Audium – sound-sculptured space

DOI: 10.5920/divp.2015.38


Audium has established a series of ideas, expanding the layers of controlled sound in space and evolving a paradigm for positioning and listening. Additionally, it has taken a new architectural approach to the performance-space, with a potential for flexibility through a myriad of environmental combinations. Through a spatial perspective, Audium has evolved and refined a three-dimensional sound world. From entrance to exit, the environment is an element of the composition. Architectural qualities of walls, floor, ceiling, lighting, seating arrangement, multimedia placement, audience positioning, plus additional expressive spaces for paintings, sculptural projects, and a wide range of environmental insertions provide compositional potential. Space becomes a critical element of composition.


In the late 1950s, Doug McEachern, Audium’s co-creator, and I (each of us musicians and teachers), began generating questions and exploring concepts about the transformation of sound as it travels through space. My interest in space as an integral compositional element had its origins in instrumental experiences. As a trumpet player, I was occasionally called on to play off-stage (eg in Berlioz’sRequiem). The effect of distance on sound became almost tangible.

In those early performing years I was involved in improvising with various art forms including light shows (with sculptor Seymour Locks) and instrumental performances with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. While working with with Anna Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop, I began to experiment with distance, movement, and sound.

It was during this period that I made the acquaintance of Audium’s co-creator Doug McEachern, who was a musician with a keen interest in electronics. Together we started a dialogue on how to project and control the placement and movement of sound.

Audium did not emerge out of any tradition or conception of what was then evolving in experimental work with sound at the time. It was my early work with tape composition that generated a need to project recorded sounds through space. A new spatial language began to emerge. Doug developed the appropriate circuitry and a small board from which to locate and move the sound through several speakers.

As our experiences evolved, so did our experimentation with speaker number, quality, and location. Notions of a new kind of listening environment surfaced. Utilising Doug’s early control board and a varied array of speakers spread around the audience, we started experimenting with a number of setups and control circuitry. After early university and college presentations (1960, 1962), our first Audium performance (1963), an “electronic music concert, conceived and executed as controlled movement through space”, took place at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Through the subsequent five decades, beginning with our first sound theatre in 1967, we have explored and presented sound as a sculptural compositional medium on an ongoing weekly basis (save for a 3 ½-year hiatus during the building of our second theatre) – roughly 4,200 live performances.

The necessity for control over increasingly-complex spatial dynamics and environmental elements resulted in the design of several original control-consoles that enable live performance in space; the building of a small sound theatre (a building within a building) for the ongoing exploration and presentation of space as a dimension of music composition; and the emergence of a new kind of instrumentalist, engaging in the discovery and presentation of an evolving spatial language.

Interactions among performer, composer, and audience have generated ongoing choices about hardware (speaker locations, movement configurations, amplitude controls), ever-increasing sensitivity to the dynamics of spatial performance, and the emergence of a newspatial instrumentalist, expanding the musical vocabulary of space.

Additionally, we have come to view the entire environment (ie lighting, seating, architectural elements of walls, ceiling, and floor) as potential compositional elements in the movement of sound through space.

Spatial issues

In the evolution of this specialised audio environment, speaker location, frequency range, and timbre characteristics became subject to ongoing investigation and experimentation. Each location had to fill various perceptual possibilities and realise the most appropriate speaker characteristics for each spatial position (eg distance from the ear, above or below, left or right). These notions opened a new vocabulary that involves unique characteristics of sound when movement, location, and intensity are under moment-to-moment, human control. Each speaker’s distinctiveness became an instrument to be expanded on. Audio mass, sound location, and intensity all emerged as elements of a viable orchestral, spatial language. The expansion of colour, texture, and energy of this vibrant sound field provided strong compositional elements. From its inception, Audium’s concern has been to develop a viable control instrument for expanding an evolving sound-space landscape.

Seminal ideas

In contemplating how this notion of controlling sound in space originated, I would I like present a few thoughts. My early musical background revolved around becoming a trumpet player, perfecting the elements that go into a well-rounded instrumentalist. But beyond tone, style, and technique, the very essence of performing was to evolve a unique sound, expressing my inner world through a set of brass tubes. My breath, extending through the tubing, vibrating my lips, and expanding into the environment, was what developed my personal trumpet sound. I believe all instrumentalists experience the same extension of an inner self through their chosen instruments, projecting their unique worlds into the immediate environment.

