WOMAD Festival: an immersive audio experience.
At the World of Music Arts & Dance (WOMAD) Festival, UK, d&b partnered with WOMAD on a dedicated nine hundred square metre marquee stage and arena, the d&b Soundscape Stage and worked with the eclectic programme of world music artists ranging from bands and singer songwriters to DJs and field recordists to reveal the versatility and the detail that the d&b Soundscape offers.
WOMAD has never shied away from technology. That’s because it was very much the brainchild of Peter Gabriel, the Dumbledore of hi-tech progressive rock and chromium-plated chart pop. It grew, like hogweed, out of the sylvan tendrils of his West Country recording retreats, and by the time his famous Real World Studios opened at the end of the ‘80s WOMAD – the organization, the record label, the festival – was established as a global outreach of this audio cathedral.
To make sure that Soundscape’s WOMAD debut went smoothly, the sound engineering services of Ben Findlay were secured. This was Findlay’s very first encounter with Soundscape as a completely new live sound mixing paradigm.
“It was immediately clear,” Findlay says, “that Soundscape has the ability to place each musician in the mix exactly as you see them on stage. But the most striking thing was that this localization works for everyone in the audience, wherever they’re standing. Normally you have to stand – or sit – right in the centre to have equal coverage from both sides and to get that sense that it’s coming from the middle. Step even a metre either side and it all starts to drift to that side.
“With Soundscape, if you pan something into the middle of the array of speakers across the front – in this case seven V7P point-source - you still get that sense of central localization even you’re extreme downstage right, or left. It’s a bit like an audio Mona Lisa, in the way it follows you round the room.”
This describes the 180° benefit of Soundscape’s object-based signal processing and mixing, but WOMAD also presented an opportunity to exploit its 360° dimensions and the potential to create what is increasingly being described as an immersive listening experience for the audience. To achieve this, a ring of twenty two Y10 was placed around the boundaries of the marquee.
Findlay describes the workflow: “Every channel of audio that comes into the console goes out discretely to the d&b DS100 Signal Engine which houses a 64 x 64 signal matrix where it becomes a sound object – in our case forty eight input channels from the stage box became forty eight objects – and you can then use the interface to position each of these objects wherever you want in the sound field,” he says. “It was fun and fascinating to be able to pull objects off the stage and fly them around the room, but for this context the most artistically satisfying effect was to select certain more ethereal sound sources, add reverb to those and feed the returns into the 360 space while keeping them dry off the stage. You get a lot of clarity at the front while establishing a really enveloping ambience.”
Findlay also found that it was quick and intuitive to observe the line-up of each act as it took to the stage, and make adjustments within Soundscape to connect the mix with the immediate visual impression of the musicians in situ – a particularly useful feature in a festival situation like this where the kaleidoscope of audio-visual impressions is such a rich part of the experience. “You can very quickly group the channels/objects too, enabling you to move a whole group – such as a drum kit – around the stage according to where it was set up. By the end of the weekend I was entirely comfortable with this approach.”
WOMAD has a very perceptive audience. So much so, that Bill Brooks and John Taylor from d&b conducted an informed and engaging presentation about the Soundscape concept every afternoon in a break between the acts. But you don’t have to be Leonardo Da Vinci to appreciate this renaissance… “We had a lot of very positive reactions from people,” Findlay says, “even though you don’t expect them to follow all the technicalities. And I found the opportunity to be so precise about how things sat in the mix very rewarding. It sounded really, really good.”