Underground music, echoes of war
August 6, 2016 11:08 AM   Subscribe

To forestall a German blockade, at the beginning of World War II the Royal Navy built huge, multimegalitre subterranean oil storage tanks across the country. In 2009, the facility at Inchindown in the Scottish Highlands opened for visitors - and something remarkable came to light.

There are six tanks, most about 250 metres long - longer than any cathedral in Britain - and nine metres wide by 13 metres tall. After catching a reference to them on BBC TV, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, thought such structures of unusual size might have equally unusual acoustic properties and arranged tests.

This wasn't easy. Access is by way of a walk down a kilometre-long unlit tunnel followed by a drag through a 46 centimetre wide oil-beslimed pipe on a trolley, But Science! will not be denied: in 2013, a starting pistol was fired in the tank to incredible effect The reverberation clocked in at 112 seconds at 125 Hz, 30 seconds at mid frequency, and 75 seconds broadband - a world record for a man-made object.

Since then, a small number of musical recordings have been made in the tanks - the first being Professor Cox himself on alto sax. He also put on a performance of Alvin Lucier's 'I Am Sitting In A Room', itself a milestone in experimental music from 1969, albeit with some appropriate lyrical modifications.

Most recently, opera singer and composer Lucie Treacher descended into the depths in May 2016 for an improvisation with voice and nyckelharpa,

The massive reverberation is often mistakenly called an echo because that's the name of the world record it holds - and it makes for snappier headlines. And if you want to measure your own underground storage facility, there is of course an international standard to help you.
posted by Devonian (39 comments total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dang it! I can't listen to these right now and it's driving me crazy! What a cool post.
posted by Chuffy at 11:23 AM on August 6, 2016


I don't quite understand what's happening in the I Am Sitting... performance. He plays the recording multiple times in a row, and the resulting reverberations from the tank criss cross or whatever such that only those tones remain?

Fantastic, whatever the science behind it.
posted by notyou at 11:29 AM on August 6, 2016


At 125 Hertz, a frequency typically made by a tuba

Seems kind of tuba-ist. The A string of a normally tuned guitar has a fundamental of 110 Hz, so it's not like 125 Hz is some sort of ultra-low brown note.
posted by thelonius at 11:35 AM on August 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


If you could find the resonant frequency of that chamber, what can you do with that?
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2016


Can we get an impulse response of it?
posted by gucci mane at 11:44 AM on August 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Great blog! Well worth delving into.

Did I miss it, or did he fail to make explicit (or even link to) the difference between echo and reverberation?

A little discussion of the difference oil-slimed walls made would have been welcome too.
posted by jamjam at 11:48 AM on August 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


Impulse responses are in the "fired" link.
posted by hilker at 11:51 AM on August 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


jamjam: the difference between echo and reverb is that reverb is sort of a generalized response to room acoustics, whereas an echo is a specific sound coming back at you. So when you yell "hey!" at a wall and you hear "hey!" back, that's an echo, whereas reverb is a bunch of different things coming back due to the reflectivity of the environment you're in.
posted by gucci mane at 11:52 AM on August 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm sure there's a more technical explanation for that involving the speed of sound, surfaces, air temperature, humidity, etc.
posted by gucci mane at 11:58 AM on August 6, 2016


here is another fun musical tank, this one in Colorado
posted by meows at 11:58 AM on August 6, 2016


That Lucie Treacher recording... Just... Wow.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:02 PM on August 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'd love to get someone like Grouper in there to record.
posted by gucci mane at 12:03 PM on August 6, 2016


I Am Sitting In A Room works by recording the playback, then playing that back and recording it, and so on. Each time, the resonant frequencies of the room are emphasised and the attenuated frequencies de-emphasised, leading to a massive feedback loop-esque noise which is basically tones on the resonant frequencies of the entire recording-room system. It's long been one of my favourite pieces of experimental acoustics, and I probably relisten to the original every six months or so (and always when I upgrade my home audio; I sit there in the dark with my gin and a grin, listening very hard indeed. It's very good for the mind).

Incidentally, I wrote the FPP because I heard the Lucie Treacher piece on Thursday's Late Junction on Radio 3, and was immediately smitten. If you don't listen to Late Junction, you are missing out.
posted by Devonian at 12:09 PM on August 6, 2016 [16 favorites]


The discovery marks a resounding defeat for the previous record-holder for the longest echo found in a man-made structure

bravo, sir
posted by PlusDistance at 12:19 PM on August 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


I am reminded of the recordings that Stuart Dempster made with trombone "In the great abbey of Clement VI" in 1976. I believe he played with both decay/echo and resonance. You can listen to it in its entirety here [SLVimeo]
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 12:32 PM on August 6, 2016


The following people are required to report to Inchindown immediately and commence preparations for a concert:

- Steve Reich
- Sunn o)))
- Autechre

(Autechre in particular wouldn't even need to worry about their traditional lighting rig)
posted by doop at 12:38 PM on August 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


doop, may I add Andrew Bird to that list? For his whistling if nothing else.
posted by Lyme Drop at 12:44 PM on August 6, 2016


Nominations are still open! Although Sunn o))) should probably play last, because frankly I'd be worried that the world might actually end.
posted by doop at 12:45 PM on August 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


doop: "The following people are required to report to Inchindown immediately and commence preparations for a concert:

- Steve Reich
- Sunn o)))
- Autechre

(Autechre in particular wouldn't even need to worry about their traditional lighting rig)
"

Let's not forget Philip Glass.
posted by Splunge at 1:18 PM on August 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't know what the oily residue would do - I'd think it'd reduce the total reverb time a bit by dampening the reflections, but probably not very much and probably not changing the response curve/transfer function/whatevs it's called by acoustic bods,


Aphex Twin would have a ball in there, and moreover is just the sort of chap to do it. More practically, you could put a sound system down there and let people stream in and out. God knows what the licensing would be like for that, though. Have to be original compositions only.,
posted by Devonian at 2:06 PM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Lovely. Here's something similar from my tiny home town.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 2:07 PM on August 6, 2016


structures of unusual size

I don't believe in them.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:18 PM on August 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Trevor Cox was also Jim Al-Khalili's latest guest on The Life Scientific.