As we perform, filling the space with our personal voice, the focus of the sound comes from a single point that fills the surrounding environment. Now, let’s imagine this same instrumentalist standing in the middle of a space and realising his or her voice, but instead of the sound emanating from a single point, it comes from a far corner, travels overhead to another corner, then proceeds underneath the listener. At every moment, the instrumentalist is in control of harmonic structure, tension, intensity, and an infinite range of subtle emotional characteristics. As the sound is harnessed in motion, the instrumentalist acquires a whole new vocabulary of expressive possibilities. A three- dimensional world opens: the entire environment becomes his or her pallete.

It was this innervating idea of space that my partner, Doug McEachern and I set to out to explore. The result has been the creation of Audium. In the ensuing years many new ideas sprang forth. Through encountering space, other environmental elements came into sharper focus: architecture, lighting, seating. All ambient influences became a concern. The following description expands on these discoveries.

Environmental description

The word Audium (a term we c
oined in 1963 for our first performance at the San Franciso Museum of Modern Art) refers both to the medium – that is, sound-sculptured space – and the physical spaces we have evolved to contain it. Our present (second) theatre, built in the mid-1970’s, is a building within a building consisting of a foyer, a sound labyrinth, and a performance space.

The audience experiences the initial layer of the performance in the foyer, where paintings, sculpture, and multimedia projections are displayed on sloping walls and floor, shaped by variable lighting at different stages of the performance (pre-performance, intermission, post-performance discussion). This gathering area provides a secondary tool for the composer, allowing him, via visual and auditory elements, to set the emotional tone for the composition. The audio layers are comprised of two sets of speakers: one set allows sound movement in a repetitive or random fashion; a second allows for stereo sound tracks.

The entrance into the performance space is through a “sound tunnel” or “labyrinth,” lined with a series of speakers mounted in parallel walls. These speakers can be programmed as a continuing sequence or as randomly-defined sets of sounds. Both physically and emotionally, the labyrinth is a transitional space from light to total darkness, wherein the absence of visual stimuli enables the unfolding of the interior sound world about to be evoked by the composition.

The main performance space consists of 49 seats configured as a spiral. The audience faces toward the center. Alternative seating arrangements are possible (eg outward facing, asymmetrical, etc), each with variable effects on the ear’s position, particularly in the context of a spatial performance. 176 speakers are situated above, around, and below the audience (see below for further discussion on speaker distribution).

Adjacent to the performance environment is a studio housing an amplification system, mixing board, two studio tape decks, and several digital recorder/playback systems. The composer’s finished work is mixed down and played back on a four-channel digital recorder.

During a programme, each independent track is sent from the studio to the control board located in the performance space. The board, within the performance booth, cantilevers from a wall of the performance space. The listening position from the booth allows moment-to-moment interaction with all compositional elements.

The console through which the four-track recording is transformed into a live, spatial work has multiple controls enabling conversion into a three-dimensional sound field. These include localisation, vertical and horizontal positioning, controlled imaging between two to four independent points, complete amplitude management, and variable speed control over a designated single track.

The console is the focus for developing a spatial orchestration. The composer carefully rehearses potential localisations, sound movements, and inensities, plus a wide variety of effects created through dynamic, rhythmic changes. A new performance vocabulary evolves for each work. Just as a conductor commits to memory the total shape of an orchestration, a spatial performer comes to embody the shape of the work – and executes it anew at each performance.

Spatial vocabulary

Throughout Audium’s history, our driving concern was to design a new kind of audio setting, with a specially designed control console that allowed the movement of sound from one set of speaker quadrants (with varying specifications) to separate locations. The resulting movement causes changes in the timbre, texture, and intensity of the sound. This shift in concentration, from studio to space is of particular importance in exploring spatial content. The selection of particular speakers and their characteristics becomes fundamental. Each speaker has a unique harmonic specification. When coupled with complete control over a distribution of points in space, plus full management of amplitude and panning speeds, a wide range of additional, expressive qualities is accessed.

To illustrate this idea: in a traditional orchestral setting, when a conductor leads a melodic line from one section of the orchestra to another, the timbre of the sounds’ harmonic structure undergoes an alteration of content. Colour, texture, and tension go through noticeable modifications. The harmonic partials within the melodic line are altered. A reedy woodwind quality might be transformed into a softer string voice; a strident brass section can be melded into the harmonically-expanded texture of the woodwind section. This overall shaping of a performance is at the heart of the conductor’s concerns, communicating through gesture, mixing and shaping the overall sound palette of the orchestration.

The performer at Audium’s control panel is, in effect, a conductor of a new kind of spatial orchestration: the speakers are the sections and three-dimensional space is the medium in which the composition unfolds.

