My first binaural kit!

The title picture is supposed to represent ‘immersive sound’!

The reason? Because I am a Very Lucky Girl, I have been given an early wedding anniversary present of this:…

Which means my followers are now going to get ‘treated’ to a series of ramblings on binaural recording and how we could use it in narratives that flick between character perspectives! If you don’t already know about it, binaural is a recording method that reproduces human hearing to a degree that can feel positively trippy if you’re not used to it! It uses a dummy head with mics in the ear canals.

People who collaborate with me will be able to tell you just how much this is my thing!! I simply love to nip in and out of the heads of characters to see how things feel inside there.

If you follow the Hidden People, you will hear this from time to time. The producers use multi-mic studio recording, so there are limits to how ‘first-person’ it can get, as the dialogue will not always match the surroundings enough to pull it off, but all the same I have pushed that 3-dimensional, surrounded-by-sound feeling, where it is appropriate, as far as I can.
The scene linked below is one example. I introduce it with a particularly intimate, melancholy musical transition that uses close-miked humming vocals. This hopefully helps set up a mood for moving in closer to the characters emotionally. We then move to the protagonist (Mackenna) in bed. At this point I was recording the Foley close-up but still from a third person perspective – the audience is standing next to her bed watching (or the ‘camera’ is pointed at her in a close shot).
Events then happen around Mackenna and we move into the first person perspective, portrayed by close-recorded rapid breathing from behind a single mic to place her in the centre, then recording all the other sounds around a stereo mic pair. It is not as vivid as a binaural recording but goes some way to showing that kind of perspective, particularly with background noises added, which gives a further layer of sonic texture – distant noises behind the close noises – more 3D.
This was justified here as it was written in a way that the audience’s emotional point of audition is with the character’s, who is wondering what the hell is going on! In this case the writer (Chris Burnside) was also the director and liked this approach as much as I did.

There are spoilers in here, so if you haven’t listened yet but plan to, maybe give it a miss!

Go to about 6 minutes in and listen to about 10:30!

I hope to do this kind of thing more, using my new binaural mics.

I also think there might even be a larger purpose possible, that sound designers could even assist with developing empathetic responses to unfamiliar perspectives, to people who have different lives to our own.

Binaural recording isn’t new tech, but I understand, from people who know about these things, that it’s now getting a lot more attention and investment because of increased headphone use with the podcasting explosion and, in particular, VR gaming.

The good thing is that it doesn’t require fancy playback systems, just a pair of headphones – and if you listen on normal speakers, while you don’t get that immersive sound so much, it just sounds like a normal recording so you can still listen.

There are specific, interesting reasons why binaural feels so real, raw and immersive when compared with a normal mic pair. My fellow student at UH, Adam Wood, did some cool research last year and might chime in, but it’s stuff like sound travelling round the head and arriving later at the other ear in a specific pattern. Or that high frequency noises coming from the side straight into the ear canal register disproportionately loudly. I feel that a basic knowledge of this is probably useful to a sound designer so, despite not being a sound engineer, I’m going to do a bit of reading.

At the Goldsmith’s College audio drama festival, the guy leading the fascinating production and tech panel asserted that one limitation of binaural audio drama is that once you’re binaural you have to stay binaural. I think I disagree!!

So over the next week or so I’m going to explore interesting ways that flicking between recording techniques, from binaural to traditional stereo and back again, could be an amazing form of story telling… if we are telling the right story!

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