New permanent light installation at KEXP reimagines live room performances with Kinect and Surface
By Athima Chansanchai
Just as stars illuminated skies for journeys to new lands, a background of string lights has become a familiar touchstone for fans of Seattle-based radio station KEXP, where they discover new music all the time through videos of live acts that perform at its on-site studio.
It’s become such a trademark look for the station that fans often approach Chris Kellogg, director of programming and production operations, when he’s traveling to share their appreciation for the “videos they watch all the time with the twinkly lights in the background.”
Though a partnership with Microsoft, the station recently debuted a revamped room for these live performances that features a permanent, interactive light installation made up of nearly 2,000 LED balls that are organized methodically on three walls and respond to artists’ movements using Kinect sensors. KEXP video producers control each session with a Surface Pro 4 tablet.
“In the back of our minds, we wanted to tip our caps to the old room, but we knew we wanted to do something different,” Kellogg says. “This takes our old lighting design to a whole new level in terms of the look, the flexibility and the ability of the system, propelling us to an exciting space.”
This new installation appears at the station’s new home in Seattle Center, a sprawling city attraction that draws tourists from around the world. The new studio is four times the size of the previous space. These performances, which happen five times a week, are now open to the public through free first-come, first-served day-of tickets — another first – for 75 people in the audience.
“KEXP has always been a great partner who is willing to use Microsoft technology in innovative ways,” says Amy Sorokas, director of strategic partnerships for Microsoft Brand Studios.
This is Microsoft’s second collaboration with KEXP, after the “Inside the Music” installation that coincided with the grand opening of the station’s new location in April. “Being able to work with KEXP to help them create ways for people to experience music in new ways, allows us to showcase the technology in unexpected ways,” Sorokas says.
KEXP is known nationally and all over the world by its motto: “Where the music matters,” and where listener donations power playlists that deliver an impressive array of music across genres.
“KEXP’s mission is to enrich your life by championing music and discovery. We believe that something really special happens during a live performance,” Kellogg says. “There’s a certain raw, matchless energy that occurs when you put an artist or a band in the studio, live on the air, playing in the round. Discovering music through live performance can be completely invigorating, a truly unique music discovery experience.”
For the creative team that put together the installation, being avid fans of KEXP and live performances inspired their approach and helped them put together this project from conception to installation in just over a month.
“We were very sensitive to the fact that the lighting was going to be part of the performer’s experience as they were performing, as well as the fact that it was going to be on-screen, so we wanted to make sure it was something complimentary to the performers, and the performers were still the stars,” says Michelle Higa Fox, who worked on programming and animation. “By being able to control brightness, hues, speed of animation, etc., we feel very good about the library we’ve created being flexible enough to complement any and all music types that come through.”
David Crumley, who was in charge of the lighting system design and technical direction and has worked with bands most of his career, says it’s meant to be an update of the existing standard Christmas light array, but with modern technology: controllable, multi-color LEDs.
Crumley says the benefits of LED are that it can change to thousands of colors, operate on low power and still look warm, thanks to this custom-manufactured product’s thick acrylic shells, which glow in a similar way to old-style ceramic Christmas lights.
“It’s an echo,” says Noah Norman, who worked with Higa Fox on programming and animation.
Norman says the team worked to complement KEXP’s signature look for these videos.
“They have a certain cinematography they’ve been using. It’s a really high production value look, at times cinematic, very beautiful and professional,” Norman says. “The treatment is often, among other things, a wide aperture and shallow depth of field.”
They designed a system that would be easy to hand off to KEXP’s video producers to tailor as they got used to it.
“For the Surface, we wanted to make sure that the interface allowed someone to be very specific to get exactly what they want,” says Norman. “We’ve given them a bunch of presets, but we’ve also given them the ability to dial in those presets so they get exactly the look they want, whether it’s changing the master speed, dimming a certain area, changing the overall color or desaturating the look. And then the Kinect element allows us to bring in the movement of the performers in the space and use that to create animations.”
He adds, “The Kinect is an irreplaceable type of motion-capture tool. It’s also an amazing depth camera. In terms of the fidelity of the information, the reliability of that information and the ease of use, it’s incomparable.”
Since the movements generated by the artists will be different at each of the live sessions, the animations will never be pre-rendered or feel like a preset loop. The visuals will evolve as the concert goes on so that it feels like a single animation for that performance.
“Permanent projects require a lot of pre-work and thought, but it’s nice that it lives on,” Crumley says. “I’m interested to see how everyone uses it. We’re creating this powerful creative tool for both KEXP and potentially the bands to use, so I’m excited to see how other artists and creatives utilize it.”
This collaboration is the latest in an artist series featured on Music x Technology, an initiative that celebrates forward-thinking artists who are using Microsoft technology to transform the way people create and experience music. With monthly artist collaborations, the program seeks to empower artists to craft one-of-a-kind experiences for their fans.
“The Live Room lighting installation is a great example of how the Music x Technology program finds collaborations that build on something that the creative community has begun to use, like the programmable LED lights, and use Microsoft technology to put a twist on it,” Sorokas says. “In this case, we used Kinect to make the lights react to the activity in the room in real time, making each performance unique while still building KEXP’s brand and vision to discover new music for their viewers in-person and online.”
For Kellogg, the revamped room presents an opportunity to move KEXP forward, help artists and connect more with its fans and community.
“This, for us, is a big deal. It’s permanent. It’s our brand. The old room, over time, organically, became such a trademark look for us. We want to create a space that inspires people to play,” he says. And working with Microsoft has led them to that point. “We get to think creatively with them on these collaborations, pushing tech and music together in exciting, different ways. The more accessible tech becomes, the more we’re going to see it.”