“Street Hassle” by Lou Reed is notable as the first commercially released pop album to employ binaural recording technology.
Amid today’s high energy hustle it’s no surprise that a quick Google search of “History of Binaural” autocompletes to “Binaural Beats”: “auditory processing artifacts, or apparent sounds, caused by specific physical stimuli.” Even “history of binaural” itself yields only a study of French scientific pioneer Clement Ader and Oscar, a mechanical man with microphones for ears. It’s no wonder that Neumann’s commercial dummy head microphone from 1972 is still the go-to standard for binaural recording.
That’s the problem with binaural in general — it has always been treated as a science fair sideshow experiment. It’s never been commercial. It’s never been productized. The promise is clear: anyone who experiences a binaural recording for the first time enjoys the same bowled-over reaction. To date, user on-boarding has been primarily an enterprise solution for large-scale concerts and fine automobile acoustic tuning, so the core value of binaural has yet to truly be identified. Some people call this the hook. What binaural recording really lacks, though, is a story.
It takes brilliance to build a bridge of understanding between technology and consumers. Bill Gates did it for software. Steve Jobs did it for hardware. Rockefeller did it for energy. What about sound recording? For Hooke Audio, the pioneers are not the scientists or big companies that recorded audio, but those creative individuals that used recording to tell better stories, who understood that recording better audio was integral to, and could be used to augment, their storytelling.
1. JANET CARDIFF
Janet Cardiff is a pioneer in sound art. Together with her husband, George Bures Miller, she has installed works worldwide pertaining to audio, movement, and tranquility. Flirting with Contemporary Minimalism, she shamelessly creates meditative environments that can be foreign yet familiar. Cardiff also embraces all new forms of media including smartphones and online video streaming platforms.
Where some artists like to hide wires, speakers, or microphones, Janet embraces their brutalism. The means with which we consume is as beautiful as the means with which we record. This all plays with our senses as the storytelling medium, whether sonic or visual, challenges our preconceived notions of time and space.
Her audio walks meld an actual reality with a virtual one. As we see in her “Alter Bahnhof Video Walk” from 2012, what we visually anticipate isn’t always what we hear. What may appear to be real off the screen isn’t always on.
Cardiff’s commentary on what is real on our devices or in our minds versus what is virtual is a strange commentary on the way we share and tell stories today. Sound, specifically binaural sound, is an essential tool in her arsenal to convey her artistic vision.
2. LOU REED
Lou Reed is the definition of cool. Unafraid of commercial failure, he remained one of the most influential musical poets up to his death in 2013. Famous for glam rock and generating noise, he never shied away from experimentation, and embraced the creative environment spurred by Andy Warhol and New York City in the 1970s. Brian Eno famously stated that, while Velvet Underground’s debut album sold only 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
It made sense then, that Lou Reed would release the first commercial pop album to use binaural recording: 1978’s “Street Hassle”. One of the recording engineers, Manfred Schunke of the German company Delta Acoustics, helped develop their own mannequin with microphones in both ears. Recorded between New York and Germany, the album incorporates live concert recordings sans audience noise, overdubs, and studio recordings.
The album, although respectfully reviewed at the time, carries a lot of angst and experimentation. Reed was clearly trying to do something new with his poetic ramblings, long instrumentals, and unearthings of old songs from his Velvet Underground days with “Real Good Time Together.” What is clear is that he understood the closer relationship he could engage with his listeners by using binaural recording techniques.
The record was proudly marketed as a binaural recording. This was before the advent of the compact disc and cassette tapes, so listeners would have been playing their vinyl record with their headphones on to experience the music as if they too were present during the recording session.
3. EMORY COOK
Emory Cook was an audio engineer, inventor, and record label creator. Under Cook Records, he released over 100 albums showcasing live concert music and recordings of natural and mechanical sounds. Emory Cook also embraced the marketing potential behind the term “binaural.” He was one of the first to promote commercial stereo recordings that he called “binaural,” even though these were not in fact true binaural recordings, in the modern sense. Regardless, he was the first to experiment with different recording techniques and two microphones for public consumption.
Cook was also a businessman. His records required special equipment to experience the full-breadth of his audio engineering from LP cartridges to binaural clip-ons. Cook understood that consumers would purchase specially designed equipment in order to hear special recordings. He set a trend that many other HiFi companies followed. The irony is that what Cook really discovered was stereo. His placing of two microphones on either side of a railroad track to record a steam train created a two-channel stereo recording that he marketed as binaural.
Whether it was amplification, consumer-orientated audio, or binaural delivery, Cook was a recording engineer’s recording engineer. Even the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society ran an excellent essay by Cook in their very first issue, January 1953. Some of his research seems driven to recreate the true binaural recording experience through speakers, and to free headphones from their role as the only suitable playback device.
“Most recording engineers are frustrated musicians,” Cook once proclaimed and, admonishing his own ilk, he continued, “You’re not an artist, you’re a craftsman, a documenter, and that’s all.” Like all craftsman, he understood the power of the tool for the artist. The tragedy for him would have been an artist going unheard, or worse: recorded in a way that didn’t reflect the truth.
The smartphone has pushed binaural recording into a new chapter. As our means for consuming content continues to proliferate, as technology gets smaller, faster, cheaper, and as our ability to share continues to change, we at Hooke Audio look forward to the next generation of audio pioneers to aid storytellers in their quest for intimacy. Binaural has come a long way since the Théâtrophone and we await the next batch of creators to help complete the bridge started by Cook, Cardiff, and Reed.
From One Ear To Another,