“High-Res” Audio: Part 1

I’ve been debating writing a series of postings about “high resolution” audio for a long time – years. Lately, (probably because of some hype generated by some recent press releases) I’ve been getting lots of question (no, that’s not a typo) about it, so it appears the time has come…

To start: the question that I get (a lot) is “If I can’t hear above 20 kHz, then what’s the use of high-res?” As I’ll explain as we go through, this is only one, rather small aspect to consider in this topic. In fact, it might be the least important issue to consider.

However, before I write too much, I’ll say that I’m not going to argue for or against higher resolutions in digital audio systems. I’m only going to go through a bunch of issues that can be used to argue either for or against them. So, there’s not going to be a big reveal at the end of this series telling you that high-res is either better, worse, or no different than whatever you’re using now. It’s merely going to be a discussion of a number of issues that need to be weighed. The problem is that this entire topic is complicated – and there’s no single “right” answer, as I’ll argue as we go along.

To start, let’s get down to basics and look (once again, from the perspectives of this website) at what sound is, and how it’s converted from an analogue electrical signal into a digital representation. The good thing is that I’ve written this introduction before in a different series of postings. So, I’m going to be extremely lazy and just copy-and-paste that information here. I’m not just referring you to another page because I’m intentionally leaving some things out because we’re headed into having a different discussion this time.

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.

Fig 1. Notice that (in theory, and ignoring a lot of things…) the change in air pressure over time at the input of the microphone is identical to the change in voltage over time at its output. Of course, this is not true in real life – microphones lie like a cheap rug…

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…

Fig 2. If you send an audio signal through some wires and devices that (in theory) do nothing to the signal, you’ll find out that they add some extra stuff that you don’t want.

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

Fig. 3 The same curve as was shown in Figure 1 – but zoomed in to the very beginning.

We’ll then put on a metronome and make a measurement of the voltage every time we hear the metronome click…

Fig 4. The same curve (in red) measured at regular intervals (in black)

We can then keep the measurements (remembering how often we made them…) and write them down like this:

0.3000
0.4950
0.5089
0.3351
0.1116
0.0043
0.0678
0.2081
0.2754
0.2042
0.0730
0.0345
0.1775

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…

Fig. 5. The voltages that we stored as measurements

We then make a “staircase” waveform by “holding” those voltages until the next value comes in.

Fig 6. We make a “staircase” curve using the voltages.

All we need to do then is to use a low-pass filter to smooth out the hard edges of the staircase.

Fig 7. When we smooth out the staircase, we get back the original signal (in red).

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 long as 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… (Note that this issue is not something that will come up in this series of postings about high resolution audio)

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. (We’re going to dig into this a lot deeper through this series of postings about high resolution audio, so if it doesn’t immediately make sense, don’t worry…)

Some important 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.

Fig 8. A piece of metal with a width of “approximately 57 mm”.

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.

Fig 9. The same piece of metal being measured with a vernier caliper. This gives us additional precision (down to 0.05 mm) so we can make a more accurate measurement.

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.

Fig 10: The waveform from Figure 4 as a voltage (notice the Y-axis on the right). We have to measure these values using the ruler with the resolution shown on the Y-axis on the left.

When we do this, we have to round off the value to the nearest “tick” on our ruler, as shown in Figure 11.

Fig 11: The values from figure 10 (shown as the circles) rounded off to the nearest value on our 4-bit ruler (the red staircase).

Using this “ruler” which gives a write-down-able “quantity” to the measurement, we get the following values for the red staircase:

0010
0100
0100
0011
0001
0000
0001
0010
0010
0010
0001
0000
0001

When we “play these back” we get the staircase again, shown in Figure 12.

Fig 12: The output of the measurements. Notice that all values sit exactly on one of the values for the “ruler” on the left Y-axis of the plot.

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.

Fig 13: The error that we produced due to the rounding off of the signal when we did the measurements. Notice that the error is always less than 0.5 of a “tick” of the ruler on the left Y-axis.

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 with which we can do that measurement.

On to Part 2…

What Use are Watts?

#83 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

Imagine water coming out of a garden hose, filling up a watering can (it’s nice outside, so this is the first analogy that comes to mind…). The water is pushed out of the hose by the pressure of the water behind it. The higher the pressure, the more water will come out, and the faster the watering can will fill.

If you want to reduce the amount of water coming out of the hose, you can squeeze it, restricting the flow by making a resistance that reduces the water pressure. The higher the resistance of the restriction to the flow, the less water comes out, and the slower the watering can fills up.

Electricity works in a similar fashion. There is an electrical equivalent of the “pressure”, which is called Electromotive Force or EMV, measured in Volts (which is why most people call it “Voltage” instead of its real name). The “flow” – the quantity of electrons that are flowing through the wire – is the current, measured in Amperes or Amps. A thing that restricts the flow of the electrons is called a resistor, since it resists the current. A resistor can be a thing that does nothing except restrict the current for some reason. It could also be something useful. A toaster, for example, is just a resistor as far as the power company is concerned. So is a computer, your house, or an entire city.

So, if we measure the current coming through a wire, and we want to increase it, we can increase the voltage (the electrical pressure) or we can reduce the resistance. These three are locked together. For example, if you know the voltage and the resistance, you can calculate the current. Or, if you know the current and the resistance, you can calculate the voltage. This is done with a very simple equation known as Ohm’s law:

V = I*R

Where V is the Voltage in Volts, I is the current in Amperes, and R is the resistance in Ohms.

For example, if you have a toaster plugged into a wall socket that is delivering 230 V, and you measure 2 Amperes of current going through it, then :

R = V / I

R = 230 / 4

R = 57.5 Ohms

However, to be honest, I don’t really care what the resistance of my toaster is. What concerns me most is how much I have to pay the power company every time I make toast. How is this calculated? Well, the power company promises to always give me 230 V at my disposal in the wall socket. The amount of current that I use is up to me. If I plug in a big resistance (like an LED lamp) then I don’t use much current. If I plug in a small resistance (say, to charge up the battery in the electric car) then I use lots. What they’re NOT doing is charging me for the current – although it does enter into another equation. The power company is charging me for the amount of Power that I’m using – because they’re charging me for the amount of work that they have to do to generate it for me.

When I use a toaster, it’s converting electrical energy into heat. The amount of heat that it generates is dependent on the voltage (the electrical pressure) and the current going through it. This can be calculated using another simple equation knowns as “Watt’s Law”:

P = V * I

So, let’s say that I plug my toaster into a 230 V outlet, and, because it is a 115 Ohm resistor, 2 Amperes goes through it. In this case, then the amount of Power it’s consuming is

P = 230 * 4

P = 920 Watts

If I’m going to be a little specific, then I should say that the Power (in Watts) is a measure of how much energy I’m transferring per second – so there’s an aspect of time here that I’m ignoring, but this won’t be important until the end of this posting.

Also, if I’m going to bring this back to the power company’s bill that they send me at the end of the month, it will be not only based on how much power I used (in Watts), but how long I used it for (in hours). So, if I make toast for 1 minute, then I used 920 Watts for 1/60th of an hour, therefore I have to pay for

920 / 60 = 15.33 Watt hours

Normally, of course, I do more than make toast once a month. In fact, I use a LOT more, so it’s measured in thousands of Watt hours or “kilowatt hours”.

