Considering the popularity today of Web services such as shopping, dating, and university education, experiencing a live symphonic orchestra concert online sounds reasonably commonplace. But listening to Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5" on the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's homepage is anything but ordinary.
The orchestra's Web site, www.milwaukeesymphony.org, is offering free listens of the symphony in honor of their new download store – the first in the country to feature live binaural (sound input for each ear) recordings of recently performed symphonies.
The site's recordings sound perfectly clear, according to Robert Levine, co-chair of the MSO's Internet Oversight Committee.
"The recordings are the closest you can actually come to being there in the concert hall," said Levine, who also serves as the orchestra's principal violist and is a board member of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "There's a real sense of presence and liveliness, a sense of being in the room with the orchestra in front of you. The horns are located in a real spot, and the trumpets and there, and you can hear the winds. You'll say, 'Here's the violin, oh, there's the oboe.'"
Levine recommends listening with headphones because these recordings were made using a cutting-edge binaural Neumann KU 100 microphone. The KU 100 is actually more than a microphone. It's a dummy human head that simulates the way people perceive sounds, with a microphone built into each ear that sends sound input down the ear canal.
According to Levine, people might download from the site because they want to relive a positive experience they had at the MSO or want to hear what a future trip to the orchestra might sound like. In addition to providing the free Tchaikovsky download, the orchestra's online store sells live recordings of its recent concerts, such as Mahler's "Symphony No. 7 in E Minor" for around $6.
The binaural recordings give the impression of being in the exact location where the recording was made, according to Dan Radin, product manager for Neumann. Radin said the binaural microphone "paints the most accurate picture" when reproducing live sounds.
In addition to recording classical music in Milwaukee, the model head microphone is being used worldwide. It can monitor safety levels of sound in industrial workplaces, according to a Neumann product manual, as well as document nature sounds and roundtable discussions. It has also shown success in recording for home surround sound systems use, said Radin.
As far as the dummy's arrival as a professional sound recording staple, "I wouldn't say it's the norm yet, but it has become more and more popular over time," Radin said.
Marquette Band tenor saxophonist Hiep Phung, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, has listened to the live Tchaikovsky recording.
"It was really good. I listened with Boss headphones," Phung said. "It was clearer than most live recordings. There's not as much static or that crackling noise."
As far as downloading live classical music, he says, "I'm all for it. Orchestra conductors interpret different songs in different ways. It's great hear those differences rather than just polished studio production."