“Just Because Some Kid Smacks Into His Wife on the Turnpike, Doesn’t Make It a Crime to be Seventeen Years Old” (from The Blob)
Once upon a time there was a “Flintstone-esque”, stucco-encrusted building in the Queen Anne section of Seattle which the locals referred to as “The Blob”. It housed a decent enough Greek restaurant, but the main attraction of the place was the innovative, if not cartoonish, melted pudding structure, itself. Alas, the restaurant closed in the mid 90’s and the building, itself, was demolished soon thereafter, so yet another of Seattle’s wonderful little oddities was lost forever.
Then, in June of 1997, the ground again swelled, and out from the great maw of Mother Earth was born a second, grander, shiner and perhaps more appealing “blob” a mere 10 blocks from the original, plainer blob’s former location. "What the hell is that?" someone asked on the bus. "That's the new Jimi Hendrix Museum" someone else replied. Then, silence. That was three years ago.
Now, at long last, Seattle boasts a brand new oddity - the Experience Music Project (EMP). Within 35,000 square feet of neo-modern sculpted architecture at the base one of Seattle’s most recognized (and celebrated) landmarks, the Space Needle, this blob forgoes dolmas and flaming cheeses to serve up a healthy dose of good ol’ rock and roll. EMP’s mission statement reads, "EMP celebrates and explores creativity and innovation as expressed through American popular music and exemplified by rock and roll", and the contents within this odd structure bear out this intent.
EMP is the brainchild of Paul Allen and Jody Allen Patton’s collaboration. Frank O. Gehry and Associates, of Santa Monica, CA designed the building, which is comprised of formed steel 85’ high at it's highest point, 210’ wide, and 360’ long with 140,000 square feet of floor space. I am told there isn’t a single right angle within. That's some studio! To fill this vast amount of space EMP has amassed over 80,000 rock and roll artifacts which span a range from one of the first electric guitars to handwritten song lyrics to historical pieces of recording equipment.
Greeting the visitor at EMPs entrance is – what else? - loud rock music, creating the feeling of attending an in-progress concert. After purchasing our entrance tickets ($20) we proceeded to the soul of the building, appropriately named The Sky Church. Magnificent! An oval room spanned by 85’ video screens that continuously project mpeg-2 video with surround sound, the atmosphere is completed with an automated light show of grand proportions. The scene was so spectacular I forgot I was there only to pick up my Museum Exhibit Guide (MEG). Thought I’d died and been reeeal good! This is the visitors’ first real glimpse at the intricate network of digital multimedia servers EMP utilizes. The entire museum currently uses 85 AV outputs, streaming 15-mbits/sec video and 26 channels of audio, feeding 75 speakers for a stunning surround sound experience. At the very heart of this network are broadcast-quality audio and video servers, all of which are PC-based systems containing hours of high-quality video and real-time mpeg-2 encoding capabilities. These servers digitally transmit AES audio and 601 video to the entire EMP cable infrastructure.
The audio signal chain for the entire museum is based around a SeaChange RAID system that is capable of storing 50 hours of 24 mbps mpeg files, or an ENCO Audio Server. The ENCO audio server is a hard disk based, multi track record and playback device. From there, some signals go to a PESA Router before hopping onto a QSC Rave system, which is used to multiplex the audio channels through an ethernet backbone. When the audio exits on the ethernet backbone, the signal hits a Harmon BSS DSP module where the stereo audio is mixed down to mono and fed to one port for the JBL Exhibit Audio speaker. In addition, the stereo feed is sent to the Sennheiser transmitters, which are then received by the Museum Exhibit Guide (MEG) and JBL speaker systems. Whew!
EMP’s MEGs utilize the Microsoft Windows CE operating system with a hand held interface and a pair of headphones. A 6-gig harddrive - worn across the shoulder - is capable of storing 20 or more hours of CD-quality audio. This audio content enriches the EMP by giving visitors personalized access to audio information about a particular gallery, exhibit or artifact. Items of particular interest can be bookmarked for future reference in the Digital Lab or via www.emplive.com.
