Adam Donovan on pyschoacoustics

Adam Donovan discusses his work Terra Aura at its exhibition at RIAT.Q21 in MuseumsQuartier Vienna in April 2016. Photo by RIAT CC-BY 4.0

Stefanie Wuschitz speaks to hybrid media artist Adam Donovan on his experimental work with sound. This interview is part of the Making Artistic Technology program at the Research Institute for Arts and Technology in Vienna.

Can you just tell a little bit about your background and how you started?

I grew up in far North Queensland in small mining communities. My father was a draftsman and I was often surrounded by technical drawings he was working on at home as well as the Industrial landscape right on the edge of some of the most remote parts of Queensland. I moved to Brisbane after high school and studied sculpture at Queensland College of Art, finished in 1994 where I explored ideas relating lensing and perception and became interested in technology and physics.

Did you have a mentor there or someone who inspired you?

During my studies Wendy Mills who was a part time lecturer had the most influence. Mills was making amazing installations using transparent and reflective materials and it resonated closely with senses of experience I was looking at. Along with her the theories of Jean Baudrillard resonated with me a lot as he talked about the death of art. I guess, in this sense because I became bored with painting, his theories were interesting as technology was proposed as one medium in which art could live on. It happened one day in the studio while I was asking myself why do I find lens objects so compelling Mills questioned me about the aspect of physics. So I was looking a lot at lenses, making these beautiful glass cast lenses, big ones. I started to incorporate mechatronics inspired by kinetic art works. First works dealt with the focusing of light, and I made a few of sun drawing machines, using large cast resin lenses, with these you could burn drawings in the grass using the focused rays of the sun. This concept of the lens evolved into thinking about other mediums of physics and led to investigations of sound as to me sound seemed like the ultimate intangible medium that I could possibly shape and sculpt.

How does our sense of hearing connect with the experience of your work?

Each work I make somehow involves using an aspect of acoustic physics that is normally impossible to hear in nature. The parametric speakers, for example can create sound at a distance away from their source. When it’s pointing at a wall, you really have the sense that it is coming from that location. Using this I can make a mirage or hologram of sounds that are disconnected from the visual side of perception. Through movement and motion I can create multiple illusions. I can tune a little pocket of sound up on the ceiling or I can amplify self resonance of an object say for example a pipe on a wall. It’s these types perceptual exploits of sound that I play with. People aren’t normally used to hearing sound that way, so for a lot of people when they hear that the first time, they say, ‘I didn’t really think you can do that with sound!’.

It is actually physical sound that you create? It’s not speakers that try to make a spatial sculpture? You are actually making it with these ultrasonic speakers, right?

Yeah, have you heard one before? If you give me a moment I will hook it up, then you get a sense. I just need to find some power.

Do you think that art can transcend limits that science faces? Because if you would do an experimental framework as a scientist you would have a lot of restrictions. Do you think as an artist you are more free in playing with these things?

Most research needs to be funded. And this is not usually done in leftist interventional way, it’s nice when it does but its not often. I’m reminded of the movie ‘Contact’ where Eleanor Arroway keeps getting rejected for funding, because she wants to listen for aliens in outer space and nobody takes it very seriously, and then of course through her persistence and struggle she finds an alien signal. I guess, that promise of finding new mediums in technology is very appealing to me but often during a research stage of such ideas people find it hard to grasp what it is I am trying to do and also because concepts sway between real physics and artistic concepts there is a very narrow field of people who get it at all.

So you try to get a new effect, a new innovative result, right? That’s not been there in science, right?

Well, it’s a combination of sciences that no one has really combined. I try and take aspects of research, for example, I use some spoken word based on early audible Rorschach test, like an ink blot test, but for sound. This was done by making vowel sounds like ‘a’, e ‘o’, ‘i u’ and was played via a repeating record player to multiple workers to try and trigger latent speech.

For standardizing loudspeakers?

No, this was a psychological test, like a Rorschach test. It was an attempt to have a type of mass psychological test.

Aha, ok, so about what you hear in the sound?

It was based on the idea of latent speech, so when we hear repetitions of certain sounds it can trigger a spoken response.

