Monday, December 23, 2013

AUDIOPHILE

[Another piece of ancient fiction.]

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

A difficult and wonderfully expensive operation. The components were selected from the finest manufacturers in the world. Custom designed and hand assembled by the most talented engineers in the industry. An incredibly skilled European surgeon/audiologist performed the operation, using only Swiss-crafted, 24 carat, 60 mil gold-plated, phosphor-bronze surgical instruments.

A platinum stimulation-probe was gold welded to 24 carat Litz cable. The resin-encapsulated, "HP" designed, LSI circuitry and the gold subminature breakaway multi-connector were positioned on the skullcap with a selected hardwood suspension and cover panel. The operation took twenty-two hours, cost a workingman's lifetime earnings, and was the absolute latest in high-fidelity equipment.

Delmar DeVeau awoke with a loud buzzing demanding his attention. The noise was deafening, but it didn't mask the softer sounds of the hospital: the footsteps passing in the hall, shuffling cotton uniforms, voices in neighboring rooms, and the dissonant clanking of hospital paraphernalia.

Before he regained control of his senses the door clicked, swung open, and a vast white sheet, with a grinning bald head and butterfly ears at the flush- pink summit, burst into the room.

"How...Is...My...System? Are you feeling pain?" Delmar barely identified his surgeon, Dr. Danl Vorst, before the doctor had whipped out his otoscope, placed the heel of his hand on Delmar's left cheek, pushed his face away into the bed, and poked the scope into his ear. Delmar felt pain. Then, grabbing Delmar by the nose, the doctor turned his head back facing the door. Forcing Delmar's right eye into the bed, still gripping his nose, Vorst screwed the otoscope's tip into his left ear. All through this "examination" the doctor hovered about Delmar's head making nervous bird-like movements, happily bobbing his head from side to side, and keeping up a broken-English interrogation that exceeded Delmar's mental response time.

"I can see nothing in your ears. I didn't do anything to them." He removed the scope and tucked it into a pocket, but kept hold of Delmar's nose. "How do you feel? Ears buzzing? Of course they aren't, but brain is. Antibodies getting at my little poker, but they'll give up, soon. I think. We made a success, yes? Good operation, good fun. You have a nice head."

Thirty seconds after he entered the room, Vorst spun around and bubbled his way toward the door, "good-bye. I must be in city tonight. Speaking to your Audio Engineering Society. You are going to be famous, maybe. Me too, certainly." Delmar crawled across the bed and into space, levitating himself above the bone-white tile floor to keep the tension on his nose as low as possible. When the doctor absent-mindedly released his grip, Delmar scrambled, hands on the floor, knees on the bed, with the blood rushing to his head nearly forcing him to blackout. After surviving the trip back onto his mattress, he began to wonder at the doctor's comments. Was he the first? The first to have this equipment? The article he had read led him to believe the operation had been first performed successfully in England. Maybe he misunderstood.

Before a single syllable reached Delmar's lips, Vorst had flown from the room, into the hall, and out of his life. Delmar would have liked to ask how long the skull-thunder would last. He would have loved knowing how soon he could use his implant. He wanted Vorst to sign a copy of his book "The Ultimate Entertainment." And he desperately needed a bedpan. He gently massaged his nose and let his small, pudgy body fall back onto an industrial-strength pillow. He wondered if some surgical utensil might still be embedded in his brain.

On closer examination, he discovered the drums in his cranium couldn't be localized. Seeming to come from an unidentifiable source that surrounded him, the source of the thunder couldn't be located by using his ears' directional abilities. The more aware he became, the more the noise seemed to beat at him.

Soon, another medical character arrived. "Doctor Harsh, present. I seconded Dr. Vorst and will be here, for you, during your recovery. Anything I can do for you? Within reason, of course."

"Please, my head is pounding. No one told me it would be painful and I don't think it's letting up." The doctor gave him a disgusted eye-rolling and Delmar stopped whimpering. With a valiant effort, he pulled himself together. Passing a hand over his bandaged head and down across his face, in a drawn curtain motion, he eased the corners of his mouth upward, and pasted a brave look on his chin-less, dimpled, round visage.

After he was certain he wouldn't have to put up with more whining, Harsh tried to look a little sympathetic. "Sorry about that. Nothing for it, though, but wait it out. Some antibiotics might speed things up, I suppose. Tell you what, I'll give you some. Don't go 'way. I'll be right back." As he marched out the door and down the hall, Delmar heard him muttering something about "rich wimps."

"Do you suppose I could have a bedpan?" Delmar called out, hopefully. And he thought, "I am very lucky that nothing went wrong in surgery. Hate to have that spiteful space-case fooling around in my head."

