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Avant-Garde Composer Brings Neumann’s ‘Fritz’ to Life

Avant-garde composer Zeljko McMullen is using Fritz—Neumann’s nickname for its KU 100 model human head, which features microphone elements located inside its replica ears—to create several new binaural projects that are sure to offer listeners a new perspective on their music.

McMullen, who also functions as an installation sound artist and musician, says he has been experimenting with the KU 100 both as a recording method and as a way to rerecord stereo music playback. Initially borrowing Fritz for three weeks from Neumann USA senior applications engineer Mike Pappas, McMullen reports that the KU 100 sparked a slew of creative ideas. “I think I was sleeping three hours a night during that time because I was so excited!” he says.

Describing his own projects, McMullen says: “I compose music for spaces, site-specific. I go into a space and tune the music to the room, and I’ve always been interested in ways of capturing that.” McMullen’s electronic-music composer friend, Maryanne Amacher, suggested binaural recording. “I was working on some meditation music that I was trying to make into an enveloping field,” McMullen continues. “That was translated to CD, and then I positioned different playback things around the room, positioning Fritz in the room where there was the most resonance and where it sort of erased the room on the recording so it didn’t sound like a distinct left-right. By putting a lot of different speakers around Fritz, I ended up having it function as an attendant in an installation.

“Fritz was used extensively in post-production takes,” McMullen continues. “I usually try to record things in real time and mix it with playback. [For example] I got together with a bunch of acoustic musicians who I write scores for, or improvisation scores, and we did a thing with acoustic instruments all around him. If you turn the head position and you play the same thing back to it, it’s a completely different game. We’d take it into odd-shaped rooms and put Fritz in the corner and just get bass and then record the bass buildup. We really got into recording just for the sheer aesthetic effect of it.”

Having exhausted the possibilities of a stationary Fritz, McMullen says he began to think, “What if Fritz were walking around in here? What if Fritz is in a gyroscope?”

“I had a playback of very low-end sounds and some high white noise, and I cradled Fritz and flipped it upside down and spun it by hand,” McMullen says. “On listening back to that, I got dizzy, but it was pretty interesting. I didn’t know that the effect of what you heard on your balance could be so visceral. But if you can do that with it, there’s got to be a way to generate a comforting effect. It’s easier to find ways to make people feel uncomfortable.”

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