Binaural Audio – How Sound is More Than Listening

LOOK, EVERYBODY! DANCING CATS!

Ever get the feeling that you’re being distracted so that someone or something can sneak up behind you? How do you know to turn around and look even when you’re looking the other way?

Interestingly enough, our ears do a lot of work to help us know which direction sound is coming from. Sound doesn’t just come into our ears, it vibrates all around us and inside the holes in our heads (students, please feel free to tell your teachers that their heads are full of holes. Teachers, you already know this about your students). Our ears hear the sounds coming into them from the outside world and hear those same sounds bouncing inside the holes in our heads. Your ear takes this information and sends it to a part of the brain that analyzes it to find out where the sound came from. It measures the amount of time the sound takes to get to each ear as well as the frequency of the sound.

This amazingly complex process (that I severely dumbed down for time’s sake, sorry audiologists) is called sound localization. Normally, when sound is recorded it only comes with the information that has passed through the microphone. When we hear it through speakers our brains aren’t given the original information of where specific instruments are located in a room, how loud they are compared to other sounds or that super awesome rumbling feeling.

There is a way, however, to record sound that will trick the brain into thinking that the sound is coming from the same room. Binaural recording uses microphones placed in a dummy head to recreate the sensation of sounds bouncing around and inside a person’s noggin. Let’s give a listen…

 

You have to wear headphones for the effect to work. It will not work with speakers.

Virtual Haircut – Best one to start with. Very interesting effects and explains some of the basic concepts of binaural audio.

Matchbox – A recording of a match being lit and of a matchbox being shaken. Short but very well done.

Sparkler – A lit sparkler being moved around.

Walking Down a Street – a 23 minute clip of the streets of Catania, Sicily near the Vincenzo Bellini statue.

Thunderstorm – Great clip of a thunderstorm coming in as it starts to rain.

These effects won’t work perfectly for everyone. Each person’s head is shaped differently and those subtle differences in size and shape affect the way we hear sounds. Regardless, binaural audio is an interesting way to show how our ears do much more than just take in sound. In many ways our ears allow us to explore parts of our environment that no other sense can and tell us not only what a certain sound is, but where it is coming from as well. 

Thanks to Duen Hsi Yu, Qsound, and Terzo Orecchio for these amazing recordings.

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