Audio people throw words around like “frequency” and “distortion” and “resolution” and “” without wondering whether anyone else in the room (a) understands or (b) cares. One of the best ways to explain things to people who do not understand but do care is to use analogies and metaphors. So, this week, I’d like to give some visual analogies of common problems in audio.
Let’s start with a photograph. Assuming that your computer monitor is identical to mine, and the background light in your room is exactly the same as it is in mine, then you’re seeing what I’m seeing when you look at this photo.
Let’s say that you, sitting there, looking at this photo is analogous to you, sitting there, listening to a recording on a pair of loudspeakers or over headphones. So what happens when something in the signal path messes up the signal?
Perhaps, for example, you have a limited range in your system. That could mean that you can’t play the very low and/or high frequencies because you are listening through a smaller set of loudspeakers instead of a full-range model. Limiting the range of brightness levels in the photo is similar to this problem – so nothing is really deep black or bright white. (We could have an argument about whether this is an analogy to a limited dynamic range in an audio system, but I would argue that it isn’t – since audio dynamic range is limited by a noise floor and a clipping level, which we’ll do later…) So, the photo below “sounds” like an audio system with a limited range:
Of course, almost everything is there – sort of – but it doesn’t have the same depth or sparkle as the original photo.
Or what if you have a noisy device in your signal chain For example, maybe you’re listening to a copy of the recording on a cassette tape – or the air conditioning is on in your listening room. Then the result will “sound” like this:
As you can see, you still have the original recording – but there is an added layer of noise with it. This is not only distracting, but it can obscure some of the more subtle details that are on the same order of magnitude as the noise itself.
In audio, the quietest music is buried in the noise of the system (either the playback system or the recording system). On the other extreme is the loud music, which can only go so loud before it “clips” – meaning that the peaks get chopped off because the system just can’t go up enough. In other words, the poor little woofer wants to move out of the loudspeaker by 10 mm, but it can only move 4 mm because the rubber holding on to it just can’t stretch any further. In a photo, this is the same as turning up the brightness too much, resulting in too many things just turning white because they can’t get brighter (in the old days of film, this was called “blowing out” the photo), as is shown below.
This “clipping” of the signal is what many people mean when they say “distorted” – however, distortion is a much broader range of problems then just clipping. To be really pedantic, any time the output of a system is not identical to its input, then the signal is distorted.
A more common problem that many people face is a modification of the frequency response. In audio, the frequency is (very generally speaking) the musical pitch of the notes you’re hearing. Low notes are low frequencies, high notes are high frequencies. Large engines emit low frequencies, tiny bells emit high frequencies. With light, the frequency of the light wavicle hitting your eyeball determines the colour that you see. Red is a low frequency and violet is a high frequency (see the table on this page for details). So, if you have a pair of headphones that, say, emphasises bass (the low frequencies) more than the other areas, then it’s the same as making the photo more red, as shown below.
Of course, not all impairments to the audio signal are accidental. Some are the fault of the user who makes a conscious decision to be more concerned with convenience (i.e. how many songs you can fit on your portable player) than audio quality. When you choose to convert your CD’s to a “lossy” format (like MP3, for example), then (as suggested by the description) you’re losing something. In theory, you are losing things that aren’t important (in other words, your computer thinks that you can’t hear what’s thrown away, so you won’t miss it). However, in practice, that debate is up to you and your computer (and your bitrate, and the codec you’ve chosen, and the quality of the rest of your system, and how you listen to music, and what kind of music you’re listening to, and whether or not there are other things to listen to at the same time, and a bunch of other things…) However, if we’re going to make an analogy, then we have to throw away the details in our photo, keeping enough information to be moderately recognisable.
As you can see, all the colours are still there. And, if you stand far enough away (or if you take off your glasses) it might just look the same. But, if you look carefully enough, then you might notice that something is missing… Keep looking… you’ll see it…
So, as you can see, any impairment of the “signal” is a disruption of its quality – but we should be careful not to confuse this with reality. There are lots of people out there who have a kind of weird religious belief that, when you sit and listen to a recording of an orchestra, you should be magically transported to a concert hall as if you were there (or as if the orchestra were sitting in your listening room). This is silly. That’s like saying when you sit and watch a re-run of Friends on your television, you should feel like you’re actually in the apartment in New York with a bunch of beautiful people. Or, when you watch a movie, you feel like you’re actually in a car chase or a laser battle in space. Music recordings are no more of a “virtual reality” experience than a television show or a film. In all of these cases (the music recording, the TV episode and the film), what you’re hearing and seeing should not be life-like – they should be better than life. You never have to wait for the people in a film to look for a parking space or go out to pee. Similarly, you never hear a mistake in the trumpet solo in a recording of Berlin Philharmonic and you always hear Justin Bieber singing in tune. Even the spatial aspects of an “audiophile” classical recording are better-than-reality. If you sit in a concert hall, you can either be close (and hear the musicians much louder than the reverberation) or far (and hear much more of the reverberation). In a recording, you are sitting both near and far – so you have the presence of the musicians and the spaciousness of the reverb at the same time. Better than real life!
So, what you’re listening to is a story. A recording engineer attended a music performance, and that person is now recounting the story of what happened in his or her own style. If it’s a good recording engineer, then the storytelling is better than being there – it’s more than just a “police report” of a series of events.
To illustrate my point, below is a photo of what that sinking WWII bunker actually looked like when I took the photo that I’ve been messing with.
Of course, you can argue that this is a “better” photo than the one at the top – that’s a matter of your taste versus mine. Maybe you prefer the sound of an orchestra done recorded with only two microphones played through two loudspeakers. Maybe you prefer the sound of the same orchestra recorded with lots of microphones played through a surround system. Maybe you like listening to singers who can sing. Maybe you like listening to singers who need auto tuners to clean up the mess. This is just personal taste. But at least you should be choosing to hear (or see) what the artist intended – not a modified version of it.
This means that the goal of a sound system is to deliver, in your listening room, the same sound as the recording engineer heard in the studio when he or she did the recording. Just like the photos you are looking at on the top of this page should look exactly the same as what I see when I see the same photo.