Allen + Marcus

Cory Allen + Aubrey Marcus - Binaural Beats Vol.1, abstract coloured strands fanning out over black background

Binaural Beats Vol.1

Cory Allen is a composer, musician, and mastering engineer well-known for both his music and for Quiet Design, the label he co-curates with Mike Vernusky. Aubrey Marcus is the founder and CEO of Onnit, a health and fitness supplements company specialising in “Total Human Optimisation”. They may seem an unlikely pairing, but it turns out that Marcus is an advocate of ‘binaural beats’, or sounds designed to induce helpful brainwave states, and that Allen is a highly skilled composer of such beats. Together, they have created six 30-minute tracks intended to imbue particular frames of mind, from “Relax – Connect – Destress” to “Focus – Flow State – Concentration”, described in a language reminiscent of the discourse of herbal teas.

The first thing to note is that while the term ‘beats’ connotes banging four-to-the-floor kick drums, it’s actually to the beating of continuous wave patterns that the title refers — the rate of the beating determining the brainwave state induced. Each of the tracks builds a continuous ambience using a small handful of elements, sometimes just two or three, with slow, subtle change coming about through techniques such as the gradual adjustment of each element’s position in the mix. What was initially heard in the background comes to the foreground, and vice-versa. Or an ostinato heard at one pitch may be mirrored a few octaves up, perhaps transposed up or down a few steps. The music is never intrusive nor demanding of attention, yet at the same time nor is it boring.

Many of the sonic elements on “Binaural Beats Vol. 1” are recordings of environmental sounds, or convincing recreations of them: rain, waves, and wind all appear. This can be interpreted in at least a couple of ways: as an attempt to guarantee the authenticity of the music through an appeal to an eternal truth of Nature; or as an indication of how human nervous systems are deeply affected by and attuned to the rest of the world at a mostly pre- or sub-conscious level. But this latter interpretation is little different from the thesis expounded by Allen and Marcus, which is that the brain is neurophysiologically responsive to external stimuli. The environmental sounds, plus others such as chiming bells, singing bowls, sculpted noise, and classic ambient pads, are always paired with a synth providing the beating waves with which the brain apparently synchronises itself.

As I listened I did notice certain psychic or mental effects, from relaxation to invigoration, though they didn’t always tally with the claimed benefits of the track in question. Much as you don’t need to believe in the chakra-aligning powers of herbal teas in order to enjoy one, so you don’t need to be a brainwave entrainment convert to enjoy “Binaural Beats Vol.1”. Only the chanting monks on ‘Temple Stillness’ veer a bit too close to Nineties New Age kitsch; as for the rest, Allen demonstrates how the composition and production skills he has been honing for the past few years are as keen and as subtle as ever.

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