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Hearing places you've never been

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 2, 2013 08:43 PM

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If the next time you’re at a concert in Boston you see a mannequin with an emo haircut, take note: You’re witnessing an innovative sound project. The mannequin was custom-built by Aaron Soloway of Cambridge, who proudly calls it “the highest fidelity binaural recording mannequin in the world.” Put another way, the mannequin is able to hear music almost exactly as you do.

Binaural recordings capture uniquely life-like sounds because they’re made with two microphones instead of just one. The two microphones mimic the way that we hear in real life, with distinct sounds coming into our right and left ears. So, when you listen to a binaural recording of a concert, it’s as if you’re hearing the music the same way a person would have as he stood there watching the band play live.

mannequin.jpegSoloway was introduced to binaural recording in an acoustics class in college where he listened to what he describes as "the most realistic recording I'd ever heard.” It was of sounds at an airport, and the intensely realistic listening experience owed to the fact that it had been recorded binaurally. Following that revelatory experience, Soloway began traveling the world making binaural recordings. Many are of music—particularly classical music, which has a complexity that binaural recording picks up particularly well—but others are of natural events, like the sound of ice crackling on a frozen Cape Cod pond (you can listen to all of his recordings on his website, Binaural Airwaves).

Soloway, who currently works as a freelancer binaural recorder, makes his recordings both with the mannequin and by placing a tiny microphone in each of his own ears. The idea is to capture the sounds around him at the very last instant before they disappear into his brain. “When you play the recordings back in your ears, it’s as if you’re listening with my ears,” Soloway says. To understand what he’s talking about, listen to (and watch) this recording he made of Rökkurró, an Icelandic band. You need to use headphones to get the effect (because headphones prevent the two inputs from mixing into one). As Soloway walks among the musicians, you’ll hear the sounds of the instruments enhance or fade from one ear into the other, depending on where he’s standing and how his head is turned.

The first binaural recording was made in 1881 at the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris and binaural audio received a burst of attention when Pearl Jam used the technique in its appropriately titled 2000 album, “Binaural.” But it has really caught on over the last five years or so, as recording equipment has become less expensive and online communities have made it easier for enthusiasts to share their work.

In many ways, binaural recording is the perfect sound medium for our age. It needs to be listened to with headphones, which just happens to be how most people hear music since the advent of the iPod. It also fits our hyper-individualized style of public display, in which, through status updates and Instagram feeds, we try to convey to other people the world as it appears before us.

When Soloway says that you’re “listening with my ears,” he really means his ears. We each have our own acoustic signature—a unique way of hearing the sounds around us—that depends on factors like the width of our heads and the shape of our ears (which is why, for example, Soloway designed the ears of his mannequin based on the average measurements of male outer ears). When you listen to Soloway’s recordings, in a subtly distinct way you’re hearing the music as he heard it—not the way you would have heard it had you been standing in his shoes.

But while listening with someone else’s ears is good, listening with your own ears to sounds you weren’t even present for is better. “The Holy Grail of binaural recording,” Soloway says, “is to be able to record in a way that’s not for any one person’s ears, but which can be processed for any set of ears.”

There are a few things that need to come together for this to happen. First, you need to have a template of your personal acoustic signature. Currently, these templates can be created in labs, like the one at Princeton featured in an article in the New Yorker in January. On a slightly less customizable front, there are also websites like this one that let you listen to the same sound as translated through different acoustic signatures and choose the one that best fits your head. Then, with that template in hand, you’d need access to a kind of universal binaural recording. Some companies make what are called “soundfield” microphone arrays that are able to capture sound spherically (from all directions). These arrays provide binaural listeners with raw sound material that can be fitted to any individual’s acoustic signature.

The binaural future may sound technically complicated, but on a conceptual level, it’s simple: Imagine a concert hall anywhere in the world, with sound waves echoing all around; then insert yourself into the picture, and imagine those sound waves breaking around your head and your ears while someone hits “record” at exactly the point in space where you would have heard the music yourself. In an idealized binaural world, the phenomenological aural experience of listening to a recording at home, and sitting in the front row before an orchestra you’ve never seen live, would be exactly the same.

*To get a good feel for the range of sounds that can be captured binaurally, put on your headphones and enjoy this mixtape that Soloway created for Brainiac. It features a number of Boston-area bands and field recordings from local places, like Harvard Square the night Barack Obama was elected president, and a concert at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. The track of ice crackling on a pond on Cape Cod gives a particularly immediate impression of how binaural recording is unique.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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