Back in the late spring/early summer of this year, when I was gleefully falling down a rabbit hole of radio drama on BBC Sounds, I also took a detour into the non-fiction parts of its output. While the iPlayer algorithm has never really thrown me anything that I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon, Sounds regularly throws things into my feed that I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for but nonetheless really enjoy. Perhaps it’s simply a data volume issue, not only do I listen to more radio than television, perhaps more of the people who like similar content to me are using Sounds than are using the iPlayer? Alternatively perhaps the people making/programming Sounds are also radio geeks who listen to a similarly wide range of audio sources and genres so have taught their algorithm more realistic suggestions?
Soundscapes was one of those serendipitous discoveries – I seem to recall it being a ‘suggested listen’ after a slow radio episode recorded in a bog somewhere in Wales – as it’s a late night specialist music show out of Radio Ulster/Foyle so realistically something I would never have come across of my own volition. It’s mostly a modern classical music show, but it covers ambient and electronic music as well, and more importantly from my perspective, it contains a weekly soundscape. Usually the soundscape centres around an interview with someone – generally an artist or poet or historian, but also just people with interesting life experiences or specialist knowledge – layering their voice and the sounds of their environment/specialist subject, in with a piece of music. Sometimes they feel like very beautiful oral histories and other times like abstract art.
It somehow managed to feel both like very old-fashioned radio and also like something ground breaking and adventurous. Over a six-month period the show wormed it’s way into my affections, becoming my favourite regular radio programme that I looked forward to listening to each week. So naturally of course it came to an end in the autumn. (Although the show has finished, the soundscapes are still up online, and I highly recommend giving them a listen while you can.) The presenter Stephen McCauley has been rewarded with a longer more prime-time slot, and while I’m pleased for him, I shall miss this strange little show; it was like nothing else on the radio.
In search of a new radio love affair, I’ve recently stumbled across the show Between the Ears, which despite having run since 1993 and having its own podcast has completely escaped my notice. One of the driving forces behind the series is to make innovative use of sound in telling stories. At the moment they seem to be focusing quite heavily on binaural sound, which works better in some cases than others. While some episodes just feel like they’re in really good stereo, the episode Living in a Box felt as though you were in the protagonist’s head with him and M1 Symphony left me feeling as though I might drown in sound.
It’s also through this series that I made the surprising discover that Radio 3 are using binaural sound techniques to create a more immersive sound experience for the increasing number of listeners using headphones. I can’t say I’d ever noticed radio via headphones sounding ‘flat’ but perhaps that’s attenuation from years of listening to podcasts via either built-in laptop speakers or cheap ear buds. I certainly prefer to listen to audio drama with headphones, as it’s always felt more immersive, like I’ve stepped into another world.
I normally listen to Radio 3 output on an actual radio – either the hi-fi in my living room or the radio alarm clock beside my bed – so unless I’m listening to a podcast on a bus or train, headphones don’t really come into it. However, increasingly when travelling for work, I’ve taken to using the BBC Sounds app and the hotel Wi-Fi to enjoy whole radio programmes. Clearly next time I’m on the road I need to pack my good headphones and tune in with my phone to see the difference between stations!
I know that ASMR has become the go to trend/obsession for tech fixated Internet folks over the last few years, but for my money binaural sound is far more transformative. (Possibly because the actual ‘response’ part of ASMR doesn’t actually work for me, I find good ASMR soothing in the way a white noise generator’s rain sounds are soothing. The closest I’ve got to an actual ASMR experience is that binaural barbershop haircut you can find on YouTube.)
I was fascinated to discover the strides that have been made over the last few years to create immersive binaural sound for VR environments, combining the techniques of surround sound with binaural recordings to create a responsive sound environment. Personally I’ve always found the few VR environments I’ve tried out, to be quite disconcerting and alienating, but I can see how properly immersive sound could make it actually immersive. Also I appreciated Click presenter Spencer Kelly pointing out how sound could be used to draw the explorer’s attention in particular directions, which does answer a floating question about narrative that I’ve been left with after previous discussions on the increasing crossover between films and video games. How do you draw the viewer’s attention to the correct place to pick up narrative clues without breaking the fourth wall?
Also I clearly need to go back and watch that Doctor Who episode they did with binaural sound while wearing headphones, because based on a clip I just watched that’s a whole other level of immersive and creepy.