Saving Public Ryan: ‘TheVoiceLine’ Honors First BBC Transmission
London’s Northbank Business Improvement District (BID) wanted artists to help celebrate a new public space (Strand Aldwych) where the first radio transmission of the BBC happened 100 years ago.
“How about a commemorative art installation designed to foster the exchange of ideas, education and art appreciation in a well-traveled common space?” they asked artists.
Nick Ryan answered that call.
14 million people visit Strand Aldwych each year, a recently pedestrianized part of The Strand, a famous stretch in central London’s City of Westminster.
An area of The Strand, notoriously congested with traffic and noise pollution, local business promoter Northbank BID asked artists to “take it back” by converting it into an environmentally friendly, culturally inviting space.
Given the 100 years commemoration of radio, it may seem surprising Nick Ryan was the only one among 15 artists who proposed a sound installation. But sound installations aren’t easy and sound artists are much rarer than visual or performance artists.
The tricky parts of public sound installations are making something truly worth listening to, figuring out how to technically achieve it, choosing the right kit, and then — last but not least — competing with the daily noises of a public environment.
For example, a church (St Mary le Strand) located smack in the middle of The Strand thoroughfare was designed 300 years ago — and even then — deliberately built without ground floor windows because of passing traffic noises.
Saving this public environment from its noisy self was part of the challenge for Ryan.
“My idea was to use sound in a controlled way,” Ryan explains. “… I wanted the soundscape to change every second or every minute, and use a long, very sophisticated speaker array to animate the space through sound.”
After creating and testing several prototypes, Ryan created his linear sound array, and he chose to use 39 speakers, all L-Acoustics 5XT coaxial speakers. Each speaker is to be located 3.5 meters apart and will be set along a 170-meter path.
Ten L-Acoustics LA4X four-channel amplified controllers, connected to an AVB network for independent control, powered the array.
“The VoiceLine” was born when Ryan designed visually stunning, customized brass enclosures to protect each speaker from weather. Each brass speaker enclosure is encircled by a “light ring” that lights up whenever a sound emanates, a visual cue for the public experience. “At night, they light up, indicating the behavior of the sound and they look really beautiful,” says Ryan.
Ryan is one of 70 artists in local residence at London’s Somerset House, a former Royal Palace now dedicated to creativity and the arts. The VoiceLine is located directly across the street from Somerset House. Pedestrians enter at any point along the 170-meter path to experience Ryan’s bespoke soundscapes throughout the day and into the evening.
Also close to Marconi House (site of BBC’s first radio broadcast) and running past Bush House (former home of BBC World Service), The VoiceLine, in partnership with BBC, draws on the vast resources of the BBC audio archive as well as the multilayered histories of The Strand to engage the public with a unique spatial sound theater (with archive, recordings and original compositions).
Visitors might hear along the journey ‘theatreland,’ consisting of cast recordings Ryan made during Mamma Mia warm-ups– or even British spy broadcasts (sent over strange frequencies during the last 50 years). “As it gets darker, we can get more experimental,” he observes.
The programming schedule is driven by several factors, including the time of day and the context of typical pedestrian traffic. “One use case is that a pedestrian may start at one end and walk the entire route; we can exploit that journey in narrative form,” he says. “Some programs move at walking pace, and other pieces of music travel up and down the path quite rapidly.”
In several of his VoiceLine broadcasts, Ryan relied on L-ISA Studio to give him an added measure of control — particularly over elements such as panning and reverb. “VoiceLine is basically the unfolding of an immersive system into a line, and L-ISA Studio was instrumental in making the experience seamless. The idea is to create a “bubble of sound” that precisely overlaps each subsequent bubble of sound, and L-ISA Studio helps me render this seamlessly.”
Speakers are positioned in a ‘crisscross’ fashion and played at a relatively low level, so there is no break in the linearity. “We get a very high-fidelity sound from the L-Acoustics speakers and using these in combination with the L-ISA Studio software, the fixed points of each speaker become imperceptible. The perfect overlap between each sound source makes it a continuous experience.”
When he is composing and mixing some of the more challenging pieces, Ryan adds space and dimension using L-ISA Studio. “I love the immersive reverb,” he says. “If I had time, I would use that reverb for everything because it gives this incredible richness to any sound source. It is genuinely modeled, and it sounds so different,” he says.
Ryan also appreciates the software’s panning and rotation faculties: “Movement from one speaker to the next is seamless, and the rotation function can be very useful when you want to move an object a full 180° — this capability doesn’t exist in other immersive tools.”
Ryan believes The VoiceLine demonstrates sound as an innate form of human perception, rooted inextricably in our evolution.
“Sound is our primary form of communication,” Ryan observes. “Before the full visual representation of meaning and language, our species relied on sound for its culture than anything else.”
The VoiceLine runs through April 17, 2023, and is free to the public between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily.
For more info on The VoiceLine, please visit http://www.thevoiceline.com.
For more info on L-Acoustics, www.l-acoustics.com.
For more info on L-ISA Studio, please visit http://l-isa-immersive.com/create/studio/.
For more info on Nick Ryan and Somerset House