Building India's first 3D surround sound studio: Interview with Felix Deufel – Part 1

Updated: Oct 28, 2021


Felix Deufel is a media artist based in Germany, he works intensively with 3D Audio as format and medium for different purposes. During his BangaloreResidency at The Indian Sonic Research Organisation in 2017, he established the 3D SoundLab Bengaluru and held the first 3D audio workshop in Bangalore. He also collected a huge archive of field recordings, played two sound performances and a DJ set.





This is the first part of a four part series of interviews with Felix Duefel. In this part Felix talks about his background and some of his early work.


 

Y: at ISRO we’ve had artists that are doing very diverse things, you for example were exploring spatial audio, Wolfgang was doing analog computers and some other crazy stuff. Other artists are going underwater and recording, so it’s a whole diverse sound practice. The other interesting aspect is that you were doing all this in India, I remember you were going crazy at the customs which is all a part of India. Maybe you had some experiences with sound, experiences of listening were different here. So first should we talk about you, just a little background?

F: Yes, I was born in 1989 in Isny which is a very small village in the south of Germany. I spent most of my youth in the country side near Augsburg in Bavaria. Then I went to study in Darmstadt, I studied digital media with my main focus on sound from the beginning. I had been learning drums since I was a small kid. I was playing in the traditional folk music orchestra where I would play the drum set and percussions, that’s how I came to music and sound. From this I explored a bit because some of my friends had started making beats on the computer for them to make tracks on the beats. I was looking into this, how they produce, fruity loops for example, was the first digital audio workstation I had contact with, actually I got my first computer to use fruity loops. Then I came into how to produce electronic music with sample bass, my interest was more into electronic, techno, house and dance music. I kind of produced in this direction, from this style.

My studies became more abstract and I was more interested in music and the new music approaches of composition techniques. The focus was always to use self recorded material, as field recordings, not like super high res studio recordings stuff but more rough field recordings. Even for my electronic music, the most interesting sounds were like when a door makes a specific sound and I cut a piece from that sample and use it as an element of the drums.

This is what continued and I got more influences from my university also, more artistic, sound art influences. I also got into contact with physical installation art with other programmers who are more inclined to the visual side of the concepts. I got further away from the classical music.


Then I started my first edit, my first composition, some of my first installations and quickly I came up with the idea of a first surround sound, like several speakers surrounding you, and be able to mix sound in different directions. In 2011 where we were doing an installation, with two friends, we were experimenting with synesthetic pictures and emotions with sound, light and colours. It was very simple with some LEDs, in an anechoic chamber which like a super unnatural space because you have no reflections from the walls. It’s a very unnatural feeling and most people feel very bad in this kind of acoustic environment. We used 8 speakers for this, 4 on the floor and 4 in the top to kind of explore the different possibilities with the direction of the sound, where the sound comes from, where the light comes from, which sound goes with which light and so on. We used 3 different scenes and themes. One audio composition was connected to the blue light composition and wee played with the intensity of the light. The other two were with green and red lights. We had people there who were researching on how and what effect it has on the emotions of people.


So this was the first installation I did. Then at one point I was invited to Fulldome Festival in a planetarium in Vienna. They were working with 3D sound there already, they had a set up of some 50 speakers in the big planetarium sphere supporting these full dome projections set up there. I was working with a visual artist, she was producing a movie and I did the sound design and ——— for it. In this case I had the chance to work at the Fraunhofer Institute in ———

which was a very important step for me because I just went there for a workshop to learn how to use their software, the rendering they had developed and I came first came in touch with the 3D sound technology there and I was amazed by all the possibilities you have in a compositional way to use this stylistic device and of course connected with the huge technical effort and at Fraunhofer they had proper studios there with all the high class speakers and so on. So this was a really great opportunity for me to play around here and got an introduction there on how to use it all. I’d go home and prepare the compositions and I had a couple of days to go there and mix.

That led to me doing an internship at Fraunhofer for 6 months, I was hired as the beta tester for the spatial sound system they developed. So I had the opportunity to play more and more, I was testing the software in the studio for 6 months and with direct feedback and dialogue with the developers there who were right next door. This was super interesting.


