Fabrication & Narrative: SWARM


As part of the audience experience, we wanted to provide a narrative hook for the participants who would be using the machines in our sound walk. We decided to tell people that our machines were in fact abandoned soviet technology from the 1920s, that we had been researching and investigating the original purpose for this technology and discovered it was a way of measuring and interrogating the light in cities (with the coming of Russian electrification ) through noise. We imagined an alternative existence where sonic culture had become the dominant culture and sense over the visual, the very antithesis of ‘occularcentrism’, where sound was the medium of measurement.

Having finalised our circuit design, we worked with The Invent Hive who supported us in the schematic layout and final PCB design (thank you), ready to be sent to manufacture, we eagerly awaited their return for first tests.

The start of January was our residency at Fondazione Mondo Digitale in Rome, a well resourced fablab, wonderful art, technology and education centre leading on Rome Media Art Festival. Our focus for this stage was designing the control panel and interface for the machines.

As a nod to the Russian futurists we decided that any normal text or labels on the control panel would be written in cyrillic. We knew this would be indiscernible to most participants, but this was intentional to fit with our ‘abandoned soviet technology’ narrative. This tactic had some interesting outcomes which will be discussed in the next blog post.


Following Rome we headed straight to BBC Media City in Salford! Working at Eagle Labs  to develop the 3D printed speaker section for our sculptures. The detail and level of precision that went into aligning our PCB, components, Control panel interface and speaker section were crazy, but we somehow managed to get all these parts synced for them to work as prototypes for the first festival walk.

Working with 3D print was an interesting experience. Our intention and design was that the entire machine sculpture would be 3D printed to house the electronics. However we found that each machine would take up to 25 hrs to print, with the SPECTRA Festival deadline looming and limited time, we had to opt for plan B, to 3D print the speaker chamber and house the electronics in bespoke wooden enclosures. It was a race to the finish, with marathon soldering days to complete the 10 machines in time for their first outing at SPECTRA Festival.speaker

Sound walk & location tests Bristol

We have been out and about around Bristol city centre exploring potential routes and area locations for our sound walks. It’s been really good to think about this in a city unfamiliar to us as it has meant we don’t have previous knowledge or preconceptions about areas of focus so we have been assessing these areas based on sonic parameters.

Here are a few of the locations we’ve considered and an explanation of different ways these could be interesting from a lighting input or sound input/output.

The Bearpit

Transit zone area, large intersection point. Interesting architectural levels (and circular!), imagining people playing noise machines at different heights. Lots of differently coloured lighting within the main walk through and four underpass walkways leading into central busy location with lots of cross movement of people with different brightness’s.  Plus buskers.

Walk up to and inc. St Nicolas Steps

Historical area, old markets and winding streets with differing brightness. Walk up to this area along main road, with light from passing cars and flashing pedestrian crossings. Leads into city walls area.

City walls/Back alleys

Walking to this point down very dark back alleyways (creates low oscillations), navigating through alleyways and coming out into brighter pedestrian zones. Changing architecture and the idea of taking the path less explored.

Cenotaph and Skateboarders

Wide open public space with ambient lighting in centre with outer edges/trees containing different coloured lighting on public water sculptures. We liked the element of the public congregating here,  especially the skateboarders and the sounds of the wheels, turns and jumps reverberating around the architecture – great for sampling.


Factors in choosing an interesting location/route:

  • ·    Variance of light including colour, brightness and rhythms
  • ·    Sonic borders – moving from historic darkly lit alleyways into brightly lit streets
  • ·    Architecture – materials/surfaces
  • Public meeting space
  • Historical/cultural

Next post will be findings from our first user testing with the New Talent Residency artists.

Technical Development SWARM

Previous to our PM Studio residency we had undertaken an intensive Innovate UK funded R+D period to develop our Noise Machines for and with electronic musicians to test out interdisciplinary modes of performance with light. As well as developing eight new Noise Machine circuits throughout the project, one key strand had been developing our education offer through refining our DIY Kits. These kits are our A1 light Theremin kits and this year we have worked with over 400 participants to create their own take away Noise Machine. Through working with many age groups and in different settings we found that in each session individuals in the group would begin to improvise with each other, there was organic collaboration within the sessions and we were constantly surprised by the easy entry level and satisfaction participants got from the sessions as a way in to music making.

We became interested in how each person with their kit produced one single tone and how on mass the harmonic content multiplied to create a wall of noisy sound, each individual contributing to the whole noise floor.

It is these DIY kits that are the starting point for the PM Studio residency tech development. Each kit works using a digital logic 40106 IC Chip with the potential of producing 6 square waves.  We are aware of how these sounded on mass – loud and for some; fairly harsh sounding frequencies! With the prototypes we are building at PM Studio for SWARM, we wanted to include a range of waveforms which would enable us to test out not only different wave shapes, frequencies and harmonic content but how these operate on mass and in different spaces. Our new modules use op-amps and therefore output three analogue waveforms ; a square wave, a triangle wave and a sine wave, all responsive to light. This represents the oscillator/waveform side of our circuit and unit

The other aspect to our circuit is the inclusion of a sampler. Using a fairly lo-fi sampler chip and an electret mic we can sample between 8-20 seconds of environmental audio, this audio can be looped, played as a one shot and the pitch varied with light.

