience members together through a series of public concerts and spatial sound art installations that push the boundaries of sonic innovation. Cube Fest 2017 will be held August 3–6, 2017.

The large number and high density of loudspeakers in the Cube give composers and researchers the opportunity to create unique spatial audio effects in a controlled environment and the inspiration to design new ways for users to experience computer music — something that could never happen with a collection of lower-quality speakers.

No location is more fitting to celebrate the latest advancements in audio technology than a place recognized for its acoustic innovations. These capabilities are highlighted in a recent issue of Computer Music Journal. ”Genesis of the Cube: The Design and Deployment of an HDLA-Based Performance and Research Facility” details the design, creation, and uses of the Cube, specifically its spatial audio system, which provides full-bandwidth audio for listeners and is fully reconfigurable and can be expanded for future work.

The paper is written by faculty in Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts, along with acoustic consultants from acoustical design firm Arup. Eric Lyon —an associate professor of music technology and composition in the School of Performing Arts and a senior fellow in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology — serves as lead author for the paper, as well as guest editor for the issue, which focuses on institutional facilities using high-density loudspeaker arrays for computer music research and production. Other authors include Ivica Ico Bukvic, an associate professor of composition and multimedia; Charles Nichols, an assistant professor of composition and creative technologies; and Tanner Upthegrove, project manager for the Cube.

Because of the equipment and infrastructure needed to make music using high-density loudspeakers, there are very few institutions that support these kinds of facilities. According to the paper, as more spaces like the Cube emerge, there will be more opportunities for large audiences to have immersive sound experiences.

“The openness of the Cube will lead to all sorts of discoveries being made while people work in the space, but it will also lead to people taking away ideas and enthusiasm about multichannel audio to develop in their own home environments and at other major institutional studios,” said Farwell. “Technical research and composition have to be mutually embedded — new instruments and orchestras demand new music and vice versa. It is becoming more affordable than ever to build multichannel concert systems, but the driving ideas matter more than the hardware. The Cube is a nexus of technical and aesthetic research and a place to generate those ideas.”

Adapted from a story written by Susan Bland