For example, if I pull into the driveway with an almost-flat battery in our car, and I plug it into the special outlet we have for charging it to charge, I know that it’s using about 26 Amperes and the outlet is fixed at 380 V. This means that I’m using 10,000 Watts, and it will therefore take about 6.4 hours to charge the car (because it has a 64,000 Wh or 64 kWh battery). This means, at the end of the month, I’ll have to pay for those 64 kWh that I used to charge up the car.

So what? (So watt?)

When you play music in a loudspeaker driver, the amplifier “sees” the driver as a resistor.* Let’s say, for the purposes of this discussion, that the driver has a resistance of 8 Ohms. (It doesn’t, but today, we’ll pretend.) To play the music, the amplifier sends a signal that, on an oscilloscope, looks like the signal that came out of a microphone once-upon-a-time (yes – I’m oversimplifying). That signal that you’re looking at is the VOLTAGE that the amplifier is creating to make the signal. Since the loudspeaker driver has some resistance, we can therefore calculate the current that it “asks” the amplifier to deliver. As the voltage goes up, the current goes up, because the resistance stays the same (yes – I’m oversimplifying).

Now, let’s think about this: The amplifier is generating a voltage, and therefore it has to deliver a current. If I multiply those two things together, I can get the power: P = V*I. Simple, right?

Well, yes…. but remember that thing I said above about how power, in Watts, has an element of time. One watt is a measure of energy that is transferred into a thing (in our case, a loudspeaker driver) in one second. And this is where things get complicated, and increasingly irrelevant.

The problem is that power, measured in watts, has an underlying assumption that the consumption is constant. Turn on an old-fashioned light bulb or start making toast, and the power that you consume over time will be the same. However, when you’re playing Stravinsky on a loudspeaker, the voltage and the current are going up and down all the time – if they weren’t, you’d be listening to a sine wave, which is boring.

So, although it’s easy to use Watts to specify a the amount of energy an amplifier can deliver or a loudspeaker driver’s capabilities, it’s not really terribly useful. Instead, it’s much more useful to know how many volts the amplifier can deliver, and how many amperes it can push out before it can’t deliver more (and therefore distorts). However, although you know the maximum voltage and the maximum current, this is not necessarily the maximum power, since it might only be able to deliver those maxima for a VERY short period of time.

For example, if you measure the peak voltage and the peak current that comes out of all of the amplifiers in a Beolab 90 for less than 5 thousandths of a second (5 milliseconds), the you’ll get to a crazy number like 18,000 Watts. However, after about 5 ms, that number drops very rapidly. It can deliver the peak, but it can’t deliver it continuously (if it could, you’d trip a circuit breaker). (Similarly, you can drive a nail into wood by hitting it with a hammer – but you can’t push it in like a thumbtack. The amount of force you can deliver in a short peak is much higher than the amount you can deliver continuously.)

This is why, when we are specifying a power amplifier that we’ll need for a new loudspeaker at the beginning of the development process, we specify it in Peak Voltage and Peak Current (also the continuous values as well, of course) – but not Watts. Yes, you can use one to calculate the other, but consider this:

Amplifier #1: 1000 W amplifier, capable of delivering 10 V and 100 Amps

Amplifier #2: 1000 W amplifier, capable of delivering 100 V and 10 Amps

These are two VERY different things – so just saying a “1000 W amplifier” is not nearly enough information to be useful to anyone for anything. However, since advertisers have a long history of talking about a power amplifier’s capabilities in terms of watts, the tradition continues, regardless of its irrelevance. On the other hand, if you’re buying a toaster, the power consumption is a great thing to know…

* I’m pretending for this posting that a loudspeaker driver acts as a resistor to keep things simple. It doesn’t – but I’m not going to talk about phase or impedance today.

P.S. Yes, I cut MANY corners and oversimplified a LOT of issues in this posting – I know. Don’t send me hate mail because I didn’t mention reactance or crest factor…

What’s a woofer?

#82 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

Occasionally, a question that comes into the customer communications department to Bang & Olufsen from a dealer or a customer eventually finds its way into my inbox.

This week, the question was about nomenclature. Why is it that, on some loudspeakers, for example, we say there is a tweeter, mid-range, and woofer, whereas on other loudspeakers we say that we’re using a “full range” driver instead? What’s the difference? (Folded into the same question was another about amplifier power, but I’ll take that one in another posting.)

So, what IS the difference? There are three different ways to answer this question.

Answer #1: It’s how you use it.

My Honda Civic, the motorcycle that passed me on the highway this morning, and an F1 car all have a gear in the gearbox that’s labelled “3”. However, the gear ratio of those three examples of “third gear” are all different. In other words, if you showed a mechanic the gear ratio of one of those gearbox settings without knowing anything else, they wouldn’t be able to tell you “ah! that’s third gear…”

So, in this example, “third gear” is called “third” only because it’s the one between “second” and “fourth”. There is nothing physical about it that makes it “third”. If that were the case then my car wouldn’t have a first gear, because some farm tractor out there in the world would have a gear with a lower ratio – and an F1 car would start at gear 100 or so… And that wouldn’t make sense.

Similarly, we use the words “tweeter”, “midrange”, “woofer”, “subwoofer”, and “full range” to indicate the frequency range that that particular driver is looking after in this particular device. My laptop has a 1″ “woofer” – which only means that it’s the driver that’s taking care of the low frequencies that come out of my laptop.

So, using this explanation, the Beolab 90 webpage says that it has midranges and tweeters and no “full range” drivers because the midrange drivers look after the midrange frequencies, and the tweeters look after the high frequencies. However, the Beolab 28’s webpage says that it has a tweeter and full range drivers, but no midranges. This is because the drivers that play the midrange frequencies in the Beolab 28 also play some of the high-frequency content as part of the Beam Width control. Since they’re doing “double duty”, they get a different name.

Answer #2: Excruciating minutiae

The description I gave above isn’t really an adequate answer. For example, I said that my laptop has a 1″ “woofer”. Beolab 90 has a 1″ “tweeter” – but these two drivers are not designed the same way. Beolab 90’s tweeter is specifically designed to be used to produce high frequencies. One consequence of this is that the total mass of the moving parts (the diaphragm and voice coil, amongst other things) is as low as possible, so that it’s easy to move. This means that it can produce high frequency signals without having to use a lot of electrical power to push it back and forth.

However, the 1″ “woofer” in my laptop is designed differently. It probably has a much higher total mass for the moving parts. This means that its resonant frequency (the frequency that it would “ring” at if you hit it like a drum head) is much lower. Therefore it “wants” to move easily at a lower frequency than a tweeter would.

For example, if you put a child on a swing and you give them a push, they’ll swing back and forth at some frequency. If the child wanted to swing SLOWER (at a lower frequency), you could

  • move to a swing with longer ropes so this happens naturally, or
  • you can hold on to the ropes and use your muscles to control the rate of swinging instead.

The smarter thing to do is the first choice, that way you can keep sipping your coffee instead of getting a workout.

So, a 1″ woofer and a 1″ tweeter are not really the same thing.

