A complete psychosensory experience in the back of a Transit van? David Bradwell talks to the man behind the most sophisticated sound system on wheels.
Take a Ford Transit van, fit it out with a new concept in audio and video equipment and you have the Psycho Mobile - an experience in 3D sound and vision.
WHEN IT ARRIVED, the Psycho Vision tape aroused instant curiosity among the Music Technology staff. The cover was dominated by a hologram of a human eye. The accompanying press release claimed that the sound had been recorded in three dimensions. It continued: "Help your brain through the door, that's what technology's for". It went on to refer to the Psycho Mobile as the dawn of "21st Century Entertainment", and offered us the chance to experience a multi-screen audio-visual 3D sound experience, housed in the back of a custom-stretched American Dodge van. As concepts go, this one sounded particularly dubious.
Despite reservations on my behalf, other areas of the press already seemed to have been convinced: Record Mirror saw fit to comment that the show was "mind-blowing - in every sense of the term". The Financial Times added that it was "the best thing I've seen in the last ten years", while the Daily Mirror observed that "the revolution starts here... Shock the music industry and change the world of video". With considerable trepidation, I set out one fine afternoon to experience Psycho Vision for myself.
Patrick D Martin is either an artistic genius or an egocentric madman. His was the original idea, the conception and the realisation. Meeting him prior to the show he talks enthusiastically about "artware" and "cloneware", about psychosensory experiences and about his working relationship with technology. Eventually a Ford Transit arrives, parking in a car-lined West London street, and once connected to the domestic mains supply, the show begins...
Outside, four video screens add to the hype. An eye and a mouth indicate to passers by that this is no ordinary Transit. A voice booms out of the loudspeakers in mystic tones, foretelling the experiences to be found within. It talks of not being alarmed, of sensations of pleasure never previously felt. With photographer "E" behind me I go through the side entrance, half of me in genuine expectation, the rest wishing I worked for Smash Hits. We sit in the front row, in plush armchairs above a marble floor. A mouth speaks to us from a small monochrome video screen below three larger colour ones. We're told to put on our headphones, to check that we have them the right way round, and then the door closes and we're alone.
"Do not be alarmed by any of the sensations you may feel during the course of the program. They are all entirely natural." It seems ironic that a computer should be telling me not to worry. I remember Martin's voice relating the story of two young women from a certain national newspaper who lost their cool at this point and hammered on the doors to be released. Though I hate to admit it, that would seem the only natural reaction at this moment in time. Then the lights go down...
Emerging into the outside world a full 15 minutes later, I half expect to find everybody laughing. As the saying goes, it's good, but not that good. Three video screens flashed images of cities, roller skating and computer graphics in time with what was a very powerful soundtrack. At regular intervals the same eye that graced the cassette box spread out across all three screens in perfect sync with a fast, hard brass riff. The show is definitely worth seeing, and undeniably different from the average pop video, but after the long, intense build-up, I am left wanting more. I take Martin aside to discuss his ideas for this project further.
"THE BASIC IDEA", he explains "is to use music as a basis for visual entertainment by taking the music structure and transferring its rules into the visual domain. This is done by advancing on the old ideas of narrative editing in the '20s and '30s and taking them into the digital domain, where both sound and vision are able to be mixed and edited according to the rules of symphonic composition - stating a theme, restating a theme and so on. This is then done in three stages.
"The first is the mobile which we have now. People will be able to experience this in their city, if we go on a tour, or as part of a co-promotional feature with our sponsors. The second stage is the utilisation of large screens so we can do a fixed-site show with an umbilical chord from the mobile into the auditorium, and using loudspeakers for 3D sound as opposed to the headphones we've got now. The third stage is the opening of fixed site franchise systems which will have purpose-built auditoria for this type of entertainment and a wider variety of products which is a little bit further into the future.
"The objective is to make what we call 'artware' (which is music and visuals which are resident in the digital domain) and which can be interpreted through what we call the 'cloneware' which is the artist decision-making process, like a director who edits a film or a conductor who interprets a symphony. The clone-ware is either the conductor or the final edit on the film but because we are interactive this can change. The decision-making software that the cloneware has can go up one of several paths, which means that it can learn about the audience's reaction in the same way that an artist can. Then there's a cloneware update every three months."