Speakers are selected to effect frequencies, tension, and overall sound timbre. As the composer-performer controls the panning from one speaker quadrant to another, the character of the sounds undergoes a wide range of potential changes. The harmonic structure can be altered; some partials within the sound might be intensified, other qualities diminished. Much of this depends on the speakers’ technical specifications and the characteristics of the sound elements. Rhythmic elements are also potentially effected by the dynamics of this controlled movement. Panning speeds can have a significant impact on harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic configurations. Motion variations, creating a new audio energy, result in an enlarged perceptual experience for the listener. An enhanced three-dimensional audio language emerges.

Embedded in the system is a motorised set of 12 speakers, situated in a circle on multiple levels behind the listener. In front of the listener is a hanging array of six speakers; in the floor beneath the listener are 12 speakers. These uniquely-layered soundlocations allow for an additional element of dynamic pulses to any rhythmic pattern. We have selected a variety of speaker qualities. Included are 15-inch woofers, mid-

range speakers, folded-horns, and a series of tweeters. These speaker arrays act as sculptural tools to further shape the rhythmic characteristics inherent in variable-movement speeds. For example, the performer might move from a set of speakers with full fidelity into a collection with a narrow frequency response. He can choose a set of small, folded, metal horns with a very narrow sound field, or perhaps a group of tweeters with a very thin audio range. Thus, depending on harmonic and rhythmic intensity, a wide range of new sound characteristics may be opened up.

A harmonically-rich sound might be thinned down when panned to a tweeter setting. A dark sound, rich in bass characteristics, can be changed to a slightly different colouration by panning “half way” to a folded-horn array. Melodic lines, as they are moved between points, can take on new, perceptual intensities as they appear above or below the listening ear. Endless combinations of unique textural enhancements emerge in this three-dimensional audio world. The control panel becomes a conductor’s baton and a performer’s instrument. The listening space evolves into a three-dimensional audio sculpture, shaped moment-to-moment
through the motion of sound.

Speaker location

The geography of Audium’s performance space is organised into groups of four speakers, which I will refer to as a “quad” for each location (see Table 1). There are five major areas: “ quad one” at floor level; ”quad two” at ear level; “quad three” at mid-level (between floor and ceiling); and “quad four”, the ceiling. “Quad five” is a special selection of motorised speaker clusters in the ceiling, at ear level and at floor position, plus a set of tweeter horns in each corner .

The speaker characteristics in each location were selected to engage specific audio qualities. In quad one, floor level, 15-inch woofers were placed to enhance the lower range (emphasising the bottom frequency range and so enlarging the feeling of the sound coming from below body level) In quad two, ear level, four large, full-range speakers are positioned in each corner, plus a set of narrow-range speakers situated in the centre of the space. This central area also includes a 15-inch woofer directly below a specially-designed enclosure. This bass location has a particular use and will be further described below in a section dealing with the “zip sound field”. Quad three, just above head level, is a set of 4–6-inch and 4–8-inch speakers. In addition, directly over the centre is a hanging enclosure of four mid-range speakers used in the zip sound field. Quad four is a set of eight tweeters, four located in the ceiling centre point and four located in each corner at “quad two” level. Quad five” is a special motorised track that sends a sound through 32 speakers at quad three level, and can be operated at variable speeds. This can also be switched to a set of speakers beneath a selected set of seats. The distribution of the sound can be sequential or random. This motorised sound can also be sent to the “quad three” central hanging enclosure for a vortex effect. Table 1 and Figure 1 illustrate the speaker positions, specifications, and layout.

Table 1 Speaker locations

Figure 1 Audium – A Theatre of Sound-Sculptured Space

The exploration and implementation of a spatial vocabulary

Audium performances take place in complete darkness. The resulting immersion in a lightless audio world enhances all aspects of the sound world. Perception is heightened so that many details within the sound field are fully experienced. In musical terms, melodic lines are enriched and enhanced, while the textural and harmonic quality of the sounds are affected by the choice of particular speakers. The sense of energy, direction, and variable speed of movement enlarges the character of a melodic line. New perceptual audio worlds emerge.

As an example, when a melodic line starts close to the ear, slightly overhead, and is then moved a long distance away from the listening position, a new sense of the audio landscape is revealed. This is equally true in the rhythmic and harmonic domain. New and unexpected audio qualities emerge. If a particular rhythm is introduced, it can undergo a wide range of additional energies as it is propelled to different locations at varying speeds. Potentially original rhythmic dynamics and spatial interactions can be explored. The harmonic structure is equally expanded as sound is put in motion. The colour, texture, and intensity of chords undergo a wide range of alterations. As sounds shift to varying locations, structural changes in harmonic progressions are affected. There are transformations in frequencies and adjustments to tonal characteristics. The overall natural, expressive tensions between sounds and harmonies are realised in a fresh, spatial context. A perceptual sense of space becomes an active element in a performance: a sound-sculptural dynamic emerges.

