Finding irregularities

January 22, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

We love smooth and perfect and shy away from irregularities. When I find a smooth surface, like a kitchen countertop, I feel compelled to rub my hand on its face to appreciate its perfection. Bumps and blits underhand are noticed immediately and I want to get a wet rag and scrub them clean.

It's almost as if we expect perfection to be the norm, rather than the extraordinary, and we work at eliminating all that does not qualify. Yet, when you think about it, most of what we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell is unremarkable; normal, as in having its fair share of irregularities.

On a good day, I am a tolerant listener ignoring the occasional bloated bass peak or tick and pop heard in Music Room One. On other days it's all I can do to not to cringe when I hear them.

I have come to a sort of peace with the matter by developing an internal switch I can mostly toggle at will. On days when all I want to do is kick back and enjoy the music, I turn off my irregularity microscope. On days where I need the laser focus required for voicing equipment, back on it goes.

Indeed, our internal measurement systems are far more variable than the machines that attempt to emulate us. Learning that my sensor's tolerance levels are adjustable through training has been a big help to me in my quest to both build better equipment and enjoy it too.

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27 comments on “Finding irregularities”

  1. Reading these notes I cannot but think of a psychological guidebook for partnerships and the strategy of one partner to permanently visit a beauty clinic for remaining attractive. 😉

  2. For historical reasons I have a lot of albums encoded as 192kbps MP3 files. They are being replaced by FLACs, but it is a gradual process. Although I can hear the imperfections and artifacts in them, they are not so bad that I cannot, for the most part, turn off noticing them and just enjoy the music. The same cannot be said for 128kbps MP3 files; they sound so bad that they cannot be ignored.

  3. Paul - this is the awesome thing about our senses and brain - infinitely adaptable to the job at hand. We can “put things under a microscope” of any given sense or combination of senses, switch to a “wideangle lens”, or sumbit it to a carefully planned set of tests using external measuring devices and add that to the sythesis. Do something 10,000 times, and you’ve “reprogrammed a block of your FPGA” ; )

  4. Bit of an OCD post today.
    I tend to clean up around the coffee station when I hear my wife coming in the door. I think I live in a far more haphazard and flawed world. I appreciate the exceptional and I would hate it to become the norm. Life would become so dull.

    1. Your comment reminds me of the psych prof in grad school who in discussing Erik Erickson's stages of optimal development asked, rhetorically, whether one would rather have lunch with someone who was like a polished apple or one who had some unevenness, some bumps and dings and such.

  5. The post of today in short, deals with different types of perceptions that the same individual can experience, in different occasions with respect to listening to music.

    In fact, the mood can vary from day to day depending on multiple factors, including the type of food that affects the liver, and personal habits, as well as what is known as Bio-rhythm.

    Try to listen to music after a night of copious libations, or in full hangover.

  6. Manipulating sound to get it the way you want it is no easy trick. This is why I gave up studying amplifiers, speakers, and other electronic equipment and largely focused my attention on studying sound and hearing. What I discovered among many things is that no two recordings are exactly alike. I think if you had 20 recording engineers all making recordings of the same thing you'd get 20 different results. I'm not sure I have an notion of what a perfect recording would be. So a one size fits all sound reproducing system won't work for me because adjustments have to be made for each recording's own specific characteristics. I didn't forget about the listening room acoustics or the acoustics of live venues and what they do to sound either. Taking these factors into account I was able to engineer sound systems that sound the way I want them to, not the way someone else wants them to and not haphazardly buying equipment on the advice of other people who have their own ideas. I have exactly what I want, do you have what you want? If you do, good for you. If you don't, what are your unmet expectations and how do you think you will meet them?

    1. I started with a study of luthiery, musical instrument acoustics and the acoustics of human voice. I collected instruments to hear how they made sound and see how physical acoustics correlated to musical expression and meaning. I tried a French Horn, Flute, Recorders, Piano, Toy Piano, Harpsichords, Lute, Guitars, Contrabass Harmonica, Dumbeks, Frame Drums, Glockenspiel, Gongs, Cymbals, Claves, etc.

      My epiphany was that the polar radiation pattern (spatiality) and start/stop waveforms (musical consonants) of physical sound generators constituted an aural signature to recognize the instrument voice that is more information content and more important than spectral information and timbre. This means that:

      A) Speakers need flat frequency and minimum phase response at all angles, and unprecedented transient accuracy.