It covers the oil storage tanks and more:
As an acoustic engineer, Trevor started his career tackling unwanted noises, from clamour in the classroom to poor acoustics in concert halls. But his jaunt inside a sewer sparked a new quest to find and celebrate the 'sonic wonders of the world’.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:22 PM on August 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


+Colin Stetson for my dream underground tank concert, please.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:11 PM on August 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of a gig I went to around 15 years ago.

It was part of a series called Enter At Own Risk. This night, you had to call a number in the afternoon to be told the time and location. Amongst others, Francisco Lopez would play.

We arrived at night to the side of two adjascent hockey fields backing onto a river. Around 30 people hid from the light in the shadow of a tree. The lock was broken on a drain cover and we descended dirty steel rungs to a small walkway just below the surface. We waited as the lead person went to set up lights.

Ten metres along, the tunnel opened into a huge concrete cavern, bigger than a soccer pitch. A five metre wide path surrounded a sunken pit two metres deep in which thick columns held up the 15 metre high roof. The walls raked up a steep angle one could only just run up to reach a narrow flat just below the roof.

The small group explored the massive concrete cavern (an emergency overflow if the river flooded) as an extension cable was lowered from the control room to the walkway and the music equipment was set up.

The sound had nowhere to escape. When Francisco Lopez came on, they turned the lights off. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. The sound penetrated your personal space like never before, reverberating through your body. For around an hour, you *were* the sound. Perfect aural bliss.

Best.music.experience.ever.
posted by bigZLiLk at 3:21 PM on August 6, 2016 [20 favorites]


David Hykes' Harmonic Choir could do something pretty great with the space, too.
posted by ardgedee at 3:28 PM on August 6, 2016


(The Tank in Rangely, Colorado, discussed previously.)
posted by ardgedee at 3:31 PM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Lustmord @ Inchindown. Please make it happen.
posted by googly at 6:49 PM on August 6, 2016


Let's not forget Philip Glass
Let's not forget Philip Glass.
Let's not forget Philip Glass.
Let's not forget Philip Glass.

Glass Let's not forget Philip.
Glass Let's not forget Philip.
Glass Let's not forget Philip.
Glass Let's not forget Philip.

etc
posted by zippy at 10:11 PM on August 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Reminds me of Deep Listening Band (Oliveros/Dempster/Panaiotis) which I see is linked below under "related posts."
posted by juv3nal at 1:19 AM on August 7, 2016


This is amazing, and I've pretty much messaged everyone musical I know telling them they have to listen to it right now.

If you're in the UK, a couple of years ago Channel Five went into the tanks as part of the first episode of their 'Underground Britain' series, which really gave an idea of the size of these things, and what they look like. Unfortunately, they're not currently offering it on their on demand service, but it may well be repeated.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:32 AM on August 7, 2016


Amazing!
Reminded a bit of the silophone.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:34 AM on August 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Would love to hear Reich's Clapping Music performed in there.

Gives me a thrill just thinking about the challenge of not messing up each part as the wild reverb plays even greater havoc than usual with the performers' sense of place.
posted by Lesser Spotted Potoroo at 2:43 AM on August 7, 2016


Trevor's book Sonic wonderland is rather good.
posted by scruss at 6:14 AM on August 7, 2016


Ya, but has anyone sung These Boots Were Made for Walking in Gaelic down there?
posted by batou_ at 6:16 AM on August 7, 2016


Oh, Gaelic psalms would sound magnificent in the tanks.

In one of his blogs, Trevor Cox mentions an upcoming BBC 4 programme, so I expect that there'll be more media coverage of Inchindown soon. It's also notable that, aside from a couple of very short ad-hoc clips of visitors having a quick yodel, I haven't been able to find anything other than his and Treacher's recordings - and she said in May that she thought she was only the second or third musician to have visited.

So with luck, we may be able to watch the sonic exploration of this place unfold. I'd go there myself with analogue synth and digital recording gear, except I could no more fit through an 18" pipe than a rich man enter the kingdom of Heaven. Scotland has a great tradition of exoerunental musical events (like Sanctuary, sponsored by the same people who own Inchindown), so I'd put good money on there being a lot more to come.
posted by Devonian at 6:53 AM on August 7, 2016


Anyone with a convolution reverb plugin can take a virtual trip to this oil tank.
posted by keys at 7:50 AM on August 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Keys! Yes! I downloaded the IR files. Popped one into a convolution reverb I have (which I've never convolved with before), put on my headphones, and hit a random sound I had loaded into a previous music project and it was amazing. I am addicted to reverb and echoes ever since I sat late at night alone in an eight story stair well on campus and played my flute. These IR files are a wonderful gift.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:53 AM on August 7, 2016


A perfect venue for Stahlversion / DNS-Öltank.
posted by mubba at 8:30 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


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