Hunted, Hunter and the Haunted House

After my discussions the other day of how I might present a haunting-inside-your-head story, it seemed a good time to post this article by Richard Brooks that I really enjoyed. He devotes a whole section to immersive sound and how it can work well for haunted house stories in this age of headphone use.

Here it is!

Discussing Wireless Theatre Company’s 2017 production of Blood and Stone, he says:

“What makes this recording unique for listeners used to a standard mono or stereo configurations, is the degree the individual feels the world is shaped around them. Stimulus doesn’t just come from left or right, but from in front or behind, an experience that can feel immersive but also disorientating. In the climax of the production the the protagonist finds herself in a deadly game of cat and mouse, and for the listener attending to their everyday tasks the dislocation between the world that is seen and heard can be quite jarring — much as computer game enthusiasts often find VR experiences.”

Going beyond this, I wonder if it could add to the creepiness if we were to intersperse a baddie’s point of view from time to time in such stories, which are often about being hunted. Occasionally in film, the view of the victim through the eyes of the unseen hunter is presented, and it can be pretty chilling; psychopath films are the obvious example.

In nature, predators’ eyes are usually close together and forward-facing, in order to focus in on the prey, while the eyes of prey tend to be placed further apart, better to see the whole environment and detect danger. Could this be mirrored in audio by intermittently removing that disorienting immersive perspective and making our gaze instead mimic that controlled, directional focus of the predator’s eyes, omitting all other sound but that of the hunted?

This is another use for switching between immersive and more traditional audio presentations that I think may be effective.

Stories using on/off binaural again – the haunting inside the head!

Stories using on/off binaural again – the haunting inside the head!

Okay, how’s this for a use for intermittent binaural?

When I did my English A-level (er, a few years ago…!), there was the option, instead of an extended essay on the text, to write a story responding to it. Then I had to produce a commentary on how my story was a response. I was the only one in the year mad enough to take this option, and this is the story I wrote.

A boy (narrating the story) is in his late teens, and has a severe form of cerebral palsy. He feels terribly frustrated about the challenges he faces in communicating and in making full use of his keen mind. He speaks lovingly of his mother, who is his carer, but like all teens is driven spare by her; she understands more about him than most people, but not as much as would address the loneliness and frustration.

One day, this boy is visited inside his head by the ghost of a working class Victorian man, equally frustrated that his intelligence is not recognised or his potential fulfilled. Almost the entire story consists of their conversation – and their eventual row, after which the connection between them ends forever.

Luckily the story is long since lost, as I’m totally certain I would find it excruciating to read now! But I think that something like this could work well in audio.

If I made it, I would make the audio depicting the real – but rather distant – world binaural, super-immersive and overwhelmingly busy, to depict the difficulties the boy has making himself heard. And the conversation in his mind I would produce in a studio, immaculately, with a mic for each actor, maybe with some sounds from the past added, but carefully placed in post-production to contrast the modern world over which our protagonist has no control.

Music…. I think I would add it in the ‘ghost’ sections (where the boy can be fully himself and the music express that) and leave it out in the ‘outside world’ sections.

But! It might be interesting to experiment with the music seeping into the modern sections, as though the other place where the narrator is living creeps into the edges of his consciousness from time to time. Now that could be fun to mix, especially moving from one type of scene to the other and finding where the boundaries are between them… if indeed there are any clear boundaries at all…

Becoming the character you’ve met

One great use of binaural in audio fiction is the type of experience made by the production company run by Michel Lafrance, The Owl Field.

The format is, perhaps, as close to gaming as audio fiction will get, following to an extent those interactive books written in the second person, where the reader chooses where the story goes, or perhaps live action role play games. That said, the aesthetics of their productions are perhaps closer to the cinematic – the scoring, in particular, follows that route, I think. Their recent innovation is an audio escape room, which out of interest I volunteered as a beta tester for – and it was great fun!

This way of using binaural fully utilises the listener-is-in-the-centre mode, and, as proposed by the expert at the Goldsmith’s festival, keeps them there throughout. You are being the camera, the eye, the ears; you, personally, are there.

I am interested in a use that combines this experience of being the one seeing and hearing with more traditional “camera pointed at” storytelling. To me, what is interesting then is that the listener has met and got to know a character and therefore when the hop into their head is made, becomes the character for a while. Or, alternatively, starts off being the character, but then at some point learns things about them that themselves do not know – at which point the recording becomes third-person.

When could this be useful? The first of many thought-experiments about this got me thinking about how cleverly this is done audio-visually in the film A Beautiful Mind. I am afraid about spoiling it, but it’s an oldish and well-known film, so I think I’m mostly safe! Don’t read if you want to avoid the spoiler!

It follows the mathematician John Nash, who devised game theory and who also suffered from schizophrenia. During the first half of the film, we see him recruited by a shady branch of the CIA to use his particular talents for espionage, but he starts to be in danger as a result. It is only when he is eventually sectioned and treated that we, the audience, realise there never were any CIA agents, or baddies, and it was all along the schizophrenia manifesting itself.

