Max Cooper wants you to experience music in four dimensions. The electronic musician has been experimenting with a new sound system that uses several omnidirectional speakers and special software to deliver audio in a more immersive, interactive way. We talked to Cooper about 4-D sound, its implications, and how he sees it being used in the future.
What’s the reaction you get from people when explaining 4-D sound?
People are very interested when I tell them about it. They don't need much convincing once I've explained the basics. And just to clarify the name—the system is called "4DSOUND" because the sounds exist not only in three dimensional space, but they also move in time, the fourth dimension.
Is 4DSOUND all about the experience, as opposed to the music?
It certainly is a new way of experiencing music, but I don't think that experience alone would carry a show. No doubt some people might come just to hear the new format, but if they didn't like my music in the first place then they probably wouldn't like the show as a whole—it's an addition to the music rather than a replacement.
If you look up "music" on Wikipedia, it is defined by pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and texture. The 4-D system literally adds an extra category of three dimensional spatiality to the list of what music is. Each piece of music turns into a physical entity that can be explored and interacted with, as it envelops and moves around you.
Do traditional live shows and audio recordings feel stale to you after experiencing 4DSOUND?
I am really excited about the 4-D project. It opens so many doors musically that I'm only just starting to explore. But it doesn't replace or nullify traditional shows—both have pros and cons. The standard 4-D system is built of 48 omni-directional speakers and nine subs. The omni-directional speakers project sound in all directions, allowing sounds to seem to come from anywhere in the space, or even outside of it. Where normal club systems are directional and punch you in the chest from a specific unchanging position.
What's the learning curve for creating music in this spatial way?
The developers of the 4-D system have created a great interface for Ableton's Max for Live system, which provides a big range of spatial controls specific for the 4-D rig. But it does take a while to get the hang of it, a lot more preparation needed than for a standard show, but there's a lot more potential too.
How likely are venues to actually implement this speaker setup? What can be done to get people on board faster?
At the moment it's very much an experimental system, needing a lot of expertise and work to make it happen. It also needs a very big space—at least 11 meters square by 6 meters high, and ideally with a much larger floor space than that. It's something for galleries and installation spaces as much as clubs, and there's been a lot of interest from festivals.
I don't think anything should be done to get people on board faster. People are really interested already from what I've seen, and it's a matter of continuing to develop the technology and its artistic use organically so that the more it spreads the higher quality the results are. It's still early stages. There is a lot of work to be done before it's ready to take over the world. Also, it needs two trucks to transport all the kit at the moment, which makes it expensive to stage a 4-D show.
Is the 4-D sound system about trying to increase interest in the live show over home consumption?
Nothing compares to a great club experience in a lot of ways, unless you want to totally destroy your living space, so it's not about competing with home experiences for me. I would agree that for some forms of media, like movies, it's now hard to beat the potential home experience. But can clubs go down that route? I don't think so.
The 4-D show is a club experience, but it's also almost a museum experience. It's somewhere in between, which has always been an aim for me musically. Some of my music is called "techno" for example, but it's just as much for home listening even though it's of a club format.
I want to make music that isn't just for hammered people in clubs. I want it to have some real musical quality that can be enjoyed at home in a sober state as well.
What do you see for the future of live shows?
Home viewing/listening is great for enjoying music and performances on a certain level. But the live experience provides so much more than just the information content of music piped into your home. The information content of the environment is possibly more important to me. My favorite clubs and festivals, for example, aren't those where my favorite artists play. They're places where I'm enveloped by an amazing new interactive experience that's unpredictable on every level.
Home entertainment is probably 100 years off being able to deliver something like that in my opinion—it would have to be a direct link to the brain. Go to Glastonbury festival in the U.K., or Wilde Renate or Berghain in Berlin and compare that to any possible home experience. And people can't get that at home, so they will always want to go out!
Since part of the benefit of the 4-D system is being able to record sounds as they naturally occur in space and time, what are some of the practical use cases you've encountered?
Yes, our delivery of sound and other media always has an ongoing mission to make things more natural, because the natural world is always the richest source of experience. Nothing compares to the real thing. The 4-D system allows the creation of very unreal, unnatural sound environments, which is fun—it provides a surreal, but real sound environment.
One practical issue we've been considering with 4-D is whether we can properly translate the experience to home listening. I recorded my live show with binaural microphones to try and achieve this. They are mics which record from inside the ears, so that they capture the effects of the shape of the ears and transmission of sound through the bones around the ear, within the recording.
This means, that, in theory, when someone listens back to the recording with headphones, their brain picks up the same signals which tell it about the surrounding environment. It can be pretty convincing, and binaural recording is surprisingly popular. Demos like "the virtual hairdressers" on YouTube have had as many as 16 million hits.
We've recorded the 4-D show using that same technique, and it sounds really interesting. But it's not as powerful as feeling the sound live, and you can't walk around and explore the environment in the same way. Maybe we could create an interactive app, but that's a ways off!