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A/B comparisons, hearing, judgment, and learning


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6/7/2000 3:49 PM
Mark Hammer
A/B comparisons, hearing, judgment, and learning
As always on such threads, everyone is correct about a few things.  
 
1) Can it take a while for people to detect subtle differences in sound corresponding to seemingly insignificant (or at least previously unconsidered) technical changes? Yes. Personally, I loathe (or rather my tongue dislikes) anything containing alchohol. All wine tastes like a waste of decent grape juice to me. Still, I have faith that good wine and beer-tasters have developed skills that allow them to make fine distinctions in vintages, grape/hop type, cask type, etc. Somewhere out there is a person whose ability to know if the bottle was brown or green glass in blindfold tests is absoutely uncanny. So, it CAN happen.  
 
2) People also have an uncanny ability to reach consensus on perceptual phenomena that are very ambiguous and difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish, especially as they spend more time on it and the social facilitation of one's perception accumulates ("Yeah, now I can hear/taste/smell/see it too"). It CAN happen.  
 
3) People who play or listen to amplified rock music have an uncanny tendency to lose their hearing. When I'm teaching first year university classes about how their hearing works, I'll often take a straw poll about who can hear the sound of a whining picture tube (i.e., the 15.75khz sound of a flyback transformer). Most can't. Part of this, no doubt, stems from improved technology, and the greater exposure to monitors that produce substantially higher-frequency versions of this whine (31khz+), but you still get TV's that whine in discernible ways. That most can not hear as high as just under 16khz is somewhat dismaying. Lord only knows what other dips there are in their hearing (I just shake my head in despair whenever I hear someone's headphones from the other end of the bus). Are there "golden ears" among us? Probably. Holger may well be one. Are their numbers declining or increasing? Declining, I suspect. We may not all work with heavy machinery anymore, but we've found lots of other hair-cell-destroying equipment to take the place of tractors and sewing machines. These days, it only takes 2 penlight batteries to inflict lifelong hearing loss.  
 
So, how does one synthesize all of this together into a coherent view or at least a summary? Let's try this. SOME types of amp modifications MAY provide different nuances, but these nuances are not robust, and will probably not be detectable by the majority of relevant equipment users. Where they ARE "detectable", the subtler the nuances, the greater the likelihood that it will be imagined as it is being "learned" by at least a fraction of those attempting to learn it. This does not discount the reality of some people's hearing, or the reality of the sonic difference. It also does not discount the realities of human hearing and human thinking.  
 
I think Holger's point about hearing loss (or "lead ears") being a blessing is bang on. Sometimes, it's nice not to obsess about the minutiae, simply because you can't detect them. Life would be so much easier with 3 colours of lipstick and 4 designs of car, but then what would everyone DO for a living?  
 
If you look back at the newspaper articles describing Edison's wax cylinders and wire recorders, you find that many writers found NO differences between real human voice and these reproduction technologies. Seems stupid to us today, but at the dawn of these technologies we were just impressed by the ACT of sound reproduction. As time went on, we started to notice differences between live sound and reproduced sound. At first we couldn't say HOW they were different, just that they WERE, and that we could distinguish live and reproduced with reasonably good accuracy in blindfold tests. As we delved further, we became able to DESCRIBE what was different, and as we could describe it more, we became able to control it more, and move to where we are today.  
 
So, notwithstanding the immense possibilities for false recognition of sonic differences, I would emphasize the fundamental importance of listening and listening tests as the primary means by which we are in a position to improve sound/music technology. I remember seeing a wonderful article in JAES in the late 70's or early 80's about what constituted a "fat" synthesized sound. Very systematic study, and very insightful conclusions (>3 but <7 sources of modulation make a sound fat), that depended on listening, describing, analyzing, and finally manipulating and testing.  
 
Be ready for the naysayers, Holger (and I may well BE one), but keep listening.
 
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6/7/2000 6:39 PM
jason

Well said Mark (as always), but I still think Holgers' "challenge" would have been better off left open to all instead of pointed at RG in an open forum like Ampage.  
After the the posts at Arons forum between RG and another prominent boutique pedal builder, it just seemed like he was poking fun ( I know you recall the thread I'm speaking of).  
jason
 
6/7/2000 10:12 PM
Carlo

quote:
"I still think Holgers' "challenge" would have been better off left open to all instead of pointed at RG in an open forum like Ampage."
 
 
Excellent point Jason.  
 
Carlo
 
6/7/2000 10:41 PM
Holger Notzel

I agree and apologize again to R.G. Holger
 
6/8/2000 3:59 PM
fet

Roughly 12 years ago I attended a concert by the great Joe Pass in a very small venue. He plugged his guitar into a buzzing Shure Vocal Master PA with column speakers. Crummy tone, brilliant solo jazz guitar playing.  
 
One would have thought that this internationally-acclaimed jazz star could have insisted that the promoter provide a quality amp or sound system. Apparently he didn't care. (Obviously there may have been extenuating circumstances.)  
 
Conclusion: you can be a musical genius and not give a damn about tone.
 
6/7/2000 6:37 PM
steveR
better test
Get one of those ultrasonic deer/rodent repellent devices, and see if it makes you cringe and run away whenever you get near it.  
 
My folks just put up one on these at their new house to keep deer from eating the roses, but sometimes I wonder if they put it up to keep me away. The damn thing drives me crazy! I have a hard time believing that *I* can hear this thing after a good ten years of playing loud music and my pop can't. It's either an age thing, or I'm just more used to actively listening.  
 
Nice roses though...  
 
I also have to say that I agree with the comment that changes or subtleties so fine it takes "attentive" listening to discern are somewhat moot if they don't inspire the player. Certainly the tonal qualities of an amp will affect the way it responds and the way the player responds to the instrument, but I think the line between sounding like ass and sounding great is not very fine. Changing a couple resistors is not going to turn dog doo into gold. (It was the MAJOR changes like MV and pull boost that made the SF Fenders really go downhill)  
 
What I think would be really impressive would be for someone, as an audience member, to be able to identify what type AND brand of tubes a guitar player has in the amp. Or better: comps vs. films.;)  
 
The only people who really need to have ears this detailed are recording engineers. And they still have to acknowledge the lo-fi undiscerning ear. My friend's studio does mostly foley work, but when they do record bands he's always got a pair of crappy car stereo speakers sitting on top of his Euphonics console to get the "real world" take on the mix.  
 
-s
 
6/7/2000 6:44 PM
jason

quote:
"The only people who really need to have ears this detailed are recording engineers. And they still have to acknowledge the lo-fi undiscerning ear. My friend's studio does mostly foley work, but when they do record bands he's always got a pair of crappy car stereo speakers sitting on top of his Euphonics console to get the "real world" take on the mix.  
"
We recorded our CD at Crackers studio and their engineer (also did the latest counting crows CD), kept swapping between the studio monitors and a boom box during the mix down, I thought that was pretty clever.  
jason
 

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