The Wave Decay Sonotorium
Constructing an Octophonic Sound Environment
In August of 2016, I teamed up with Scottish artist Katie Anderson to build an immersive sound installation inside a ruined Victorian mansion in Southern Scotland. We got a few grants to help us fund the project and spent a few months getting permission from the owners, planning it, and building it. My main responsibility was building the amp and speakers that would create the sonic environment that we envisioned.
We intended that eight pure sine waves would play through eight fantastic looking speakers placed in different parts of the mansion and would put you into a dream-like state. Katie was in charge of building the giant sound horns that created the sculptural aspect of the installation. As I was reflecting on the experience of conceptualizing and creating this project, I wanted to explore my personal history with surround sound audio experiments and talk about some details about how I build the octophonic amp.
This history of the Wave Decay octophonic amp goes back to about 2011, maybe even further. For years, I’ve been inspired by immersive sound experiences and recordings that utilized the natural acoustic phenomenon of spaciousness. I had been wanting to create a device that would let me play with sound immersion ever since the first time I heard my guitar and voice running through a tape delay pedal and four guitar amps, bouncing around the circle of the band practice space I was in. That was in 2007.
The first real setup I created to achieve this goal was in 2011. I was living in Chicago and I was sharing a house with someone who was never home. There was also no furniture in the common spaces so I took over the living room as my experiment space. I owned a nice audio interface which happened to have a bunch on analog outputs on the back. I found a good eBay deal for practice amps and bought four of them, placing them around the room. Using long guitar cables for connection, I was able to play sounds in the four corners of the room. I played a couple of live shows with this setup but it was short lived because I moved shortly after that to California and had to get rid of the amps. It was a cool experiment but unwieldy. The cheap bass amps were heavy, didn’t sound that great, and required a lot of extension cords for all the power cables.
During my time in California, I continued my quest for a cool and economic surround setup. I was an avid thrift shopper in San Francisco and was able to obtain several bookshelf stereos. I no longer had a big audio interface with all the outputs, but I was able to combine a modest two channel interface with the stereo outs on my MacBook for a quadraphonic (four audio channel) output. I hooked two stereos up to my combined four outputs and put the speakers in four corners of the living room. I put a futon in the middle of the room, laid it flat, and listened to the original quadraphonic mix of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I had that setup in the house for 6 months or so and I listened to a bunch of quadraphonic and 5.1 mixed albums. There is surprisingly a lot of modern music that is released in a surround sound format. None of these releases really impressed me though. I wanted to experience something bigger and maybe something even multi-roomed.
I got a few tastes of other sound room experiences during my four years in San Francisco. There is an immersive surround sound experience called Audium that I went to that’s pretty inspiring. The whole place has a 70’s Star Trek vibe though the sonic composition that swirls around the 100-speaker setup was less than stunning. Despite that, the actual space is unique and incredible for an audiophile. Later, I revisited my old favorite sonic environment; La Monte Young’s Dream House in New York City. It was my third time visiting the Dream House and it was during a summer when there were actually two Dream House installations happening in New York. One was new and had been built in a HUGE room at the Dia art museum. I was luckily enough to see the minimalist composer La Monte Young play a concert in it.
The Dream House is probably what kicked off my obsession with immersive sound. The original space is a loft in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood. It consists of four huge speaker stacks in each corner and a light sculpture. The walls and carpet are all white but the sculpture gives the room a glowing neon purple vibe. The speakers play a constant drone of maybe 36 different musical notes that create a really wild harmony that La Monte heard in a dream when he was a kid. Over the years, I’ve laid in that loud room for multiple hours and the first time I visited it (March 2008?), one of my favorite musicians, Daniel Higgs, was there.
Anyway, in 2015, I was in Scotland working on another project when artist Katie Anderson took me to the amazingly beautiful ruined site that the Wave Decay Sonotorium exhibition was eventually held in. A Victorian mansion with no room and no floor. Crumbling walls and plants and trees growing everywhere inside the house. The central feature is the ornate Victorian fireplace that seems to hang in the air since the wooden floor is missing. As soon as I walked into the space I said “I want to do something here.” I immediately started thinking about how sound waves would bounce around that huge decrepit space. It turned out that Katie had been wanting to do a project there for years and thus was the birth of our installation.
