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Why Isn't Binaural Music A Thing?

In my freshman year of high school, something sparked my interest for music production. I was tired of confining my creative desires to GarageBand on my iPad that I had been using for two years, so I decided to invest in a small home studio. Starting off with a $70.00 USB microphone that my dad bought me for Christmas, I scrambled to produce a short cover CD (which sounded quite awful), sold copies for $5.00 each to my friends, and saved up all of my birthday and Christmas money to buy new equipment. By the middle of my sophomore year, I was able to purchase my first audio interface and large diaphragm microphone (which I still use today) and eventually released my first EP.

I originally had plans to become a performer as I enjoyed singing, creating my own songs, and jamming out on my guitar. The thing is, I hated (and still hate) being the center of attention. Quickly, I realized that performing just wasn’t my thing after several nervous cracks and shakes in my voice whenever I tried singing in front of people. During my junior year, I made the switch over to audio engineering.I was roaming across the Internet at around 11:00 pm last night, listening to Peter and Kerry’s binaural version of “I Don’t Know” on YouTube through my open-back headphones. Some of my friends think I’m crazy, but I’ll admit it; I am obsessed about audio quality when it comes to music. Obsessed. The combination of open-back headphones and binaural audio is absolutely astounding. Binaural audio is different from stereo audio because it is recorded in a way that simulates how the human ear hears. Stereo is, very simply put, panning of instruments left or right. As I was listening to “I Don’t Know,” I felt that I was there in the room with the performers. I felt as though I was actually experiencing the music and not just listening to it.  Immediately, a question popped into my head: “Why isn’t binaural music a thing?” 

If all it takes is one binaural microphone (which is what Peter and Kerry used) to produce such a realistic track, why aren’t binaural songs more common? We have the technology and the engineers to do it, so why don’t we? Heck, the gaming industry has been experimenting with binaural audio for a while now, so why don’t we apply their strategies to music? Music should be an experience. I doubt anyone has the time or the money to go to concerts as often as they turn on their iPods, so just imagine this: You’re in your room, you put on your headphones and start up your favorite track. You close your eyes and hear an acoustic guitar about 10 feet away from you on your left. The drums come in directly in front of you, then the bass, and suddenly you hear your favorite singer in the mix, their voice sounding so real it’s almost as if they’re singing to you. To understand what I’m talking about, you might want to check out the link to Peter and Kerry’s binaural recording (wear headphones, otherwise it’s just in mono).This morning I was thinking about the music revolution that is stereo sound. Many don’t realize it, but this creation was a huge milestone that greatly impacted the way we hear music today. When you put your headphones on, you can hear guitars on your left and right, the piano in front of you, background vocals coming in from all directions… something you can’t have that with mono sound.This leads into even more tiny details within audio engineering and music production that we often take for granted. Mic placement, adjusting volumes, panning instruments left and right, etc. are all crucial to the development of a song, and it’s something that audio engineers and producers need to pay heavy attention to. One of my favorite YouTubers, Andrew Huang, explains how something as simple as being able to change volumes of individual tracks/instruments can be so impactful on the tone, feeling, and expression of a song. To make background vocals, you’ll have to pan a few tracks left and right and lower the volume so that they are quieter than the lead vocal. Otherwise, they’re not background vocals. Check out Andrew’s video, he explains it significantly better than I can:

We’ve made the step from mono to stereo, which was huge for not only the music industry, but even the film and gaming industry. Content developers are making even more of an effort today to make the games we play and the movies we watch more interactive with the rise of virtual reality and binaural headsets. Perhaps developers are working on making music more interactive as well, though I haven’t seen much news on that idea recently.Recording technology has become so accessible that even my 15-year-old self was able to produce an EP in a span of just a few months. I’ve always had a deep passion for audio and the ways we can manipulate it to create different things, so the rise of new audio technology is quite exciting for me as an artist and engineer. Being at the UW, I am very curious about the university’s DXARTs program, which takes aspects of art and technology and mixes them together. A few faculty members are even doing research on 3D audio, which is something I’m quite interested in studying as well. I look forward to seeing what new revolution developers have in store for music, and maybe I might even have a chance to take part in it.

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