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An ‘Air’ of Sophistication: Sound Design 1,401 Feet Above New York City

Air, an immersive art experience at the top of One Vanderbilt in New York City, uses mirrors and sound design to evoke endless expanses.

Air, an immersive art experience at the top of One Vanderbilt in New York City, uses mirrors and sound design to evoke endless expanses.
Air, an immersive art experience at the top of One Vanderbilt in New York City, uses mirrors and sound design to evoke endless expanses.

New York, NY (June 24, 2022)—New York City’s Grand Central Station is iconic, and its new next-door neighbor isn’t too shabby either. One Vanderbilt on 42nd Street is one of the 30 tallest buildings in the world, spiking 1,401 feet into the clouds. At the top, starting on the 91st floor, is Summit One Vanderbilt, a three-floor immersive art space that essentially makes visitors one with the skyline—a sensation that is augmented through the judicious use of sound.

The immersive experience itself, called Air, was designed by artist Kenzo Digital, and is based around a series of fully mirrored spaces that reflect the breathtaking views of Manhattan as seen through floor-to-ceiling windows. The result is that the outdoors is brought indoors and then fragmented in every direction through infinite reflections. Visitors enter into the lower-level of the main room, called Transcendence, where they first encounter Air’s sensory overload, before moving on to Affinity, which evolves the experience, adding hundreds of mirrored balloons. Next comes Transcendence 2—the first space, experienced from its second-level balcony—then Levitation, where people can step on to glass ledges suspended 1,063 feet above Madison Avenue. The experience concludes with Unity, which adds a floor-to-ceiling LED screen with a few twists up its sleeve.

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While Air is visually spectacular, to simply perceive it as an oversized kaleidoscope, or even as the special effects of Inception brought to life, is to miss the point. The ever-changing weather and skyline provide an opportunity for visitors to get internally reflective. “We’re talking about storytelling and physical space,” says Digital. “This is a story, you’re the protagonist and it’s about your relationship with time, with New York City, with nature and with yourself. For example, you can watch a storm system coming from the west, and meanwhile everyone below in Manhattan is going about their day. From your perch above, you see the storm blow in, and the cars change how they drive because rain on the street, umbrellas pop up, and you see the city as an organism react to nature.”

Underlining that experience is a soundscape created by sound designer Joseph Fraioli of Jafbox Sound in Los Angeles (Tenet, Tales from the Loop) and directed onsite by Digital. Using ambient tones, sounds and more, the underlying audio is meant to be welcoming, soothing and, ultimately, healing. “There are many layers, components, chapters—it’s not a linear show with a beginning, middle and end,” said Fraioli. “The set piece of Transcendence, in particular, is about an hour long, and it has a very particular, organic flow.”

As part of a permanent installation, the audio needed to have a simplicity that would not become dated, so technological sounds were eschewed. Instead, in a nod to the surroundings, Fraioli used resonances generated by a variety of glass instruments: “I was intent on making a minimalist, simple sound palette, and within that, for each tone to specifically have a meaning behind it.” With that in mind, he commissioned a crystal flute that played Solfeggio frequencies—special tones believed to promote physical and mental healing—that was recorded for the project.

The glass instruments were captured with Neumann KMR 81 shotgun and RSM 191 stereo shotgun mics, and then combined with other sounds, including high winds that Fraioli recorded 10 years ago during Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the New York area: “At the time, I went out into the storm and captured these winds, but there was all this devastation for our community, so I never used them in anything because it felt wrong. In this context, however, using them provided a way to show the resilience of New York.”

Sound design and editorial work were tackled in Avid Pro Tools. “I got the cleanest recordings possible of these different glass sounds,” he said, “used a little bit of reverb from the Eventide H8000, and mix and matched with them with a Soundwell Dek, a controller that allows me to map sounds all over the place. I used it to experiment with combining frequencies, because they’re meant to have different effects in terms of how they resonate with your body and mind, and how those healing effects can happen.”

Fraioli produced rough mixes in his Dolby-tuned room, getting a basic sense of placement through his M&K MPS 2520 monitors on the LCR and 2510s on surrounds, all bolstered by two MX350 subwoofers. Then stems were sent to Digital in New York, who directed an on-site mix team as it inputted everything into a sprawling Meyer Sound Galaxy system with a Compass interface inside Air and nailed down the final mix. Accessing more than 100 Meyer MM-4 speakers within the installation, the team mixed the audio to help guide visitors along, move wind sounds throughout the space and more.

Despite all the mirrored hard surfaces and lack of soundproofing, Air isn’t particularly loud, even when loaded with hundreds of noisy visitors. Buoyed by the underlying warmth of the soundscape, the result is an active, sometimes moving experience—which is just what Digital intended: “We give you a pure kind of sound experience. When you’re there, it is full-on— it is powerful, it is intense and it feels alive. The visual illusion of Air is infinite expanse, so the sonic illusion there is infinite expanse as well.”