ONES TO WATCH: Paul Oomen

The Institute of Spatial Sound

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It all began with an email. It was a booking request, but it had set itself apart from all the other requests with a small, yet decisive sentence. He was Stimming, a Hamburg-based artist, and he was being asked to do a show in Rotterdam at Blown Away Festival. So far, so good. "But then it said I would get to use a 4D sound system," Stimming recalls. The sender went on to ask whether he would like to have a look at the system first to make planning for the gig easier. "I was immediately interested," he says. "And then when I tried it out, it took all of about two minutes for me to be completely amazed." Stimming knew right away that what he was testing was something special. "It was really innovative."

  • Author: Gunter Ullrich
  • Photos: Georg Schroll, 4D Sound
  • Video: Ableton

It was 4-D sound. “Spatial Sound,” as its creator calls it. A new dimension of listening. One that embodied the ultimate sound experience.

That’s exactly what Dutch musician and inventor Paul Oomen was trying to achieve with his project. For him, it all began long before the organizers of Blown Away Festival sent an email. For Oomen, it all began with Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the field of electrical engineering over a hundred years ago. His work was an inspiration for Oomen. "His writings about space and its relationship to our surroundings fascinated me," Oomen says. He studied the work of Tesla, but mostly he concentrated on classical music. After that, he wrote operas. "The sound experiences I gathered in large halls inspired me even further." He wanted to know how an audience could be influenced by ample space and sounds. He was tired of club music, which usually comes from the front. Dolby Surround wasn't enough for Oomen either. "In real life, sound reaches our ears from every direction," he says. One need only walk down any old street to hear the subway noise below, the birds chirping overhead and the sound of cars driving by. "I wanted to transport that natural perception of sound into the club." Oomen tested his experiment on people, whose perception of music as a spatial experience mirrors his own. In short – he wanted to reshape audio excellence. Oomen began in 2008. In 2010, he concretized his first implementation. Then in 2013, Stimming got the book request.

Stimming's breakthrough came in 2008 with "Una Pena." Since then, the Hamburg-born artist has been making a name for himself in house music circles with Solomun and Adriano and their label, Diynamic Music. Stimming's live shows are impressive. He's not a DJ in the classical sense, not a DJ at all. He only plays his own music live. He represents a basic principle, he says. "I'm not afraid to show my emotions, nor am I afraid to incorporate them into my music."

Words like this must have been music to Oomen's ears – literally. For him, sound is primarily phycho-acoustic. The instant it passes through a listener's ears, it ceases being a physical phenomenon and becomes a product of human cognition and emotion.

If that sounds scientific, it's because it is. But such an "Oomen-ian" theory is important for understanding the work he does. He divided a room into 16 sections – behind a 16 meter-wide stage, by the way. A total of 48 loudspeakers – three per section – pounded the space. And all that in addition to the nine loudspeakers that were mounted under the floor. "This way, you listen to the space, not the speakers," Oomen says. The sound is more authentic and the emotional experience comes from all sides, not just the front.

The system is controlled using an iPad with a program that looks similar to the ones used by architects to design their structures. When Stimming holds his iPad in his hands, he’s designing sound structures.

“My first attempts at this were very difficult,” he concedes. “After four or five hours, I slowly started figuring out how I could correctly control the different elements.” Still, he says, it was frustrating at first, “because it quickly became obvious to me that the system was capable of doing far more than I had been able to get out of it up to that point.”

All he could do was practice, and then practice some more, because the same Spatial Sound system that frustrated Stimming in the beginning also excited him. “It revolutionizes the way we perceive music,” he says. The more he practiced, the better he got at using the system. Stimming recognized that simple sounds work best because the spatial processing that the system adds tot he sound becomes more clear. “I knew it would knock people’s socks off,” he says.

But when he tries out his new gig on a crowd for the first time, the people’s socks remain very snugly in place. They’re not at all knocked off, at least at first. A few people cross their arms over their chests, some film him with their smartphones and others have their eyes closed. Stimming starts his show at the piano, playing the first notes. “As a contrast to Spatial Sound,” he says, given that virtual sounds can also sound so authentic in a room. “So why not start with a real sound?” he asks.

He then switches from the piano to the mixing console, where he opens with a few virtual sounds from the iPad. He swipes them on to the different speakers. Sounds become music. They intensify into an experience and Stimming’s listeners also slowly start getting into it. Most close their eyes until the sound is penetrating their ears from all directions – under, over and everywhere. And they dance.

Directions become waves and it is impossible to define where they are coming from. But there’s only one direction that’s important to Stimming: “This system is very much a step forward.”

Oomen took the next step this October by opening the Institute of Spatial Sound in Budapest, a facility for research and creative production in the field of multidimensional sound. With its doors now open at Art Quarter Budapest, housed in a former brewery, the institute provides up to 20 musicians and researchers with the opportunity to take even further steps forward.