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A Sound Artist Sparked by Technology

Matt Mapleston of The Geekery worked with a sound artist to develop a sound installation in Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London during 2019. These are that artist's very own words telling his story about what happened next. It is Lee Berwick's story of a sound artist's fall into the joy of technology.

An angled photo of Greenwich Foot Tunnel with a string of lilghts on the ceiling and people walking
Greenwich Foot Tunnel

"In 2019 I received an arts council grant to make a vast sound installation in the foot tunnel under the Thames in Greenwich London, This was an exciting opportunity, the chance to make an installation with over 40 speakers in such an acoustically interesting venue was a dream come true, but was not without its problems!

The speakers in the end stairwells were not such a massive problem but down in the middle of the tunnel there was no power and security was an issue with litrally thousands of people passing through each day. Studs on the ceiling gave good fixings so at least I could hang the kit up there and I plumped for rechargeable phone speakers (minirigs) but the sound source was still an issue, particularly as I wanted all of the speakers in sync and I didnt want to run literally several hundred meters of speaker cable to link everything up…

Electronics being tested in Greenwich Foot Tunnel for a sound art installation
Greenwich Foot Tunnel Testing

At this point I had the good fortune to be introduced (by Genetic Moo) to Matt Mapleston of The Geekery in Margate. I had heard the word arduino, and had an inkling that therein lay the solution to my problem, but I had no knowledge of this technology and didn't really know what it could do or how it worked….

Matt took the bull by the horns, told me it wasn't such a huge problem and started to design a rechargable radio linked speaker system that we could put up and down each day, and whats more after a few visits to the tunnel and a trip to Margate we had working prototypes, and soon after a working system which behaved perfectly through the ten day installation without a glitch…

Several pairs of small round speakers attached to arduino and wireless modules operating in-sync with blue and purple LED lights
Media player boats before going to the tunnel

I was hooked - what the f@£k was this stuff ? what else could it do ? and it was cheap, and kids can program it I was told, I failed a computer programming exam in 1979 and had never been near programming again but we entered a dystopian nightmare (Lockdown/viral attack) as the Greenwich installation came down, and I was awarded an emergency grant by the arts council, and all my work was cancelled, and my son who knows a bit about programming moved home due to the restrictions, and so I had time… I ordered a few cheap arduino nanos online and some wierd little components and a bread board and I was off….

First I made leds blink ! then I made them blink faster, then slower and the faster again - interesting and not too hard (at least not with my son in the area and there were plenty tutorials online...)

Matt had used ‘DF Players’ for the tunnel install so I bought a few of them, I got the wrong ones of course and they didnt work but then I bought the right ones (thanks Matt) and they played sound when sent the right command with the right wires in the right holes - exciting… For sound installs I had always wanted a unit that I loaded with sound and then whenever it was switched on it just played in ‘loop mode’ until it was switched off, you cant buy them, or at least not cheaply so making one was my first real project - I made it and it worked !! so I made more !!

Several DFPlayer media players on a breadboard connected to an arduino microcontroller
DF Players - usually found In lifts & fire alarms

Next I experimented with the df players and found I could link 6 up to one arduino and they would all play in loop mode together and in sync - this gave me 12 tracks of synced audio that would start when the unit was powered on - it was brilliant, in fact so good that I added a track select switch and volume and built the whole thing into a boiler suit that I could wear - I could walk around changing the sounds that the ten speakers were playing and turn them up and down all in self contained item of clothing - I did a gig with it in summer 2020 in north Sweden at huge oil tank arts venue :-) my only gig of 2020 and very good fun !

Later in the year I made a similar unit for a project/installation (the Landscape unmuted) at Aberystwyth Arts school - the show ran for several weeks and the unit provided 10 channels of sound daily.. and it worked all the way through the instal..

I had also really got into brewing beer in lockdown and wanted to control the temperature of the fermenting ale so I bought a temperature sensor (cost about a pound) and a couple of relays (2 or 3 pounds) and made a controller that switches either a fridge on if the brew gets to hot or a heater on if the brew gets to cold - it has worked well though it took a nearly ruined batch of hefe viesen to iron out the initial problems (if you make only one temperature check of the brew every 5 minutes not every 3 seconds as I initially tried, then the thing works !)… I have now successfully brewed a whole heap of ales (too many some would say) with this wondrous device controlling the fermentation process - I named it the ‘Varm Miester’ (German for heat master)….

An electronic circuit to control the heating of homebrew beer
Varm Meister

The most recent project has been the blipinator - this is an arduino tone generator with knobs to control pitch, speed of blip and note length and switches that can add a random factor to each of these parameters, there is also a knob that determines the amount of randomness and can switch all randomness on/off - this is the Mk 1 and I am seriously thinking about adding a loop function with pitch sweep, but this is on the sideline whilst my brain tries to understand how to do this monumental feat of programming !! The Blipinator Mk 1 sounds amazing (thats either me or my sons verdict) or absolutely horrible and ’turn it off/down’ (my wifes opinion)..

Next I want to make some arduino driven audio modulation/volume controllers using some of the various sensors available for arduino - but that is another story - watch this space! If you would like any of the sketches or other info about my projects please let me know, and note none of the above would have been possible without Matt Mapleston, the wonderful Geekery and my patient son Ellis…"

Thanks to Lee Berwick for coming to us with the tunnel project and being so enthusiastic in your subsequent journey. We look forward to hearing about more tech exploits in the future!

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