If you make these random vowel sounds then maybe people will be invoked to think of a certain latent memory. I actually tried it with this once with Curious Tautophone. It’s unusual to have a robot at acts as a physician who tries to administer a type of medical music. In this work I used both the audible inkblot test contecpt and also the spatialization of sound within the space to add another element of perception. There are a lot of perceptional tests done with spatialization but the parametric speakers use within this at the time was unusual.

So, how do you do testings then? With the big scientific tools?

No, this is just audience participation. Just seeing cause and effect on people. In some cases the robots record the responses so I can listen to what people thought about during the test.

Did you study Psychology too? Because you are so much into perception.

Not officially though I do independent research in which I try to find novel approaches for sensory stimuli. Psychophysics would be the closest related field to the cause and effect on the body and mind that I am interested in. The overlap between science and sound is closer than you might think. For example some songwriters incorporate tricks within songs to yank on your emotional feelings. Within pop culture an example would be Adele — Someone Like You that uses appoggiatura which is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. This creates a strong cycle of tension and release..and then you know..can makes you cry. And this is in essence what I combine with the scientific research.

It’s very subjective, the hearing, right? It’s something that scientists have a hard time with, right? It’s so much connected to the will.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Thats one aspect using robotics as a physician is interesting as it brings in an uncanny effect while removing in some aspects human interference.

So you are talking about the problem of funding in leftist experiments, but didn’t you do a collaboration with the Maritime Operations Division? That must have been very expensive labs there, right?

This was a pilot program developed by an Australian organization called ANAT (Australian Network for Art and Technology). Amanda McDonald Crowley approached me about the idea and latter I worked with Julian Pearce who organized for me to be able to work with the Maritime Operations Division, because they had the equipment I needed to be able to test parametric speaker design. At the time you couldn’t buy any parametric speakers back as it was before the technology commercially available. This is also important in my work as I am enticed by researching and creating new effects that while theoretically possible have not been made available to the public. In a more simplistic explanation it’s like finding things that could be a new medium and I try and claim that for artistic purposes before it becomes something known and mainstream. This is effect what happened to the parametric speaker development. I often get asked “what are these parametric speakers used for” and seeing as I make them and worked on development I can say well they are used for my artwork rather than say they are a point sale devices for different toothbrushes in shopping malls.

So, the organization is hooking up artists with the right research institution that they need?

Yes, this is still ongoing. You have to find someone to work with and then apply together.

Aha. But isn’t this the military? Actually?

That was a defense research facility, yeah.

Are the using it for faking enemies or something like that?

No, actually they didn’t believe me that this would work. I spent most of the time convincing them, that it’s going to work. I was able to use their equipment and had their assistance to run a type of frequency modulation to drive to ultrasound. We made two prototypes. The first one burnt out. I heard it but between hearing it for the first time and running off to find one of the scientists the device broke, so they didn’t get to hear it still — it burnt out just before they got there. And I thought ‘Oh no!’, cause then they still didn’t believe me.

How many prototypes did you build before you came up with the last, the recent model? Is this the same one that you develop there?

This is all fairly standardized now. I’m using a mixture of prototype boards and emitters from different companies but use the soundlazer pro amp to drive them as it’s the only amplifier that allows for programming the different audio preprocessing algorithms used to make these speakers sound good. I construct some of the emitter modules and still play with new designs but most of the time it’s cheaper to just buy them.

This is the amplifier?

Yes, this this the soundlazer Pro amplifier by Richard Haberkern, which is a really nice D-class amplifier, it has also an analog devices programming port here. It has a small but powerful DSP chip and with that DSP chip you can make your own algorithms and high pass low pass filters, all sorts of things.

What are you using to program it?

It’s called SigmaStudio. It’s like a drag and drop thing a bit like maxmsp or matlab.

Did they in the end see you as a scientist, after you left there, did they approach you on eye level at the research laboratory?

I guess I left before the prototype was actually working, we were still finishing what we were doing, that had to come later. But we since talked after I left. I mean, they did not invite me back there, but, you know, I’m not sure anyone was able to go back there. When I was artist in residence there ‘9/11’ happened, it was a major lock down and it was even tentative that I could continue. I had to stay home for one week. But then I got back in.

