Web of Mimicry

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AUGUST 2017:

A specially-crafted program of 3D Immersive mixes of Secret Chiefs 3’s music to be presented on a four-story 150-speaker array at Virginia Tech’s “Cubefest.”

You read that headline right. The program is called “Auragami” and it’s happening this August 6th at Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg, Virginia.

This last March I had the pleasure of being approached by Tanner Upthegrove who designs and maintains technology resources for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech. Tanner’s initial proposition was to have SC3’s music presented in 3D immersive mixes to be experienced by an audience at Virginia Tech’s unparalleled research environment and performance space, the Cube.

You’ll be hearing more about the future of immersive 3D mixes from Secret Chiefs 3 on the near horizon. But this first official step into the realm of 3D audio spatialization at the Cube has been a big one. And now there’s definitely no turning back.


To give some background, the Cube is the first facility of its kind: a four-story-high (50' x 40' x 32') state-of-the-art theatre and “high tech laboratory” outfitted with an array of 150 speakers on all four floors, including the ceiling. This environment has to be seen (and heard) to be properly digested. The thrill, and significance, of rendering SC3 mixes in a space with such capabilities is hard to put into words.

Probably the best way to say it is that I spend years of my life trying to cram mountains of three-dimensional aural information into the two-channel systems we are all familiar with (stereos, headphones and the like), and work very hard to make the listening experience as spatially immersive as possible for the listener. I bet you can imagine my response to being invited to render SC3’s music without condensing it down to two channels, in a “$15M data exploration facility” outfitted within a cavern of discreet speaker sends, 19 miles of cables, and, most importantly, a “synasthetic” design philosophy that integrates, essentially, both aural and visual motion capture at the highest possible resolutions.


Such a facility presents almost infinite rabbit holes for the Alice of aural experiment to get lost in. After spending some time preparing mixes for the Cube, and subsequently working inside of it, trying to come that much closer to sharing my imaginal original with the listening audience, a statement of Rumi keeps coming to mind again and again: “Know the difference between the color of the wine and the color of the glass.”

Truly the “Live or Memorex” question is exploded from its Cartesian presuppositions. If the windswept spectator from the ’80s poster now hovers like a frozen ghost stuck at the rim of a black hole, the Cube is at the center of that vortex of dromoscopic perception.  


Adding an entire spatial dimension to the phantom center makes it possible to engulf the listener in almost frightening ways. If you have voices in your head, you might consider coming to the Cube to drown them out.

But if there is more to life and art than mere sensory titillation, and you have to wonder sometimes how many people actually believe there is, then the ancient couplet still holds: “water needs an intermediary, a vessel, between it and the fire, if it is to be heated correctly.”

The task at hand has been to adapt a set of already-semi-suprasensory music for people to listen to in this extraordinary environment, and yes, I’ve been working pretty hard on that! As noted earlier, extracting mixes that have already been condensed down to two-speaker presentations back out to the three-dimensions of our world, and therefore that much closer to the world of the creative imaginal from which they were birthed, presents enormous technical challenges. More importantly, it demands artistic/aesthetic sensibility and presence of mind. A discernment of the color of the wine from the color of the glass. To translate musical Ideas ever more faithfully to the real world experience is not something you can just plug in and do. It requires intuitive aesthetic decisions at every turn, and as there are a billion new ways to go, there are often, paradoxically, a limited number of ways for those things to be “right.”

Pieces like “On the Wings of the Haoma,” which already have elements of spatial electro-acoustic music to begin with, are no-brainers to wish to render in the Cube. As per the aforementioned paradox, with all those spatio-temporal elements already flying around in stereo, a piece like that is perhaps an easier adaption to make into the true 3D world than more melodic productions. Where we are on literally virgin earth is in breaking out 100+ channel mixes of orchestrated musical instruments, with all of their raw, untainted frequency characteristics into 64 discreet channels — to be heard anew in much deeper spatial relationships. Without need for traditional group (bus) compression used for shoehorning complex multiple instrument elements down to size in a 2-channel mix, a new universe of relationships opens up.

Tanner has devised methods whereby each multichannel element can be assigned not just anywhere in the 360 azimuth in the plane around your ears, which would be cool enough, but the elevation and angle of placement over your head is also determinable, and, more subtly, the distance from which the listener will perceive that sound. Perhaps most unexpected and enchanting is to get to control the “optical” spread, or diffusion, as in lighting design, of a certain sound. More directionally articulate than the simple application of “reverb,” it’s a question of whether you pinpoint or spotlight the sound into a speaker, or blur it out across a few speakers, or open up its umbrella of parabolic diffusion widely over many speakers. I barely even scratched the surface of this element, but it’s a pretty significant development.

What all this means for the WORLD is a question the future will sort out. What it means for Secret Chiefs 3’s music today is tangible, visceral. Hard to characterize or explain, yes, but it exists, concretely… you can hear it! Those who will lay ears on it on August 6 will agree that the word “remix” doesn’t really cover it. The exponential possibilities opened up by this platform are so head-spinningly daunting, but so immediately rewarding in the case of SC3’s already existing work, that just trying to translate them quickly & overcome various issues, produces gold after just an hour or two (about 1/1000th of the time it takes to mix a SC3 song traditionally). To be clear about that, prior to this spatialization stage there was a lot of front-end work to break the mixes back out of their stereo orientation, remove bus compression and the like, re-calibrate gain and EQ and prepare channel assignments. So there is THAT. But it’s WORTH IT. And dangerously, with detailed control over so many important new aspects of a mix, I could easily see myself locked away in the Cube pretty much forever. But I console myself in separation with the comforting thought that neophytes mustn't attach ourselves “to the brick in the wall” but always “seek the eternal original.” So in the three days we had in there to transfer massive amounts of freshly-prepared audio and finalize the mixes spatially, there was time enough to get a feel for this first, giant step out to the edge.

If you’re considering going to Cubefest, but aren't sure, be advised that some other elements at Cubefest will also make it worth the trip. If you can’t make it don’t get too frustrated. Remember, this is just the beginning. We’ll keep you posted about that.


Addendum: the Three Boundless Dimensions

Those following the esoteric line of SC3 thinking will of course raise an eyebrow at the fact that our two-plus decades work already grounds, symbolically, over and over agin, right into the heart of the great Platonic Solid known as the Cube. If it all seems to you to be paying out in some kind of almost too-perfect punchline here, you are not alone in the impression.


          And that's a whole other discussion.


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