At the moment I have a software developer running myself ——— .

Y: Going back to, when you were at the Fraunhofer Institute’s workshop you said you were amazed by that sound. So firstly, what was the difference between what you heard for the first time there and your low tech experiments with 8 speakers? What led you to this amazing amazement?

F: This preciseness of how the sounds were localised, this time they used the wave field synthesis system which is speaker after speaker in a line all around the room. With this you can also project sounds like a holographic sound a room that has no speakers. This was basically what was super impressive as a style of 3d sound technology. It was just a super precise localisation and it made me feel like the atmospheric periods of the movie that they showed, it made me feel like I was in that natural environment. Also, I was in this pure blacked out studio which had never seen daylight.


Y: But were you intimidated by the technology?


F: Yeah of course, I was a little overwhelmed but I felt it was nice to have the opportunity to work with this. At this time there were not a lot of studios, I mean this was even before the Dolby Atmos came out, there weren’t even big movie studios equipped with sound setups like this. Of course it was a bit overwhelmed by this technology abroad but on the other end it’s just speakers and wires and you just need to write rendering for it to make it sound good. That was probably the most interesting thing I found at Fraunhofer.


Y: So was this the moment where you felt that this is what you wanted to work with?


F: Yeah I would say so. During my time at the Fraunhofer Institute, after the 6 months, they were renewing their wave field synthesis studio and they threw out many of the speaker racks and they gave me some of them. This was the basis for me to build my first 30 speakers, almost from no budget because I had amazing material and I just had to cut the speakers and put some wires in between the amps and the speakers. This was basically the step to how I continue working at this level as a sound artist without any budget in these times. I could build this 3D sound system and play with it myself and on the other hand give the chance to other people to do this.


Y: You said when you first went to Fraunhofer, you had this wow moment, you heard some natural sounds and it almost felt like you were in nature. Can you talk a little more about it?


F: This was some atmospherics and some natural atmosphere which wasn’t present in the first ——— because you had sounds from all directions. Like ‘S’ you can hear when you are outside, its just the capacity of our natural hearing with the 2 ears. We are able to hear very particular directions with sounds so why not use it also for music and sound design. The other thing was some kind of drive or ride, it was an animated movie and the sounds were passing from left to right. I enjoyed this a lot and thought this was impressive. We have to use this for any kind of sound design and sound art, this opened a lot of new opportunities in the thinking of a composition for me.


Y: After that the first step is that you have all of these speakers that they’ve thrown and they gave some to you too, so what was your next step, what were you doing then?


F: First I went to Indonesia after my time at Fraunhofer. I was there with ——— guys and was getting more into my experimental music and soundscape stuff, it was super cool there because in Germany I didn’t have many gigs. But there I just jumped in and they were just handing me over from one festival or concert to the other and I had many gigs all over Java and also exhibitions within a very short time. I think I was there for 3-4 months so this was also a very nice experience.


All the speakers were laying at home, waiting to be rebuilt. Actually I had no idea when I would do this. When I came back I very quickly decided to move from Darmstadt to Leipzig and also wanted to start something, build a house community here with several friends and many other people. At the same time, this was 6 years ago, I also wanted to go to Leipzig because there was still a lot of space and empty houses there in the city. You could rent spaces here for a little money. We also rented an atelier here and then we were doing our Masters thesis with a friend of mine, Paul ——— (surname) . We teamed up because he was into arithmetic visual programming and video mapping sector and I was into the field of 3D sound, we heard of each other and teamed up for this project. We developed a concept for a sphere, dome structure with a 3D sound system in it and with a 360 degree projection surface which is mapped completely as one single structure and also with the actual system so the audience can somehow interact with all this sound and visual universe. That was actually a point when I wanted to use the speakers for the first time. I had friend who was a carpenter, he helped me cutting all the speakers, all the boxes. Then I had to modify the amplifiers as well, its like huge amplifiers for 8 channels in a box. I didn’t have much idea about the actual electronic circuits and stuff like this, I still don’t, so I went to the ——— here in Leipzig and they helped me out. Basically it was just soldering some connections to it but I always had some noise in the signals and so on. Of course I built something from something interesting and then while you rebuild and modify it, you also destroy some parts of it and then I had to fix it again. So this was the process and this project also took a lot of energy in just building the hardware and we had very less time for the composition and content creation.


