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Sonic Pixels

An evolving sound installation, revived for Manchester Science Festival 2018

James Medd

Lab Engineer, The Landing

29/10/2018

In October of 2017, Cornbrook Creative – an artistic collective of creative technologists and tinkerers

– put together a farewell show for their old studio in Manchester’s Talbot Mill entitled A Grand Exposition. Part of Manchester Science Festival’s 2017 programme, A Grand Exposition was billed as being ‘a contemporary blend of Art Fair, Fun Palace, Science Salon and Techno Theatre – a nod to ‘The Great Exhibition’ of 1851 – the first international exhibition of manufactured products to showcase technical and creative innovation’. Here at Salford Eagle Lab, we were excited to participate by helping Cornbrook Creative to build a new commission from MSF, known as Sonic Pixels.

As the name suggests, Sonic Pixels merges sound with the concept of pixels on a computer display, each one having a pair of co-ordinates and a colour. In Sonic Pixels, the pixel coordinates relate to the position of a speaker module in physical space, with the pixel’s colour triggering a corresponding sound. This allowed audience members to ‘paint’ soundscapes using an iPad interface, before walking through a 36M2 area beneath a grid the speaker units hanging from the ceiling of the historic mill.

Between Cornbrook Creative, Eagle Labs, and local technologist Chris Ball, we designed and built 25 units, each compromising a 1W amp and speaker, SD card reader and audio decoder, a micro:bit, and a pair of WS2812B RGB LEDs (diffused through the edge of the units) allowing us to trigger different sounds and colours using radio signals. The effect was quite remarkable, transforming the empty mill room rural field during the dawn chorus, or a Columbian quarry, complete with blasts, laughter, and music.

For 2018’s festival, the Sonic Pixels have undergone a makeover. Adding an additional dimension to the installation, soundscapes can be animated, by playing back a series of frames in succession, using a revised application. Each unit now contains a new, totally bespoke PCB: a prototype of Codebug’s new Wifi-enabled board, with all of the previous features on-board, plus a Wifi chip and increased memory. To test the capabilities of this new units, Cornbrook Creative invited composers to create new works for the system, including Gemma Nash, Jaydev Mistry, and the Owl Project.

The debut outing these new units was in Barton Arcade, a visually striking, Victorian shopping arcade in Manchester city centre. Each composer responded to the space, from earwigged conversations in coffee shops, to resonant frequencies from the cracks and creaks of the arcade overnight, and archive material from the suffrage movement (shopping arcades were one of the first places women could go without a male chaperone). The public also had an opportunity to paint and animate their own soundscapes, and provided valuable feedback for a project that looks set to visit several other locations throughout 2019.

Salford

James Medd is based at Salford Eagle Lab

Eagle Lab @ The Landing provides co-working space, access to expert mentoring networks, funding partners, event space and Digital Fabrication.

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