Answer #3: Compromise

We live in a world that has been convinced by advertisers that “compromise” is a bad thing – but it’s not. Someone who does never accepts to compromise is destined to live a very lonely life. When designing a loudspeaker, one of the things to consider is what, exactly, each component will be asked to do, and choose the appropriate components accordingly.

If we’re going to be really pedantic – there’s really no such thing as a tweeter, woofer, or anything else with those kinds of names. Any loudspeaker driver can produce sound at any frequency. The only difference between them is the relative ease with which the driver plays a signal at a given frequency. You can get 20 Hz to come out of a “tweeter” – it will just be naturally a LOT quieter than the signals at around 5 kHz. Similarly, a woofer can play signals at 20 kHz, but it will be a lot quieter and/or take a lot more power than signals at 50 Hz.

What this means is that, when you make an active loudspeaker, the response (the relative levels of signals at different frequencies) is really a result of the filters in the digital signal processing and the control from the amplifier (ignoring the realities of heat and time…). If we want more or less level at 2 kHz from a loudspeaker driver, we “just” change the filter in the signal processing and use the amplifier to do the work (the same as the example above where you were using your muscle power to control the frequency of the child on the swing).

However, there are examples where we know that a driver will be primarily used for one frequency band, but actually be extending into another. The side-facing drivers on Beolab 28 are a good example of this. They’re primarily being used to control the beam width in the midrange, but they’re also helping to control the beam width in the high frequencies. Since, they’re doing double-duty in two frequency ranges, they can’t really be called “midranges” or “tweeters” – they’d be more accurately called “midranges that also play as quiet tweeters”. (They don’t have to play high frequencies loudly, since this is “only” to control the beam width of the front tweeter.) However, “midranges that also play as quiet tweeters” is just too much information for a simple datasheet – so “full range” will do as a compromise.

P.S.

I’ve got some extra things to add here…

Firstly, it has become common over the past couple of years to call “woofers” “subwoofers” instead. I don’t know why this happened – but I suspect that it’s merely the result of people who write advertising copy using a word they’ve heard before without really knowing what it means. Personally, I think that it’s funny to see a laptop specified to have a “1” subwoofer”. Maybe we should make the word “subtweeter” popular instead.

Secondly, personally, I believe that a “subwoofer” is a thing that looks after the frequency range below a “woofer”. I remember a conversation I had at an AES convention once (I think it was with Günther Theile and Tomlinson Holman) where we all agreed that a “subwoofer” should look after the frequency range up to 40 Hz, which is where a decent woofer should take over.

Lastly, if you find an audio magazine from the 1970s, you’ll see that a three-way loudspeaker had a “tweeter”, “squawker”, and “woofer”. Sometime between then and now, “squawker” was replaced with “midrange” – but I wonder why the other two didn’t change to “highrange” and “lowrange” (although neither of these would be correct, since all three drivers in a three-way system have limited frequency ranges).

Turn it down half-way…

#81 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

This article is a discussion, both philosophical and technical about what a volume control is, and what can be expected of it. This seems like a rather banal topic, but I find it surprising how often I’m required to explain it.

Basic concepts

We need to start at the very beginning, so here goes:

Volume control and gain

  1. An audio signal is (at least in a digital audio world) just a long list of numbers for each audio channel.
  2. The level of the audio signal can be changed by multiplying it by a number (called the gain).
    1. If you multiply by a value larger than 1, the audio signal gets louder.
    2. If you multiply by a number between 0 and 1, the audio signal gets quieter.
    3. If you multiply by zero, you mute the audio signal.
  3. Therefore, at its simplest core, a volume control implemented in a digital audio system is a multiplication by a gain. You turn up the volume, the gain value increases, and the audio is multiplied by a bigger number producing a bigger result.

That’s the first thing. Now we move on to how we perceive things…

Perception of Level

Speaking very generally, our senses (that we use to perceive the world around us) scale logarithmically instead of linearly. What does this mean? Let’s take an example:

Let’s say that you have $100 in your bank account. If I then told you that you’d won $100, you’d probably be pretty excited about it.

However, if you have $1,000,000 in your bank account, and I told you that you’re won $100, you probably wouldn’t even bother to collect your prize.

This can be seen as strange; the second $100 prize is not less money than the first $100 prize. However, it’s perceived to be very different.

If, instead of being $100, the cash prize were “equal to whatever you have in your bank account” – so the person with $100 gets $100 and the person with $1,000,000 gets $1,000,000, then they would both be equally excited.

The way we perceive audio signals is similar. Let’s say that you are listening to a song by Metallica at some level, and I ask you to turn it down, and you do. Then I ask you to turn it down by the same amount again, and you do. Then I ask you to turn it down by the same amount again, and you do… If I were to measure what just happened to the gain value, what would I find?

Well, let’s say that, the first time, you dropped the gain to 70% of the original level, so (for example) you went from multiplying the audio signal by 1 to multiplying the audio signal by 0.7 (a reduction of 0.3, if we were subtracting, which we’re not). The second time, you would drop by the same amount – which is 70% of that – so from 0.7 to 0.49 (notice that you did not subtract 0.3 to get to 0.4). The third time, you would drop from 0.49 to 0.343. (not subtracting 0.3 from 0.4 to get to 0.1).

In other words, each time you change the volume level by the “same amount”, you’re doing a multiplication in your head (although you don’t know it) – in this example, by 0.7. The important thing to note here is that you are NOT subtracting 0.3 from the gain in each of the above steps – you’re multiplying by 0.7 each time.

What happens if I were to express the above as percentages? Then our volume steps (and some additional ones) would look like this:

100%
70%
49%
34%
24%
17%
12%
8%

Notice that there is a different “distance” between each of those steps if we’re looking at it linearly (if we’re just subtracting adjacent values to find the difference between them). However, each of those steps is a reduction to 70% of the previous value.

This is a case where the numbers (as I’ve expressed them there) don’t match our experience. We hear each reduction in level as the same as the other steps, but they don’t look like they’re the same step size when we write them all down the way I’ve done above. (In other words, the numerical “distance” between 100 and 70 is not the same as the numerical “distance” between 49 and 34, but these steps would sound like the same difference in audio level.)

SIDEBAR: This is very similar / identical to the way we hear and express frequency changes. For example, the figure below shows a musical staff. The red brackets on the left show 3 spacings of one octave each; the distance between each of the marked frequencies sound the same to us. However, as you can see by the frequency indications, each of those octaves has a very different “width” in terms of frequency. Seen another way, the distance in Hertz in the octave from 440 Hz to 880 Hz is equal to the distance from 440 Hz all the way down to 0 Hz (both have a width of 440 Hz). However, to us, these sound like very different intervals.

SIDEBAR to the SIDEBAR: This also means that the distance in Hertz covered by the top octave on a piano is larger than the the distance covered by all of the other keys.

SIDEBAR to the SIDEBAR to the SIDEBAR: This also means that changing your sampling rate from 48 kHz to 96 kHz doubles your bandwidth, but only gives you an extra octave. However, this is not an argument against high-resolution audio, since the frequency range of the output is a small part of the list of pro’s and con’s.)

This is why people who deal with audio don’t use percent – ever. Instead, we use an extra bit of math that uses an evil concept called a logarithm to help to make things make more sense.

What is a logarithm?