It is quickly becoming apparent that Martin is taking all this very seriously indeed. It's his life's work, and he intends to make sure it's successful. As a child, his parents encouraged his musical development. He has played the guitar and piano since the age of five, and as the son of a hi-fi and video importer, soon got a keen urge to experiment with hi-tech equipment. As he grew up, he worked in the German fashion business before coming back to the UK in 1980 to start a video cassette magazine called Vidzine. That led on to an involvement with Phil Nicholas, a highly regarded Fairlight programmer and record producer who has worked with artists ranging from Def Leppard to Billy Ocean. They have been writing together for eight years, and have built up a strong working relationship.
"Phil and I have worked over the years in developing the systems, although I've worked more on the visuals because he is pretty heavily committed time-wise", Martin explains. "From that core group, others have joined on the visual side - cameramen, motion control experts, programmers and the like. We've been very lucky because we were able to start with a clean sheet. A lot of the technology that has made what we do now possible has only existed since 1980/81, and particularly with the development of MIDI our job has been made easier and more successful."
The Psycho Mobile obviously cost a fortune, around $½m to be more precise, and all of the backing has come from independent sources. While that may be beneficial in an artistic sense, it is not entirely without its problems.
"You can't show the general public a load of sheet music and control rig shots, and until you have something to offer them, you can't actually make it pay. Now we've got the first piece of artware, and if the next couple of months unfold and it is as popular as we hope it will be, it will lead to more being made. We have got sponsorship in terms of kit from the video industry - Teletape give us hardware support, the computer side is designed by Astley Systems who are a small, bespoke software company. The music side is mostly hired in kit and a bit of specially modified software that Phil has got."
The soundtrack to the program is the joint work of Martin and Nicholas on the latter's Fairlight Series III. Martin believes strongly that Fairlight programmers have a right to be considered as artists in themselves, on the basis that their craft is another form of musical composition.
"One of the things that annoys me most is the fact that Fairlight programmers are very highly skilled, talented and artistic, but as a rule don't get credit and royalties on their programming", he complains. "The only reason they get ignored is that the majority of people who employ programmers are very famous and the majority of programmers are very glad to get £60,000 worth of kit to play with. The number of people who can produce really good-sounding, well-orchestrated music with machines can be counted on a very small number of hands, while there is a legion of people on every street corner who can strum guitars or hop about on stage with a microphone. That is the difference between people who take their work seriously and people who just regard it as a cheap way to fortune, drugs and rock'n'roll. I don't believe in any of that rubbish because I don't think that it is musically valid, and at the end of the day musical validity is all that counts."
THE CONCEPT OF hearing is central to the belief that sounds can be perceived in three dimensions. It is necessary to base the theory on the philosophy that the human ear is an active transducer (like a bat's) rather than a passive one. For this to be the case it would have to send out frequencies as well as receive them and the interaction between the two would then enable the brain to decode where the sound is coming from. Another consideration is that of nature - while eyes invariably look forward, it has been up to the ears to warn us of predators from behind. As such, sounds from behind or the side are much more easily beatable than those from in front. Composing in three dimensions has its own set of considerations based on these concepts. Martin explains how he has overcome them.
"In the first instance, dynamics are very important, because if you compress everything, which you would normally with a pop record, then the nuances of different amplitudes as well as directions are lost. You have to set each sound up in its own space and once that has been established you can add another sound to it. You have to be very sparse, much more so than in a pop record. If a sound which is starting behind you and then coming around your head and going away in a different direction is being interfered with by things which are fundamentally unimportant to the development of a particular theme, like a line of solid regular hi-hats, you confuse the listener too much and it doesn't mean anything at all. You have to take a very softly-softly approach. It's also quite relative in that we've worked out two ways of doing it, that is, there are what we call the 'Internal' sounds that stay fixed either behind you, or in front, or in the centre, and then the 'External' sounds which are the ones that move around that fixed base, so you are able to reference what is actually moving and what is not. Certain signatures tend to be more recognisable in terms of where they are coming from than others. If you hear a sine wave it appears to be more difficult to locate because it doesn't have a visual identifying aspect. Because you are dealing with psycho-acoustics it is much harder to pin down than the conventional science of a pan-pot."
