Creating the 2013 Man Base Soundscape

[This post and pictures about the 2013 Man Base soundscape (aka Project Honeysuckle) were generously contributed by Gogo, longtime member of the Man Base sound team, who hails from Vienna, Austria.]

It was back in January 2013 when I got a message from my dear friend Spanky that made me jump through the ceiling. Obviously there was a meeting at Burning Man Headquarters where the UFO that should become 2013’s Man Base was presented, and obviously Spanky raised his hand at one point and said “It should have sound!”, and obviously the answer he got was “Yes, and you are in charge of it!” That was the beginning of an undertaking that was challenging and crazy and the most ambitious project I ever realized for Burning Man.

"All Your Base Are Belong To Us"
“All Your Base Are Belong To Us”

When Spanky contacted me and filled me in on the theme “Cargo Cult” and told me about the UFO I immediately had an Idea and I dug up a CD I made back in 1997/98. I sent him a track of filtered low frequency “black noise” to illustrate what I wanted to do. The fun thing was that he was sending me a link to a youtube video that’s called “Star Trek TNG Ambient Engine Noise” at the same time — we had the exact same idea from the beginning!

Initial equipment test run at Recycle Camp
Initial equipment test run at Recycle Camp

The next phase of the project felt like a mixture of flower picking and ping pong. Defying the time difference between Vienna, Austria and San Francisco, California we exchanged ideas and files and we discussed and tweaked and recorded and played back and soon we had a set of acoustic components we really wanted to use.

Sean had built all these awesome subwoofers for us
Sean had built all these awesome subwoofers for us

To make the “low frequency noise” more connected to the actual theme I used footage from the Golden Record that was sent out into space and time aboard the Voyager spacecraft in the 70s. I found the “greetings in 55 languages” are great material because they would reflect the global scope of Burning Man. I slowed down the recordings from the Golden Record beyond recognition using “Paul Stretch” and filtered them until they resembled a vivid version of the noise we initially wanted.

More subwoofers waiting for their paint job
More subwoofers waiting for their paint job

We found another “engine sound” we definitely wanted to use. For the audiophile it’s easy to explain: We made engine sounds using the principle of “missing fundamentals”. When you hear two different sine tones at the same time your perception “adds” a third tone that appears to sound like the difference between the two frequencies that are actually playing. This is also referred to as “binaural tone”. Mr. Blue who we’ve been helping with Man Base light in recent years got us blueprints of the Man Base and I calculated appropriate wavelengths and resonant frequencies and since the shape of the UFO’s core was basically hexagonal we decided to take the challenge and go for three channel audio. So if you were there at the right time you might have had the rare opportunity to hear TRI-aural tones that sounded like a pulsing engine running inside the UFO’s core.

Remember that meteorite in the UFO's core?
Remember that meteorite in the UFO’s core?

The third “engine sound” we came up with is some sort of acoustic specialty too, actually we were creating an exquisite hallucination. The trick is called “Risset rhythm” and derives from what’s called “Shepard tone” — a paradox that’s comparable to the optical illusion of a barber’s pole: when you look at a barber’s pole (a spiral painted on a turning column) it seems to move up (or down) infinitely, even if — of course — it doesn’t. The same holds true for Shepard tones and Risset rhythms — they seem to rise (or fall) in pitch or increase (or decrease) their tempo infinitely — even if they just loop. As a little joke we were using a recording of Laurel Klynn’s cat purring, cats can sound very much like a tractor if they are being amplified! We also made sounds for takeoff and landing using Shepard tones at sunrise and sunset.

Spanky and Sean mounting a subwoofer
Spanky and Sean mounting a subwoofer

When we saw a model of the Man Base we could not help thinking of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and that epic scene where they are trying to communicate with the alien ship. At the same time I was browsing for patches for SuperCollider (an algorithmic software synthesizer I used for the Risset rhythms) and came across a posting by Jonatan Liljedahl aka kymatica that just blew me away. I was very excited about that sound and contacted Jonathan to ask for permission to use his patch. Our collaboration was very fruitful and I learned how to extend the (mono) patch to true three channel output. I’m still very thankful to kymatica who’s a plain genius. We used this SuperCollider instrument that’s called “Dark Seahorns” extensively and played the “Close Encounters melody” with it.

