Polar Knights PART I: Creating a binaural indie recording
When I first came across Australian indie band Polar Knights’ binaural single, Burst at the Seams, I got excited. Really excited. There are very few binaural indie recordings out there, and even less that the musician and audio engineer in me enjoy equally. So I knew right away that this was special, and was dying to sit down with the band for a chat, to hear all about the project from their point of view.
Of course, being at just about the exact opposite side of the world put a kink in that!
So instead of springing for a plane ticket, I’ve had a very pleasant and insightful email correspondence with Jess Cooper, the group’s guitar/vocal/glockenspiel/banjoist and binaural recording aficionado.
Grab your headphones and have a listen while you read the inside scoop behind the making of this fantastic single, Burst at the Seams:
How and when did you first learn about binaural audio?
Jess Cooper (JC): My sister told me about a YouTube clip in which musician, Imogen Heap (I’m a fan of hers) is filmed going about her house with microphones in her ears, collecting sounds for her upcoming album. I was intrigued by the whole idea of being able to capture sounds as we hear them and decided to investigate further.
What about it made you, personally and as a group, decide to start experimenting with binaural recording?
JC: With all the 3D movies that are out I thought why not 3D audio? People are listening to music on their mp3 players with headphones so it’s not too far fetched to think that someday binaural audio could be just another way of listening to music. What I think is holding people back is how binaural audio will work with popular listening formats such as mono radio broadcasts. However it can still be listened to in mono or through stereo loudspeakers, it just wont have the full 3D effect that listening on headphones or cross-talk-canceled speakers will give.
Can you walk us through your general recording process for Burst At The Seams? How did your approach differ from the standard stereo recordings you’ve done?
JC: The space you record in is important as binaural audio captures the sound of the instruments within the room. All you need to do is find a room in which the instruments sound good, simple as that! After choosing the room you have to decide where you’re going to place all the instruments as well as where to put the microphone.
The planning process is the most important part here. I still plan for stereo recordings but with those there is more room to change things as you go. I find with binaural recordings it’s good to make a plan of where all the instrumentation will be placed in relation to the microphone and try to stick to it, as changing the position of instruments can mess up the stereo image you had originally planned. That’s not to say that you can’t move things around; I did that a fair bit in the recording of ‘Burst at the Seams’, you just have to be aware of what you’re doing and how it will affect the other instruments within the stereo image.
After you’ve planned, it all turns into a normal recording session where you can hit record and track each layer as you usually would.
How did you organize the different layers and tracks of the song? (Multitrack vs. live-off-the-floor?)
JC: I’ve tried both methods now, multitracking and live recordings and I can safely say that I prefer the multitrack method. You have more control when it comes to the mix whereas with live, there’s not much you can do if a guitar is too quiet apart from EQ it, but again you can only do so much. In multitrack binaural recordings you can mix the levels, use compression, EQ and time-based effects to your will just like a normal mix.
There is evidence from the AES that suggests using such effects can warp the localisation of binaural recordings and I agree. However, unless you’re drenching the mix in reverb it really isn’t that noticeable and the 3D effect of binaural audio can still be achieved in a signal processed multitrack binaural recording.
How did you decide on the placement of sounds around the head?
JC: When you’re planning where things are going to fit within the stereo image just have a listen to your favourite recordings and follow their lead. I decided to move the microphone about 2 meters away from the drums so they would not fade away into the background as they had in past experiments. After recording the drums I moved the microphone back to its first position.
The bass amp was placed below the microphone so that it would appear to be close and centre but not on the same plane as the rest of the instruments. Guitars where placed left and right and a floor tom and extra guitar were recorded from behind the microphone, as the best thing about binaural audio is that you can record from all directions including above, below and behind. We had the main vocal directly in front of the microphone and added various vocal tracks from different locations around the room.
Also, for the drums I made sure the snare and kick were recorded at the centre of the binaural image so that I could add samples later in the mix stage. These samples were panned to the middle and mixed in with the drum track to help to keep the snare and kick from being overpowered by the rest of the mix. It sounds a bit like cheating I’m at binaural but it worked!
If you dig Burst at the Seams and want to hear more from Polar Knights, check them out online here. They’ve also just released a brand new EP, “Overtime,” which you can pick up on their Bandcamp page.
You can also learn more about Jess and her recent work at her website, here.