With all the technology available for sound creation, there would seem to be limitless possibilities for creative composition. The area in which technology is lagging behind is visual. The problems stem from the fact that visual information takes up far more resources than sound.
"At the moment the biggest limitation is the speed of visual images", Martin begins. "If you're working with MIDI you can work down to five milliseconds but in video you can only work to 20. In terms of rhythm it would be much nicer to work with a higher frame rate like 150 frames per second, in order that nuances of rhythmic style could be interpreted in lots of different ways which are not technically feasible at the moment. Hopefully screen resolution will start going up quite significantly in the next couple of years and, once you've got the optical disk storage system sorted in terms of 2000-line resolution, as opposed to 625 lines which is all there is at the moment, and the storage facilities come down in price, then you are beginning to get a purer form of artware than we've got at the moment. It's a bit cobbled together in real technology terms because the visual side is so far behind. You need a megabyte to store a video image of one 25th of a second, but you only probably need 1K to store a serious sample for the same amount of time."
THE FUTURE IS the area from which the Psycho Vision team take most of their inspiration. Looking at the concept as a whole, Martin sees a cyclic progression as technology advances.
"The next ten years will see it becoming an art form which people can appreciate in a systemised way", he predicts, "such that there are places where you can see shows of this nature. Then, once the medium has been established, it's quite simple to look at the upgrade path from the MIDI programming suite at home to the synchronisation of sound to elements of animation, and for a demo to be put together. This could last for five or ten minutes and, if the public like it, it can earn the artist an advance to put together a show that is then distributed through a digital system. It can produce an income for people in this country because we've got more MIDI programmers and more interesting people in terms of cameramen than anywhere else in the world. It doesn't have to cost the mega-bucks that Hollywood throw at movies because it is utilising, in comparison to Hollywood, state-of-the-art technology."
For the next stage of his own project, Martin envisages his programs extending to feature length, and demystification of the multi-screen process.
"We're going to try to make the whole thing as transparent as possible, so people don't think that there are 25 screens, it's just what's on the screens and what's coming out of the loudspeakers that's the most important thing. Another vital area for us is the interaction with the audience. To do this you firstly have to look at the ways in which you can monitor audience responses. Consequently we film everybody who gets in, to see how they react, and then modify the material that we show. There are a large number of ways you can monitor the audience. Quite cheap sensing devices can be used to measure simple things like seat movement which indicates people are getting bored.
The amount of conductivity on people's hands can indicate their sense of excitement, eye movement is measured using mini cameras in the backs of seats, breathing response is monitored with hidden microphones, and finally you can use infra red cameras to tell you what the heart rate is. By cross-referencing those you get a pretty good idea of the state of the audience. Also, we will feature the audience in the show, there's a logging-on procedure where your image is sampled into the system, and during the show you will see yourself appear and disappear. People think it is quite Orwellian but we're not doing it to find out whether you've been paying your Poll tax or not, we're just trying to entertain people by using technology in a way which is exactly the opposite of the way most people use it. Governments may try to dominate your life using endless banks of data, but we're only trying to give you a better experience by knowing more about you. It's like an audience and performer who know each other well will together get a better performance. We're also enabling the control computer to have a wide variety of long-term cloneware programs which will run on the disk-based system. This will have a half-hour show, increasing to 45 minutes when the budgets become available for the edit - editing is three quarters of what we do. That will probably go to a five or seven video disc system."
Martin sees his greatest achievement so far as mastering a cassette on which eight out of ten people agree they have heard something that they have never heard before. What they are hearing is three dimensional sound, a technical achievement which doesn't need hype to prove its worth. Meanwhile, the Psycho Mobile will be going on a nationwide tour, probably of record shops, and could well appear in a town near you. If it does, a visit is definitely recommended, although you should be wary of being taken in by the atmosphere of dangerous mystique that surrounds it.
"What's it all for? It's all for art, basically, innit?" Martin concludes. Is he an artistic genius or madman? I'd wager that there are elements of both. Altogether now, "Help your brain through the door, that's what technology's for".
Psycho Vision can he contacted at: (Contact Details).
Feature by David Bradwell
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