Cory Allen: Binaural beats
by Niklas Göransson
Did you know that brainwaves can be influenced by sound? A master audio engineer explains binaural beats; pulsating sonic spells cast in accordance with the self-organising structure of the cosmos, allowing access to enhanced awareness and deep visionary trance.
When it comes to manipulating the brain by way of auditory throbbing, you’d probably want them resounding from a reputable source. Hailing from Austin, Texas; Cory Allen is a meditation teacher, minimalist avant-garde musician and audio engineer – for capturing in duality the spirits of sound, I struggle to envision a more fitting résumé.
– Binaural beats, Cory explains, is the phenomenon that occurs when listening to a tone played in one frequency through the left ear and in another one through the right. The difference will be imperceptible for the average person, but it produces an auditory pulse that can stimulate the brain.
Brainwaves tell us which frequency has the highest degree of neurons firing – they are measured in hertz (Hz) and can be an indication of the subject’s current state of mind. These electrical impulses shape a large part of our personality, and a surplus or deficiency in certain brainwaves can cause a range of disorders such as insomnia, anxiety, ADHD and depression. They can also be beneficial, which is why they’re being targeted by modern so-called bio-hack technology such as binaural beats.
– The range between the two frequencies should be that of the intended brainwave, the resulting beat will then produce a corresponding entraining effect. This won’t work properly unless the two wave oscillations are isolated per ear, which means that headphones are preferable. For beginners it will probably take around ten minutes for the effects to kick in.
Example: a tone listened to in 80 Hz through one ear and 70 Hz in the other will generate a 10 Hz vibration – alpha frequency, characterised by deep relaxation. Thus, binaural beats of the alpha persuasion would theoretically facilitate a calming sensation. Now this might sound both fanciful and obscure, but it has actual peer-reviewed science behind it. Cory was in his early twenties when he first came across research into this topic; and with curiosity sparked he began trying it out on himself.
– I’d make note of the frequencies and then listen to them as I went to sleep – when I woke up the morning after I’d document the experience and sensations. Most were useful in one way or another, but sometimes I’d try out some dissonant and aggressive-sounding vibrations and wake up feeling foggy and confused.
One could end up in far worse shape than that, the US military and police both employ a weapon that is essentially a super-high frequency.
– It’s sort of like a sonic Taser – you bust out this device that broadcasts an extremely high frequency directionally at one person. It’s likely to fry your nervous system and make you black out.
Audible assailment has also been utilised in cinematographic entertainment, one notable example being the 2002 French film Irréversible. The opening sequence that includes the notorious fire extinguisher scene has a background ambience of 28 Hz, which is similar to the noise produced by an earthquake and is known to cause nausea and vertigo. Sounds like a splendid technology to be testing out on yourself.
– Yeah, he laughs, but I kept experimenting and identifying which frequencies that affect the physiology. I also looked into fringe-type research with claims of emotional responses and even further into the more spiritual woo-woo.
Memories lodged in his brain and written research documented and stored, his diligent field studies would be given a legacy thirteen years later when he was approached by his friend Aubrey Marcus – entrepreneur, internet personality and CEO of Onnit Labs. Marcus had recently discovered the technology and proposed a collaboration, which Cory accepted. They decided to stray from the usual mechanistic path of the generic binaural beats and set out to create something innovative and unique.
– I crafted them to be both highly complex and linear; some contain up to fifteen pairs of frequencies, working not only based on binaural sensations but on root frequency. Draped in a composite tapestry, they fade out over the course of ten minutes while new ones emerge. This structural layering is a trick I use in all of my music – you don’t necessarily realise that one thing is gone and another has come until you sort of wake up to it.
As is customary for his recording approach, once he started the project he gave it his undivided attention until completion.
– The six 30-minute tracks on “Binaural Beats vol. 1” (2015) took me about ten workdays. I’d pour over them in my studio; going back and forth between monitors and headphones, ensuring that the binaural effect was active in both spaces.
Once again he conducted some adventurous testing – pairing frequencies together, entwining harmonics to generate a synergistic pulse.
– I was looking for ones that could be worked into music, both in a compositional sense and on the physical level. It was pretty crazy, I’d be messing around with them and suddenly hit one of these frequential pairings where I’d feel a dopamine blast from my toes to my head. ‘That’s the spot!’
Like in his younger days, he didn’t always tune into agreeable ambiances.
