Audio, Etc. (Feb. 1975)

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Digital

Is there any message these days which does not come to us Americans digitally--that is, in disjointed segments, sequential blocks and, even more important, simultaneously with other sequences of message? Darned few, I'd say. Which is interesting in view of our own coming electronic revolution, the digital transmission of the audio signal. So get out your pulses and listen (read) my story. (THE WHALE) You see, we now get everything in plurals. It's the media, not the medium. In Latin, media is the neuter plural, and who ever uses the singular? Only those ungrammatical ladies who call themselves mediums. But then the spirits never were very good at Latin. (PUT JONAH) Back in the 'teens we had already learned to listen to grand opera on discs through a barrage of multiple "messages" never before encountered in opera, commonly called record scratch. We managed. And soon thereafter we were deciphering code on the radio air, and then voices, through untold masses of sonic interference, this time a great deal of it all too easily intelligible. Those old radio sets weren't very selective. All this was unplanned and accidental. It couldn't be helped, and so we gritted our teeth and got used to it, which turned out to be of immense importance to our sonic future. We got the habit. We found we could absorb multiple messages very nicely, and tune out what we didn't want, or take in everything.

Now, we are solidly grounded in plural transmission, deliberate and planned, and absolutely everywhere.

We've spent a half century learning all about this, and we are good-especially our younger people. It has become a matter of choice. We like it this way. Everything in digital blocks, scrambled together. Even our meals.

Soup, entree, and dessert all at once, neatly pulse-coded and quick packaged. Just like the airlines. (DOWN THE HATCH) And this, I say to you, is what we mean by media, in the plural. Or, redundantly, the multi-media, as though one plural weren't enough.

Make it two. (BUT COUGHED HIM UP) So now we find a single message, linear style, no less than tedious. Who wants mono? Even our canned music comes to us in multiple channels.

Suppose I should really call this boredom with things merely singular, not tedium, but tedia. (BECAUSE HE SCRATCHED) Entity. You will note that I am conducting a literary experiment here, in line with my linear remarks. Practicing what I preach. Digital blocks of message bits intermixed. Entity One.

See how many different ideas I can juggle into the air all at once, in print, the way an audio engineer goes about seeing how many pulsed channels of digital info he can put into his latest transmission. As a matter of fact, my normal printed message, a single and continuous "channel" of type written out in proper linear fashion, does not really reach you in analog form at all, but digitally for the eye. As you read, you are everywhere interrupted by those seductive ads on every side, which is why they are there.

(BURMA-SHAVE) And my type face is broken into blocks, down one side of a page, across the top of another, continued on page xx, and continued again.

Quite normal, and few of you seem even to notice it. That is because this layout is typical of our present scattered and pulsed ways of information absorbing. Second nature to us. (HIS FACE WAS SMOOTH) Entity One. Odd, then, that the more conservative publisher of our British contemporary, Hi-Fi News & Record Review, jams in each issue a first section that is all ads, a hundred pages, before you get to a single word of editorial content. Very logical and ever so civilized-we must keep those ads where they belong and allow our editorial content the complete freedom for your attention that it so richly deserves. Nevertheless, I find this format quite disturbing-wouldn't you? 'I hate to seem uncultivated, but do find the American mix much easier to absorb. So would you, since you come from the same place as I do.

That is a measure of the strength of our new ways of perception. (AND COOL AS ICE) There is an old journalistic rule, probably invented by the New York Times, that says the whole of a news story must be summed up in the first paragraph; then, as the eye moves on downward, the same ground is covered again, and again, sequentially, in further elaboration, 'round and 'round. Or should I say oblong by oblong. Touching all bases. Isn't that extraordinarily like the digital/sequential techniques that we are now polishing up in electronics, hopefully with a view to applying them to audio circuitry? They do say that this will be our next revolution, and this is logical because, as you see, in the larger sense this way of thinking, this procedure, has long been with us and is in fact the very stuff of 20th century civilization. The more you explore, the more striking this is. (AND OH LOUISE!) Hey, don't you see, plain old analog electronic amplification, the kind we've always had, is now a hopeless anachronism? From this viewpoint it is dismally out of date. This is a digital world. (HE SMELLED) Yes, but the analog amp still works very nicely, you'll say. An amplified literal analog of the original signal.

