Over Your Shoulder
What would a mannequin head with microphones built into it be used for in a recording studio environment? Radiohead notoriously hinted at a new recording technique they were trying in 2007, “basically on the new album, you’ll be hearing some of the tracks, mainly piano, as if Thom [Yorke] was playing it in the same room as you”. This was followed up on lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood’s personal blog, with a photo of a mannequin head placed over Thom Yorke’s shoulder while he played piano parts. Greenwood later wrote that “it should be very interesting”.
This idea is not a new one, simply a rare form of recording. The mannequin in the picture above is the result of a replication from an experiment back in the 1930s, were the first ‘dummy head’ recordings were actioned at the Philips Research Laboratory in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The experiments aimed to reproduce “exact copies of the sound vibrations that would exist in ears if they were listening directly”. Initial results confirmed “that it fulfilled the listeners’ desire for concert hall realism”.
Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that binaural recording began to get off the ground – due to limited understanding of the ear and a lack of technical resources developed.
The KU80 developed by Neumann was the first dummy head made for commercial use, which made it to the market in 1972. It was initially received with acclaim by customers and journalists. Hopes soared that the technology would be a watershed moment in audio recording and listening. However, sound technicians and engineers were much less enthusiastic about the product due to the KU80s technical shortcomings, and by the mid 1980s binaural recording and production was largely regarded as a failed technology. Let’s explore these technical limitations.
Firstly, binaural recording is an intensively limited recording approach. Audio technicians felt constrained by using two microphones in a fixed position while using the dummy head. Furthermore they felt powerless over many aspects of binaural audios characteristics, like the control of special effects, general mix balance, stereo width and overall fidelity.
Technicians precluded no ability to control the balance of audio levels, the equalization of specific parts to their recordings or have the ability to compress independent sounds. In addition, technicians argued that there is no one-size-fits-all microphone which would win the war in the studio – after all each sound source often requires a different microphone to fit its response, (drums, bass, and guitar need different treatments with different microphones). Thus making a great sounding record binaural only is painstakingly difficult – perhaps impossible with current industry standards.
Location, location, location
Back in the 1970s, the KU80’s listener’s struggled to locate sound sources in front of them and this was seen as a fundamental design problem of the mannequin head – the KU80 could not produce frontal sound localization. The popular explanation stems from Helmut Haas’s work on psychoacoustics – that the human brain struggles to locate front sound sources should there be no front visual stimuli.
Listeners of the KU80 could locate sound around, above and below the head, but when played back on speakers the effect was not so great. Often the problem was ‘crosstalk’ from speakers. Headphones could effectively isolate sounds recorded on each side of the KU80’s head but since speakers spread and diffuse sound, the sound would spill over from the left ear to the right ear and vice versa. This muddled the binaural three-dimensional mix image. It’s still a major problem with binaural audio recordings today.
When we return to Radiohead’s 2007 statement of “hearing the piano as if the player was in the same room as you”, the heard binaural effect is largely insignificant without listening through headphones, and customers were not overwhelmed by its addition in the final product. The binaural piano recording appeared to be a cosmetic touch.
If we consider how such a recording fits into the context of the final stereo mix; the binaural recording would be bundled with monophonic sounds, recorded, dubbed and then mixed down into a stereo product. The result one can hear is a piano with an exotic and pleasant timbre but not necessarily a compelling three-dimensional addition to a mix. The final output is stereo after all. At best one could say this is a fancy piece of sonic furniture within the spatial elements of a stereo mix.
Fidelity & Sound, versus Fidelity & Music
The KU80’s strength was the immersive quality of the recordings it produced. The realism of an acoustic environment it created gave life to three new versions of the dummy head and kept the debate of binaural’s use in the music industry alive, well into the 1980s. Indeed the beauty often found in binaural recordings is their powerful recreation of naturalistic sounds, otherwise known as a “true-to-original” sound transmission. The simulation of naturalistic environments is not exactly what the industry demands, or in the words of Damon Krukowski, “fidelity to sound is not the same as the fidelity to how we listen to music”.
Perhaps one of the obstacles facing binaural technology within the recording industry was its moment in time in history – as it rose to popularity, the 1960s and 1970s seen a huge shift in popular recording techniques, were tape multi-track recording was used as daily practice. Furthermore, sound technicians ultimately feared the dummy head method of recording. It not only gave them great limitations, but threatened their artistic touch onto recordings, like the use of different recording techniques to colour a production. Susan Schmidt Horning concludes that such technologies need a completely different “auditory perspective” to even be considered in modern music production.
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Krukowski, D. (2014, September 03). Back to Mono. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from http://pitchfork.com/features/oped/9492-back-to-mono/
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The Failure of Binaural Stereo: German Sound Engineers and the Introduction of Dummy Head Microphones. (2016, August 03). Retrieved March 19, 2017, from https://binauralrecording.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/the-failure-of-binaural-stereo-german-sound-engineers-and-the-introduction-of-dummy-head-microphones/