The Audio Cynic

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Aside from the fact that it sounds like the chorus of an unreleased Sinatra flop,
I think the title presents an interesting question. Why bother? What is it that drives people to design audio products?

The pat answer is, “we love music”. Well…plenty of people love music without feeling the need to build devices that will recreate it. Are there certain characteristics that drive one to being an audio designer?

I think there are, and I’m going to fumble my way through the ones that are evident to me. Undoubtedly there are others, and I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

1. Love of music, perhaps to the point of obsession. I think that second clause is important: I know plenty of people who “love” music, constantly surround themselves with it, but treat it largely as background noise or a mood elevator. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the attitude that really drives one to do something to make the music played sound better, or more lifelike.

For example: my girlfriend Pat always listens to music while she works, and avidly seeks out new music as well as old favorites. But when we listen together, even while driving in a car, our attitudes diverge. I tend to analyze different instrumental or vocal lines, oddities in the recording or performance, the bits and pieces of not just the music, but the recording of it. And, audiophile geek that I am, I tend to talk about those elements.

Pat listens to the music, occasionally bopping along to it. Her frequent response to my commentary is a slightly-testy, “do you ever just LISTEN to the music??” Meaning: not analyze it, not pick it apart, just listen and feel.

Well…no. Or not very often. When I do “just listen”, it’s for emotional recovery, or when I use music the way most people do, as backdrop while working. I nearly always have music playing as I write, but it has to be a very particular type of music: medium- or up-tempo, preferably instrumental. If I play music with vocals, the vocals have to be part of the greater sonic wash, or they distract me.

I can play Radiohead or the XX, for example, and not get sucked into actually listening to the words: the vocals are mostly just sounds. I have no idea of the words to any Radiohead song other than “Creep”. A singer like Sharon van Etten, on the other hand, will eventually distract me, and cause me to listen to what she’s saying in the song. And thanks to Michael Lavorgna for introducing me to that massive time-sink….

But I digress.

2.Be an active listener. I think I’ve just described the difference between a casual listener and an active listener. It’s hard to imagine most casual listeners being driven to do something about the way they hear music reproduced. Many beginning designers are driven to possess better equipment than they have, and build their own simply because they can’t afford ready-made gear. There may also be an attitude of, “huh, I can do better than that”—an attitude shared by many musicians, as well.

3. Not have a life.—I’m kidding here. But the problem with obsessions is that they’re, well, obsessive. Once one begins traveling the path of designing and building gear, there are always new tweaks and techniques to explore, and the more one learns, the more there is the realization of things you don’t know. As Einstein supposedly wrote, “as a sphere of light expands, so, too, expands the sphere of darkness surrounding it.” It’s how veteran designers like Harry Weisfeld, Nelson Pass, and Paul McGowan keep coming up with new techniques to play around with.

4. Be analytical. Learning about the elements of music is both an emotional and intellectual process, and requires an understanding of the variety of building blocks available. That same process is at the basis of all engineering.