Creative Production in Music M.A. alumnus Shehryar Ahmad, aka Outlier, explored the subconscious effects of ambient sound in his final project, titled ‘Study of Place: The Perception of Ambience.’ Dive into his practice-based research.
Did you know that musical memory is thought to be encoded differently from linguistic memory in the brain? For musicians and music lovers alike, it is perhaps not all that surprising. Music, like our strongest past experiences, can have a visceral quality that resonates in our ears long after the first fleeting moment of wonder.
As Creative Production Masters alumnus Shehryar Ahmad, aka Outlier – whose captivating work you may have encountered at Eufonia Sound Circuits last year – posits in his final project, the same can be said for all sound. His research focused on the power of ambient sound in particular to induce sensory and contextual sensations in the listener. Posing the question, “What if everyday sounds all sounded like ambient: sonically pleasing, reverberated visions of themselves?” he set out to create an evocative sonic atmosphere by manipulating field recordings. The aim: to analyse how it might introspectively affect one’s peace of mind, mental wellbeing and imagination.
Our MA programme – which can be studied for one year or two years part-time – is all about opening new frontiers in the exploration of your passions, whilst building and enhancing an artistic and creative industry profile. “I have always been interested in ambient sounds and the way that an ambient soundscape can drive a story,” Shehryar writes. “Certain sounds have always had an ability to remind me of past situations, environments, or more importantly, auras. It is this perceived sense of connection with sound and how much it affects us throughout our lives that drove me to this idea…this project combines the main element of my work with my favourite attribute of music, in a more research and exploration based manner than I have ever worked on.”
A massive congratulations to Shehryar for the completion of this truly fascinating and in-depth piece of practice-based artistic research, which he says could not have been possible without the opportunity to work as an intern at our neighbouring 4DSOUND venue, MONOM. Has your sense of curiosity been prickled? Read on for our summary of some of his project’s points of interest.
Anyone who has ever found themselves transported to another dimension by music or sound can attest to the sense of place sonic immersion can create. Shehryar is careful to point out, however, the distinction between immersion and presence. He cites this paper, which defines immersion as what the technology delivers from an objective point of view, and presence as a human reaction to immersion. In other words, immersion is an experience in time, whereas presence is a state of mind.
Shehryar reflects that hearing plays a major role in spatial awareness. In fact, the auditory system provides information for a much larger spatial field than vision. Purposefully move sound through spatial and temporal dimensions, with a fine-tuned spatial acoustics setup such as MONOM’s, and a great level of immersion can be achieved.
MONOM’s 4DSOUND system was installed in 2017, ten years after the 4DSOUND interdisciplinary project was founded by Dutch composer Paul Oomen. MONOM was established as an experimental performance venue and spatial sound studio in tandem with Budapest’s Spatial Sound Institute. Its system uses 48 omnidirectional speakers, suspended throughout the venue, extending to nine sub speakers submerged beneath an acoustically transparent floor.
Shehryar explains that the size, shape and positioning of the sound source can be effectively perceived by the listener in such an environment. In fact, 4DSOUND makes it possible for sound to be designed as an object with individual dimensions and positions (pictured above). For musicians who want to explore the inner workings of their art form, this technology is absolute creative dynamite. That’s why – through workshops and other opportunities – Catalyst students regularly make the most of our connection and proximity to the impressive MONOM venue.
Composing in 4DSOUND
How did Shehryar use his internship to fuel his MA project? He composed a number of spatial etudes, pairing the 4DSOUND visualiser with a binaural head recording of sonic objects to create soundscapes in different environments. The first two etudes utilised field recordings of vehicles, for example passing cars and aeroplanes, stalling engines and truck horns. “The moving vehicles were all given spatial paths corresponding to their real life motions and behaviours,” he writes. “Many different car sounds were employed, with different speed at recording, and were consequently given paths with different speeds as shown in these etudes.” The other etudes were created from recordings of a subway train, acoustic spaces, collisions, crowds, birds and a lake.
Shehryar held a physical installation of the study at MONOM, which opened further areas of enquiry based upon the reactions of the participants, many of whom had never experienced a virtual sound environment. He invited them to complete presence and immersion questionnaires to obtain subjective data for his study.
“I was left to understand the ideal conditions to record through self study and practice.”
When MONOM added a binaural recording head (pictured below) and binaural headphones to their sonic repertoire for the purpose of live streaming, Shehryar knew he had to incorporate the technology into his project. Thanks to the hyper-flexible nature of our Masters programme, Shehryar was able to follow his intuition and explore a new dimension.
“This was my first interaction with binaural audio,” he recalls. “My first response [was] being shocked at how the sound moved around my perceptual space while wearing normal stereo headphones.” After the scenes from his etudes were spatialised, he recorded them onto the binaural microphone first as separate files, before blending them together into one final composition.
Shehryar notes that this was a rather challenging process, since recording binaural audio within a 4DSOUND system is not a common technique. “With a lack of descriptive material regarding this topic,” he explains, “I was left to understand the ideal conditions to record through self study and practice.” Once again, he invited participants of this work to complete questionnaires, in order to compare the immersion of the 4DSOUND installation and the binaural sound experiment.
“With different forms of composition and spatial design, it is possible for the immersive extent of the system to yet expand.”
Shehryar measured three values of immersion during his studies of the perceived effect of 4DSOUND and binaural sound: Spatial Presence, Experienced Realism and Involvement. What did his results on both fronts say about the participants’ perception of place in particular?
“Comparing the results of the binaural experiment with the physical installation, there are definitely similarities in the trends,” he surmises, “as well as observations regarding the level of presence.” The 4DSOUND experiment yielded rather positive results for the application of 4DSOUND as a means of immersive spatial sound. “The system, coherently with my spatial design, proved to be very effective and applicable to sonic environment design. With different forms of composition and spatial design, it is possible for the immersive extent of the system to yet expand.” In comparison, the binaural presence data held slightly lower values, implying less immersive ability. Though he suggests that more accurately designed or mixed environments may bring about higher values.
“Being able to work entirely on one creative endeavour for an extended period of time was a new experience for me, and I am very pleased with the artistic end product.”
Over the course of the year-long project, Shehryar’s research evolved into a rewarding two-pronged artistic study on the many facets of sonic immersion. “I have been able to work consistently on this project,” he reflects, “and have explored and studied concepts I had never experienced prior to this course. My work at MONOM has provided me with the best possible opportunity to study spatial sound, and take this project in the right direction. Being able to work entirely on one creative endeavour for an extended period of time was also a new experience for me, and I am very pleased with the artistic end product. Exposure to new technology and my experiences composing and working on this project have been incredibly rewarding and further thought provoking.”
Want to go deeper into the topic? Contact us to request a copy of Shehryar Ahmad’s full MA paper.