Sound System

On May 17th 1978 in the austerely classical St John’s Smith Square, Electric Phoenix gave its first meticulously prepared, well publicized and eagerly awaited recital. I, a sound engineer, listened from the audience with especial interest. As the sumptuous motifs of David Bedford’s The Way of Truth echoed and re-echoed above our heads in the sold-out hall, I muttered to myself, “I want them! They’re mine!”

In the event, a Mafia contract was not required. Shortly thereafter I was asked by the group to record the vocal materials for their first international commission, Henri Pousseur’s Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hell. Hugh Davies of Goldsmith College was to assemble the 30 minute pre-recorded performance tape, but he became ill. With three weeks to go before the first performance, I was asked if I would take it on. Almost impossible to accomplish but even more impossible to refuse!

The assembly instructions consisted of many pages of scores together with precise directions as to the manner of assembly. Pousseur assumed the use of two four-track tape recorders plus a stereo recorder. I had just acquired the newly-released eight-track Teac, which would make the task a lot easier and involve fewer generations of copying, so my first task was to rewrite the instructions. This task and the much more complex task of carrying them out in such a short time were made possible by the fact that Henri’s instructions were precise, logical and internally consistent.

With only three weeks to complete the project, I had to plan my time session-by-session. I set myself a schedule of 252 hours, broken down into three four-hour sessions per day: 8-12, 1-5 and 6-10. I was ultimately saved from madness by the fact that I was able to stay on schedule, thus holding out the vital promise that I would indeed finish on time.

Some parts of the procedure would have made John Cage smile in approval. One sequence included a single line which was produced by re-recording a vocal passage several times, then cutting the tape into short segments, dropping these into a box and then reassembling it from the pieces drawn at random from the box. Their direction was not to be reversed, so each segment required offset marking at the editing point. When the tape was spliced back together (which consumed an afternoon of welcome occupational therapy), I re-recorded it by an accelerating process which required putting the recorder into fast-forward with the tape against the playback head, holding the speed back by hand and gradually allowing it to go faster and faster. The effect was of a garbled voice line which accelerated into a terrifying screech. On modern digital equipment, this could be accomplished with a few minutes’ programming and the push of a button, but the result would be clean, impersonal and seemingly effortless. At that moment in Tales and Songs, the labour required for the endless cutting and splicing is at least subliminally detectable.

I felt throughout this entire procedure that I knew exactly what Pousseur wanted. Only once did I telephone him for confirmation. He had sent me a tape of electronic music for incorporation and because of the sounds it contained I was uncertain whether it was heads-out or tails-out. He told me that it was heads-out—end of conversation.

When I arrived at the Hot Theatre in The Hague for the first performance I was delighted to find that the sound system included four Altec Voice of the Theatre speaker systems like those on which the tape had been mixed in my own studio. There had been no time to send Henri the tape in advance. When he had heard it through, he nodded and said, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” At dinner that evening an assistant of Henri’s sat next to me. He questioned me at some length about what consultation there had been during the tape’s assembly. He couldn’t believe that it had been assembled from merely written instruction—it sounded to him exactly as though Henri had constructed it himself. I wasn’t surprised. Shortly thereafter I wrote to a friend:

I believe art to be primarily a transmission of energy whose source is unknown. Those who practice it with any success are channels through whom that energy flows. When I was putting together the tape for Tales and Songs I felt as if I were plugged into some energy bank of tremendous force, and that I was able to arrive at what Henri wanted because he was connected to the same circuits (as were Blake and Dowland). There were moments when I ignored Henri's instructions because I knew that what was required had to be reached by other means; he subsequently approved these changes without reservation.

Three years later, when Tales and Songs was included in the first Electric Phoenix LP for Wergo, I wrote a programme note describing how the piece had taken shape.

HENRI Pousseur’s equipment requirements would influence Electric Phoenix’s technological format for years to come. The package he requested included four small vocally activated digital delay boxes whose parameters were to be controlled by the singers themselves. The boxes were designed and built by Ian Mackintosh, a freelance electronic wizard who had already built the Magic Movement Machine for a Barry Guy commission. This was based on motion detector circuitry designed for burglar alarms, their electronic output converted into audio signals.

The vocal synthesizer boxes would be made use of by a growing list of Phoenix’s commissioned composers, especially Rolf Gehlhaar, who built a set of his own and made even more elaborate use of them in his own EP commission, Worldline. In 1981 I wrote a detailed description for the EMAS Newsletter: The Electric Phoenix Vocal Synthesizer.

