Once upon a time, when I was a young whipper snapper, studying how to be a recording engineer (which is half of being a tonmeister) I had a textbook on sound recording. There were chapters in there on musical instruments, acoustics, microphones, mixing consoles, magnetic tape, and so on.. There was also a section on something called “digital audio” – but it was a portion of the chapter titled “Noise Reduction”.
Fast-forward a couple of years to 1983 and a new technology hit the market called “Compact Disc” (Here’s a fun fact for impressing people at your next dinner party: The “c” at the end of “disc” means it’s an optical medium. If it were magnetic, it would be a “disk”. So: Compact Disc, but Hard Disk.) Back then, the magazine advertisement read “Perfect Sound. Forever.” Then it hit the real world and the complaints started rolling in from people who believed that they knew things about audio. Some of these complaints were valid, and some were less so… Many of the ones that were valid no longer are, but it’s difficult to un-do a first impression.
Nowadays, it is very likely that almost-all-to-all of the music you listen to has been digital at some point in its life. Even if you’re listening to vinyl, it should not surprise you to know that the master version of the recording you’re hearing was probably stored on a hard disk or passed through a digital mixing console – or at least some of the tracks included some kind of digital processing (say, a guitar pedal or a reverb unit, for example). (I know, I know… There are exceptions. However, if you want to send me anti-digital hate mail you may not do it using a digital communication format such as e-mail. Use an analogue pen to write out your words on a piece of paper and send it to me by post. I look forward to receiving your analogue letters.)
Nowadays, a big part of my “day job” is to test (digital) audio systems to find out what’s wrong with them. So, I thought it would be interesting to do a series of postings that describe the typical kinds of errors that I look for (and find) when I’m digging down into the details.
In order to do this, I’m going to start by being a little redundant and describe the basics of how audio is converted from an analogue signal to a digital one – and hopefully address some of the misconceptions that are associated with this conversion process.
A quick introduction to sound
At the simplest level, sound can be described as a small change in air pressure (or barometric pressure) over short periods of time. If you’d like to have a better and more edu-tain-y version of this statement with animations and pretty colours, you could take 10 minutes to watch this video, for example.
That change in pressure can be “captured” by using a microphone, that is (at the simplest level) a device that has a change in air pressure at its input and a change in electrical voltage at its output. Ignoring a lot of details, we could say that if you were to plot a measurement of the air pressure (at the input of the microphone) over time, and you were to compare it to a plot of the measurement of the voltage (at the output of the microphone) over time, you would see the same curve on the two graphs. This means that the change in voltage is analogous to the change in air pressure.
At this point in the conversation, I’ll make a point to say that, in theory, we could “zoom in” on either of those two curves shown in Figure 1 and see more and more details. This is like looking at a map of Canada – it has lots of crinkly, jagged lines. If you zoom in and look at the map of Newfoundland and Labrador, you’ll see that it has finer, crinkly, jagged lines. If you zoom in further, and stand where the water meets the shore in Trepassey and take a photo of your feet, you could copy it to draw a map of the line of where the water comes in around the rocks – and your toes – and you would wind up with even finer, crinkly, jagged lines… You could take this even further and get down to a microscopic or molecular level – but you get the idea… The point is that, in theory, both of the plots in Figure 1 have infinite resolution, both in time and in air pressure or voltage.
Now, let’s say that you wanted to take that microphone’s output and transmit it through a bunch of devices and wires that, in theory, all do nothing to the signal. Let’s say, for example, that you take the mic’s output, send it through a wire to a box that makes the signal twice as loud. Then take the output of that box and send it through a wire to another box that makes it half as loud. You take the output of that box and send it through a wire to a measuring device. What will you see? Unfortunately, none of the wires or boxes in the chain can be perfect, so you’ll probably see the signal plus something else which we’ll call the “error” in the system’s output. We can call it the error because, if we measure the input voltage and the output voltage at any one instant, we’ll probably see that they’re not identical. Since they should be identical, then the system must be making a mistake in transmitting the signal – so it makes errors…
Pedantic Sidebar: Some people will call that error that the system adds to the signal “noise” – but I’m not going to call it that. This is because “noise” is a specific thing – noise is random – so if it’s not random, it’s not noise. Also, although the signal has been distorted (in that the output of the system is not identical to the input) I won’t call it “distortion” either, since distortion is a name that’s given to something that happens to the signal because the signal is there. (We would probably get at least some of the error out of our system even if we didn’t send any audio into it.) So, we could be slightly geeky and adequately vague and call the extra stuff “Distortion plus noise” but not “THD+N” – which stands for “Total Harmonic Distortion Plus Noise” – because not all kinds of distortion will produce a harmonic of the signal… but I’m getting ahead of myself…
So, we want to transmit (or store) the audio signal – but we want to reduce the noise caused by the transmission (or storage) system. One way to do this is to spend more money on your system. Use wires with better shielding, amplifiers with lower noise floors, bigger power supplies so that you don’t come close to their limits, run your magnetic tape twice as fast, and so on and so on. Or, you could convert the analogue signal (remember that it’s analogous to the change in air pressure over time) to one that is represented (and therefore transmitted or stored) digitally instead.
