Thursday, 2 May 2013

Personal report - Sean Williams


I spent a day with mezzo-soprano and vocal artist Frauke Aulbert working on some technical ideas for integrating voice with analogue electronics. The aim was to bring a working system or palette of ideas to the LLEAPP workshop and not have to scrabble around trying to make things work during the workshop itself.

Amplitude Filter

One technique we tried was to use a noise gate (Drawmer DS-201) key-triggered by a John Edwards noise synth or the analogue synth, to act like the amplitude modulator used in the RAI Studio in Milan in the early 1960s. This machine was used by Pousseur to make Scambi, and most likely by Berio in his pieces with Cathy Berberian. This period of electronic experimentation is central to my research so I wanted to try and achieve a practical outcome by incorporating this into my work with Frauke.

The results were fairly awful since the amplitude of the voice signal picked up by the microphone had to be fairly constant, and the key-trigger signal was very very hard to control with enough expression to generate any kind of interesting effect on the voice. In addition to this, the only vocal sounds that worked at all were simple sustained tones, and this precluded the huge range and scope that Frauke is capable of.


Another classic 60s technique is the use of the vocoder. Using a MAM VF11 was a way of integrating both of our sounds to produce a composite sound that we could both influence. In rehearsal this worked well with a wide range of vocal sounds although Frauke was uncomfortable with the amount of control ceded to the electronics. There was no easy way around this without devoting far more time than we had available to designing a more interactive instrument.


In setting up for the Tuesday evening performance it quickly became clear that axiom 5 from LLEAPP Axioms of Practice: “Live microphones ALWAYS need help!!!” was extremely important. The vocoder was almost impossible to control and the acoustics of the performance space (Inspace) were no doubt a large factor in this.  Even though I had a mic preamp with high and low-cut filters, the mic signal was varying so much that either the vocoder signal would be inaudible or would feedback.

Our decision to have individual speakers and no Front of House had effectively eliminated the options of using any of the techniques that Frauke and I had worked on before, so I had to work out different techniques as we went on.

Ensemble Size Matters

In a small ensemble a technical hitch like this would have been much more problematic than in a 13-person ensemble which we had formed. The larger number of players meant that more space was needed and so each player could easily not play for long periods. This helped our situation in two ways; firstly that I could try different setups and re-patch my synth without feeling relied upon to be filling out the overall sound. Second; whatever sound I could come up with could afford to be subtle, quiet, of narrow bandwidth, or even just a slight enhancement, as the sound-world was already likely to be quite full.

Having given Frauke her own speaker, I could also simply route her mic signal directly through my own speaker and thereby change her vocal sound simply in its spatial presence or location. This was often enough of a transformation, and was easily controllable via a dedicated fader.

Mic Splitting

Originally I had hoped to split the mic signals from both Frauke (voice) and Emma (violin) and send these to anybody who wanted to process them. For this I introduced my modular mixer for its first outing from the workshop. Several others took advantage of the mic signal splitter and at different points throughout the workshop, Owen Green, Jules Rawlinson, Rob Canning and I all processed some of the acoustic signals.
When we changed the arrangement of players this was reduced to just me, however the splitters allowed me to process the signals without affecting them going into each players individual speaker.


Emma fitted her violin with a Fishman contact mic. This was run through the Radial PZ-DI box, bought especially for LLEAPP, which provides a suitably high impedance (10 MΩ) to get a really good full-frequency range signal from a contact or piezo mic. Emma struggled with her setup to begin with for a number of technical reasons: the signal originally was going through Jules’ soundcard and was subject to latency; the volume pedal Emma was using was at first patched between the contact mic and the PZ-DI, thereby showing the wrong impedance to the contact mic; the gain staging on the small Mackie mixer used to set overall volume for the loudspeaker was badly setup so that the signal was distorting; the loudspeaker was setup at head height and very close to Emma so that she was hearing her own signal disproportionately loudly and playing quieter to mitigate against this.

After addressing these setup issues and repositioning the speaker, Emma’s signal was much more audible and she quickly gained confidence in using this setup which was brand new to her. As she became familiar with the amplified sound and with the response of the volume pedal it became much easier for me to incorporate her signal into my synthesis patches and through simple ring modulation, spring reverb, filtering, and mixing with my own signal I was able to fuse our sounds together quite well a number of times. I used similar patches with the violin as with the voice, and it was also effective at certain times to simply amplify the direct violin sound through my own speaker to extend the spatialisation of the violin sound without further processing.

Space (Axiom 6)

The workshop itself was going very well until the idea of moving everybody around was suggested by Jan Hendrickse, our musical director. My natural reaction to this was negative as I had spent, along with Jules, Lauren and Owen, most of the previous day setting up my own gear as well as everybody else’s – my own setup being rather larger than normal owing to the mic preamps and modular mixer needed for mic splitting and signal distribution.

I was in a distinct minority but, along with Lauren Hayes (digital and analogue electronics and laptop) and Christos Michalakos (drums, percussion and laptop) I was able to remain in my original place. My reservations were that the new orientation would undo some of the work we had done on building good communication skills and techniques between ourselves as many people were now out of view, and the distances were quite large even between people that were in each other’s field of view.

As it turned out, the decision to move from the stage and occupy the entire space was absolutely key in transforming our performance and activating the whole space. The communication techniques which we had worked on evolved with our new spatial distribution. An internalization of some of these techniques was achieved and much more communication was done, not by hand signals or looks, but by using audio cues, and it felt to me, by listening much more sensitively to one another’s playing. I don’t feel that this would have been achieved if we had not worked on the deliberate and obvious methods of communicating suggested by Jan, and if we had remained in place in a semicircle on stage. Thus my resistance to moving was wholly discredited – I had allowed my logistical concerns to blind me to the creative advantages that a different spatial distribution could offer.

One other key factor that relates the space to the number of players is that it was very easy to extend the customary communication strategies by getting up and wandering about during the performance. This was aided by the fact that the audience was instructed to move about and explore the space rather than just sitting watching the stage. This diffusion of the focus of attention allowed me to take a portable noise synth and wander about, interacting with a number of players on the way, and just listening to the whole sound from different points in the room. I played a short duet with Bill Vine and another with Amit Patel in which we linked up our noise synths to form a hybrid dual circuit synth. Other players wandered about too and I think this also had the effect of activating the whole space so that as one audience member said, they felt as though the music was going on all around them and that they were participating in something immersive rather than just watching people do stuff on stage.

Acoustic Instruments

Amongst the most important elements of LLEAPP 2013 was the strong presence of acoustic instruments including voice. I feel that the electronics were able both to come to meet the acoustic sounds in terms of subtlety, timbral content and expression, but were also able to occupy territory clearly distant from the acoustic instruments too. The electronic processing of the double bass (Adam Linson), the electric guitar (Rob Canning), the clarinet (Bill Vine), the drums (Christos Michalakos) and the microphone (Owen Green) acted as a strong and broad bridge that allowed the violin and voice on one hand and the digital and analogue electronics on the other to fit into a coherent sound world. This is going to sound obvious, but at various stages the acoustic instruments did what only they can do, and so did the electronic and digital instruments, but there was a lot of common ground as well. In this way a really rich sound world was created and I think the success of the final performance owes a lot to the combination of instruments and the inherent expressivity of the voice especially.


… need more time…