Designing and constructing this unique piece of equipment required an unorthodox mind. When John Potter visited Ian to discuss technical details at his home in a derelict back street on the still Dickensian south bank, he was painting the interior walls. It was a hot job on a hot day and so he was wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes. When the doorbell rang Ian answered it au naturel.

FOUR-SPEAKER surround sound had been a part of the Electric Phoenix system from the beginning; Pousseur’s Tales and Songs took it to lengths that would be equalled in subsequent commissions but never surpassed. Not only was there great complexity of sound distribution in the pre-recorded tape, but in performance the live voices were constantly being moved around the hall. In order to be panned smoothly from the front to the rear, Henri had specified that each of the four microphones was to be assigned with a splitter cable to two faders, one panning between the front two speakers, the other the rear. You can imagine the complications of moving four voices smoothly around the room, sometimes in contrary motion! Henri was ahead of his time—a decade later the Ambisonic Pan Rotate System would allow this to be accomplished with eight small smoothly-running 360º circular pots, each easily playable with a single finger, plus a master rotate which revolved the whole pattern around its own epicentre.

Meanwhile, only the polyarmed goddess Siva could have accomplished it unaided, and so in the first performance of Tales and Songs, Terry Edwards distributed the live voices while I controlled the sound levels of the pre-recorded tape, with which I had spent three weeks becoming so intimately familiar. Shortly thereafter the bass Simon Grant left the group and Terry moved into his place, leaving a vacant seat behind the mixer. I was not long in accepting the group’s invitation to occupy it!

Another seminal piece of equipment from EP’s early days was the Roland Space Echo. This was essentially a tape recorder consisting of the usual capstan and idler wheel together with erase, record, and playback heads, but with an endless loop instead of the usual fixed length of tape with supply and take-up reels. It was capable of a wide range of echo effects, either single or multiple, and with continuously variable pitch/duration control effected by changing the rotation speed of the capstan. Its earliest and most effective use was in David Bedford’s haunting The Way of Truth, in which sung/chanted passages from Heraclites were subjected to both vocal and electronic repetition.

By 1980, we had been able to beg, borrow and purchase a working sound system, some of which belonged to the group, some to me and some borrowed from generous friends. Its principal elements comprised the following:

In early January we rented a Ford Granada Estate car, packed everything into it like an interlocking rebus puzzle, and set out for Amsterdam, the first city in a four-day tour of Holland.

The concert at the Stedelijk Museum went very well. It was a bitterly cold night, and so we repacked the estate car as quickly as we could and hurried off to order our post-concert dinner before the restaurant’s kitchen closed. (This was always high-priority in our touring schedule.) When we came out, well-fed and well-lubricated, it had turned even colder. Our car, left out in the sub-zero weather while we dined, registered its resentment by refusing to start. No problem. Our hotel was a short walk away and we could deal with that in the morning.

Came the cold crisp dawn. After an ample Dutch breakfast, Terry and I set out to collect the vehicle. It was outside the museum where we had left it, but there was something wrong that took a timeless frozen moment to register. It was empty. The implications of this simple fact were so monumental that I refused to accept it. I still have before my eyes the image of the carpeted floor, so spotlessly clean that it crossed my mind that the thieves must have swept it. I remember lifting a corner of the carpet to see if by any chance the equipment was hidden underneath. My precious Stellavox, gone! The indispensable prize whose purchase had run into four figures—today, the equivalent of five. Insurance? Those were relatively honest times, and what neophyte music group could then afford the premiums? The risen Phoenix was again reduced to ashes.

Later we would learn that Amsterdam with its large population of drug addicts was the European capital of petty thievery. On two subsequent Phoenix tours I was relieved, first of my shoulder bag, and then of a leather jacket. A friend who lived there told me that he disposed of his daily rubbish by leaving it neatly bagged on the back seat of his car with the door unlocked.

But the human race has a way of carrying on, thumbing its nose in the face of its own naivety. Terry got in touch with the tour sponsors, explained what had happened and offered them the option of cancelling with a full refund or accepting an unamplified concert with a revised programme. Being generous and civilized Dutchmen, they chose the latter and I became the group’s mascot, shuffling glassy-eyed from venue to venue. A few moments stand out, such as the party we threw for an audience of appreciative bohemians in the art museum in Bergen am See. Wine flowed as from a fountain into the wee small hours and then we went somewhere—miraculously open—for a generous meal and still more wine. Of the tour’s previous few days I remember little, but I’m told that I was an object of concern—the sort of case history of depression that might be studied in a remedial therapy seminar.

