Audio Etc. "Non-Trivial Pursuits" (March 1985)

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I do what I can to keep up with, fashion. This month it's going to be Trivia ETC. Not really unimportant, but since everyone else is talking trivia, why not me? Such a lot of fads! You get that déjà vu feeling. There's chocolate. I've been chomping it since I went to school in Switzerland at age 15, but now it is suddenly "in." You can't pick up a magazine or an ad without finding it full of chocolate. Know what a chocolate chip is? A computer program, just on the market. Detachable ROM. Then there's alphabet soup, so named in 1928 by one Al Smith. Today we're awash in it. If the venerable Nippon Electric Company becomes the snazzy NEC, and Japanese Victor Company JVC, then any day now we'll get GAPTCo. That's the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. As for audio, you'll have to understand that whereas an audio cassette is technically RAM, the CD is to be understood as modular ROM. More on that in a moment.

Trivium No. 1: Can you name the hierarchy of the dry cell? We use millions in present-day audio. Answer: A is for the A battery, once called a bell battery (used to ring front doorbells, also used for electric trains and the low voltage needed in early radios). It's tall and round, and I haven't seen one for years. B was the B battery, massive and weighty, for high "B" voltage (relatively), or power supply. You always had two or three around and you kept shifting them in and out, to see which would get the strongest signal. Bypassing the 6-V lantern battery, still in use on railroads and for camping trips, we move on to consumer flashlights and, hence, the next letters, the C and the larger D cell. Here things get confusing. Since B was larger than A, and D larger than C, what would they call the little "penlight" cell, now used to power a million audio items and plenty else? Well, they settled on AA, a weasel way out. Worse, the later subminiature cell turned up as an unimaginative AAA. Some day we should try again.

Not earthshaking but of some significance is Triviúm No. 2: I finally got a new car, after 12 years and 134,000 miles of unalloyed Superbug. Japanese, of course, like my audio, so now all is harmony. The Bug went lame rather suddenly; its replacement, on very short notice, came with a passel of extras which were not extras at all because they were already there. One was an AM/FM four-speaker stereo cassette player, if you follow my jargon. I said I didn't want it. The people at the dealership said we can't take it out, it's built in. So I got $350 "credit" and they pretended it wasn't there.

The player was a piece of junk. Within a week, the all-mechanical tuning quit. The red dial marker (yes-a dial) just leaned sidewise and wouldn't move. I said, look, that's simple; I've seen it a thousand times. The tuning cord slips. I'll fix the thing myself. Oh, no! You can't do that!, they said. It would void the guarantee. We have to send it back to the factory. I said, but you've already given me credit and this thing doesn't exist. Remember? It's not there. They looked bemused. This was a new and unforeseen situation. They would have to consult Higher Management. I said to heck with it and drove home. End of trivium.

Sorry, folks, but I do not use the audio in my car. It's strictly personal, you understand, and I know how you all out there love your car stereos.

Don't let me bother you a bit. But when I am in a car it is to drive, period. As I have said before, I am an ear man, but I do not even hear music when I drive.

Instead, I strain to hear the actual sounds of traffic and to watch the real sights, like red lights, lane-hopping and people ignoring stop signs. Crazy.

But I haven't scratched a moving fender in 50 years and maybe three-quarters of a million miles.

Trivium No. 3, not at all trivial: I am, of course, pleased that numerous future items over which I have drooled in anticipation now suddenly exist. Non CRT screens are everywhere (as of my "phase three"), though not yet in commercial N. Home movies via video--when Kodak gets into it, things are really moving. But one thing that few electronic prophets can really forecast is the curious shift of form and function that can occur en route, as a product is developed for the consumer market.

Who would have guessed, for instance, that the CD, the very essence of a dedicated audio medium and developed straight out of the move to digital audio that has overwhelmed us these last years, would jump the gun and hop over into the PC? (Here comes the alphabet soup again.) True, the CD has a close first cousin, the LaserDisc, using basically the same system for video. But that one is still in the family, in the entertainment realm, and, like the CD, it's dependent on D/A conversion to get the entertainment back into intelligible form for those of us who listen and look.

Denon, that paragon of recording companies which was the first to put out classical records that were digitally produced, today has some of the finest CDs on the market and a large audio pressing plant to produce them. It is Denon that has taken the CD into PC applications.

