A sonic experience unlike anything you’ve known

Tom Mardikes, professor of theatre sound design at UMKC, surrounded by 40 wall-mounted speakers in a version of the Sound Mandala he created in a small studio next to his office on campus. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Sound designer Tom Mardikes debuts his phenomenal Sound Mandala at KC Fringe Festival

Sound system.

For most of us nowadays that means earbuds plugged into our cell phones.

Or, if we’re really old school, a two-speaker home Hi-Fi.

Tom Mardikes, though, has another idea — a sound system that surrounds you in a multidimensional environment, creating a sonic experience unlike anything you’ve known.

Stereo on steroids.

Mardikes calls it Sound Mandala.

For much of the last decade Mardikes, UMKC professor of theater sound design, has been working with a team of colleagues and grad students to design a whole new way of experiencing recorded sound.

He envisions a destination attraction, a theater-sized enclosure in which the audience sits in comfortable chairs surrounded by up to 230 strategically placed loudspeakers. In this acoustic environment the spatial possibilities — sounds coming at you from left/right, up/down, before/behind and moving around and even through you — are endless.

It won’t be cheap — each of those 230 speakers costs $4,000. Plus, you have to build an acoustic shell, install seating and, probably, some sort of visual display to further enhance the experience.

Unlike a movie theater, where your sound experience is dictated in large part by where you sit — Are you too far right? Left? Too close to the screen? — Sound Mandala has been designed so that every listener hears every sound perfectly.

How this is achieved is way too technical to dig into here — it involves computers and algorithms and tons of hardware and wiring. What’s important is that it works.

Concept drafting by Kelli Harrod showing speaker placement and seating for the Sound Mandala (Sound Mandala Institute)

Ryan Kleeman, a San Francisco Bay area-based sound designer, reports that he was “mesmerized” by his experience with Sound Mandala. “I could pinpoint exactly where sound was emanating from and where sound was moving to an exact degree within three dimensions…absolutely stunning.”

Sound Mandala has been developed in a small studio next to Mardikes’ office on campus. The room is only big enough for one person to sit in the middle surrounded by 40 wall-mounted speakers.

It’s a miniature version of the larger 80-speaker version that will debut July 18-28 at the Black Box Theatre in UMKC’s Olson Performing Arts Center as part of the KC Fringe Festival.

Mardikes is planning up to 40 shows over the 10 days. There will be 40 seats available for each show. For ticket information, visit the festival site at kcfringe.org.

What attendees will experience in the 50-minute program will cover both existing recorded music and sounds — the system sources the original individually recorded tracks, chops them up and arrays them into the many available channels — as well as new pieces commissioned and composed specifically to explore Sound Mandala’s possibilities.

“I’ll be using a couple of recordings I made a few years ago with the now-defunct local alt/rock bands The Plant and Mongol Beach Party,” Mardikes said, “and a couple of songs by Dwight Frizzell’s BCR Band. Certainly, a dramatic piece by local actress and playwright Vanessa Severo. And some sound effects collages — things like thunder, lightning crashes and wind.”

Up to now, the project has been developed under the not-for-profit Sound Mandala Institute. But the ultimate goal is to find commercial users for the technology — science, history and art museums, zoos, Halloween haunted houses, rave parties and family-friendly entertainment venues.

UMKC has filed for a provisional patent for Sound Mandala technology. The Fringe Festival provides a proof-of-concept opportunity to show just what the system can do.

Sound Mandala might even have medical possibilities. Mardikes reports that a child of a colleague, on the autism spectrum and usually a ball of manic energy, sat quietly listening to a brief presentation of the system.

“His mother started crying,” Mardikes said. “She said she had never seen him sit that still before. So maybe there’s something going on there, something therapeutic.”

Experience Sound Mandala July 18-28 at the Black Box Theatre in UMKC’s Olson Performing Arts Center as part of the KC Fringe Festival. For tickets kcfringe.org.

Robert Butler

For more than 40 years Robert W. Butler has covered movies for "The Kansas City Star." He also reviews current films at butlerscinemascene.com, at seniorcorrespondent.com and on KCUR-FM’s “Up to Date.”

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