Audio, etc. (Nov. 1977)

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The best way to keep abreast of the hi-fi world, I find, is to run in cycles.

Like the daily news, endless repetition tends to generate creeping paralysis of the mind rather than updatedness. The way I keep up with the news is to buy a paper once a week and avoid TV. In hi fi, it's not so different. Stay away for awhile and you really find out what's new. It's been only a coupla years in the cycle I'm now about to take up again-but a lot has happened.

Remember Ispy?

Ispy was that solemn plastic head from Sennheiser in Germany which when equipped with microphone ears (Sennheiser) could take down what seemed to be the ultimate in binaural sound, two-channel for headphone playback. I couldn't resist giving Ispy a moustache, two eyes and eyebrows to match, plus a floppy hat to cover his baldness-he was a sight. The Sennheiser people in New York were not amused when I took Ispy back to return him to his forefathers.

But Ispy did a good job. And the cause of binaural recording, that unique and different medium, was thereby advanced.

So Ispy departed and I went on to other cycles. Then came JVC, the Victor Co. of Japan. Last year, JVC America in New York put on a splendid all-day press seminar, not merely a press demo party but an all-day session of technical lectures going into the theory and practice behind JVC's recent innovations. Excellent idea, and I might note that it has been very successful elsewhere too; Shure Brothers did a fine job some years back in a similar way and, more recently, Nakamichi. The press, I might say, is honored to be treated to the best brains a good company can muster up to explain the company's technicalities first hand.

So JVC was taking up the cudgels for binaural! At long last, were people really getting into my favorite hobby since 1952? I reported on some of that material, including the curious development of binaural recording for loudspeakers-an idea that, to give credit where credit is due, goes back to B. B. Bauer a good many years ago.

Also on JVC's development, at last, of a headphone that provided out-in-front binaural sound. Alas, Sennheiser, too, had made that unlikely claim. My ears said no to Sennheiser. I heard the sound as usual, to the sides and over the top of my head, but not out in front. JVC's phones, with little satellite speakers perched in front of your chin, looked like a good bet-but no, not for me. It just didn't work. Though the sound itself was lovely.

Audio Innovation

So what's new in this binaural cycle? I've beaten Sennheiser and JVC at their own game. Via JVC's own binaural equipment, I CAN HEAR OUT FRONT. Wow! I did it! But, I'll admit, in rather special circumstances which throw an interesting light on the whole matter of what I might call integrated perception-perception involving all the senses plus that lightning computer we have in our heads, with instant memory far beyond IBM. The beginning of this cycle came via another dummy head--JVC this time.

And another JVC innovation, a remarkable set of headphones that include in their outer casing a pair of imbedded microphones (electrets) in a good simulation of the outer ears. Put them on your head and you have synthetic recording ears. Put them on the dummy and he has ears-the phones neatly fitting into hollows on each side. At the JVC seminar, each of us was presented with a pair of these plus a dummy head, to go home and play with.

Splendid idea, but how about a recorder? I briefly set up the head in my studio, hooked it to my ten ton stationary monster (it feels that way when I try to move it) and started muttering things like woof, woof, testing, one two three, four five six.

Yep, the dummy took these words of wisdom down in binaural sound and played them back to me via the phones. How boring. Obviously, I had to be portable. Really portable-to get those mikes out where there was plenty of noise and lots of sonic interest. It was the dead of winter-brrrr.

So I went on to other cycles, and the other shoe didn't drop. Not for a long time.

All of a sudden, it did. The last portable recorder I had used was a bravely pioneer reel-to-reel battery model that could barely keep itself turning at 33 ips (at 7 1/2 ips, it just went slower and slower), which weighed, if not a ton, too much for carrying in one hand. It died, more or less. Served its time, and well. So one day last summer I took to staring at that useless JVC dummy, and on an impulse grabbed the phone and called the Company. Of course! JVC has several portable two channel battery recorders, tape decks, rather. And for cassettes! Now that would be something. A coreless d.c. motor and featherweight parts to turn, effortlessly, for a really extended recording time no more husbanding of sick and tiring batteries, no more painful slow downs (speed-ups in playback), and a lot less bulk to carry around on the hip. AND those phones for the head, with the mikes built inside! You could listen to the sound coming in, and record it too. And play it back right on the spot with the flip of a switch. All in all, this promised to be a new day for easy field recording of the sort I find so enjoyable.

It pays to stick with one manufacturer. The JVC dummy and phones fitted the Model KD-2J recorder like hand in glove, the hookup done in so many seconds. One thickish cable with three phone plugs, two for mikes and one for the phones, everything neatly labeled and handy to the hands. In no time I had the recorder slung over one shoulder and the phones on my own head and I was off for the great outdoors-but wait. That dummy.

Dummy Paraphernalia The first priority, and only fair, was a name for him. And after that, a moustache, red lips, leering eyes and (spy's rakish hat with the visor. He, too, was a sight to see! Since he was Japanese, I decided to call him Ito.

Thus dressed up, Ito was a worthy successor to Ispy.

