Projects & Case Studies


Creator Spotlight: In the Studio with Monica Bolles

October 18, 2022
Creator Spotlight: In the Studio with Monica Bolles

The Artistry of Immersive Audio Compositions


Monica, you've been at the forefront of immersive audio design and production, tell us more about yourself and projects that propelled your passion.

I went to school for Audio Engineering and Music Technology at the University of Colorado Denver; where I met my professor Jeff Merkel who started a collective called Signal-to-Noise Labs that focused on bringing together artists to explore new media technology. 

The collective was fortunate to gain access to our local Planetarium; which had a 15.1 surround system, but at the time we had no way to easily interface with it, as there were no tools built to pan around a 15.1 audio system. We started building all of our own toolsets in Max MSP to spatialize sound and control the panning around the space. We built systems that were able to do this in a live context. The planetarium director, Dan Neafus, was on the board of the fulldome conference IMERSA. He invited us to volunteer and through this I got introduced to the fulldome community and fell in love with domes and spatial audio.

In 2016 I was accepted to attend the Spatial Music Workshop at Virginia Tech’s Cube which hosts an impressive 140 channel speaker array. Through the Spatial Music Workshop and the concurrent Cube Fest I was able to meet a lot of amazing composers and people working at the cutting edge of composition and music production for these spatial audio environments and large-scale speaker arrays.

After a few years working in more traditional audio, I missed the immersive world, and went back for my masters in Creative Technology and Design at CU Boulder. For my thesis I designed a 360 degree multimedia piece called Resonant for the Black Box Theater at ATLAS. The piece looked at the concept of resonance through the lenses of physics, psychology, art and music and explored how you can create experiences based on different ways of interpreting Resonance. After I graduated, I was recruited to work as an audio engineer for the summer concert series at Tippet Rise Art Center where we recorded everything for 9.1 Auro 3D.

More recently, I have been helping co-host the Immersive Audio Podcast, produced by 1.618 Digital, which is a fun project where we get to talk to a lot of different people that are working in spatial audio and get to see some of the ways people are using it and participate in conversations regarding moving this industry forward. Being a part of the Immersive Audio Podcast, has been a fun way of talking to a bunch of different people within various parts of the industry and has been a great way to learn more about this space and hear more stories and learn and listen.

Resonant by Monica Bolles (2017)

As a creator who has used a wide range of tools; what are some core principles of audio and immersive experience design that you feel can be elevated through spatial audio?

Sound is the first sense that we develop when we’re in the womb. Our sense of sound evolves before any of our other senses do. We hear multidimensionally in 360-degrees and sound is something we can never turn off. It is a sense that is always active and is present in our space. It tends to be something that gets dominated by our visual sense but it’s such an important element of our experience in this world; the way that animals communicate, the way that we communicate. Being able to remind people about how magical and amazing sound can be, not just in a musical context but in a sonic context, is beautiful and these spaces can help create it.

As an artist, there needs to be thought behind every step of the process –– in how you compose, how you utilize space, what makes space important in your composition, and why it matters. “How is it enhancing the experience?” is a question to visit when developing something. For me, I’m more interested in the movement and motion of an individual in a place and that experience being different in every single location, rather than having an experience be the same for everybody no matter what location they’re standing in. I find it interesting how you can use sound to influence the audience and how the audience can then move within the space and have different experiences.

What do you perceive to be the greatest challenges you’ve faced when designing with immersive and 3D sound?

There’s always that challenge of sound quality and spatialization, especially when making sound for headphones and trying to spatialize it –– there’s that question of “why make really high quality audio when consumers, at the end of the day, will listen to it through little earbuds?”

The experience of audio spatialization is an experience that should be more accessible for people. There’s all this really amazing content that I think people would love, enjoy and resonate with in a completely different way than they have resonated with other kinds of artistic experiences but it's hard to get out there. How do we get more people to experience it and get the word out there that these experiences are happening? I think that’s a challenge worth looking into and improving. 

Looking back on everything you’ve been a part of in the world of audio, what’s your favorite project that you’ve done so far?

