Art install to celebrate 100 years of radio brings calm to busy London thoroughfare

Art install to celebrate 100 years of radio brings calm to busy London thoroughfare
As part of the 100th anniversary of the first radio transmission of the BBC, sound artist Nick Ryan was among 15 artists who were asked to submit proposals for a commemorative art installation along a stretch of The Strand in Westminster, London.

The aim was to 'take back' an area congested with traffic and noise pollution by converting it into an environmentally friendly, culturally inviting space that would appeal to the 14 million people who visit the area each year. 

"I proposed the idea of a sound installation, and I was the only artist that suggested sound," Ryan recalls. Seizing on an opportunity to make a creative soundscape out of an area that had been historically riddled with traffic noise, Ryan thought "It was very interesting because the area had been known for noise, not sound," noting that St Mary le Strand — a church located smack in the middle of the Strand thoroughfare — was designed 300 years ago with no windows on the ground floor because even then, processional traffic had been so problematic.

"My idea was to use sound in a controlled way," Ryan explains. "Rather than changing it once every 300 years, I wanted the soundscape to change every second or every minute, and use a long, very sophisticated speaker array to animate the space through sound." 

After creating and testing several prototypes, Ryan created a linear sound array featuring 39 L-Acoustics 5XT coaxial speakers — each located 3-1/2 metres apart and set along a path within the newly pedestrianised quarter. Powering the array are ten L-Acoustics LA4X four-channel amplified controllers, each connected to an AVB network where they can be independently controlled. 

Ryan is one of 70 artists in residence at London's Somerset House, a former Royal Palace that has been transformed into a centrifuge for creativity and the arts. Located directly across the street from Somerset House, pedestrians can enter The VoiceLine at any point along the 170-metre path and experience bespoke soundscapes throughout the day and into the evening. The installation is also visually stunning, featuring customized brass enclosures that Ryan designed to enhance the visual aesthetic while protecting each speaker from the elements. Encircling each brass speaker enclosure is a 'light ring' that lights up whenever a sound emanates, providing a visual cue for the multi-sensory experience. "At night, they light up, indicating the behaviour of the sound and they look really beautiful," says Ryan.

In several of his VoiceLine broadcasts, Ryan has relied on L-ISA Studio to give him an added measure of control — particularly over elements such as panning and reverb. "VoiceLine is basically the unfolding of an immersive system into a line, and L-ISA Studio was instrumental in making the experience seamless. The idea is to create a "bubble of sound" that precisely overlaps each subsequentbubble of sound, and L-ISA Studio helps me render this seamlessly."

Speakers are positioned in a 'crisscross' fashion and played at a relatively low level, so there is no break in the linearity. "We get a very high-fidelity sound from the L-Acoustics speakers and using these in combination with the L-ISA Studio software, the fixed points of each speaker become imperceptible. The perfect overlap between each sound source makes it a continuous experience."

When he is composing and mixing some of the more challenging pieces broadcast across The VoiceLine, Ryan adds space and dimension using L-ISA Studio: "I love the immersive reverb," he says. "If I had time, I would use that reverb for everything because it gives this incredible richness to any sound source. It is genuinely modeled, and it sounds so different," he says. Ryan also appreciates the software's powerful panning and rotation faculties: "Movement from one speaker to the next is seamless, and the rotation function can be very useful when you want to move an object a full 180° — this capability doesn't exist in other immersive tools."

all images: Mickey Lee

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