If I say the following, you should not raise your eyebrows:

2*3 = 6, therefore 6/2 = 3 and 6/3 = 2

In other words, division is just multiplication done backwards. This can be generalised to the following:

if a*b=c, then c/a=b and c/b=a

Logarithms are similar; they’re just exponents done backwards. For example:

102 = 100, therefore Log10(100) = 2

and generally:

AB=C, therefore LogA(C) = B

Why use a logarithm?

The nice thing about logarithms is that they are a convenient way for a mathematician to do addition instead of multiplication.

For example, if I have the following sequence of numbers:

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and so on…

It’s easy to see that I’m just multiplying by 2 to get the next number.

What if I were to express the number sequence above as a series of exponents? Then it would look like this:

21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26

Not useful yet…

What if I asked you to multiply two numbers in that sequence? Say, for example, 1024 * 8192. This would take some work (or at least some scrambling, looking for the calculator app on your phone…). However, it helps to know that this is the same as asking you to multiply 210 * 213 – to which the answer is 223. Notice that 23 is merely 10+13. So, I’ve used exponents to convert the problem from multiplication (1024*8192) to addition (210 * 213 = 2(10+13)).

How did I find out that 8192 = 213? By using a logarithm : Log2(8192) = 13.

In the old days, you would have been given a book of logarithmic tables in school, which was a way of looking up the logarithm of 8192. (Actually, those books were in base 10 and not base 2, so you would have found out that Log10(8192) = 3.9013, which would have made this discussion more confusing…) Nowadays, you can use an antique device called a “calculator” – a simulacrum of which is probably on a device you call a “phone” but is rarely used as such.

I will leave it to the reader to figure out why this quality of logarithms (that they convert multiplication into addition) is why slide rules work.

So what?

Let’s go back to the problem: We want to make a volume slider (or knob) where an equal distance (or rotation) corresponds to an equal change in level. Let’s do a simple one that has 10 steps. Coming down from “maximum” (which we’ll say is a gain of 1 or 100%), it could look like these:

The gain values for four different versions of a 10-step volume control.

The plot above shows four different options for our volume controller. Starting at the maximum (volume step 10) and working downwards to the left, each one drops by the same perceived amount per step. The Black plot shows a drop of 90% per step, the red plot shows a drop of 70% per step (which matches the list of values I put above), Blue is 50% per step, and green is 30% per step.

As you can see, these lines are curved. As you can also see, as you get lower and lower, they get to the point where it gets harder to see the value (for example, the green curve looks like it has the same gain value for Volume steps 1 through 4).

However, we can view this a different way. If we change the scale of our graph’s Y-Axis to a logarithmic one instead of a linear one, the exact same information will look like this:

The same data plotted using a different scale for the Y-Axis.

Notice now that the Y-axis has an equal distance upwards every time the gain multiplies by 10 (the same way the music staff had the same distance every time we multiplied the frequency by 2). By doing this, we now see our gain curves as straight lines instead of curved ones. This makes it easy to read the values both when they’re really small and when they’re (comparatively) big (those first 4 steps on the green curve don’t look the same on that plot).

So, one way to view the values for our Volume controller is to calculate the gains, and then plot them on a logarithmic graph. The other way is to build the logarithm into the gain itself, which is what we do. Instead of reading out gain values in percent, we use Bels (named after Alexander Graham Bell). However, since a Bel is a big step, we we use tenths of a Bel or “decibels” instead. (… In the same way that I tell people that my house is 4,000 km, and not 4,000,000 m from my Mom’s house because a metre is too small a division for a big distance. I also buy 0.5 mm pencil leads – not 0.0005 m pencil leads. There are many times when the basic unit of measurement is not the right scale for the thing you’re talking about.)

In order to convert our gain value (say, of 0.7) to decibels, we do the following equation:

20 * Log10(gain) = Gain in dB

So, we would say

20 * Log10(0.7) = -3.01 dB

I won’t explain why we say 20 * the logarithm, since this is (only a little) complicated.

I will explain why it’s small-d and capital-B when you write “dB”. The small-d is the convention for “deci-“, so 1 decimetre is 1 dm. The capital-B is there because the Bel is named after Alexander Graham Bell. This is similar to the reason we capitalize Hz, V, A, and so on…

So, if you know the linear gain value, you can calculate the equivalent in decibels. If I do this for all of the values in the plots above, it will look like this:

Notice that, on first glance, this looks exactly like the plot in the previous figure (with the logarithmic Y-Axis), however, the Y-Axis on this plot is linear (counting from -100 to 0 in equal distances per step) because the logarithmic scaling is already “built into” the values that we’re plotting.

For example, if we re-do the list of gains above (with a little rounding), it becomes

100% = 0 dB
70% = -3 dB
49% = -6 dB
34% = -9 dB
24% = -12 dB
17% = -15 dB
12% = -18 dB
8% = -21 dB

Notice coming down that list that each time we multiplied the linear gain by 0.7, we just subtracted 3 from the decibel value, because, as we see in the equation above, these mean the same thing.

This means that we can make a volume control – whether it’s a slider or a rotating knob – where the amount that you move or turn it corresponds to the change in level. In other words, if you move the slider by 1 cm or rotate the knob by 10º – NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE WITHIN THE RANGE – the change is level will be the same as if you made the same movement somewhere else.

This is why Bang & Olufsen devices made since about 1990 (give or take) have a volume control in decibels. In older models, there were 79 steps (0 to 78) or 73 steps (0 to 72), which was expanded to 91 steps (0 to 90) around the year 2000, and expanded again recently to 101 steps (0 to 100). Each step on the volume control corresponds to a 1 dB change in the gain. So, if you change the volume from step 30 to step 40, the change in level will appear to be the same as changing from step 50 to step 60.

Volume Step ≠ Output Level

Up to now, all I’ve said can be condensed into two bullet points:

  • Volume control is a change in the gain value that is multiplied by the incoming signal
  • We express that gain value in decibels to better match the way we hear changes in level

Notice that I didn’t say anything in those two statements about how loud things actually are… This is because the volume setting has almost nothing to do with the level of the output, which, admittedly, is a very strange thing to say…

For example, get a DVD or Blu-ray player, connect it to a television, set the volume of the TV to something and don’t touch it for the rest of this experiment. Now, put in a DVD copy of any movie that has ONLY dialogue, and listen to how loud it sounds. Then, take out the DVD and put in a CD of Metallica’s Death Magnetic, press play. This will be much, much louder. In fact, if you own a B&O TV, the difference in level between those two things is the same as turning up the volume by 31 steps, which corresponds to 31 dB. Why?

When re-recording engineers mix a movie, they aim to make the dialogue sit around a level of 31 dB below maximum (better known as -31 dB FS or “31 decibels below Full Scale”). This gives them enough “headroom” to get much louder for explosions and gunshots to be exciting.

When a mixing engineer and a mastering engineer work on a pop or rock album, it’s not uncommon for them to make it as loud as possible, aiming for maximum (better known as 0 dB FS).

This means that a movie’s dialogue is much quieter than Metallica or Billie Eilish or whomever is popular when you’re reading this.

The volume setting is just a value that changes that input level… So, If I listen to music at volume step 42 on a Beovision television, and you watch a movie at volume step 71 on the same Beovision television, it’s possible that we’re both hearing the same sound pressure level in our living rooms, because the music is louder than the movie by the same amount that I’ve turned down my TV relative to yours.

