I find myself in a small boat travelling up the Amazon river to visit a village of Mayoruna, an indigenous community living on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. The boat is small, rickety and is so full of holes that it has to be constantly bailed out. And I have about twenty grands worth of assorted recording equipment in my rucksack including a Neumann KU100 binaural head.
But let's rewind four years first. In 2010, I started to work with the theatre company Complicite and the directors Simon McBurney and Kirsty Housley on adapting the book Amazon Beaming into a stage production, The Encounter. The book follows the real story of a photographer as he became lost in the Amazon Rainforest and his simultaneous meeting with an indigenous community, the Mayoruna. Very quickly we discovered that normal theatrical conventions didn’t work to effectively tell the story so we began exploring other ways, ultimately ending up using binaural sound. Which is great, but there aren't that many binaural sound effect recordings of the Amazon Rainforest.
And so I find myself on an expedition to record some. The tiny outboard motor will later run out of oil forcing us to paddle the boat along with our hands and a plank of wood. Recording on location is often about dealing with the unexpected, which is why you want to take the most reliable, bulletproof equipment that you can find. Fortunately, our motor failure was the only drama of the trip and with several expeditions into the rainforest we were able to record a variety of atmospheres in various locations, which yielded amazing results.
We also recorded a plethora of interviews with members of the community, siting the KU100 in the middle of the building to get a real sense of people around it.
I also hired a Cessna aircraft to get recordings of coming in to land, and fly-bys. You can attach a regular handheld mount to the mic thread on the base of the KU100 to make it handheld if you’re in a small space like a plane cockpit. The KU100 certainly isn’t light – it’s a great exercise for your arms – but the results are superb.
The hard-wearing construction and finish of the KU100 meant that it happily handled being dumped and bumped across a variety of bumpy roads, small planes and boats, getting covered in sweat, mosquitos and mosquito repellent without a single scratch or buzz. An added bonus was that the mosquitos were attracted to the KU100, meaning less of them bit me!
„The KU100 is a very easy microphone to record with, because it responds to sound in exactly the same way as our ears do – so if it sounds good to you, it’ll sound good on the recording.“
I find it useful to close my eyes when I’m setting up the recording so that I focus on the sound, and ignore what my eyes are telling me about what I’m hearing. If you’re recording speech, it can be good to lower the stand the KU100 is on, so that its ears are at mouth height. This produces a more dynamic effect, especially if someone is really close to the head. You do have to be aware that the head picks up everything around you, so if you're trying to record a specific thing you have to be aware of any extraneous noise and the acoustic of the room as the head will pick up these as well. This can be a good thing if you're trying to record something in situ, and the character of the room or the environment is important.
The recordings don’t need any post-processing so they are ready to use straight away. In fact, a lot of forms of post-processing can remove some of the information in the recordings that make them so three-dimensional, so it’s important to get the recording as close to what you want to achieve as possible.
The KU100 provides an amazing sense of “being there”, much more so than any other kind of microphone. It really brings alive any dynamic environment for the listener. It’s amazing watching listeners listen to binaural recordings, as they spin in their seat to look for a sound they heard behind them. Binaural sound is a great medium for drama because it can create a great sense of space, of a panorama, and of a performers placement within that world.
Our audience of 800 or so people are all wearing Sennheiser HP02-140 headphones wired into our sound system. Headphone choice was important for us, with open (as opposed to closed) headphones having a more natural sound that benefits binaural sound. Wireless headphones – like IEM or silent disco systems, whilst convenient in some respects often aren't fully stereo so may reduce the impact of the binaural sound.
Providing a mechanism – a mini sound check – to make sure audience members had their headphones on the correct way before the experience properly began was useful, as people often put their headphones on the wrong way round. We also provide a mono mix, and a variety of interfaces for hearing aids to make sure the show is accessible to all.
In our stage production as well as using binaural recordings made on location, we also use a KU100 live onstage. The onstage head means director and performer Simon McBurney can talk to the audience directly using binaural sound, to whisper in their ear, to talk directly to each member. It creates an incredible sense of intimacy between performer and audience member, and simultaneously feels like Simon is sat next to them in the audience telling them a story, and that they are up onstage in the Amazon rainforest.
Binaural sound is a fantastic brush in the storyteller's palette - not perfect for everything, but unrivalled for some things. For The Encounter it is the perfect medium to tell the story, and creates an experience that has ignited audiences around the world. The Encounter has toured the UK, USA, Australia and Europe, and recently completed a 16 week run on Broadway. The sound design was awarded the UK’s Evening Standard award for Best Design.
About Gareth Fry
Gareth Fry is an award winning sound designer whose work includes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Encounter and the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. He has also created binaural and ambisonic exhibitions and VR experiences for a variety of exhibitions and campaigns. He is a founder and chairman of the Association of Sound Designers. He won the 2007 Olivier Award for his work on Waves at the National Theatre with Katie Mitchell, for which he was described by The Guardian newspaper as "visionary". He won the 2009 Olivier Award for his work on National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch directed by John Tiffany. http://www.garethfry.co.uk
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