Sitting in Matthew Lien’s recording studio with your eyes closed, you can hear him as he circles the room and eventually comes right up next to you to whisper in your ear.
It’s a strange feeling, made all the more bizarre when you open your eyes, take off the headphones and realize that Lien is standing in the corner of the room and has been there the entire time.
The recording technique, known as binaural audio, is the latest creative outlet for the Yukoner who shot to superstardom in Taiwan after his first international album went multi-platinum in the country.
After years of success in Asia, Lien has decided to call Yukon his home base again. In November he re-opened his Whitehorse studio, Whispering Willows Records. He said he still plans to travel to Asia but Yukon will be where he spends most of his time.
“My intention is to do it the way I did in the early days when the music first took off,” he said. “Where they build up enough work for me to go over there and then come home again.”
He’s brought Fritz north with him.
Fritz is an $8,000 microphone Lien bought five years ago. Fritz is shaped like human head and that shape, along with the two microphones in its anatomically correct ears, allows him to record sound differently than a standard microphone.
“It’s important that (Fritz) physically captures sound waves the same way that you and I do, exactly the same,” Lien said. “He has ears.”
The way a person perceives sound and the ability to tell where something is coming from outside of your head is in part thanks to the shape of your head itself, Lien explained. Sound hits the ear closest to it before the ear that’s further away. The ear can tell elevation and distance based on all the information it gathers when sound hits the ear.
“Your brain has a two-stage process. The first stage is it wants to know where sound is, it doesn’t care what it is, it want to localize the sound first,” Lien said.
“That’s a survival (mechanism.) If there’s something rattling behind your heel, you’re going to want to know where it is before you care what it is.”
Conventional recording can’t capture the specifics of where in space sound is coming from and so when the brain hears music from headphones it “puts the sound in the middle of your head,” Lien said.
But Fritz is different. Since he looks so much like a head he can capture sound the same way a human would hear it live. When playing sound back via headphones there is enough detail to make it sound like you are sitting live in the room with whatever or whomever you are hearing. It’s also confusing for unsuspecting reporters.
“That capturing of information has already been accomplished so your brain buys into it and believes that it’s getting the data that it needs to externalize sound,” Lien said.
When Lien uses Fritz to record music he can make it sound like the listener is sitting next to the piano as it plays or as though a saxophonist is circling the room during a solo. Lien can change where your brain thinks he is in the room as he sings.
Last year Lien published research on how not only to get sound to appear that it is outside of someone’s head, but also how to move it around the world.
Using Fritz and computer software, he has been recording the acoustic “fingerprints” of churches and other acoustically-pleasant locations around the world.
“We broadcast every frequency into the space, the software records it through Fritz and then compares the sweep tone before and after (and) extrapolates the difference,” he said.
“That difference is a ‘fingerprint’ of the acoustic behaviour (of the room).”
Lien can then take that fingerprint and combine it with other sounds or musicians Fritz has recorded, to make it appear as though the sounds are happening in any specific space.
“First of all I can get you out of my head, and then I can put you in the Taj Mahal.”
With all these new techniques, Lien has started working on a new album. Two songs are already in the can and two more are half finished, he said.
There’s no word on when the music might be released. He’s considering an online campaign to help raise funds.
For now, Lien said he’s enjoying both the space he can create with music and the physical space that comes with spending more time in the North.
“This is another reason that I’ve chosen to come back. Asia is noisy and it’s intense and it’s concentrated. That was a big thing for me but it actually pushed me in a direction to develop a way to create peace and space, acoustic space, because I couldn’t find anything over there like it.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org.