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It’s in my brain now

Simon Duff recently listened in on sounds inspired by an MRI scanner combined with a live string quartet at an immersive event at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

The use of scientific ideas as a springboard for artists is not new. Explorers in both domains have long sought insights from one another. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, innovative UK music producers Faster Than Sound commissioned new works from composers Mira Calix (she of Warp Records) and Anna Meredith and put on the resulting multi-media Brainwaves in collaboration with the Barbican at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, the world’s oldest surviving Music Hall.

The musical line up consisted of a string quartet made up of members of the Aurora Orchestra, which specialises in experimental work and electronic sources and playback formats inspired by sounds from an MRI scanner.
 Sound requirements for the event had to be as inventive as the intention behind the concert. With the quartet playing on stage then moving to different positions in the audience in the second half of the performance, FOH mixing and playback control was set up at the front of the auditorium close to the stage. Four speaker points were located left and right at either end of the auditorium. 
 “The control position is a little unusual as it is on stage with the composers,” comments Francis Gardner, sound engineer and tour manager for Brainwaves, which has toured at various arts venues this year. “It was important because the composers and I needed to be able to communicate during the show. They could direct me to make level changes in response to how the quartet were performing, or I could ask if a swelling sound that I was hearing was part of the backing track or feedback from the strings. As the Wilton’s Music Hall show was the last of a series of performances, a lot of these issues had been resolved, but nevertheless, being able to communicate was important. Also, I was on hand to support to the composers should they have any issues with their mixing desk.”
 The quad surround-sound system provided by Richard Nowell Sound Services, consisted of four Meyer Sound UPJ-1P active speakers, each paired with Meyer Sound UMS-1P subs, driven by either Crest 4801 or Lab.gruppen 1600 power amps. Gardner says: “We have had a whole variety of PA systems provided for us for these shows, and the Meyer Sound setup was far and away the best we’ve used. It has a very natural open sound, and meant that reinforcing the strings was relatively easy as there wasn’t any unwanted coloration to the sound.” 
 He continues: “The aspect of the PA that surprised me the most was the power of the subs. There is a lot of sub content in the soundscape, and the UMS-1P delivered this with ease. I learned from the system tech that we were not even driving the subs hard – they were well within their comfort zone. Wilton’s Hall may have lost more plaster from her walls if we’d driven the system harder!” 
 On-stage monitoring consisted of four Meyer Sound UPM-1P active speakers. Two were provided for the quartet on stage, and two were for the composers.
 A Yamaha LS9-16 console mixed the FOH sound. Gardner wanted to work with a digital desk that has all the tools he needed, notably channel EQ, graphic EQ, flexible bus configuration and delay on outputs. “Most digital consoles have these facilities, but they are not as small as the LS9, and as I was on-stage with the composers my set-up had to be compact.”
 Playback audio ran off Logic and Ableton Live via MOTU 828 soundcards into a Midas Venice 320 console. Four group outputs were taken and used as inputs to the LS9-16 with surround-sound panning and processing done in the DAWs. Gardner configured four of the LS9-16 mix busses, each of which connected to the amplifiers powering each of four stacks. 
 “It is a true quad set-up, and the routing and panning in the DAW made it a true quad show. The strings were routed to all the speakers and I had the option to route those to separate speakers if required.” DPA 4061 microphones connected to Shure UHF radio transmitters were used to reinforce each of the quartet. They were chosen for their sound, unidirectional pattern and because they are lightweight. DPA produces wishbone connectors that allow them to be attached to the body of string instruments.
 The performance began with a piece by Mira Calix entitled Zipless, played by the quartet accompanied by MRI sounds. She comments: “I have been un/fortunate enough to have found myself tightly wedged inside in an MRI machine twice in my life. On both occasions, they were scanning my brain. Nobody had warned me about the noise! Imagine sticking your head inside a pneumatic drill. Without earplugs! In order to take images, magnetic fields are created between the coils and what you hear varies between throbbing overtones. It goes through a series of sequences, and each one has its own distinctive sonic imprint. It’s this extraordinary experience, these everlasting sonic impressions, that I have carried with me. It’s the invariable emotional backbone of Zipless.”
 Anna Meredith’s work Chorale was likewise inspired by the sounds recorded from an MRI and then layered and processed into an evolving five-chord sequence, realised by the string quartet and machine textures. The evening ended with a joint Calix/Meredith composition entitled Tine focusing on themes of synchronicity and six degrees of separation, featuring the string quartet positioned in different areas within a light installation designed to simulate the experience of being inside an MRI. 
 Gardner concludes: “The biggest challenge was dealing with the string quartet for the last piece, where they were playing and moving within the surround-sound system, and getting them loud enough to balance against the electronic playback, which was loud in places and also contained a lot of sub bass.”