I’m standing in front of a wall with 180 of Sonos’s Play:1 speakers that have been gutted and outfitted with a 12-pixel LED ring for control over RGB color and light intensity. Those are surrounded by another 120 speakers playing music, sound effects, and voice-overs. The entire wall, which represents a map of New York City, is motion controlled using an Xbox Kinect, so that when I wave my hand over one of the five boroughs it sonically comes to life with music and voice-over effects. Moving my hand ever so slightly around the lighted map causes individual speakers to protrude and change color as they’re activated.
The 300 speakers here are an art installation, a collaboration between the speaker company Sonos, technology company Perfect Fools, and the musical group Big Noble–featuring Daniel Kessler of the band Interpol and soundscape artist Joseph Fraioli.
Driving all of this are 24 Arduino micro controllers connected to the 180 custom-built stepper motors and 180 12-pixel LED rings.
“Our research stages included consulting motor specialists in Sweden and in the U.S. to see what motor best fit our needs for a lightweight, easily controllable, reliable, and affordable motor,” says project producer from Perfect Fools, Amit Raab. “We also tried testing different ways we could use light with the Play:1, seeing whether an aura of LED behind the speaker would give an interesting effect, but finally choosing to use a 12-pixel LED ring in the inside center of a Play:1 shell, giving the feeling that each Play:1 is glowing.”
One of the biggest challenges for the installation, technically speaking, was to get everything wired, ventilated, and connected in such close proximity. Raab estimates the team used nearly a mile of wiring to pull the whole thing off–all in a space of roughly 7.5-feet by 12-feet.
Another challenge, as expected, was planning the project remotely and then constructing it stateside. Perfect Fools built a smaller 30-speaker version of the installation in its Stockholm office and then scaled up as the team spent the last month building the entire project in New York.
Contributing the music to the art piece, Big Noble had the similar experience of not fully knowing what to expect from the final product being played back on a system that didn’t exist before now.
“While composing, you don’t entirely know how its going to play back once installed because it can be near impossible to re-create this environment in the studio,” says sound designer and artist Fraioli. “Its really a perfect scenario for us as we hope listeners take in their environment a bit while listening to our music and invite any environment to be part of the listening experience.”
Big Noble was already been in the process of making an album which included street sounds from New York, so their contributions were a natural fit. The music also lent itself to the location aspect of the project as well.
“Perfect Fools took my coordinates for the locations of these recordings and represented them visually on the Sonos speakers,” Fraioli says. “Additionally, we created another piece that is sort of the opposite in composition to Big Noble’s album work where field recordings of locations take precedence and there is tonal ambiance mixed in to these recordings to present a particular feel for these spaces that will hopefully help change the perspective of these locations for the listener.”
Sounds of NYC will run September 30th through October 5th at the NeueHouse in New York City.