In search of Ongaku: there are good reasons why 33 Bowls recordings sound uniquely different from most others.



We are several generations into becoming accustomed to electronic artifice in our music. However, we are still sensitive, including sub-consciously and viscerally, to very small dynamic shifts, glitches, or artifices in the parts per million range. Physical resonance, energy storage, time smear and consequences of such are reasonably well understood in electro-mechanical devices, aka loudspeaker transducers and cabinets. We have finite element analysis, vibration analysis, laser inferometers, waterfall curves and all sorts of fun geek toys resulting in all sorts of fun geek toys such as ring radiator and ribbon tweeters, carbon fiber woofer cones, sorbothane damped monococque speaker cabinets. However, a similar, more insidious phenomena exists in what has been presumed to be a purely electronic domain: amplifiers, including phantom powered microphones, pre-amplifiers, power amplifiers, A/D and D/A buffers and current to voltage converters, and the A/D and D/A converters themselves.

The germanium, and now silicon and Si/Ge solid state revolution, while great for miniaturization, can and usually does pollute music with thermal tails. Along with the textbook ideal of transistors being electrical devices as electronic switches and amplifiers, they are also responsive to optical, acoustic, and most importantly thermal input. Self generated thermal tails do not show up in static analysis or measurements. However, in most designs, the active devices wiggle around via self generated self heating following a sloppy envelope of the power dissipated in response to signals passing through. Settling time constants, while depending on the package thermal characteristics, correlate typically with perceptually significant frequencies. Bipolar transistors have a threshold shift around 2 mV/degree C; field effect transistors around 6 mV/degree C. It does not take too many milliwatts of variation to add a thermal tail considerably above the surprisingly small audible threshold of one part per million or minus 120 dBV. This is exacerbated in typical long tailed differential input feedback topologies, where the error signal is outside the corrective feedback loop, and the thermal tails become a chaotic perturbation of the input offset amplified by the closed loop gain, rather than being reduced by loop gain. Worse, integrated circuits couple thermal isofronts from the entire circuit "sloshing" around and wiggling the parameters of sensitive devices, again at time constants correlating with audible frequencies. Settling time specifications are usually to 0.1%, sometimes to 0.01%, and rarely to 1ppm; even carefully interleaved multiple parallel device layouts are going to exhibit a settling time as the devices attempt to average out the "sloshing" isothermal front.

These "sloshing" isothermal fronts also show up in mixed signal and even strictly digital integrated circuit chips, as modulation of reference clocks and clock distribution via thermal modulation of threshold voltages. This is distinct from power supply impedance and ground bounce issues. We are again, surprisingly sensitive to small time domain errors, whether predominantly random or deterministic; including 1/f phase noise, aka close in or low frequency jitter in conversion clocks.

Back to the analog domain, the classic thermonic emission devices, aka vacuum tubes and nuvistors, while having a host of sometimes infuriating design issues, inherently have less of these types of problems. The filament provides a large thermal bath, the signal level can be much smaller relative to the operating voltage, and most designs with either resistive or inductive loads set the operating point towards the middle of the curve which is closer to constant power mode. Also, there are no minority carrier p-type devices, so electron density is generally higher. And, the dielectric of a vacuum is the most linear available, reducing inadvertent "splatter" modulation of miller effect capacitance.

The golden age of vacuum tubes did not happen until transistors were invented or discovered; as if the era of the Sun setting corresponded with the maturation of the technology and implementation of that technology. Likewise, we may be entering the golden age of silicon as photonics rapidly advances from laboratory curiosity to practical applications; and non-biological room temperature quantum devices may still be decades away, possibly superseding photonic devices in the distant, and still hazy future.

But, for now, silicon solid state is here to stay. There are ways to design for constant power or stasis modes of the significant active devices in solid state electronics; the results are stunning and startling. Clarity, nuances, micro-dynamics, textures, the ebb and flow of music emerges from a velvety black silence. Music breathes, it is felt, viscerally and emotionally, it is involving. Similar in profundity to some transcendent experiences, but with more brain cells remaining intact.

This is so with both natural acoustic sources and intentionally created artificial musical spaces; the old and the new can co-exist harmoniously, enjoyed for what they are in a clearer understanding of what is what.

Music enjoyment should be both effortless and involving.

As we have evolved technologies faster than we can adapt, nuance in the beginning of the recording chain becomes even more significant. Two things happen in the brain/CNS of the listener when listening to overly compressed music stripped of it's essence, textures or nuance: more "horsepower" or processing in the brain is done to extrapolate the missing nuances. Although minimalism can be a potent visual art-form, in sound and music it takes more to perceive, and the extra brain/CNS processing leads to shorter attention span, and the other thing that happens: less emotional involvement, as fMRI scans show that compressed music lights up less of the emotional centers of the brain.

So far, such transcendant audio is mostly in the realm of DIY geeks and a few very, very expensive commercial designs. The dominant paradigm has not really shifted to understanding the dynamic nature of nature, yet.

However, all is not lost.

The metaphor of a chain being as strong as it's weakest link is not really apt. In music reproduction, the experience is that the textures are only as nuanced as the most transparent link in the recording chain, which happens to be at the source. As distribution media and stereo systems evolve, enjoy.

There's magic in them there bits.

And do protect your hearing. Consider it a long term investment.
Earplugs are essential for most movies and concerts, and other loud venues.



ripples in the pond 

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