Bill Fontana's Panoramic Echoes Uses Meyer Sound SB-1 Sound Beam to Add Magic to Madison Square Park
These days, the birds singing in New York City's Madison Square Park sound hyperreal. The air is filled with their exotic arias that seem to descend from the sky in waves, somehow loud enough to supplant the din of nearby traffic with the beauty of birdsong. Park visitors used to hearing a few chimes from the historic MetLife Tower every hour now hear bells every quarter hour that seem to move, float, echo, and fade with more presence than before. What exactly is going on in this small city park?
Perplexed New Yorkers will be relieved to know that the extra bells and whistles are part of an innovative sound sculpture created by San Francisco-based sound artist Bill Fontana titled Panoramic Echoes. The sonic art project uses four Meyer Sound SB-1 parabolic long-throw sound beams to project sounds into the park from distant buildings in every direction.
The SB-1 was the key component to making Fontana's concept work. "It's really the only loudspeaker in the world that could do what I needed," he says. "In a sense, it was the musical instrument for which this piece was written. It simply would not have worked had I used conventional speakers mounted inside the park. That would have ruined the magical effect."
The SB-1 consists of a fiberglass parabolic reflector dish with a bullet-shaped pod containing a 4-inch compression driver and an aspherical horn, mounted at the focus of the parabolic surface and aimed at the center of the dish. A 12-inch band-limited cone driver is embedded inside the center of the dish facing the pod to steer and focus the sound produced from the horn. The SB1's powerful combination of components provides a narrow beam of sound with flat response from 500 Hz to 15 kHz and 110 dB peak SPL output at 100 meters.
Fontana positioned the sound beams on rooftops and balconies high atop buildings located up to 400 feet away from the park: the MetLife Tower (Madison Avenue at 24th Street), the New York Life Building (Madison Avenue at 26th Street), and on two opposite corners of the International Toy Center (Fifth Avenue and Broadway) building, which also served as home for the Panoramic Echoes control room. Despite the distance, the sounds retain exceptional clarity due to the SB-1 sound beam's ability to propagate sound waves that decrease as little as 3 dB SPL per doubling of distance for more than 300 feet, across a five-octave frequency range, all with a consistent beam width that is only 10 degrees at 100 feet. The SB-1 typically sees use in applications that are somewhat more conventional than Fontana's, such as in stadiums to ensure intelligible coverage in distant seating areas.
The strategically placed loudspeakers' overlapping patterns allowed the sound to envelop most of the six-acre park's northern half. Despite the large physical size of the SB-1 cabinets (54 inches wide by 54 inches high by 48.28 inches deep), they are invisible from the park, increasing the phantasmagoria of the descending soundscapes that hover and reverberate above the area.
The four bronze bells atop the 346-foot MetLife Tower produce natural sounds for Fontana's project. Four Shure SM57 microphones (one for each bell) capture the tones, which are run into a small mixer before transmission via a Sennheiser UHF wireless system to a custom-programmed Harmonic Functions AudioBox digital matrix mixer for time-based processing and matrixing for the spatial effects. Two additional Sennheiser systems transmit the bird songs and additional processed bell signals via the AudioBox mixer back to the SB-1 cabinets located on the far side of the park.
All sound equipment for Panoramic Echoes was installed by New York City-based
Steward Desmond, project manager for the Conservancy, says his organization is gratified by the salutary impact the work has had on visitors to the park. "This is a small park, and it's surrounded by city noise, which grates on your sensibilities," he says. "Introducing the happy sounds of birds and enhanced bells — all thanks to the SB-1 sound beam — adds magic to the park."
According to Fontana, the sound beams bring an element of mystery into the work. "There's something almost unimaginable about the idea," he says. "Who would put speakers like this up on the rooftops around the park? The possibility doesn't exist in the world of most people's imaginations."
Fontana has maintained a long and close relationship with Meyer Sound founders John and Helen Meyer, and the company has often supported his work, even designing a loudspeaker for an earlier project in Lyon, France. That loudspeaker became the MM-4 miniature wide-range loudspeaker, now a mainstay installation product for the company.
For more information on this and other Bill Fontana works, visit his website at: www.resoundings.org. Two of Fontana's earlier works are also detailed in Meyer Sound stories at: www.meyersound.com/news/2002/falling_echos/ and www.meyersound.com/news/2006/harmonic_bridge/. The Madison Square Conservancy's website can be found at: www.madisonsquarepark.org.