Just as a conductor interprets an orchestral work by balancing a wide range of instrumental timbres, textures, and dynamics, plus the subtle interaction of melodic and rhythmic energies, Audium introduces a whole new level of organising a sound world. Space, location, and the total performance environment become a composer’s landscape. The control console becomes his baton and performance instrument.

An addendum to this description of Audium’s evolution is its relation to the traditional development of compositional interpretation. Traditionally, when a work is realised for orchestral performance, it is given over to a conductor and a collection of trained musicians who interpret it through a rich variety of possibilities. When a composer realises a composition in electronic form for Audium, the interpretation for spatial presentation begins. Where will the beginning and end points of a sound be directed, and how will its harmonic structure be affected by the choice of speaker and its location? How does the speed of travel around, over, and under the listener’s position affect compositional concerns? How will the overall tension and texture, plus the moment-to-moment expressive adjustment of amplitude, affect the overall presentation? These are the tools of choice under the fingers of a spatial conductor.

With respect to other emerging spatial approaches, there are various concerns that separate Audium from other explorations of spatial composition. Several other projects pursuing space and sound have focused on pre-performance sound distribution with limited hands-on and in-time concentrations. Their focus has been to develop the control and placement of sound through full range speakers, surrounding the listener with software-controlled amplitude and sound distribution. There is usually a very limited set of hands-on, in-time, moment-to-moment location of the sound image. The split second audio placement of intensity and sound-enhancing possibilities remain uncharted. The elements of shaping and affecting the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structures in the immediate instant are unavailable.

A three-dimensional audio experience needs the full, dynamic potential of a live, interactive performance in a uniquely designed environment where every perceptual element (lighting, seating , acoustical effects of the walls, ceiling and floor) can be part of a compositional evolution. Audium has been exploring this domain for more than 50 years.


In the late 1950’s, when Doug McEachern and I started exploring the movement and location of sound, it became increasingly apparent that we were dealing with a whole new audio language. By exploring sound’s three-dimensional possibilities, we pushed open a doorway to compositional techniques which can only be accessed through a fresh paradigm. Hence, we developed a new control-technology as well as an original floor-to-ceiling audio environment suitable for this new understanding.

Through a spatial perspective, Audium has evolved and refined a three-dimensional sound world. From entrance, to exit, the environment is an element of the composition. The architectural qualities of walls, floor, ceiling, lighting, seating arrangement, multimedia placement, and audience positioning, plus additional expressive spaces for paintings , sculptural projects, and a wide range of incidental-sound insertions all provide compositional potential. Space has become a critical element of composition.

With respect to the future, in addition to continuing weekly performances and new works under development, we have been experimenting with a midi wind-controller instrumentalist interacting with live Audium performances. We anticipate adding live midi-keyboard and percussion to the in-time interaction as well.

In summary, Audium’s contributions have been in establishing a series of ideas, expanding the layers of controlled sound in space, and evolving a paradigm for positioning and listening, plus a new architectural approach to a performance space, with potential flexibility through myriad combinations. In all, a new environment for the ear.

About the author:

Stan Shaff was at educated at San Francisco State College graduating with a BA, Music and Education (1950) and MA, Music (1952). His professional music background includes work as a professional trumpet player performing in local big bands and combos, as substitute musician for the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera orchestras and Golden Gate Park Band member. He says: ‘I became interested in composition in the late 1950s as a result of friendship and collaboration with painter and sculptor Seymour Locks, exploring light and sound. We performed improvisational light shows with my high school band students at San Francisco State University, including one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In this same time period I was exploring the nature of sound in relation to movement with Anna Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop; I became curious about sound bereft of traditional tools and structure and turned to tape composition, working and performing with composers involved with the Tape Music Center. By the late 1950s, my work with audio tape led me to the need to externally realize sound as an energy in space. In 1958 I met fellow musician and teacher Douglas McEachern, whose background in electronics enabled him to develop original equipment systems for live, spatial performances. From the first public presentation of these ideas in 1960 through succeeding decades of work with the co-creation and development of AUDIUM – constructed specifically for
choreographing sound in space – I have sought to explore and expand the language of space in music composition and performance.