Surface Resonance…


Surface resonance is a sound and tactile sensation research project. I explored vibration as a product of low frequency (bass) sound, drawing inspiration from musical contexts where sensation from sound is emphasised.

As low frequency sound passes through a space it can stimulate vibrations in a building structure. These vibrations may be experienced physically, through the transmission of energy from the building and into the body, and/or may create vibration sound that is experienced aurally, such as rattles from fixtures or windows.

My interest has been in the characteristics of these vibrations and how they may convey connections between sound and the physical aspects of the body or a space. I have explored the idea that vibration, both heard and experienced physically, can change a person’s perception of sound.

Compositions were made for vibro-acoustic installation, which combines a ‘tactile table’ system that an audience sits or lies on to experience sensation, with loudspeakers reproducing acoustic material.


Summary of project

Research question and aims

My project objective was to develop compositions for installation that communicate my findings on felt and heard vibration. I aimed to create works that drew association to listeners’ past experiences and engaged with the way vibration is perceived. At the beginning of the research program, I asked:

Through sound design and composition incorporating sensation technology, how can I use physical vibration to draw attention to the role of the body in the experience of sound, and how can I draw upon vibration in musical contexts to achieve this?

The question sustained throughout the project, and developed into four key principal research aims or foci, framing my research approach and helping to define the field covered. These concerned:

  • abstracting musical basslines into an environmental domain
  • the articulation of building materials through vibration
  • composing for a tactile sensation bodily experience, and
  • understanding the dialogue between hearing and sensation, and how felt and audible aspects affect awareness and perception of each other

Principal approaches to research and composition

I designed a 1.2m2 ‘tactile table’ system that translates sound into strong vibration that may be felt through touching or standing on it. Amplified audio signal is fed into the table, which incorporates an audio-signal driven ‘vibration actuator’ in place of a loudspeaker.

Vibration composition

I experimented with and composed vibration material for the table, exploring how an audio signal is presented through a tactile medium, and how vibration requires a unique compositional approach.

I assessed aspects such as how higher frequencies were reproduced, the dramatic changes in perceived level and upper harmonics with small changes in signal level, and phase interferences between low frequencies.

Much of my research development came from exploring the kinds of experiences and states I could communicate with vibration, and the component parts that make up an effective or engaging sensation. This helped me develop a distilled approach to composing sensation material.

Audio composition

To explore ‘vibration sounds’ from materials, I started by recording music-activated vibration in spaces. My practice developed from this to using the vibration table to ‘excite’ material into resonance, particularly large building materials such as window panes and sheet metal.

Recordings of this were the basis for acoustic composition, made to partner with the vibration material.

To make sounds through materials, I combined table-based vibration with hand dampening to alter the vibration behaviours. I also explored a range of miking techniques.

I tested the spectrum of sounds that may be generated, from metallic resonance, to discordant and distortive sound, to more subtle vibration sounds at the periphery of low frequency sound.

Vibro-acoustic presentation/installation

I explored the relationships between vibration sensation and hearing, and how when experiencing a vibro-acoustic composition, each sense can affect perception and awareness of the other.

The final works engage both the auditory and tactile senses, by involving audience interaction with the table to experience sensation, and loudspeakers that reproduce acoustic material, derived from objects brought into resonance.

I tested different vibro-acoustic relationships, such as sound and vibration aligning to each other, to more ‘contrapuntal’ structures.

By working with the crossover between hearing and whole-body vibration perception, and applying a range of vibration experiences and effects through the table, I developed compositions that establish a dialogue between hearing and sensation.

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The initial inspiration – musical vibration and riddim

My research drew from and was influenced by environments with a strong and unique association to felt and heard vibration.

These are specific contemporary ‘dance’ music performance contexts, where high levels of low frequency sound (as bass in music) stimulates physical responses from the body and the architectural environment.

In particular, I attempted to capture, reference and abstract bass-line rhythm in dub and dub-influenced music. Throughout this site, I apply the term ‘riddim’ to encapsulate this concept. ‘Riddim’ is about powerful, rhythmic bass, with a lilting ‘drop’ where sensation in the body is gripped and released with different tones and intensities; and a performance space responds in different ways as it is activated by the shifting bass sounds.

Play above or click to open in new window - use adequate loudspeakers or headphones.

Example - dub riddim
Rhythm and Sound - No Partial - PK / Rhythm & Sound

By looking at this music and context as a reference point, I drew upon the unique properties of vibration within music experience, such as its strong physical aspects, and its tonal/rhythmic qualities.

I explored how effectively I can rearticulate and abstract riddim-based vibration in creation of sound art works, and tested the issues associated with this linkage to musical contexts.

I focused on the natural processes of abstraction that occur when music passes through a building and creates audible vibration; and how the resultant sound can shift from being musical to unfamiliar, or registered as environmental in nature.

While the exploration of riddim was a common thread in all of the aspects of my research, at the conclusion of my studies I arrived at a point and creative approach that was highly abstracted from this musical reference.

For audio compositions, I attempted to retain a sense of the way musical riddim activates a space, with the varying bass notes triggering different parts of a building into temporary resonance or vibration.

For sensation composition, I aimed to deliver an experience that alluded to the properties of bass-heavy riddim engaging with the body. At various stages, I experimented with stripped back, abstracted and processed bassline riddim for a bodily vibration experience.

These tests informed a broader research arc that explored other vibration sensation content that could indirectly allude to music riddim. This covered bass heavy drones, modulated low frequencies, tests with tactile feedback, and building riddim-like patterns of bass from flange and phase processing of pure bass tones. At the end of the program, I established effective approaches with slowly undulating vibrations.

Conclusion of the research program

To most effectively answer my research question, I concentrated on testing and developing new understandings within less explored aspects of a broader domain.

For example, my compositions are in the realms of full-body tactile and combined tactile and audible experiences, while recognising the work of artists exploring low frequency sound sensation. With sound, I concentrated on generating, articulating and recording surface vibration, with an appreciation of the artists and works investigating space and object resonance.

In concluding my Masters program, I have:

  • thoroughly explored my research question and aims
  • contributed new works and ideas within the larger field of sound art employing low frequency sound and vibration
  • developed a solid basis for a broader practice that can build on my findings and contribution to the field

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Overview subsection:  Context and contribution to the field

Reference Material

  • Overview of setup
    Overview - sound and sensation setup / pdf
  • Reggae Soundsystem
    Inspiration in bass riddim sensation
  • Vibrating a window
    Objects are brought into resonance
  • Hand dampening
    Manipulation by hand and body articulates the sound
  • Resonating a drum