Through the Wall of Sound: Music in Three Dimensions

The stories we tell about the songs we find (Part III)

Looked at through the lens of all of human history, recorded music is a recent blip. It’s easy to forget because it’s impossible to remember a time when there was no such thing, when music was only ever singular and ephemeral, vibrations carried over a string of time that never will be again. What might this lost music sound like? Not like live music does today. Even when it’s unamplified and not recorded, live music now carries with it the possibility (and usually the inevitability) of the sound being captured — and, when we do capture it, something vital is lost. But what if it was possible to experience recorded music that comes closer to how we experience music live, hanging in the air and traveling through space?

I keep coming back to a time and a place that’s easily over-romanticized (college; India) yet still feels true: I’m twenty-one, a junior in college, living in New Delhi and interning at the newsmagazine India Today. My colleague, the classical music critic on staff, takes a shine to me and points me toward adventurous concerts. He tells me I’m living near one of the best, and oldest, ongoing musical traditions in the city: Qawwali in Nizamuddin’s tomb. Nizamuddin is a Sufi saint. Qawwali is 700-year-old devotional music. He senses my hesitation. It’s Islamic, yes, but the group of men — for it is only men — that leads it is called a party, and, anyway, Sufis aren’t too uptight. Go, he tells me, you will like it. So I go. And I do.

The market lanes that lead to the old saint’s tomb narrow such that if I stick out my arms I can touch the stalls on both sides. The air is heavy with incense and rose water. Down the lane I hear hand claps, a lilting male voice carrying a melody, echoed by a hearty chorus of men’s voices reverberating off cool stone walls. Throbbing along, running scales in the background, is what sounds like a raspy accordion: a harmonium, I later learn. I walk toward the sound, and the market lane abruptly opens onto a marble courtyard. I take off my shoes and cover my head and slouch over to one corner of the gathered crowd, where I take a seat.

Each song is an incantation, starting slow and steadily building until it threatens to burst out of itself.

I’m one of maybe a hundred in the courtyard before the tomb. The party is at its steps, facing us, seated, legs crossed. Qawwali is spiritual music sung for the Sufis’ saints, who live free from the constraints of space and time. Each song is an incantation, starting slow and steadily building until it threatens to burst out of itself. A song lasts about thirty minutes, but just as time is irrelevant to the saints, so it is to the song. The hand claps, the beat of the tabla, the lead singer’s verses, the chorus’s echoes: This is time. Time speeds up and lifts the crowd with it. Near the end, through the latticed-marble walls, I hear an orgasmic moaning. The voices are female. I see, slowly spinning and lashing themselves, robed women in religious ecstasy. The song ends abruptly, the singer pumps the billows of his harmonium, and another song begins, slowly, mournfully, before rising again.

Nearly every Thursday night, beginning at sundown, I went to hear Qawwali in Nizamuddin’s tomb. I’ve been searching for the feeling of those evenings ever since. It is those evenings I think about when I listen to recordings in three dimensions — the difficulty of punching through the wall of sound and putting me back in that courtyard, where the music surrounded me, lifted me up.

Three-dimensional recording isn’t as new as it might seem. Binaural audio files date back as far as 1881, when opera fans in Paris could purchase a special headset that would plug into each ear, and microphones in the opera house would transmit the music, in separate streams, carried by separate microphones, to the two sides of their heads.

Binaural means, simply, relating to or used by both ears, but binaural recording is not stereo recording, which is primarily concerned with the mix, the sound that comes from two (or more) speakers. Binaural recordings aim to reproduce sound in the same way our ears hear live music. The technique attempts to account for what’s known as head shadow — the space between your ears (also known as: your head) that creates the minuscule differences in the time between when your left ear hears a note and your right ear does. That time difference is information that your brain processes, then perceives as sonic direction. In other words: It puts a sound at a point on a plane and gives music dimension, and it could take me one step closer to that courtyard, that feeling of being there.

Binaural recording reportedly didn’t work so well in 1881. It made a brief resurgence in the 1950s and ’60s in high-end headphones, but few people listened to music using headphones at the time. That’s something to consider: Headphones, as a means of listening to music, are entirely new in such sweeping adoption. Listening to music was social for so long that the first Sony Walkman came with two headphone jacks — one for a friend. Today, in the era of the personal music player, when listening via headphones dominates, you can hear some of the most staggeringly spatial recorded music in all creation coming right out of your computer speakers. This is the work of a rocket scientist named Edgar Choueiri.

Today, in this era of the personal music player and headphone listening, you can hear some of the most staggeringly spatial recorded music in all creation.

Choueiri and his efforts in 3-D recording was the subject of a recent New Yorker profile. The story, by Adam Gopnik, describes the scientist/engineer/aesthete’s work building a diabolically complex filter to trick the ears into hearing sound that comes from speakers in three dimensions. So instead of music blasting out of speakers, a soundscape closer to that of the real recording session materializes. It’s like sitting in a room with the musicians arranged around you. The filter is called a BACCH (for Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy).

