3D audio was first introduced in the late 19th century but remained untouched for years until artists like Lou Reed and even The Rolling Stones started experimenting with it. Once artists started to play around with placement of speakers and started accounting for the space between your ears, they found out how to make the audience feel like they were really present in the recording space. These were some artists that were among the first to produce something that resembled binaural. They were bringing something that was, albeit foreign and cool, to a commercial forefront. While it may or may not have stuck with the audience in the time being, they were resurrecting a form of audio that had been sleeping for quite some time.
From his early recordings with the Velvet Underground to his restlessly innovative solo career, the late great Lou Reed was always ahead of the curve. As Brian Eno once said, even though the Velvet’s 1968 album White Light White Heat sold just 30,000 copies in its first five years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
White Light was a deafening, maniacal assault on the senses, the likes of which had never been heard before. It was met with crickets. But eventually White Light paved the way for punk rock, indie rock, and pretty much every other genre of noise-driven rock you can name. Now, with more and more musicians exploring the limitless potential of 3d audio, a lesser-known aspect of Reed’s pioneering legacy is coming to the fore.
In 1978, Reed released Street Hassle — the first commercial pop album recorded in binaural audio. A binaural recording produces a more immersive listening experience than the standard stereo mix by accounting for the space between the ears, which affects the way we hear, well, everything. When played back through headphones, binaural audio makes you feel like you’re in the same place where the recording was made.
For Street Hassle, Reed recorded live renditions of his latest material with a dummy head outfitted with a microphone lodged in each ear. But his record label, Arista, was expecting a studio record, so Reed had to make certain compromises (like eliminating most of the crowd noise). Plus, headphones were clunkier and a lot less common back then. As with White Light, it would take a little while for other artists to follow Reed’s lead.
Reed went on to record two more albums in binaural, 1978’s Live: Take No Prisoners and 1979’s The Bells. The Rolling Stones picked up the binaural torch, then passed it to Pearl Jam. And in May, Perfume Genius released a critically acclaimed album recorded entirely in binaural. With the VR industry betting big on live concert experiences by Beck, Coldplay and Eric Church to drive headset sales, immersive 3D audio is now on the cusp of going mainstream.
But here’s the thing: VR headsets are only designed for consuming content, not creating it. As we’ve said in this space before, today’s most revolutionary tech innovations inspire us to both create and consume. Unless you’re a major VR production company with millions in financial backing, you probably can’t afford the type of recording equipment that’s used to produce a VR concert.
Reed’s dummy head rig was expensive, too. But nowadays all you need to record in binaural audio is a pair of wireless 3D audio headphones incorporated with microphones. As part of our ongoing Hooke Live Sessions series, we’ve recorded more than 60 bands and solo artists in binaural. Check out those videos and the groundbreaking albums below — we hope it’ll all inspire you to create your own immersive recordings.
And if we left out any binaural album that deserve a place on this list, please let us know about it in the comments.
Lou Reed, Live: Take No Prisoners
Perfume Genius, No Shape
Can, Flow Motion
The Rolling Stones, Flashpoint
Pearl Jam, Binaural
Otmar Liebert & Luna Negra, Up Close
Audio Stax, The Space Sound CD
Art Tatum, Piano Starts Here — Zenph Re-performance
Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff — Zenph Re-Performance
Jamey Haddad, Mark Sherman & Lenny White, Explorations in Space and Time
Richard Strauss: Aslo Sprach Zarathustra / Camille Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 (Organ)
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps / Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances
Glenn Gould, Bach: The Goldberg Variations 1955 Performance
These are the albums that helped bring binaural back from the seemingly dead. Now, people are using binaural in a multitude of ways, many of which are still related to recording music. People may be recording podcasts, journals, doing ASMR and traveling in binaural, but one of the best things to experience in binaural is still music. You can transport the viewer to the middle of the scene and have them fully encompassed by the magic around them.
Binaural audio is amazing because not only is it something new to explore in hearing and experiencing, but it is something new to explore for those who want to create. Music and recording is just a great place to start as we see with all these examples above.