It’s not often an engineer is featured on the lineup schedule for a music festival, but Mike Roan, a professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering has done it as part of Moogfest, a community of futurists who explore emerging sound technologies in Durham, North Carolina.

This year, Roan, who works in areas of immersive audio, psychoacoustics, and digital signal processing, joined with Tanner Upthegrove, media engineer with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, to provide the festival with a first-ever event – a large scale immersive audio experience.

Working with Meyer Sound, a designer and manufacturer of innovative sound solutions, Roan and Upthegrove transferred a project originally designed in the Cube, a four-story-high, state-of-the-art theatre and high tech laboratory that serves multiple platforms of creative practice, to another live music venue. The results, according to Roan, could change the way artists view sound during a live performance.

“When we think of live concerts we think of a large array of speakers facing the audience, and for decades, that has been the template for live performance,” said Roan. “Working with Tanner in the Cube in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at the Moss Arts Center, we have really upped the ante for what is possible with immersive sound technology, and in 2017 we put some of that on display at Moogfest.”

It was during the 2017 iteration of the festival that Meyer Sound got involved. Company representative Steve Ellison saw what Roan and Upthegrove were doing with their scaled down version of an immersive audio system and told the pair the company would be interested in working together in the future. The future came in 2018 as Meyer Sound pulled up a semi with more than $100,000 worth of equipment to the Armory in Durham.

“The efforts of Meyer Sound were really huge for showing what an immersive sound system can provide,” said Roan. “It took about 30 of us two full days to fully install the speakers, computer systems and other equipment for the system. They probably spent $200,000 to $300,000 on a six-day show.”

A typical concert wall of speakers runs on the tried-and-true dual channel system – left and right. Those who have been to live concerts are literally faced with a wall of sound. The system put together by Roan and Upthegrove differs in that it doesn’t use 2 channels of audio – it uses 25 and has the capability for 256. Speakers are installed at the front of the house, and an additional 25 sets of speakers are installed at about 12 feet high all around the venue. Another series of speakers are located on a totem that stands 30 feet high in the middle of the space.

“The physical presence of the speakers, despite the effort it took to install them, represent only a fraction of the time it took to set up the show,” Roan explained. “Immersive audio is not a turn-key process. A band can’t just come in and hook up to the system to get the full benefit.”

Immersive audio is a creative tool for artists, not just a way to get sound to the masses. By using the vast array of speakers and channels of sound, musicians can create pulses and waves of sound that become a part of the musical experience.

The team had to rehearse with the band well ahead of the performance with the work done in the Cube, but in collaboration with a band from Germany, Mouse on Mars.

“Using live feeds from the artist we created spatial ratios, and used their input to drive coordinates for the spatialization in real time data,” said Roan. “We also had to write code for this because there were control signals flying everywhere – from the artist to us, to the lighting, to the main speakers, to the drive speakers … at the concert we were just thinking, ‘please, God, let this work’ because there are so many things going on.”

To make everything work in real time, Roan relies on an audio over internet system called Dante, a protocol from the company Audinate, that allows for the near instantaneous switching of channels from the two blocks of eight Leopard speaker arrays at the front of house, to the six giant subwoofers, to the totem speakers, and to those around the arena. With that many speakers, it’s not surprising things can get pretty loud.

“At some points in the concert the noise was peaking at around 118dB,” Roan said. “Two of the six giant subwoofers were tuned to 22-13hz. You can’t actually hear anything below 20hz, so they are just designed to shake your body – if you get too close to one your vision will go blurry because they make your eyeballs resonate.”

With the success of Moogfest 2018, Roan is already planning for next year. “We are in discussions with Meyer Sound and Moogfest management for next year,” Roan said. “Speaking to Steve [Ellison], he said we should plan on it being ‘bigger and better’.”

Moogfest 2019 will be held April 25-28 in Durham, N.C.

Written by Rosaire Bushey