Denon's new Compact Disc, technically compatible in all sorts of ways with the audio CD, can be pressed in the same audio plant, perhaps even played (with a couple of switches) on the same players, but instead of audio it stores computer stuff. It is an adjunct to a computer, an attachment or built-in, and it deals entirely with bits and bytes and files and non-files, the sort of material that comes now on floppy disks and the like. Imagine it: On one CD you buy Beethoven and on another maybe WordStar or Lotus 1-2-3.

This goes a lot further than the "TV disc." This one is all computer. The only "analog" it deals with is the display in letters, numbers, or graphics that you see via the screen or the printer. Yes, the audio cassette has also gone this route, but the Denon CD is altogether in another league, enormously higher-tech and right at the forefront of computer development, whereas the tape cassette is at best a low-cost (and relatively clumsy and slow) storage medium useful only in the simpler computer areas.

You will note that the Denon computer CD is-or will be-a ROM device, what I tend to call a modular ROM, part of the permanent and non-erasable computer memory. It could be a direct competitor to the new "chips" or cartridges of ROM (the name doesn't seem to have stabilized yet) which plug into the computer and become a part of it but which can be replaced by a different hunk of. ROM, a different program. And here we get into audio analogies galore. The floppy disk and the hard disk are RAMs. In more familiar words, they are erasable. You store material on them, and you can erase that material and put on something else. That, of course, corresponds to tape in audio, and to the cassette in its "blank" selling form. The Denon computer CD, on the other hand, cannot be erased, and is thus a publication when pressed in quantity-exactly like the audio CD or, of course, every earlier form of disc record.

Thus-if I may be permitted a bit more non-audio-this astonishing new Compact Disc, like its relative, the computer ROM chip, will not replace the present erasable disks and other such memories. Instead, it will free a lot of room on them for more working capacity. As things are now, you must transfer temporary working instructions to your floppy (or other RAM) before you can even begin, and this can use up plenty of capacity. It also takes up time.

I would not have given so much space to Denon here if it were not for one absolutely startling aspect-the new CD's capacity. Can you believe that one little computer-type CD can store from 500 to 1,000 times as much information as a single, somewhat larger, floppy disk? One of these CDs can store information equivalent to literally hundreds of thousands of pages of words, a small library.

Of course, you are not surprised if you understand laser operation in the audio field. It offers enormously greater density than anything magnetic, as is quite obvious in our present audio CDs, which have more storage capacity than we know what to do with. I can only suggest that a computer CD with this capacity is bound to have a reverse impact on our audio world. And the simplest I can think of will likely be the joint Compact Disc player that would take both types of CD using the same laser mechanism-the audio playing into your hi-fi system, the computer disc feeding your PC. How's that for getting cozy? Just another step in our triple marriage of audio, video, and the computer.

What would you hear if you were to "play" a computer CD through your audio? Howls, squeals, bleeps and roars? You'll never know. Because, of course, the player will sense automatically which type of signal is at hand and switch things in the right direction.

Why not? I note that Denon, properly cautious, speaks entirely in the conditional in its press info, using a polite "would" instead of a brazen "will" when describing its new CD. The facts are mighty interesting, just the same.

Notice also that the Nakamichi optical recording/reproduction system I mentioned last month relates to Denon in an outside way. It is a purely professional tool that allows both playback and recording of CD-type audio information (and maybe computer-type info too?); it can do the standard CD things but also offers variables of many sorts-including speeds, sampling rates, and so on-for professional development use. It's a superb tool, I'd say, if you want to tinker with the future in this area.

Finally, three items of trivia from Crown-not at all trivial. That company has mostly taken over an interesting type of mike, one known as the PZM, discussed with enthusiasm in this column a couple of years ago, and is going forward with new applications and models in both directions. The first consumer model (Aha! I knew Crown would do it sooner or later) is highly consumer-oriented, by which I mean it has been given a loud sales handle and bright color. It's called the Sound Grabber. Grab it and enjoy; it should be good. On the other hand, the 12 SP isn't even called PZM, but it has the telltale look and hemisphere pickup pattern. Phantom powered, low impedance and so on, at $249. Very pro.

Crown is also developing a new and interesting combination of principles, a PZM-type mike with a miniature super-cardioid mike cartridge for a curious "pointed hemisphere" reach forward, probably unlike any mike pattern now in use. It is embodied in the new PCC 160, just now available at $249. Crown lists all sorts of novel uses, but I would propose one they didn't think of, the now-developing "home movie" sound on those new video portables. That sound is unexplored and, indeed, is played down in the ads as though it didn't matter. It does! And it needs a curious sort of reach if the amateur picture is to have a matching and useful audio. This Crown mike could do it, I suspect.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Mar. 1985; EDWARD TATNALL CANBY)

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