What does this mean?
Conversion from analogue to digital and back
(but skipping important details)
IMPORTANT: If you read this section, then please read the following postings as well. This is because, in order to keep things simple to start, I’m about to leave out some important details that I’ll add afterwards. However, if you don’t add the details, you could (understandably) jump to some incorrect conclusions (that many others before you have concluded…) So, if you don’t have time to read both sections, please don’t read either of them.
In the example above, we made a varying voltage that was analogous to the varying air pressure. If we wanted to store this, we could do it by varying the amount of magnetism on a wire or a coating on a tape, for example. Or we could cut a wiggly groove in a bit of vinyl that has a similar shape to the curve in the plots in Figure 1. Or, we could do something else: we could get a metronome (or a clock) and make a measurement of the voltage every time the metronome clicks, and write down the measurements.
For example, let’s zoom in on the first little bit of the signal in the plots in Figure 1
We’ll then put on a metronome and make a measurement of the voltage every time we hear the metronome click…
We can then keep the measurements (remembering how often we made them…) and write them down like this:
We can store this series of numbers on a computer’s hard disk, for example. We can then come back tomorrow, and convert the measurements to voltages. First we read the measurements, and create the appropriate voltage…
We then make a “staircase” waveform by “holding” those voltages until the next value comes in.
All we need to do then is to use a low-pass filter to smooth out the hard edges of the staircase.
So, in this example, we’ve gone from an analogue signal (the red curve in Figure 3) to a digital signal (the series of numbers), and back to an analogue signal (the red curve in Figure 7).
In some ways, this is a bit like the way a movie works. When you watch a movie, you see a series of still photographs, probably taken at a rate of 24 pictures (or frames) per second. If you play those photos back at the same rate (24 fps or frames per second), you think you see movement. However, this is because your eyes and brain aren’t fast enough to see 24 individual photos per second – so you are fooled into thinking that things on the screen are moving.
However, digital audio is slightly different from film in two ways:
- The sound (equivalent to the movement in the film) is actually happening. It’s not a trick that relies on your ears and brain being too slow.
- If, when you were filming the movie, something were to happen between frames (say, the flash of a gunshot, for example) then it would never be caught on film. This is because the photos are discrete moments in time – and what happens between them is lost. However, if something were to make a very, very short sound between two samples (two measurements) in the digital audio signal – it would not be lost. This is because of something that happens at the beginning of the chain that I haven’t described… yet…
However, there are some “artefacts” (a fancy term for “weird errors”) that are present both in film and in digital audio that we should talk about.
The first is an error that happens when you mess around with the rate at which you take the measurements (called the “sampling rate”) or the photos (called the “frame rate”) – and, more importantly, when you need to worry about this. Let’s say that you make a film at 24 fps. If you play this back at a higher frame rate, then things will move very quickly (like old-fashioned baseball movies…). If you play them back at a lower frame rate, then things move in slow motion. So, for things to look “normal” you have to play the movie at the same rate that it was filmed. However, as longs no one is looking, you can transfer the movie as fast as you like. For example, if you wanted to copy the film, you could set up a movie camera so it was pointing at a movie screen and film the film. As long as the movie on the screen is running in sync with the camera, you can do this at any frame rate you like. But you’ll have to watch the copy at the same frame rate as the original film…
The second is an easy artefact to recognise. If you see a car accelerating from 0 to something fast on film, you’ll see the wheels of the car start to get faster and faster, then, as the car gets faster, the wheels slow down, stop, and then start going backwards… This does not happen in real life (unless you’re in a place lit with flashing lights like fluorescent bulbs or LED’s). I’ll do a posting explaining why this happens – but the thing to remember here is that the speed of the wheel rotation that you see on the film (the one that’s actually captured by the filming…) is not the real rotational speed of the wheel. However, those two rotational speeds are related to each other (and to the frame rate of the film). If you change the real rotational rate or the frame rate, you’ll change the rotational rate in the film. So, we call this effect “aliasing” because it’s a false version (an alias) of the real thing – but it’s always the same alias (assuming you repeat the conditions…) Digital audio can also suffer from aliasing, but in this case, you put in one frequency (which is actually the same as a rotational speed) and you get out another one. This is not the same as harmonic distortion, since the frequency that you get out is due to a relationship between the original frequency and the sampling rate, so the result is almost never a multiple of the input frequency.
Some details that I left out…
One of the things I said above was something like “we measure the voltage and store the results” and the example I gave was a nice series of numbers that only had 4 digits after the decimal point. This statement has some implications that we need to discuss.
Let’s say that I have a thing that I need to measure. For example, Figure 8 shows a piece of metal, and I want to measure its width.
Using my ruler, I can see that this piece of metal is about 57 mm wide. However, if I were geeky (and I am) I would say that this is not precise enough – and therefore it’s not accurate. The problem is that my ruler is only graduated in millimetres. So, if I try to measure anything that is not exactly an integer number of mm long, I’ll either have to guess (and be wrong) or round the measurement to the nearest millimetre (and be wrong).
