CITADEL - Designing a Dynamic Soundscape for Hidden Door

CITADEL - Designing a Dynamic Soundscape for Hidden Door
by Luci Holland
1st June 2017


Hidden Door is in full swing and I’m loving being more involved in the arts programme this year, given I’m usually seeing the festival from the music/performer side! It’s been an amazing journey designing CITADEL, an interactive soundscape for the Hidden Door. I was thrilled to be invited on to the programme to create a bespoke dynamic sound installation for the festival, not only to be involved in such an esteemed arts programme alongside talented creators but also to be able to work with a space as unique as the old Leith Theatre (which has laid derelict for 25 years).

On hearing the request that the sound installation be responsive in some way, I spent some time hopping between various ideas. I thought about the best way to create atmospheric, shifting, responsive sounds that felt reactive in some way without becoming repetitive (my background in game audio and game music composition technique helped in a big way here!), and also represented Hidden Door, and provided a meaningful yet unintrusive backdrop to the space. I picked up on the word Citadel somewhere from the Hidden Door PR and thought about how Hidden Door transforms spaces into something magical, and decided to create a set of sound worlds which would be strewn about the venue as if they were at once their own spaces and yet part of something bigger. Then I thought about how Hidden Door is at its heart a collection of creative determined people making something special and sharing it together. The strength of the festival is its community - artists, performers, crew, volunteers, administrators, promoters, wall painters, builders, megaphone wielders, audience members; all play a part in making the experience. These spaces that are transformed only truly come to life with people entering, exploring, engaging with the art; bringing it to life. With that in mind I decided the sounds would respond to people entering the building, and that the soundscape would only truly take shape and be born with the opening of the festival and with the people swarming into the Leith Theatre on the 26th May.

Once this concept was decided, I knew instantly that I wanted to utilise Max (visual programming language) to distribute the sound, and a microcontroller of the Arduino variety to form the sensor that would count people entering the venue. Straight away I jumped into researching as although I know the theory behind Max and interactive electronics I’ve never designed a Max MSP patch (piece of software to control audio) nor have I built a sensor from scratch on my own. However this is one of the parts of this journey that has made this project so special and rewarding for me. I’ve always wanted to spend some time learning both to write Max patches and to get stronger at electronics, yet I’ve never had the time or purpose to spur me on. Now I had a goal that depended on me getting my head around these elements and at the same time allowed me to practice these skills in a creative way! It was perfect!

I knew I had to ratio the time I had to work on this (about 5 months) as I had a lot to learn and a lot to create - and although the technical element was important, it also had to sound good! So it was important to get the Max patch and sensor working as soon as possible. I started off with some tutorial sessions with sound artists (Amble Skuse, Matt Giannotti) I know who kindly showed me around the Max basics and consulted on my ideas to help point me in the right direction. I got stuck in to Max - a mix of reading, Youtube (Youtube tutorials are your friend!) and heaps of trial and error. I started constructing the basic patch that would mix the sound samples - CITADEL has 5 different sound worlds, each with their own space in the festival, inspired by natural elements that I would distort and oddify (ICE/METAL, FOREST, GALAXY, VOCALS & WATER).

Very early Max patch layout:


The basic mechanism is that as more people enter and the sensor count goes up, more layers from the sound worlds activate, becoming busier, fuller & louder. If the people count is low, each sound world is more spacious and static. The basic route is this:

Sensor (microcontroller) > Max patch > Mixing desk > Speakers (2 in each of the 5 spaces)

Each time someone passes the sensor, a random “ping” is triggered for each sound world. I wanted for visitors to experience each world as blankets of sound threading into the space and art around them, hearing them in different presentations of themselves depending on how many people were there at that time, and maybe hear and associate the moment people entered the venue through the different “pings”. Examples of these “pings” here:

As the Max patch took shape, I started recording & designing the sounds. All the sounds were either ambient recordings, found sounds, real instruments or materials, or synthesised sounds. I made up various layers within layers, and then could start to place the different sounds in various orders into the patch to hear how they worked together and “mock” different amounts of people counts virtually and how the soundscape as a whole might respond. However I knew ultimately the soundscape wouldn’t realise itself fully until it was in action at the festival - so I also did a lot of imagining, and some calculation of different timing and orders that the layer configurations could potentially play in, to check for any possible clashes. I wanted the soundscape to grow subtly, and have space to gradually shift and roll over itself so it felt consistent but unique to the moment a listener may be experiencing it at that time.

