We talked with the founder of Hooke Audio, Anthony Mattana, in a crazily candid interview on July 27, 2018. His invention, the Hooke Verse, brings binaural 3D audio recording capability to all of us consumers. Read on to learn more about 3D audio tech and hear how Anthony bootstrapped the %*&# out of his HW startup. If you work in hardware, in a startup, or just need some serious inspiration in general, do yourself a favor and listen to his story!
Hooke Audio exists to bring affordable 3D audio recording capability to the masses, and Mattana is making it even more affordable for SolidSmack readers because you’re awesome. For a limited time, you can get 15% off the Hooke Verse headphones by using the coupon code below when you order directly on HookeAudio.com. Offer expires August 20, 2018.
Coupon code: BINAURAL
Listen to the Full Interview Here
What is Binaural 3D Audio?
ERIN: “First off, let’s get everyone introduced to what binaural 3D audio is so that they know what we’re talking about here. It’s definitely something I had never heard of before I met you — at least as far as a consumer product is concerned. I didn’t know it was something accessible to all us lay people. And you sent us a video here that we’re going to share.”
[The following video is different from the clip in the interview. The one shown here gives a comparison between video shot using the normal iPhone mic and then with the Hooke Verse. Put your headphones in for the full effect!]
ERIN: “So you just walked around our heads as you were speaking and we could not only see you but also hear you also feel you . . . We could feel you walking around our heads. What’s going on there?”
ANTHONY MATTANA: “We hear the world in 3D. We don’t just hear sound to the left and the right. We hear sound above us, below us, in front of us, behind us. And we’re able to localize where a sound source comes from mainly because of the shape of our ears. If we didn’t have ears and have their ability to reflect acoustic pressure waves when they hit our heads we wouldn’t be able to exactly tell where a sound source was coming from.
“So what I like to tell people is, when someone is speaking directly behind you, say they’re like, speaking right at the back of your head, acoustic pressure waves are emitting from their voice and they’re hitting the back of my earlobes. And with the basic physics of sound, the first thing to go when a sound wave — or an acoustic pressure wave — hits a surface, is that the high frequencies are absorbed from that surface . . .
“So when that sound source arrives at my ear, I’m actually hearing your voice a little duller, right? A little bit of the high-frequency sort of rolled off. So my brain can tell me, ‘oh, that person is speaking behind me.’
“When you put a microphone very specifically in your ear, and you utilize the way the ear naturally absorbs and reflects that sound, then you have a recording that was a little dull.
“So when you listen back on any pair of headphones — and that’s the really amazing thing about binaural 3D audio . . . your brain kinda plays a trick on itself and it says, ‘that person is behind me.’ So that’s why you can watch that YouTube video with a regular pair of headphones and not only feel me to the left and right, but to the front, the back, the front left, back right, all the way in 3D.”
Mattana’s Background Before Hooke Audio
ERIN: “So tell us about your background because — you invented this, you brought this all together but your background is not hardware engineering. What have you been doing before Hooke Audio?”
The story on Mattana’s background picks up here:
ANTHONY: “I was making sound effects for Broadway musicals. And when I wasn’t writing sound effects for Broadway musicals, I was touring around the country writing underscore on like, original music for straight plays . . .
“I went to school for it. I went to Carnegie Mellon and got a degree in Sound Design for Theater and immediately moved out to New York after that and started working in theater. And so I had, you know, basically, all of my experience was telling stories through sound . . .
“. . . But what happened was, I witnessed firsthand not only the very, very limited knowledge my audiences had over the true power that great audio brings to storytelling, but I was very surprised to find how little knowledge my directors and my producers — essentially the people who are responsible for the end result of the production and how it looks and sounds — had over it . . .
“So when the directors would . . . talk to the costume and the lighting and the scenic designer, they would use very intelligible terms. Like they would talk about color temperature and brightness and saturation and focus . . . then they’d come over to the sound table and they’d go, ‘ahh, can we just put like, a whoosh in there? . . . Maybe just like with a wind blow?’
“They just saw sounds as being like, ‘whoosh — next scene.’
“I was . . . a soundscape man living in a wind-blow world. And I was like, ‘how do I stop making wind blows?’ . . .
“ . . . It kind of dawns on me . . . the directors that I worked with . . . they have all these really easy-to-use consumer tools to make their visuals look better . . . But when it comes to recording sound we can’t do anything. We can’t do anything at all; we can’t even adjust the mic gain.
