Building a Sonic Wardrobe

The biggest KNITSONIK project to date – The Fabric of Oxford – launched just over a week ago in Oxford with a public talk held at the Museum of Oxford. If you missed the talk or the live stream of the talk, fear not; Spires Media recorded the whole thing for posterity so you can watch it at your leisure! This recording contains the full introduction and features the clean, crisp audio recorded from the mixing desk by Tim Hand.

I am taking a break over the festive period to reflect on The Fabric of Oxford and other KNITSONIK 2015 adventures, and I also need to continue working on the Sonic Wardrobe. You can see the Sonic Wardrobe in the video above, and it was built as part of the whole project, The Fabric of Oxford.

The Sonic Wardrobe!
The Sonic Wardrobe!

The Sonic Wardrobe will be installed in the Museum of Oxford’s “40 Years, 40 Objects” exhibition from January 16th 2016.

That all sounds awesome Felix, but What is a “Sonic Wardrobe?

Good question! The Sonic Wardrobe is a customised mid-century wardrobe in which I have installed textiles and interactive technology. You can browse textile objects in the wardrobe – a Witney blanket; a sari; vintage detachable collars; a scholars’ gown; an Oxford Roller Derby team t-shirt etc. – whilst listening to the stories and memories with which each textile object is associated. It’s all about play. Playing sounds, and playing with textiles. A KNITSONIK Narnia, if you will…

I built the false bottom in the wardrobe myself using wood stained to match the wardrobe, and I customised the wardrobe to accommodate 7 speakers, each covered in fabric. All the wiring is concealed, and the whole process involved many physical positions and weird drilling angles recommended by no chiropractor ever! I am really pleased with the build quality and learnt a lot about hole saws, conduit, wood stain, sanding, types of screws and brackets.

wardrobe false bottom, concealing amplification technology (bottom) and with play/pause and fast-forward buttons on top
wardrobe false bottom, concealing amplification technology (bottom) and with play/pause and fast-forward buttons on top

I also learnt a lot about multi channel amplification systems. The original plan was to use a 7-channel stereo amp concealed in the false bottom to power multiple speakers, each one routed to a different mp3 player. It sounds complicated but the concept was that if you press the buttons beside the yellow woolly piece of fabric (for instance) sounds relating to that textile will magically appear from the speaker inside the wardrobe that is covered with that fabric.

Push the button...
Push the button…
...listen to the sounds and stories.
…listen to the sounds and stories.

Likewise, if you press the button beside the pink shiny fabric, sounds will emerge from the speaker covered in the same fabric… and the two speakers mounted inside The Sonic Wardrobe play a randomised sequence of audio that breathes life into this wonderful piece of furniture.

In principal this was a great idea but in practice the dodgy second hand amp on which the whole system depended died on me on the day of the talk. I will now be replacing it with a DIY amp system containing many small micro-chips and a few grams of solder paste and to be honest I feel quite happy about this, as there is something very frustrating about having consumer tech fail utterly at the eleventh hour… when I opened up the multi-channel amp inside the wardrobe to see if I could understand the problem it was impossible to see what was going on. At least with little amplification boards that I have assembled myself, I can understand the joins and seams and see the way to make repairs if things go wrong.

One of the things I love about knitting my own clothes is that I gain wondrous insights into how garments and yarn work and are constructed. I feel the same way about building things from wood or assembling amplification devices… all these different making processes teach masses about the workings of wood and electronic devices. And though editing digital sound recordings is generally understood to be a less tactile process than knitting socks, soldering components or sanding wood, the principles of working with material and carving it into something finished are the same.

I am looking forward to testing and soldering components over the festive period and to making the last edits on the audio that goes into The Sonic Wardrobe. I’m also looking forward to a little time off because 2015 has been very busy for KNITSONIK! I hope you’ve enjoyed following The Fabric of Oxford here and that you and yours are set for a wondrous, relaxing time together in the coming days. And I hope that if you can make it to Oxford in the New Year you will enjoy checking out The Sonic Wardrobe when you’re there!


Yours in Making and Building and Creating,

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