By now, there’s a good chance you’ve listened to one of the many amazingly creepy immersive sound clips available. They’ve been around for years now, fascinating and amazing us all. Perhaps the most famous and spine-chillingly accurate of these is the barbershop experience. If you haven’t already, I urge you to grab a pair of headphones and listen in below. This is the magic of Binaural Audio at work.
A quick YouTube search will throw up tens of thousands of results. Given that this type of audio is clearly popular, it may make you wonder, why is it just confined to YouTube? Why haven’t other platforms jumped on the bandwagon? There’s clearly a large audience for it and you can’t fault its power to impress.
While the technology itself isn’t necessarily overly complex or difficult to produce, many nuances and some very severe limitations have barred this method of recording from catching on. Today we’re going to take a look into this unique media experience and find out just what exactly Binaural Audio is.
How Does It Work?
Let’s take things back to the very basics. To create the recording you must place two microphones and record the desired audio in the way you want it to be heard back. For example, you could circle the two microphones or perhaps you could get up real close to one of them. That audio would, in theory, be played back, in the same manner which it was recorded. Each unique sound would funnel through to the correct each ear through the individual earphone. Simple enough, right?
Stepping it up a level
Early adopters of this technique didn’t stop there though. The evolution of this relatively simple recording technique was to replicate the human head. Why exactly? Well, sound waves react depending on their environment. In this case, the human head would block said sound waves and alter them in different ways. By centering their recording around a human head, binaural artists are able to pick up on the tiny nuances caused by the reverberations our own bodies make.
Was that enough? Of course not! It wasn’t enough just to create the shape of a human head. Researchers also wanted to recreate the feel too. It’s not just enough to place a few microphones inside a plastic dummy. It also has to act in the same way human flesh would. In the same way different materials amplify or dampen sounds, so does our flesh. This is a crucial element to recreating a lifelike recording.
Nowadays, while there are other methods available, the most popular is for you to purchase a pre-built dummy. As standard, these come with the 2 microphones placed into its ears and ready to go out of the box. There are a number of manufacturers and designs to choose from, however, the majority of them follow the general idea.
A digital future?
It’s worth mentioning, as we advance, there are a number of software options available for mixing too. This is relatively new technology, however, and given the complex algorithms involved it’s going to take a long time before they’re fully able to replicate the intricacies of real-life audio. This is somewhat similar to the same way that CGI will never look like the real thing in the movies.
Why Don’t We See More Of It?
Mastering the art
There are a few major concerns involved when a producer creates a piece of binaural audio. First is time. Naturally, mastering the technique to ensure that it sounds perfect for everyone listening takes a lot of time and a lot of retakes. Basic audio and conversation can generally be recorded with ease. More complex tracks involving music, sound effects and different pitches and tones pose an issue.
As human beings, we all come in different shapes and sizes and as previously mentioned, tiny nuances such as small vibrations can make a huge difference. All these small bits make a huge difference to the overall quality of a binaural track.
Getting the equipment
The next thing to consider is cost. Getting yourself one of these prebuilt dummies isn’t going to come cheap. In fact, it’s going to set you back around $8000 to be exact. This price point puts it just out of reach of anyone other than a hardcore hobbyist. (Source).
And that’s not even considering labor costs involved in the recording and mastering process once you’ve got your raw track. It’ll require many retakes to get that perfect angle of sound you’re looking for.
The final product
Finally, it has one pretty major limitation. It only works with headphones.
Given the unique nature of binaural audio and the way in which it’s recorded, the only way in which you can effectively listen to the audio you’ve recorded is by using 2 channels of audio placed directly next to the users ears. The reason for this is quite simple, with nothing to block the path of the audio on regular speakers, left and right audio streams can easily become mixed, ruining the sensitive audio streams that create binaural audio.
Given that the majority of mass entertainment is designed for use with full-sized speaker setups rather than intimate mobile or headphone experiences, it means an interest in developing this technique further has been somewhat lackluster.
Are any big companies involved with Binaural Audio?
One of the biggest players in the binaural space is perhaps UK broadcaster, the BBC. They are heavily involved in producing binaural versions of their TV and radio shows such as Doctor Who, however, their work has proven to be somewhat slow and outside of a few specials, they have yet to master any kind of extensive network of shows yet.
Given their current stance that mastering binaural sound at an acceptable high quality that works for everyone is difficult and requires extensive amounts of high-quality equipment and manpower, it’s no wonder their progress has proven to be slow. (Source)
That said, their involvement in binaural audio is still considered “ongoing” so who knows, perhaps there’s still room for this to catch on yet.
What about other uses?
Binaural audio does look to have a bright future in VR, however. Many consider it to be a perfect match for immersive experiences given the surrounding nature. There is one major caveat to this though. Because the audio and sound effects are created digitally, added with the fact that users can freely move around means there’s no “center”.
Without this, it will never be able to accurately mimic real-life recordings. Endgadget have a pretty interesting piece on how this 3D audio style is a pretty important part in the future of gaming if you’d like to learn more about this.
While the approximations do come relatively close, as previously mentioned, it’s incredibly hard for sound engineers to reproduce the real thing. Consider this the “Uncanny Valley” of the audio world. There’ll always be the feeling that things aren’t quite the same when it comes to digital productions.
I’m sure you don’t need convincing that this process can replicate some pretty awesome results.
Sadly, it has some pretty crippling limitations preventing it from becoming a mainstream adopted technology. While there are certainly signs of life, for the time being, it will likely remain somewhat of a niche.
That said, it certainly still has its place. A quick YouTube search will return the work of an active community passionate about making cool audio experiences. The subject also has its active subreddit devoted to the topic. This, coupled with the work of Virtual reality developers and their software-based solutions certainly gives the impression that we could see this whole process evolve into something even better in the years to come.
I know I will certainly be watching this space…or should I say listening rather?