      B) One speaker model can't possibly reproduce different instruments accurately.

      C) Mixing two or more microphones into one speaker and/or splitting one microphone into two or more speakers (panning) is spatial distortion.

      You can't fix it in the mix - in fact, mixing is a mistake!

      Producing "surround" or "immersive" sound is further a mistake because it is all "statistical reverb". You can match the average characteristics of reflection timing and arrival angle, but real stereo comes from aurally analyzing hundreds of discrete echo vectors that can't be duplicated through scalar electronic channels.

      The only system I know that comes close is convoluting a binaural signal with individual HRTF recorded by in-ear microphones over four hours in an anechoic chamber with the individual's head in a vice and moving a speaker in one degree increments, and then playing back with individually molded in-ear phones.

  7. My motto for music production and recording is:


    Musical expression consists of deviations from regularity: micro-rhythms, micro-tones, micro-dynamics and micro-sounds. This is largely "beyond the ink". Musical notation regularizes tones into a scale and rhythm into bar lines with binary and ternary divisions, with emotional direction consisting mainly of Italian adverbs and adjectives. The only way to follow those directions and get to the core of the music is to break out of robotic execution of the regularized note values.

    We have more or less "perfect" score reading software which generates MIDI output for synthesizers - and yet the result is flat and un-engaging. Music comes from the fine muscle movements of fingers, lips, tongues, breathe, awareness of the surrounding world and a beating heart, which are audible in the playing.

    The art of music consists of creating expectations and then breaking them. Researchers analyzing recordings of master percussionists from many different traditions found consistently fractal patterns in the micro-rhythmic deviations from the average beat. I remember a ludicrous post on where an engineer had isolated a snare track and found it varied 10 milliseconds, and this was used as a rationalization for ignoring the gross temporal distortions of studio processing. The drummer in question was Roger Taylor of Queen, who ROCKS live and in the studio. I am sure they would find the same "sloppy" patterns of expression in John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon; and irregular timing was a consistent criticism Ringo Starr. I hear genius in their irregularities.

    Metronomes are NOT music, although they now rule in commercial music. It started with drum machines and looping in disco, and now "machine time" is omnipresent in corporate rock, pop, rap, techno, EDM, advertising jingles, cartoons and most live-action movies. These are the genres I don't listen to, except for the rare exceptions like Chic who played every note, Phoenix who use a live drummer in concert and Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto who hand triggers every sample.

    There is a genre of "contemporary Classical" called "New Complexity" where progressively less regular pitch and rhythm are explicitly notated in extreme detail. It is called everything from "ridiculous" to "unplayable" and "un-hearable distinctions", and yet when it is executed well it makes perfect emotional sense. For example, in Beat Furrer's "Voicelessness (The Snow Has No Voice)" the piece advances from 13 beats to the measure upwards with lines overlapping so there is 13 against 14, 14 against 15, etc. These are rhythmic divisions foreign to prior music with temporal distinctions in milliseconds. The feeling is like the perceptual randomness of snowflakes falling in a pine woods, and yet the information content is higher than any prior musical notations as if we are missing the messages in snowfall. I feel a euphoric connection to the universe when this is played.

    The 12EDO scale (Even Division of the Octave, an irrational 12th root of two ratio) which has extended hegemonic sway over commercial music is an historical and geographic oddity, coming from mis-application of post-Age of Enlightenment philosophies. It is roughly 200 years old, while for 40,000 years of music and everywhere except Western Europe scales were un-even. This produces a wider musical palette, still preserved in the bending notes of Jazz, Blues, Rock as well as historical traditions of Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, Africa, Asia, Americas, Australia, Indonesia and Oceania; and the Baroque scales in historical performance and the Just Intonation chords of string quartets.

    1. One of the four basic elements of music as I learned it is melody. As I see it, if there is no melody there is no music. At Paul's suggestion, I'm slowly plowing my way through Bernstein's recording of the Mahler 3rd symphony conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on Youtube. It's an hour and forty five minutes, not something I can take all at once. So far after half an hour I haven't heard any melodies and I'm not liking it. IMO no one can write music anymore, not even a jingle for a TV ad. Most performers are awful. There are a very few exceptional talents but not much. Pop music died in the 1960s and it's deader than ever. Classical music died even earlier. I cannot respect anyone who thinks what John Cage produced is music and I never will. To show you what you're missing, here's an example of a piece written as the introduction of a TV show called Medic in the 1950s. Richard Boone, playing Dr. Konrad Styner who sometimes also appeared in the stories. Richard Boone was one of the most underrated actors ever. He was terrific.

