Alt-J on their pioneering ‘immersive sound show’ – and why they want Obama to come

It's gonna be huge

This summer, Alt-J will make proper music history. Their recently announced show at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium on June 15 will be the first gig on the continent, and quite possibly the first in the world, to use immersive hyperrealism technology – “clever computer stuff,” as keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton puts it – that’ll make the gig sound like it’s optimised specifically for you, wherever you’re standing in the venue. NME flagged down Gus and sound expert Sherif El Barbari – director of Alt-J’s tech pals L-ISA Labs – to explain exactly what it is and why it’ll sound so awesome.

First off, Gus – what is the tech you’re using, in simple terms?

Gus: “As I understand it, it’s a 360º speaker system so that our songs, wherever you’re standing in the audience, you’ll be able to hear the music coming from all around you. And using clever computer stuff we can make sounds move around the room – so if there’s, say, a helicopter sound, you can have the helicopter start from behind you and fly over your head, or have beeps and bloops bouncing around the arena in different directions, and generally creating quite a cool atmosphere.

How about the science behind it, Sherif? 

Sherif: “Sound systems today are primarily deployed in stereo with a mostly mono mix – meaning that all sounds are mixed to both left and right. This means that most of the audience is hearing an interference between the left and right systems that makes the sound inconsistent and dimensionless. And the speaker locations make it so the sound does not come from where the performers are actually located.

“An L-ISA solution uses more arrays of fewer speakers and distributes them across and potentially beyond the full width of the stage. Using our intuitive hardware and software tools, the mix engineer can then place and manipulate any sound object anywhere within the visual panorama and our L-ISA processor determines how to send the appropriate audio to the appropriate arrays. The end result is that for the majority of the audience, all sounds come from where they are seen – which better connects the audience and the artists. And by not sending all sounds to the same sources, the instruments and vocals are not fighting one another for space. They all have physical space in the mix.

“Overall – the result is lower distortion, greater consistency, a much wider audio panorama and correct localization between the audio and the visual.”

Right. Is it relatively easy to set up?

Gus: “Christ, I imagine it takes a very long time. But it’s amazing what a group of stage-hands can do in a few hours. You can see an entire stage and lighting rig and PA being set up and broken down over the course of two or three hours sometimes, it’s pretty incredible. I’m sure it’s not impossible to tour with.”

And will you tour with it, if it goes well? 

Gus: “The band is never able to know exactly what’s going on but I think the plan is to road-test it at this New York show and if it goes well, hopefully do it elsewhere.”

How did you first hear about immersive sound technology?

Gus: “We’ve had various meetings with different companies over the last few years about the advances they’ve made in PAs – we always like to be a bit ahead of the curve in Alt-J doing cool stuff, whether it’s with our lights or with recording techniques or with the live show, so we always thought it’d be great to do some surround-sound thing. It all came together in the last six months.”

The sound effects in your music are incredibly detailed, particularly on the new album. Will they be part of the experience?

Gus: “That’s the plan. That’s really why we think it’ll work so well for our music because we do love using sound effects and samples. We’re going into a sound stage to analyse all three of our albums and figure out which sounds we want to mess around with so that we can find those wicked noises that might be hidden in the tracks, pull them out, amplify them and start to do some fun things with them.

Is it expensive to stage this kind of gig? Was that a consideration?

Gus: “I don’t know the nuts and bolts of it financially – I’m sure it is going to be more expensive than your average show. But we’re not afraid of spending money when it comes to our live show. We understand tickets are expensive for fans and we try and plow as much of that money into making the show as amazing as possible rather than charging people $80 for a ticket and just having a couple of coloured lights.”

Have you ever experienced it? Is it the first of its kind?

Gus: “I’ve never experienced it at a gig. We had some demos done at a cinema watching some film clips and things and hearing some of our songs played over their speaker system which was pretty cool, but I’ve never experienced it live.”

This is described as the ‘only immersive sound show on the continent’ – how much of a pioneering moment is this in gig technology?

Gus: “Well, I wouldn’t want to use that word. Hopefully in some way – we do like to try new things out. We’re well aware that onstage we’re not like, climbing the rigging or stage-diving, we’re not that kind of band, so we try to make up for that by doing cool things with technology instead.”

Sherif: “I suppose surrounding people with sound can be thought of as an immersive approach – but L-ISA is much different and goes far beyond. The result truly delivers an immersive experience that connects the artist with the audience and elevates the audio component of the spectacle to new heights. We are confident that the industry will look back on this time as the moment when live sound production fundamentally changed. This show is a key step in the transition.”

Will this tech ever become the ‘norm’ for big gigs?

Sherif: “We are 100% convinced that the hyperrealistic, immersive experience of L-ISA will raise the entertainment value of events – no matter the size – to a completely new level. L-ISA is not specifically targeting a certain type or size of show. The technology has been developed to support all event sizes and all genres. The quality of all elements of production has evolved significantly over the years – but the methodology and the problems associated with it have remained the same. And spectators have been putting up with less than ideal auditory experiences all along. It is time for this to change.”

Are you gutted you won’t be able to experience it yourself, Gus?

Gus: “It is a shame. We say the same thing about our lighting show – we’ve won awards for our light show, people say it’s pretty amazing and we obviously never really get to experience it. We’re always the ones onstage who can’t really see it. But I suppose I’ll console myself with the fact that hopefully thousands of people will be enjoying it and having a good time.”

Is there anyone you’re really hoping is going to come? Have you invited anyone?

Gus: “I haven’t even thought about it, actually. I’m mostly excited for the fans to experience it. We have a few friends in New York who’ll hopefully be coming along but in terms of famous people or anything like that I haven’t thought about it at all. Obama, how about that? Barack Obama. Yeah.”

Alt-J’s immersive sound show comes to New York’s Forest Hills Stadium on June 15, 2018, with support from Kamasi Washington. Tickets are available here.