Sound idea wanted for sound art
November 16, 2005 2:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm at a loose end with a sound installation project for Uni. I've been having a really bad year, I can't get enough sleep, I've got tons of other work to do, I'm sick of being a student, and I'm just not feeling inspired enough to even come up with a decent idea. The "idea" that I have come up with is laughable and is probably going to cost me a fortune, not to mention my degree. So any help would be appreciated.

Basically I've got to make some kind of sound-based art installation. Variable sensors (such as Light Dependant Resistors, bend sensors etc. rather than switches) must form a large part of the installation. For example, the variable resistance could be turned into a MIDI signal, which will control some kind of sound in a piece of software. Which is fine and dandy, but it's simple as hell and has no context.

So, what I'd like is for you to share any favourite sound installation artists you may have. Any contextual ideas, interesting (and reasonably cheap and simple) sensors you think may be worth using.

A few notes:
-I will most likely be using a reasonably old iMac for the software side of things.
-I would like to use video if possible, but I'm not sure how I would implement it.
-The cheaper and easier to make, the easier, as I don't have long left.
posted by iamcrispy to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: it basically involves three volumes of water, with liquid level sensors attached (which look like they're going to cost quite a bit of money) and then somehow (I haven't worked this out yet) you could change the amount of water in each volume. So essentially the level of liquid in each container would change a MIDI control signal.

However, there's absolutely no context behind this, it was merely a stab in the dark that kind of fulfilled, to my knowledge, the requirements of the hardware aspect of the piece. There would of course be a whole essay based on this, and there just isn't anything to say about the work that's going to get me a decent grade.
posted by iamcrispy at 2:29 PM on November 16, 2005

Would this be a public-type installation?

As I was reading this question I was taken by the idea of something people would walk by on their way (through the school, in the cafeteria, etc.) that responds to their behavior.

Say, based on how loud they are as they walk past it changes the transparency/brightness of a projection near them. Something interesting to project would be a video of themselves in the same spot or of other people in the scene, or a winamp type visaulization (which may also change based on volume). A pre-recorded video may also vary the number of people shown in the reflected scene according to how loud they are (quiet group = one person talking on a phone, loud group = video of a party).

Not sure it's where you're headed, but it was what formed as I read it...

Easy essay one, too.
posted by whatzit at 2:41 PM on November 16, 2005

This kind of thing is my bread & butter; you're going to definitely want to look into MAX/MSP for the software side of things, and some kind of adc for the signals - you could check out any of the following links for boards you can either make or buy, depending on your cash situation/skill set:

You hook the knobs/etc up to these boards, hook the boards into your computer, access the control feedback from MAX/MSP, and make it do weird things. I would strongly suggest that you figure out EXACTLY what you want everything to do asap; this is going to be a real bear of a project otherwise. And if you don't have experience with soldering/electronics, make friends with some electrical engineers. My email's in my profile if you want additional info.
posted by sluggo at 2:42 PM on November 16, 2005

Well, if you did want to go with the liquid thing why not use a ball cock as the sensor, tied up to some more conventional variable resistor thing? Heck, you could make a musical lavatory.
posted by edd at 2:49 PM on November 16, 2005

I love the musical lav. What a great idea.
posted by whatzit at 2:51 PM on November 16, 2005

I can only give advice on the software side, which is that Reason can do some incredible manipulation on it's built in synths with midi input, and you can do all kinds of chaining on it: For example having the volume of one synth control the pitch on another.

You don't really have to be an expert on the software either, just look up what all the cv inputs do on the back of the different units and kind of randomly wire things together.
posted by empath at 2:53 PM on November 16, 2005

Response by poster: funny that you should say that edd. That was my very first idea, and something I had to talked to my tutor about. But I wasn't sure if it would work out that well. Plus it'd seem a bit odd modding the Uni toilets.

Oh, and MAX/MSP is the software I would most likely have to use anyway, it's pretty much the staple program for the course I'm doing.
posted by iamcrispy at 2:59 PM on November 16, 2005

Okay, first this is weird. This marks the beginning of the assimilation of my life as an art grad student into metafilter. Second, you ask a question that attracts my man sluggo, who is also at my art school, and knows what he's talking about sound/electronics-wise.

I'm just sorta guessing at what your school is like, but why do you have to have an idea before you start working? I know you need a grade, but there would be nothing that would depress me more than trying to do an art project by going "okay, step 1, I need an idea. Step 2, I make that idea. Step 3, I get a good grade." Since it has to be sound, this strikes me as doubly weird. Most every musician I've talked to (in my life and here in the school of music) begins by working out a series of sounds they want to make. I think an idea, if it comes at all, comes later. I'm definitely in sluggo territory here, so I defer to my man. But I just wanted to bring that up.