      Medic was IMO the best Doctor drama ever on TV. Unfortunately as I recall in the end every patient dies.

      1. The 60's was my decade too, SM, but anytime I start feeling nostalgic about how much better music was then I apply an excellent corrective. I go through the UK weekly Top 20 lists for the entire decade. The vast majority of the entries were total dross 🙁

      2. This observation is scientifically verified! (with a proviso).

        MRI real time brain imaging has identified that within the cortical region responsible for musical intelligence (separate from speech cortex), there are discrete processors for melody, harmony and rhythm, and these three fundamental parameters are combined to perceive music.

        Therefore melody, harmony and rhythm are axiomatic in a neuro-physiological definition of music. BUT, all three of these can be implied and inferred from sounds that appear on a surface level to lack one of them.

        For example, composer/musician David First made a long foray into drone music under the project name Western Enisphere. He orchestrated pieces with up to a dozen instruments all playing the same continuous note for tens of minutes. There was a Viola with inaudible bow reversals, trombone with circular breathing, ebow guitar and laptop sine tones, etc. He calculated precise pitches with microtonal shifts that produced a strong sense of changing rhythm so compelling that my foot was tapping uncontrollably and someone in the back had to jump up and dance to it, a reaction I was actively suppressing. It felt like communal drumming at a Pow-Wow, reaching thousands of years into healing tribal musical alignments despite having no rhythm instruments.

        I am inclined to agree with you that Mahler lacks melody, and further assert that his structure is annoying with too many oscillations between loud and soft, high and low, solo and tutti for short attention span listeners.

        I listen to a lot of long form pieces, like piano sonatas over two hours long by Michael Hersch, Michael Finnissey and Kaikasru Shapurji Sorabji whose melodic content is dense and obscure. I have come late to an appreciation of Wagner but I can't sit through Mahler.

        I also find Beethoven's 9th numbingly repetitive with a dearth of melodic variation. The one time I heard its entirety was when I inadvertantly showed up for the concert, and the only thing that kept me from leaving were the intriguing flaws in the Festival Orchestra's performance. They were all skilled players and familiar with the piece, but were under-rehearsed as a unit having never played together before so the subtle coordination irregularities were musically interesting.

        1. "...there are discrete processors for melody, harmony and rhythm, and these three fundamental parameters are combined to perceive music."

          This corresponds to what Johnson O'Connor, the grandfather of aptitude testing in the States, found in the 1920s and '30s: musicians have a very high degree of pitch discrimination, tonal memory and rhythm memory. He argued that these were inherited (genetic) and their development, their degree of expression, depended on life opportunities and fortune. I suspect that another aspect of this is, parallel to good engineer's capacity to imagine (picture) three dimensional objects, is the ability to combine and visualize the three musically related aptitudes in one's head, one's imagination. Of course, for most instruments some good degree of finger and thumb dexterity doesn't hurt, either.

          Btw, appreciate all the musical references here. Artists to look up.

          1. According to Hyde & Schlaug, the 10% difference in neural mass between professional musicians and the general population is accounted for by PRACTICE, including the enlargement of melody, harmony and rhythm processing. This is based on a longitudinal study with a good control group where children were given instruments and lessons.

            If your father and siblings were born and raised in a prominent musical family, perhaps you could write music like Mozart or Bach - or at least play like they did.

            I am aware there are twin studies that claim to prove that IQ is 70% genetic, but I am looking to de-bunk that as well.

            1. The last time you commented along these lines, a week or two ago, I posted a long reply, probably not seen. The fact that you mention IQ, which has nothing to do with the subject, and treat Hyde and Schlaug's research results as primary cause rather than the fortunate developmental result of enhanced (born with) genetic attributes, tells me that your investigation into the subject hasn't gone very far.

