Monday, December 9, 2013

Let's Consider: Speakers

There are people who are obsessed with modern technology; who seem to lead their lives like a series of opportunities to acquire gadgets. And then there are people who condemn modern technology (or are at least highly suspicious of it) and seem to think we’d be better off without it. Neither of these groups is without a point.

On the one hand, gadgets are really cool and/or helpful. On the other, there are plenty of temptations to which all these goodies expose us. (Example: the device before you even now is capable of providing you with access to a huge number of the great works of human civilization for free, and yet people choose to visit “I can has cheezburger”).

The critiques certainly need to be made; “gadgets for gadgets’ sake” is no motto to live by. But there are some things out there that we (children born in the modern age) take for granted which are really amazing and deserve a little appreciation; speakers for instance.

They’re in your headphones, your car, your TV, and your phone. They’re at department stores and movie theaters. We use speakers all the time; anytime we need to reproduce or amplify a sound, and they are wondrous.

First, consider how we perceive sound. As you probably know, (physical) hearing happens when a little membrane inside your ear is vibrated by vibrations moving through the air. The vibration of this little membrane causes electrical impulses which are interpreted by your brain.

This little membrane is the physical threshold on the edge of perception. On one side of it is the physical phenomenon of air compression and on the other is the mysterious realm of the mind.

All kinds of things out there in the world are making noises; chirping, rustling, whooshing, honking, snuffling, and talking away. And all those vibrations that jostle and mix and conflict invisibly out there (and eventually enter your ear) cause that one little membrane to vibrate in a particular way, and that is the sound you hear.

How can speakers be so good at reproducing sounds, when so much is going on out there in the world to make sounds in the first place? Because the speaker is a membrane as well, and thinking about that is what blew my mind.

The speaker causes vibrations in the air in the same way that our ear detects the vibrations caused by other things. This means that a speaker does not emulate the things that make sounds. What it does is produce a vibration similar to the one that ultimately reaches our ear when we listen to other things. A speaker is capable of such excellent and subtle reproduction of sound because it emulates the means by which we perceive sounds -- the vibration of a membrane – and is therefore capable of causing all the vibrations of which our eardrums are capable. Sound reaching our ears from things in the world is a sign of much, much more happening out there than we perceive. But, the speaker is a tool for shaping human sensation itself, and it does so by emulating the sense organ it affects.

This has interesting implications for the study of electronic music. The subtlety of this shaping tool makes it possible to craft sounds perceptible by the human ear that are heard nowhere in nature and perhaps couldn’t even be produced by any other physical instrument built to produce sound (like a saxophone).

Synthesizers are like air-sculptors, but only so they can be eardrum-benders with no limitations except those of the membranes in our head; no limitations but the limitations of our perception itself.


© 2013 John Hiner III

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