They must have been suspicious about anyone who came in from outside. How much time does go into researching the physics and the structure, designing the structure and actually making and fabricating the piece? Or does it oscillate between fabricating and trying it out?

I have quite a few things that I’m working on simultaneously … and sort of doing and more completed things, everything is in some kind of flux or redesign. The one you see here i’m working on making it battery powered while also replacing some of the circuit to match the amplifier to make the beam louder. Some things are slow to develop as I have constantly retool my studio to be able to make the parts, for example now i’m working on a 4th a 5th axis for my CNC milling machine to be able to manufacture prototype horns for the ultrasonic emitters.

So you do something and do it again?

I’m usually pretty methodical when I am going to make something new. I work out the design as best as I can and then hone the manufacturing techniques to make it. I do a lot of metal machining, but also plastic making, casting, for all these gears and horns as well. Some of the speakers have horns on them that amplify the ultrasonics even more. Each robot sound work ends up being functional as closely as I can get it to my concept and through each new work I discover new ways sometimes just by accident and then that often determines what I am going to do next.

And you create it here in this workshop, you make everything? The plastic, too?

Most of it, yes, as I don’t want to be limited to outsourcing and more importantly I very much enjoy the process of creating these works. The plastic casting I don’t do down here, because it’s too smelly and toxic.

How many prototypes do you build before you have an exhibition?

Most of the artworks I create with specific scientific test in mind and they exist each in their own right as an artwork, musical and scientific instrument. It’s fun to show them one at a time and talk about the device and what it does. I then swap in and out different devices for my artwork ‘Psychophysics Machines’ which is now 6 robotic artworks. It was originally two and it keeps increasing. I can interchange them, whatever I feel like doing with them.

And you can play them all at the same time? It must be a really overwhelming sound experience if they play all at the same time.

Yeah, they get signals based on tracks that I lay out on ‘Ableton’, that’s one way I do it. The other way is having synthesizers as well. So I’m mixing in synthesizers and I also have knobs for the movement, for the robots and also sequences. Sometimes I do feel like I need an extra pair of hands lol.

So it’s really a composition piece?
And you use this psycho test to play sound on this?

I guess I extend the idea of these tests with music like I was talking about before with pop culture. At this point i’m more focused on creating an experience where the focus is on using these “new tools” for creative expression. As a performance you still have the effects of the spatialization. The content is usually my own meanderings, for example, ‘Cycling robot’ is one composition based on re remembering or re imagining riding my BMX bike through a place called Weipa in far north Western Queensland that I used explore at the age of 10. In this I picture myself riding over gravel dirt roads, going past cicada insects then passing through some big industrial machines. It’s an abstract piece in the end, a journey if you like, some kind of landscape of sounds.

So how do people react? Do they grasp the content behind it or is it for every one an individual experience?

It definitely makes people really inquisitive. People wanna go up and look around each object during the performances. Which actually has an effect on them. It’s better when everyone lies down, because as soon as it hits something it doesn’t hit anywhere else, so it can’t reflect and create the resonance anywhere. So that’s kind of interesting. The room dynamics can change quite quickly, if people get up and walk around or lie down. But people, I think, find it quite meditative what I’m doing. There are some dramatic moments, but it’s for the most part meant to be this emotional ebb and flow that you can quite put your finger on. I don’t want to necessarily dictate what you are feeling, it should not make you feel something in particular, but be abstracted away even on another level from that.

I guess it’s like being in the mother’s womb and having all these sounds around and not knowing where it is and what it is, not knowing where it starts and where it ends.

Yeah, something new.

Can you explain again what a parametric array is?

Yes, it uses high pressure ultrasound to distort the air in front of it. So there is a column of between a 120 decibel and 140 decibel of Ultrasound. And because it is many speakers it creates this parametric effect. Which is the size of the wave lengths, if you multiply them big enough and get enough devices you get the waves to propagate planar..It’s only a small beam width of about 3 degrees. The speaker is pressurizing the air so hard, that the air doesn’t have enough time to uncompress back. So you are actually creating these hard slams, but in audible range, so that’s why you can create audio in these pockets of high pressure ultrasound. You are actually pushing layers of air. It’s kind of like a supernova, which blows up and then slams back down on the core and then expands very rapidly . And that what’s happening in the air in a way. It hits hard, doesn’t relax to its natural state and gets hit again.

