Homogeneity & Heterogeneity

Two approaches for designing spatial music

My research explores the process for designing and reproducing spatial sound through two personal sound-design projects: Pilate (2006) and Metamorphosis42 (2009). Located within the context of design, it explores two modes for spatial sound composition, which at its heart contemplates the potential for the phenomenon of the sound experience to guide the design and reproduction of spatial sound using electroacoustic techniques. The intent is to convey an approach to sound design, by combining the concepts with the tools and techniques used in sound composition, to create an impression of space that is perceived by the listener.


Initially driven by an interest in the process for designing sound, my research shifted to the experience of sound and its relation to space, physical and imagined. By engaging with my projects through a process of listening, I became aware of the perceptual differences between the two works. This reflection enabled me to construct the ‘homogeneous’ and ‘heterogeneous’ categories, which I first used to describe a spatial quality of my work based on a listening experience. What intrigued me most was how these two terms emerged from a listening experience to then form the central ideas that enabled me to draw a distinction between my projects. This led me to undertake an examination of my compositional approach to better understand how I have applied sound production and reproduction techniques to create a sense of space in my work and how the ‘homogeneous’ and ‘heterogeneous’ can be used to frame ways of working with sound and space.

the act of designing


When working as a freelance sound designer for theatre, prior to starting my research, my role was to tell a story using sound supporting a narrative that was central to the dramatic experience. During this time I considered the act of designing to be a natural extension of my practice. An organic, free-flowing process that was embedded and intertwined with so many other things I just did. The significance of Schons’ views on the practice of design, is that it brings to the foreground the designers thoughts and actions by engaging with the process of making through sensory awareness. This sensitivity to the practice of design enables the designer to better understand their materials, but also find creative ways in which to apply materials in problem situations. But the process for finding solutions is not as simple as it might sound. As Schon suggests, it is unlocked through an interaction with the materials and a sense-awareness of ones actions through a process of reflection. From this emerges the experience and knowledge that is acquired through the act of making. Applying this to my own work, through reflecting on my projects, has enabled me to better understand the act of making. 

locating my design practice


Design, phenomenology, the built environment and spatial music are the practices and discourses that inform my research. My research is located within the heart of my sound design practice, which I see situated between the physical space of the built environment and the imagined space of spatial music. The importance of the sound and space relation in my research, is that it suggests a process in sound design, which utilizes electroacoustic tools and techniques to convey a spatial listening aesthetic. I very much agree with Schons' views, in that designing is a lived experience, and, it is as much an exploration as it is a process for working. An outcome of this journey is the experience I gained through the process of making, to create an artifact which embodies meaning through an interpretation of the things I sense in the world, expressed through the medium of sound. 

By acknowledging the physicality of the sound experience, my research proposes that the notion of the ‘homogeneous’ builds on the physical relations of sound and space. If our experience of sound in a real-world scenario is considered coherent, then, by applying the notion of the ‘homogeneous’ experience to a compositional process in sound design, the approach seeks to faithfully reproduce the perceptually coherent sounding qualities we experience in a real-world scenario. This approach is predicated on the fact that the sensations of sound are the result of vibrating materials and the physical qualities of these materials – size, shape and density, for example, directly influence how sound is perceived. 


The notion of the ‘heterogeneous’, builds on the complex and dynamic relations of sound and space. This approach emphasises the interchangeable qualities of space and the potential for our imagination to associate the qualities of one sound with that of another sound. In the context of the sound design process, a characteristic of this approach is that sound is used as an affective device to explore, through a poetic re-imagination, an interior space in which sound is decoupled from its physical source. I use the term ‘re-imagination’ to emphasise the listener is not passive, but an active body engaged in this contemplation of sound and space. On this basis, the heterogeneous is not one singular homogeneous image bound entirely by the physical nature of the source. Instead, it is an affective experience that is bound to our senses and our emotions, reaching our ears through a patchwork of sounds that collide in space and time creating a transformation that occurs at the boundaries of perception.


Reflecting on my research, I now have a better understanding of the techniques I can apply during the process of ‘making’ to acquire knowledge about the problems I encounter, and, the ways I can apply this knowledge to reframe my approach and find solutions. In acknowledging the perceptual characteristics of the ‘homogeneous’ and ‘heterogeneous’ experience of sound and space, then by applying a compositional approach that combines multichannel reproduction systems with audio signal processing and spatial mixing techniques, it is possible to reconstruct a sound space that embodies ‘homogeneous’ qualities, in much the same way these techniques can be applied to deconstruct space, where the reproduced sound space embodies 'heterogeneous' qualities. 


An outcome of my research has been the successful development of the course curriculum for the SIAL Sound Studio’s ‘Spatial Sound and Ambisonic Modelling’ elective and the development of the spatial modelling tool, Nebula. Future work in this area may be to explore the design of urban spaces, and, using the homogeneous and heterogeneous as models, explore methods for designing hybrid spaces.