Depicting this kind of story – exploring mental health problems, or perhaps neurodiversity (more on that!) – in audio could also be effective, I think. By starting the production in the first person perspective of binaural (I imagine particular use of the sounds coming from behind could be useful for building the portrayal of paranoia) and then as all becomes clear, moving to more traditional production, you could enhance this kind of plot. Having established these two points of view, it would then be shorthand to tell the audience when we are in John’s head, and when the paranoia is returning, by moving to binaural once more.

Later in these musings I’d like to talk about the role of music, and how to compose and mix it, taking into account what kind of perspective we are inhabiting, and how much it mingles with the story. Also very interesting to consider! In this case, I think music could assist and mingle with the production techniques in establishing perspective as well as emotional/philosophical sympathies. This is one instance when being into sound design as well as composition is useful. 

More tomorrow!

My first binaural recording…

… In which:

– I am in my garden and my neighbour is mowing the lawn.
– A car on the road outside goes by.
– I click my fingers by each ear to check it is working. It is!
– I walk into my garden and we start to pick up my other neighbours’ music.
– I do some heavy footsteps.
– I stand by some bushes with the breeze in them (quite quiet).
– I unzip my children’s trampoline (on the right) and do one bounce on it.
– I go to my tiny apple tree, pick one and have a munch!
-Realising how loud the apple sounds, I chuckle and turn my recording machine down.
– I try a few running footsteps.
– I try some heavy breathing.
– I go back into my kitchen where my husband has the oven on and the fan is noisy.

Nothing mind-blowing, but as it’s my first I thought I’d share it anyway!

If you listen on headphones you’ll hear the effect. If you listen on speakers, it will just sound like any other recording.

My first binaural kit!

The title picture is supposed to represent ‘immersive sound’!

The reason? Because I am a Very Lucky Girl, I have been given an early wedding anniversary present of this:…

Which means my followers are now going to get ‘treated’ to a series of ramblings on binaural recording and how we could use it in narratives that flick between character perspectives! If you don’t already know about it, binaural is a recording method that reproduces human hearing to a degree that can feel positively trippy if you’re not used to it! It uses a dummy head with mics in the ear canals.

People who collaborate with me will be able to tell you just how much this is my thing!! I simply love to nip in and out of the heads of characters to see how things feel inside there.

If you follow the Hidden People, you will hear this from time to time. The producers use multi-mic studio recording, so there are limits to how ‘first-person’ it can get, as the dialogue will not always match the surroundings enough to pull it off, but all the same I have pushed that 3-dimensional, surrounded-by-sound feeling, where it is appropriate, as far as I can.
The scene linked below is one example. I introduce it with a particularly intimate, melancholy musical transition that uses close-miked humming vocals. This hopefully helps set up a mood for moving in closer to the characters emotionally. We then move to the protagonist (Mackenna) in bed. At this point I was recording the Foley close-up but still from a third person perspective – the audience is standing next to her bed watching (or the ‘camera’ is pointed at her in a close shot).
Events then happen around Mackenna and we move into the first person perspective, portrayed by close-recorded rapid breathing from behind a single mic to place her in the centre, then recording all the other sounds around a stereo mic pair. It is not as vivid as a binaural recording but goes some way to showing that kind of perspective, particularly with background noises added, which gives a further layer of sonic texture – distant noises behind the close noises – more 3D.
This was justified here as it was written in a way that the audience’s emotional point of audition is with the character’s, who is wondering what the hell is going on! In this case the writer (Chris Burnside) was also the director and liked this approach as much as I did.

There are spoilers in here, so if you haven’t listened yet but plan to, maybe give it a miss!

Go to about 6 minutes in and listen to about 10:30!

I hope to do this kind of thing more, using my new binaural mics.

I also think there might even be a larger purpose possible, that sound designers could even assist with developing empathetic responses to unfamiliar perspectives, to people who have different lives to our own.

Binaural recording isn’t new tech, but I understand, from people who know about these things, that it’s now getting a lot more attention and investment because of increased headphone use with the podcasting explosion and, in particular, VR gaming.

The good thing is that it doesn’t require fancy playback systems, just a pair of headphones – and if you listen on normal speakers, while you don’t get that immersive sound so much, it just sounds like a normal recording so you can still listen.

There are specific, interesting reasons why binaural feels so real, raw and immersive when compared with a normal mic pair. My fellow student at UH, Adam Wood, did some cool research last year and might chime in, but it’s stuff like sound travelling round the head and arriving later at the other ear in a specific pattern. Or that high frequency noises coming from the side straight into the ear canal register disproportionately loudly. I feel that a basic knowledge of this is probably useful to a sound designer so, despite not being a sound engineer, I’m going to do a bit of reading.

At the Goldsmith’s College audio drama festival, the guy leading the fascinating production and tech panel asserted that one limitation of binaural audio drama is that once you’re binaural you have to stay binaural. I think I disagree!!

So over the next week or so I’m going to explore interesting ways that flicking between recording techniques, from binaural to traditional stereo and back again, could be an amazing form of story telling… if we are telling the right story!