Soundscape demo:–WrlWg7X6-BM4rpIY_v4TAsAh4n

More or less final Max patch:


With the patch and sounds becoming realised, next came the sensor. I was planning to work with Light Dependent Resistors with a light source on them to count people entering the building. As the light is broken, the microcontroller registers the voltage fluctuation in the circuit as a number. The microcontroller code converts this into a more manageable recognisable number which is sent to the Max patch. Max then keeps the people count, and decides what happens with the sound layers for each space.

Early sensor testing & building:


I’m interested in electronics but very new to building anything on my own! Luckily again experts were on hand to help - after stumbling around soldering for a while (and enjoying it… But with uncertainty on whether I was successfully soldering or breaking components!) I met up with sound artist Yann Seznec who very kindly consulted me on the project, looked at what was going wrong (and right!) and helped me find some better options to build and get the sensor talking with the Max patch. That Arduino I mentioned earlier ended up being replaced by a similar microcontroller board called a Teensy LC at Yann’s recommendation (and am I glad he recommended it!). Long story short, the Teensy is more simply integrated with Max and can convert/send MIDI data more intuitively. My first sensor prototype worked…

Sensor test:–WrlWg7X6-BM4rpIY_v4TAsAh4n&index=20

… But then I broke it. So after some more help from electronics savvy people, the sensor was up and running and ready to test with Jane Datony’s (Hidden Door Head of Sound) audio routing system! The cabling for this project was immense. The spaces that needed their individual sound environments were all distanced from each other, and all far from the front door/sensor/control room (where the main computer running the Max patch and main mixing desk would go). Jane and the crew worked tirelessly to install all the speakers and cables, and help me fix the sensor securely.

Final installed sensor with DIY case:


CITADEL control room at Hidden Door:


Unfortunately there was extra light falling on the sensor so throughout the festival I’ve needed to recalibrate it from time to time which has meant hanging around to check it’s triggering ok - but I’m happy for an excuse to stay around this amazing festival! Tom Sulat & Sam Jones of the lighting team also put up beautiful sensitive lights to enhance the sound and draw attention to each space, and graffiti artist and projection master Ross Blair sorted out some of his spectacular projected visuals to highlight some areas further.

GALAXY space:


Once all was ready to go… The Hidden Doors threw open and in came an eager public. I was delighted with how the sounds responded and grew as more people explored, and especially happy with how each sound world threaded throughout the space and into one another. The GALAXY and VOCALS corner has a lovely blend, melding into each sound and complimenting each other as you move through the corridor and up the stairs (if I do say so myself!). It’s been fascinating hearing each iteration as it subtly changes and hearing new combination of the layers as the day goes on. As I know the sounds so well, it’s an interesting feeling hearing new combinations of your own work in real time. Just for fun… Here’s a short sample of all the sound environments playing at once:

Overall it goes without saying that this opportunity has been incredibly rewarding. It’s afforded me the time, space and resources to get to grips with technical skills that I’ve really desired to get my head around and to use in future work, to create a new piece very different to my normal creative process, a professional platform to showcase the work, the chance to be more involved with the festival itself and the unique opportunity to have my work shown in the grand Leith Theatre building, meet and get to know other talented artists and beautiful people… I really can’t express how grateful I am and how much I’ve enjoyed this journey! I’m planning to do more with CITADEL - both to look for future showcase opportunities and also to develop it further for additional composition and sound design uses. Watch out for it… Also, if you’ve experienced CITADEL I’d love to hear your feedback. Please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook :)



Finally, I’d love to take a moment to list all the talented people that in various ways supported me and helped me make this happen. With heartfelt thanks to you all:

Jane Datony

Amble Skuse

Matt Giannotti

Yann Seznec

Tom Sulat

Ross Blair

Sam Jones

Donald Bell

Charlotte Riordan

Jenna Corcoran

Hidden Door crew & team

Nikita Gaidakov

Stephen Chapman

Terry Peng

Martin Disley

Jack Nissan

& David Martin