Buried nearly at the end of Gopnik’s story was this aside: The BACCH filter “has become available in what’s called a Jambox, and there is lots of Chinese interest….”

I own a Jambox, a red rectangular prism that sits on my bookshelf, but knew nothing about this. I called Jawbone, the company that makes the device, a Bluetooth speaker, and spoke with Travis Bogard, a vice president of product management, who worked on the 3-D sound project with Choueiri.

“When we found Edgar, it was like — hey, this is a perfect match,” Bogard began. “All we had to do was build a computing platform that allowed our system to work with his. We know exactly the spacing of our speakers, and a lot of existing music already has this separation, where tracks are folded on top of each other, you just don’t hear it. But your brain has this magical ability to hear all the tracks separately and then string them together.”

The folding, or layers, Bogard was describing is simply how music is recorded in the studio, with a track for a snare drum, for example, and another for lead guitar, and another for a trumpet. The trick is getting the spaces in between the isolated tracks and the distance between your ears just right. The tiny gaps in time can trick the brain into interpreting those spaces between as points on a plane. This is what Choueiri has accomplished with the BACCH: a means of sorting the tracks to create the right amount of space in between to fool your mind into recreating the same sonic landscape the music was recorded in.

“When you close your eyes and go into different rooms,” Bogard continued, “your brain has the ability to tell one space from another. Each space carries an acoustic profile: the size of the room, the material in the walls…everything. With these recording techniques, you have a feeling as if you’re back in that space.”

I had found my courtyard, and it was sitting on my bookshelf. What could I listen to, now? How could I experience this sonic, um, experience?

It wasn’t so easy. For starters, there aren’t a lot of readily available binaural recordings out there, for which Bogard was apologetic. It’s still early days in the 3-D soundspace, and, as he put it, “there are design and artistic questions that need to happen in the early stage of creation.” In other words, not a lot of artists are even aware of the possibilities yet. He mentioned that Jawbone has been casually talking with singer/producer Pharrell Williams, who is interested in exploring this new dimension in sound. To tide me over, Bogard passed along some names of 3-D tracks available on iTunes.

“Each space carries an acoustic profile: the size of the room, the material in the walls…everything.”

When I got home, I put the Jambox on my coffee table and pulled up an album Bogard had mentioned to me. It was called Dr. Chesky’s Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show! The title alone was promising. I held the plus and minus buttons on my speaker until I heard three ascending electronic beeps, like a cartoon robotic door opening. I decided to play Mozart’s Divertimento in D, performed by the Manhattan Chamber Ensemble. I sat back and closed my eyes. The strings were in front of me, but I could sense the cellos off to one side — my right. The violins were on the left, double basses behind them. The music felt full. It was…something certainly more whole than how I had ever heard recorded music before, but it wasn’t quite like being there. The approach to the courtyard, perhaps, but not yet in it.

Why do we care about the quality of music? “To worship music’s fullness as a fabric of sound is to deny its thickness as experience,” Gopnik wrote in his Choueiri piece. Music, he continued, “isn’t this thing or that thing but many things at once pressing down hard, and then lightly, on our minds.” What it is to be listening to music is difficult to capture on the page. The feelings we have are our own, and they are complex. Words fall short. Gopnik, again, gets closer: “Music is a current of hard choices, made to seem easy by the mind.”

The process of listening can transport us, like a Sufi saint, and make us briefly live apart from space and time. There’s a far more earthbound reason for considering the quality of music too: The sonic experience matters because if it is better and more valuable to us, we are willing to pay more for it. Concerts aren’t free, not even in a Sufi tomb (where tipping was aggressively encouraged to the point of essentially being required). And Dr. Chesky’s amazing iTunes MP3s? They cost $1.29 each, thirty cents more than most iTunes tracks.

“Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it.”

There is another reason to care about this particular quality of sound that comes out of a speaker and tricks the ear into hearing in three dimensions. It’s an ancient reason, really, having to do with music as a particular and essential part of being human. We never used to listen alone, but now we do all the time. This is changing, in large part because of streaming music networks and the social functions built in. But to me, 3-D sound represents something even more important than online sharing. It’s recreating that magical act of creation, when a party of musicians gather and play and people listen. I kept returning to Qawwali not just for the music but also to feel a part of something greater than myself. It’s no wonder the spiritual has always been so wrapped up in music.

Finally, a moment — a piece of advice, really — from a time when recorded music wasn’t new but wasn’t so very old, either, and close listening was harder won. From James Agee, in the introduction to his difficult and monumental work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down onto the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the magic; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

The substance of music, and its shape. How much are you willing to pay to really feel it?

Part I in this series, “The Airdropped Album: What Digital Can Learn from Vinyl,” looks at physical recordings and the nature of hype. Part II, “You Want a Hit? Then Give It Away,” explores building an audience.

Like what you read? Give Ryan Bradley a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.