Brian May has never really been interested in doing anything halfway.
“My father once told me,” he says, “‘if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.’”
That led to him building a guitar he would use his entire career—one that he got so right the first time out that it has never even needed a refret. Nicely done. He also dabbled in astrophysics—if, by “dabbled,” you mean that he got a PhD in the field.
A lesser-known fascination of Dr. May’s is the study of stereoscopy, defined as “a technique for creating or enhancing the illusion of depth in an image by means of stereopsis for binocular vision.” If you had a View-Master as a kid, you know exactly what that means. May first learned of this concept (which has its origins in the 1850s, before the advent of photography) via his breakfast cereal, Wheetabix, which provided stereo photos with an offer to purchase a viewer. When he sent in the box tops—plus one shilling and sixpence—and got the stereoscopic viewer, he was hooked.
“Stereo photos aren’t twice as cool as mono photos,” he says, “They’re a million times cooler.”
Not content to simply enjoy the available stereo photos, the youngster set about creating his own, using a mono camera with no viewfinder. And, in true Brian May fashion, he got it right almost immediately. He took shots of his mom and dad—not knowing how it would all work out until the film was developed, and then cropped and edited for his stereoscopic viewer.
Fast forward several years. When Queen began touring and enjoying a bit of success, May didn’t spend his off hours haunting pawnshops in search of guitar gear—he hit up local photography stores in search of stereo cameras. Once he acquired a few, there was no stopping him. He began capturing his amazing band in glorious stereo, and, whether he knew it or not at the time, he was documenting a significant chunk of rock history in three marvelous dimensions.
The fruits of May’s labor of love can be seen in his new book, Queen in 3-D—a beautiful photographic and text volume that includes an “Owl” viewer from the London Stereoscopic Company. If you’re a Queen fan, a collector of cool coffee-table books, or a View-Master nerd like me, this book will blow your mind.
Your 3-D photos are amazing. Do you hear music in 3-D as well?
I suppose—especially when you go from from mono sound to stereo sound. That’s a little bit of what you get with stereoscopic photography. You’re getting a feeling of depth and space. I’ve gotten used to recording like painting on a three-dimensional canvas. You can get very complex, and you want to have all those layers, and all that depth.
You’ve crafted some very 3-D guitar parts. I would cite the prelude to “Tie Your Mother Down” as a great example. It has all the harmonies, the top note somehow dissolves into the bottom note as it repeats so it seems never-ending, and the whole thing is backwards. It definitely gives the listener the sense that they can walk right through the music and stand in the middle, with the notes just swirling around them. Is that what you were going for?
I was trying to do a sound analog of the M.C. Escher painting where you keep walking up a staircase, but never get anywhere. It’s an optical illusion. I was trying to do a “sound illusion.” There are a lot of tracks on there, all distributed across the stereo spectrum. Everything is swirling around you, but you’re always in the same place.
Let’s talk about your guitar voice. At the time, it was one amplifier, and in mono. When you split your signal into three amps—two with stereo effects and one dry amp in the middle—did that give you a sonic sensation akin to what you were seeing in the stereo photographs?
Yes, but probably for a different reason. I used the three amps so as not to get this intermodulation between the notes when I was running delays—which makes it sound distorted and unpleasant. With the three amps, the notes won’t interfere with one another, so you can get your three-part harmonies without clutter. Then, we put them left and right in the P.A. so people could hear them in stereo. You get this lovely experience of a conversation going on from left to right.
The big 3-D conversation these days is about virtual reality.
Yes, and that’s very exciting—especially considering all the new ways of handling sound in VR. I regard virtual reality as stereoscopy with a 360-degree trick. You can see 3-D not just in front of you, but all around you. I’m happy to see Victorian stereoscopy reborn as virtual reality.