Monday, April 21, 2014

What about Great Music

When writing the title to this blog, I promised "Music". Yet, I have failed to individually address this subject thus far.
Illustration of Musical notes over a dark background
This is terrible. After all, it is music that has driven my love for acoustics and electronics all these years. My understanding of physics was no more than an aid.
And when it comes to music, nothing gets me more emotionally engaged, positively or negatively, than reproduced music. In short, I think that most recordings are garbage.
I first observed that much recorded music was terrible at an early stage in my professional career. While loving a given song, listening to it often left me feeling empty.
It wasn't until I visited the music industry's best known trade-show NAMM in LA that I understood why I was so empirically disappointed. NAMM is where the biggest names in the music industry get together.
I expected to catch a few impromptu jam sessions by some of the best musicians. While I certainly witnessed great energy and spontaneity, what surprised me most was the fact that ALL (and I mean ALL) the musicians and music directors were deaf. Apparently, hearing-loss is rampant among the music pro's. Everybody sported either one or two hearing aids.
I then realized that what we all hear is the interpretation of people who hear through the equivalent of an MP3 player (a Walkman at the time). No wonder so many recordings are poop.
But the problem does not end with recordings. Witnessing your favorite artist live is also painful and disappointing due to the many blown eardrums that manage EQ's and processors at all venues.
close up photo image of Sarah Brightman
I once went to listen to Sarah Brightman. That she is gorgeous and petite is only the beginning. She has demonstrated great singing abilities in everything from opera to Broadway. But all my excited came crumbling down as soon as the first musical notes started. The highs were reaping holes on the venue's sealing. For a minute I even thought that perhaps I was being too harsh on the great Diva's team. Perhaps I was being too picky. Nonetheless, my self doubts lasted only until intermission. Once the lights came back on and people could talk, every lady sitting near me made the same comment about the terribly bright sound. The kind of sound easily created by a sound engineer with deficient hearing extension at the top of the audible spectrum. It was a total shame.
But the problem goes beyond tonal. Most recordings also destroy three-dimensionality. It is this that bothers me most, since it is what connects us closer to the original presentation than any other aspect of music. Good tonality can make music pleasant, but it won't show us the artist in the original space and time.
Moreover, when critically evaluating any audio system, what helps me quickly identify problems is the sound's dimensional properties. Any time errors, any distortions, any phase misalignments, all result in poor and specific spacial artifacts. Spacial reproduction is just brutally honest.
It is thus unsurprising that my favorite recordings excel at creating great and realistic spaces. Here, there is no other musical label that matches Reference Recordings' ability to create impeccable orchestral renditions. Beyond simply offering floating three-dimensionality, R&R does so with large contemporary orchestra ensembles. Any label can take one guitar and make it seem right. But try doing the same with grandiose attacks with the most dynamic instruments covering all segments of the audible spectrum and you are God.
Incredibly, Reference recordings creates recording after recording of superb quality. Among the often intimidating crescendos, one is able to see each instrument in its own space. Every instrumental texture and character are preserved.
Keith Johnson with his GRAMMY
Photo from Stereophile Magazine
"Prof." Keith O. Johnson is the man behind the incredible reliability and performance these recordings achieve. That he created the fantastic HDCD tells a lot about him That the format was launched just as DVD's begun to surge obscured his achievements somewhat.
Do you like orchestra? How about Big Band? Any piano? There is a great HDCD recording for all of these. R&R sells music directly to music lovers at great prices. They also make fantastic samplers available. All come with the same impeccably encrypted music quality. Even if you do not have an HDCD capable disc player, you will still get the benefits from the technology. I have conducted dozens (if not more) of comparisons on HDCD that I am comfortable using it any time and without thinking about it. I know that I will listen to superb musicality and realism.
If you would like to test my claims, try one of their samplers. I am absolutely sure they will not let you down. Unlike brands like Telarc that offered much but often came in short, R&R has granted me thousands of hours of utterly uncompromising pleasure. I wish you the same!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Almost like School, but not Boring

