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Sennheiser: “David Bowie is"

Sennheiser's guidePORT audio guide system and two 3D sound simulations turn "David Bowie is" at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London into a unique sound experience.

The world’s leading museum of art and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has curated a unique exhibition on one of the most influential artists of our times: David Bowie. Designed to take visitors on an unforgettable, multi-faceted journey of sound and style, "David Bowie is" will open its doors to the public on 23 March.


Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Design by Brian Duffy and Celia Philo, make up by Pierre La Roche. Photograph by Brian Duffy © Duffy Archive.


In order to ensure the best audio experience for visitors, the V&A has worked in partnership with audio specialist Sennheiser which – alongside other audio equipment – deployed its guidePORT audio guide system and two immersive 3D sound simulations.

David Bowie has been at the forefront of the world of popular music for nearly 50 years, and his immense creativity positions him as one of the most innovative performers of all time. His work is marked by continual re-invention, intellectual depth, musical innovation and striking visual presentation.

Re-tracing Bowie’s creativity and influences from all areas of art, the exhibition shows a wealth of material, including videos, stage costumes, album covers, stage sets, photographs and of course Bowie’s music. For this, the exhibition’s curators, V&A’s Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, were given unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive.


Sound at the heart of the exhibition
The exhibition is designed to be an immersive audio experience. Sound quality is therefore one of the most critical elements, and the organisers have drawn on the expertise and technology of audio specialist Sennheiser to craft the exhibition’s rich soundscape.


The guidePORT bodypack receiver


Fittingly for a tribute to an artist that has embraced technology throughout his career, the exhibition uses leading edge tools to blend sound and vision. Audio guides, powered by Sennheiser’s guidePORT system, automatically provide the music and soundtrack when visitors approach the exhibits and screens, and seamlessly integrate all sound material into the tour.

The exhibition will use 550 bodypacks with Sennheiser stereo headphones, offering a simple solution that lets the visitor explore Bowie’s music, art, and style with all their senses.

While two audio events are directly stored on the visitors’ bodypack receivers – a welcome text when entering the exhibition and an "extro" when leaving – all other music and video sound is transmitted as real-time, lip-sync stereo audio from eleven twin cell transmitters. These rack-mount units are located in two control rooms that also accommodate the control PC for the guidePORT system.

The visitors’ receivers automatically download the audio when they pass by the corresponding guidePORT antenna units, and "know" which track to play when they approach so-called identifiers, small trigger units placed near the exhibits – just like an indoor GPS.

"This is a fully automated yet entirely personal tour, as the exhibition can be explored in whatever order and at any pace whatsoever. The audio is always played at the right time for each visitor," explains Norbert Hilbich, Sennheiser Application Engineering, who assisted in the set-up of the guidePORT system.

Tours with a tour-guide are possible too. For this, the museum uses a convenient bodypack transmitter with a headset microphone, enabling the guides to both make tailor-made commentary for their guests and trigger any of the pre-recorded exhibition material as they like.


Photo collage of manipulated film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth, about 1975–76. Design by David Bowie, film stills by David James. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive 2012. Film stills © STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd. Image © V&A Images.


3D audio simulation
The audio voyage through the exhibition culminates in two extraordinary 3D audio experiences. Viewing footage of David Bowie perform live concerts and recordings filmed for TV, visitors are enveloped within a fantastically spatial performance of his music delivered by hidden Neumann and Klein+Hummel loudspeakers. This 3D sound experience is also used during Tony Visconti’s evocative "mash-up" of Bowie songs, created specially for the exhibition by Bowie’s long-term producer.

To enable both stereo and mono material to be played as a 3D reproduction, an upmix algorithm by Sennheiser’s Gregor Zielinsky was used. "We had some really old mono material, not exactly recorded under the best of circumstances", explained Gregor Zielinsky, International Recording Applications Manager. "With the algorithm and some fine-tuning in the studio we ensured that this rare material can now be enjoyed in an astonishingly new form."


Geoffrey Marsh, co-curator of the exhibition, said,
"'David Bowie is' will integrate over 300 objects and costumes from the David Bowie Archive
with high-quality sound and video to create a seamless evocation of Bowie’s career over five decades. This is the first major UK exhibition where sound is an integral part of the interpretation. Working with Sennheiser on audio delivery has been a fantastic opportunity

They have pushed the boundaries as to how sound can evoke, provoke and inspire visitors and they have created a genuinely multi-media museum experience which has been a challenging objective but one we are delighted to have done with Sennheiser’s support and expertise." 


Paul Whiting, President of Global Sales at Sennheiser, commented:
"The Victoria and Albert Museum designed 'David Bowie is' to be as much about the sonic as the visual. The Sennheiser audio guide and groundbreaking sound system were installed with this in mind. Our sound engineers have used their considerable expertise and the kind of audio design normally found only at major music events.

