It’s quickly becoming the new ASMR
It must’ve been late at night, somewhere on the verge of 2 or 3 a.m., that I stumbled onto a recommended video of “8D music” on YouTube. The term “8D” made me laugh — the notion of “eight dimensions” sounded like some idiot teenager had decided to make a hyperactive remix and was hyping it for pageviews. But I clicked anyway, curiosity piqued by the unfamiliar treatment of a song I knew extremely well: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“Use headphones!” the video declared, and I dutifully obeyed, slipping my earbuds in before hitting play. Freddie Mercury’s harmonized voice erupted forth in the intro, per usual. But then the singing started floating slowly around my head, past one ear to the next. I closed my eyes and felt myself spinning, hearing the music reverberate at a distance. I opened my eyes and snapped to reality: The sound was still being piped straight into my ears. This wasn’t a remix. It was something else — a reformulation of a pop song into some kind of whole-body experience. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but it made me feel something.
I wasn’t alone. “IT’S LIKE I’M IN THE CORNER OF A CONCERT,” one stunned commenter yelled. “Omg I am tripping the fuck out. what is this sorcery???” another person added. “I wish this was on Spotify!” chimed a third.
Welcome to the blossoming world of so-called 8D music, which has taken off on YouTube in the past several months, seemingly out of nowhere. Content creators are taking existing songs and throwing them through a post-processing ringer, with the goal of making sounds within the song “move” around the listener. The results range from intriguing to amateurish, but as it turns out, a lot of people are fascinated by the 8D effect. As one 22-year-old fan, Maria, tells me: “It feels like an out-of-body thing, and I can’t figure out why it makes me feel so much more in the music than a normal stereo mix does.”
The trend is led by a cadre of content creators, many of whom are young millennials tasting viral internet success for the first time. One of the biggest players in the 8D music scene is the aptly titled 8D Tunes, which debuted a scant four months ago but touts nearly four million subscribers and 182.5 million total views. The massive surge of interest has come as quite the shock to 18-year-old Samuel Correa, who is studying audiovisual communication at the University of Medellin in Colombia. “I didn’t expect the early reactions. For example: I uploaded the song ‘Believer’ by Imagine Dragons three months ago. Now the song is the most viewed 8D music song on YouTube with 24 million views — that surprises me a lot,” he writes over email.
He first discovered the 8D effect though a 2017 upload of Alan Walker’s “Faded,” which impressed him because of “how I could feel the music around me, like I was in another place using only my headphones,” Correa says. Experiencing the sensation sparked a rush to research how to create the effect — while Correa liked what he heard, he had an inkling that he could improve upon what a handful of people had already made.
His first upload, on July 9th, was of Mura Masa’s slinking mid-tempo jam “Move Me.” A week later, Correa dropped “Nico and the Niners” by Twenty One Pilots. A few Facebook groups caught wind of the 8D mixes, as did Reddit and other online communities. He started racking up thousands of new subscribers, and the view count began climbing and hasn’t lost momentum yet.
That success didn’t go unnoticed 2,700 miles away, in the Wisconsin bedroom of a 21-year-old named Gavin, who runs the channel AviionMusic. He’d already spent years fiddling behind a mixer, recording music with friends and staying up late to tweak digital effects and filters on the tracks. When a friend texted him with a link to Correa’s work, pointing out the Colombian’s rapid viral success, Gavin’s first instinct was to assume that “8D” was a distracting gimmick. “Then I heard the sound rotating around my head, and it was just weird and cool at the same time,” he admits.
Fully curious about the effect, he binged a string of 8D songs and consulted an audio-expert friend to diagnose how the movement of the sound was created. It took about an hour when Gavin sat down at his laptop for the first time to create an 8D track, using Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.” As he discovered, the tools to create the 8D sound are both easy to find and fairly simple to use. Achieving the right atmosphere and dynamic in the mix, however, is a tricky and subjective task.
It’s not clear who posted the first 8D track online, but generally,early 8D videos sound exaggerated, as if someone is simply turning a knob left and right to pan the sound from one ear to the next. The best 8D tracks have more subtlety in the aural movement, creating the illusion that you’re physically swaying and turning in the middle of a concert hall as a band plays. Gavin, for one, treats his post-processing as a bit of a secret recipe. “I’m not entirely comfortable explaining exactly how I make it because the market is so open and I’m a naturally competitive person, and I haven’t seen anyone do it the way I do,” he says with an apologetic chuckle. “There are a few different ways you can make it, but it’s really distinguishable when someone makes 8D correctly. When it’s done wrong, the music doesn’t sound like it’s in the room with you. It just pans back and forth.”
