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"I hear a composition inside my head" - Johannes Schütt in conversation with Pratyay Raha

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Johannes Schütt talks about his journey as a music composer, sound artist and ambisonics researcher with his student Pratyay Raha. He takes us into the unknown worlds of Ambisonics technology and its evolution from the 1980s to the present day

This interview was recorded during Pratyay's artistic residency at ICST ZHdK in July 2023

P: How would you introduce your journey into ambisonics?

J: That’s an interesting question! I think it was around 1993 I first got introduced to the Atari computer and started working on the Csound software for audio programming. With my professor Gerrard Bennet I worked on an instrument which he built. It was a digital instrument built on Csound called MoveSound. It is a stereo-moving tool that simulates a circle in a stereo field. So you get an impression of sound moving in a circle even with two speakers. This was the kick-off point for me, it sounded so amazing I wanted to explore the possibilities of height and 3D sound. Then I started reading about Gerzon and I read his stories of ambisonics in analog of course. In the digital world, we started with Csound. There was an algorithm to calculate 3D sound movement in a shoebox system. So it was a slow beginning. It took a lot of time. We had this kind of a score to define parameters. The determination of the cartesian coordinates and the movement design of sound in time from say 0 seconds to 20 seconds took time. You can still find this algorithm online. The community is still working on ambisonics on Csound. One of the oldest electronic music communities of the world.

P: So, this was around ’93?

J: Yes, with the continued evolution of the tech henceforth.

P: When did Michael Gerzon start working with Ambisonics?

J: That was in the 80’s and it is well documented and there are writings on this, but I would say ambisonics was never popular or successful in the mainstream music world as it was protected by the universities at that time. During this time Dolby came into the scene and made the surround sound system commercial and made a lot of money. Everyone knows about Dolby Surround as it became popular with a monopoly but Ambisonics was in a sleep mode as it was not commercially viable. But now, it is open source for multichannel audio so it is being used by artists and technologists all over the world. Now multichannel B format files can be decoded into stereo, binaural, Atmos, 5.1 and every other format. Gerzon had this idea of metering the surround sound into this format called quadrophony. Then he told the BBC that it can be an interesting format.

P: For your practise, you were working with stereo format before ’93, what made you shift to ambisonics, what was missing in the stereo format?

J: This is very interesting, it was all experimental. I was always playing with the position of the speakers. Sometimes I was keeping the speakers in the front and sometimes putting them behind me. In this way, I tried to imagine what the sound would be like if there were more than two speakers in the room. I also kept it on the sides.

P: So you always had this sense of sound in space.. this was your driving force?

J: Yes absolutely, because stereo listening in a good room can be fantastic but without good acoustics it can be really artificial. I never like point sources. I am always interested in the shape, form, texture and movements of sound. If you sit in a forest, close your eyes and listen what happens around your head, it is very diverse and interesting. I wanted to create that in the studio or on the headphones. But, in the virtual world, abstract composition world, reality is not a factor. I made an 8 track piece on Atari, synced with the tape machine. During the concert, we played it over 4/6/8 speakers, it sounded good. It was experiments which evolved the idea of ambisonics. We had to record the decoded signal separately.

P: When you started, everything was analog? What was the hardware?

J: The recording was mono/stereo, I had a Tascam DAT machine which made it to digital sounds on Attari and viceversa. I played with tape machines. The tape machine was connected to the mixing console which went to the speakers.

P: Then what happened?

J: Then later came the macintosh but that system was not that evolved to handle this kind of operation. There was no plug ins. We also didn’t have recording devices like ambeo or zylia so everything was recorded in mono/stereo. Later we had the shift from analog tape machine to digital tape machine, it was ADAT or Tascam 8. We worked a lot with them. The machine became faster. We could go to a concert hall to test it and then did corrections. The decoding became better so we could make better recordings and playback in concert setups.

P: How has ambisonics technology shaped up your compositional intelligence in the last 10 years?

J: A lot, I think in 3d, I hear it inside my head and in the room. it gives me a better understanding of space and movement and texture. Each composer has a unique way of composing. If you also create a mono piece, we can play with the position of the speaker (if its one speaker or two speakers). When it is facing you the sound will travel directly to you, but if it faces the wall, you’ll listen to the reflection of the sound. When we are listening to a mono/stereo track, the sound will work in a particular way, then if you bring it to ambisonics it will sound totally different. The spatialisation is not only composition, it is also part of the narrative, it impacts the story-telling process. Sometimes I have the sounds, then I design it according to a room. On the contrary, sometimes I know the design and acoustics of a room and design the sounds according to it. It is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional process.

P: What do you think of the future of ambisonics?

J: It is difficult for me to say, I am small composer living and working on the margins. The trend is for Dolby atmos but it really depends on young composers. If they work with ambisonics, then it will evolve and this technology will become popular.

You are a composer and have been composing for so many years, but as I see the world changing so rapidly, and so many compositional tools and technologies.. for our compositions we are using variety of tools/machines which are built by other people, so at the end of the end I feel composition is always a collaborative process (direct or indirect), what are your thoughts on that?

I am open to every thought. I never had this feeling of being a master. Today’s world is about open source technologies. There is a chain of thought process that is behind every technology. It is not made by one person. I am concerned about a good piece, collaboration and team effort is important in that case. I hope the world moves more in that direction of open source technologies and collaborative environments rather than individualistic stardom and excessive commercialisation of music.

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