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Stories

In My Feelings: Vermont Ave and Binaural Audio

A man walks along a busy Los Angeles avenue, stuck in his head. Cars zip by, the collective drone monotonous yet occasionally intrusive. You get the sense it’s the evening, the sunset caking the streets with soft gold. The man, whose name is John, tries listening to a song. It doesn’t seem to satisfy him. He switches to a podcast. No dice. Back to music, another track. In a few moments, he’ll bump into a friend. They’ll briefly catch up. He won’t tell her what’s really on his mind. Nor, for that matter, will he tell you.

Not much literally happens in Vermont Ave, a short naturalistic audio piece by James Kim (who created 2019’s Moonface) and Brooke Iskra that won the Tribeca Podcast Award for Best Fiction last week. But the piece is rich in portent, offering a brief portrait of someone in the middle of a big personal decision. You, the listener, are placed in John’s perspective, though not completely. His thoughts are never directly communicated, whether by contrived narration or interior monologue. There are, however, some clues — through context cues, you discern that John’s concerns are related to his partner, and through the catch-up conversation, you learn that there is the possibility of a long-distance move involved — but the specifics of his situation remain largely unknown to the audience. Still, there’s empathy to be mined from that feeling of proximity. You might not fully know what’s going on with this guy, but you can connect nonetheless.

The whittling of the line between the listener and the protagonist’s interiority is the central mechanic of the piece, one that Kim and Iskra sought to realize by leaning hard on binaural recording. (Specifically, they used the Sennheiser AMBEO Smart Headset.) Binaural audio has been a technology of interest to radio and podcast producers going back many years, though it experienced a renewed pop in headlines in recent months as certain corporate podcast entities sought to project a sheen of innovation around their creative endeavors. For those unclear, “binaural audio” refers to a process of recording and delivering audio in such a manner that different ears are served different sounds, with the general purpose of conjuring a three-dimensional audio experience. A basic example to illustrate: A binaural recording is one where the listener can sense the movement if, say, a performer is portrayed to walk from the left side to the right side of the listener’s head. It’s my understanding that usage of the recording technology still isn’t particularly widespread across most media forms, and in the podcast world, I’ve mostly encountered binaural audio as part of efforts to inject more sensorial sizzle into genre fiction fare.

With Vermont Ave, though, the use of binaural audio is less the sizzle, more the steak. Which is to say, the intent to collapse the distance between the protagonist and the listener is the piece’s fundamental creative premise, as opposed to a device that enhances a narrative that could function without it.

“We wanted to focus on a moment when something really difficult is happening in your mind,” Kim told me when we spoke over the phone last week, shortly after the Tribeca Festival announced the short’s win. “What does that feel like? What does that sound like? Can you capture that without using any words, just using sounds to get those emotions and feelings across?”

Kim told me that the short was, for the creators, an emotional purge of sorts. “Everything was going pretty bad around the time we were making that,” he said. “Brooke and I were in a similar situation… we were creatively and professionally not in a good space, and personally, we were going through a lot of stuff.” In the manner of many creative types, they decided to collaborate on the project, because making stuff was the only thing they felt would make them happy at that moment.

They staged the piece as if it were a short film. Kim and Iskra played the principal roles (with the producer Elyssa Dudley doing the voiceover for the podcast played briefly along with John’s walk), and the process involved scoping the location, blocking out the scene, timing the moment that the characters would encounter each other.

The actual recording was fairly straightforward. In his role as the protagonist, Kim wore the headsets, which look like slightly fancier headphones, that were connected to his phone’s voice memo app. The microphones sit on the outside of each headset, and when worn by the performer, the recording set-up mimics the conventional way in which sound flows into both ears, generating audio tracks that can then be layered on top of each other in the mix to produce the three-dimensional effect. It also creates an experience that centers the perspective of the person wearing the recording equipment. When someone in the vicinity of the wearer speaks, you can hear that spatial distance between the protagonist and other characters in the scene.

Vermont Ave falls from Kim and Iskra’s broader intent of producing more fiction pieces in the real world. “I’ve always wanted to try new ways to get out of the studio,” said Kim. “I’m hopeful that this tech can normalize recording [fiction] outside of the studio, where you can really use the environment as a character.”

He also believes in the technology’s potential for nonfiction production, and how it could help producers interact more deeply with the immediate situation. “You often find yourself in a situation where you’ve taken a subject to a place where something happened, and you’re standing there asking that person to recount a story, and then you do the back and forth with the microphone thing… it could be really interesting, maybe, to just have them wear one of these headsets, and guide them to different locations,” he said.

But that’s pie-in-the-sky stuff. When asked about what immediately comes next for him, Kim noted that he’s been working on a few fiction and documentary projects contemporaneously, before emphasizing that there’s a bigger aspiration in place for Vermont Ave. He said that they treated the short as a scene from a much larger project, which he describes as a fiction anthology show built around the theme of love. Each season would be based in a different city, drawing contributors from that community. “The whole idea with this project is that, one, to tell more fiction stories that are short form and can be all encompassing in just twenty minutes, and two, to introduce all these people who are interested in making audio fiction to have an outlet,” he described.

That second piece is particularly important to Kim. “This is a really exciting time in fiction,” he said. “A lot of people are seeing the potential, but there’s also a lot of money and writers from Hollywood coming in, and I’m like, wait, wait, there are a bunch of audio creators here, too, who care about the medium. They just think it’s too daunting now, and there’s no outlet for them to express themselves.”

The hope, then, is to provide a platform that could help native audio producers do just that. There’s no timeline in place for that just yet, though, as they’re currently seeking support and distribution for the project. Kim hopes that they’ll be able to get something going by the end of the year. I hope they do, too.

You can listen to Vermont Avehere