Speaker Feedback Instruments by Lesley Flanigan

Lesley Flanigan Speaker Feedback Instruments
Lesley Flanigan performing with her speaker feedback instruments at La Sala. © Lesley Flanigan

A beautiful example of combining acoustic feedback and musical instruments are the speaker feedback instruments by Lesley Flanigan.  What makes the technology of these instruments exceptional, is their use of so-called contact microphones (simple piezo-ceramic elements) instead of a microphone designed for picking up air pressure waves. These microphones  can easily amplify the mechanical vibrations of objects such as the sound board of a piano, an apple box, or a coffee cooker, without picking up the sonic vibrations of the air surrounding these objects. Or, simply speaking, when a contact microphone is connected to a table, and you are hitting the table and singing at the same time, the contact microphone will only amplify your voice.

In Lesley’s instruments though, these piezo-ceramic contact microphones are placed above the loudspeaker cone, without touching it. Surprisingly, they are in this case used for picking up air pressure vibrations. And indeed, feedback happens with this set-up because the air pressure waves emitted by the loudspeaker are strong enough to be picked up by the piezo-ceramic element and send back to the loudspeaker.  Due to their materiality the frequency response of these piezo-ceramic microphones will filter the sound quite heavily, and it is possible to create a very variable feedback sounds in just changing the distance between microphone and loudspeaker slightly. She discovered this set-up when trying out an amplifier:

I had built a small amplifying circuit, and to test it, I grabbed a couple items that happened to be on my table: a raw speaker cone for the output and a piezo element (basically, a microphone) for the input. The speaker and piezo were touching each other, and a very complex, tonal noise of feedback occurred (Lesley Flanagan in an interview by Tyler Miller).

contact microphone piezo ceramic speaker feedback
A piezo-ceramic element (often called contact microphone) is placed above the loudspeaker cone. © Lesley Flanigan

Since 2007 she has developed several of these speaker feedback instruments, and a speaker synth, which contains of five small different loudspeakers. Lesley told me, that she changes the set ups depending on what she feel works best for the show she is doing (or how far she needs to travel!), but definitely she has her favorites and tend to prefer playing with four at a time.

What inspired her, was that “The sounds of feedback they generated were so “real”—it was electronic sound that I could see and touch.” (Interview by Tyler Miller). It is especially this tactile element which becomes important in playing her instruments and developing her sounds. As can be seen from the video of the speaker synth both contact microphones and the membranes of the loudspeakers are touched to modify the feedback sounds. Each feedback circuit can be turned on and off, and a potentiometer next to the switch can be used for changing the feedback gain:

loudspeaker cones contact microphones
Several speaker feedback instruments made from very different loudspeaker cones taken out of old devices. © Lesley Flanigan

Her instruments are made from old loudspeakers. She is taking them out of devices, because she is interested in not finding a “perfect” loudspeaker but in the specific voice every loudspeaker has. When she heard these speaker feedback instruments “singing”, it felt just very natural for her to add her voice to them. In her performance set-up she literally shares her microphone with them, moving it from her mouth, to the speaker feedback instrument she wants to amplify through the PA system.

For me, it is a special process to collect their raw sounds with a microphone, and amplify them on a large scale. I love the moment when what was once a crusty little noise becomes a booming, warm bass swell of dense tonality. The sound itself never changed, but when amplified, its barely audible details are magnified, so we have the opportunity to hear it differently. By amplifying feedback tones, I’m trying to dig deeper and more introspectively into their sound (Lesley Flanagan in an interview by Rena Minegishi).

In these short fragments of her performances, you can recognise well how the sound of a speaker feedback instrument is amplified as soon as the microphone is approaching it:

As Lesley told me, also this bigger amplification system becomes a part of her instrumental set-up:  “I use a PA for amplification, but often like moving back and forth between the large PA amplified sound and the ‘acoustic’ sound of the feedback instruments without any amplification.” During her performances, she develops different layers of feedback and voice, using a looping pedal for sampling sounds. Whereas they are carefully prepared and rehearsed, and she clearly knows her instruments very well, she is always also reacting on what happens at each specific moment: “I knew which speakers to work with and how to play each one to bring out elements of tonality, noise and rhythm I wanted to hear. The sampling and layering of their sounds were intentionally obvious, methodical and dense. But with all that said, I could have never predicted the exact sounds that would come out of the process. Many variables effect the feedback I work with, so no matter how much control I have planned, improvisation is always at the forefront” (Lesley Flanigan in an interview by Marc Weidenbaum).

