The aural magic of binaural sound

Unusually, the hype was bettered by the experience as technical prowess brought the sounds of The Stone Tape eerily close.

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The highlight of Radio 4’s Hallowe’en pro­gramming was an adaptation of The Stone Tape (31 October, 10pm, BBC Radio 4), the 1972 film for TV about scientists encountering a ghost trapped in the stone walls of an ancient room in a Victorian mansion, which starred Jane Asher. Directed here with obsessive finesse by Peter Strickland (who made the cult Berberian Sound Studio) and using a script by the co-creator of Life on Mars, it wasn’t just marvellously performed – Romola Garai, Julian Barratt, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Asher in a guest appearance – but mixed in binaural stereo for “a truly immersive enhanced listen with headphones”.

Unusually, the hype was bettered by the experience and I urge you to listen back online. Binaural hones in closely on space and distance, exploiting the subtlest aural familiarities. The sound of people speaking outside through a window while standing on a particular kind of gravel; someone surreptitiously snacking in the corner of a kitchen while others chat and goad. The technology even manages to transmit unspoken feelings: in one scene Garai was lying in bed listening to people downstairs partying and her breathing was full of annoyance. It’s impossible to articulate exactly how you knew – like a certain ineffable twitch in the kidneys signalling oncoming backache: the microphone seemed to be positioned inside her brain and was throwing out wonderfully black sensations.

Binaural technicians use dummies and ear-shaped moulds. They talk about inter­aural time differences, head shadows and reproduction system chains, perfecting a science that has been around since the 1950s but is rarely used, and I can tell you why: it’s bloody discombobulating. The form’s accuracy kind of disables your other senses. Having to wear headphones to listen (it doesn’t work over speakers) makes the experience sharp and lonely and reduces everything to the ear, to a crescendo of minute responses. I found myself sitting still in a way that seemed far from modern. In short, I was spooked, if not particularly by the story, with its rather too familiar grunts and snuffles of a demon as in The Exorcist. It’s just that these snuffles felt as sour and intimate as the night’s fur on your teeth in the morning. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe