A new musical reality

A new musical reality

Studying ways to make live improvised music in surround sound
September 15, 2010
Prof. James Harley is experimenting with a new

Prof. James Harley is experimenting with a new audio system that can allow musicians and composers to improvise in surround sound.

Imagine a live improvised musical performance — in surround sound, with a computer manipulating and spinning instruments’ sounds around eight different speakers in real time. That’s being made possible through the University of Guelph’s new Advanced Digital Audio Production and Performance Studio. It gives creative researchers an opportunity to experiment and learn new techniques for this type of production, which is called “performative music.”

James Harley, Fine Art and Music, has been creating music for years as a composer, but now he’s stepping into the improvisational, experimental and technological realm. He’s studying new ways to incorporate the realism of surround sound into live recordings and performances.

“Out in the world, it’s all surround sound,” he says. “So that’s what we want to create for listeners in the studio or performance.” 

His target is a musical performance that is visually and audibly something the audience couldn’t otherwise experience. This will be achieved through his unique real-time manipulations and surround sound that can be improvised.

Here’s how it works. Hundreds of audio tracks are created or recorded on a computer and are played back through eight speakers strategically placed around a recording studio or performance space. The musician has access to a special mixer to control the sounds coming out of the computer. Every sound can be varied and sent to different speakers at the same time, even if the instrumentalists are performing live. Through the mixer and computer, the instrumentalists can send their performance through surround sound, too.

Harley plans to incorporate environmental sounds such as birds chirping and wind blowing into his work. He also wants to collaborate with people in other academic disciplines, including computing science, engineering and acoustic ecology. That work could draw attention to issues such as noise pollution and highlight acoustically rich habitats that are disappearing, including indigenous forests and wetlands.

Others involved in this study are music professor Ellen Waterman, who collaborates on the flute for recordings and live performances, and audio engineer Randy Smith. Argentine composer Osvaldo Budòn will do a creative residency at the studio in May.

For his studies, Harley received a Leaders Opportunity Fund grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a rare award for creative research. This support paid for renovations to create music studios in the University’s Axelrod Building, as well as for recording and performing gear.