Last year, I organized a panel on “Engaging (with) the Senses: Historiographic, Ethnographic and Artistic Reflections on Studying Practical Knowledge” at the annual conference of the German Society for the History of Medicine, Science and Technology (DGGMNT) in Berlin. The section was composed of three presentations and a live recording session with an Edison phonograph. Read the rest of this entry »

This is an unabridged version of a (shorter) presentation I gave at last month’s ICOHTEC meeting in Porto (see session T1E in the conference programme). I would like to thank my fellow panelists, Susan Schmidt Horning, Melissa Van Drie and Krin Gabbard, as well as the session chair, Hans-Joachim Braun, and the audience for helpful comments and questions.

Introduction

The design of a dummy head, or Kunstkopf, microphone is rather simple: it replicates an average sized human head that is equipped with pinnae and ear canals in which small microphones are placed, one in each ear. During the 1930s, first dummy head experiments were conducted at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and the Philips Research Laboratory in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.Bell engineers Steinberg and Snow summarized that dummy head sound transmission aims “to reproduce in a distant listener’s ears, by means of [headphones], exact copies of the sound vibrations that would exist in his ears if he were listening directly”. Read the rest of this entry »

As mentioned in my last post, I recently visited Volker Mellert in Oldenburg. During our oral-history interview, he told me about the three dummy head projects he had been involved. Mellert started his dummy head research around 1968 at the III. Physical Institute at the University of Göttingen. The III. Physical Institute, under the direction of Erwin Meyer, was specialized in studying all kinds of wave phenomena from microwaves to concert hall acoustics. Mellert studied physics in Göttingen with no special interest in acoustics, but he particularly enjoyed the practical training the III. Institute offered. Following this practicum, Mellert received the offer to write his diploma thesis about stereo reproduction systems – we’ll come back to this later.

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Last month, I went to Oldenburg to conduct an oral history interview with Kunstkopf-pioneer Volker Mellert (read more about my interview and the Oldenburg-dummy head here). As professor emeritus for applied physics (acoustics) at Carl von Ossietzky University, Mellert is still involved in several research projects. One of these projects is located at Jade Hochschule (another Oldenburg based university): it aims at developing a virtual dummy head. As part of my visit in Oldenburg, I got the chance to listen to this virtual dummy head.

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The basic idea of dummy head technology or head-related stereophony is true-to-original reproduction of sound events. Dummy head technology’s great promise is to store an entire sound event, including its spatial characteristics, enabling the listener to later (re-)locate sounds in space as if being in the original recording situation. This quest for facsimile sound reproduction could easily be read as one (tiny) episode in media history’s (apparent) progress towards greater definition, fidelity and truthfulness. However, dummy head technology was, and still is, not only a sound reproduction technology but also an important measuring instrument for studying human spatial hearing. In my paper, I will follow the KU80 dummy head through different research laboratories and broadcasting stations. I will investigate the main actors’ struggle for interpretative authority, attempts to conceptualise the phenomenon of human spatial hearing and efforts to improve binaural technology accordingly. To address these issues I will distinguish three modes of hearing tests deployed in dummy head research: measurements, correlations, and consumption.* Read the rest of this entry »

So what is Kunstkopf stereophony? Put simply, it is a 3D audio recording technology that enables listeners to relocate all recorded sound sources in space as if they were in the original recording situation. The technology uses two microphones that are usually situated in the ears of a mannequin: this is why the technique is often called “dummy head recording”. Read the rest of this entry »

Below you can find some visual impressions from the Kunstkopf collection at the Deutsches Museum Munich. They have two experimental heads (photos 1-3) from the group of inventors (Georg Plenge, Henning Wilkens, and Ralf Kürer) at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute Berlin, two extra pairs of ears (photo 4), and a prototype of a Neumann KU 80 (5-7). Read the rest of this entry »

Welcome to my “Kunstkopf stereophony”-blog. This blog accompanies a research project about the history of dummy head recording. The project is funded by the Fonds Nationals de la Recherche Luxembourg, and located at Luxembourg University. The idea is that I will publish regular updates about the project’s progress as well as general posts on the history of dummy head recording. Read the rest of this entry »