Reclaiming Air, One Sonic Snapshot at a Time | Information Center


Sound engineer Chris Warren has traveled the world capturing sound environments and making them accessible to everyone through his app, EchoThief.

Space is part of the whole.

It’s a fact that all musicians know, but one that has been doubly emphasized during the pandemic. Overnight, musicians saw beloved venues – churches, concert halls, opera houses, stadiums – close and lock their doors, unsure when they would reopen.

For classical singer Kayla Gautereauxthe experience was visceral.

“I can’t stress this enough: space is so important to sound. It changes the whole vibe of what a performer and an audience member experiences,” said Gautereaux, an assistant professor at the Boston Conservatory. “Being ripped from our spaces has been such a blow to musicians and our ability to be creative.”

Gautereaux tried working out in his living room, but the experience lacked warmth and exuberance. The environment seemed dead. The sound waves banged against its walls and died.

He missed the concert hall, with the rich resonance of his voice ringing off the walls and warming the ears of an audience.

“COVID-19 has stolen the air from musicians,” she said.

Gautereaux, a 2014 graduate of San Diego State University’s School of Music and Dance, shared her disappointment with a friend and fellow graduate when she learned of the research of Chris Warrenassistant professor of digital composition and sound design.

Long before the pandemic upended the performing arts, Warren was fascinated by the relationship between sound and space. Play a note in the middle of a field and the sound waves spread evenly through the open space until they dissipate into the air. But enter a cave and play that same sound, it will bounce off the walls and get amplified tenfold.

Warren has created an algorithm that captures the sound environments of resonant spaces. Its EchoThief program takes impulse responses – high-resolution sound snapshots – of any space, digitizes the exact acoustic recipe, and then has the ability to apply that acoustic environment to any sound. EchoThief is so precise that it measures exactly how long a sound resonates in a space before it evaporates into silence.

Both a seasoned musician and an avid adventurer, Warren has traveled the world capturing sonic environments – from famous concert halls and churches to lava tubes and bat caves – and reproducing them for EchoThief. He visited melting Alaskan icebergs, the underbelly of the Golden Gate Bridge and an abandoned granite mine in Los Angeles. The results have sometimes been surprising. In the giant underground artillery batteries of an abandoned fortress in Washington, the sound echoed for up to six seconds, almost three times the reverberation of a concert hall.

The EchoThief Digital Library is freely available to the public online and in an app. It includes over 100 soundscapes, with another 100 dropping by the end of 2022.

“Sounding spaces happen in colors extraordinarily,” Warren said. “Being able to control the reverberation of sound allows us to shape that sound in such interesting ways.”

EchoThief, he adds, makes these natural wonders and architectural feats accessible to everyone, regardless of talent or circumstance.

Warren plans to further his EchoThief technology in a state-of-the-art sound lab in SDSU’s planned Performing Arts District. The lab will be built on its own foundation to create the most isolated sound environment possible. He’s already featured it in an interactive exhibit for the Carlsbad Music Museum and licensed it to Sony and Bethesda Game Studios, helping companies add audio features that enhance video games and experiences. of virtual reality.

Gautereaux recalls being in her small Boston apartment during the height of the initial COVID-19 lockdown, sitting alone in her living room but, thanks to EchoThief, sounding like she was in the great chamber hall of St. Martin’s Church from Tours to La Mesa, where she performed countless concerts with the choir she co-founded – Folklore Guild, a vocal group that sang theme songs from popular video games and fantasy shows. The large stained glass windows, the crowded pews, the crucifixes placed around the hall – all of these elements may have been missing but, if she closed her eyes, Gautereaux was back at the church, singing the “Game of Thrones” theme. song like it never left.

“Thanks to EchoThief, I was able to go back and visit a space that had brought me so much joy,” said Gautereaux. “It was a therapeutic experience in an uncertain time, a time when there was no way I could have experienced this environment.”

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