Dynamic Styli Correlator Pt. 3

I thought that I was finished talking about (and even thinking about) the RCA Dynagroove Dynamic Styli Correlator as well as tracking and tracing distortion… and then I got an email about the last two postings pointing out that I didn’t mention two-channel stereo vinyl, and whether there was something to think about there.

My first reaction was: “There’s nothing interesting about that. It’s just two channels with the same problem, and since (at least in a hypothetical world) the two axes of movement of the needle are orthogonal, then it doesn’t matter. It’ll be the same problem in both channels. End of discussion.”

Then I took the dog out for a walk, and, as often happens when I’m walking the dog, I re-think thoughts and come home with the opposite opinion.

So, by the time I got home, I realised that there actually is something interesting about that after all.

Starting with Emil Berliner, record discs (original lacquer, then vinyl) have been cut so that the “mono” signal (when the two channels are identical) causes the needle to move laterally instead of vertically. This was originally (ostensibly) to isolate the needle’s movement from vibrations caused by footsteps (the reality is that it was probably a clever manoeuvring around Edison’s patent).

This meant that, when records started supporting two audio channels, a lateral movement was necessary to keep things backwards-compatible.

What does THIS mean? It means that, when the two channels have the same signal (say, on the lead vocal of a pop tune, for example) when the groove of the left wall goes up, the groove of the right wall goes down by the same amount. That causes the needle to move sideways, as shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1. A two-channel groove with identical information in the two channels.

What are the implications of this on tracing distortion? Remember from the previous posting that the error in the movement of the needle is different on a positive slope (where the needle is moving upwards) than a negative slope (downwards). This can be seen in a one-channel representation in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The grey line is the groove wall. The blue line shows the actual movement of the needle and the red line shows the difference between the two – the error contained in the output signal.

Since the two groove walls have an opposite polarity when the audio signals are the same, then the resulting movement of the two channels with the same magnitude of error will look like Figure 3.

Figure 3. The physical movement of the two channels, and their independent errors.

Notice that, because the two groove walls are moving in opposite polarity (in other words, one is going up while the other is going down) this causes the two error signals to shift by 1/2 of a period.

However, Figure 3 doesn’t show the audio’s electrical signals. It shows the physical movement of the needle. In order to show the audio signals, we have to flip the polarity of one of the two channels (which, in a real pickup would be done electrically). That means that the audio signals will look like Figure 4.

Figure 4. The electrical outputs of the two audio channels and their error components.

Notice in Figure 4 that the original signals are identical (that’s why it looks like there’s only one sine wave) but their actual outputs are different because their error components are different.

But here’s the cool thing:

One way to think of the actual output signals is to consider each one as the sum of the original signal and the error signal. Since (for a mono signal like a lead vocal) their original signals are identical, then, if you sit in the right place with a properly configured pair of loudspeakers (or a decent pair of headphones) then you’ll hear that part of the signal as a phantom image in the middle. However, since the error signals are NOT correlated, they will not be localised in the middle with the voice. They’ll move to the sides. They’re not negatively correlated, so they won’t sound “phase-y” but they’re not correlated either, so they won’t be in the same place as the original signal.

So, although the distortion exists (albeit not NEARLY on the scale that I’ve drawn here…) it could be argued that the problem is attenuated by the fact that you’ll localise it in a different place than the signal.

Of course, if the signal is only in one channel (like Aretha Franklin’s backup singers in “Chain of Fools” for example) then this localisation difference will not help. Sorry.