At various exhibits are large guitar picks with headphone icons at which the visitor can aim their hand-held MEGs, press a button, and download information to a screen which can then be played back on the visitor’s headphones. This technology utilizes 128kbps mp3's. In the future, the MEG may also include images or short video displays. The icons on the display cases do not transmit the information, perse, but are mearly replacements for menu-driven access to the database being carried over the shoulder.
There are also video monitors sprinkled about the museum, each of which broadcast video related to the accompanying displays. Sound for these displays comes from a mono speaker system that hangs directly above the video monitor and is enclosed in a column that serves to direct sound down to the viewer and provides isolation between this direct sound and the din of the surrounding museum and its occupants. This method is quite effective; however, EMP is currently working with Sennheiser to develop a method of transmitting the sound from the video displays to the hand-held MEG system so that appropriate contents at appropriate stations can be delivered via headphones and the sound tube, simultaneously.
After a quick lesson on using the hand-held MEGs, visitors encounter a central area commanded by an untitled tree sculpture created by Trimpin. This piece is comprised of 500 guitars, and the music made by the individual guitars is pumped in to the surrounding area, called the Crossroads. Standing two-stories tall, this sculpture commands the center of the museum, off of with the exhibit rooms branch.
Current exhibits include:
Guitar Gallery: The Quest for Volume displays 55 guitars chronicling the history of the electric guitar. This installation features an Italian guitar from the 1770's, a 1936 Audiovox Bass fiddle (the first electric bass ever made, which just happened to be manufactured in Seattle), and celebrates such guitar innovators as Orville Gibson, Leo Fender and Les Paul.
Northwest Passage explores the history of rock music in the Northwest, featuring a display on the quest for fame between Paul Revere and The Raiders and The Kingsmen. Both bands hailed from Portland, and both recorded the multi-hit “Louie Louie”… at the same time. Of course, rock superstars such as Heart, Queensryche and Nirvana are displayed prominently.
It's no secret that Paul Allen is a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. Paul’s personal collection of Hendrix memorabilia is displayed in the Jimi Hendrix Gallery, and includes an Experience stage setup complete with drum kit, amps, bass, guitar, and a costume worn by Hendrix, himself. Mix readers will be delighted at the glimpse of one of the custom-made Datamix consoles from Electric Ladyland Studios.
Milestones covers the history of rock from 1940 to the present, including rap and punk genres. The focus of this exhibit is on three key innovators: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Janis Joplin. This writer was particularly pleased to see an acrylic Dan Armstrong guitar used by Greg Ginn of Black Flag included in the exhibit.
Artist Journey: Funk Blast is an amusement park style "ride" utilizing a programmable hydraulic seating area enhanced by a wide screen video, which creates the experience of catapulting though time tunnels in order to witness Funk music masters in motion.
My favorite gallery was the Sound Lab - a technical achievement of the highest order thanks to Andrea Weatherhead (Director of Interactive Development). Sound Lab exhibits are unique in their nontraditional use of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), of musical instruments as input/output devices, and what EMP calls “electromechanical interactives” to create a musical experience that immerses the visitor in the music making process. Featuring EMU APS soundcards to provide grander acoustic sounds triggered by the MIDIs was a great idea, as the new EMU APS soundcards often replace the need for sound modules, allowing for better utilization of the gallery space. In Sound Lab’s main room are several kiosks where visitors can learn to play a guitar, keyboard or drums, and EMP uses MIDI to develop unique connections between the PCs and the instruments. As the PC “talks” to an instrument, it can judge whether or not the visitor has hit the right notes. If not on key, the PC provides more practice time and will play an example over again for the “learner”. If correct notes are played, the PC moves appropriately forward. The novice “musicians” around me were having a blast!
The Cross Jam feature in the musical instrument platforms function via MIDI, as well. Three instruments are routed through a Yamaha O1V controllable mixer, enabling visitors to opt for hearing the other instruments in their area, enabling them all to play together as a “band”. A touch screen sends MIDI information via the PC to the mixer and allows visitors to adjust the levels of the other instruments at will.
