Audio, Etc. (July 1977)

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With all these anniversaries sailing past, the 200th, the 100th, our own 30th and 60th, I'm feeling retrospective--which means, with me, looking forward in the light of the past. Perspective! I have a sense that this is a good time for all of us to do just that. We are in a sort of interim in spite of all the excitement generated by new developments, early-digital and otherwise. We need some new names, I think.

I am not referring to sales efforts. Nor to new models. The biggest sales tend to be rung up, like on Wall Street, when there is an era of profit taking. It is the fully matured and developed product that sells, not the Latest Revolution though we're always talking about revolution. A few revolutions catch on quick but most don't.

More often, the latest sensation, if it has any solid worth, soon finds itself falling flat on its face, snarled into every imaginable kind of unforeseen trouble and hassle, and doesn't pull itself out and into the clear for an agonizingly long time.

You know what I mean! Like with stereo. Not stereo now. Back when stereo was the revolution Or the LP disc, which had its problems and before it was a year old ran smack into the 45 and the all-too-familiar wars of the rival systems.

But now conventional stereo is the fully matured product, as well as the LP disc. A matchless pair! Next year, the stereo disc has its 20th anniversary and the LP its 30th. Wow! Old geezers like us can scarcely believe it.

Silly Revolutions Succeed

Only the silly revolutions succeed right away. Instant miracles. Frisbies, hula hoops, bubble gum, the Great T-Shirt Explosion. And, of course, George.

Now don't run down George. In terms of purpose and utility, George has to be the most frivolous (and expensive) gadget in recent memory, but George is indeed a miracle, the very embodiment in a van -like shape of current technological know-how.

And George works by audio. Totally minus complications like, say, decoders, demodulators, Shibata styli and four speakers in the living room.

George just is, and does. What more do you want for sales? What we need in the hi fi biz is James, which I'm inventing. James is the pint-sized electronic robot who turns on your hi fi when you smile.

And turns it off the instant you frown.

So your system becomes subliminal and is subconsciously automated. You need merely think, positively, and it goes on. Howzat? James isn't quite yet perfected but I'm working on the digital circuitry and the smile/frown chip. Any day now and I expect to make millions.

Meanwhile, that slightly larger Sensation with the name that begins with a Q has done it. Predictably fallen flat on its face. What else? As I say, it never fails. As usual, this once-Latest Revolution turned out to be a bit more complex and profound than previously thought, and took a wee bit longer to fall on its fizz than most. That's where it is now, and the ardent people who once promoted it are pretending it isn't there any more, nor ever was. OK par for the course! So now in all the stores there are stereo records and stereo records, the former two-channel, old tried-and-true, the latter, shall I say, discreetly four. Look for the fine print on the back side.

All in all, this isn't a bad idea. I am not about to deplore the present situation, as you may have thought. Indeed, I think that in a way this is a healthy reaction after eight -odd years of over promotion, ill-digested technology and the sort of war between systems that merely bores most of us, to the tune of million $ wasted. I am-as one of the proponents of the new idea right from the beginning-not backing down, just revaluating as we all must. Because from here on out we must take a new tack altogether and maybe our very first move should be to get rid of that word itself, which begins with a Q and goes on to an i, an a or an o, depending. (Look--we couldn't even agree how to well it, let alone sell it!) That word was just as misleading, think, as the word we once used for stereo, back at its beginning-binaural. In case you are too young, you should know that two-channel recording, tried before WWII, first broke into our audio news around 1950 but not as stereo. We called it binaural, even though intended for loudspeakers, and the term stuck for a number of years until the more accurate "stereo" took over, just in time for commercialization. In those days I used to refer to "loudspeaker binaural," to make it clear that I wasn't talking about headphones. But it was such a clumsy term that, as I now note, I often left the matter in doubt and can't even tell at this late date whether I meant loudspeakers or phones, just referring to binaural. Stereo was much better.

So, I say, we might as well call Q what it really is, which is indeed a form of loudspeaker stereo.

Stereo--old Greek, meaning solid, or with shape. An excellent description of the sound we hear out of multiple speakers and more than one channel of information. And the useful minimal number of channels, plural, is of course two. Q is stereo out of four sources, set variably around the listener rather than up-front, and from four channels of info. The basic idea remains not only a valuable modification of the original stereo but--in spite of present problems--an increasingly practical concept as multiple circuits become progressively easier and tinier. The important modification, then, is that the number four, as indicated by that obsolete letter Q, is arbitrary. We will have even more varieties of stereo, before we are finished, and in numerous channels too, as Dyna (3), Audio Pulse (6), AR (16) and Entity I (40) continue to remind us.

