The Astro-Binaural Clock: A Hypothetical Auditory Orrery

One of my longstanding curiosities has been the middle ground to be found between science and spirituality. For many years I have had a strong interest in the field of astrology and have subsequently found it to be a domineering element in my personal understandings of the spiritual world.

When I was first introduced to the concept of ambisonics and elaborate surround sound environments one of the first thoughts that came to me was the possibility of adapting the geocentric model of the zodiac to the given speaker format. I found myself pondering on what ways there may be to translate astrological transits and aspects into a musically pleasing form. Essentially, if one were to view astrological activity as a sort of energetic weather system, what would the resulting weather patterns sound like?

At a first glance, the simplest way to realise this concept would be to take the movement of the planetary bodies on a horizontal axis and assign them specific or generative tones. By doing this you should be able to amass a collection of tracks representing each of the planetary bodies, each of which possessing a distinct tonal signature with which to determine their placement around the sound field. The next step would be considering how, and where, to place them.

Given that astronomical movement is autonomous and not of our influence, it stands to reason that to accurately place the various tonal signatures, one would need to do so in accordance with the laws of physics and well, reality. This is the part that for a long time stumped me, and led to me mentally archiving the concept. Re-assimilating myself into an academic environment recently has been the catalyst for me picking up this project again and contemplating a means of pulling it off.

Recent contemplation had led me to believe that what was necessary was a sort of digital ephemeris, however in order to compile this there would almost certainly be a magnitude of data entry and processing which quite frankly exceeded my interest somewhat dramatically. The concept held water though, and in pondering how to simplify the data, it occurred to me that what I needed was a sort of calculator for computing the positions of the various planetary bodies. In essence, a basic format which worked for all possible objects and required as little data input as possible. As luck would have it, Google searches presented me with exactly that.

Whilst I am yet to sit down and contemplate exactly how to translate that into the auditory domain, at a glance it seems logical to devise a Reaktor or Max/Max For Live device which handles the necessary calculations, and outputs the spatial data to a fairly standard ambisonic/surround sound/binaural plugin. Whilst the calculations aren’t exactly simple, they upon examination appear to be within my grasp, which is saying something given that I don’t consider myself to be particularly mathematically minded.

And so, in it’s simplest form, I have the necessary ingredients with which to produce a fairly rudimentary proof-of-concept, and I’m quite happy with that. Regardless of this however, if I were to take the idea further I would run into some fairly interesting technical design challenges. Accordingly, I shall elaborate.

One of the details of astrological study often overlooked is the fact that not only does the movement of planetary bodies exist on the horizontal axis, but the vertical as well. This is something referred to as declination.

One of the drawbacks of conventional sound reproduction is that it exists primarily on the horizontal plane, and so spatially positioning a sound either above or below a listener isn’t something easily achieved. It is possible to give the impression of vertical spatialisation via clever filtering and time based effects, but it isn’t wholly accurate.

By employing ambisonic processing it is entirely possible to send audio signals to speakers placed above and below the optimal horizontal listening space but a distinct issue here is that by creating further rings of speakers above the listener, you start running into technical requirements which far exceed even that of say, a simple circular octophonic speaker array like the one I’m starting to work with at the New Zealand School of Music.

Similarly, if one were to design a speaker array which covers not only the higher dimension of space but the lower one as well, you’d find yourself running into what could be best described as an overwhelmingly expensive engineering project that edges precariously on being nothing short of a total clusterfuck to develop. To be totally honest, it’s not really worth the effort for the sake of pure curiosity. Consider this point – ground level is totally a thing.

This is one of the unfortunate pitfalls of surround sound and ambisonics. It is inherently expensive and very demanding on technical resources. It’s on these grounds I believe that surround sound and ambisonic arrays have never really taken off in the consumer market. There is an overwhelming amount of precision engineering involved to do it correctly, and so it’s of no surprise that these formats exist primarily in the academic domain.

Simply put, surround sound formats are extremely challenging. This is not to say that they do not have their purpose, but realistically speaking, they aren’t commercially viable in the traditional sense of easy listening. This considered, it’s worth going back to basics, and therein lies the key to undertaking a project like this on at the very least, an energetically logical level.

Here is where binaural processing walks in.

Binaural audio is a form of sound recording and reproduction which exploits the human hearing system in a way that enables one to simulate 3D audio spatialisation in a fairly realistic manner. It isn’t perfect, and there’s a great deal I have to learn about it, but it seems to be as being a considerably easier means of pulling off the more complex iterations of this overall concept with the technology I have immediately available to me. So, in other words, a rather nice pair of headphones and my trusty laptops expanse of digital resources.

Part of the beauty behind binaural audio is that it requires only two channels. So, it’s basically a stereo signal. The only caveat there is that it requires the use of headphones rather than loudspeakers, which is in some respects also a drawback. It’s something to work with however and accordingly, i’m totally cool with that.

That considered, I have readily accessible options for both the proof-of-concept and a slightly more advanced iteration. And after a few years of pondering on this I’m feeling quite happy with that. Truth be told I’m not entirely in a position to give the time to this project that I would like right now but it at least gives me a solid ground upon which to get going when the time does arise. Depending on my next semesters assignment briefs I may be able to pull it off through those means, but I’m not expecting it to be the case.

This for now remains conceptual, and curious. When the time comes i’ll further detail the project and it’s eventual trials and errors, and I look forward to that. I believe that time will come before too long.

Science and spirituality indeed. I wonder how this will actually work out.

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1 Response to The Astro-Binaural Clock: A Hypothetical Auditory Orrery

  1. Grandtrines says:

    Reblogged this on Lost Dudeist Astrology.

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