Of course, “correct” in this case is in the eye of the beholder, and the appeal of 8D is far from universal. Some Reddit users on r/AudioEngineering, for instance, dismissed it as “clickbait for views,” a hackjob using cheap filters, or a gimmicky fad. But Chris Pinkston, mixer and lead sound designer at the acclaimed L.A. studio 740 Sound, is more generous in his conclusion. “For me, as a mixer, the effect is distracting and not something I would personally ever do. But I do place this kind of stuff into an avant-garde category, and there are people who really appreciate that kind of experimentation,” he muses.
At its core, the 8D effect tries to mimic the sensation of hearing a binaural recording, which places sounds in space relative to a human’s head (rather than normal stereo recordings, which can only direct sound to the left and right speaker channels). Binaural audio is created by recording through two mics that are placed in the same orientation as our ears — the delay (or “phase”) in how a single sound reaches those two mics creates the illusion of directional audio when you play it back. You can hear this effect strongly in the viral “Virtual Barbershop,” where a barber moves shears and clippers “around” your head, and in a variety of ASMR recordingsusing binaural mics. This technology, along with “ambisonics” that record sound with an array of mics, have existed since the 1970s, but never really took off.
Of course, there’s no actual new recording with 8D mixes of pre-existing songs. Instead, 8D music creators are using software that can manipulate a song’s various stereo parts, placing and moving them within a virtual 360-degree space. “It’s hard to say exactly what plugins or [digital audio workspace] they’re using, because there are a lot of similar tools, but it can be tweaked pretty easily so that you hear the sound going behind your head,” Pinkston says. “I’m not sure if I heard a lot of movement up and down through my headphones, but it’s a three-dimensional effect. To be honest, I could see this applying a lot to music that’s less poppy and more ethereal.”
Despite not being a huge 8D fan himself, Pinkston isn’t surprised by the overwhelming reaction to it online. People are so used to hearing things in a standard stereo mix that creating movement in aural space is naturally exciting to the average listener, he notes. But beyond just being entertaining, some of the biggest 8D fans swear in the comments section of videos that the sensation is physically and mentally soothing. “Nothing like coming home after a long day to relax with 8D,” as one commenter put it.
There are plenty of remarks about how it feels like “being high” or that 8D music is especially fun when enjoyed alongside a joint. But some say it helps them fall asleep or sends pleasant tingles down their spine. Others close their eyes and feel like they’ve floated out of their room and into a performance space — a sort of out-of-body experience that helps hit reset on their day. And for the rare listener, 8D is a salve against actual physical pain. “I suffer from tinnitus and this is just a blessing for my hearing. My tinnitus somehow disappears. Don’t stop making these!” one YouTube user, Evelein V., wrote on the “Fireflies” track.
In that sense, 8D music fits alongside two other sub-genres of YouTube videos that seem to serve as self-care for swaths of the young and digitally savvy: ASMR and “binaural beats.” ASMR, aka “auto-sensory meridian response,” is a physical phenomenon that’s not well researched but described as “head orgasms” or a warm, tingling sensation that runs along the body when you listen to certain sounds, like a quiet unboxing video or the noise of an Indian barbershop. Other people swear by binaural beats, which are created by sending two tones of slightly different frequencies to the left and right ears. The resulting dissonance creates a pulsating rhythm, really just an auditory illusion, which some people swear can have therapeutic effects — whether that be relaxation, focus or sleep.
The science on the efficacy of binaural beats is decidedly mixed, though some research suggests that the brain does react uniquely to certain frequencies of sound. ASMR is even less understood, with scientists puzzled by whether it’s a real physical sensation at all. But what ties ASMR, binaural beats and 8D music together is that they trigger so many people into feeling physical relief of some kind. The evidence may be anecdotal, but reading the responses, it’s hard to deny.
This has been a surprise to Gavin, who has read countless comments attesting to 8D’s therapeutic effects. “One woman emailed me saying that my videos helped relieve the pain from the side effects of her seizure medication. That it helped her get through it. I couldn’t reply to that email for at least a day, because I didn’t know what to say,” he says. “It made me wonder whether what I’m doing is more than views and subscriber numbers and an actual way to help people who come home after a bad day.”
Where could 8D music ultimately end up? Pinkston isn’t sure, though he thinks this is a fascinating starting point for future shifts in the way we choose to experience music. On that note, Correa hopes that some music artists will choose to record in a binaural format — a tantalizing possibility, though one limited by the fact that all these effects only work on headphones, and not conventional speakers. Meanwhile, the rise of VR technology certainly demands audio that reacts to the position of your head, which opens up the possibility of virtual concerts that you can navigate.
But for now, this budding, rough-around-the-edges 8D effect appears to have captured the hearts and minds of millions of online users around the world. Or as Gavin says, “I guess people just love having an escape.”