The Limiting Letter

Indeed, the letter Q is much too limited itself. The most we can squeeze out of it is Quintaphonic, which doesn't even satisfy existing commercializations. So please, down with Q, as well as Q , and let's start talking. We need new names, more accurate names, to clear the air before we go much further. Until we find them, the name of the present game is emphatically STEREO. In two, four, or more channels.

Speaking of that, I must remind again that the basic idea of our standard stereo is not the limitation to two channels but a much more important aspect, stereo up front. It could be out of twenty channels and still be up front. This was the original concept and you have heard of the U.S. debut of this type of sound with the aid of Leopold Stokowski back in the Thirties, when music by a "live" orchestra was transmitted directly from one hall to another via microphones and loudspeakers. Two channels? If I remember, not having the data before me, there are many more than two.

But all of them were reproduced up front.

And yes, you have anticipated me: next (in the U.S.) came the movie "Fantasia," again with Leopold S., and this time we had-what? No, not Q but the more important concept behind Q , which is multiple sound sources (x in number) distributed around the listening space. Will I ever forget, in the original production, the big choral number, Schubert's Ave Maria blown up to enormous size, spread out in enormous stereo, which then proceeded to flop back and forth, oscillating between the front and the back of the theatre! In those days it was an impressive sonic fantasy. I suspect that in recent re-playings, even with speakers in the rear, it has been modified. Nowadays that sort of thing sounds a bit corny.

Anyhow--you see that we had both of the fundamental types of stereo, the up-front kind and the surround or semi-surround kind, way back in the pre-war years. And you also see that the limitation to two channels or four channels did not exist; it was the placement of the available channels that counted.

It is still the same today, and will be as we expand into our destined future in living-room sound.

I must add one minor story, as of a week or so ago. That wealthy lady in my neighborhood who owns an estate in Antigua and another in France, plus a considerable hunk of my Connecticut home town, came up to my place one recent afternoon in her old clothes to give me a book she had found, my mother's writing as of 1932, and stayed on to talk once more about the vast stereo system her husband had installed in Antigua back around 1959-he's dead (leaving his millions) and she wants out. The trouble is, she says, every time she leaves Antigua those big speakers, all three of them, have to be hauled by truck into a special dry room, to avoid rot and mildew. She wanted my recommendation for three little speakers, to replace them.

Get my point? Three speakers, for stereo in 1959. Of course! In that year, with stereo discs just beginning, the whole idea of stereo was untrustworthy, not yet settled down, and people generally didn't like what they called "the hole in the middle," which was clearly-as we now see it-due to faulty procedures in recording, in phasing, even in listening to a new and unfamiliar medium.

So you bought yourself a third and essentially mono speaker as a kind of insurance, to blend the sides into the middle and so fill up the hole. This lady, now in 1977, still wants three speakers, to replace the original trio.

She hadn't heard about four.

I never fell for the center channel idea myself, though for a time it was even built into many amplifiers (and maybe still is), with a third set of output terminals to accommodate the extra speaker. I tried it, and quickly found that all I was doing was in fact diluting the very stereo I was trying to create with all that equipment. If there was an absence of sound in the middle, the answer was elsewhere and, most of all, it was in phasing-which at that time could be reversed in the darndest places. Not only your own pair of speakers (or between woofer and tweeter) but anywhere in dozens of points within the electronic equipment (they hadn't yet gotten used to the idea of phase continuity as between channels, now taken for granted) and even, occasionally in some records. I still have a few marked in grease pencil OUT OF PHASE! Also, to be sure, in terms of ping pong, which exaggerated channel separation in various crude ways, for greater sales impact. I can tell you, no center speaker ever cured a case of ping pong. All it could do was to make the ping-pong table a bit narrower.

Which you could do just as well by sliding your two speakers closer together.

Hard Experience

I will allow the abundant analogies between all this and our recent experiences with Q to fall where they may. So clear! The same has happened all over again but worse, since the surround type of sound was a very much unexplored concept in terms of the living room and few recording people or audio engineers really had much of a positive idea as to what would work out for useful listening.

We blundered, and argued, and we still blunder. It's a long road into pioneer territory, and in no way comfortable for such as record and hi fi dealers, we might add. But we have learned. As we did for up-front stereo. The new stereos to come, whatever their names, will be the better for it. And even the old stereo records, two-way or four-way, will sound better and better as we improve our knowledge of multiple-channel reproduction.

As I've said before, and even if Q as such remains on its flat face for some time to come, we have not dropped the idea of more-than-upfront, nor the idea of more-than-two.

Whether the shape of the sound is triangular, quadraphonicular or multi-polygonous, there will be a lot more of it coming up for the next batch of anniversaries.

(Source: Audio magazine, July 1977; Edward Tatnall Canby)

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