Sennheiser was innovating when many of these sounds were created, and we have pushed the barriers of sound again to enable you to hear Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke the way Bowie, Visconti or Eno intended." 


Following its run at the V&A the exhibition will tour internationally (venues to be confirmed).


The tourguide system:
•    550 guidePORT bodypack receivers for visitors (GP EK 3202-5-1)
•    1,000 dynamic stereo headphones (PX 100 II) with hygiene pads
•    11 cell transmitters for transmitting music and soundtrack to visitors (GP SR 3200-2)
•    34 active antenna modules (GP AM 3000) for the cell transmitters
•    48 indoor indentifiers (GP ID 3200-IN) to trigger the audio
•    55 charging units (GP L 3202-10)
•    1 bodypack transmitter with headset mic for a tour-guide (GP SK 3202-0-1 and HS 2)
•    guidePORT installation and statistics software


The 3D simulations:
•    10 Neumann O 410 three-way loudspeakers
•    4 Neumann KH 870 sub-woofers
•    2 Klein+Hummel IS 153 three-way loudspeakers
•    8 Klein+Hummel IS 123 three-way loudspeakers
•    2 Klein+Hummel IS Sub 215 subwoofers



Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.



Interview with Gregor Zielinsky

With his technical and musical background, graduate tonmeister Gregor Zielinsky worked for 16 years at Deutsche Grammophon. It was there that he won a Grammy in 1992 for the Best Engineered Classical Recording for "Candide", which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Gregor Zielinsky is now the International Recording Applications Manager at audio specialist Sennheiser.


Gregor Zielinsky


An algorithm developed by Zielinsky is used at the exhibition "David Bowie is" at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to convert David Bowie's mono and stereo material into a multi-channel music experience for the visitors.

The exhibition "David Bowie is" transports its visitors into the worlds of sound created by this exceptional artist. It also employs an algorithm developed by you. What does this algorithm do and where is it used? 


This upmix algorithm was developed to automatically convert stereo recordings into simulated 3D. Basically, you can describe it as a "one size fits all" algorithm for 3D surround sound, and it can also be used by consumers in the future.

The exhibition "David Bowie is" uses the algorithm at two places. The first is a large video installation showing David Bowie at concerts and during a performance on Top of the Pops. This impressive projection is enhanced by 3D sound. Due to the nature of the sources available – some of the old material was in mono and in some cases it had simply been recorded from the live mixing console – it took quite a bit of effort to generate a sound that was optimally matched to the exhibition.

To do this, I converted the mono sources into pseudo-stereo and then performed a controlled and fine-tuned conversion into 3D. Each song took me about two days in the studio to complete.

The algorithm is also used for a collage of Bowie songs that his producer, Tony Visconti, put together specially for the exhibition. It’s not a kind of medley as you might expect but a sophisticated interlinking of different songs. The familiar opening of one song, for example, is connected with a hook line from another piece, with the result that Bowie’s works start to talk to each other. I must say, Tony Visconti has created a fantastic new work of art with his collage. This time, the audio material was of a high quality and went through the algorithm 1:1 without any reprocessing.


How does the algorithm work?


The algorithm is based on psychoacoustic effects, and its special process is patent-pending. It’s not a matter of artificially adding reverb or spatial effects; instead, the algorithm analyses the stereo signal and uses the spatial information that is nearly always available to calculate a 3D sound.

One very important aspect is to maintain the balance between the band and the vocals and to ensure that the voice is not being coloured. The algorithm is converted into an impulse response, and the original audio signal is combined with the impulse response by using a mathematical process called convolution. The result is simulated 3D. Home applications in the future will simply use a small chip with the impulse response to convert the signal in real time.


What is the greatest challenge in a 3D algorithm?


The greatest challenge is that the 3D simulation must not be allowed to distort the sound. Other algorithms simply distribute two available channels over nine, with the effect that the vocals sound too nasal, comb filter effects occur and the spectral sound is negatively coloured.

My objective is to make a recording sound better, and to turn a stereo source into an impressive surround signal that maintains the sound of the voice and does not generate any sound colouration. The sound quality must by no means be sacrificed just to produce 3D.


A completely different question: what do you most admire David Bowie for?


I just admire him! He is one of the most important artists on the planet. I grew up with his songs, and what always set him apart from the rest of the musical avant-garde is his quality as a composer and the experimental audio effects that were always present even on his most commercially successful hits. These include unusual instruments such as the Mellotron, which conjures up a certain mysticism in his music. All I can say is: I just admire him. And I really love his new album, which is like a synergy of 2013 and the 1970s. For me, it is already a classic – just like "Heroes" or "Aladdin Sane".