The History (and Future) of 3D Audio
The hot name for all things immersive audio today is “3d audio”. Whether it’s a headphone, microphone, amusement ride or algorithm, more and more companies are pushing to support this somewhat illusive format of “3D Audio”.
So what is 3D Audio? How did it come about? Where did it start?
Many devices and many marketing buzz words have been thrown out over the past 100 years to try and capture this experience of immersive audio. Whether presented a “Theatrophone”, a “dummy head”, an algorithm, or an amusement ride, immersive audio has been evolving and growing into the promising 3d audio format that it is today. Let’s take a look at where it all began (and what people were calling it then).
The history of 3D audio reproduction can be traced back to the 1881 World Expo in Paris. After establishing France’s first telephone network, Clément Ader invented the théâtrophone. This invention delivered audio over two phone lines, one for each ear, in order for musical performances to be enjoyed in stereo miles away. Before long, théâtrophones were installed all over Europe and were praised by commoner and royalty alike.
America caught wind of the action and made their first binaural demo in Chicago. In Cheryl Ganz’s book on the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, she described AT&T’s most popular attraction. It was a dummy called Oscar which had microphones on either side of its head. When the onlookers put on headphones, they were amazed that they heard everything Oscar did. This Oscar design is still used today!
For another 45 years, people experimented with stereo recording and playback, including Disney. Their 1940 film Fantasia was projected into some theaters using 6 audio tracks through several speakers placed throughout the theater. This was a huge upgrade since most films were played using a single track being played only from behind the screen.
AT&T’s Oscar, an early binaural recording dummy. Image via ACTA Acustica.
Sound technicians in 1941 listen through earphones to the music of Fantasia piped in from the orchestra stage on the floor above.
Then, in 1978, the BBC recorded a 28-minute radio play called “The Revenge.”
It was revolutionary in that it was the first story to be recorded in true binaural format. It played on BBC Radio 4, and it contained no dialogue – only sound effects! It proved that sounds alone can tell a compelling story.
In 1984, a New York non-for-profit group called the ZBS Foundation took this to the next level by using the Neumann Ku81 binaural microphone dummy. ZBS released the 72-minute audio drama version of Stephen King’s story “The Mist” in true binaural, and it is amazing. It has been released on LP & cassette. However, I recommend the CD transfer (available on Amazon); it is glorious, and sounds like it was made yesterday!
Australia released a binaural audio film called Bad Boy Bubby. The main actor placed microphones on either side of their wig to capture the effect. It was a pioneering effort, and was another first for the technology.
In 1995, Disney used binaural in their Disney World ride called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, which scared the ever-loving snot out of me as a teenager. The audience was strapped into seats in a ring shape. What every participant was oblivious of was the speakers in each seat located just next to each ear.
George Lucas helped write the story, which included putting the entire room in complete darkness, and the audience is traumatized by a roaring beast encircling them. The effect was so convincing that there were always kids crying their eyes out from the sheer terror – thanks to head-hancho Michael Eisner who felt the earlier versions weren’t “intense enough!” Don’t under-estimate the realism of 3D sound!
Have you ever wondered who made the original binaural barbershop sound clip, which everyone and their mother has heard by now? Canadian sound studio, QSoundLabs made that for a client back in 1996.
Although overused, it must be credited by popularizing the format and convincing the world that this stuff is true virtual reality.
Disney released another binaural attraction in 1999 called “Sounds Dangerous!” starring Drew Carrey. The audience is asked to put on headphones, the lights turn off, and the drama unfolds. The show lasted for 13 years, which is pretty impressive by Disney World standards.
Once upon a time in the year 2000, there was a band named Pearl Jam who said to themselves, “We want to try something new!” So they hired a sound wizard named Tchad Blake to create tracks in 3D sound on their intelligently titled album called, “Binaural.” Again, it helped make binaural a household name.
Then, something beautiful happened. Binaural microphones started to fly off shelves into the hands of the average Joe, me included. Roland released an affordable binaural mic and sites like Sound Professionals and Amazon helped make purchasing binaural microphones a less daunting task.
However in the next 12 years, no one would produce any significant 3D content except for the little guys! New and weird recording ideas were explored, one of which turned into ASMR.
In 2008, a group in France called Mixage Fou started an annual contest for any independent sound designers to flex their binaural muscles and produce the best 80-second 3D sound clip. People from Africa, Asia, Europe, and America have been producing material that would otherwise be unnoticed – building the 3D sound community!
In addition, an Australian named Nick Bertke, has gained huge popularity by remixing mono sound into binaural.
Then, the Fuel Theater group in the UK produced a show called Ring in 2012. It had the same concept as Disney’s Alien Encounter attraction, but with a twist. The audience is seated in a pitch black room in a ring. They put on headphones, and half of the performance is through the headphones, and the other half is with live actors around them.
In 2013, we started seeing mature iOS games being made – most notably, Papa Sangre 1 & 2 made by UK game studio, Somethin’ Else. It was innovative because it made the experience interactive by forcing the listener to turn in certain directions based on the sound. And this is where the future is leading us – interactivity!
This is best use of binaural I think I’ve seen yet – Notes on Blindness: VR, released this year. In the 70’s, a man slowly turned blind, and he recorded cassettes of his experiences. In the VR application, you hear his real voice, and you experience the sense of blindness with him in audio VR with head-tracking.
I feel this is the most important binaural product to date because it highlights one of the great lost arts – storytelling. The role of the compelling story-teller is almost extinct. Yet, it is also kept alive in Simon McBurney’s one-man binaural audio show “The Encounter.”
What are we trying to do with 3D audio? We are trying to tell stories. We are trying to make people feel something, to be changed for the better, and to be inspired to live bigger, better, and more enriched than before. Just look at how many different ways people have succeeded in doing so. There have been tremendous innovations from people of every walk of life, from all corners of the world. We are the creators of tomorrow!
There is a reason why we have two ears, and we need to fill them with what they were intended to be encountered with – life. This is the future of 3D audio. What’s your story?
From One Ear To Another,