 

 

A sympathetic piano by Gökhan Deneç

The electromagnets attached 2 mm. above the piano strings to create a sympathetic piano. © Gökhan Deneç

In Chapter Three of my book I discussed several early attempts of creating electric piano’s during the end of the nineteenth century. Often these efforts made use of electromagnets and feedback to keep the piano strings in vibration. The Neo Bechstein was one of the first commercially available results, but did not use any feedback anymore. During recent years new compositions and systems using electromagnets or tactile transducers and feedback for sound shaping and diffusing have been developed, for example by Per Blond, Andrew McPherson and Rama Gottfried (I’ll post about them in the future). Also Wave Train (1966) by David Behrman is related to these kinds of electric piano’s.

The hand-wounded electromagnets, with the permanent magnets inside the plastic reel.
The hand-wounded electromagnets, with the permanent magnets inside the plastic reel. © Gökhan Deneç

Gökhan Deneç has developed a sympathetic resonance system for a piano using electromagnets and feedback through its strings. He developed his own hand-wound transducers for this, using a simple but effective combination of wire, magnets and plastic reels. These electromagnets are placed in a grand piano and hung approximately 2 mm above the strings. The piano strings are attracted and repelled by the magnetic fields caused by these electromagnets. By sending the same signal through all electromagnets each piano string will start to vibrate, depending on how much its partial tones relate to the spectrum of the signal sent through the electromagnets.  A contact microphone (a model similar to an AKG C-411) is attached to the soundboard of the piano. In between this microphone and array of electromagnets a Pure Data patch is controlling and shaping the signal to the electromagnets. As Gökhan explains:

”My first intention was to create feedback to excite the piano strings and then by manipulating it I would create textures. Then I decided to define some possible regions for feedback to occur by sending an initial sound and also accompany the feedback by these textures. Also, I have a filtering algorithm that keeps the feedback under control. […] The sound creation is realised in PureData; there is a generative algorithm that I designed to create a very specific type of sound world. […] What you hear in the video is the generated tones that are created to vibrate the piano strings and because of its nature, they are unique in their own time. I can not repeat the same sounds, there are tons of randomization going on to construct this generativeness.”

This sound processing is controlled by the amplitude of the feedback signal coming from the contact microphone. Gökhan created an algorithm which is generating clusters of ten pitches, relating to the number of our fingers. A detailed explanation about how this all functions can be found in his PhD research. His PhD is entitled Creating sound mass using live sound processing and feedback with sympathetic vibrating strings and was defended in 2015 at Istanbul Technical University.

Gökhan Deneç is continually developing this project, so if you are a composer or sound designer interested in this system and would like to experiment or even compose a piece for this, please feel invited to contact him!

The Pure Data patch with a ten pitch cluster.
The Pure Data patch with a ten pitch cluster. © Gökhan Deneç

Bandoneonbook by Hans W. Koch

Hans W. Koch performing Bandoneonbook for laptop
Hans W. Koch performs Bandoneonbook, using the acoustic feedback between the internal microphone and loudspeaker of the laptop.

In Bandoneonbook (2003) by Hans W. Koch the acoustic feedback between the small internal microphone and loudspeaker of a computer is played by opening and closing the laptop, similar to how one would play a bandoneon. The music software Max (at those times still called MaxMSP) is controlled by the keyboard of the laptop and by pressing some keys the feedback will be filtered in different ways. A piece which can only be performed with a titanium-powerbook series of 2001!

InPutOut by Ute Wassermann

Loudspeaker dress by Ute Wassermann with two microphones
Ute Wassermann performing with her loudspeaker dress in 1989.

Working with a similar principle as in Windy Gong Ute Wassermann developed a kind of loudspeaker dress , through which her voice was sounding (see both pictures above from 1989).

In 2015 she composed a new piece called InPutOut using these loudspeaker dresses for Les Femmes Savantes (Andrea Neumann, Sabine Ercklentz, Ana Marie Rodriguez and Ute Wassermann are performing). The performers wear a loudspeaker connected to a metal plate.

Loudspeakers prepared with metal plates for Ute Wassermann's InPutOut
Microphones and loudspeakers used in InPutOut (2015) by Ute Wassermann.

Each performer also holds two microphones: one to send the sound of the voice to the metal plate loudspeaker, the other one to amplify either the voice directly or the metal plate, which is excited by the voice. The signal of the second microphone is amplified through a small PA system. Holding both microphones in front of the metal plate, a feedback between microphone and metal plate loudspeaker occurs, amplified by the second microphone, which is connected to the PA system. A clear example of this feedback through the metal plate can be heard at 5’00” in the video documenting the piece. The microphone movements in this piece reveal fantastic possibilities of voice colouring, sometimes reminding me of  ventriloquism.