It all started with Fantasia. Walt Disney's theatrical epic was the first popular application of surround sound in a motion picture. The technology boomed in the '70s, as blockbusters like Apocalypse Now, Superman, and Star Wars called for ever more spectacular forms of entertainment. In the years since, surround sound has become synonymous with the movie theater experience: Moreso than 3D glasses, it's the subtle element that generates a feeling of true immersion.
But for all its ubiquity, surround sound never made the jump out of the cinema. Other immersive sonic environments, like nightclubs, have long been living in the stereophonic (or, more commonly, monophonic) past. That, however, might be changing, as a local outfit called Overlap is working to bring the surround sound experience to music.
“Growing up, we lived with the promise of surround sound, but it didn't go anywhere. You might hear a buzz behind your head in a movie and think, 'cool,' but it was always out of reach. Now immersive audio technology is there for artists to use, and the potential for composition is enormous,” says Christopher Willits, an experimental producer affiliated with the group. “The software we've designed allows any song to be manipulated in Ableton Live [a popular computer music production software] — we can send sounds to each speaker. So, rhythmically speaking, I can make my patterns move around or cause ambient guitar washes to swirl through the room.” In a loose sense, it's the sonic equivalent to the difference between 3-D movies and standard 2-D television.
The Overlap sound system is based around the idea of Ambisonics, a style of surround sound developed in the '70s. “Ambisonics is a term — an approach to immersive audio that can play sounds above you. But, the cool thing is, it's portable, easy to set up, and scalable,” he says. “The way the system works, you can get the same placement of sound with different amounts and configurations of speakers.” The portability of it is an appealing quality; it's why it can be set up at venues temporarily.
For now, the system isn't being applied to dance music proper, but instead more ambient sounds. This Sunday, Overlap is teaming up with Public Works for Sunight, an evening party that runs from 7 p.m. to midnight and features the Ambisonic sound system as well as a bevy of downtempo-leaning performances from Snuise, Manitous, and Christopher Willits. It may seem an esoteric suggestion, but the party offers a rare chance to experience dimensions of music previously left unexplored. And who knows? It just might be the future of club sound.
Sun., March 30, 7 p.m., 2014