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The Artists Making Sound You Can Touch

Spatial audio isn’t new, but Dave & Gabe think it’s the next wave of more immersive experience design.

The Artists Making Sound You Can Touch
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

I’m sitting on a sofa in a Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio, surrounded by 39 speakers. Some are hitched to the ceiling, others perched on four-foot-tall stands and arranged in a semi-circle. It’s dead silent, except for the occasional rumble of a truck passing by. But soon, the room wakes up.

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Dave Rife and Gabe Liberti, cofounders of the interactive design studio Dave & Gabe, are playing me a musical composition they designed. I say designed, and not wrote, because it’s actually an algorithm that’s mixing the electronic sounds–a low drone, chimes, chirping birds, and trickling water–in real time. The program takes a set of notes and tones that Dave & Gabe predetermined; feeds it into a series of synthesizers, sound generators, and sequencers; then routes it to specific speakers, creating the illusion of 3D space sculpted through sound. Momentarily, I didn’t feel like I was in industrial Brooklyn, but in some Narnia-esque landscape

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
Through their interactive installations, Dave & Gabe are continually experimenting with what multi-sensory designed experiences can do and how they can make us feel–and they have quietly become the go-tos for high-profile media arts installations. Companies like Turner, Deloitte, Vans, and Condé Nast have commissioned custom pieces from the two-year-old studio. Their work has been installed at music festivals like the Governors Ball, Panorama, and SXSW. They’ve exhibited at the New Museum and are in the process of creating a piece for the Mana Contemporary Art Center.

So how exactly did they turn what was once a side hustle into an in-demand creative practice? By making memorable experiences that ultimately cause participants to forget where they are.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“We love when we do installations and people tell us, ‘I could’ve been anywhere; I forgot the rules of daily life,'” Rife says. “They’re just in it, and not thinking about anything other than playing around.”

Trained as an acoustic engineer, Rife–a St. Louis native who worked for seven years at the engineering consultancy Arup’s New York City office–always imagined he would be designing concert halls. Over time he became less interested in the multi-year process it took to design and complete buildings, and was drawn to the fast-paced installation work he was doing at the firm, which included projects for musician Lou Reed and artists Maya Lin and Ai Weiwei.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
Liberti, who is originally from the Philadelphia area, once worked as a producer and sound mixer and thought he would be making records. But he grew disillusioned with the formal studio process–which entails paying for a studio with professional equipment and hiring audio engineers and producers to record and master an album–since so many musicians can record at home on a laptop and achieve just as professional a result. The two first met in 2013 and began a creative collaboration doing sound-based projects during their off hours. Around the time when they were getting serious about quitting their full-time jobs, they applied to New Inc.–a design incubator at The New Museum, a contemporary art institution in Manhattan–and were accepted into its inaugural class in 2014, which launched the studio. In 2015, they established their studio.

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Dave & Gabe’s work–which often involves a revolving team of other artists and designers who are also some of their closest and most trusted friends–often hits the holy trinity of sensorial experiences: sight, sound, and touch.

Take DELQA, a Cannes Lion award–winning installation that was essentially an architectural-scale musical instrument. When participants pressed against the structure’s spandex panels or climbed on its netting, motion sensors would then activate lights and sound in response to how much pressure they applied. Or Metamorphasis, a series of motion graphics whose visuals changed when participants hit a drum pad with their hands. Recently, they helped their friend and frequent collaborator Emilie Baltz on the audio for The Dream Machine, an interactive sound and smell organ presented at The Lab, a digital art installation at the Panorama music festival, in New York.

“Everything we create has some physical aspect to it,” Rife says. “If you do something physical in the space, then that changes a part of the music, where the music is coming from, and a lighting component. When all of those work in harmony together, then you totally forget about the technology and where you are, that’s our goal.”

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
When the designers think about an installation, they first figure out what the experience should embody and what the physical interaction should be like. This involves a close look at context (like what type of event the installation is for and who will be attending) and scale (how large the physical space should be and how many people might occupy it). While they’ve designed experiences for audiences ranging in size from 5 people to 500 people, the point is often to engage people together in a communal experience. The one-person experience is “a trap we’re trying to avoid,” Rife says.