– I’d get nauseous or just feel out of my head – man, going at it for two weeks straight with high volume … my girlfriend would come home and I’d look like a cat that’d just stuck his tongue in the electric socket.
At the end of a full day of flooding himself with mind-warping frequencies, he’d be completely tweaked into the vibrational intervals of his surroundings.
– One evening I was outside relaxing as night fell, and I heard all these bugs come alive; locusts, crickets and so forth. I just lay there listening to them and as the sun went down, the vibrational frequency of the insects resonant beating dropped from theta to delta.
Theta is the second to last of the major frequencies; its range is between 4 and 8 Hz and is associated with heavy relaxation and light slumber. Delta is the lowest one, 0,2 to 3 Hz and signifies restoration and deep, dreamless sleep.
– It really fucking freaked me out, I don’t know if this is just some subjective thing put together by my mind, but that’s what it sounded liked to me. It would make perfect sense; as night falls the natural world tunes down into a lower vibrational frequency. It was quite a revelation.
For readers wondering why they themselves haven’t noticed this; these sound variations are not something the untrained ear would pick up.
– My hearing is my strongest sense, I’m always acutely aware of the sounds around me. Mastering engineers – good ones anyway, need to be able to do this. I’ll listen to an album and say: That hi-hat? 5200 hertz. That’s how I go through life, intercepting frequencies in a perpetual pitch.
Can everything that happens through binaural beats be explained by academia?
– Some aspects are absolutely explainable through science. There are however facets beyond the scholarly, and they appear different for everyone. There is transcendence. The amount of emails and messages I’ve received over the last six to eight months is extraordinary.
Cory fondly recalls some of the personal stories listeners have shared with him.
– From one guy who had a near-death experience and was able to get back into that space and work through his trauma, to someone else accessing this incredible state of meditation. One person spoke of finally being able to sleep after struggling with insomnia for ten years, it’s just amazing the effects they seem to have on people.
If I were to first meditate and then start writing, which tracks should I use?
– For writing, either “Gamma Flow” or any of the tracks from “Binaural Beats vol. 2” that was just released– all of them are geared towards concentration and different states of enhanced awareness.
Gamma is the highest frequency and is associated with cognitive functioning and cerebral focus.
– As far as meditation goes, “Into The Void” is the one that’s the absolute deepest and heaviest for me. I’d suggest trying a few and seeing which ones work the best for you, then just rock that one.
“Temple Stillness” is said to aid in activating the ajna chakra – opening the third eye. This is the mythical lens of celestial perception, quintessential in various spiritual principles ranging from the old Vedic to Buddhist traditions – hence the Hindu custom of drawing a red dot on the forehead. In esoteric terms, it is said to be the seer’s portal to realms within and states above; the means of clairvoyant sight and oracular rapture.
– I look at the third eye as the membrane between the astral space and our human reality – a gateway of cosmic vision. If you’re into meditation or if you’ve had any type of psychedelic experience where you saw shit in your mind’s eye, you’ll know what I mean.
Physiologically, the third eye is supposed to be lodged in the pineal gland – ‘a pea-sized conical mass of tissue behind the third ventricle of the brain’. Recent research at the University of New Mexico suggests that this is where the body naturally produces DMT – a compound found also in numerous plants and which, in its synthesised form, is considered the world’s most potent psychedelic substance. Smoked or vaporised, it’s said to send the voyager into approximately ten minute’s worth of hallucinogenic ecstasy.
– I was doing mushrooms and acid at a young age but only smoked DMT for the first time about a year and a half ago. I was with my friend Mitch Schultz (director of DMT: The Spirit Molecule) – he went first, flat on his back with his eyes bugging out and face getting red. When it was my turn I just laid back and thought; ‘Ah, this feels like home! This is what my meditation is like.’
Cory identifies the industrious dimensional tourism of his youth as having been greatly influential in shaping his worldview.
– Psychedelics render your perception of reality modular; the mind bypasses ego and is able to perceive a richer subjective universe. They tear down walls that have been erected in your mind, mortared by past experiences.
He says that over time, when you have enough of these experiences, your brain can become multi-dimensional.
– They reveal the destination; show you the place where you can go. But when you’re in those altered states, you’re travelling with a companion in the form of the substance you’ve taken. Your surroundings are processed through the filter of that thing.
Cory believes the purpose of ingesting visionary vegetation should be to chart out higher levels of consciousness, once given the map it’s up to you to plot the journey. And when you reach the Promised Land, that’s when the real work begins.