So, if I wanted you to make a piece of metal the same width as my piece of metal, and I used the ruler in Figure 8, we would probably wind up with metal pieces of two different widths. In order to make this better, we need a better ruler – like the one in Figure 9.
Figure 9 shows a vernier caliper (a fancy type of ruler) being used to measure the same piece of metal. The caliper has a resolution of 0.05 mm instead of the 1 mm available on the ruler in Figure 8. So, we can make a much more accurate measurement of the metal because we have a measuring device with a higher precision.
The conversion of a digital audio signal is the same. As I said above, we measure the voltage of the electrical signal, and transmit (or store) the measurement. The question is: how accurate and precise is your measurement? As we saw above, this is (partly) determined by how many digits are in the number that you use when you “write down” the measurement.
Since the voltage measurements in digital audio are recorded in binary rather than decimal (we use 0 and 1 to write down the number instead of 0 up to 9) then we use Binary digITS – or “bits” instead of decimal digits (which are not called “dits”). The number of bits we have in the number that we write down (partly) determines the precision of the measurement of the voltage – and therefore (possibly), our accuracy…
Just like the example of the ruler in Figure 8, above, we have a limited resolution in our measurement. For example, if we had only 4 bits to work with then the waveform in 4 – the one we have to measure – would be measured with the “ruler” shown on the left side of Figure 10, below.
When we do this, we have to round off the value to the nearest “tick” on our ruler, as shown in Figure 11.
Using this “ruler” which gives a write-down-able “quantity” to the measurement, we get the following values for the red staircase:
When we “play these back” we get the staircase again, shown in Figure 12.
Of course, this means that, by rounding off the values, we have introduced an error in the system (just like the measurement in Figure 8 has a bigger error than the one in Figure 9). We can calculate this error if we just subtract the original signal from the output signal (in other words, Figure 12 minus Figure 10) to get Figure 13.
In order to improve our accuracy of the measurement, we have to increase the precision of the values. We can do this by adding an extra digit (or bit) to the number that we use to record the value.
If we were using decimal numbers (0-9) then adding an extra digit to the number would give us 10 times as many possibilities. (For example, if we were using 4 digits after the decimal in the example at the start of this posting, we have a total of 10,000 possible values – 0.0000 to 0.9999. If we add one more digit, we increase the resolution to 100,000 possible values – 0.00000 to 0.99999 ).
In binary, adding one extra digit gives us twice as many “ticks” on the ruler. So, using 4 bits gives us 16 possible values. Increasing to 5 bits gives us 32 possible values.
If you’re listening to a CD, then the individual measurements of each voltage – the “sample values” – are stored with 16 bits, which means that we have 65,536 possible values to pick from.
Remember that this means that we have more “ticks” on our ruler – but we don’t necessarily increase its range. So, for example, we’re still measuring a voltage from -1 V to 1 V – we just have more and more resolution to do that measurement with.
Finally! We get to the beginning of the point of the posting in the first place. My whole reason for starting this series of postings was to talk about errors in digital audio.
So, the first one to talk about is whether we have “bit matching” in a system where we expect to do so. For example, if you look at the S/P-DIF output of a good-old-fashioned CD player, do the sample values that are transmitted on that wire identical to the ones on the disc?
This is a fairly easy test to make (in theory). All you have to do is to record the digital signal on the S/P-DIF output of your CD player, subtract the original signal that’s on the disc (making sure that you have done your time alignment correctly). If you have anything other than nothing left over, then something went wrong somewhere.
If the result of this test is that you do NOT get nothing remaining, you cannot jump in head first and say that your S/P-DIF output is not working properly. For example, some sound cards have a sampling rate converter at their digital input. So, if you are capturing the CD player’s output using such a sound card on your computer, then perhaps the errors that you see are being produced by your sound card – and not your player.
A little associated story
This was a method that I used to do the final testing of Wireless Power Link for B&O. I created a little software application that made a signal and sent it out digitally to a Wireless Power Link transmitter (which was running with a resolution of 24 bits – giving us 16,777,216 possible values). I then connected a Wireless Power Link receiver’s output to the same computer. The computer knew how much time it took the signal to get from its output, through the wireless transmission system, back to its input (about 5 ms). So, I took the “output” signal, delayed it by that amount, and then subtracted it from the “input” signal. I then made a detector that counted every bit (instead of every sample) that was incorrect.
The reason I was counting bit errors instead of sample errors was that we wanted to be able to diagnose problems if we found them. If you find out that “this sample is wrong” – you don’t necessarily know whether it was one or more bit errors that caused the problem. By counting bit errors, you have a little more information that can help you diagnose the source of problems when you find them.
Sidebar: since this test was running at 48 kHz and 24 bits with a 2-channel system, that means that there were 2,304,000 bits per second being checked every second
This test ran 24-hours a day continuously for over 11 days. In that time, we found 0 bit errors. That means that we got 0 errors in more than 2,189,721,600,000 bits, which was good.
Now, just before anyone gets excited: that test was run to find out whether the WPL system was able to deliver a bit-perfect output in the absence of any external disturbances. So, the transmitter and the receiver were not moved at any time during the test, and nothing was moved between them – and the result was that the system behaved perfectly.