“So . . . when a director can have the same phone as me and capture a 10-second video right next to me, at the end of the day, she can make her video look a lot better, but she can’t make it sound a lot better. And for me, it said, ‘Well no one cares about this because no one knows what it can be — it could be a lot better . . .’
“. . . Maybe I can stop any future sound designer . . . having to ever make another ‘wind blow’ on Broadway if I launch a consumer electronic 3D-audio microphone company. And so that’s what I did!”
History of Binaural Audio
ANTHONY: “I experienced binaural 3D audio for the first time working as a sound designer in theater.
“What’s interesting about binaural 3D audio is it’s been around since the late 1800’s. It’s been viable and accessible for over 100 years.
“The first iteration that we’ve seen with binaural audio being used is in Paris in the late 1800’s when they used a device called the Théâtrophone. . . It’s . . . this head-looking apparatus that had 2 microphones at the lip of the stage of the opera theater in Paris and they transmitted the signal so that listeners at home, they would put 2 telephone like receivers to each of their ears, and they would hear the sound of the opera on a telephone line, and they would feel like they were there in the opera . . .
“The next big iteration you see of it is when Bell Labs around the World’s Fair, I think it’s in the early 1900’s . . . I believe it was in Chicago in the early 1920’s. (Author’s note: according to this link it was the 1932 World’s Fair). And ‘Oscar’ was, again, it was sort of this dummy-head thing. It . . . had eyes and eyelashes and hair and stuff like that but it had microphones in each of the ears. . . “
Hooke Verse’s SW and HW Development
ERIN: “So what did you think was originally going to be involved in the R&D? Basically that? Just slappin’ it in some headphones and it should be pretty easy, or . . . ? Did it end up being harder than you thought?”
ANTHONY: “Ha. HA! Yeah. So I had a theater degree . . . I had my BFA starting into the world of electronics. I thought PCB was a cleaning product when I started building this product. And yeah, I kinda had no concept of it . . . Also — anyone who says they knew what they’re were doing when they try to create anything that’s new is a total liar and will not exist. Only the people who understand what they don’t know . . . so that they can ask the people who do. And that has been my biggest asset through all of this. I knew what I wanted to make, I knew that I didn’t know how to make it, and I knew how to ask for help. And that was the biggest, biggest thing. You have to be able to know how to ask for help . . .
“But when I started it . . . at a time when most of our phones saw headphone jacks. . . So the first . . . step I came up with was . . . ‘you know, I might be able to make this wired and you can just go right into the headphone jack.’ That stopped pretty quickly when I learned that the headphone jack on all smartphones is a mono input. And the binaural 3D audio has to be a 2-channel output. Cuz it’s your left and your right ear. So, you can’t go wired into the headphone jack.
“Then, if you can’t do that and you need to be working on both Android and iOS, they’ve got different connector types. So, do you make something that’s like a Y-cable and that goes into a lightning connector and then goes into USB-C? At the time, too, I heard rumors about Apple wanting to get rid of the headphone jack and it kind of made me thinking, you know, the connectors on these phones — I can’t trust them. And it’s funny, right? In the pro-audio world for so many years, all we can trust is ‘wired’. Wireless actually became a more trusted technology. That was the safer route. Which was never the case! It’s like, ‘you’re always safe — run the mic from the mixer right to the mic with a bull cable. Can’t lose. If it’s wireless, there can be a problem.’
“And so, I kind of felt, it was like — if I want this to keep being able to iterate, I know that no matter what they do with the phones it’s always gonna have Bluetooth, but it might not have the same connector. And then the trend was pushing towards Bluetooth tech so I said, ‘okay I’m going to make these Bluetooth.’
“So then when I did that, you know, I went to look to browse the shelves of Bluetooth codecs out there and came up probably with our biggest roadblock which was realizing, ‘oh my God. There’s never been a device that wanted to send 2 channels of audio — let alone high-quality ambient audio, like 20-20 kHz audio — over Bluetooth to a phone. It’s never been done before.’ There’s never been a product . . . there’s not even been a Bluetooth microphone on the market . . .
“So that was real bad. That was like, ‘oh man, we gotta build an entire Bluetooth recording codec.’”
ERIN: “So yeah, a normal human at that point woulda been like, ‘ok. I guess we can’t do this.’ But not you.”
ANTHONY: “It’s just going to cost more money and it’s going to take longer but I don’t really have anything else I want to do. I don’t want to go back to making ‘wind blows’. So I was like, ‘alright, I’ll try to figure it out.’
