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Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Some Sounds
Your Stereo Can’t Reproduce
Article  by JJ Wyckoff
Note: Writer, sadly, passed away due to Hepatitis C
Note Article: In Memory of John Wyckoff

 

  There are sounds out in the real world, far from your listening seat, which no present home audio system can do justice to. I’m writing of sounds I love, sounds to which I have emotional responses, yet they are sounds of too great a dynamic range, or are simply too loud, to attempt reproduction in the home.

My humble log home in the Magdalena Mountains of New Mexico is only a few miles from the nation’s largest lightening observatory. During the high-desert summer storms I’m treated to a light, rumble and bang show second to none. The canyon in which I live is a very large natural horn, only lacking a top panel, which further enhances the audio show. The local Indians named this place “Thunder Canyon” and never built any long term settlements here, despite abundant game and springs. Unlike the clergy of the 18th century who despised lightning rods for their interference with God’s wrath, the locals here just wished to avoid the Gods’ anger. For me this is the subwoofer of the ancient gods, and I love it. The crack of the lightening, followed by the roar as the sound rolls down the canyon is big, big music to me. I love to sit outdoors, under a grounded roof, and feel the show rumble my guts as the black clouds swirl around the canyon. This is truly the high point of summer for me.

To call me a lover of machines would be classic British understatement. My life has been spent, to large extent, in service to machines. To stand near giant steam locomotives as they begin to move is inspiring. The slow chuff as the great pistons begin to slide in their cylinders, followed by the metal to metal gnash as the steel wheels dig hollows into the steel track makes my hair stand with joy. The sounds of a vintage motorcycle race with the scream of two stroke engines punctuated by the throaty roaring cadence of the big British singles is the music of my youth. The smell of burning castor bean oil serves to heighten an already glorious experience. When I first heard the magical sounds of Formula 1 cars, I put in my earplugs and ran to be nearer the whole-body vibrations. Many years ago, my now late wife and I were driving across Texas, and heard a distant thunder coming from a cloudless sky. Soon we saw the sign announcing Billy Meyers’ drag strip. We grinned at each other and pulled in. We donned our hearing protection and stood at the starting line, and spent hours, as our feet seemed to lose contact with the earth as thousands of horsepower literally shook the ground. Wow! Then there are air shows; fast boats and all the other fabulous sounds of man made power.

There are a series of sounds that go together and finally form a great dynamic range. The first sound is a scraping, the second, a faint sizzle, followed by a stomach-punching boom. These are the sounds of a flintlock firing. The sounds are followed by that unmistakable smell of burning brimstone. To us this is a sound and smell from antiquity, to our ancestors it was a sound and smell associated with game on the table, of self-reliance and of war. When rifling was first developed the sound of the gun changed. Now the bullet spun, and let forth a scream. Many of the clergy believed this was the sound of a demon riding the bullet. I have heard this sound myself; this is not a sound I love. I hope never to hear it again.

One sound I hope our home audio technology can bring us one day is the sound of a full symphony. No system I’ve ever heard could come close to the power of front-and-center, in the great halls of the world. This is a place where there are no individual violins, just vast violin sections, and the beat of the big drums is real. I think to approach the dynamics, and sheer power of the experience would require a speaker with surface area equaling that of all the instruments, and the power of all those musicians. Live is the way this music was crafted to be heard.

When I was a violin maker there were sounds I had to master. The most difficult and frustrating was the sound post adjustment. The sound post is a tiny dowel of spruce, held under the tension of the strings between the top and back of the violin (or viola, cello etc.). This dowel is set below the bridge at the treble end. This is the ‘tone control’ of the instrument. Without accurate adjustment of this peg, the finest fiddle in the world sounds like a cigar box with strings. I sat for hours, tapping the post with strange looking tools, trying to get the harmonics rich, without losing its dynamics. These movements are mere thousandths of an inch, and I was working through the aperture of a small “f” hole. The concentration required is maddening.  All of this torture was worth it when the owner of the instrument smiled, and complimented my work, when the balance had been struck.

There are many, many other factors involved with the creation of great violins, and whenever I hear that “the secret of  the Strads” has been discovered I just smile. There isn’t “the secret”, but thousands of them. Here are just a few: The age of the wood when cut, the soil the trees grew in, the curing methods, the varnish types and densities,  the tension of the bass bar,  the glue used, the age of the instrument, and the skill of the craftsman. Violins must also be played, or they die. The Strad  in the British Museum is probably one of the worst sounding fiddles in the world, as all it has done for generations is sit in glass case. What a crime! It is crime of arrogance, and ignorance, of imperial proportion. The number of years that would be required to break in this violin would be staggering. For now it is but a paperweight.

No audio system around can reveal what the musician is hearing as he plays; that interplay of hearing, technical skill and emotion. Most of us can’t understand why musicians pick the particular violin, or flute or trumpet they do, but I do know it can’t be measured. I would like, some day, to make a series of binaural recordings in which tiny microphones are placed in the musicians ears so we could, at least mechanically, hear as the musician hears. I believe this would be an enlightening experience. It would be fantastic to feel as though my chin was resting on a violin as I listened, or that I was sitting on a bench before a Steinway Concert Grand.

The point of all this written rambling is to get the reader to journey out of the listening room, and revel in the music around us, to feel what these sounds bring, to sense. So much sound goes unappreciated, just because we won’t go where the sounds are, or haven’t the freedom to hear these sounds as music. To me it is like only drinking wines that have been well reviewed, and never trying young wines from the barrel in the markets of rural Italy. Go out, experience, learn, enjoy, and poke fun at wine and audio snobs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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