To Be Or Not To Be

So, I've been asked recently why I don't design home stereos, audiophile equipment, or home theater audio systems. I can give you several brief answers.

Firstly, it's a straightforward business decision because of the tax and business regulatory environment in the United States, I would not be able to offer home stereos of the quality I would be satisfied with and be able to make enough money to stay in business.

Secondly, in all candor, designing home theater and audiophile stereo equipment isn't enough of a challenge to be of any interest to me. It's just too easy, especially when compared to the studio and music instrument equipment I am designing and building. Recording studio equipment has to handle extremely wide dynamic range signals while maintaining extreme clarity and high reliability. Music instrument equipment also has to handle signal levels and operating stresses that would damage or destroy any home stereo or audiophile system. Home stereos, home theater audio systems, and audiophile stereos handle only signals that have limited dynamic range because of the compression and peak limiting inherent to commercial recordings and movie soundtracks. Therefore, those systems are easy, straightforward design projects.

Thirdly, my professional experience for more than thirty years has been studio, sound reinforcement and music instrument equipment. It's a stable market where a good design can sell for decades yet still be highly regarded as excellent, modern, and even necessary; a truly well-engineered design can adapt to changing needs and trends, ensuring near-immortality for the product. That's something I enjoy and have enough experience to do intuitively. Home audio (in all its flavors) flows from fad to fad, style to style. It’s a treadmill of the never-ending pursuit of The Next Big "Must Have" Product. Nothing lasts long, and today’s greatest product is quickly perceived as "yesterday's news" by the market. At least, until decades after the product leaves the market. Then it attains legendary status, and buyers eagerly scour the market for used derelicts to restore, tweak and brag about owning. By then it no longer matters to the company who made the product. The ephemerality of home stereo means that the time spent designing the product will receive scant return.

Fourthly, I have no problem selling professional audio and music instrument products to those who understand audio, or at least can appreciate fine quality sound. Good engineering, explained clearly and succinctly, with short demonstrations of the product's sound are enough to achieve sales success. Not so with home audio. The first things that all-too-many prospective buyers seek when they examine your product are technical trivia: brand of capacitors, the kid of wire, whether resistor leads have steel content, and the use or absence of feedback circuits. Next, they look at the equipment's dress components, and read whether your sound is "fast" or is "kinder and more polite" than another brands. Oh, yes, don't forget the ability to reproduce bass "with authority, pace and timing" and the "liquid midrange."

Bloviation, reinforced by dubious scientific and technical claims, must be liberally indulged in to be able to compete. Failing that, cloning some older design also seems to be a key to success in home audio. I'm sorry, but the audiophile equipment sales climate that has arisen in recent years just isn't for me. I'm not interested in writing the pseudoscientific jargon and flowery prose expected of audiophile equipment advertisers, and I don't make other people's amplifier designs. I don't look to other designers for my success and I don't write science fiction. I have spent my life perfecting my own designs, and I want them to succeed on their own merit, not because I've used silver wire, some trendy capacitors and a pretty cabinet.

Nevertheless, on occasion when I am asked to build a home stereo or home theater system, I will agree to do it. Then, I adapt my professional audio designs to the situation. The result is superb sound, bloviation free.

Getting The Most From a Digital Camera

Now that I've had my Pentax K-x DSLR for a few months, I've finally found how to get rid the most from its excellent imaging capabilities. Instead of writing a longwinded treatise, here are a few brief ideas that may help you get the most from your digital camera:

1. Delve into the settings, and tweak everything that affects color accuracy and overall photo quality, like White Balance, Image Mode, Metering Mode, Autofocus Target Select and so on.

2. Shoot in RAW format, DNG type, then import your photographs into Photoshop or another good editing software.

3. Shoot at the lowest ISO setting possible.

4. Support the camera whenever possible, with a tripod, monopod, or up against a wall or other solid surface.

5. Don't shoot auto-everything all the time.

6. Try manual exposure; my Pentax is at its best with manual exposure. Use the camera's exposure histogram instead of the meter or viewfinder LCD to judge when exposure is accurate.

7. Try manual focus and different combinations of shutter speed and aperture for creative effects. Wide apertures let you separate a subject from a cluttered or distracting background. Small apertures throw everything into sharp focus. Slow shutter speeds can create dramatic blurred or flowing motion effects; fast shutter speeds can freeze motion.

8. Use optical filters instead of in-camera digital image filters or software effects. For example, I get the best outdoor color when I set the camera's white balance to Tungsten then place an 85B filter over the lens. This creates a rich, Hollywood Technicolor movie look to photographs.

