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Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures

Julien Bloit
May 10th, 2012 – Jan 6th 2013
Cité du Design in St-Etienne, France

This installation sets up the rebirth of cloned creatures, their wandering and their sound epic. They are seeking to evolve in our contemporary era.
The designer, who became the heroine of a quasi-mystic epic journey, aims at resuscitating the sound of prehistoric creatures by reconstructing their vocal tract. This is problematic from the scientific point of view: since the vocal tract is made of soft tissue, it does not fossilise. The only things that have been preserved through time are the surrounding bones. The inner parts have to be redesigned.

The exhibition consists of three sculpted skulls of prehistorics mammals, a Mammoth Imperator (-4,5 MYA), an Entelodont “Terminator Pig” (-25 MYA), and an Ambulocetus “Walking whale” (-50MYA). Two speakers are embedded in each creature, and the synthetic roars resonate through the sculpted cavities.

Each creature can play a repertoire of calls that are the result of an evolutionary process deriving an initial call into a tree of related sounds. Once a seed sound is designed, two clones are created with some random variation in their articulation and melodic structure. The process is then repeated for each cloned sound, creating a fast growing variety of sounds with each new generation.

How was MAX used?

Max was used both for the preliminary sound design, as well as for the installation. A first max patch was created to design each imaginary call. Each call is made with a combination of breathing and vocal tract sounds. The breathing sounds were made out of air pumps recordings played back through granular synthesis, with some controlled randomness in the playback for a more lively rendering. The synthesis for the voiced part of the sound uses a port of a vocal tract model by Andy Farnell, originally coded in Pure Data. A significant effort consisted in creating control curves for the model, allowing to interpolate smoothly between vocal tract presets. The core of the curves model is done with the "prob" object combined with Jasch's "bspline" object. This helped us derive hundreds of controlled variations from each seed sound. All of the sound variations were encoded and stored in "coll" object, and are resynthesized by the installation patch, which plays them with a random process for a cycle length that can can be set to last between 2 mins up to 2 hours, depending on the installation's constraints. The installation patch has been running with Max-6 runtime every day for the past five months without a complain, only plenty of groans. Once the exhibition is over, we are thinking about releasing the sound-design patch as an instrument for electronic music producers and see what kind of remixes can roar out of this journey.

Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures

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