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*LOrk digression #7 — Localized multi-speaker salad bowls
One of the biggest differences of some modern laptop orchestras in relation to other laptop ensembles is the utilization of dedicated speakers next to each performer.
The quality of these small speakers is inferior in comparison to professional speakers commonly used in electroacoustic music concerts. Their advantage is the fact that the sound produced by a laptop musician is irradiated from a point in space just next to the musician. The willingness to accept, or tolerate, an inferior sound quality has to do precisely with this desire of bringing back the sound to the performer, perhaps denoting a certain fatigue or decreased enthusiasm for the current standard model of spatialization—four, eight, sixteen or more speakers surrounding the audience. In any case, what is important is that both doors are now open to the electronic musician: the traditional surround sound diffusion, and this new kind of portable, multi-point speaker array that open new composition possibilities.
[picture: PLOrk speakers]
In pieces that combine acoustic instruments with electroacoustic sounds, the reconciliation of two very different sound diffusion worlds (electronic sound via multiple speakers surrounding the audience versus the acoustic sound as naturally projected from the instruments) has always been a considerable issue. The disparaty in terms of sound projection and sheer power is usually alleviated by amplifying the acoustic instruments and diffusing their sound through the same speakers as the electronic sounds (thus expanding, or leveling out, the natural irradiation of the acoustic instrument and the characteristics of the room), thus removing, to some extent, the instrument from its original acoustic space. The use of localized speakers for laptop performers works in the opposite direction: it is an attempt at removing electronic sounds from the disembodied speaker array surrounding the audience and putting it “back” on stage, now associated with laptop performers (“back” has to be between double quotes since this return can only be metaphorical).1
The particular design of these small localized speakers is fertile ground for new musical explorations. As seen in the pictures above, a typical *LOrk speaker has a hemispheric shape and six built-in projections points (in fact, six car speakers pointing to different directions). The exploration of various modes of sound irradiation with these speakers is an interesting line of investigation, as previous research has already shown (for example, the Timée from Ircam2, a similar multi-speaker device; and Dan Trueman's BoSSA, “Bowed-Sensor-Speaker-Array”3). The fact that a group such as SLOrk has up to twenty identical multi-speaker units available, thus bringing variable radiation of electronic sound to an “orchestral” level, has not yet been much explored.4
In summary, the return of the ability to localize sound sources on stage is welcome to electronic music, not necessarily in opposition to the surround sound model, but in addition to it. The question of the lower quality of portable loudspeakers of the type commonly used in laptop orchestras today should not be an impediment to the creative exploration of their potential (especially since their quality may improve as new technological solutions appear). Individualized localization of sound in the context of small and large electronic ensembles is a promising achievement.
[above, to the right: SLOrk speakers. Below: L2Ork speaker]
1The Acousmonium, as an “orchestra of loudspeakers”, is a different way of localizing electronic sounds on stage, but in a strictly acousmatic fashion (no performers on stage). In fact, a laptop orchestra such as SLOrk but without human performers on stage would essentially boil down to an orchestra of loudspeakers like the Acousmonium.
2Misdariis, Nicolas, Warusfel, Caussé. Radiation Control on Multi-Loudspeaker Device: La Timée. Paper presented at ICMC 2001, Cuba.
3Trueman, D., and Cook, P. BoSSA: the deconstructed violin reconstructed. Journal of New Music Research 29(2), 2000.
4The portable hemispheric speakers are also a mainstay visual element of some laptop orchestras. One could imagine a laptop ensemble in which players used a pair of small high-quality monitor speakers, for example, instead of custom-built multi-speaker devices. Sound quality would go up, but coolness would go down.
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