In other words, the Volume Setting is not a predictor of how loud it is. A Volume Setting is a little like the accelerator pedal in your car. You can use the pedal to go faster or slower, but there’s no way of knowing how fast you’re driving if you only know how hard you’re pushing on the pedal.

What about other brands and devices?

This is where things get really random:

  • take any device (or computer or audio software)
  • play a sine wave (because thats easy to measure)
  • measure the change in output level as you change the volume setting
  • graph the result
  • Repeat everything above for different devices

You’ll see something like this:

The gain vs. Volume step behaviours of 8 different devices / software players

there are two important things to note in the above plot.

  1. These are the measurements of 8 different devices (or software players i.e. “apps”) and you get 8 different results (although some of them overlap, but this is because those are just different versions of the same apps).
    • Notice as well that there’s a big difference here. At a volume setting of “50%” there’s a 20 dB difference between the blue dashed line and the black one with the asterisk markings. 20 dB is a LOT.
  2. None of them look like the straight lines seen in the previous plot, despite the fact that the Y-axis is in decibels. In ALL of these cases, the biggest jumps in level happen at the beginning of the volume control (some are worse than others). This is not only because they’re coming up from a MUTE state – but because they’re designed that way to fool you. How?

Think about using any of these controllers: you turn it 25% of the way up, and it’s already THIS loud! Cool! This speaker has LOTS of power! I’m only at 25%! I’ll definitely buy it! But the truth is, when the slider / knob is at 25% of the way up, you’re already pushing close to the maximum it can deliver.

These are all the equivalent of a car that has high acceleration when starting from 0 km/h, but if you’re doing 100 km/h on the highway, and you push on the accelerator, nothing happens.

First impressions are important…

On the other hand (in support of thee engineers who designed these curves), all of these devices are “one-offs” (meaning that they’re all stand-alone devices) made by companies who make (or expect to be connected to) small loudspeakers. This is part of the reason why the curves look the way they do.

If B&O used those style of gain curves for a Beovision television connected to a pair of Beolab 90s, you’d either

  • be listening at very loud levels, even at low volume settings;
  • or you wouldn’t be able to turn it up enough for music with high dynamic range.

Some quick conclusions

Hopefully, if you’ve read this far and you’re still awake:

  • you will never again use “percent” to describe your volume level
  • you will never again expect that the output level can be predicted by the volume setting
  • you will never expect two devices of two different brands to output the same level when set to the same volume setting
  • you understand why B&O devices have so many volume steps over such a large range.

That’s a wrap…

I spent some time this week helping to track down the source of an error in a digital audio signal flow chain, and we wound up having a discussion that I thought might be worth repeating here.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Let’s take an analogue audio signal and convert it to a Linear Pulse Code Modulation (LPCM) representation in the dumbest possible way.

Fig 1. A simple analogue signal that we’ll use for the purposes of this discussion.

In order to save this signal as a string of numerical values, we have to first accept the fact that we don’t have an infinite number of numbers to use. So, we have to round off the signal to the nearest usable value or “quantisation value”. This process of rounding the value is called “quantisation”.

Let’s say for now that our available quantisation values are the ones shown on the grid. If we then take our original sine wave and round it to those values, we get the result shown below.

Fig 2. The original signal is shown as the blue line. The quantized version of it is shown as the red line.

Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of important details here like anti-aliasing filtering and dither (I said that we were going to be dumb…) but those things don’t matter for this discussion.

So far so good. However, we have to be a bit more specific: an LPCM system encodes the values using binary representations of the values. So, a quantisation value of “0.25”, as shown above isn’t helpful. So, let’s make a “baby” LPCM system with only 3 bits (meaning that we have three Binary digITs available to represent our values).

To start, let’s count using a 3-bit system:

Binary Value4s place2s place1s placeDecimal Value
000=0 x 4 +0 x 2 + 0 x 1=0
001=0 x 4 +0 x 2 +1 x 1=1
010=0 x 4 +1 x 2 +0 x 1=2
011=0 x 4 +1 x 2 +1 x 1=3
100=1 x 4 +0 x 2 +0 x 1=4
101=1 x 4 +0 x 2 +1 x 1=5
110=1 x 4 +1 x 2 +0 x 1=6
111=1 x 4 +1 x 2 +1 x 1=7
Table 1: The 8 numbers that can be represented using a 3-bit binary representation

and that’s as far as we can go before needing 4 bits. However, for now, that’s enough.

Take a look at our signal. It ranges from -1 to 1 and 0 is in the middle. So, if we say that the “0” in our original signal is encoded as “000” in our 3-bit system, then we just count upwards from there as follows:

Fig 3. Starting at 000 for the “0” value, and counting upwards into the positive values.

Now what? Well, let’s look at this a little differently. If we were to divide a circle into the same number of quantisation values, make the “12:00” position = 000, and count clockwise, it would look like this:

Fig 4. Counting from 000 to 111 around a circle

The question now is “how do we number the negative values?” but the answer is already in the circle shown above… If I make it a little more obvious, then the answer is shown below.

Fig 5. Relating the values on the circle to the values we’ll need to represent the audio signal…

If we use the convention shown above, and represent that on the graph of our audio signal, then it looks like this:

Fig. 6

One nice thing about this way of doing things is that you just need to look at the first digit in the binary word to know whether the value is positive or negative. A 0 means it’s positive, and a 1 means it’s negative.

However, there are two issues here that we need to sort out… The first is that, since we have an even number of values, but an odd number of quantisation steps (4 above zero, 4 below zero, and zero = 9 steps) then we had to do something asymmetrical. As you can see in the plot above, there are no numbers assigned to the top quantisation value, which actually means that it doesn’t exist.

So, if we’re still being dumb, then the result of our quantisation will either look like this:

Fig 7. The dumb way to deal with the asymmetrical quantisation problem. Notice that the result is asymmetrically clipped on the positive side, but not the negative.

or this:

Fig 8. A smarter way to deal with the asymmetrical quantisation problem. Notice that we’ll never use the bottom value.

Wrapping up…

But what happens when you make two mistakes simultaneously? Let’s go back and look at an earlier plot.

Fig 9.

Let’s say that you’re writing some DSP code, and you forget about the asymmetry problem, so you scale things so they’ll TRY to look like the plot above.

However, as we already know, that top quantisation value doesn’t exist – but the code will try to put something there. If you’ve forgotten about this, then the system will THINK that you want this:

Fig 10. Notice that top quantisation value. I’ve labeled it as (100) because that’s the binary number after 011 – but 100 is ACTUALLY already used for the bottom-most negative value… Bad things are about to happen.

As you can see there, your code (because you’ve forgotten to write an IF-THEN statement) will think that the top-most positive quantisation value is just the number after 011, which is 100. However, that value means something totally different… So, the result coming out will ACTUALLY look like this:

Fig 11. The actual output resulting from the mistakes described above.

As you can see there, the signal is very different from what we think it should be.

This error is called a “wrapping” error, because the signal is “wrapped” too far around the circle shown in Figure 5, shown above. It sounds very bad – much worse than “normal” clipping (as shown in Figure 7) because of that huge nearly-instantaneous transition from maximum positive to maximum negative and back.