Many think about going back to school. I never left. Few things give me more pleasure than the process of learning something new.
Back in 1990, I had a job working for one of the pioneers in inbound telemarketing. I took calls for everything from The Abdominizer to the famous Dial MTV Hotline where people from all across America called to vote for their favorite songs.
composite image of The Abdominizer TV commercial and Dial MTV Hotline TV promo.
The Abdominizer and Dial MTV television ads
But I spent most of my time taking calls from California residents asking if the products they were using were known to cause cancer. The program was one of those brilliant ideas by a California senator that sounded good when the bill was drafted but which created absolutely no response from consumers after the money was spent. I am not kidding, I often went a whole week without receiving a single call. Sitting there was pure and unadulterated death.
Image of The Loudspeaker Design Cookbook by Vance Dickason over a tile table
The Loudspeaker Design Cookbook
by Vance Dickason
I probably do not have to say that telemarketing companies are known for their brutal business practices. But just in case, I will. You would get fired on the spot if you remotely looked like falling asleep; no questions asked and no apologies give. Even covering your face with your hands while handling a call was risky. So, the last thing I wanted to do was to just sit there and provoke termination. Since it was totally boring not getting calls, I had to do something interesting.
That's when I thought of learning acoustics. Yes! Most would have preferred something easier. But not me. As I loved car audio, I thought this would help me get better results with my car.
I was already very good with physics and math. I had even taken advanced classes on structures. So I just needed to apply what I knew to the science of waves.
I got my hands on everything available. Let's remember that those where the days where Google was not even a dream. To look for information required real commitment and follow through. I borrowed any text books I could. I bought the fantastic The Loudspeaker Design Cookbook by Vance Dickason. This book is pretty much the bible for anything to do with the art and the science of speaker making.
Speaker Builder and
AudioXpress Magazines
I spent hundreds of hours working though the math calculations until I intuitively understood how woofers worked within an enclosure. This fantastic book also helped me see how crossover networks react to speakers. The knowledge that I received in this subject was fundamental to help me later understand equipment loads and concepts like characteristic impedance of a transmission lines.
I then subscribed to Speaker Builder Magazine by Audio Amateur. This magazine was just plain fun. It later changed its name to AudioXpress and begun to mix speaker and electronic articles.
This publication proved to be the creative fuel that supercharged all my future system designs. Audio engineers and enthusiasts everywhere would work in the craziest of ideas. Have you ever seen a plasma speaker? They are both incredibly good and scary. They also don't last any time at all. They rapidly wear out.
How about monstrous concrete horns? Would you build one? For Speaker Builder contributors, everything was possible.
In contrast, researching any subject today is quite easy. I recently wanted to understand quantum tunneling; the effect that makes fusion reaction in the Sun possible despite the relatively low temperatures it has. To gain this insight, I took a couple of books from the local library and viewed a few dozen articles and videos online. For anyone with the ability to use calculus, with a little bit of patience and with an open mind, a working understanding of the quantum principles is realistic. As quickly as one begins, one gains new knowledge now that every bit of information is so readily available. What a fantastic time to be alive!
I will end by sharing this great video of Williams College physics professor Protik Majumder. Since what I love about acoustics is the music side more than math, I thought that perhaps you too would want to view a presentation that connects the science with the art. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Failing in Business and a Very Special Comeback