– Finally, you can gaze upon reality filtered through nothing but your own mind. With some self-discipline and practice, you can achieve some high states without external agents. Nowadays, I get there through sober meditation.
Get where, exactly?
– It’s a figure of speech. I’d say that your mind becomes more there, it doesn’t go anywhere; it opens and expands and unfolds and blossoms. Where do you go? No, you see what’s there all along – the opposite of travelling somewhere.
He points to how the vast majority of people seemingly go through life in a shroud of distractions, losing track of what’s really there. Cory says that whenever we can achieve a state of awareness, we reach deeper within as other parts of our mind come more to our attention.
– Call it the spirit world, the light matrix or the astral space; whichever framework you’re comfortable with. You could say that perhaps it’s another universe that exists simultaneously alongside ours, that consciousness has multiple layers of existence unperceivable from your everyday headspace.
When talking about these things, Cory feels it’s important to note that having access to this space makes you no better than anyone else.
– There’s no hierarchy in this. It’s your truth, your own experience, it doesn’t put you ahead in any way of someone who is either on a similar path or not on one at all.
All things have a resonant frequency, a very practical example of this being that of the opera singer breaking the crystal glass.
– Every object is made of atoms, the way they fit together in a certain shape and mass – it’s going to have a unique resonance. Knock on a wooden table and tap on a piece of stone – you can tell that each material’s density and porous nature is different.
Hitting the right note at a high enough volume will burst the crystal glass asunder, its resonant frequency beating so violently that it can no longer take the amount of energy vibrating inside.
– All things in nature have these resonances, as do we humans and I believe that’s why music can have such a profound impact. Things that sound appealing and make us feel good; it’s because they’re reverberating through our very being.
Perhaps this has some correlation to religious practices where harmony and rhythm are part of the esoteric; throat chanting, ritualistic drumming, sacred mantras and the galdr in Norse mythology come to mind.
– One hundred percent, it’s completely connected and also fascinating. No doubt that’s why we see the use of items like ceremonial bowls and gongs, or as you said throat chanting – all of them have a huge effect. It’s interesting, listening to a choral hymn will definitely get you in the zone and put you in a mystical state of mind; I’ll occasionally find that same vibration in music and sounds that I never would’ve expected to.
– Are you familiar with Ali Farka Touré – the guitarist from Mali? His music, in particular the album “Radio Mali”, to me it has the same type of astral meditative quality that a Tibetan chant does.
“Earth Peace” from “Binaural Beats vol. 1” has Tibetan singing bowls incorporated – curiously, this instrument has some entraining frequencies in itself.
– It’s actually a related type of brainwave entrainment; they operate like a monaural version of the beats. Originating from a singular source, they’re not going from ear to ear but come straight towards you. Some people would actually argue that this is more effective – I use them intertwined in the binaural, a mixture of both technologies.
How would they have discovered this several thousand years ago?
– I guess if you chill on a mountain top for long enough, he suggests laughing, it’s a great question man – how did we discover anything in this world of sound?
Cory also uses various traditional instruments with similar effects, such as the copper Indian bell on “Spirit Wave”.
– There are all sorts of weird subconscious shit on the ones I made. Most people won’t notice but there’s white noise vibrating at the interim frequencies of the binaurals; “In Nirvana” for instance, where I used rainfall. I also have soundscapes that start off in mono and then mutate into stereo over the course of a few minutes.
I suspect this all ties into something Cory has mentioned before, that ‘manipulation of human perception’ is his primary goal with music.
– Being able to consciously guide the listener into that space I was talking about earlier; the space of timelessness, internal sentience and meditative clarity. This is the purpose of all my music, I’m trying to awaken that sense within the listener.
Cory’s long journey as a musician began when he was a teenager, playing guitar in various extreme metal acts. His most noteworthy project was death metal band ACERBUS, which he started in 1999.
– Toured a lot, opened for MORBID ANGEL, DEICIDE and EMPEROR – we recorded three EP’s before I broke up the band in 2002.
After he ceased playing in bands, he began writing his own music with the ambition of exploring how the appropriate amalgamation of audio can make you feel in a specific way.
– Go back to any of my albums from ten years ago or so, and you can tell it was already happening. I tried using various compositional techniques; combinations of frequencies and vibrations to sustain time and make people feel dialled in – present, relaxed and all that sort of thing.
Cory says that all of his albums have been based on certain philosophical concepts, ones he discovered and then attempted to translate into music. Around the time he was preparing his 2013 album “The Great Order”, he was becoming increasingly aware of and had started observing in daily life the self-organising structure of the cosmos.