The operation; Auditory Neurological By-pass. By-pass; that might explain how I can still hear, even while this din is thumping in my skull. External and internal signal sources must run in parallel. Simultaneously interpreted, processed, and deciphered. I can listen to my music and to a gentle stream.

A nurse arrived with a bedpan and frosted his posterior on its rim. He savored his first gentle stream/thundering brain experience. A little later, Harsh appeared with a hypo. In a few moments, Delmar's head stopped rattling and he slept.

The next day, Delmar was wheeled to a lab, where he was put through a series of experiments that verified the position and function of his implant. Sine, square, pulse, and complex waves were pumped into his head, through the little jack in his skull, until he felt like a radio station antenna. The buzzing had subsided and an agreeable silence, punctuated by the test tones, returned.

Three days after the operation, Delmar went home. After dumping his hospital stuff in the hall, he went straight to the study, closed the door, pulled the shades, positioned the acoustic panels covering the door and windows, cleaned his favorite stylus, positioned a disk on the turntable, strung the cable from his pre-amp to his listening chair, lowered the tone arm to the record, and scampered back to the chair. He carefully inserted the interface plug to his skull connector, leaned back, closed his eyes, and listened.

Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" oboe, clarinet, and French horn introduction appeared, surrounding him. Although the disk pops, clicks, and hiss detracted from the effect, Delmar felt like a musician. In the middle of a great orchestra, without the distraction of having to control an instrument. A wonderful and perfect experience.

He couldn't wait for his favorite movement and he leapt to his feet, rushed toward the turntable to skip ahead to the "Corte'ge du sage." The power of the orchestra would be incredible. He could hardly wait to hear the low- frequency response.

In his haste he forgot about the trailing cable and stepped on it, jerking the plug from his head. The music stopped and the pain began. The connector was quick release, just for this type of incident, but it still yanked at the healing scar tissue and mounting screws and bone. Delmar yelped and reached for the offending spot on his head. It was not bleeding, but hurt too much to immediately re-install the connector.

He spent the evening polishing, adjusting, and attempting to listen to his old equipment. The speakers, tall towers of rosewood and acoustic foam, sounded flat and lifeless after the brief experience with the implant. He barely heard their output as he oiled the wood. His equipment cabinet contained the finest apparatus available, at any price. The cheapest piece in his collection would equal the complete sound system investment for a normal music lover.

His taste in music was equally marvelous. He owned a collection of the finest recordings known to the modern world. A few technically imperfect oddities sprinkled his section of the hoard, but even those were esoteric items selected to impress discerning guests. His collection was cataloged, sorted, individually protected by eighth-inch Plexiglas sleeves, and treated by liquids and pastes designed by the finest alchemists in audio.

His ex-wife had not shared his highly tuned sensibilities and a few hundred "pop" records gathered dust at the far end of his record stacks. She left him for a Country & Western guitarist named Willy Joe. Willy Joe had recorded her collection of "music" on a few "music chips" and convinced her that she had no more use for vinyl "fizz-bees." As the lady exited, she voiced the hope that she would never see another obsolete vinyl object. Spitefully, she left Delmar with the records he had bought for her and the even more disgusting collection of "music" she purchased for herself. These oddities were ignored and un- alphabetized. Delmar often considered removing them from sight but they always reminded him of the pain of her loss and the humiliation he had suffered at not being able to convert his own wife into a "true believer." If he ever considered marriage again, Delmar vowed to closely examine the next woman for any sign of poor taste.

Delmar was among the last ten-thousand of the world's digital holdouts. "Music cannot be cut up into ones and zeros and pieced together like a patchwork quilt," he proudly lectured to the diminishing band of analog reproduction advocates, tube electronics enthusiasts, and "Voice of His Master" gramophone fanatics. Delmar was fond of "preaching to the choir." And it was a good thing, since they were the only listeners available; the rest of the world being solidly plugged into, and deafened by, the latest digital technology. Delmar endured the noise and limited lifetime of his vinyl records with confidence. Time would prove him right. No one Delmar respected could tolerate "digits." And what do musicians or recording engineers know about High Fidelity? No gold in those ears. Just listen to the rubbish they record these days! And the way they record it!

But Delmar was not a tightwad. He regularly trotted his wallet down to the local audiophile establishments and purchased the latest in pre-amplifiers, power amplifiers, precious-metal cabling, loudspeakers, and analog reproduction equipment. The latest fad in audiophile technology would always attract Delmar's dollars. He probably would have bought the latest in digital equipment if the "ones and zeros" argument didn't have such a fine ring to it. Delmar loved and treasured his equipment and the justifications that he supported his purchases with.

