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Realizing A Vision: Deploying Immersive Sound For Björk & “Cornucopia” In NYC

Behind the scenes with a 100-minute audio visual journey of live musical arrangements, digital technology, and stunning visuals.

Multidisciplinary artist Björk – singer, songwriter, composer, actress, record producer, and DJ – has had a successful career spanning four decades and developed an eclectic musical style that draws on a range of influences and genres, including electronic, pop, experimental, classical, and avant-garde music.

In a first for Björk, she’s working with a team of digital and theatrical collaborators – including award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, and director Lucrecia Martel – to present a 100-minute audio visual journey of live musical arrangements, digital technology, and stunning visuals titled “Cornucopia.”

A chorus and cast of musicians join the artist for an 8-concert engagement held recently in the Hudson Yards district of New York City at a new 200,000-square-foot structure called The Shed. The theatrical collaboration appeared in The Shed’s iconic space, The McCourt, a 1,500-seat/2,000-standing room theater with the ability to transform into a 17,000-square-foot hall for large-scale performances, installations, and events.

The Vision

“Björk’s vision for the ‘Cornucopia’ sound was to create an otherworldly sensory experience that draws the visual, aural, and virtual elements together from the studio composition scenario all the way through to the show’s performance scenario,” states Steve Jones, education and application support team leader for d&b audiotechnik Great Britain. “Soundscape, the d&b immersive sound toolkit, is responsible for realizing Björk’s vision.”

It’s an ambitious project, with Björk describing the production as her “most elaborate stage concert yet, where acoustic and digital will shake hands.” An intricate staged concert, it also includes a 50-member young person choir from her Iceland homeland, a custom-made reverb chamber, mesmerizing video projections, multiple instruments, and a carefully positioned 360-degree surround d&b audiotechnik sound system installation.

In fact, the artist specifically requested the use of d&b Soundscape, with the En-Scene object-based mixing and En-Space room emulation software, which was temporarily positioned in The McCourt for her eight performances. “Björk has always pushed the boundaries in challenging her audiences’ experiences,” Jones notes. “Immersive sound experiences are the hot topic at the moment and Björk and [front of house engineer] John Gale were very much wanting to explore the latest methods of immersive sound for this show. John arranged demos of various systems and Soundscape was demonstrated through Southby Productions out of the UK. We struck up a real affinity about how this show could be realized in a very individual space like The Shed, and John felt the tools he required were available with Soundscape to take on the challenge.”

Jones adds that for this production, Soundscape required a fairly different approach to system design. It’s not a standard left-right configuration and goes well beyond a 180-degree system by using a 360-degree ring of loudspeakers around the audience, matched to the headroom requirements and based on the creative choices of which sounds come from where and at what time.

“In the planning stage of the show, The Shed wasn’t yet open and the house team were still putting in place their internal workflow of running the venue. So questions like, can we rig a truss from here to there with this much load capacity in an unexpected way for a sound system, was one part of the challenge, but then to throw cabling routes on top of it was a fair task for a new venue, with a new team and infrastructure. Luckily we had a great house audio team, led by Jim van Bergen, to work alongside Southby to find solutions to the individual needs.

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“We also got great help from SAVI, our New York d&b partner, who helped supply and fit out the in-house system at The Shed. When combining all of this into setting the audio infrastructure within a hugely ambitious lighting and video production, we all had to learn where to make the right compromises for the good of the overall audience experience. So as ever, great shows happen with great teamwork, and this show in this venue definitely needed good teamwork.”

Challenges And A Solution

As an essential part of the performance design, the initial concept of a fully integrated immersive sound experience utilizing d&b Soundscape began in a studio in Iceland. As the production progressed, rehearsals took place at the Backstage Centre in London and traveled on to the The Shed. Björk and front of house engineer John Gale designed the sound, supported by Southby Productions and Jones from d&b audiotechnik.

Southby staff met Gale and set up a 360-degree d&b Soundscape demo in London for him to experiment with immersive audio and report back to the artist. “This is where our journey began,” states Christopher Jones, director of Southby Productions. “From there, we were off to Björk’s homeland where the team was given the challenge of setting up a Soundscape system for Björk to experiment with in a remote lighthouse which could only be accessed by 4×4 at low tide. Following this, our team packaged and sent a full control and stage package with the Soundscape system for band rehearsals at Stúdio Sýrland, and then back in the UK for a full month of production rehearsals at The Backstage Centre in London prior to heading to The Shed in New York.”

The Soundscape system for band rehearsals at Stúdio Sýrland in Iceland.

Southby engineers Digby Shaw and Jack Blenkinsopp worked closely with Gale to seamlessly integrate DiGiCo, Q-Lab and timecode to encapsulate the artist’s vision of audio perfection. “Our comprehensive Soundscape knowledge has allowed us to become one of the ‘go to’ specialists in the UK,” says Christopher Jones of his team.

From front of house, Gale controlled Soundscape in several ways. “First, viewing and moving objects live in the R1Remote control software, and secondly, pre-programming object positions particularly for playback channels within a ProTools session that is time-coded to show sequences,” he explains. “Much of the show is pre-determined with time-coded segments that sync to a master playback machine on stage. At front of house, I have dual redundant ProTools rigs that chase timecode and look after live instrument and vocal effects for the show.

Above, the scene for pre-rehearsals at a venue in Brockley London prior to the production moving to The Shed in NYC. Below, members of the sound team strategizing at Brockley London, including (L-R) Bill Brooks (d&b UK), John Gale (FOH engineer),  Wayne Powell (d&b UK), and Jack Blenkinsopp and Digby Shaw (both of Southby Productions). (Credit: Chris Jones, Southby Productions)

So, it made sense to utilize the d&b Soundscape plugin into the existing setup,” he continues. “I could program the session to send OSC data to the d&b DS100 to control movements or change En-Space settings. This also allowed me to record complicated movements using a touch screen from the R1 software into the ProTools session.”  (See sidebar interview on page 2 with Gale for more.)

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