Each kiosk is equipped with four JBL Control 1s connected to a spatializer to create a surround sound effect. This includes a Bass Shaker instead of a subwoofer - a technology that actually shakes the floor so the user feels the bass instead of actually projecting it audibly. Acoustic isolation was a problem which was solved by placing the monitors within 12” of the listener’s ears and using the bass shaker system to control the overall volume within the Sound Lab. Each kiosk is surrounded by several tall acoustic panels, which aid in overall sound isolation.
If a patron wants a more in-depth look at a particular instrument, a practice room awaits them on the perimeter of the Sound Lab. Wenger Corporation provided sound-isolated practice rooms equipped with the Lexicon Acoustic Reinforcement and Enhancement System (LARES). Wenger’s system – a technology developed in association with the LARES group at Lexicon – includes microphones and speakers, which are embedded in the surrounding walls. Acoustical events within the room are fed into the LARES processor, are driven by patented algorithms, and are then returned to the room as ambient sound energy. The net result is that the patron hears all the sounds they make as if within a much larger room - an auditorium or arena, perfaps. But the real magic with the Wenger/LARES system is the audio feedback – specifically, a total lack of it. Normally, putting an amplified microphone by a speaker and adding a good dose of reverb is a recipe for pain. One of this technology’s patents deals with the way feedback is eliminated before it happens without audibly the changing pitch characteristics of the source or ambient signals. This is accomplished by what LARES calls "Time-Variant Gain Before Feedback" – essentially, delaying the outputs randomly and independently over microseconds, without changing the pitch, which interacts with the speakers, thus providing changeable acoustics in the room (ie, reverb). For example, speaking in a room equipped with this system may sound larger or smaller than normal, depending on the user’s will. Plus, you will not be speaking into a device, so it really feels as though the space is growing or shrinking.
Each booth is acoustically isolated, with turned, low-force air conditioning attached to each room, S-shaped conduit and junction boxes for wiring, and 4" walls with steel plates on either side lined with sheet rock and heavy, acoustical fiberglass. All of this allows the user to do whatever they want as loud as they want within the booth (perfect for any energetic 13 year old with flames in his/her eyes).
One can imagine that with this kind of isolation museum patrons could completely lose themselves in the iso booth. To keep the crowds flowing, however, Digital Harmony - the company that created the MIDI’s Toolbox - designed a timer: when a visitor enters a soundproof room, the countdown begins. Once the allotted time is up, MIDI cuts the audio, thereby notifying the visitor that their time in rock heaven is over. This benefits other visitors, as well, as they can quickly assess how long their wait will be before it’s their turn to play! We really should have had these things on the school playground when I was a kid.
Short lessons on how to play a particular instrument are given inside each booth. For example, some rooms contain modified electric Optech guitars with LED’s on the fretboard to help facilitate proper finger positions, and an interactive sound and visual tutorial guides the lesson. This is a great system for players of any level of experience. For those of us who already know how to play, another guitar with an amp is available in the rooms so visitors can strap on and start wanking with various genres of pre-recorded music. Both guitars are active, allowing for two to play together, if desired.
We audio engineers will gravitate to the mixing room, which features a Mackie Console, JBL Control 28’s and a computer flat screen. An interactive video display teaches recording through a simple, yet visually stimulating tutorial on how recording consoles work. Great care was taken in the creation of these tutorials, which are visually beautiful yet also communicate desirable information. Of course, if you already know how to drive a console you can get right to the mix - the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams” in its original 8 track glory!
When the day is done and your MEG has been returned, any bookmarks you have loaded can be saved to EMP’s web site for further exploration in either the Compaq Digital Lab or via the web utilizing your ticket number. EMPlive.com is an extension of the Project to the rest of the world, and allows for access to even more information about particular display items, as well as full-length songs and digital photos of items from the various collections.
All said, the Experience Music Project provides a multitude of unique and exciting experiences for everyone from the novice to the expert. Here, there is truly something for everyone. Kids love it, teens love it, even Grandma will love it. Visit the website to see what awaits you, then load up the car, stock up on lattes, and point that vehicle due Northwest. That glimmer of light you see just below Seattle’s gloomy skies, that’s the shiny new roof of our newest, favorite blob!