Of course, the wrapping can also happen in the opposite direction; a negatively-clipped signal can wrap around and show up at the top of the positive values. The reason is the same because the values are trying to go around the same circle.

As I said: this is actually the result of two problems that both have to occur in the same system:

  • The signal has to be trying to get to a level that is beyond the limits of the quantisation values
  • Someone forgot to write a line of code that makes sure that, when that happens, the signal is “just” clipped and not wrapped.

So, if the second of these issues is sitting there, unresolved, but the signal never exceeds the limits, then you’ll never have a problem. However, I will never need the airbags in my car, unless I have an accident. So, it’s best to remember to look after that second issue… just in case.

P.S.

This method of encoding the quantisation values is called the “Two’s Complement” method. If you want to know more about it, read this.

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 9

Back to Part 8

Magnitude response

The magnitude response* of any audio device is a measure of how much its output level deviates from the expected level at different frequencies. In a turntable, this can be measured in different ways.

Usually, the magnitude response is measured from a standard test disc with a sine wave sweep ranging from at least 20 Hz to at least 20 kHz. The output level of this signal is recorded at the output of the device, and the level is analysed to determine how much it differs from the expected output. Consequently, the measurement includes all components in the audio path from the stylus tip, through the RIAA preamplifier (if one is built into the turntable), to the line-level outputs.

Because all of these components are in the signal path, there is no way of knowing immediately whether deviations from the expected response are caused by the stylus, the preamplifier, or something else in the chain.

It’s also worth noting that a typical standard test disc (JVC TRS-1007 is a good example) will not have a constant output level, which you might expect if you’re used to measuring other audio devices. Usually, the swept sine signal has a constant amplitude in the low frequency bands (typically, below 1 kHz) and a constant modulation velocity in the high frequencies. This is to avoid over-modulation in the low end, and burning out the cutter head during mastering in the high end.

* This is the correct term for what is typically called the “frequency response”. The difference is that a magnitude response only shows output level vs. frequency, whereas the frequency response would include both level and phase information.

Rumble

In theory, an audio playback device only outputs the audio signal that is on the recording without any extra contributions. In practice, however, every audio device adds signals to the output for various reasons. As was discussed above, in the specific case of a turntable, the audio signal is initially generated by very small movements of the stylus in the record groove. Therefore, in order for it to work at all, the system must be sensitive to very small movements in general. This means that any additional movement can (and probably will) be converted to an audio signal that is added to the recording.

This unwanted extraneous movement, and therefore signal, is usually the result of very low-frequency vibrations that come from various sources. These can include things like mechanical vibrations of the entire turntable transmitted through the table from the floor, vibrations in the system caused by the motor or imbalances in the moving parts, warped discs which cause a vertical movement of the stylus, and so on. These low-frequency signals are grouped together under the heading of rumble.

A rumble measurement is performed by playing a disc that has no signal on it, and measuring the output signal’s level. However, that output signal is first filtered to ensure that the level detection is not influenced by higher-frequency problems that may exist.

The characteristics of the filters are defined in internal standards such as DIN 45 539 (or IEC98-1964), shown below. Note that I’ve only plotted the target response. The specifications allow for some deviation of ±1 dB (except at 315 Hz). Notice that the low-pass filter is the same for both the Weighted and the Unweighted filters. Only the high-pass filter specifications are different for the two cases.

The magnitude responses for the “Unweighted” (black) and “Weighted” filters for rumble measurements, specified in DIN 45 539

If the standard being used for the rumble measurement is the DIN 45 539 specification, then the resulting value is stated as the level difference between the measured filtered noise and a the standard output level, equivalent to the output when playing a 1 kHz tone with a lateral modulation velocity of 70.7 mm/sec. This detail is also worth noting, since it shows that the rumble value is a relative and not an absolute output level.

Rotational speed

Every recording / playback system, whether for audio or for video signals, is based on the fundamental principle that the recording and the playback happen at the same rate. For example, a film that was recorded at 24 frames (or photos) per second (FPS) must also be played at 24 FPS to avoid objects and persons moving too slowly or too quickly. It’s also necessary that neither the recording nor the playback speed changes over time.

A phonographic LP is mastered with the intention that it will be played back at a rotational speed of 33 1/3 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) or 45 RPM, depending on the disc. (These correspond to 1 revolution either every 1.8 seconds or every 1 1/3 seconds respectively.) We assume that the rotational speed of the lathe that was used to cut the master was both very accurate and very stable. Although it is the job of the turntable to duplicate this accuracy and stability as closely as possible, measurable errors occur for a number of reasons, both mechanical and electrical. When these errors are measured using especially-created audio signals like pure sine tones, the results are filtered and analyzed to give an impression of how audible they are when listening to music. However, a problem arises in that a simple specification (such as a single number for “Wow and Flutter”, for example) can only be correctly interpreted with the knowledge of how the value is produced.

Accuracy

The first issue is the simple one of accuracy: is the turntable rotating the disc at the correct average speed? Most turntables have some kind of user control of this (both for the 33 and 45 RPM settings), since it will likely be necessary to adjust these occasionally over time, as the adjustment will drift with influences such as temperature and age.

Stability

Like any audio system, regardless of whether it’s analogue or digital, the playback speed of the turntable will vary over time. As it increases and decreases, the pitch of the music at the output will increase and decrease proportionally. This is unavoidable. Therefore, there are two questions that result:

  • How much does the speed change?
  • What is the rate and pattern of the change?

In a turntable, the amount of the change in the rotational speed is directly proportional to the frequency shift in the audio output. Therefore for example, if the rotational speed decreases by 1% (for example, from 33 1/3 RPM to exactly 33 RPM), the audio output will drop in frequency by 1% (so a 440 Hz tone will be played as a 440 * 0.99 = 435.6 Hz tone). Whether this is audible is dependent on different factors including

  • the rate of change to the new speed
    (a 1% change 4 times a second is much easier to hear than a 1% change lasting 1 hour)
  • the listener’s abilities
    (for example, a person with “absolute pitch” may be able to recognise the change)
  • the audio signal
    (It is easier to detect a frequency shift of a single, long tone such as a note on a piano or pipe organ than it is of a short sound like a strike of claves or a sound with many enharmonic frequencies such as a snare drum.)

In an effort to simplify the specification of stability in analogue playback equipment such as turntables, four different classifications are used, each corresponding to different rates of change. These are drift, wow, flutter, and scrape, the two most popular of which are wow and flutter, and are typically grouped into one value to represent them.

Drift

Frequency drift is the tendency of a playback device’s speed to change over time very slowly. Any variation that happens slower than once every 2 seconds (in other words, with a modulation frequency of less than 0.5 Hz) is considered to be drift. This is typically caused by changes such as temperature (as the playback device heats up) or variations in the power supply (due to changes in the mains supply, which can vary with changing loads throughout the day).

Wow

Wow is a modulation in the speed ranging from once every 2 seconds to 6 times a second (0.5 Hz to 6 Hz). Note that, for a turntable, the rotational speed of the disc is within this range. (At 33 1/3 RPM: 1 revolution every 1.8 seconds is equal to approximately 0.556 Hz.)

Flutter

Flutter describes a modulation in the speed ranging from 6 to 100 times a second (6 Hz to 100 Hz).

