What do silence and headphones have in common?
Lory Hawley explains below.
“Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything”
–– Gordon Hempton, founder One Square Inch of Silence
I have been thinking about why I love headphones. There are many reasons, including the fact that I don’t have to overcome the acoustic challenges of my room, or disturb anyone while listening to music, but the most sublime reason is the world of binaural recordings.
The first time I heard a binaural recording was in 1991, while taking some computer/multi-media courses at Cal State Hayward. A classmate had just come back from a trip to Ireland and he was showing this strange, 2 microphone headset he wore when recording a sound journal of his trip. He shared about how he could make three-dimensional, 360 degree, immersive soundscapes that would bring his experiences to life when he shared his stories. He talked about the fabled pubs of Dublin and his recording of walking into one. I asked if he was going to play them for the class, and he explained that you could only hear the effect through headphones. I remember the moment when he handed the headphones over to me and I put them on. To this day I can still feel the effect it had on me as I closed my eyes and was plunged into a three-dimensional world of conversation, laughter, and music…over in the corner, about 20 feet away…a band comprised of a fiddle, drum and guitar played, along with loud, raucous singing. I was surrounded by shouting Irish voices. It was startling! And I was hooked. I still have a copy of that recording as a treasured archive of a dear friend and my grand awakening.
Here is a brief primer on binaural audio. Binaural recordings are an evolution from stereo recordings. They take the microphone set-up that stereo recording uses, and change the method of placing mics in front of the sound source to one that recreates how we use our ears to place sounds three-dimensionally in space and distance. Two microphones are placed in ear-like cavities on either side of a dummy head or placed on the recordist’s ears. Because the head shape recreates the density and shape of a human head (this is referred to as Head-Related Transfer Function, or HRTF, or Anatomical Transfer Function, orATF), the microphones will capture all the acoustic data the brain uses to echo-locate and create an aural image of the environment, thus delivering sound as it would be heard by the human ear in all its natural and three-dimensional glory.
It was actually first created at the end of the 19th century using a telephone earpiece to listen to electrical audio signals. In the 1930’s stereophonic audio and the first commercial loudspeakers were developed, and sound listening went from monaural to binaural. In 1940 Disney released “Fantasia”, the first commercial film released in what they called “Fantasound”, using a multi-speaker system; a revolution from the tinny, poor fidelity speakers movie goers were used to. Fast forward to the 1970’s and a German company Neumann unveils the KU-80 — the first commercial head-based binaural recording system.
Binaural recording dummy head
Pink Floyd was one of the pioneering groups that explored the power of binaural recording early on, as well as surround sound live concerts. In 1967 they performed the first Quadraphonic concert, using a joystick device developed by Bernard Speigh, an Abbey Roads studio recording engineer.
In 1978 Lou Reed used a dummy head to record Street Hassle, the first binaural commercial pop album, followed by two more, Take No Prisoners and The Bells.
The BBC experimented with a radio drama broadcast called The Revenge, a play recorded with binaural mics, written without dialogue. The very British announcer gives instructions about putting on a pair of “stereo headphones” to enjoy the full effect of binaural sound.
It was rather eerie to listen to, and I found it a bit lacking as far a good drama, but a great exploration of soundscapes. You can explore the broadcast here:
A number of years ago I was on a quest to find high quality nature recordings. I play them in the background when I want to meditate or decompress from a stressful day. For the most part I was disappointed in the recordings I found. Either they had new age music blended in or short repetitive loops recorded in low fidelity. All I wanted was some lovely, well recorded natural evening sounds with crickets. How hard could it be? I was at a nature store in Berkeley, asking about recordings of those crickets and they steered me to the binaural recordings of an Emmy award-winning nature recordist named Gordon Hempton. I was directed to his website called One Square Inch of Silence, where I learned about an organization he founded, devoted to recording the planet’s remaining quiet places that are free of human sounds. https://onesquareinch.org
Not only did I find a wealth of exquisite binaural recordings that turned me into an armchair adventurer, (his recordings can be found on all the music streaming sites) but I found an inspiring human being who had made it his life’s work to capture the vanishing “silent” places. His recordings are used by National Geographic, the Smithsonian, television, and film makers, just to name a few.
