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Immersive Audio Allows for Virtual Trips and Visceral Thrills

Watch "Southland Sessions" to keep exploring creativity in COVID. 

You emerge from a warm pool into a bioluminescent cave. A woman suggests you let go of your cumbersome human body and sink into the soil, small and weightless. You’re inside someone’s lungs; they rise and fall, the thud of their heartbeat a comforting metronome. 

These are some of the “virtual trips” you can take through The Unmarked Door’s audio journeys, “Adventures in the Mind’s Ear.” The 360 sound is so immersive you’d swear you were there. In the slew of online pandemic content, there’s something incredible about what an escape sound — and just sound — can be. 

“Adventures” comes from film and TV composer Rolfe Kent, whose credits include the opening theme to “Dexter” and the Golden Globe-nominated score for “Sideways.” He’s also the founder of L.A.-based immersive theater company The Unmarked Door. Their most recent show, an interactive spy drama set in 1960s West Berlin titled “Crimson Cabaret,” closed December 2019 — just a few months before everything shut down. 

Kent had anticipated scoring two films in early 2020, but paused productions due to COVID-19 gave him plenty of unexpected time to experiment with sound in his home studio.

Rolfe Kent works on recording sounds for his 360 audio journeys. | Courtesy of Rolfe Kent
Rolfe Kent works on recording sounds for his 360 audio journeys. | Courtesy of Rolfe Kent

According to Kent, the idea for “Adventures” first percolated last year when a friend asked him to participate in a two-day music event at Les Bains hotel in Paris. Kent said he has always been intrigued by binaural audio and ASMR, and found inspiration in “The Encounter,” a theater piece where the audience wears headphones to hear 360 audio. 

Binaural sound recording uses two microphones, often positioned on a dummy head as “ears.” An artist can use the head to direct how the listeners will interpret sound — what direction it comes from or how close it seems. The listener will only get the full, 360 effect if they use headphones. 

Binaural audio is very popular in ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. People who experience ASMR describe it as a pleasant tingling sensation they get when exposed to stimulation like whispering, personal attention, or gentle sounds like tapping, crinkling paper or sloshing water. The effect can be achieved in real life or through videos, which has led to YouTube “ASMRtists” racking up millions of views and subscribers. Some role-play, as though they’re your optometrist fitting you for glasses or a close friend doing your makeup. Even people who don’t experience the tingling sensation watch ASMR videos to relax.

See how  “ASMRtist” Duff The Psych creates ASMR videos. 

“I like ASMR because of the sense of warmth and intimacy,” Kent said. “My original interest in binaural [audio] was because it was magical to me that you could place [a sound] specifically and absolutely believe it was there. I was once listening to some demo and I was upstairs in my house. There was a bang at the window and I went to answer it.”

Kent laughed as he recalled realizing that, of course, no one would be knocking at his second-floor window. 

“[The banging] was simply in the demo, but it was so utterly convincing,” he said. 

For Kent, a sound experience contained within a single hotel room presented an opportunity. Could he create an intimate “ASMR concert”? 

Cover for "Sleeping Swin" in which listeners the liminal state between sleeping and waking, dreaming and reality. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door
Cover for "Sleeping Swin," in which listeners the liminal state between sleeping and waking, dreaming and reality. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door

The result was “Sleeping Swim,” in which a narrator describes taking a cerebral swim just before waking up. Audience members sat in a circle, facing away from a binaural dummy head in the center. When Kent and his cohorts performed to the head, the audience heard what it “heard.” 

Kent was scheduled to do a similar piece at the now-postponed (again, due to the pandemic) Ramsgate Festival of Sound in England. But because all audiences need for the full effect is a pair of headphones, Kent decided to produce more audio journeys for anyone who wanted to listen. 

“Even a virtual trip would be good for a lot of people,” he figured.  

Cover for "Bodyssey" featuring a miniaturized submersible that takes listeners on a voyage around the human body. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door
Cover for "Bodyssey" featuring a miniaturized submersible that takes listeners on a voyage around the human body. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door

In a landscape of online offerings for people confined to their homes, “Adventures” stands out. It’s not a Zoom meeting. There’s no set time you have to log on. Each one — there are currently four with two more in production — simply suggests a fantastical world using music and sound. 

“Bodyessy” takes place aboard a tiny craft navigating the human body, while “My Queen” shrinks the listener into a tiny insect. “Mountain Adventure” is a precarious hike along a narrow, but exhilarating mountain path.

Cover for "My Queen" where listeners are guided to a miniature land | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door
Cover for "My Queen," where listeners are guided to a miniature land | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door

Kent scored each narration beautifully and added foley with household items. 

“I had all sorts of bits of organic material clustered around the ears and was doing some very specific and strange recording things using fingertips, chopsticks, bits of bamboo leaf, all sorts of things,” he said. 

The result is so real. With closed eyes, it seems like you could point a finger directly at a sound’s origin — each splash of water, a cascade of plucked strings arcing overhead, a gust of wind howling at your cheek. 

Kent is reluctant to “demystify” how exactly he does it. One could almost imagine he places each sound with tweezers in a virtual space, the effect is so precise. He will say he uses a combination of binaural microphones and digital placement. In the case of performer Lola Kelly, who recorded the narration for “My Queen” remotely, that was the only way Kent could do it. But close your eyes and it sounds like she’s circling you, cajoling you right in your ear. 

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Lola Kelly narrates The Unmarked Door's "My Queen," which guides listeners to a miniature land. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door
Lola Kelly narrates The Unmarked Door's "My Queen," which guides listeners to a miniature land. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door

“One of the things for me that get the hairs raising is when someone gets really, really close, so you feel like they’re brushing your ear in order to whisper something. So ... I’ve put a lot of effort into figuring out — if it’s not with the binaural ears — how to make sure that happens,” Kent said. 

Sometimes, it’s almost too realistic. One listener told Kent that “Mountain Adventure” gave them vertigo. 

Cover for "Mountain Edge" which takes listeners on a thrilling hike through the mountains. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door
Cover for "Mountain Edge," which takes listeners on a thrilling hike through the mountains. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door

In a virtual reality piece I experienced, the floor fell out from the center of a room. I found it difficult to step into the blank space, even though I knew I was standing on solid ground. VR is 360 audio and visuals, but in “Adventures,” even just 360-audio crafts the same sense of space, while an engaged mind fills in the rest.

“You won't give someone vertigo by giving them sounds of being on a mountain,” Kent said. “But ... if you tell them that they're on the edge of a precipice, certainly those sounds make a different type of sense. So I find it very exciting to discover how you can create a context that gives someone a visceral thrill.”

Rolfe Kent works on recording sounds for his 360 audio journeys. | Courtesy of Rolfe Kent
Rolfe Kent works on recording sounds for his 360 audio journeys. | Courtesy of Rolfe Kent

In these times, a visceral thrill — even virtual — is often just what we need. 

Kent plans to make “Adventures” even after the pandemic, aiming for a full collection of around 16. Other future projects include an interactive Zoom show with collaborators in London slated for July, and an outdoor project in L.A. with “My Queen” narrator Lola Kelly. Follow what The Unmarked Door is doing here.

Each “Adventures in the Mind’s Ear” track is available for download here. They’re $3.50/each or $12 for all four. Proceeds benefit LEIA’s (League of Experiential and Immersive Artists) COVID Relief Fund for immersive artists who’ve lost work due to COVID-19. 

Top Image: Cover for "Sleeping Swin" in which listeners the liminal state between sleeping and waking, dreaming and reality. | Courtesy of The Unmarked Door

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