The following afternoon, he tried his implant again, carefully avoiding quick movements.

Every musical example played back flawlessly. Orchestras, chamber music, jazz, avant-garde. Reproduced as perfectly as the recording medium and original engineering could allow. He skipped from track to track, playing his favorite passages, testing the performance of his new toy under every possible condition. Highs...Lows...Midrange...Quiet... Deafening. Perfect performance. Just like a concert hall. Even better, because he could "listen" at any volume level and for as long as he liked without fatigue.

Who can I show this off to? It's perfect, except for the normally mediocre record engineering, of course. I can hear every detail, every nuance, every player's breath, every screw-up. Feel the room ambience. I'm there, with the musicians.

He called the only person who might appreciate his triumph, Lenoy Robin. A close friend, a fellow audiophile, a neighbor. Using the phone in his study, he raved about his new implant, promised an experience beyond wildest dreams, and told Lenoy to show himself in without ringing. Delmar would be in the study.

Lenoy rushed right over. He found Delmar, by the turntable, happily popping record after record, track after track, on the platter. Although the only sound in the room hissed from an air-conditioning duct, Delmar seemed to be enchanted by the mere sight of spinning disks.

Delmar saw Lenoy, out of the corner of his eye, at the same time Delmar found the 1812 Overture cannons. "Listen to this. Isn't it incredible?" Delmar waved his arms in mushrooming figures, making goofy explosion-like noises, and singing the climax.

"Incredible, it is. What in heaven's name are you doing?" As he spoke, Lenoy noticed the small cable trailing up Delmar's back, into his hair. "Headphones?" he asked.

Delmar stopped short, mid-wave, mid-explosion. Reality hit him like a Tchaikovsky cannon shell. Lenoy couldn't hear his implant. No one could hear it, but himself. A one hundred and some odd thousand dollar, spectacular beyond belief, perfect beyond compare, sound system that only he, Delmar, could enjoy.

What will I do with this mess in my head now?

He slumped into his favorite listening chair, which he had drawn close to the turntable to avoid accidents, and collapsed into despair.

"Do you need a doctor?" Lenoy asked.

"I had one," said Delmar. "You wouldn't believe what I've done." Delmar explained the operation, told the fantastic tale of the marvelous sound in his head, and demonstrated the plug in his skull. At least the selected hardwood could be seen and touched, if you were careful not to touch too vigorously. Lenoy was impressed with the hand-oiled hardwood and the gold connector, but Delmar couldn't share the sound quality with his friend.

After Lenoy left, Delmar tried listening to his old speaker system. Compared to his implant, the speakers sounded awful, but at least his friends could hear it.

He plugged himself back into the preamp and was again transported into the orchestra. Damned if I do. Damned if I don't.

For the first time since he had owned the record, he listened to the entire "Firebird." A wonderful recording. It was a pretty good tune, too. In a twenty hour session, he listened to every record in his collection.

He sat bleary-eyed in the rubble of his hoard and contemplated the results. Finally, after considering all the alternatives, Delmar placed an ad in the local newspaper, "Top-of-the-line component stereo system for sale. No reasonable offer refused. Owner has become hearing-impaired." Delmar's life as an audio equipment hobbyist was over.

Delmar bought a portable chip player and plugged it directly into his implant. He carries the player in a shirt pocket and fills his other pockets with chips. He is never without music and every step of his life is scored with a personal soundtrack. Delmar has become an enthusiastic freelance music critic and is learning to play the piano and bagpipes.

Doctor Danl Vorst delivered his speech to the American Audio Engineering Society describing the technical characteristics of his implant equipment. Initially, the AES was impressed and supportive of Dr. Vorst's achievement. After the results of Vorst's following operations were evaluated, the AES withdrew its endorsement. The Pacific Rim Industrial Council (PRIC), joined by nearly every audio equipment magazine, denounced the implant technology as dangerous and destabilizing to the world's economy. Doctor Vorst voluntarily suppressed the details of his technique and returned to research in Denmark. Doctor Vorst is attempting to locate the brain's sensor input for visual information. Donations from PRIC are funding his research.

Doctor Harsh disassociated himself from Doctor Vorst and opened a lucrative gynecological practice in Irvine, California. He is campaigning for an important state office with the support of the Southern California Republican political machine. Lenoy Robin bought Delmar's old high fidelity equipment and has spent the following years cleaning records and connectors. Lenoy may have found the perfect spot in his living room for the speakers. When everything is just right, Lenoy believes his equipment reproduces the dynamic sound of a large steel door being closed in a reverberant room. He will play this recording over and over for his friends until they agree with his analysis.

The End

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.