Binaural Audio: The Sound of the 21st Century
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. When you listen to binaural audio with headphones on, it produces the incredibly immersive sensation of being in the same exact place where the recording was made.
When binaural audio was invented in 1881, a telephone earpiece (i.e. the first headphone) was still required for listening to electrical audio signals. Then came the arrival in the 1930s of stereophonic sound and the first commercial loudspeakers, effectively putting all interest in binaural audio on hold. Now, binaural audio is coming back in a big way, not least because we’re consuming all kinds of content with headphones on: music and podcasts, Youtube clips and network TV shows, audiobooks and guided tours. Virtual reality is only a Google Cardboard viewfinder away, but the best VR experiences aren’t just visual — you need a complimentary 360-degree soundscape in order to feel truly immersed. In fact, binaural audio alone, without any visual accompaniment, is capable of producing its own very powerful type of virtual reality, the limitless potential of which has only just begun to get tapped.
Here, in the final installment of our three-part series on the history of binaural audio (Part 1; Part 2), we’re celebrating the most innovative, ear-opening binaural audio creations of the 21st Century.
When you listen to a binaural recording of a live concert, it makes you feel like you’re at the show. But as the ethereal crooner Perfume Genies proves on his latest album, No Shape, binaural audio can also be used to immerse you in the interior world of the artist. The story behind the making of the first single, “Slip Away” — which made for an amazing Song Exploder episode — shows just how much binaural can shape the creative process and inspire new types of music. Sound engineer Shawn Everett, who worked on No Shape with Perfume Genius (real name: Mike Hadreas) and Grammy-winning producer Blake Mills, recalls: “[Blake] really wanted to create different worlds, explore different sonic territories, and imagine a spatial field where you’re in the kind of wild place where Mike exists.” Hadreas discovered new territories as well:
On headphones, it sounds like I’m singing in the center of the listener’s head. It took some getting used to, but I knew it helped communicate the songs more. It was almost like I was singing directly to someone.
Last year’s release of Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness marked a watershed moment in the evolution of binaural film. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival alongside the feature-length documentary that inspired it, Notes on Blindness, which tells the story of a writer and theologian named John M. Hull, who, over the course of many years, documented his steadily deteriorating vision on audio cassette. Into Darkness mixes those archival recordings with binaural audio and 3D animations to immerse you in Hull’s “world beyond sight.”
Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, together with her husband George Bures Miller, began creating her critically acclaimed binaural audio walks in the early 90s, but only recently has her innovative approach to sound inspired others to follow in her pioneering footsteps. 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.
Cardiff doubtlessly influenced the ad industry creatives behind Audio Tour Hack, whose binaural audio-inspired mission is to “use creative storytelling to redefine the way people perceive their surroundings.” Their first audio hack, “Artobots,” took place at the Guggenheim Museum in 2012. It re-imagines sculptures of crushed cars by artist John Chamberlain as remnants of a fictional war straight out of Transformers: “Commissioned by Megatron, Leader of the Decepticons, this exhibition celebrates the Decepticon’s annihilation of their archenemies, the Autobots. Each piece is artfully crafted from the wreckage of the fallen Autobot army. As you listen, one thing is certain…there’s more than meets the eye.”
Earlier this year, the BBC broadcasted the fourth episode in the latest season of Dr. Who on television, per usual. But a couple hours later it released an even spookier binaural version of “Knock Knock” online, which marked the first time a TV show has ever been produced in immersive 3D audio. The episode takes place in a haunted house, and you can hear the titular knocks coming at you from every direction: the walls, the ceiling, the creaky floorboards. In a video compilation of fan reactions, one excited Whovian spoke for all:
When you think that something is there with you, your body immediately thinks you’re in danger. It brings the actual fear that they’re feeling in the show to you. Any minute, the monsters can come after you.
Driven by the same impulse that led to a binaural version of Dr. Who, the BBC — which started putting out binaural radio dramas back in the ’70s — is now making a concerted effort to offer more of its radio programming in binaural. It remains a mystery that more podcasters aren’t taking advantage of binaural, be it to journalistically place listeners in the middle of a warzone, or to imaginatively transport them to a fictional world. After all, it’s easier than ever to start a binaural podcast. For inspiration, check out The Owl Field, which exclusively produces 3D audio dramas in various genres (horror, fantasy, action & adventure) that put you directly at the center of the story.
“Surely, no production on Broadway has ever thrown the doors of perception open as widely as The Encounter,” raved the New York Times when Simon McBurney’s one-man binaural show debuted last year. Accompanied by a binaural dummy head on a bare-bones stage, McBurney tells his headphone-wearing audience the true story of a National Geographic photographer who found himself lost in the Amazon rain forest. It has all the trappings of a classic adventure yarn — the kind you might hear around a campfire. But you also feel the very real sensation of time and space dissolving as McBurney’s voice and disorienting sound effects bounce around your ears.