Scrape

Scrape or scrape flutter describes changes in the speed that are higher than 100 Hz. This is typically only a problem with analogue tape decks (caused by the magnetic tape sticking and slipping on components in its path) and is not often used when classifying turntable performance.

Measurement and Weighting

The easiest accurate method to measure the stability of the turntable’s speed within the range of Wow and Flutter is to follow one of the standard methods, of which there are many, but they are all similar. Examples of these standards are AES6-2008, CCIR 409-3, DIN 45507, and IEC-386. A special measurement disc containing a sine tone, usually with a frequency of 3150 Hz is played to a measurement device which then does a frequency analysis of the signal. In a perfect system, the result would be a 3150 Hz sine tone. In practice, however, the frequency of the tone varies over time, and it is this variation that is measured and analysed.

There is general agreement that we are particularly sensitive to a modulation in frequency of about 4 Hz (4 cycles per second) applied to many audio signals. As the modulation gets slower or faster, we are less sensitive to it, as was illustrated in the example above: (a 1% change 4 times a second is much easier to hear than a 1% change lasting 1 hour).

So, for example, if the analysis of the 3150 Hz tone shows that it varies by ±1% at a frequency of 4 Hz, then this will have a bigger impact on the result than if it varies by ±1% at a frequency of 0.1 Hz or 40 Hz. The amount of impact the measurement at any given modulation frequency has on the total result is shown as a “weighting curve” in the figure below.

Weighting applied to the Wow and Flutter measurement in most standard methods. See the text for an explanation.

As can be seen in this curve, a modulation at 4 Hz has a much bigger weight (or impact) on the final result than a modulation at 0.315 Hz or at 140 Hz, where a 20 dB attenuation is applied to their contribution to the total result. Since attenuating a value by 20 dB is the same as dividing it by 10; a ±1% modulation of the 3150Hz tone at 4 Hz will produce the same result as a ±10% modulation of the 3150 Hz tone at 140 Hz, for example.

This shows just one example of why comparing one Wow and Flutter measurement value should be interpreted very cautiously.

Expressing the result

When looking at a Wow and Flutter specification, one will see something like <0.1%, <0.05% (DIN), or <0.1% (AES6). Like any audio specification, if the details of the measurement type are not included, then the value is useless. For example, “W&F: <0.1%” means nothing, since there is no way to know which method was used to arrive at this value.(Similarly, a specification like “Frequency Range: 20 Hz to 20 kHz” means nothing, since there is no information about the levels used to define the range.)

If the standard is included in the specification (DIN or AES6, for example), then it is still difficult to compare wow and flutter values. This is because, even when performing identical measurements and applying the same weighting curve shown in the figure above, there are different methods for arriving at the final value. The value that you see may be a peak value (the maximum deviation from the average speed), the peak-to-peak value (the difference between the minimum and the maximum speeds), the RMS (a version of the average deviation from the average speed), or something else.

The AES6-2008 standard, which is the currently accepted method of measuring and expressing the wow and flutter specification, uses a “2-sigma” method, which is a way of looking at the peak deviation to give a kind of “worst-case” scenario. In this method, the 3150 Hz tone is played from a disc and captured for as long a time as is possible or feasible. Firstly, the average value of the actual frequency of the output is found (in theory, it’s fixed at 3150 Hz, but this is never true). Next, the short-term variation of the actual frequency over time is compared to the average, and weighted using the filter shown above. The result shows the instantaneous frequency variations over the length of the captured signal, relative to the average frequency (however, the effect of very slow and very fast changes have been reduced by the filter). Finally, the standard deviation of the variation from the average is calculated, and multiplied by 2 (“2-Sigma”, or “two times the standard deviation”), resulting in the value that is shown as the specification. The reason two standard deviations is chosen is that (in the typical case where the deviation has a Gaussian distribution) the actual Wow & Flutter value should exceed this value no more than 5% of the time.

The reason this method is preferred today is that it uses a single number to express not only the wow and flutter, but the probability of the device reaching that value. For example, if a device is stated to have a “Wow and Flutter of <1% (AES6)”, then the actual deviation from the average speed will be less than 1% for 95% of the time you are listening to music. The principal reason this method was not used in the “old days” is that it requires statistical calculations applied to a signal that was captured from the output of the turntable, an option that was not available decades ago. The older DIN method that was used showed a long-term average level that was being measured in real-time using analogue equipment such as the device shown in below.

Bang & Olufsen WM1, analogue wow and flutter meter.

Unfortunately, however, it is still impossible to know whether a specification that reads “Wow and Flutter: 1% (AES6)” means 1% deviation with a modulation frequency of 4 Hz or 10% deviation with a modulation frequency of 140 Hz – or something else. It is also impossible to compare this value to a measurement done with one of the older standards such as the DIN method, for example.

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 8

Back to Part 7

As was discussed in Part 3, when a record master is cut on a lathe, the cutter head follows a straight-line path as it moves from the outer rim to the inside of the disk. This means that it is always modulating in a direction that is perpendicular to the groove’s relative direction of travel, regardless of its distance from the centre.

The direction of travel of the cutting head when the master disk is created on a lathe.

A turntable should be designed to ensure that the stylus tracks the groove made by the cutter head in all aspects. This means that this perpendicular angle should be maintained across the entire surface of the disk. However, in the case of a tonearm that pivots, this is not possible, since the stylus follows a circular path, resulting in an angular tracking error.

Any tonearm has some angular tracking error that varies with position on the disk.

The location of the pivot point, the tonearm’s shape, and the mounting of the cartridge can all contribute to reducing this error. Typically, tonearms are designed so that the cartridge is angled to not be in-line with the pivot point. This is done to ensure that there can be two locations on the record’s surface where the stylus is angled correctly relative to the groove.

A correctly-designed and aligned pivoting tonearm has a tracking error of 0º at only two locations on the disk.

However, the only real solution is to move the tonearm in a straight line across the disc, maintaining a position that is tangential to the groove, and therefore keeping the stylus located so that its movement is perpendicular to the groove’s relative direction of travel, just as it was with the cutter head on the lathe.

A tonearm that travels sideways, maintaining an angle that is tangent to the groove at the stylus.

In a perfect system, the movement of the tonearm would be completely synchronous with the sideways “movement” of the groove underneath it, however, this is almost impossible to achieve. In the Beogram 4000c, a detection system is built into the tonearm that responds to the angular deviation from the resting position. The result is that the tonearm “wiggles” across the disk: the groove pulls the stylus towards the centre of the disk for a small distance before the detector reacts and moves the back of the tonearm to correct the angle.

Typically, the distance moved by the stylus before the detector engages the tracking motor is approximately 0.1 mm, which corresponds to a tracking error of approximately 0.044º.

An exaggerated representation of the maximum tracking error of the tonearm before the detector engages and corrects.

One of the primary artefacts caused by an angular tracking error is distortion of the audio signal: mainly second-order harmonic distortion of sinusoidal tones, and intermodulation distortion on more complex signals. (see “Have Tone Arm Designers Forgotten Their High-School Geometry?” in The Audio Critic, 1:31, Jan./Feb., 1977.) It can be intuitively understood that the distortion is caused by the fact that the stylus is being moved at a different angle than that for which it was designed.