These two areas of the circuit represent technically what we are looking to explore acoustically and collaboratively; the oscillator section will send frequencies out into the environment and the sampler section will receive acoustic information from the environment, this represents our idea of the participants of the sound walk being involved with a sonic dialogue with their city. Sounds will be influenced by the architecture of the built environment for example the reverberations of particular building materials and the physical structures such as domes, arches or flat surfaces as well as light and the public who are within the space. We are working towards a methodology on our location choices, routes and designing a user experience for the walks.

We have been deep in tech development/making a mess in the maker area at PM Studio and progress is good! The circuits will have a mixer section and ampilifier and an inbuilt speaker that will be fairly directional, the portability means users will be able to direct and position the machines towards different light sources and project sound in different configurations as individuals or collectively.

Next steps are to make multiples ready for testin with human beings in January, we are currently sketching up our PCB designs and layouts.

Pervasive Media Studios Residency: research/beginnings

We are developing a piece called SWARM, a soundwalk in a variety of European Cities where audiences play our portable Noise Machines that respond to light and sample the environment. The work will appear in 2018 at Rome Media Art Festival, SPECTRA Aberdeen and Article Biennale, Norway, as part of ENLIGHT: European Light Expression Network with Curated Place and Fondazione Mondo Digitale.

At PM Studio we are exploring

  • audience interaction and experience
  • devising sound walks in cities and production considerations
  • conceptual framework for the work
  • technological development and fabrication (this element is supported by Fondazione mondo digitale and Eagle Labs)

Research Beginnings and Conceptual Framework

To begin our PM Studio residency we started thinking about the conceptual framework and our motivations to create this work through a series of questions. What is it we want to explore about sound in cities, the use of public space, and working with communities/audiences …. is there a message?  Through studio discussions we started to identify some key thematic areas we need to research to inform our methodology and approach. Here is our growing reading list…

  • Background Noise: Brandon le Belle
  • Max Neuhaus: Tuning Space
  • Bernhard Leitner: PULSE
  • SOCCOS: Tales of Sonic Displacement
  • The Politics of Public Space: Routledge
  • Delierium and Resistance: Gregory Sholette
  • The Production of Space: Henri lefebvre

Thematic Research Areas

  • Urbanism, gentrification and community displacement

How do decisions made in town planning affect the urban environment through the medium of sound? With gentrification and the pricing out of communities from previously working class or artistic areas, what does this mean for artists wanting to make work in the city and the displaced communities? This is a hot topic in our home town of Manchester right now, with property developers taking over old mill spaces formally housing artist studios, new DIY spaces popping up and new models of artist/lease holders being negotiated as artists are pushed further out of the city centre.

  • Site specific architecture and sound design/composition

We are considering the distinct elements within a city that will form part of this unique composition including buildings and materials, people and their spatial placement/ways they navigate space and the Noise Machines themselves as both samplers of the environment and sound generators to place sound within the built environment.  How will the materials of particular buildings influence the sound of the composition, will glassy business districts/public squares sound bright and bouncy compared to old towns and mixed use areas?

  •  Psycho geography and the Flaneur

Location choice and the routes in which we navigate the city are of paramount importance to the piece. Each city will have its own site specific locations that we need to select and lead our sound walk participants to. The choice may be dependent on typical places you would find in a city such as a public square, a transit zone or an area of municipal buildings. Crucially we are looking at areas that may have experienced changes in architecture through gentrification and a location choice that will create an interesting composition in response to the built environment. We will choose and find these through walking, listening and suggestions.

  •  Actions, happenings and the idea of spectacle

Looking at what it means to create art in a city. How we can disrupt the everyday? How will the audience/participants feel being part of this spectacle, will their experience turn from a participant into an active performer. What could the reactions of the general public be, will they want to get involved, what do we need to tell them? Looking at cities as spaces of actions, protests, gatherings and who owns these public spaces and what citizens are allowed to do in them?

What does the medium of sound tell us about the above, and how can it be a tool to interrogate these thematic areas?


Technological beginnings and Eagle Labs Media City Testing

We have been thinking about the site specific dialogue of people, architecture and sound and how our machines can explore this.

Initially we had conceived the Noise Machines as sound generators; sending different waveforms out into the public space and experiencing the reverberations of these sounds. We also wanted to consider listening and incorporating the sounds that are found in those spaces so that citizens can experience a sonic dialogue with their cities, we are working on a sampler aspect to our machines so that you can record or sample the environment then playback, loop and manipulate with light. Conceptually this allows the participants to reframe and shape the sound environment of an urban space.

We visited Eagle Labs at Media city in Salford to meet James Medd and learn about the different options for fabricating the units, looking at a range of processes, machines and materials for 3D printing and laser cutting. We were introduced to the 3D printing equipment and materials thinking about production time, environmental concerns and breakability.  We placed a couple of rudimentary noise machines around media city to test for volume levels and distance of sound.

Next steps:

  • Towards a methodology of working with sound and cities: choosing locations in Bristol, recruiting a user group and beginning tests
  • Circuit development: testing with multiple oscillators, waveforms and sampler
  • Design: think about the design of the units

Swarm: ENLIGHT Commission 2018


We are thrilled to announce we have been selected for the 2018 ENLIGHT: European Light Expression Network commission to develop our public realm piece SWARM.  Swarm is our first piece of public realm work, we will develop portable Noise Machines that play cities through light; developing a series of sound walks for participants from each city that enables them to experience and reinterpret the cities architecture and spaces through sound and light, in a moving drone symphony. The piece will be shown at SPECTRA Festival, Aberdeen in January, Rome Media Art Festival in May and Article Biennial in Norway in September. We are developing the piece on the following artist residencies

and with technical/production support from