The History of Binaural Audio, Part II: The Resurgence, 1940-2000

The technology behind binaural audio (also known as 3d Audio) is more than a century-old. So why are most people only now beginning to hear about this superior alternative to stereo sound? Mostly because in order to experience binaural audio, you need to be wearing headphones, which used to be a lot less common than they are today. A binaural audio recording captures sound as you actually hear it by employing two microphones spaced to approximate the distance between your ears. With headphones on, binaural audio produces the incredibly immersive sensation of being in the same exact place where the recording was made.

In The History of Binaural Audio, Part 1, we traced the story of binaural audio from the late-19th Century, when a telephone earpiece was still required for listening to electrical audio signals, through the 1930s, which marked the arrival of stereophonic sound and the first commercial loudspeakers. Stereo eventually dictated whole new ways of making art, vastly expanding the range of sounds that humans find pleasing to the ear. Fast forward to the present day, and binaural audio is poised to make a similarly seismic cultural impact. Now, every smartphone comes with a pair of earbuds. We crave immersive experiences. And creators in every sector (VR, music, podcasts, gaming…) are tapping the limitless potential of binaural.

Here, in the second of our three-part series, we’re throwing a spotlight on the films, albums, radio dramas, audio walks, and amusement park rides that paved the way for the binaural audio creators of today. Check back next week for Binaural Audio: The Sound of the 21st Century.

1940s – 1960s

In 1940, Disney kicks off a sound revolution with Fantasia — the first commercial film released in stereo. “Fantasound” requires a multi-speaker system for playback; problem is, movie theaters aren’t equipped for that yet. “We know…that music emerging from one speaker behind the screen sounds thin, tinkly and strainy,” Walt Disney says. “We wanted to reproduce such beautiful masterpieces…so that audiences would feel as though they were standing at the podium with [conductor Leopold] Stokowski.” Fantasia gets shown at thirteen custom-renovated venues across the U.S.. Installation of the equipment proves costly, making a wide release impossible. But, over the next three decades, stereo systems for both commercial and in-home use gradually become more affordable. Stereo overtakes mono as the new standard, sidelining further experiments with binaural audio — at least for now.

1970s

German company Neumann unveils the KU-80 — the first commercial head-based binaural recording system — at the 1972 International Radio and Television Exhibition in Berlin. Similar dummy heads developed by Sony, JVC, and Sennheiser soon follow, providing creators with the tool they need to invent new ways of hearing. In 1978, Lou Reed employs a dummy head designed by German sound engineer Manfred Schunk to make Street Hassle — the first commercial pop album recorded in binaural audio — then follows that up with two more binaural albums, 1978’s Live: Take No Prisoners and 1979’s The Bells. (Read our roundup of  The Best Albums Recorded in Binaural Audio.)

Meanwhile, BBC Radio 4 starts broadcasting binaural radio dramas, including a series centered on Sherlock Holmes and a 28-minute radio play that doesn’t contain a single word of dialogue — only binaurally recorded sounds — called The Revenge. Now, you might think that a radio play in which no one actually talks would make for a slow listening experience. But The Revenge hooks you from the get-go: a police siren blares and a chase ensues over land and through water.  It feels like you’re the one on the run. (If you want to create a similar effect with the Verse, read How to Start a Binaural Podcast.)

1980s

In 1984, a non-profit audio production company in Upstate New York called the ZBS Foundation (“Zero Bull Shit”) releases a 72-minute binaural dramatization of the Stephen King novella The Mist. It takes place in a small New England town where a group of locals trapped in a supermarket have to beat back a siege of otherworldly creatures. Stereophile magazine raves: “The sense of depth and space is startling; the ambient feel of the environment combined with the sense of movement and positioning of the dialogue and highly effective sound effects makes for a memorable experience…Listen in a darkened room for maximum impact.” You can buy it on CD, download it on Audible, or: you can check out this fascinating podcast about the making of The Mist, which features excerpts:

1990s

Artist Janet Cardiff, together with her husband George Bures Miller, starts creating her critically acclaimed binaural audio walks. Cardiff guides the listener (“Turn left here…Go through that gateway…”) through site-specific soundscapes of her own design, which simultaneously alter and deepen the listener’s perception of the physical landscape. The result is a distinct type of audio-centric virtual reality, which listeners have experienced everywhere from London’s Whitechapel Library to New York City’s Central Park. More recently, Cardiff has started making binaural video walks, including one that guides you through the old train station in Kassell, Germany.

In 1994, a binaural audio film called Bad Boy Bubby wins the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and four AFI Awards (Australia’s equivalent of the Oscars). Bad Boy Bubby is a beautifully twisted black comedy about a 35-year-old man who leaves his abusive mother’s house for the first time in his life after being told since birth that the air outside is poisonous. To capture the sensation of experiencing the outside world for the first time, director Rolf De Heer sews binaural microphones sinto the wig of lead actor Nicholas Hope, one above each ear.

That same year, in the Tomorrowland section of the Magic Kingdom, Disney uses binaural audio to terrifying effect in its newest blockbuster ride, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Audience members are arrayed in a ring, strapped into seats with a speaker near each ear. When a power outage casts the room in complete darkness, a maintenance worker arrives — only to be ripped to pieces by a roaring carnivorous alien that proceeds to swoop around the room, terrorizing every helplessly immobile audience member with its close, spine-chilling breath.

Soon after, a Canadian Sound Studio called QSoundLabs puts out what has since become arguably the most popular binaural audio recording ever produced (with 25 million YouTube views and counting), “Virtual Barber Shop.” Sure, it may seem hokey next to binaural creations by Reed and Cardiff, but it’s hard to argue with “Virtual Barber Shop”‘s elegant simplicity. Your barber, Luigi, moves around your head, clipping away. When the clippers are louder in your left ear, you know he’s on your left side, and vice versa. It’s an auditory illusion that demonstrates just how dependent we are on being able to locate sounds in space. Stereo sound isn’t capable of producing that life-like sensation. Binaural audio does it perfectly.