Well, yes, it still works. But only by default, because we have already corrupted it (if I may stretch that term) via dual stereo signals and quadruple quadraphonics, whether matrixed or discreted. We do have to be practical. And the linear word in lines of type is still useful, too. But don't think this can last. Digital circuits are inherently right for the audio messages we are going to have to deal with, and are dealing with already. Ask anybody.

(SO NICE) It's digital conglomeration all over.

Look around you! What is a conglomerate? A conglomerate, I say, is a simultaneous digital mix of discrete enterprises, differing business "messages," brought together in a common, economic transmission. A multiplexed economy. (BURMA-SHAVE) Entity One for 40 Channels. The big value in our coming digital electronics is that via this principle of multiple simultaneous/sequential pulsing we can cope with our audio software in far more flexible (and economical) ways, produce as many channels as we will ever need and with as few limitations on quality, bandwidth, and so on as we can ever hope to imagine. (That is, after we get the d--thing working.) You'll be hearing plenty more about the micro-techniques of this approach, so I'm merely getting one leg in, on general macro-principles.

Won't do any harm. I keep getting more fascinated by the large aspects of it. (PITY ALL) You see, all our intelligence, our messages, our things, become more and more digital minded, module inclined, as we barge bravely onwards into the unknown. And less and less linear. It happens even when, technically, there is only a single channel of communication. Take those recent radio ads I keep hearing. A block of news, then a jumble of voices all talking at once. Out of the jumble come fragments of sense: ... I like ... run straight down to the store ... my husband says ... these in fact are the commercial message, strung out into digital increments. No problem-we take it in stride! But imagine explaining the idea, say, to Queen Victoria.

Her imperial language was strictly of the old-fashioned linear sort and very logical. English teachers today notwithstanding, our own is more and more the fragmented type. Grammar notwithstanding, this is the sort of intelligence that we take in most easily.

The ad people know what they are doing. Entity One for 40 Channels and 20 Tape Recorders.

I suppose the earliest example of large-scale digitality in music was in the days of the Baroque opera, the 17th and 18th centuries, which shows that a good idea often sprouts before its time. They liked to put on two operas at once, intermixed. First, an act of a high-minded tragedy, an opera seria, the grandest of the grand.

Then Act I of a totally irrelevant but nicely contrasted opera buffa, a hilarious farce-then back for Act II of the tragedy, and so on through the evening. In England, Shakespeare did a better sequential integration; his plays combine the solemn and the hilarious, plots and subplots, all within a single transmission. Shakespeare in multiplex. (THE MIGHTY CEASARS) Just like TV. There, the idea isn't so much dramatic contrast as, more directly, to make a maximum dual impact via both ads and "content." How? By digital intermix. Segment of cowboy film, cut off instantaneously, and straight into a block of four or five segmented ads (also intercut without breaks), then straight back to the cowboys at precisely the spot we left off.

Things move so fast in this fashion that I tend to get mixed up, being of the older generation; I find myself riding that cowboy horse right into the nearest beauty parlor before I can rein myself in. But most people are totally acclimated. (THEY PULLED) I have been injecting these little blocks of Burma-Shave into this text (EACH WHISKER OUT) because for years I have noted with growing awe, as time has progressed, that those little wonders, the tiny but very visible signboards by the sides of our old two-lane highways in the 1920s and on, were far ahead of the game in terms of our present ways of thought and even our biggest ad dollars. Back in 1925 this forward-looking ad device was almost a happenstance to begin with, but it flourished and spread, year after year, for almost 40 years. Wow! It wasn't only that the little ads, in sequence as you drove down the road, were always funny and perfectly chosen for their medium (not yet media). It was also because in plain fact here was the germ of our present rampantly digital approach, squarely in line with coming great events. No matter that they were corny-deliberately-and purely mechanical, for line-of-sight viewing.

No electronic miracles. But the necessities of the new age, the 40-mph traveling family in its new car, the need to sell on the hoof, on four tires, dynamically, on the move, led directly to a format laid out in time, like every radio and TV ad since for a half century. And this in a day when radio was barely started and the radio commercial not yet even talked about. (WITH TWEEZERS) In fact, I'm writing a belated review of a splendid little book that appeared some years ago, The Verse by the Side of the Road by Frank Row some, Jr. (Dutton Paperback, D191 1966), and I thank Mr. Rowsome for the quotes I have borrowed. Do try to find a copy for yourself, and learn all about Burma-Shave.