It must be a nightmare for a bat, an ultrasonic sensitive animal. A dog?

Dogs are actually not too bothered by it, I mean they can tell immediately where it’s coming from. I have done experiments at my window. You can make a sound that no one else is hearing, but the dog will keep looking back at it. They love to play, it’s kind of like a laser pointer for them. You can put on cat sounds, I really did that. Putting the sound up the corner and say: ‘Where is the cat?’..’over there!’…They are really inquisitive..But I didn’t try it on bats, it might be a bit cruel.

But does the military use these kind of things for their own purposes now?

Well, in the United States the militaries does.

They have something called L-RAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), but actually it’s not ultrasound. It’s actually just a well designed horn loudspeaker in an array of 8. This is again a parametric effect, but in an audible range, it’s a range of about 8 kilometers. But you do hear it if you are standing next to it.

How far is yours reaching?

This one I would say 200 meters in the right conditions.

If there was rain, it would not work?

It would definitely make sound… the distance would deteriorate a lot. You would hear it on the rain as well.

And underwater?

These don’t work underwater though, definitely not waterproof.

But we played around with some of those in the water tanks in the military. This special kind of piezoelectric film called PVDF, I had a version of them with the parametric speakers as well. But you do need to make an enclosure for underwater. They mostly use them for microphones, same effect, but in reverse.

To get more precise air pressure changes?

They beam out ultrasound using an array and then pick up the reflections using another array, they can create a sound image using this technique. They use these polymer film with electrodes on it and they form it into shapes, that will form sound pixels for ultrasound which allows them to image things like the shape of a vessel or and sometimes propeller shapes.

Weird. They use it as torture instrument?

It will blow up your hearing when you are too close, when they turn it on loud Because, it’s, I think it’s 160 decibel or so. You know, a space shuttle taking of is 175 decibel. But the big one I’m making on a tripod that is 6 meters wide and has 10.000 ultrasonic elements on it. It will have the sound pressure level in the ultrasonic range of 175 db for comparison the space shuttle taking off is about 220 decibel. The acoustic physics principles works because, you have the principle of the parametric effect which gets louder the more elements you have, you could call it an accumulating effect. When the sound beam is 6 meters wide, then you can beam sounds off different layers of the atmosphere so you can imagine, doesn’t matter where you are standing, all of the sudden you hear sound coming directly above you from the sky. And it will only be for a few hundred meters in a localized area. This is continuing this idea of psychology and in the case is a type of mixture between an invisible Land Art project and Psychogeophysics , having an effect, affecting people in these localized clusters. It’s just for them, it’s an impossible situation. That’s what I’m working towards now, trying to get funding to do.

To do an impossible setting, a naturally impossible setting. But every ultrasonic loudspeaker, must have an electric field as well, doesn’t it add up, don’t they disrupt each other? Amazing that they are all synchronized.

Do you see the white marks on these ultrasound emitters? So what you have to do with every ultrasonic transducer is match the phase and mark them. This is done using an ultrasonic receiver at a fixed distance away. Using a Pulse Width Modulation signal and an oscilloscope you look at the phase for each emitter and mark them so you know how to place them on PCBs. And of course it affects how flat the device is too. As far as optimum mathematics it should be of course as flat as you can get it. So they are all in phase as closely as possible to get the most sound pressure.

They need to be parallel.

The wavelength of ultrasound is quite short and any deviations in phase alignment causes a reduction in the parametric effect. I am considering for the large array to use a technique that uses piezoelectric actuators to tune the overall flatness thus increasing the phase alignment as best as possible. They use the same technology in some Very large telescopes, which is this big group of mirrors which are all tuned by using piezo elements to get that last adjustment.

That already exists this kind of piezo system.

Yes, they use such a technique for the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Chile’s Paranal Observatory.

For further information on Adam Donovan’s art practice, visit his website at His work is featured in the upcoming exhibition 0FF5N0FF at Memphis in Linz.