Sound as art at the Saatchi Gallery

Sanctuary Julian Abrams
Photo credit: Julian Abrams

Audio and visual immersive technologies combine at the Saatchi Gallery to create a one of a kind album experience in a 3D space. Reece Webb reports.

Beyond the Road is an immersive exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London, allowing visitors to experience an album, produced by trip-hop group Unkle in a physical, 3D environment.

The project was created by Unkle’s James Lavelle alongside Punchdrunk’s Stephen Dobbie and Colin Nightingale, working independently from Punchdrunk on this project.

Stephen Dobbie worked as the sound and graphic designer for Beyond the Road. He explained: “Colin and I were talking about music and how we can re-contextualise it, how we can allow people to experience music in a different way.

We wondered, if we had access to the recording stems of a piece of a music, would we be able to deconstruct it and then reconstruct it in a three-dimensional space so you could walk through it.

“At the same time that this was developing, James Lavelle and Unkle were coming through with some new music, it sounded layered and rich in a cinematic sense, so following a listening party for Unkle’s album, The Road: Part One, we explained the idea and they were into it.

We did an experiment, played it back to Unkle and asked if we could have a few more stems from the album allowing us to expand it a bit further.”

Dobbie and Nightingale held a sharing party, inviting Wayne Powell from d&b audiotechnik and Philly Adams, senior director at the Saatchi Gallery, eventually leading to Beyond the Road finding a home at the Saatchi Gallery.

The exhibition featured several spaces of various sizes, with a large screening room with 16 speakers and Epson EB-L1755UWUXGA laser 3LCD Projectors.

Various small-medium sized rooms and structures housed various art installations with d&b speakers, as well as a large room with a large wax table and a church installation called ‘The Sanctuary’.

Sanctuary 2 Julian Abrams

Dobbie added: “We had speakers around the walls of the gallery itself, but in each of the smaller structures, we would have a smaller speaker as well, so we could be quite specific about what sound was playing inside and out.”

The exhibition relied heavily on audio to create an immersive experience that complimented the exhibits, with d&b audiotechnik providing a range of d&b audio products for the exhibition.

Beyond the Road used d&b’s Soundscape as Colin Nightingale, Beyond the Road creative producer explained: “Soundscape technology allowed us to do the spatial sound design. We created a special projection screen in the screening room which we used to project on to both sides. We fully utilised Soundscape in that space.

“It was very important for us to move that sound around visitors in that environment, because people will be seated watching the screens while the rest of the time, you’re essentially mixing the sound by moving through it.”

Other d&b products were installed, as Wayne Powell, d&b audiotechnik clarified: “There’s the DS100, Enspace and Enspace plugins, 40 E5’s, 30 E8’s, 30 E15subwoofers and DS10’s to help create our Dante network and control network as well as 18 amplifiers.

“They were situated all around the space, almost every corner in the exhibit had an Amp rack with networking and control access points.”

A video installation, entitled ‘The Sanctuary’ by Doug Foster, is housed in a church structure and formed one of the integral centre-pieces of the exhibition.

Using an Epson EB-L1755U15000LM WUXGA Laser 3LCDprojector to create a pseudo-spiritual experience as Nightingale explained: “The projection is reflecting on a water tank in front of the church screen, creating mesmerising, hypnotic, swirling image.

“We also deconstructed the sound across the whole floor, using ethereal strings and voices we found in the stems in the church space to bring a spiritual feeling to that environment. Some of the audience spend a lot of time kneeling down in there.”

Satore Studio used Hypervsn’s3D displays to create ‘Eriya’, a holographic dancer who periodically appears behind a mirror hidden in the exhibit, creating a ghostly, ethereal feature that can be easily be overlooked by unobservant visitors.


Tupac Martir, founder and creative director of Satore Studio said: “The mirror is a double sided mirror, behind it is six fans of Hypervsn all in sync, receiving its own data and receiving its own trigger from the main system, which then triggers a custom code that was made by us to get data, receive the signal, transform that signal into the system and then send the system out.”

Balancing technical prowess with creative freedom meant that d&b had to approach the installation in a new way.

“The way we presented the sound in this installation is pretty much how we hear the world around us.” - Stephen Dobbie, sound and graphic designer, Beyond the Road 

Powell: “Some of the speakers were pointed at the ceiling, which is not the usual application, not direct sound, but this is how the creators wanted to create an ambience. Using the space as well as our technology.

“We are used to bringing lots of speakers and flyers into a space, so we took a workflow from alive touring background, we did what we do on a live show. We took the floor plans and all the information we had, and we designed a system in our software, making a lot of design choices in our software.

Considering how far removed this event is from what a live gig usually is, our skill set meant that we could hit the ground running.”

As an art project, it was important that the kit did not impair or influence creative decisions. Dobbie: “There’s a huge amount of work that was done prior to installation, just to make sure that the system had been designed in a way that it would allow us to do everything that we wanted to do.

“There were a couple of compromises along the way. We wanted individual and discrete control over every single speaker, but some of the spaces didn’t necessarily need that, so some speakers were paired up.”

Powell added: “We needed to help as much as possible, but not make any creative choices for the creators. The biggest challenge for us was giving them them a blank canvas, helping them as much as possible with the design and decision-making process but without them feeling like that we were impeding any of their creative decisions.

By putting speakers in place and understanding where they’re going gave them lots of flexibility, but that itself is a challenge. When you’ve got a gig, you’ve got a stage, you’ve got a single focal point that everybody is looking at.

Structure Julian Abrams

“Considering how far removed this event is from what a live gig usuallyis, our skill set meant that we could hit the ground running.” - Wayne Powell, d&b Audiotechnik

“The challenge was not knowing where that focal point was in every room and leaving things open while trying to do as much work as possible to get ahead.”

The sound design also had to be delayed until the space could be built. Nightingale: “The sound design is bespoke for the environment we’ve created.

“With using a gallery, there was minimal time to get into the space. We originally asked be on site fora month but that got squeezed down to just under three weeks and we built the walls, installed the cabling, audio and most of the lighting in the space in five days.”

Dobbie closes: “There’s something in the way that we distributed the sound; you hear something coming from down a corridor or something from behind you, which felt like a very naturalistic way of listening to music.

“Normally, we listen to music in headphones, or between a pair of stereo speakers. but the way we presented the sound in this installation is pretty much how we hear the world around us.”

Kit List

Brightsign HD224 media players

d&b audiotechnik E5, E8loudspeakers, E15subwoofers, DS10audio network bridge, En-Scene software

Epson EB-L1755Ulaser projectors

Hypervsn 3Dholographic displays

Cockos Reaper software