Recording the Blues in 3D Audio
Any blues musician can tell you that to truly capture the feeling of the music, be it on stage or in a studio, you have to record it live. Frank “Bang” Binkal, a Chicago-based guitarist who served as a longtime sideman for blues legend Buddy Guy and goes by the stage name Frank Bang, has been making live recordings of his music ever since he first went out on the road. Bang has “messed around with all sorts of different recording techniques,” he says, but nothing prepared him for the deeply immersive 3D audio experience of hearing his music recorded with an entirely new type of device: the Hooke Verse.
“I was blown away. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. When I closed my eyes, it was like I was hearing the music coming right out of me. Like it was coming out of my chest.”
Released this past summer, the Verse is the world’s first Bluetooth binaural microphone. It comes in the form of easily transportable, barely noticeable headphones with microphones embedded in each earbud that capture sound as you actually hear it — spatially, between two ears. When you listen to binaural audio through any ordinary pair of stereo headphones, it produces an almost physical sensation of being in the same exact same spot where the recording was made.
Until very recently, recording in binaural was reserved for audio professionals with big rigs and big budgets. But the Verse is priced for the everyday user. All you have to do is pair it with your smartphone, iPhone or Android, and press record. You can also connect the Verse to a DSLR, a GoPro, a field recorder, or a mixing board, and whoever listens to your recording will hear exactly what you heard, how you heard it, as though they were listening through your ears.
Just two weeks before Bang’s first experience with the Verse, he and his soundman had decided to record his upcoming festival tour with a Zoom Q3. When compared to other portable video cameras, the Q3 delivers very high-quality stereo audio. Here’s a Q3 recording of Bang and his band, The Cook County Kings, from this past July:
When Bang began testing out the Verse on the road, “it was easy with the Zoom,” he says. “The headphones come with a USB cable and a little input jack and we just ran that into the unit.” But because Bang’s soundman was new at this, he left the recording levels on manual. The mics are “so good and hot,” Bang says, that the first few recordings clipped a lot. But once they figured out why that was happening, “it was really easy to adjust the levels on the fly” — and Bang was once again blown away by the results.
“When he’s standing behind the drummer,” Bang says, “you can hear not just the snare, but also the pop back from the snare. In the studio, I like to use a direct mic, a slightly distanced direct mic, and a room mic because they make the kick and snare sound meaty. There’s an extra layer of thickness that feels closer to the real thing. With the Verse, it was like the three different mics doing what I would do. It sounds huge!”
The Verse transforms the act of recording into an act of listening. That’s an exciting proposition for any musician, but it’s especially true of blues musicians, who are master listeners because they have to be. “Buddy Guy would sit there and play a slow blues in D every night out of the year,” Bang says, “and then all of a sudden out of the blue he’d switch keys one night. He’d just grab his guitar and go somewhere new, and you’d have to be able to follow.”
When you listen to Buddy Guy or Muddy Waters or Albert King leading a band, you can almost hear the musicians listening very closely to one another, engaging in a call-and-response conversation that began in sub-Saharan Africa a long time ago. The best blues recordings capture that chemistry, with the musicians all playing in the same space at the same time, feeling out the direction of a song in unison.
When Bang first hit the road, he started recording his live shows right away. “It’s like a sports team watching game tape after they play,” he says. “You hear the things you did well and the things you don’t want to do again.” By posting his live recordings for free online, Bang was able to grow a grassroots audience that now buy his CD’s at shows. “The blues are like the small pond of the music industry, and I am by no means a big fish in a small pond,” Bang says. “But I’m a much larger fish than I was, and I’m only a couple more bites away from being a big fish.”
Bangs says he “cannot wait” to hear how his guitar sounds “in the right kitchen with the camera on and put it online. I just put a short clip on Facebook to see if people can hear it. Well, they notice it too! The first comment on there was ‘Man, that sounds meaty!’ I was like, “Yeah! It’s like there’s presence.’”