Installed Audio

Nick Ryan's VoiceLine: Uncovering London's 'hidden history' and celebrating 100 years of The BBC

To mark the 100th anniversary of the BBC’s first radio transmission, audio artist Nick Ryan was commissioned to create an innovative sound installation in one of London’s busiest and noisiest locations. Headliner sat down with him to find out more…

The Strand, one of the capital’s most bustling, congested, noise-polluted thoroughfares, may not seem the likeliest of locations for a sonic art installation. But for sound artist Nick Ryan it was the only location for his latest project, celebrating the centenary of the BBC’s inaugural radio transmission. Though the majority of the millions who pass through it daily may not be aware, The Strand is regarded by those in the business of broadcast as the birthplace of radio in the UK. Indeed, The Strand’s Marconi House was the very first place in which radio was transmitted in London, while Bush House was the home of radio for some 70 years.

With this “hidden history” in mind, Ryan set about creating VoiceLine - an ambitious and extensive piece that would pay homage to The Strand’s past and raise awareness of its place in broadcasting history. After four years of development, Ryan conceived a vision whereby a linear sound array featuring 39 L-Acoustics 5XT coaxial speakers — each located three and a half metres apart and set along a path within the newly pedestrianised quarter — would play sounds throughout the day celebrating the culture and heritage of the area. Powering the array are 10 L-Acoustics LA4X four-channel amplified controllers, each connected to an AVB network where they can be independently controlled.

“For people around the world, The Strand is a recognisable landmark, but a lot of people in London have no idea that all of these voices emerged from these buildings,” Ryan tells Headliner. “I discovered that the very first radio signal came out of the seventh floor of Marconi House on November 11, 1922 and it had this very long wavelength of 350 metres, so I wanted to reimagine that wavelength in two dimensions along the street as a line of speakers, like an invisible pathway of sound where you could retrace this geometry and experience all sorts of different sound worlds that would change from moment to moment.

“Some of those sound worlds would be taken from the BBC audio archive. Some are from local communities, like the tap-dancing studio at Pineapple Studios, the cast of Mamma Mia, and even a quadraphonic recording of a family of whales made by my colleague Michelle Fournet, a leading marine acoustic ecologist. I‘ve spent a lot of time researching and getting sounds, and I’ve also worked with historians to tell the story of the site going back 800 years. It’s a 12-hour programme every day of sound collage. The first thing in the morning is the dawn chorus, then it could be Woman’s Hour at 10am which is much more narrative.”

For Ryan, VoiceLine has been an enormously rewarding but challenging undertaking. From developing the physical speaker structures, concocting a 12-hour audio programme, and helping people understand the concept of sound art, it has pushed him creatively and practically like no other project.

“I started about four years ago but I was commissioned a year ago,” he elaborates. “And it has been a real joy. It’s a real challenge making a public piece of work, especially one with such a big footprint, and it was very important to me that we involved people in the local area and community groups. So, we had to explain this idea to them that is quite alien – the concept of sound art. And it was technically very challenging – 39 channels delivered to speakers and programming all the content so it is continuously evolving. Some of it is non-linear, and it’s always programmed at particular hours to change its sequence.

“The eventual aim is to explore whether this could be a permanent instrument for London. At the moment it is temporary, and as such, we had to design a structure which was temporary. That was interesting. I wanted it to look really beautiful, even though it’s a sound work, and because it’s above ground it had to have a structural aesthetic. It’s inspired by radio technology from the early last century.”

All of my work is about trying to push the boundaries of what sound can do. Nick Ryan

Crucial to the success of the project, Ryan continues, was a partnership with an audio brand that could match the scale and ambition of his vision.

“I’ve been involved with L-Acoustics for a number of years now,” he says, explaining how the French pro audio giant became involved with VoiceLine. “They are very nice people and I consider myself to be part of their family. All of my work is about trying to push the boundaries of what sound can do, either the way it is made or the way it is listened to. I know about the quality of L-Acoustics speakers, and I love that their founder, Christian Heil, is a physicist, so all of their technology is based on known quantities, so not only are their speakers very good but it is also possible to start from a quantifiable baseline. So, when it comes to putting them in a public space you can tune them in a really precise manner. And their Soundvision software helps you do that.

“While the speakers we are using, the 5XTs, didn’t have a huge amount of bass, they have a tremendous fidelity and frequency range, so they fitted very nicely in the form factor we were looking for. They also pair with these amps, the X4i, which are networkable, so I can output up to 128 discrete channels from a single RME ABB interface, which makes it very easy. I don’t have to have loads of different interfaces; I can just go straight into the network and address all of these separate amp channels.”

The company’s L-ISA Studio technology has also played a major role in bringing VoiceLine to fruition, says Ryan.

“L-ISA Studio is the thing that connects it all. In my studio I have a Neumann setup of 12 channels; I laid those out to represent a section of the VoiceLine and I have EQ’d those to sound like the 5XTs. I’m using L-ISA Studio to prepare content, and one of the amazing things about the L-ISA panner is that it is genuinely a spatial environment. When I take a sound out and move it along the street, there is no home filtering at all, even though I have unfolded the surround into a line. I can use the surround reverbs in L-ISA Studio to create this incredible sense of depth, and I can basically see it as a linear sound stage of 40 speakers in front of me. I can then use the reverbs to move things away or towards the listener. It’s amazing and I can automate all of the panning.”

When he is composing and mixing some of the more challenging pieces broadcast across VoiceLine, Ryan also uses L-ISA Studio to add space and dimension.

"I love the immersive reverb," he says. "If I had time, I would use that reverb for everything because it gives this incredible richness to any sound source. It is genuinely modelled, and it sounds so different. Movement from one speaker to the next is seamless, and the rotation function can be very useful when you want to move an object a full 180° — this capability doesn't exist in other immersive tools."

The VoiceLine runs through April 17, 2023 and is free and open to the public between 8:00am and 8:00pm daily.