Up Close: The
Up Close: the Fritz
Files | Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra | SSRI 2007
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binaural recording: the invisible axis
|| Ever wonder why your ears are on opposite sides of your head, earthling? On an axis six inches apart, pointing in opposite directions? And ever wonder how come everything sounds so good, so three dimensional, so spacially accurate... and how come your stereo isn't set up like this because recently you've been messing around with five or six speakers and even a bass woofer to try and get what any two ears can hear at any concert any day or night.
What about binaural recording -- does this represent acoustic space accurately? Binaural... "bin" from the Latin, meaning two or twice, same as "bi", also from the Latin, meaning two or twice, but for some reason "bin" is favored by these recordists, maybe because of the mathematical "binary" association, maybe because of the German work on the technique. No matter. Yes, binaural recording uses two mics as in conventional stereo recording, except that they are positioned exactly as are the diaphragms inside your ears: six inches apart, back to back, pointing along the invisible axis that runs straight through your head, earthling.
See this dummy head on the floor before you? He's the Tonmeister. Call him Fritz or Kunstkopf. Made by the German company started by Georg Neumann, the man who also invented the condenser (or bottle) mic. Maybe you think Fritz is just a joke, a novelty to sell a couple of pricey earbuds but the fact is the "isolation" between the two microphones located in his ears is essential and is what makes binaural recording possible. If there isn't isolation, then the recording will be a de facto mono recording because of the audio creep between the two channels. To get the superb spacial depth of true stereo there must be a "binaural beat" -- produced when two sine waves of slightly different resonant frequency are produced in isolation -- to hit that sweet spot between your ears.
Too technical? Listen to this short mp3 clip recorded in a barber's shop on some other planet and you'll get the picture. You must listen on headphones, otherwise true binaural auralization will not be achieved.
You ask, if this is so great, why haven't all stereo recordings been binaural, the technology has been around for years, hasn't it? The problem is, you must listen on headphones, speakers just won't do it. In the mid eighties the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation experimented briefly with binaural drama using a three-point system which required the listener to find the sweet spot between two radios in the room. One was tuned to CBC Fm stereo, the other to CBC Am mono. Did anyone bother to go through the hassle and listen? Who knows. German radio frequently broadcast binaural drama, confident that enough listeners had headphones who felt comfortable using them. Today things are different. An entire generation has grown up using headphones listening to music on Walkmans and iPods... and now cellphones. Perhaps the time has come to revisit binaural.
binaural recording: the Fritz Files
Certain rock artists think so, like Pearl Jam and Peter Gabriel, and of course electronic musicians who are inclined towards environmental effect have been using binaural all along. The goal of performers is always to capture the essence of live performance, and binaural recording just might be the best way to do it. Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra certainly think so, have just released a new "live in the studio" set called Up Close: the Fritz Files recorded entirely using a Fritz (Neumann) Head.
"I find the binaural experience much more natural than 5.1 or anything like that," says Ottmar Liebert. "By comparison those multi-speaker arrays sound very artificial -- and are expensive...."
Recently Ottmar and his "nuevo flamenco" group gathered around the Fritz head in OL's private adobe studio in Santa Fe, peeled off some of his classic compositions. Put on your headers, check out this video of his famous track Snakecharmer recorded during this session. No smoke and mirrors here, just a true virtuoso performance with a spacial accuracy that suggests that you are actually there in the room, maybe an unseen player in the band. As Stephen Duros (2nd guitar) says, "Best seat in the house, man." [you can find Stephen's account of the Luna Negra binaural session here »»] Notice how Davo Bryant's percussion pot (an African udu drum derived from a water jug) woomfs and sucks, delivering a strange natural bass like a water pump drawing from some muddy sump. And notice how Ottmar's mariachi stroll towards the end is done without a guitar strap. Never misses a beat, earthling.
Up Close: the Fritz Files has nine tracks of first rate instrumental playing, and very interesting spacial imaging. Sometimes the stereo push is hard Left & Right, as in Carrousel or The River, so that the "binaural hole" shimmers like an invisible pool in the centre, the 3rd eye of inner space. In the Moorish-inflected Cocteau, OL walks the circle, and in La Luna he and the band get a nice funky sway going, a slow mule groove through the Sierra Madre. And Up Close has that slow rumba-into-tango step that makes you start dancing with shadows, write poems to Carlos Saura, buy Cuban heels, a case of tempranillo red.
The best track? Perhaps OL left it for the end, Track 9, UnderWorld. The player/instrument pattern/positioning is beautifully balanced, and Jon Gagan's ominous bass integrates the field. The band goes deep here alright -- like Journey to the Centre of the Earth deep. This is Black Orpheus voodoo stuff, gypsy crazy stuff, catacomb stuff... this is Fritz Files stuff.
Will binaural recording become the new way? This isn't "automatic target recognition", such as landmine detection, but it is similar. You live in an acoustic pod, earthling, where a chorus of objects resonate, sending signals into intersecting vectors, and you need the right radar, the right head to plot them, lock the vibe. So you need Fritz, and you need to get "up close."
© LR '07
| Up Close: the Fritz Files |
free Snakecharmer binaural vid »»
direct album download »»
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produced by Ottmar Liebert | all compositions by Ottmar Liebert Copyright luna negra music (BMI) admin. by Holland Walk Muse
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Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2007