            2. Acuvox - A few years back pop psychology writer Malcolm Gladwell claimed that that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field. He called it the 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell's claim was taken apart from many quarters, among the most direct being the Princeton meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice that found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains, e.g., as follows:
              • In games, practice made for a 26% difference
              • In music, it was a 21% difference
              • In sports, an 18% difference
              • In education, a 4% difference
              • In professions, just a 1% difference

              Your argument is a variant of this, with a very small short-term brain scan study added (31 students, 15 and 16 in each group, just enough to get statistical significance). What Hyde & Schlaug's study found in the brain scan differences is now considered ordinary and not all that much news, since the same kind of young brain development differences can be found or are believed discoverable across other specialized fields and training, as well as between different qualities (and quantities) of parenting, and different social and societal circumstances (civil war vs. not, for example). Hyde & Schlaug's findings do not speak directly to the relationship nature and nuture (genetics and life opportunities), and any attempt to do so leads very quickly to circular arguments.

              This should be apparent for a lot of reasons:
              - an adult or teen or child who's never played an instrument sits down at the piano and plays songs; that's actually relatively common
              - a 17 year old who's never done any athletic training beyond school PE classes and typical haphazard child's play goes out and runs a low four minute mile
              - Hyde & Schlaug's split groups on previous musical training, and did not consider the possibility of underlying aptitudes among their cohorts, nor did they look at a brain scan sample of the large population of students with similar aptitudes as their musical trainees but who had not had the opportunity or desire to purse musical training;
              - adults with aptitudes that go with music, engineering or any number of domains don't lose those aptitudes because they never got the training or a chance to develop them; they just don't develop those potentials (and thus don't get included in the typical skill-based studies);
              - later teens and adults that do discover their aptitudes and follow them will also have some reshaping of the brain neural connections and scans will show some degree of specialization along the lines of those who've pursued it for a much longer time; changing neural patterns is normal and can go on throughout life in any number of ways (e.g., changing neural connections and hence patterns is in one sense the goal of psychotherapy);
              - aptitudes create a self-selection process for individuals, other things such as opportunities being equal. One child may, even independent of parental pressure, love playing the piano, while another, responding to a different set of aptitudes, may prefer to sneak out to the park to play ball rather than practice the piano when they can.

              The post I referred to a couple of weeks ago is at

              For reference re aptitudes (genes) and opportunity (nuture), I suggest 1) Johnson O'Connor's monographs (late 1920's-early 1950's), available in some University libraries and used book sites (the Wikipedia entry on him is bogus, written by someone who turns O'Connor on his head); and 2) Daniel Siegel's "The Developing Mind," 2nd edition. This is a substantively dense but very readable in-depth summary and discussion of the state of psychoneurology as of several years ago.

              Re phase, I don't understand your claim that over half the population can't identify phase. Do you really mean to say that over half the pop can't tell the difference on the switch-the-speaker-wires' test? I suspect you're dividing the population binarily, rather than seeing the continuum. In any case, do you have studies to back this up?

        2. Beethoven's 9th symphony always was a very controversial piece of music. The first time I heard it was around 1960. It was one of the first two stereophonic records we owned. My mother was playing the viola part in the Queens College Orchestral Society along with a lot of her friends. It took awhile to grow on me. I've got a lot of different recordings of it. The first one was Bruno Walter and I have that whole set. But the ones I like best are Von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic recorded around 1964. I've got all of them in that set too. It took awhile to grow on me.

          Beethoven is my favorite composer. For me his music combines logic and power, in fact I think his music is the most powerful of everything ever written. Leonard Bernstein broadcast a program which I think you can get a recording of where he analyzed how the first movement of the 3rd and 5th symphonies were constructed. For the third, the first two notes defined the entire movement. Of special interest to me are the six times in a row repeated D minor chords that have tremendous shock value. The analysis of the 5th symphony was based on notes found in Beethoven's house showing various ideas he had that never made it into the composition. Some of them were quite good but not good enough for Beethoven. My in-house expert has finally conceded that Beethoven was a better composer than Brahms. It took many years but she convinced herself long after I gave up trying.

          In the music course I took, the second movement of the third symphony according to the professor, the funeral march is where the Romantic period of music began and broke with the classical period of Mozart, Haydn, etc. The Eroica (heroic) was originally dedicated to Napoleon but when he became a tyrant, Beethoven changed the dedication and the name of it. The fifth has been said by some to be the most perfect piece of music ever written. I also like the 7th very much too. There are no "bad" Beethoven symphonies, just some greater than others.