9. Remember: the more you control, the better the photographs. Don't let the camera be the photographer and you just a "camera-aimer." No camera's automation can be as good as what you can achieve with practice.

10. Take a break from your digital camera and shoot a good film camera to keep your perspective fresh and to give you a good comparison of what you should expect your digital camera to do.

A Different Approach To Amplifier Design Philosophy

I've been asked what is my design philosophy when I design an amplifier. The person asking me had just read the following quote from a designer of trendy audiophile amplifiers, "If I were to make an amplifier with nothing but premium audiophile components, there is no guarantee that the amp will sound good. It is more important to select components by listening so that as a whole, the amplifier plays music better. The most important thing is to achieve a total musical balance." The person who wrote me thought the quote was nonsensical, so I won't embarrass the author by giving his name.

Well, basically, I begin the design process by assuming that the components available to build the amplifier are mediocre at best, and possibly of poor quality. Next I define what the amplifier will do, who will be buying the amplifier, how the owner wants the amplifier to sound like, and how the amplifier will be used. From that, I determine what features the amplifier needs to do its job, and what specifications the amplifier must satisfy to achieve success. Note that I regard specifications as a starting point and not an end to themselves. The customer's ear is the final arbiter in any design dispute.

Next, I begin the process of designing the amplifier, then I construct a breadboard prototype using the cheapest components possible that allow the amplifier to function. At this point I keep refining and adjusting the design until it achieves the design criteria and meets the minimum specifications established for the amplifier. Finally, I begin substituting better quality components and premium quality components, re-measuring the amplifier and listening to the changes. If the substituted components improves the amplifier I keep it, otherwise I return to the original component used in the prototype.

At last, I now have an amplifier that sounds superb yet can still sound very good with cheap parts. This eases emergency repairs, and ensures the amplifier will always sound superb because it doesn't rely on a specific premium component to achieve its excellence. Any premium component will work satisfactorily.

Why do I take this approach? Because I believe that 90% of any amplifier's quality comes from the skill, patience and diligence of its designer; 5% comes from its output transformer, 4% from its tube quality, and 1% from capacitors, switches, resistors and 0.001% from wire.

Installing a superb output transformer eases the process of designing a fine amplifier, and makes for nice ads, but an excellent designer can achieve superlative sound from an output transformer that most would consider inferior. Think about it: most of the classic tube amps from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have an output transformer that most "designers" today would consider to be rubbish, yet those amps sound wonderful. I'll go out on a limb here and assert that any designer who "needs" a high quality output transformer or other premium to achieve a great amplifier is either lazy (and doesn't want to spend the time to refine the design to its ultimate realization), is desiring to have an impressive advertisement, or is a second rate designer.

So why do we fret over frets?

One question I receive often is how do I calculate where each fret is placed on a guitar's fingerboard. Easy, sort of. A stringed instrument's fret positions are calculated based on equations for vibrating strings written by Hermann von Helmholtz, all of which can be simplified into an equation called "the rule of 18": (Scale Length minus Offset Distance to the previous adjacent fret) divided by 18. [for Pythagorean scale.] This equation is further modified by Johann Sebastian Bach's compensation for equal temperament, resulting in: (Scale Length minus Offset Distance to the previous adjacent fret) divided by 17.817.

The calculations are done successively for each fret. This places the 12th fret (which divides the pitch by one octave) at exactly half the scale length. From Helmholtz's derivatives, we find that halving the length of a theoretically perfect vibrating string doubles the period of the vibration (doubles the frequency, or raises pitch by one octave).

In practice, because of the limitations of practical wood fabrication tolerances and the differences between the gut strings used centuries ago and the nylon or steel strings used today, the guitar's bridge saddle is moved so that the actual scale length is slightly longer than the calculated length. Finally, the exact distance added for compensation is empirically found by tuning each string, checking to see if the 12th fret pitch is one octave higher, then moving the saddle again until the 12 fret pitch equals a one octave pitch increase. This tedious process is called "intonation" and is the final step in crafting a fine quality guitar.

After intonation is complete, the guitarist can play the instrument in tune and in any scale without the need to transpose, limit chord changes during progressions or retune the instrument for certain songs.

By the way, the term "equal temperament" refers to today's common musical scale that divides an octave into equal intervals; for modern Western music, this division is 12 equal semitones. With the equal tempered scale musicians can easily transpose the music's key up or down without changing any of the musical intervals.

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