Think of Oda as a Sonos smart speaker built in the 19th century, explains creator Nick Dangerfield, a well known Spanish artist and designer who created the “David Bowie Is” mobile AR app experience and works on projects at the cross-section of art and technology. Oda was designed to strip away the audio filters most modern speakers use to accentuate the heavy basslines of EDM and filter out imperfections, he says, noting the speakers took two years and a team of engineers and acoustic experts to build. Inspired by classical musical instruments, they were constructed of simple materials like wood, glass, steel, and cotton to create an approachable and honest audio experience.
“Building a speaker is actually far more complicated than I expected,” says Dangerfield. “I was trying to figure out things that I didn’t have a clue about, like the right composition of the soundboard of the wood panels -- we tried hundreds of different combinations.”
The sound is created by microscopic vibrations on the wood, which during the development period fluctuated based on the stiffness of the wood and the shearing between the layers of the composite material.
“We had been making a progression until about January, when we kind of reached a ceiling that we were not able to go beyond -- the sound and was still not good enough, I felt,” he said. Benjamin Zenker from the University of Dresden was brought in to figure out the right material -- it turned out balsa wood worked best -- and how to use different glues to orient the composite and layers so that the speaker achieved the right frequencies.
The result was a crisp, realistic sound energy that mimics a live performance, right down to the slight imperfections of the instruments. To highlight the listening experience, Oda has booked a live winter and spring season for the high end speakers, which go on presale Tuesday (Oct. 6) and will feature Don Bryant & Ann Peebles, Arca, Madlib, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, The Microphones, Jessica Pratt, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Mount Eerie, Norman Whiteside, Standing on the Corner and more. The winter season opens Dec. 21 and closes Mar. 20.
Originally created for individuals with disabilities that prevented them from accessing smaller performance spaces, Oda has taken on a new purpose in the pandemic age as music fans are unable to attend concerts. Besides allowing artists to perform in their homes with the help of a remote production team, Dangerfield says Oda speakers build spatial connectivity between musicians and audience; individuals with a high-speed internet connection should be able to receive the sound without any compression.
Dangerfield tells Billboard the idea for the high-end speakers first surfaced in 2016 as part of a growing movement of instrument makers, creatives and curators emphasizing focused, distraction-free listening. The first 50 sets of speakers were built for Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie, who had announced he wouldn't be touring in 2016 due to personal circumstances. Instead of touring, Elverum was able to connect to the 50 speaker sets using an app on his phone. Whenever he'd have a minute, he could play his fans a song live, and it would appear in their homes.
“It’s coming from a very basic idea, two people communicating using two cans and a string,” Dangerfield says. “We’re creating a very rich sound experience that brings a kind of proximity to the artist while also introducing this nice object into the world that uses only natural materials.”
Dangerfield said his goal is to transmit a sound that feels more human and less technical. The concerts broadcast on the Oda panels are one-time unique events, featuring weekend Oda performances by a single artist and daily scheduled performances, along with unscheduled and surprise guests. In between performances, Oda will offer a continuous live feed of high-quality stereo sound from specific locations around the world, including a bird sanctuary in Costa Rica and street noise outside Oda’s Manhattan studios on Avenue B in the Alphabet City area of the East Village. Dangerfield adds that Oda is a one way transmission without a microphone, meaning it can’t hear you or spy on you.
Audio design specialist Perry Brandston, who grew up working in New York institutions like CBGB and Carnegie Hall and later went on to design systems for clubs such as Save the Robots and David Mancuso’s The Loft, is one of Dangerfield’s early collaborators on the project. Furniture and fine art designer Anna Karlin lent her expertise in creating the Oda Lighthouse, which operates as the “on-air” signaling structure. The programming is led by Kristen McElwain, formerly of Red Bull Music Academy, and Alexis Ohanian agreed to come on board as lead investor.
Fans can access the entire performance calendar via the Oda app. The speakers cost $279 and a season pass for programming is $79. Learn more at Oda.co.