Photo of 1991 Red Nissan Sentra owned by Alberto A Lopez for sound off competitions
Nebraska winters demanded
removal of all wheel hubcaps
to protect them from salt
What would you do after failing to build your small business ? I stood up and got to work. 
In my business blog I often discuss the benefits of allowing businesses the development of apprenticeship programs by removing the burden of a minimum wage. I argue that for workers without alternatives, working for a low wage is often the only way to get back on track. Of course that I speak from personal experience.
Photo of the inside of the truck in Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
Competitors used to make fun of
having an Audio Control Epicenter
while lacking any level of SPL
After failing with my small car audio shop in 1991, Inphase hired me for what could be called exploitative wages by those in government. But even to this day, I am still thankful that they did. They granted me the stage to build a come back.
Photo of the interior of Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
Cavalier Z-24 fabric used instead of
the cheesy Nissan factory plastic
While employed at Inphase, they allowed me shop time at night to work on my own car. After having experienced great initial success in competition the year before, I was ready to go all the way. This was especially true considering that at the 1991 IASCA finals in Oklahoma City, we did not receive a couple of our well deserved trophies due to mathematical score miscalculations. By the time the trophies made their way to us, several months had passed and the trophies were in terrible shape. We were denied the right to enjoy the winning circle in front of our peers.
Photo of the dash in Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
Even the Denon CD player looked
like it had been installed by Nissan.
I worked hard to build my Sentra for the 1992 Masters in Georgia but ended up finishing the install very late. While the fabrications were by far the best I had created up to that time, we faced driving none stop from Nebraska to Georgia. I did not sleep for six days trying to finish the car and to make it there. On the way there, I lost control of the pulling vehicle and trailer while driving down hill in Tennessee. After spinning, the trailer's axle broke and the car was damaged under the passenger door. Despite the bad luck, we abandoned the trailer and drove both vehicles the rest of the way.
Photo of the passive crossovers inside the front seats in Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
Front seat mounted crossover
networks basfled more than one.
After arriving, everyone was very impressed with the install. For the first time, a car displayed extensive passive crossover networks inside the front seats. Also noteworthy was the fact that the thin Nissan doors hosted 9" woofers while still allowing the windows to roll up and down. Finally, this was also the first time that someone was using the massive 9 Lbs Cabasse tweeters in a car.
Photo of the main speakers inside Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
For midbass, a ceramic 9" woofer.
For mids, a unique 4" driver with phase
plug and inverted surround. For highs,
a massive Cabasse tweeter.
But bad luck was to continue. While going through the RTA, the vehicle's curve would not go up to the reference level and the RTA judge refused to reduce the equipment's level; despite the fact that the rules clearly allowed for it. At Masters, the judges were so stressed out that they simply pushed everybody through. My RTA was very good, just not loud enough. Had they moved the window down three dB's the whole curve would had displayed complete while also scoring as good as the best. But with half of the curve outside of the window, the point deductions were simply too big.
Photo of the driver door of Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
While nicer that the cheap plastic
factory door panels, these still
looked Nissan approved.
My scores for sound and install were exceptional. But not enough to compensate for the low RTA. I placed well in my class but just missed going to Sunday for the big money show.
Nonetheless, it was all a dream to me. Those days were the funnest of my Audio career. I loved working very hard even when outcomes were not as good as they could be.
Photo of the rear deck's passive crossover network in Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
Passives, passives and more passives.
Even the rear deck had to showcase
a few of the network components
After coming back from Masters, I took a few pictures of my car (see all the pictures in this post) and sent them to Car Audio Magazine, at the time it was the best periodical in the world. To my surprise, the magazine accepted to feature the car in the prestigious Installations section; a fact that made me feel like walking on air.
Photo of the system diagram under the truck lid in Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
Trunk lid mounted volt meter
and system diagram
Later I would go on to much greater things. I built one of the most successful competition teams in the US.

We got to the point that we were getting so many trophies that we had no place where to put them all. In fact, Inphase and Stereo West still have all of mine. While doing car audio, I also went back to school; something that has taken me to great places around the world.
Photo of the passive network diagram under the truck lid in Alberto A Lopez's 1991 Red NIssan Sentra
I love passive crossovers. At the
time, I tuned all of them by ear. This
is the diagram showing the
many components used
But no future success ever compared to how great it was to be naively in love with Audio. I was happy to be given a chance. I am thus perpetually indebted to Dave Eary at Inphase for his trust.

Thanks to the many great moments the sport gave me, I feel to be a lucky man.