Rory PQ explains what Binaural Recordings are and demonstrates how to use Logic Pro’s Binaural Panner device to place individual sounds at different spatial positions.
Binaural Panning Overview
Binaural panning is an effective method that emulates human hearing by allowing you to position the direction of a signal source so your ears perceive the sound as coming from either in front, behind, above, below, and to the left or right of the listening position when using a stereo output. This alternative approach to panning is a great mixing technique used to place individual sound sources at different spatial positions.
Placing individual sounds at different positions in the mix is an important part of the mixing process that adds depth and a sense of physical space. During this process, a signal is commonly sent through a pair of stereo outputs. This sounds good and works. However, human hearing is capable of interpreting sounds at different positions, and stereo pairs are not able to send individual sounds out at separate spatial positions. All spatial information for each sound is combined in the stereo pair which really only gives us left and right positions.
The problem with placing all stereo information in a stereo pair is that every person has different anatomical proportions and conditions such as hearing loss that influence the way we perceive sound signals. With these physical differences, each person listening to the same sound source will hear binaural signals differently. Also, producing a perfect recording so everyone can hear a sound source the same would be impossible. This limitation has led to the development of binaural technology that emulates human hearing, allowing us to create binaural recordings that translate in a more natural way.
Binaural recordings are reproductions of sound that emulate the way human ears hear it. The word ‘binaural’ means ‘using both ears.’ When you listen to a binaural recording, you’re able to perceive a true three-dimensional acoustic experience.
Binaural Recording of a Musical Performance
This all sounds great, but it’s unlikely many people will have access to the technology required to make binaural recordings or would want to make this type of recording because they do not translate properly on common stereo speakers and systems. One of the drawbacks of binaural recordings is that they are intended to be played back on headphones or a dipole stereo that utilizes cross-talk cancellation. For a majority of us listeners, specialized listening environments are not suitable.
Binaural recordings are created by using special microphones that simulate a human head. This method is often achieved using a technique known as ‘dummy head recording,’ where two microphones are built into the ear canals of a mannequin head, which allow it to detect the location of sounds around it the same way people do.
Having a better understanding of binaural hearing sets us up to talk about one of Logic Pro’s most misunderstood and often overlooked features, the Binaural Panner.
Binaural Panner Overview
The Binaural Panner feature in Logic Pro makes it simple to extend panning abilities in your projects to help elevate the listening experience of your audience. This brilliant addition to Logic Pro’s arsenal allows you to change the way your sounds are heard and perceived by emulating an environmental space in which your sounds can exist. However, like binaural recordings, the output signal is best suited for headphone playback.
To get started using binaural panning, first ensure ‘Surround’ is selected in Logic’s Advanced preferences pane. Next, select the channel strip you wish to apply the effect and set the ‘Output’ slot to Binaural. The standard pan control will then change to a binaural panning control. Double-clicking on the control will bring up the Binaural Panner interface, giving you more options to transform your sounds.
Controlling the panning effect in the Binaural Panner is done by positioning the panning pucks on the panning plane at the top of the window, and then adjusting any other additional parameters to dial in the effect. Below are the main interface elements:
- Angle, Elevation, Distance: Information fields that adjust automatically when changes are made to the puck positions.
- Spread: Information field that adjusts automatically when changes are made to the puck positions. You can also interact directly with it by dragging its numerical value (making changes here also affects the left and right puck positions).
- Panning plane: Area for positioning the signals—using the pucks—in the stereo image.
- Pucks: Used for positioning the signals on the panning plane—pan and direction.
- 3D image: Represents the resulting position of the audio signal. This is purely a visual aid, which cannot be interacted with directly.
- Mode buttons: Determine the virtual shape of the panning plane, which can be planar or spherical.
- Size field: Determines the size of the plane or sphere, expressed as the radius of the circular plane.
- Doppler button: Enables or disables the Doppler effect—a change in the pitch of a signal perceived by a person who is moving relative to the source of the signal.
- Extended parameters: Click the disclosure triangle to reveal additional parameters for headphone playback and for when you are in Planar mode.
Working with Binaural Panner
The Binaural Panner is fairly easy to operate and a whole lot of fun to play around with. Let’s look closer at the interface controls and how they can be used to enhance your mix.
1. Dragging the left or right puck (Panning Pucks) will make the stereo image wider or narrower. The pucks can also be moved up and down on a second axis that is relative to the third puck. These moves will significantly change how you perceive the position of the sound.
2. The third puck (Direction Puck) is used to determine the forward and backward direction of the signal. As you adjust the Direction Puck, the two panning pucks move accordingly. The Angle, Elevation, Distance, and Spread values also change. When used in combination with the Panning Pucks, you can control spatial position and depth.
3. The Binaural Panner has two mode options: Planar and Spherical. These modes set the virtual shape of the planning plane. If set to Planar, the panning results are shown on a flat circular plane. If set to Spherical, the results are placed on a virtual sphere. An easy way to understand how this works is to think of the sphere as a virtual head. When the Direction Puck is placed in the top half of the circular plane, the sound is in front of the listener. As the Direction Puck is moved toward the lower half of the plane, the sound passes up and over your head, eventually ending up behind you.
Note: If in Planar mode, use the Extended Parameters sliders to control the vertical offset and tilt of the circular plane. Watching the 3D image when changing them will help you get a clear idea of their functions.
4. Setting the size of the plane or sphere is achieved with one of the following options:
- Dragging the Size field value up or down.
- Double-clicking the Size field, then typing a new value.
- Option-clicking the Size field to reset it to its default value of 1.50m.
5. The Binaural Panner also has a cool Doppler effect that can be enabled or disabled. Experiment with this option as it may not sound good for some sounds.
6. Selecting the Diffuse-Field checkbox in the Extended Parameters area enables diffuse-field compensation to ensure a neutral sound for headphone playback.
Note: When using multiple Binaural Panners on several channel strips, it’s recommended to turn off this option and route the output of all the Binaural Panners to an aux channel strip loaded with the Binaural Post-Processing plugin. The Binaural Post-Processing plugin is only available in aux and output channel strips and allows you to apply various compensation modes to all routed Binaural Panner outputs at once, which also saves CPU power.
The Binaural Panner is unique to Logic Pro and is not found as a native feature on other popular DAWs. It is an excellent mixing method worth playing around with. However, it’s not something you will want to use with mono or low-frequency instruments like kick and bass. The effect really shines on higher frequency content like percussion, leads, pads, leads, and vocals.
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