Also, the first thing I thought of when you mentioned expensive liquid level detectors is that you may be bringing an elephant gun to kill a fly. I immediately thought of a fuel tank sender, which simply floats foam in gasoline and then by virtue of the angle of the lever the float is attached to determines the liquid level. More or less the same with a toilet. You may even be able to just buy those devices...

When I feel pressure to produce art, I always step back and start simple.
posted by Slothrop at 3:10 PM on November 16, 2005

Response by poster: Some great stuff so far, I think I'm coming back around to the toilet idea again. But I'd like to see what else people have to say.

Slothrop, I know exactly what you're saying, I've spent my whole time making art, music, sound, photography, whatever from an initial "wow that looks/sounds great, now I'll make something out of it", and it's great, I've produced some really great work which I'm so proud of that way. But it's so difficult to do it that way round on this course. I'm in my third year now on this course, and it's becoming ever more clear that due to the academic/intellectual element of Uni, there's just no way to get through it without having some sort of clear reasoning behind what you're doing. I'm on course for a 2.2/pass, with some really nice, interesting work, just without the necessary wordage to back it up. Whereas there are people whose work is frankly pish, and are doing better because they are so good at spouting the bullshit necessary to appease the tutors/external markers.
posted by iamcrispy at 3:38 PM on November 16, 2005

Instead of a water-level sensor, go roundabout: weight would vary directly with water level, so you could use a weight-controlled sensor instead. You would just have to rig your sound controller to respond to the output of an electronic scale; I know there are some manufactured to output via USB (we use these in archaeology to weigh [technically mass] artifacts).
posted by The Michael The at 4:05 PM on November 16, 2005

How about translating the ambient noise (or voices) into EQ-like bands and having those represented by columns/vertical jets of water?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:12 PM on November 16, 2005

Please forgive me for only answering the part where you ask for suggestions about favorite sound installation artists, but I thought you might find this interesting and very contextual. Jonathan Berger (full disclosure: he was the Resident Fellow in my undergrad dorm and a friend of mine) worked with famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly on an installation in Jerusalem where the sun's position and intensity controled the sound. Some more information is available

Good luck, and don't be afraid to try and find new contexts for different volumes of water. As several people have mentioned, there are a lot of indirect ways to measure water level.
posted by JMOZ at 4:41 PM on November 16, 2005

How about translating the ambient noise (or voices) into EQ-like bands and having those represented by columns/vertical jets of water?

That is a wicked awesome idea. The microphone would be your "variable sensor". To do the liquid levels, I'd use a pneumatic pump and individual bladder tanks for each column (hidden away somewhere soundproof). The bladder tanks should have two ports on the air-side. One should have an valve which bleeds off pressure to the room at a slow rate. The other should have a solenoid valve connected to your mac through some sort of USB interface (like this one). You program the solenoid valves to open when the microphone reads a set volume at each frequency. Size the bladder tanks so that when they are completely filled with air, the water level is at the top of the columns, that way you don't have to worry about the water spilling out the top. Use transparant tubes, and dye the water pretty colours. Go one step further and put a couple of speakers in the room, so everybody's whispers are shamelessly amplified. Name it something witty about not being able to hide one's impact on the world around us.

I would pay to see that.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:38 PM on November 16, 2005

Here's a better USB digital controller for Macs.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:45 PM on November 16, 2005

Here's a crazy idea (and I just might use it). It requires a bit of circuit bending, a computer/laptop with a MIDI input, and Ableton Live software, lots of wire and some momentary switches or something like it.

First, take any simple MIDI capable keyboard that you can find on ebay or in a pawn shop. Then, take out the keys. What you'll want to do is wire in for each key a switch. Now here's where it gets interesting. Do you want the things activated by people simply walking over them? Or do you want more active audience participation? Depends what you want to do. Maybe thin contact mics would work, as long as you put them under a flat surface.

Then, feed the MIDI output of the keyboard into the computer, run Ableton Live, and have whatever VST instrument(s) playing, and whatever effects you want to have.

Should be remarkably easy to do. Improvising simple switches that people walk on should be pretty easy, if you have the right stuff. Alarm sensors might be fun to use too.
posted by geekhorde at 7:46 PM on November 16, 2005

Or piezo discs. That might work too.
posted by geekhorde at 8:04 PM on November 16, 2005

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