One of my favorite projects was a piece called “N/TOPIA”, which I was working on right before the pandemic. It was a collaboration with artist Janet Feder and a team of visual creators in the fulldome community, along with Joe Shepard, another fabulous audio engineer. 

Janet uses different kinds of nuts and bolts, bicycle tires, hammers or things on her guitar strings to create interesting sounds that don’t sound like they come from a guitar but are all created in an analog fashion. I had built a system that took live input of sound to create delayed effects or various sorts of audio effects on a singular input. I could then spatialize the different components of that effect into the environment and create different motion patterns with it and control it in a live context.

We created a 20 minute performance exploring the concept of utopia from different perspectives.   Some people can find beauty in chaos while others find beauty in form and geometry. We were trying to explore different juxtapositions of having more chaotic, particle-based systems while having shaped forms that were more recognizable and having that relationship with the sound and the visual. It was a very beautiful performance piece and was a lot of fun to work on! I really enjoyed all of the people that were on that team, some really incredible, talented people. I think it's probably my favorite piece I’ve worked on so far.

You have worked on so many inspiring creative projects, is there anything you want to do in your career that you haven’t done yet?

Something I would like to work on, that I have not gotten a chance to work on, that I know Spatial’s been doing a lot of work with is on the health and wellness side of things and how you can use spatial audio for creating health environments. I've always been really interested in that intersection; I’m really fascinated in how sound and resonant frequencies in general can change our physical state, change our mental state, and would love to look at ways of using that understanding for healing. I haven’t gone down that journey much yet, but it's something I’d be very interested in and maybe one day.

Since creating with Spatial Studio, is there a differentiating feature that you find to be unique in the marketplace?

The thing I love about Spatial Studio is the grouping method and how I can group sounds together. I like how it comes from more of a game design perspective, it opens up a lot of opportunities for being able to work with creating more interactive soundscapes and spaces.

With Spatial, you have the interactive component and regarding the “game design perspective”, it allows you to do things that are more creative and interactive rather than being confined to a linear space. Having a toolset that is able to give you a studio space with the ability to program interactive components to do design work is not really something I’ve seen currently on the market and what makes me excited about the potential for Spatial. The direction of what I’ve seen is very promising for creating a toolset that will be useful for creators that are wanting to work outside of traditional linear production, to create content for VR or installation work.

What advice would you give someone who’s interested in the arts and audio industry and trying to figure out where to begin?

I think it is just about being passionate! I’m not afraid to knock on people’s doors and be like “Hey! You do this really cool thing and I really like that you do this really cool thing, can you teach me about this really cool thing you do?” Being proactive in the sense of seeking it out and being ready to learn while also being patient. A lot of it is just being excited and holding onto that passion and not letting anybody take that passion from you, no matter what kind of negative experiences you might have; instead of dwelling on those experiences, move on and find the places you’re excited to be and spend time in those spaces and around the people that inspire you and continually push you for more knowledge and learning.

With you being around through the evolution of audio technology, what do you see being the next big thing both in audio and immersive experiences?

Being able to see the advances in machine learning over the past 15 years has been amazing. As for the future of audio, I think we will see artificial intelligence influence the audio space more. AI has reached a little bit into our world but hasn’t fully broken into the audio space yet. I am also interested in how AI will influence spatial audio algorithms. It will be interesting to see how that changes the future of this industry –– to introduce artificial intelligence into spatial audio algorithms to be able to spatialize sound and potentially help with strengthening spatialization.

About Monica Bolles

Monica Bolles is a digital artist, audio engineer, and composer from Boulder, CO, with a B.S. in Music Production from CU Denver and a M.S. in Creative Technology and Design from CU Boulder. Driven by her love of emerging technologies and sciences and her passion for the human experience she is constantly seeking ways to connect storytelling, music, dance, 3D audio, immersive projection, gestural and physical controls (including Mi.Mu gloves and brain wave scanners), and other forms of new technology to artistic and human explorations of scientific concepts. She has created and produced works that have been exhibited in the 140-channel speaker array at the Cube at Virginia Tech, the IMERSA Fulldome Summit, NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression), the Conference of World Affairs, among others.

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