He lives on the Olympic Peninsula where he has a studio not far from some of his favorite quiet recording spots.
In the summer of 2013, my husband and I spent time on Orcas Island, in the San Juan Islands, northwest of Seattle. It happened to be my birthday, and my husband gave me a card, with a note from Gordon Hempton inviting me to spend the afternoon with him at his studio. I was stunned. My husband, knowing I was a fan, had called Gordon up a few months before and told him about my passion for his life’s work, and my love of audio. My husband asked if there were any workshops or private lessons he could sign me up for, as we were going to be driving through the Olympic Peninsula. Gordon said there were not any at that time, but he would be delighted for us to be his guests for the afternoon, and that he would introduce me to the basics of binaural nature recording.
The Olympic Peninsula is a breathtaking place. Mountains rise from sea level to almost 8,000 ft.
Hurricane Ridge, Olympic Mountains
There are immense, moss-draped rain forests and rocky, driftwood strewn beaches; all within sight of Seattle, across the Puget Sound.
We found Gordon’s studio and home up a long gravel road. There was a colorful yurt, an old cabin, a small separate studio, and a propane-fired clawfoot bathtub next to a firepit.
The firepit and tub
We were greeted warmly by Gordon who gave us a tour. He introduced me to Fritz, his Neumann Binaural head, and pointed out his standard gear; a long pole to which Fritz was attached on the end; it looked like something out of Lord of the Flies…
I was a novice, and really did not have the expectation of being taught how to make recordings in those few hours, what I did learn, was how to listen to the sonic personality of the woods and feel the environment, not with my head, but with my gut. That is what Gordon is interested in teaching. The technology was fairly simple, and he showed me the headphones, attached to a splitter, which I would wear, that allowed me to monitor the sounds the microphones on Fritz’s head were recording.
Gordon’s Sennheiser headphones
Fritz’s mics were wired into a portable recording deck, and the headphones allowed me to listen to my surroundings through Fritz’s “ears.” We walked along a nearby stream, and Gordon had me moving Fritz around; inches above the rushing water, then up along the bank, then behind boulders. He told me to listen to the reflected sounds and how they contributed to the sonic images I was recording. I felt like I was welding a giant magic wand.
At first, I was self-conscious; awkward and terrified of dropping Fritz into the rushing water. Gordon gently told me to breath and slow down; feel more, think less. We moved slowly with tai chi-like movements. At first, hearing through mics located a few feet away left me feeling a little woozy and disoriented, but we would stop, I would take off the headphones and he would point out the various species of trees around us. He had trained as a forester and not only did he open my ears, but my eyes as well, as I soaked up the green beauty of the Bigleaf Maples.
Bigleaf Maples on Gordon’s property; native to the Pacific Northwest
I felt like we were hunters moving soundlessly through the forest; gliding and pausing as Gordon would cup his ear and point; a signal to listen to something he was hearing. When I first started on our walk, I thought I was hearing all the sounds around us. However, the more I surrendered to the rhythm of stopping, moving Fritz around, and sometimes closing my eyes in order to “see” with my ears, the more layers of sound I became aware of. By the end of our time along the stream and in the woods, I could barely speak, I was so attuned to the exquisite field of sound around us.
Stream and boardwalk
We returned to Gordon’s studio where he demonstrated how he downloads the recordings into his computer. We studied the wave forms displayed on his monitor as we listened to what I had recorded. Honestly, what I heard being played back was not very impressive; like the photos someone might take when handed a camera for the first time. It deepened my appreciation of the artistry Gordon brings to his craft and the worlds he captures so brilliantly for us to enjoy.
Gordon studying his recordings © courtesy of Shaun Farley
We finished the lesson with his kind words of encouragement as we walked across the yard, the gravel crunching under our feet, back to the yurt, where Gordon had beer on tap. We all toasted to our love of sound and the precious world we live in. That might have been the best beer I’ve had.
I can’t say enough about the contribution Gordon Hempton has made to the audio archives that preserve the sounds and silences of our fast disappearing quiet places, which, like our vanishing dark skies, are now being preserved in parks and heritage sites; the precious places that we can return to and experience what was once our “quiet” and dark sky world.
All photos by Lory Hawley, with the exception of Gordon at his desk which is credited to Shaun Farley https://designingsound.org