Now about that hearing-in-front. As those who have tried know, binaural recording is startlingly realistic in all except one aspect. Recordings that obviously should be right there in front of you, since that is where the sound came from, inexplicably jump back to the rear, or somewhere over the top of your head. I had put Ispy, for instance, on a dining room table with four people on its four sides, talking. Yet in the playback of the recording, those people were all clumped on one half of the table, the half behind you. Nobody up front. That's the problem, and immense amounts of learned investigation still have not entirely resolved the why of it.

Generally speaking, though, it is not hard to explain. Your senses, in this curious recording, are confronted with something totally new and not envisioned by the good Lord who gave us ears. The space your ears are hearing simply will not relate to the space you are In-the place that you see, and feel, and smell, the location where you KNOW YOU ARE. You are getting contradictory signals-and the result is a floundering. Your ears have lost their sync with reality-and they gently go berserk.

Binaural hearing in the flesh is one of those sensory miracles, incredibly subtle and highly subjective; very heavily dependent not only on the other senses, notably the eyes, but very much on that astonishing computer and instant-recall memory bank in the brain which can flash recognition and compensation factors of enormous complexity within microseconds to help relate the factual signals from ears and eyes. How else do you suppose we keep ourselves sonically oriented in a complex world? We do! Via the millions of instant clues we are able to keep the outside world from whirling dizzily around us each time we turn our heads. Our computer says no-that sound is NOT moving, it is ourselves. And we take this miracle for granted a million times a day.

So, significantly, if you record via JVC's mike/phones on your own head, you will find that in playback you have lost this very ability. No clues. Turn yourself ever so slightly and the earth turns. Sounds jump. Jet planes, cruising normally across the sonic field, suddenly jump forward hundreds of miles. Weird sensation! You only moved your head an inch or so.

So I went forth without Ito, phones on my own head, and proceeded to outwit my own senses. Here's what you do, and you can try it if you wish. You lay out a course, in right angles. You walk with the recorder going, keeping your head very stiff, looking straight.

And you talk yourself strict directional cues. (You can do that. The headphone mikes pick up your own voice to perfection, right in your head.) Now I am walking south, out the side door (clunk, it closes) and to the edge of the lawn. Now I turn 90 degrees right, Rrrrrt (that being a clue for sync), and I'm walking west, looking over the wall. Rrrrt, turned north, walking down the driveway.... You make any additional noise clues you can, like doors, windows, turning on faucets (and even flushing the toilet-how realistic in playback!), tapping on kitchen pots, any old noise that is available to help provide sync clues. You get the idea?

Sonic Recall

Then you go back and play the recording through your phones (flip of a switch), while retracing precisely every move you made in the first place. Just do it all over again, only this time let the recording provide the sound. Uncanny. The toilet flushes itself, the doors close, all precisely as before-assuming, of course, that you have equalized the levels. (Very low volume, it turns out. We tend, again, to jack up playback volume, another effect of sensory disorientation.) Everything is the same, except for the recorded sound. A most curious double entendre, a time warp positively Einsteinian. But maybe you haven't noticed the best of it.

Provided you stay in sync, and especially with your head, all the sounds take on their normal directionality, in front, behind, sidewise, anywise. It works. You have restored the necessary cues from other areas and from the brain YOU ARE THERE (if in delayed time) and the ears are satisfied, re-orientated, and again accurate. Really a memorable effect and you can play your own endless variations on the theme.

Two items delighted me in this particular experiment. First was that bulldozer. It was digging somewhere off to the Southwest, caddy-corner to my compass orientations, maybe a half mile distant. In the flesh, of course, its steady roaring remained exactly in situ, on the spot, no matter which way I happened to be facing. Now what would happen in the playback of the recording, when I suddenly turned from, say, west to north? In normal playback, i.e. not in my special sync, the dozer would suddenly jump through the air some 90 degrees.

In binaural playback, you are always yourself stationary. The rest of the world moves around you. Well, I turned rrrrrt, from west to north as the playback went into my ears via JVC recorder and headphones, and by golly, the dozer stayed put! There it was, still in the southwest. A jet plane happened along, too, flying across the southern horizon. I turned, rrrrt. It stayed put. No jump.

Catbird Cacophony

Then there was that catbird. A gentle complaining squaaaawk, his alarm call, and there he was on a branch of a lilac only about 10 feet from me in front. That is, during the initial recording. His nest was nearby.

Well, I played him back again some 24 hours later. I stared right at the same lilac limb, he squawked again precisely from the same spot-and just at that very moment the same bird reappeared, on the same limb. But this time he was silent. Just sat there a moment and allowed my recording to be his voice. It was. I heard him straight in front of me, just as I saw him.

Then suddenly, I noticed the bulldozer, still dozing away out there-but no. I took off the phones; no dozer! Put them on, there it was.

Uncanny. For a moment I wasn't sure which sound was reality.

What happens when you just play your test recording, in the house, sitting in your usual listening chair? It's all gone. The sound is fine but the world whirls around you in 90-degree jumps. The whole illusion (is it illusion?) is vanished. Loss of sync.

That JVC recorder, the KD-2J, is a lot more than a mere binaural accessory so, as part of a different cycle, I'll get back to its abilities in more detail in a later effort. Meanwhile, have fun in your own time. warp.

(Source: Audio magazine, Nov. 1977; Edward Tatnall Canby)

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