It is possible to calculate an approximate value for this distortion level using the following equation:

Hd \approx 100 * \frac{ \omega  A  \alpha }{\omega_r R }

Where Hd is the harmonic distortion in percent, \omega is the angular frequency of the modulation caused by the audio signal (calculated using \omega = 2 \pi F), A is the peak amplitude in mm, \alpha is the tracking error in degrees, \omega_r is the angular frequency of rotation (the speed of the record in radians per second. For example, at 33 1/3 RPM, \omega_r = 2 \pi 0.556 rev/sec = 3.49) and R is the radius (the distance of the groove from the centre of the disk). (see “Tracking Angle in Phonograph Pickups” by B.B. Bauer, Electronics (March 1945))

This equation can be re-written, separating the audio signal from the tonearm behaviour, as shown below.

Hd \approx 100 * \frac{ \omega A }{\omega_r} * \frac{\alpha}{R}

which shows that, for a given audio frequency and disk rotation speed, the audio signal distortion is proportional to the horizontal tracking error over the distance of the stylus to the centre of the disk. (This is the reason one philosophy in the alignment of a pivoting tonearm is to ensure that the tracking error is reduced when approaching the centre of the disk, since the smaller the radius, the greater the distortion.)

It may be confusing as to why the position of the groove on the disk (the radius) has an influence on this value. The reason is that the distortion is dependent on the wavelength of the signal encoded in the groove. The longer the wavelength, the lower the distortion. As was shown in Figure 1 in Part 6 of this series, the wavelength of a constant frequency is longer on the outer groove of the disk than on the inner groove.

Using the Beogram 4000c as an example at its worst-case tracking error of 0.044º: if we have a 1 kHz sine wave with a modulation velocity of 34.1 mm/sec on a 33 1/3 RPM LP on the inner-most groove then the resulting 2nd-harmonic distortion will be 0.7% or about -43 dB relative to the signal. At the outer-most groove (assuming all other variables remain constant), the value will be roughly half of that, at 0.3% or -50 dB.

n Mod -m: Max vs. Matlab

Today I was working on a little acoustics simulation patcher in Cycling 74’s Max, and part of the code required the use of a modulo function. No problem, right?

Problem. I originally wrote the code in Matlab, and I was porting it to Max; and the numbers just weren’t working properly. After getting rid of my own home-made bugs, it still wasn’t working…

Turns out that there seems to be a disagreement in the code community about how to do the modulo of a negative number.

The best indication of the problem I was facing is found on this page, where you can see that different languages come up with different answers for -13 mod 3 and 13 mod -3. The problem is that neither Max nor Matlab are in the list. So: here are the results of those two, to add to the list.

Matlab’s results
Max’s results, including using the gen object.

The results are:

Language13 mod 3-13 mod 313 mod -3-13 mod -13
Matlab12-2-1
Max1-11-1

This means that Matlab behaves like Python, using the formula

mod(a, n) = a – n * floor(a / n)

whereas Max behaves like C and Java.

So, if you, like me, move back and forth between Matlab and Max, beware!

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 7

Back to Part 6

Tracking force

In order to keep the stylus tip in the groove of the record, it must have some force pushing down on it. This force must be enough to keep the stylus in the groove. However, if it is too large, then both the vinyl and the stylus will wear more quickly. Thus a balance must be found between “too much” and “not enough”.

Figure 1: Typical tracking force over time. The red portion of the curve shows the recommendation for Beogram 4002 and Beogram 4000c.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the typical tracking force of phonograph players has changed considerably since the days of gramophones playing shellac discs, with values under 10 g being standard since the introduction of vinyl microgroove records in 1948. The original recommended tracking force of the Beogram 4002 was 1 g, however, this has been increased to 1.3 g for the Beogram 4000c in order to help track more recent recordings with higher modulation velocities and displacements.

Effective Tip Mass

The stylus’s job is to track all of the vibrations encoded in the groove. It stays in that groove as a result of the adjustable tracking force holding it down, so the moving parts should be as light as possible in order to ensure that they can move quickly. The total apparent mass of the parts that are being moved as a result of the groove modulation is called the effective tip mass. Intuitively, this can be thought of as giving an impression of the amount of inertia in the stylus.

It is important to not confuse the tracking force and the effective tip mass, since these are very different things. Imagine a heavy object like a 1500 kg car, for example, lifted off the ground using a crane, and then slowly lowered onto a scale until it reads 1 kg. The “weight” of the car resting on the scale is equivalent to 1 kg. However, if you try to push the car sideways, you will obviously find that it is more difficult to move than a 1 kg mass, since you are trying to overcome the inertia of all 1500 kg, not the 1 kg that the scale “sees”. In this analogy, the reading on the scale is equivalent to the Tracking Force, and the mass that you’re trying to move is the Effective Tip Mass. Of course, in the case of a phonograph stylus, the opposite relationship is desirable; you want a tracking force high enough to keep the stylus in the groove, and an effective tip mass as close to 0 as possible, so that it is easy for the groove to move it.

Compliance

Imagine an audio signal that is on the left channel only. In this case, the variation is only on one of the two groove walls, causing the stylus tip to ride up and down on those bumps. If the modulation velocity is high, and the effective tip mass is too large, then the stylus can lift off the wall of the groove just like a car leaving the surface of a road on the trailing side of a bump. In order to keep the car’s wheels on the road, springs are used to push them back down before the rest of the car starts to fall. The same is true for the stylus tip. It’s being pushed back down into the groove by the cantilever that provides the spring. The amount of “springiness” is called the compliance of the stylus suspension. (Compliance is the opposite of spring stiffness: the more compliant a spring is, the easier it is to compress, and the less it pushes back.)

Like many other stylus parameters, the compliance is balanced with other aspects of the system. In this case it is balanced with the effective mass of the tonearm (which includes the tracking force(1), resulting in a resonant frequency. If that frequency is too high, then it can be audible as a tone that is “singing along” with the music. If it’s too low, then in a worst-case situation, the stylus can jump out of the record groove.

If a turntable is very poorly adjusted, then a high tracking force and a high stylus compliance (therefore, a “soft” spring) results in the entire assembly sinking down onto the record surface. However, a high compliance is necessary for low-frequency reproduction, therefore the maximum tracking force is, in part, set by the compliance of the stylus.

If you are comparing the specifications of different cartridges, it may be of interest to note that compliance is often expressed in one of five different units, depending on the source of the information:

  • “Compliance Unit” or “cu”
  • mm/N
    millimetres of deflection per Newton of force
  • µm/mN
    micrometres of deflection per thousandth of a Newton of force
  • x 10^-6 cm/dyn
    hundredths of a micrometre of deflection per dyne of force
  • x 10^-6 cm / 10^-5 N
    hundredths of a micrometre of deflection per hundred-thousandth of a Newton of force

Since

mm/N = 1000 µm / 1000 mN

and

1 dyne = 0.00001 Newton

Then this means that all five of these expressions are identical, so, they can be interchanged freely. In other words:

20 CU

= 20 mm / N

= 20 µm / mN

= 20 x 10^-6 cm / dyn

= 20 x 10^-6 cm / 10^-5 N

Footnotes

  1. On the Mechanics of Tonearms, Dick Pierce