– Leaves blowing from a tree or birds flying in formation – that flock didn’t have a meeting and say ‘okay I’m gonna fly here, you fly behind me, you above him’. No leaf ever told his friends ‘you guys follow me down to the ground so we can pile up to create this nice wisp caught in the wind’.
The auto-assembling nature of our environment can be demonstrated by and observed in pretty much all aspects of life; fish schooling – animals aggregating, birds migrating and so forth. Right down to the way continents have formed; all designed by nature, the perfected chaos of the universe.
– I wanted to articulate this in sound by creating a rule-based composition very much like the twentieth century minimalist composers I’m a huge fan of.
He names artists like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Lamont Young as heavily influential.
– These guys created rule-based music that wasn’t necessarily scored in the sense of notes moving through time; it’s more of a general guideline of how to create this sound, much is left to the artist’s interpretation.
Cory selected five instruments – double-bass, cello, bowed and stuck vibraphone, acoustic classical guitar and piano. Acting pianist himself, he recruited four other musicians.
– These performers I picked, I chose them because … if I ask someone to play on my record, it’s not so much for their technical proficiency – it’s because of where they’re playing from. I pick people like that too; I like them not only for what they’re saying but from where it stems. This is very important to me, in music as it is in life.
Drawing building blocks from his orchestral quintet, he composed a rule-based score.
– Each movement of the great order has a pitch-pool. In modern classical minimalist composition, that’s basically saying: Okay, play these X amounts of notes in any octave for the duration of three to thirty seconds. We did three takes and I used two of them, it’s the spontaneity that’s of the greatest relevance.
What happens is that the individual members of the ensemble follow their own frequency, playing whichever note from the pitch pool they want at whatever duration in any octave. The output from each instrument congregates in a self-organised structure very much like a migratory flock of birds.
– They constitute this long unfolding group chord, a continuously drifting drone ensemble – very pleasing to the ear which is why I picked the notes that I did. It never repeats itself and it’s unedited – a live recording of us celebrating through music the organic structure of the universe. The various instruments and chants that are woven into my binaural beats are implemented according to the same principle.
Judging from his podcast The Astral Hustle, the cosmos itself is an endless source of fascination. He was recently very excited to learn of a new scientific discovery; that gravitational waves in space were not operating the way they were initially thought to.
– It taught us that our perception of time and space is not on an X-Y-Z axis, as we once believed. You could see gravitational waves in space, appearing and going from one place to the next; observed, essentially, bending and skipping through time.
He regards this as instrumental scientific data that reveal the very nature of our existence.
– Time is an illusion and the universe is not linear; gravitational waves behaving this way only cement these theories to me. It’s just that we … if you’ve ever read anything by Alfred Korzybski, he talks about humans being time-binding creatures.
Korzybski, a Polish-American scholar, argued that our access to reality is filtered by the brain, that our perceived notions of the world are limited both to our nervous system and language.
– His writing left a heavy impression on me when I was young, it lead me to believe that the way we experience our universe is relative to our human consciousness. The snake navigates its little one-inch world by sensing heat, it has no concept of what’s happening on the twentieth floor of some skyscraper a mile away. We experience this same frequency of consciousness, restricted by the limited capacity of our brains.
Cory points to the human habit of anthropomorphising everything in life. We tend to assume that birds, plants, animals and even planets are all experiencing reality the same way we are – simply because that’s all we understand.
– I believe that we’re only seeing time happen in a linear fashion because that’s the way we plot our symbols, in order to understand our own sense of self-awareness and motion in life.
He visualises the universe as consisting of pulsating frequencies, for which the human being is like a resonator to.
– Atomic energy moves and vibrates into us and our resonance, the sound that emanates from the instrument of our bodies is consciousness. I feel like the energy of the cosmos is just putting a finger into the puppet of what we identify as ‘I’ and wiggling us around into what we perceive as personality.
What are you currently working on?
– I’ve got a six-week online meditation course called Release Into Now launching this month. It contains everything I’ve learned over the past fifteen plus years, all distilled into a straightforward course. Each week’s lesson is narrated by me and also comes with a 30 minute guided meditation, accompanied by one of my binaural beats.
Besides narration, Cory also offers participants personal attention and mentorship.
– It’s made for both beginners and the well-seasoned, and covers everything from the basics, to heart and third eye opening to astral projection. I couldn’t possibly be more stoked for this.