AFTRS collaborates on a new 3D recording technique for radio’s Earbud Generation

Peter Saxon reviews binaural podcast

A few days ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a private audience at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS).

It was for a “prelisten,” as opposed to a preview, to a breakthrough audio experience that could be described as similar to 3D for movies but without any equipment such as special glasses needed.

What was special was the “binaural” recording technique that utilises an innovative microphone set-up that mimics the human ear and the way that it actually perceives sound in real life situations. In fact, the microphone is set into the shape of a human ear so that not only does it record in stereo, it “hears” sounds from in front, behind, above or below in the same way as we mortals would. Surround sound? Kind of, but again, there’s no special equipment required by the listener – any set of headphones or earbuds will do.

The demonstration led me into an installation in one of the AFTRS’ film studios decked out with eight sun lounges and mood lighting to suggest we were at a resort on a tropical island. All that was missing was sand, sun screen and a Pina Colada. Shame about the Pina Colada but it was 11 in the morning.

Instead, for each sun lounge was a decent set of headphones through which I was treated to a 25 minute podcast entitled Precipice. The storyline followed the dreams of international student Amira and her unsettling experiences with psychiatrist Dr Ferenc. It was all the more captivating because there was no narrator. The podcast relied completely on the interaction between the characters, the sound effects, and the brilliance of the binaural recording.

Given the runaway success that podcasting has become, this pilot production is an exploration of the potential for 3D audio narrative storytelling with an international collaboration in partnership with New York’s WNYC Public Radio, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs VOX, and in consultation with the BBC’s audio research division.

The BBC recently broadcast a special binaural version of an episode in the latest series of Doctor Who.

The first thing I noticed was the incredible clarity of the voices. It was like switching a stereo recording from mono to stereo on a good system, only more so. Then the sound of a phone ringing made me turn my head in its direction, then the other way when someone knocked on the door. Overall, the experience which concluded with a performance by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs VOX was immersive and spellbinding. 

Then again, so was James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar which was hailed as the future of film. After the spate of 3D movies that followed and the launch of 3D enabled TV sets, 3D has been assigned to the dustbin of technological fads and failures such as AM Stereo and the Google Glass.

Yet, binaural recording may have legs where 3D movies did not. 3D’s problem was two fold: it needed special glasses and the television viewer to sit in a sweet spot. And it never really looked real. It always looked like a gimmick and while you may have marveled at the technology, it was a distraction from the movie’s characters and plot.

Early stereo recordings were little like that. I recall my first experience with a proper component stereo system in 1968 which, unlike the single box equipment of its time, had its speakers set five metres apart. On to the turntable (which is making a remarkable comeback in this digital age) was placed Blood Sweat and TearsSpinning Wheel. The snare drum seemed to come from one side of the room while the high hat came from the other. Completely unrealistic, of course. Nonetheless, the experience led me to a lifelong addiction to audiophilia.

Stereo has since come of age where the aim of recordings is to create an authentic reproduction of the performance, as a listener would hear it live, rather than a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology. 

Although the demonstration I heard was designed to showcase both the technology and the content, I believe binaural recordings have a similar potential to stereo with the Earbud Generation. Latest research from the UK suggests that around a third of radio and podcast listening is done through earbuds or headphones. Australians spend an average of 5.5 hours per week absorbed by serialised audio storytelling.

If for no other reason, the crisp clarity of binaural will set it apart for ear buddies.

 Peter Saxon