My own experience was strictly personal and long before this book.

As a child I was delighted with the very idea of Burma-Shave, and for years I never missed a segment on those happy little red signs (some were orange), set at such tantalizing intervals against the roadside green Burma-Shave jingle on paper, out of its proper medium, loses all its punch, as indeed it should. Even when you spread it out.

THE CHICK HE WED LET OUT A WHOOP FELT HIS CHIN AND FLEW THE COOP: You must imagine those segments spaced a half mile or so (was it?) apart, each one saucily placed in the middle of nowhere, in some country pasture, making absolutely no sense on its own, just there. Nothing for it, but to hold the mental breath and wait, at an even 40, until after 75 trees, four houses, and a gas station, the next little red sign appeared 'way down the road and hove into reading distance.

It was marvelous. We kids, in the back seat, would simply yell out each message, and then dissolve into giggles as the final punch line was delivered, followed always by the florid Burma Shave logo. Gone-all gone (1963). We drive too fast. We don't look at the side of the road any more, lest we hit a concrete abutment. WHY DOES A CHICKEN / CROSS THE STREET? (New twist on an old adage.) Well, drive right on and you'll soon find out. But doesn't that chatty "Cross the street?" sign look cute, as though asking some polite question of the nearest driver! All by itself, in the middle of a landscape, and the next segment far down the highway.

Our most sophisticated accomplishment, as we grew older, was to read the Burma-Shave digitals on the left side of the road, out the back window and in reverse order. Some mix! You had to memorize the sequence and then retrograde it. BURMA SHAVE WILIER WHISKER TRY THE BRUSHLESS OUT OF KILTER WATER HEATER. So much for Burma-Shave.

Entity One for 40 Channels? I almost forgot. This magnum opus exists, but definitely, and it may come your way. It was composed, that is, assembled, by Morris Knight, the same who wrote me some good definitions of noise, back a few issues. I won't go into detail on Entity One but I assure you it must be something to experience. A traveling sonic show, evening long, that requires a spacious auditorium with good acoustics, 20 two-channel tape players, all going at once, and 40 loudspeakers (minimum) for the 40 simultaneous channels of information, set up in a handsome pattern so that people may sit, lie, or otherwise deposit themselves for varied listening, all over the place.

Two big segments, and the organized sound gives way at an intermission to the pleasantly rambling noise of people relaxing. Good idea. Entity One travels in a station wagon, which seems to be a problem only to Prof.

Knight and his muscles (with student aid-the show goes on mostly on college campuses). Twenty Ampexes, as I remember. Plus those speakers and the necessary 20 amps, amplifiers mean, not amperes, plus the easily imagined miles of cable. After each show, the audience is asked to give its reaction in writing and the indefatigable Knight has sent me a vast book full of offbeat examples-far out! Sonically and philosophically, the college kids eat it up. It's their world.

Now admittedly there isn't much that can be done to simplify the dispersal of Morris Knight's 40 loudspeakers, unless to make them smaller. (Maybe E-V and Philips should contact him on that point....) But my challenge to you, the audio engineer, is to understand that here you have a solid piece of the future in audio software, and you might as well start figuring your pulses right now.

For, as I see it, there is no reason at all why-all in due time-Knight shouldn't be able to play his big work one one tape recorder, and none of this 32-channel jazz, please. This is a portable show.

Dare I suggest that the day after tomorrow you engineers should be able to reduce those 40 channels to minimal size with no trouble at all, maybe even on quarter-inch tape? So that Entity One, and Entity 25, and a thousand other new works of coming sonic interest can be trotted around with a lone tape recorder under one arm to play them, and the whole thing set up (aside from the 40 speakers) in five minutes. Could be, if you really get your digital transmission in hand.

Oh yes-the amplifier. See last month. There would be only one, of course. With 40 channels in it. That, too, ought to be in the works if I guess rightly. I'm an incurable optimist and so I say get on with it and have fun.

Digitality is here to stay. Burma-Shave.

Over & Out.

(Source: Audio magazine, Feb. 1975; Edward Tatnall Canby)

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