Bill Burton has been involved in the mobile music reproduction industry for quite some time. Many of us have enjoyed his work in Car Audio and Electronics during the past seven years. Very recently, Bill and quite a few others have chosen to join Car Stereo Review. Bill was my roommate at the Mobile Electronics Show (MES) in Atlanta in April of 1997 and i felt it would be perfect to be the first one to interview him since his recent transition from one magazine to another.
Steven Rochlin: So Bill, what initially got you interested in car audio?
Bill Burton: I can blame a guy named Thorpe Loeffler. His stepfather, Ed Clinkscale, taught music at the University of California at Riverside. He also owned a nice home audio system and a Lotus Elan. Thorpe and his stepfather were into cars, racing, and audio. Because of this i subscribed to Stereo Review and a bunch of audio magazines. That's what started the whole thing.
SR: How did you start professionally in this industry?
BB: There was an opportunity for me to join Stereo Review which I did in March of 1983.
SR: And what did you do there?
BB: At that time my position was directory editor. I was in charge of the Stereo Review Buyers' Guide and the tape recording buyers guide. I also had a position as associate editor at Stereo Review where I did things like the new products column and helped out in the technical department.
SR: That must have really given you a good background as to all the new technology coming out at the time.
BB: Yes. While working previously with a magazine called Leisure Time Electronics I was the reporter who got the scoops on compact disc hardware and software. We were the first to announce the compact disc for the U.S. This was during the 1983 Winter Consumer Electronics Show.
SR: That was in 1982 or so, right?
BB: 1982-1983. The Sony CD101 was announced at the Tokyo Audio Fair on October 1, 1982. January 1983 was when CD hardware was announced for the U.S. We typed it all out on IBM Selectric typewriters (laughs) and had it printed in the middle of the night from an all night printer!
SR: As time fast forwarded, you got your first car. What was it?
BB: A Honda CRX.
SR: And with your new pride and joy, how long until you put in your first higher quality audio system?
BB: About a year.
SR: And what was that system?
BB: A Soundstream TC308 head unit, an AudioControl Epicenter, the MTX RTX-03 crossover, KEF speakers up front, Canton separates in the back, and a Linear Power 5002 servo subwoofer system.
SR: That's a nice first system!
BB: It was very pleasant.
SR: This was when car audio was in its infancy. How do you feel about the progress that's been made?
BB: More people know more stuff. More car sound better due to a better variety of equipment. Different people have different goals. Some people have a goal of duplicating the sound of a live concert and some have a goal of vibrating their body at certain frequency at certain amplitude.
SR: As technology has also affected the mobile audio field such as 24 bit processing, 1/3 octave equalizers, the Sony XES system, DTS, etc, do you feel these technologies will improve the sound quality of mobile music reproduction.
BB: 24 bit is better then 16 bit. I'm not sure if it's sufficiently better to perceptibly improve sound quality. I hope so. 16 bit can be wonderful so it's not the weakest link. I think 1/3 octave equalization is great. DTS... I think multichannel is good. Two channels are better then one, three channels are better then two, and more is sometimes better. You CAN get worse sound out of a 24 channel system then out of a one channel system. I'd rather have mono done right then multichannel done badly. Given the choice of mono done right versus multichannel done right I think multichannel done right would be best.
SR: Well, here we are as sound quality judges for the 1997 MES. i'm a big believer of going to live acoustic concerts to keep my ears 'tuned' for higher sound quality. What do you regularly do to keep your ears 'tuned'.
BB: I attend many of the concerts of the Riverside Master Chorale and performances of chamber music. I used to go to a lot of rock concerts---Genesis, Yes, the Stones, Zeppelin, Zappa, Black Sabbath, Bowie, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Fripp on his own, Steve Hackett, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads, etc.----but electric music usually sounds better on CD than live. I think it's very important to go to live acoustic concerts. If you're judging a television, it's important to know the original. If you're judging the quality of the reproduction, you should know what the original is like. Yes, it's important to go to live acoustic concerts so you can judge how well a sound system reproduces sound. The more you know original sound the better you can judge reproduced sound. What I usually use first is a recording I have of a man talking. I hear a lot of men talking (both of us laughing). Just as you might adjust a television with a human face on it, it might be good to adjust a sound system by how it reproduces voice. There is nothing about the human voice that is hard to reproduce. It doesn't go low or high in frequency especially.
SR: That's a great idea!
BB: I find a male voice particularly useful because many systems exaggerate frequencies between 80-120 Hz. A male voice has a woofer in the chest, a midrange in the throat, and create sounds that a tweeter reproduces with the lips (as Bill smacks his lips as an example of this). There's a fairly broad and important frequency range in the male voice. I use a recording of John Gielgud reading one of the works of Oscar Wilde called "The Happy Prince". It's an Ambisonics recording on Nimbus. It was recorded in a ballroom and it has a slightly exaggerated midbass because of proximity effect, though it is useful for judging quite a bit about a music reproduction system.
SR: Which brings up something i find seems to elude many systems. That is, reproducing the crucial harmonics/spectral balance correctly in a reproduction system.