“So I end up, basically, getting in touch with the man who wrote the programming language for our Bluetooth chip . . .”
ERIN: “You say ‘got in touch,’ but you hunted him down.”
ANTHONY: “I completely, completely hunted. Took him about a month to respond. And even at that point, I have to use this chip, I don’t know anyone who knows how to do this And then it took us about 2 years.”
Listen from the start of his development story here:
ERIN: “So when did you do the hardware?
ANTHONY: “. . . also about finding people on the internet. So again, our Bluetooth chip is very specific. And in headphones, it’s got a ton of stuff. Right? There’s no headphone cable. Like, think about the cable that runs on our headphones — the one that runs behind the neck. That cable has 2 microphone cables, 2 speaker cables, a power cable, and a data cable all inside of it. It has — I think it has 6. The standard headphone connector cable has just got 2 cables for power and the driver. . .
“So I was like, ‘wow. There’s not a lot of engineers with experience with our Bluetooth chip and certainly not a lot that I can afford that are this good at miniaturization. That’s when I find our electrical engineer . . . in Virginia on the internet.
“He’s like, ‘I think I can figure that out.’ And he’s just a wolf. He’s a total wolf.
“So we get him a 3D printer, we get him anything he needs . . . I go to his basement in Virginia and we just, like, hack it out. We try to figure this out. So we’re working on all the electronics at the same time we’re working alongside the firmware engineer, who is working with our mobile app team to try to explain to them what the mobile app needs. . .
“The headphones are your standard headphones with microphones inside, and there’s some special electronics, but it’s getting them that small . . . and you know, we can get ’em smaller, and that’s what companies do, but they do it with a lot of money. We’re like, ‘how do we do this after raising $160,000 through Kickstarter?’ We knew that when we went to a factory . . . We needed to come to them with a fully realized product. . . .
“Our factory that we work with is unbelievable, is so awesome . . . But every factory in China will go, ‘oh yeah, we have extensive experience making 3D audio recording Bluetooth headphones.’ And you’re like, ‘that doesn’t even exist! That literally doesn’t even exist!'”
The full story on HW development begins here:
Apps and the MFi Certification Roadblock
ANTHONY: “We submit it to the Google Play store and the thing’s available in like, a day . . . Apple was a very, very, very different story.
“So then, Apple comes back and they see that this app has been submitted. And they go, ‘we see in your app description that this app works with a product, it works with like, a piece of hardware. If have hardware working with an app in the iOS store, you need to have your hardware made for iPhone-certified — you need to have a made-for-iPhone (MFi) certification. And when that happens, any tech hardware/startup/entrepreneur realizes, ‘Oh s*&#, I’m about to basically design an Apple product.’
“. . . because that’s what you have to do. You follow this 386-page document set out by Apple with all of these unbelievably specific hardware constraints, hardware modifications, pieces of tech that have to be used, that you want to basically be adhering to when you start developing the product — not having the whole product already developed . . .”
Want to hear this first-hand story about a HW startup wrestling with getting MFi-certified? Start listening here:
And Then His Body Breaks
ANTHONY: “Oh, this is totally going to be at least a year . . . until I figure this out. . . I’m not going to make any money for a year . . . I need to shack up in my parents’ basement as I wait out this arduous MFi process . . .
“My friend takes me on this snowboarding trip . . . I end up completely shattering my shoulder. I break my clavicle, I sprained my AC joint . . . I have to have total, fully reconstructive surgery. So for the first 7 months of 2016, as I’m living in my parents’ basement, I’m in a splint with my arm, I’m barely able to even type . . . And then my father gets diagnosed with cancer . . . We’re all just this sickly group in this suburban home . . . Everyone’s fine now. It’s pretty awesome. . .
“But 2016 was like, ‘Hey, you want to have a dream? This is how it dies.’”
Listen from this marker for more on Anthony fighting the temptation to give up:
Hands-Free Calling Restricted on Apple App
ANTHONY: “They come back to me, and they tell me. . . your MFi accessory is categorized as a headset . . . MFi certified headsets are required to incorporate a 3-button array . . . At that point, I have no money to completely retool and redesign all the headsets with the 3-button array . . . you’re talking an additional year . . . and at least a half a million dollars . . .”
Hear more details on this roadblock here:
Disaster Strikes at Chinese Factory
Anthony decides it would be pretty cool to hand-deliver the first Hooke Verse to his friend, who happens to be an industrial engineer for Harman living in Shenzhen. It’s a good thing he did.