Subsonic awesomeness
Subsonic awesomeness

Since we had been working with Mr. Blue’s Man Base light crew during the past few years we put some effort into making a “crescendo” for midnight that was coordinated with light programming. So just before midnight lights started to flicker and go weird and our goal was to make the whole thing shake and crackle until it roars and explodes! I used granular synthesis to get there and we collected jet plane sounds, heavy trains and gigantic ships, mixed with broken neon lights, breaking wood and shattering glass. Jason Gedrose modified the flying saucer’s light programming every day during Burning Man.

We never thought that thing would actually fly
We never thought that thing would actually fly

Now we had all the parts together and we planned on using two mp3 players for playing back the three channels we created. To facilitate timing (and because they sound awesome) we used Quindar tones at every hour that Manfred Söllner aka falm designed for us.

Spanky enjoying tea at that diner that suddenly rolled up for us
Spanky enjoying tea at that diner that suddenly rolled up for us

While I was focusing on getting the audio done in Austria the other part of the crew was focusing on hardware. Sean Semans engendered a central part of the actual installation: speakers. We had very challenging requirements — the speakers should be able to reproduce extremely low frequencies very accurately and be powerful at the same time. They must endure the harsh conditions they would be exposed to — you may remember the heavy rain that hit Black Rock City just days before the event started, not to mention the daily dust storms you can really count on. Sean built us casings for 12″ woofers that did not only sound great but also looked awesome. It was a bit of a challenge to design sound for a custom made audio power amplification system. Spanky was sending me videos of the speaker’s membranes playing back frequency swipes I sent him for testing. Nobody heard the finished system before it was actually assembled on site, in the desert. Nobody heard it until it was mounted inside that crazy big wooden monster conceived by Lewis Zaumeyer and Larry Harvey that Joe the Builder built with his crew.

A spare Buttkicker
A spare Buttkicker

We had to make sure that our plan would work out no matter what so Spanky had ordered Buttkickers. These are so-called bass transducers, powerful shakers that are to be mounted on surfaces in order to make them vibrate. Equipment like this is used in some movie theaters or discotheques where powerful low frequencies are needed. Spanky ordered a lot and we mounted them onto the first floor. To complete the audible spectrum we reused patio speakers that had been used on the man base (and at Recycle Camp) before.

Not our problem
Not our problem

During a couple of straining days and nights at the Man Base we managed to mount 6 patio speakers, our 6 custom made woofers and the Buttkickers. We ran about 300ft of audio wire through the complex structure of the wooden flying saucer to connect the speakers to the amplifiers. We calculated Ohms and Watts and phases and lengths. We used ladders in ways we shouldn’t ever tell anyone about and maneuvered heavy equipment against all laws of physics while Joe the Builder’s crew was jigsawing and drilling and hammering just inches above our hard hats, throwing sparks in our faces working at full speed! During that last phase everyone felt that things needed to be finished now — or never.

Of course someone spilled a drink over our master plan (after it took us hours to make it)
Of course someone spilled a drink over our master plan (after it took us hours to make it)

So when we had all the wiring done we connected the three sections we had defined and labeled. Of course all our resources had run out and we barely had enough hardware to put it all together, but at this point we were totally willing to use nails instead of RCA jacks just to get ‘er done. We fired up the amps and fine-tuned our equalizers. It felt like a miracle that all the bits and pieces worked together. That very moment Larry Harvey came up the stairs, smiled and yelled something like “It’s too loud!”, but we couldn’t really hear him ‘cos our speakers were roaring.

Finally the UFO had its pulsating heart
Finally the UFO had its pulsating heart

Just minutes later the Man Base was officially opened and we put our dusty hand prints on a wall where you could feel the vibrations of the sound very well. At the end of the week I couldn’t believe my eyes, because so many participants had done the same — the whole wall was covered with hand prints! That was just amazing!

Sound appreciation day, Sean and me
Sound appreciation day, Sean and me

After pressing “play” every day at midnight (repeat did not work) and after that weird blackout of the Man Base on Thursday night we took out all equipment to re-use it in one of the years to come. The burn was gigantic!

Should we cut the red or the green wire?
Should we cut the red or the green wire?

As you can imagine we were extremely proud and happy. Even though it was difficult we were at all times just giving our best and everything worked out. We are looking forward to a future Burn that calls for a project like this, so keep an ear out for us!

Listen to the sounds here … you’ll want to use headphones and/or a bitchin’ sound system to hear some of them.

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009. He is now the Director of Content and Community for Maker Faire.

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