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Binaural Sound: Chris Watson

Each month, I pop into BBC Radio 5Live as a podcast reviewer. I pick a theme, a bunch of great podcasts that fall under that umbrella and we hear from a host of one of those series.

This month was a bit of a 'pinch me now' moment when I half-jokingly suggested to the producers we ask sound recordist Chris Watson to come on about his latest series Oceans of Noise with The Guardian - all to tie in with a theme around binaural and spatial sound. I can't tell you how bloody excited I was when they came back and he'd said yes!

So at midnight on Monday 5th August, live with presenter Colin Paterson, all three of us spent an hour talking about microphone techniques, the sound of the gaming industry, how expensive our headphones are, what we listen to to help us sleep, Glastonbury and of course Chris's time with Cabaret Voltaire.

Plus, as per the usual 'Must Listen' format I threw a bunch of suggestions for other cracking podcast series under the binaural sound umbrella. From 3D audio dramas, to escape room puzzles to bird song and binaural tones for sleeping... This month was a lot of fun.

You can watch the full hour on YouTube, click here to listen again on BBC iPlayer/BBC Sounds or I've transcribed some of Chris's answers below if you just want to scan through and read to get the gist. Shout out to Tom Parnell, Ben Shirley Michel at Owlfield and Rupert Brun for their help in researching this subject too.

Firstly, what is binaural sound I hear you asking...?

"The goal of recording binaural sound is to create a 3D audio effect that simulates sound as if it is being heard live. Binaural sound is best experienced by headphones. The word binaural literally means "having two ears."

Podcast series, music and links mentioned during this review:

Owlfield's 3D Escape Room: Frequency (watch out for a Q&A with the producer of this released on our blog later this week)

(FYI - listen wearing headphones for the full binaural effect!)

Sound Q&A with Chris Watson

Who Chris is... "A founding member of the influential Sheffield based experimental music group Cabaret Voltaire during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Since then he has developed a particular and passionate interest in recording the wildlife sounds of animals and habitats from around the world. As a freelance composer and sound recordist Watson specialises creating spatial sound installations which feature a strong sense and spirit of place."

Photo credit: Jason Roberts

The following blurb is taken from a transcription of Chris's comments during our Must Listen interview on BBC 5Live.

What is it about spatial sound that you love so much?

"It's the way to hear the world. With spatial sound and ambiophonics you can put your audience where the microphone was when the recording was made and so you really get to hear not only the sound of the place but the spirit of it and the acoustics. It's just a much more immersive way of listening to anything - sound or music."

Outside of wildlife recording, where else in binaural sound growing in popularity?

"Gaming tech have the money, and the production value is really high. More so than a lot of films. These days people want to be sound designers in the gaming industry because that's where a lot of the creativity and the budget is."

Photo credit: Jo Stevens

When it comes to hours of wild track, how do you decide what's a good recording and what's naff?!

"It's a process of learning to listen. It's only something you can experience, learning to critique your own work is very important. We also run workshops and playback sessions where everyone listens and makes constructive comments."

Your three-part podcast series with The Guardian 'Oceans of Noise' is a journey into the sonic environment of the ocean, celebrating the sounds and songs of marine life and investigating the threat of noise pollution. How do you record sound underwater, and were there any favourite moments during the series?

"Instead of microphones I use hydrophones - in short, they're underwater microphones. (But I also use these for on/in the ground too - things like recording singing sand dunes!) Recording on the pier near my home in Berwick listening to pistol shrimps or haddock in the third episode was just as exciting as going to the polar regions to record seals singing under the ice.

I find sound constantly engaging. I think it strikes directly into our hearts and imaginations and it really doesn't need much artistic justification. We get sound, we feel sound."

Recently you were commissioned to create a Glastonbury Ocean Soundscape for David Attenborough's stage entrance at the 2019 festival, why say yes to this job?

"I was really interested to play my part in bringing attention to the audience of the songs, signals and rhythms of the ocean and what lies beneath the surface. Our seasoned oceans are not only the largest habitat on the planet, they're the most sound rich. And scientists say they are yet to discover a deaf sea animal - everything in the ocean lives in a world of sound and vibrations. From the tiniest of crustaceans in a tidal rock pool in the British isles to the largest animal that ever lived - the blue whale."

Many people listen to wildlife recordings to help them sleep - do you?!

"Yes, but I listen to podcasts too! Also my own recordings. Last week I was in Ireland and I recorded a field of grasshoppers in the warm sunshine which is very soporific. I did a 20 minute track, it's great because they ebb and flow, and the songs of grasshoppers are high frequencies alongside the swishing of the meadow grass."

And your latest collaboration with the BBC is celebrating the musical landscape of nature in a Prom inspired by a book called The Lost Words?

"It's inspired by a book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris around words which were lost from the Oxford Children's dictionary and on the 25th August there'll be a live performance in the Royal Albert Hall. There's a lot of bird song, some underwater sounds and sounds of different habitats of the seasons. It's a real multimedia performance."

Chris has a whole bunch of interesting stuff going on - current and previous, more here:


More on binaural sound to follow in our blog later this week - meet the producer, meet the scientists and meet the BBC R&D engineers!


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