ANTHONY: “. . . She’s like, ‘hey, I think this is broken.’
“. . . 90% of the units all have wiggling batteries inside. So the option is to . . . order completely new plastics . . . as well as all the new parts . . . we’re talking a 9-month delay . . . And I’m at a loss for words of what I can do here. . .”
Find out the full SNAFU story and what Mattana’s ingenious hack was here:
Who’s Recording with the Hooke Verse Now?
YouTube Best Hooke Verse Playlist — Tag your Hooke Audio recordings with Hooke Audio to be added to the playlist.
- Journalists: making podcasts or going out in the field and recording
- Film Makers
- Bedroom Musicians
- Audio Engineers
- Record Producers — Free Plugs coming from Tchad Blake, multi-Grammy Award-winning producer who worked with Sheryl Crow, Beck with the Neumann head, Mix with the Masters
- New Parents
- The Blind Community
The Blind Community
Here, Anthony Mattana discusses when he discovered his product brings huge value to the blind community and the development of an app specifically for the blind to use.
Other Ideas For Where to Record with the Hooke Verse
- Sound therapy for/from hippies – it’s a thing. Normally you have to physically travel somewhere to experience it. . . . but 3D audio could make the experience at home exactly the same.
- Audubon society – learning bird calls or anywhere you need to train your ears. Content should be recorded the way you actually hear it!
- Solving the case of who shot JFK – and possible uses in other crime scenes
- Bringing audio to sharing muscle cars online – seeing gorgeous cars is only part of the splendor. Hearing them is another big part.
- Sharing well wishes. Sending caring words to far away loved ones is wonderful! Making them feel like you’re right there with them as you say those things is Even More Wonderful.
What recordings do you think 3D audio would make 100 times awesomer? Comment below with your ideas!
Other Audio Tech Emerging – Immersive Audio, VR, Platforms & Hearables
Check out Hooke Audio’s infographic on 3D audio products updated monthly.
What about platforms?
Twitter and YouTube support stereo audio, which is all that’s needed to support 3D audio.
According to Anthony, Twitter has the best video and audio compression algorithms. It’s barely compressed.
Instagram and Facebook were never able to support stereo audio until a month ago — now apps for both with Android devices support stereo. That means they support binaural 3D audio. Apple apps with stereo support aren’t here yet, but are hoped to be coming soon.
Skip to here for Anthony’s full overview on audio tech today:
On OSSIC – The Rival Startup That Failed Hard
ERIN: “Ossic was a company that was trying to make a really crazy VR-kind of 3D audio device. And they crowdfunded on 2 different platforms. One got over $3 million worth of funding, the other one got over $2 million worth of funding. And with your Kickstarter, you only asked for 100k and you got, like, 160k . . . With their over $5 million, Ossic totally closed its doors just this year. And you, with your $160k, succeeded.”
I thought this sounded like a >$5 million-level of the Engineer’s Curse which I wrote about recently (involving hyper-OCD tendencies us engineers experience). Here was Anthony’s take on it:
ANTHONY: “Ossic let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good enough’.”
Listen to more of Mattana’s unfiltered thoughts on Ossic here:
Final Takeaways from Mattana
Check out the blog on Hooke Audio for tons of content.
ANTHONY: “3D audio is best experienced in person, so much that if you buy the headset, we offer a 14-day, no hassle, money-back guarantee. I want to be in everyone’s living rooms to demo this headset, but this is a way to get people to do it. So you buy it, you go, ‘eh, it’s not that cool.’ Send it back to us — I’ll give you a full refund. But you have to hear it. Take a chance on us. Take an opportunity to see what this is. You will not be disappointed. Your ears will thank you. I promise.”
Special Discount for SolidSmack Readers
Again, that limited-time offer Hooke Audio is extending to SolidSmack readers is 15% off the purchase of Hooke Verse. Hurry, it expires August 20, 2018! To redeem, use coupon code “BINAURAL” when ordering directly from this website: https://hookeaudio.com/product/hooke-verse/
Links Mentioned in the Interview:
- Hooke Audio’s 3D Audio Infographic
- Tag your Hooke Verse videos for inclusion in the Hooke Audio YouTube “Best Hooke Verse Videos” Playlist
- The vast and frequently-updated Hooke Verse Blog
- Apple “Spatial Headphone Transparency” patent just filed