BB: I think spectral balance is important. Getting the proper amplitude of the fundamental compared to the amplitude of the harmonics is vital. When i listen to the John Gielgud recording I may notice he may sound too spitty on some systems. On many systems his chest resonances are exaggerated which makes his recording sound like he's in a barrel instead of a ballroom.
SR: For me, if i had the choice between proper harmonic or, say, better soundstaging, i'd go for better harmonic structure. Would you agree?
BB: Yes. For me, having proper spectral balance on a recording is like having proper color balance on a television. Some people set their TVs with the color level really high and the tint set to exaggerate the reds. That's not uncommon. In audio, sometimes it has too much bass. In audio the bass control is sometimes used as a volume control. If I want more impact, more effect, more power out of a system I tend to use the volume control and turn up everything. Some people use the bass control and that's their right. If you're trying to reproduce music accurately or realistically, which are two different goals, turning up the bass isn't always the way to get that.
SR: You and i have discussed the differences between accuracy and realism before. How would you define each one?
BB: Accuracy is faithfulness fidelity to the source. Shall we assume the source is a two channel (stereo) recording?
BB: If you have an accurate reproduction of that is to have the pressure change at the left eardrum to a perfect analog of the left channel. The eardrum of the right ear moving to a perfect analog of the waveform in the right channel. That's accurate reproduction. Realism is to play a recording of a performance of anything and it sounds real. Two channels are not sufficient for realism. They are sufficient for accuracy.
SR: How many channels are a minimum for realism?
BB: It's hard to know where to slice it. In my car I chose to put speakers in the rear to reproduce sounds imitating what would come off the side and back walls at a live acoustic concert.
SR: So you have two channel in the front of your car and two in the rear. What type of processing do you feel help to make a system sound realistic?
BB: Let's look at how sound from the rear is different than sound from the front. In a typical concert environment:
A) the sounds from the rear arrive later
B) the sounds from the rear arrive with fewer high frequencies
Many concert halls have a first order roll-off starting anywhere from three kilohertz to six kilohertz. Now to do that electronically you have to consider the acoustic effect of the roll-off. In a concert hall there are natural roll-offs due to the length the sound travels, then bouncing off the walls which then arrive at your ears. Because in a car you don't have natural roll-off due to the speaker being so close to the ear, I've found that by starting at around three kilohertz with a first-order roll-off pretty much sounds good to me. It gets enough highs out of the rear as would happen in a real space. I also delay the rear signal anywhere from 0ms. to 400 milliseconds. 400 milliseconds is a very long time. If you have a 'dry' recording like the news, the 400 milliseconds delay doesn't blend. Though with music it might blend wonderfully. Joel Cohen deserves the credit for tuning me into this.
SR: i'm going to change gears here and, well, recently there has been much talk about you now joining Car Stereo Review.
SR: How do you feel about this new change?
BB: I'm very proud to be part of the Car Stereo Review team. I'm very proud to be working with Mike Mettler, Chuck Tannert, Scott Sullivan, Ken Pohlmann, Doug Newcomb, Dan Kumin, Tom Nousaine and to be back in the Stereo Review family where I was very happy from 1983 to 1988.
SR: What is your new position with Car Stereo Review?
BB: My title is technical director. I'll be working on technical content, test reports, doing technical editing and a Q&A column starting in the October issue--CSR is increasing frequency to ten times a year, you know. I'd like to see technical questions that are fun, thought-provoking, unusual, and philosophical, not just the typical 'My system has alternator whine. How do I get rid of it?'
SR: Will we still be seeing more of your articles like we did in Car Audio and Electronics?
BB: If I have the time, yes. I'll be busy getting product for the magazine and making sure they have the best possible products to tests. I'll also make sure the tests are up to the impeccable standards of Car Stereo Review.
SR: Any closing comments Bill?
BB: The car stereo industry has made great improvements in past years, but we still have a long way to go. Sound-off competitions have taught many people about the goals of sound reproduction, but the rules of all organizations are still crude. There is room for tremendous improvement. For example, current IASCA rules score placement TWICE, but distortion is not scored at all. The IASCA disc is not coordinated with the rules--to score ``imaging,'' which IASCA interprets as BOTH focus and placement, the scores of two judges are averaged for five locations after they have heard one track with three people and one track with seven drum beats. Incredible. Sound-off judging is wildly inconsistent. Current RTA rules are ridiculous. They should be revised to widen the window for winning full points, and analyzers should be used to score distortion as well as spectral balance. Simpler rules and more judges training will help. System design can improve when people do these things:
1. Put speakers where they want the images to be. Yes, this might mean putting subs in front, either under the legs, in the kicks, or even in the ceiling. With mid-engined and rear-engined cars, subs can often be put up front very easily... and they often aren't.
2. Using rear speakers and giving them signals that are delayed and low-pass filtered (rolling off the highs). DSP failed because it added echoes to recordings that already had ambience. Simple delay and low-pass filtering can make a car sound like a concert hall. Systems are sounding better than they did, and I think advances in theory and practice will make systems sound better in the future. It just takes smart thinking and hard work.
SR: Thanks Bill for your time.
BB: Thank you, Steven.
It sadden me to note that in 2007 Bill Burton passed away. He is greatly missed by his family and many friends both inside and outside the audio community.