Y: I think now in your career you’re moving into that part where you’re thinking about the content because you have spent all this time building something. Tell us what it is that you are looking for just in that sound when you were building it, at that point in your life when you were just building stuff in 3D. What were you looking for? What were you trying to achieve?


F: I think it was definitely wanting to do this on my own without any big studio or company behind me and I wanted to build a sound system. I could put some effort in and borrow one for this work or this piece, maybe borrow a proper sound system for free if I’m being sponsored. But in the long term or mid term, if we have a sound system that we can actually keep then we can always play with it and provide it. This gives us kind of a step ahead to many others and gives us extended possibilities also in the terms of providing it to others and working together with us. I think this was always in mind while building it.


Y: You kind of have this DIY approach, do you have any political agenda to it or is it like not wanting to work with big corporations or studios? Do you have some kind of ideology about that?

F: No, I have to say I’m not totally negating collaborations or work for any companies. Of course there are limits to what I would do. I would not do sound design for any weapon company. In this case I think I have my ethics or rules. My interest in experimental music is another reason because I felt it would take a long time for people like me or other sound artists to be accessible to others. This was a decision to make it possible earlier and not just when you are a sound engineer in some some studio and you mix something commercial but also to be able to see other people creating their own aesthetic and artistically valuable content.


Y: Let’s go back to when you were building this system and also at the same time you were working with a community in Leipzig. Let's talk more about that, what were you doing?


F: In Darmstadt I was living with a four friends. We rented a house with a garden a little out of the city. So this was always a meeting point or a big party house at this time but I realised that after some years. There I came up with this idea with some friends that now the studying time is over, what are we going to do next. Of course everyone was going to move away from Darmstadt because it's a fucking boring small city but we also kind of had good times together and everyone enjoyed living together.


Y: Also in the history of electronic music Darmstadt is an important place.

F: Oh yeah ———. Through my professor, Sabine ——— (surname), she is really into soundscapes and ———. But I still always had this feeling that this is such a small inner circle of people and probably they are used to have a lot but I didn’t have that feeling when I was there. Maybe I was also more focused in different fields at that time. My relation with new electro acoustic came in a bit later, the understanding of the seriousness and the relevance of history of music and art. But anyway, most of use really wanted to get out of Darmstadt and then we went to Leipzig. After 30 people wanted to join in from different circles at the end there were 4 of us living together. From there we very quickly dived into the scene of house projects here. There were already many houses like this so when young people or a crew wants to buy a house together to take it off the market because people were already running around Leipzig like crazy and buying houses. We were also kind of in the last minute to be able to do this because a couple years later it was impossible to buy houses like this with little money. We came here and we got a lot consulting from the scene on how to do it, how arrange the money, how to get loans for this. Then more and more people joined the idea and the project through the network here in Leipzig. Of course they connect each other if somebody wants to do a project like this and if there is a crew looking for people so you team up. Then we renovated the whole house in 2 years. Basically we were renovating an old house from the 19th century with 4 floors with 17 people who are still involved in the project. This was a community experience and at the same time I was teaming up with Paul and Markus was the third guy with whom we did the dome installation called Clink. I was working with them everyday in the atelier there while having the other crew having regular meetings to plan for the house once or twice a week. Then because we had to leave the old atelier I was looking for a new studio space and then we found the building where I am still at today. The wee started this atelier house community here because we found a nice industrial yard where we could rent around 1000 sq. m of space. Of course we didn’t need so much or afford it so we found more people who joined for different kind of workshops or studios. So a lot of people joined and Wisp Collective, that was Paul and me at the time, was growing and taking different developments. So these were basically the big community projects. Now I’m actually out of Wisp and the house project.




 


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