Pet Shop Boys and Talk Talk producer Steve Spiro on how binaural audio shaped his new album

On November 6, electronic music producer Steve Spiro (Pet Shop Boys, Talk Talk) releases a new solo album under the name Frequent Traveller. Entitled Real Life, the record makes strong use of binaural audio technology, providing immersive soundscapes from field recordings taken from a variety of locations across the globe.

From London train stations to destinations as diverse as small towns in Mexico, Jamaica, the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, Barcelona and Marrakesh, Spiro’s recordings were mixed with elements of hip-hop, house, dub and electro to create a unique blend of sounds, styles and genres.

The record has been specifically designed to be heard via headphones, with the binaural technology at its core designed to place the listener in the centre of the destinations captured by Spiro.

AMI editor Daniel Gumble caught up with Spiro to find out what inspired the 360 audio concept behind the record…

Tell us about the origins and the concept behind Real Life
I suppose the concept for the album kicked off when my company Felt Music was commissioned by Sennheiser to create an immersive command sound pallet for their AMBEO soundbar. I spent a week at their design studios whilst we were creating the sounds, as there was only one prototype in the world and it was housed high up in their mountainous, countryside factory just outside Hanover. While I was there, they gave me a prototype pair of their new ASH Binaural recordable headphones. I had a couple of planned business trips to NYC and LA and also a holiday in Marrakesh, so decided to road test the ASH headphones there. I came back with incredible results and then the idea hit me that I could make a whole album like this. Travelling to far off lands, I captured nature, the environments and the local inhabitants in glorious binaural sound and then carved a contemporary binaural soundtrack with indigenous leanings to each of the locations.

You’ve placed binaural sound technology at the heart of the album. How did you first discover this technology, and what made you want to feature it so prominently on the record?
I first discovered binaural sound in the mid ‘80s – at the time it was called holophonic sound and was created by Hugo Zuccarelli. I used the Neuman Head to mix an album and was totally blown away with the depth of immersive sound that we produced. I thought it was going to be the next big thing but sadly holphonics didn’t grab people’s attention back then as it was expensive, time consuming and complex to use. It wasn’t until three years ago when I was reintroduced to the technology through Sennheiser, who now own, Neumann. They remodelled the head and were creating a new binaural range of products under the brand name AMBEO that were far more accessible and easier to use.

For me, having the opportunity to travel the world and create an immersive album dedicated to headphone-wearing audiophiles was an exciting prospect. I’m a commuter and on my daily travel from Sussex to London, I notice how many fellow travellers are wearing a pair of cans and tuned into their chosen soundtrack to help while away the journey. Offering them a chance to escape their mundane commute with an immersive, binaural headphone experience that takes you around the world in the time it takes to get to work seemed to make a lot of sense to me.

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Talk us through the process of how you made the record?
The process for creating each track would normally start with me travelling to one of the featured locations where I binaurally recorded people, nature and its environments. When I got back to my studio from each trip, I previewed the many hours of recordings and carved an immersive soundscape, layering various elements to create a rich texture of sonic atmospheres. I constructed these to take the listener on a journey through the region and tell a story through various characters and scenarios that I had encountered along the way. Once I had these mapped out, I then wrote the music score to accompany it.

What was your equipment set up for the field recordings?
Essentially there were two bits of kit I used. Sennheiser’s ASH headphones with incredible binaural mics housed in each ear and my iPhone with Apogee Meta Recorder to capture the recordings. A very simple and easy to use setup and the best part was its unobtrusiveness that enabled me to get right in there and record the passers by without attracting attention and make people aware that I was recording them. I just looked like a normal bod listening to music on my headphones.

How keen are you to work with binaural tech on future projects?
Very keen indeed. I’m currently involved in creating binaural soundtracks for a couple of global brand projects. It’s also my plan to develop my record label Music For Headphones as being a dedicated label for binaural releases. We have a couple of exciting new projects in the pipeline and plan to do many more.

Aside from the location recordings, where was the album mixed and produced?
The album was mixed in my studio in Sussex. The main task with each of the mixes was to also make all of the music elements fully immersive. I treated all of the sounds in my music score by placing them within a 360-degree soundfield using Sennheiser’s AMBEO plugin. This made the entire mix with the soundscapes a complete binaural experience.

What were the biggest challenges you faced making the record?
I think that probably the biggest challenge was making sure I got the most out of each of the countries I visited. On some occasions, I had as little as a couple of days to explore an entire country. I had to make sure that I’d covered enough ground to provide me a variety of sounds, so I was able to construct a characterful soundscape that was reflective of the region. I was never truly sure if I had managed to pull this off until I got back to the UK and had a chance to go through all of the recordings with a fine-tooth comb.

How did this project compare to your previous solo record?
My first self-titled Frequent Traveller release was a soundtrack to my journey home from London Victoria to East Grinstead. I wrote a track for each of the stops on the line and they were the exact length from station to station. I recorded train carriage noise and announcements at each of the stops, but it was a stereo release. My new album takes this concept onto an immersive global scale. Instead of recording train driver announcements for each stop, it was pilots telling us where our next destination touchdown will be. The previous release was more about the music score than the landscape. This release is about the complete immersive experience where music and the environments are fused together for full 360 degrees headphone consumption.

You can pre-order Real Life here.