There was a school concert scheduled for a fortnight after our return and a major Roundhouse concert in London a fortnight after that. Foregoing our fees for those engagements in order to reimburse our creditors, and treating our disaster as though it were merely an inconvenience, we put together a new system, upgrading certain items of equipment that had proved less than satisfactory. Soundcraft had just launched a new line of mixers and its director Graham Blythe let Terry have the original prototype Soundcraft 400 at a bargain price. (After two decades of faithful service it went to an honorable place in their museum.)

Another enormous step up was a change in microphones to AKG 451 condensers with CK22 capsules, an omni that had been developed in consultation with the BBC as a competitor to the famous B&K, designed in the first instance for instrumentation purposes. The CK22 was noteworthy for its flat response, lack of proximity effect and resistance to popping, characteristics that made it ideal for close miking of real singers—pop singers didn’t much like it because its lack of bass lift made them sound authentically weedy.

From this point onward the evolution of the Electric Phoenix sound system is covered in considerable detail in a series of articles I wrote for the technical press. The first, for Studio Sound in 1988, includes a diagram of the way the various parts of the system fitted together: Live Surround Sound. The next leap forward, which involved an upgrading to eight-channel sound projection with Meyer UPM loudspeakers, is described in detail in a 1995 article for Audio Media: The Great Ambisonic Flea Circus. Finally, there was the change to syncronized mini-disks for pre-recorded sound projection, first used at our IRCAM recital in 1997: Mini-disk to IRCAM. The four digital channels thus available were unique; for click-track operation, even such a prestigious ensemble as the Kronos Quartet were then sacrificing one programme channel and going to mono.

During its two decades of active commissioning, Electric Phoenix were able to offer a succession of composers not only a free hand and the talents of a skilled vocal quartet, but also the technological versatility of a complex sound system which travelled with the singers at a time when the in-house facilities available in performance spaces around the world could not always be relied upon.

Electric Phoenix were among the first electro-acoustic ensembles to make extensive use of the Yamaha SPX-90 digital delay, a device so versatile and so reasonably priced that it was readily available to any composer anywhere in the world who wanted to experiment with it. The most complex set of programmes assigned to a single composition was by Neely Bruce in his Michael McClure settings, Eight Ghosts (1989). Its use is described in detail on another page.

For Agonie, Henri Pousseur’s next major EP commission, an EMS Vocoder 1000 was acquired. Its live operation in the concert hall proved so problematical that it was not used in any other compositions.

The tradition of adding to our stable of equipment at a composer’s request continued with Kaija Saariaho’s Nuit Adieux, in which she scored for two new effects units, the Yamaha SPX1000 and the Lexicon LXP-15. With the help of her husband Jean-Baptiste Barrière at IRCAM, she had discovered a method of using the Lexicon to freeze a sound, maintaining it in the mix at a constant volume until another sound was selected for the same treatment. Both units working in tandem proved to be so versatile that they were thenceforth in constant use, including the provision of special effects for John Cage’s Solos for Voice 93-96.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Electric Phoenix sound system was its use of Ambisonics. To my knowledge there has been no other travelling Ambisonic sound system either before or since, except for a few ad hoc systems assembled for particular projects. This meant that our composers could be assured, not just of a first-and-only performance, but of being taken into the repertory of an active ensemble who would have the same complex technical facilities available wherever they went.

The aural sophistication of Ambisonics was so obvious that technicians in Europe and America regularly came to me after our concerts and asked where they might buy the components. Being British inventions, they had of course been made by a single company that had already ceased their production—we were a travelling technological museum. I told the sad story for Audio Media in 1996: Ambisonics is Dead – Long Live Ambisonics!

Ambisonics has indeed refused to die. When I was asked to give a demonstration of its potential for the IRCAM staff in Paris the day after our 1984 recital, the allotted hour stretched to two. Subsequently IRCAM would adopt Ambisonic principles into their own complex multi-speaker sound projection. Today the burgeoning of home theatre systems has led to a re-examination of Ambisonics, which remains the most efficient, precise and versatile method of surround sound distribution. I like to think that Electric Phoenix, as part of its legacy, has substantially contributed to the survival of this seminal technology.

John Whiting