A Surreal “Hack Day” in 3D Sound

Benjamen Walker’s podcast Theory of Everything tosses aside conventions in many different ways, but perhaps no more so than when Walker blends truth and fiction in the same program. Not everything you hear on Theory of Everything is “true” — figuring out where his work crosses that line is one of the pleasures of listening. And Walker’s genre-bending makes a bigger point, especially when he delves into our high-tech lives: much of our reality (Twitter bots, Google Glass) feels on the verge of being fake; and some of what’s staged seems like it could be plausible.

binaural mic
The binaural mic used for this episode.
credit: Imprint Projects

If we don’t completely know the difference between truth and fiction anymore, Walker seems to be saying, let’s explore the line between the two together and maybe get lost.

So that’s why I don’t want to give away exactly when and where “reality” breaks apart in Walker’s latest podcast, “Prêt-à-Portable,” but the result is dark and funny. The episode concerns the rise of “wearables,” technology that interfaces closely with our bodies (Google Glass being a prime example, but Walker thinks we’ll be seeing a lot more wearables, and very soon).

What makes this episode especially interesting is that part of it was recorded with binaural microphones, a technology which, combined with good headphones or the right kind of speakers, can create a passable illusion of three-dimensional sound. Jawbone, who make 3D-sound-enabled speakers, sponsored this part of the podcast. It’s about a surreal “hack day” at SXSW Interactive in Austin — usually a place to present new tech ideas, but this crew at this hack day want to use technology to keep us off technology, mostly by making it clunkier or more painful. The results, especially for anyone with any memory of the 1980s or 90s, are pretty amusing.

I asked Walker what it was like doing binaural recording, which is relatively new for spoken-word productions.

Walker: We were in a beautiful studio (Arlyn Studios). We had a whole room with five of us in there and this giant head. The microphones are in the head. It was a Neuman KU 100. It’s really heavy. I was on a chair behind it. Isn’t that weird? We were all pretty close together.

To record outside, the engineer built an over-the-shoulder pole to carry the head dangling from it. We used it when we went to the Driscoll Hotel lobby to pitch our hack day ideas.

Barton: Was there anything tricky about mixing or editing the sound later when it’s recorded this way?

Walker: No, not really. The digital image is a little harder to work with, you have to be more careful with panning. We had two scenes in a car, but it wasn’t moving. We walked through the Driscoll lobby, but we didn’t use that part.

Barton: So it’s when speakers cross, say, from right to left across the recording area that things can get trickier post-production?

Walker: Yes. The scenes we ended up using were stationary. I would love to experiment more with this.

Barton: How did this episode come together?

Walker: I’ve been a little down on technology lately. Theory of Everything is not a technology show; someone described it on the Internet as “tech-ish,” which I like… Anyway, I’ve gone to SXSWi for years, but this year I was feeling a little down and out about going, so I didn’t register.

Then I got a call from folks from Imprint Projects — they looking for someone who wanted to produce a segment that was binaural recordings. I’ve been curious about binaural mics for a long time.

The mic is not bad — it should be for something that costs $10,000! I was impressed.

Barton: Why wearables — why is this an interesting story to you?

Walker: “Portable” in French means computer, so the title is literally “ready-to-wear computer.”

What I learned from doing this episode is that the wearables are coming, and we are not prepared. We have no idea what’s about to happen. It’s coming this summer. It’s going to start out as health-related: “Wear this watch or die of a heart attack!” Every single one of our friends is going to get one of these wearables the day it comes out. Everything’s going to change.

The way people talk about this technology, it’s kind of the way addicts talk. What I took away is that we are so unprepared for this change. The people in charge of this debate (about wearable technology) are people like the ones I interview, Sarah Slocum and Shingy (AOL “digital prophet” David Shing). Let’s just say they’re less critical than I’d like them to be. They’re “boosters.” But at least they’re thinking about all this.

Julia Barton is Managing Editor of Radiotopia from PRX, of which Theory of Everything is a proud member.

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