Last year, HP commissioned Dave & Gabe to create an installation for last year’s edition of The Lab. Recognizing that during a summertime festival most people just want a comfortable space to sit, relax, and cool down, they designed a series of soft hammocks called Hyper Thread. When someone sat in and swung a hammock, the  motion activated sounds and changed the color of the lighting. Depending on how many people were in the space and how active they were, the aural and visual composition would be different.

Earlier this year, the advertising agency Turner commissioned Dave & Gabe to create an installation for a party with a guest list around 3,000 people. The site was a long, desolate hallway that the guests had to pass through before arriving at a theater. Since it was a transitory space and a formal event, Dave & Gabe kept the interaction easy and less physically involved. They designed a series of fabric screens with media projected onto it. Pushing the panels allowed visitors to explore the visualizations if they decided to stop, but since they were left to the sides of the space, they didn’t get in the way of foot traffic.

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Dave & Gabe don’t see experience-based installations going away anytime soon, and think they’ll become more immersive through sound.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“One of the reasons why experiences and installations have gotten to be a thing these days is because we’re so used to amazing, magical things happening on our screens,” Liberti says. “That’s what we do all day long. So when you now want to kick back and put the phone away and enjoy the real world again, you still have a thirst for this visceral rendering of fantasy realms and stuff. Being able to bring those things to life in a physical space is now something you now start to crave. People always wanted to be amazed by their physical surroundings.”

Dave & Gabe believe the next evolution in installation design will be in spatial audio as more people learn about its potential and actually experience what it’s like. Spatial audio–or 3D surround sound as it’s sometimes called–creates the illusion of three-dimensional space in recorded sound. Human ears naturally pick up sound in all directions. This is how you can hear what’s in front of you, behind you, above you, and next to you. But recorded sound played through typical speakers doesn’t have the same dimension. Stereo sound–which was developed in the 1970s–offers some dimensionality and 3D sound offers even more. Think of it like surround sound in a movie theater, but even more intense. Because this type of sound creates the illusion of space, Dave & Gabe are interested in exploring its potential to make more immersive experiences in their installation work, and to create more unique sound-based art.

Liberti compares the rise of 3D sound in the audio industry to the movie industry’s trajectory.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“First we have moving pictures, then let’s add sound, let’s add dialog,” he says. “To think about watching a movie without those things doesn’t make sense at all. Designing sound is this whole other component that people are now just expecting, and doing it in 3D is a really beautiful way of achieving it.”

Installations are Dave & Gabe’s bread and butter, but their next big project involves introducing designers, musicians, and audiences to the world of spatial audio, and building a bigger community around it. While they believe there’s potential to create more immersive experiences using this technology (it’s particularly relevant for VR designers), the multi-channel systems, like the one installed in their studio, are difficult to access.

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Dave & Gabe’s Bushwick studio, which they named Future Space, is part of this strategy. Last year they banded together with a group of other designers and artists–some in motion graphics, photography, fabrication, and virtual reality–and the collective went in on a 13,000-square-foot former shipping and storage warehouse.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
After a six-month renovation–which they did by themselves and involved ripping out the steam heating system, updating all of the electrical systems, knocking down cinder-block walls, and building new ones–Future Space opened in February 2017. It now includes a machine shop, desk space, photography studios, and an open communal area for prototyping large-scale projects. The other studios in the space–Future Wife, Super A-OK, Always and Forever, Flwr Studio, Abby Tabak, Gamma NYC, and YoungBuk Art Services–often collaborate on each other’s projects. For example, they helped Beau Burrows, cofounder of Future Wife, design the audio component of Boolean Planet, a 20-foot-diameter inflatable sphere with projected graphics–some looked like outer space, others like morphing geometric patterns–and sound that change by touching the structure’s surface, which was exhibited at Panorama this year.

Dave & Gabe want to bring more people into their community through spatial audio and experience-driven installation work. They’re hoping that through building a stronger network and opening their doors to musicians who might be interested in experimenting with this technology, they might all hit upon more exciting ways to design sound. Dave & Gabe are also trying to develop multi-channel audio systems that can be transported (now, they involve a lengthy set-up and are essentially stationary) so that it’s easier to create temporary 3D audio installations.

“A bunch of speakers isn’t new technology, but 3D audio allows for a new sound experience,” Liberti says. “It’s about building new tools and frameworks that enable this new type of sound experience.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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