Fast forward to 2016 and we received a few grants and permission to use the space. We got enough money to do the thing properly and make it beautiful, too. I started doing research at the beginning of 2016 on how I could build an eight-channel amplifier that would be loud enough to fill the space. Buying a commercial amp was out of the question because those amps are few and far between and cost almost a thousand dollars. Plus I’d always wanted to build an amp. Thanks to the help of some blogs and forums, I found exactly what I was looking for. A class-D amplifier circuit board that had four channels at 100 watts each. I got two and then went through a lengthy search for the correct power supplies to give me full volume. I had those things sitting inside a DVD player shell for months until it was finally time to build everything.
I sketched out a design for the amp case and ordered everything I needed to finish it. I got everything wired up a week before the wood arrived so for the first week of testing everything was sitting on top of a game board with all the wiring exposed. The speakers were still loose and just sitting on the floor. It didn’t sound great yet but it confirmed that all my research and effort had worked because all 8 channels worked perfectly with no problems.
Finally the wood arrived and I cut out all the sides and installed all the controls onto the faceplate and back plate. There are two switches and two power supplies. When you flip them on, an interior red light illuminates the inner workings and you can see the fans on the amp boards start spinning through the windows. I installed two vents on top so it doesn’t get too hot in there. The interface uses 8 phono type plugs into 8 separate mono channels with eight speaker outputs. There is no volume control. Essentially the amp runs at full volume and you attenuate it by lowering your input source, in this case a computer or a series of iPods.
The next step was to build the speakers which was actually much more building work than the amp. Katie and I spent a lot of time thinking about what they will be like, drawing them, making models, and finally building the final sound horns as we came to call them. The base of the sound horn was the actual speaker boxes. There are eight of them and so we started with an eight sided design. I had to cut out, stain, assemble, and wire all eight speakers which took at least a week of work. Then Katie went to work building the horns. That took even longer. While she was building, I was testing everything in the living room of another house to figure out exactly how it was going to work.
We had the amp and the speakers but now we had to figure out how to play the sounds we wanted for a few hours on a continuous loop. We started with eight ipods but realized that they weren’t going to work and then went through a tedious of trying different ways of getting eight channels out of the computer until I finally stumbled on a cheap audio interface made for DJ’s that had eight phono outputs. From there, I created an environment in AbletonLive that would generate the tones we wanted in real time.
We finished everything just in time. We were pushing up against our performance date so it was a bit of a rush to finish it all, but we did it. We installed everything in one day and then the next day we had a private trial run for close friends. This was actually one of the highlights of the whole experience. We planned a dinner party inside the installation. We invited ten local artist friends to come and join us for the first live experience and then we lowered the volume a bit and served a full three-course meal inside the ruined mansion while the dream induing sounds were playing. It was surreal to say the least. We figured we were the first people to eat a meal in the mansion in at least 80 years.
Finally on August 19, 2016, we opened the space to the public. For a weekend we ran the installation for full days. It was very exciting and rewarding. I was pleasantly surprised that almost all of the 70+ guests that came over the two days understood it instantly. I was a little scared that the whole concept was a bit too brainy and people would hate it but everyone seemed to intuitively understand that they could simultaneously explore the space and the sonic environment by walking around.
The volume was just loud enough to create a sound blanket over the whole house that made you want to be quiet and listen. Talking over the sound was a challenge so most people resorted to silent exploring which I thought was perfect. Everyone that I talked to remarked at how much the sound changed the feeling of the space and many of them said that they never considered how much sound could impact the way they feel. It was very rewarding, as these were some of the exact things that we were hoping would happen.
It was a total success though the sound horns didn’t really survive the weekend. It rained for half of one of the days and everything got very wet which was nerve-racking. At the end of one of the days, the speakers were full of water, looking like an old bowl of cereal milk. The speaker survived and the following year, Katie did a solo exhibition of the work with brand new sound horns made of metal that will surely last the years. The Wave Decay Sonotorium was a dream come true for me. I’m extremely grateful to Katie for introducing me to the space and for getting the grants and I’m extremely grateful to the artist community in Dumfries who supported and encouraged us. I haven’t heard the ambient sounds of the Wave Decay since 2016 but I dream about them regularly.
You can read more about the construction of our Wave Decay sound installation at Katie Anderson’s blog
You can also visit the Wave Decay Website with more photos and videos.
About the Author
Justin K Prim is an American gem cutter, artist, and musician living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has travelled all over the world, studying various types of meditation techniques and psycho-spiritual healing therapies, as well as his trade skills of audio engineering and gemcutting. He is in the process of publishing two books, the first is about a spiritual quest through the UK to find the hidden heart of Merlin the wizard, and the second is a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He spent over 10 years as a touring and recording musician while exploring careers in spiritual counseling and energy healing, but now works as a Gemstone Faceting Instructor in Bangkok as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.