Binaural Audio Beyond Sound Design: Music to Our Ears?

Binaural audio is a common term in the world of VR audio and spatial sound research, and has even sparked the rise of the Binaural Beats you may hear on YouTube, but could it one day break into popular music production?

First off, what is binaural audio. Simply put, binaural is sound that works exclusively for headphone listening and aims to take the sounds played out of your head and place it into the world around you. This is all done by considering the filtering that occurs from the little flappy bits on the sides of our heads around our ears called our pinnae, in a process named the Head Related Transfer Function or HRTF for short. Our pinnae do a great job in helping us to localise sound, to hear a source and be able to pinpoint its location, but when we listen in headphones the sound is bypassing out pinnae for the most part. Binaural simulates the HRTF filtering that would occur if you were stood in the same place as the microphone recording the audio.

This works great when gaming (lots of localisation needed) and listening to ambiences (better envelopment of sound when it feels like it’s all around you), but what about looking beyond audio and moving into music?

I’m not talking about ambient electronic music, or mediation music. None of that. What about binaural music for use in more musically dense tracks, with piano, vocals, horns, bass, etc. I gave it a little go so you don’t have to.

Pre-Test‘ is the stereo, non-binaural mix of an audio clip. The clip consists heavily of backing vocals along with piano, organ, bass guitar, synth, horns and more.

Test‘ is the same mix as ‘Pre-Test’ (same levels/processing), but with the addition of the DearVR spatialisation plugin. This plugin allows the user to treat a sound source as an object, and place it in the space around the listener. This plugin takes us into binaural listening instead of standard stereo.

Every part of me wants to say ‘binaural is best!’. After all, listening in binaural allows us to feel inside the space with the sources and adds to the immersion and natural-feel of the music. But do we as listeners want natural? While the binaural version feels more enveloping, as if we are amongst the musicians, the togetherness of the mix feels somewhat lacking. Where are the male vocals, and the bass? Of course the lower frequency sounds in a room may not be as well heard than if they are fed directly into your ears, but do we want that. Well, not really…

Comparing the two mixes it is clear that, while a greater sense of space can be desirable, I personally think the compromises of bass and the cohesion of the mix make the introduction of binaural audio in popular music unlikely for now. Perhaps hybridising binaural and standard stereo mixing could be the best way forward if we really want to use it.

But what do you think?

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