3D audio was all the rage at the 2017 AES Show. The demand for immersive audio is being driven by the gaming and virtual reality markets. There are even 7-channel mics available now that look like medieval clubs ready to kill an aggressive orc in your next LARPing adventure. Meanwhile, if you want to venture into binaural recording — a simpler form of immersive audio that's been around for ages — you have a number of options. For example, you can buy a binaural recording head with integrated mics, like the $8,000 Neumann KU 100; add mics to a bare head, like the $415 Binaural Enthusiast B1-E; make your own head from a mannequin or even just a head-sized sphere; or buy one of several new products that use mic-equipped earbuds. It is great that all these methods exist, but the simplest solution I have found for capturing immersive audio on the go is the Hooke Verse binaural Bluetooth in-ear headphones from Hooke Audio.
Hooke's pitch is that you can record and playback binaural soundfiles on an iOS or Android device wirelessly via Bluetooth using the company's 3D Audio app, or you can wire the Hooke Verse to a GoPro or other camera directly using the supplied retractable 3.5 mm to Micro USB cable. The Hooke Verse can also be used for normal wireless listening. Using the Hooke Verse for the first time confirmed what I already knew but maybe forgot — binaural recording is F%^&*#@ cool! If you are unfamiliar with this technique, put on your headphones and watch this documentary of Tchad Blake [Tape Op #16] using a binaural headset to gather sounds <vimeo.com/143727933>.
Initially, I tested the Hooke Verse with my Sony 6300 digital camera using the supplied cable. I have started to film more video content during Tape Op interviews, and this seemed like a cool application. The Hooke Verse was a huge improvement over the Sony's built-in mics. Walking around the neighborhood, I captured birds overhead, airplanes in the sky, sirens in the distance, and cars approaching from behind and then appearing in the frame — all with a great sense of space and depth that really raised the video to the next level. The listening experience is undoubtedly best had on headphones, as you can really focus on the position of sounds, whether they remain stationary, or they move around you. Without the accompanying video image, the audio was still three-dimensional, but unsurprisingly, the experience was more effective when married to video — with more of the sense that you are "there."
Imagine riding your bike with your GoPro attached to your helmet and recording all the passing and surrounding sounds as you pedal along. Or walk through a market, along a stream, or down the middle of Broadway. In the studio or practice space, wear it in the middle of the room to capture a nice sense of space all around you. When worn by the drummer, you can hear the sounds reflecting off the walls, such that the size and shape of the room can be felt, just from hearing the audio recording. Keep in mind that when the Hooke Verse is on your head, you need to be conscious of the fact that any turning of your head will change the relative position of any sound sources (or reflective surfaces) during playback for the listener.
Cleverly, with a few folds and pop-outs, the packaging for the Hooke Verse becomes a sort of binaural stand. A slot to hold your smartphone is even included, so you can use it to record the video. Think Google Cardboard for binaural recording. It's fun to use for the first time, but if I really wanted to make a decent recording from a stationary point, I would skip the cardboard mount altogether and just take a drill to a used mannequin head.
I used the Hooke Verse with the 3D Audio app for iOS. It's very straightforward, and anyone who has paired a Bluetooth device should have no problem connecting the headset to a phone. The app allows you to share your recordings with others through email, MMS, and social media — the recipients need only regular headphones to experience the immersive audio.
The 3D Audio app is free, and "Filters" are available as in-app purchases. I expected these to be Instagram-style visual filters, but they are for audio manipulation. I'm not sure why they didn't just call them what everyone else calls them — audio effects or plug-ins. Examples are Delaytor (delay/echo), Verbamon (reverb), Stereoscoper (stereo field enhancement), Interview (background noise reduction), and Concert (supposed to reduced distortion). With all of them, the only parameter you can change is the amount of effect.
The Hooke Verse records at 16-bit, 48 kHz. Over Bluetooth 4.1, it uses the A2DP profile and AAC encoding. Claimed battery life is 9 hours of playback or 8 hours of recording. A full charge cycle takes 3 hours. On Android, the headset can also be used for hands-free calling. For professional use, I wish this device were available with balanced cables, or even a bodypack to clip onto your belt. With a series of adapters, you can get there, but with multiple connections comes multiple opportunities for failure.
My goal over the next few months is to produce an ambient piece — with textures and sounds from the field, courtesy of Hooke Verse. Interestingly, when I wore the Hooke Verse while walking around recording, I was more tuned-in to my surroundings, and I listened in a different way. After 20+ years of making recordings, it is nice to have a new perspective and re-engage with the sonic environment in a new way.
I did have a few minor issues with the 3D Audio app on an iPhone 6s. When I went from recording in the app, to listening to music in iTunes, and then tried to go back to record in the app, the app seemed to lose some functionality. It displayed as recording, but the level-setting function did not work, and once I attempted to terminate a recording, it either continued or ended, but gave me no indication for playback of what I had just recorded. I had to restart the phone and pair again over Bluetooth to regain full functionality.
The Hooke Verse comes with a padded travel case, windscreens, Micro USB cables required for charging and wired recording, and plenty of foam and rubber eartips for different fits. At a lower-cost entry point compared to many other binaural options, the Hooke Verse is a great way to add something special to your recordings or video productions, without breaking the bank.