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Walking Heads: how we recorded Aeons

Newcastle-born, London-based sound designer and recordist Mike Winship made the binaural recordings featured in Aeons, our sound walk along the River Tyne for the Great Exhibition of the North. He tells us a bit more about working with the technology behind the uncanny stereo effects that you’ll hear alongside Martin Green‘s original music.

“Put simply, binaural sound is a technique whereby a special microphone, shaped like a human head, captures sound as your ears would hear it, and when played back on headphones the effect is startlingly realistic. The shape and density of the dummy head, along with its moulded rubber ears in which the mic capsules are housed, approximate the ways sound arrives at human ears, meaning our brains interpret the recordings in the same way they do with reality. For something as location-specific as Aeons, it’s this potential to blend into the immediate environment (or transport to another) which makes binaural sound so exciting to work with, creatively.

Although the principle and techniques of binaural recording have been around for quite some time, recent years have seen somewhat of a renewed interest in its application across various art forms, from virtual reality to theatre. I am relatively new to working binaurally, but it’s an area I’ve found myself increasingly involved with and incorporating into my work. Last year I assisted the award-winning sound designer Gareth Fry in creating a binaural dramatic podcast, The Discovery Adventures, an ambitious and pioneering project on which I learned a great deal.

You have to think quite differently when preparing to work with binaural sound, as opposed to conventional stereo audio. For instance, with long environmental recordings, you can’t as easily edit out unwanted sounds, because you’re far more aware of the spatial placement of everything and you don’t want things suddenly appearing to jump all over the place. All made especially harder if the microphone itself is also moving! So ideally you’re always trying to capture a perfect take, which of course isn’t always that easy on location – especially in a busy urban environment, with potentially curious onlookers…

Recording for Aeons brought other new challenges. Many of them physical! Binaural heads are quite heavy and cumbersome objects and I was carrying ours for far longer durations than I ever had before – whether along the banks of the Tyne or through the “drone corridor” of the Chorus of Opera North. As the microphones in the head are so sensitive, you have to be very careful not to create extraneous human sounds when moving (e.g. clothing rustle, footsteps, even breathing) which might sour an otherwise great environmental recording. But it has been most enjoyable talking our head on trips: as well as by the Tyne it went out to the woods, up to Northumberland, down to Leeds… capturing orchestras, birds, bicycles, trains and even an Unthank. 

Mike Winship tests the finished edit of Aeons, June 2018

I’ve known the Tyne my whole life, and have many memories associated with it, but Aeons has provided me with a whole new set of thoughts and sounds. A psychogeographic stamp that I will be forever hearing, whenever I come back to the river…”

Aeons, composed by Martin Green for the Great Exhibition of the North, runs from the Millennium Bridge Newcastle until Friday 7 September. 

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