          There's supposed to be a very fine set of recordings by Norrington conducting the London Classical Players. It's probably worth getting if I ever want another set. Nobody wants CDs anymore. It's wonderful.

      3. My musical taste was shaped by the "Rogers and Hammerstein Songbook" that was on the candelabra stand of our Mason & Hamlin grand. I still revere Gershwin, Porter, Carmichael, Kern and Arlen, the golden age of American song; and the contemporaneous Big Band music.

        The vocal thread was continued by Bacharach and Sondheim; but instrumental horn band music has gotten sharper and denser. Check out Joe Levano's Nonet, James D'arcy Argue's "Secret Society" and Maria Schneider.

        On the small screen I tend more to detective themes like "Perry Mason" and "Mission Impossible".

    2. Acuvox, interesting post, I quite enjoyed reading it. In my opinion there is no era of music that doesn't offer some great music, and also some crap.
      For my Dad music ended with the big bands and Glen Miller, while my Mother's open mindedness had room for the Beatles and many others.
      I think now, we just have to look for music in places other than commercial radio and TV. As to theme music, who doesn't smile when you hear the Adamms Family or Green Acres?

  8. They start out so well, then the parrot takes over;-)

    Anyway, I too admire perfection, and it can be found in material things, humans not so much. I for one am a deeply flawed individual. It is what makes us human, let's hope the doomsday people aren't right about AI[defective, delete]. And the need for perfection varies. I can listen to my stock car stereo and ignore it's many flaws. At home, I desire the best I can get from my system.
    But Paul's switch, is for me a different focus. I have found if I just listen to music, I am content. If I listen to the system, contentment is not guaranteed.

    There is a limit to that. I was reading a review, and the reviewer mentioned listening to seven different versions of Getz/Gilberto. I have a later version, remastered copy on CD, and I noticed that I had marked as a Favorite the MQA version in Tidal. Usually with the first unfold the MQAs are very good. I think it has as much to do with the version being carefully choosen, as the processing. By the second song I was hearing boomy bass, it was so bad, my listening to music, not the system was disrupted. It was one of those WTF moments, so I put on the CD. No boom, just music.
    I'd be interested if anyone else with Tidal could take a listen. Recently I read a different review where the reviewer said he couldn't understand the outright hostility to MQA as every one he had listened to was a little better, or as good as other digital versions. My experience has been that most are, but not all. I don't think the content providers are even listening to the music they provide to Tidal. A perfect example is/was the Pretenders first album, I say was because they may have replaced it. It wasn't just bad, it sounded like a corrupt file.
    Those of us who can, or learn to forget about the system and just listen to music are much more content. If every time you sit down to listen, you are having an inner debate on what your next upgrade should be, you will have a much harder time finding the beauty or the impact of the song. You won't find yourself getting lost in the lyrics. The beauty of a love song, or the strength of the message listening to Eric Bibb doing Dylan's "Masters Of War".

    That's my take on today's topic, the concept is simple, the execution of it can be much harder.

    1. I've found that many of the MQAs sound worse to me. I lack the precise language to describe what I dislike, but they generally seem overly blended, too smooth, and lacking in energy. I've mentioned this on Audiogon and some felt that my Node2 streamer's DAC could be the culprit. To me, as somebody who has just gotten back into hi-fi, the variables involved are overwhelming, especially when I'm in "critical" mode listening to my system rather than just enjoying the music. How to determine what is doing what? That's the $$$ question.

      On another, different but related, thought, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Pablo Villegas perform a small, private concert on Saturday night. I had not heard of him before, but his playing was sublime. He is being hailed as the "successor of Segovia." Certainly big shoes to fill, but he is beautiful practitioner of the Spanish tradition of classical guitar. As I listened to this solo, acoustic concert it occurred to me that the stated goal of having our sound systems reproduce the live music experience is completely absurd. Live music involves all of our senses, and I believe the sense of sight is instrumental to the experience of live music. What we see and the human emotion of sharing this experience with other people is simply not reproducible with recorded music. Seems to me the long philosophical tradition of discourse on the "original" vs. the "copy" (or the "fake") from Plato to Eco (on virtual or "hyper-reality"), would aid audiophiles and the designers of hi-fi gear.

      The longing for perfect mimesis of live concerts in our listening rooms is sure to cause never-ending frustration. The live venue for the Villegas concert was itself less than perfect acoustically. The HVAC system in the beautiful banquet hall was not designed for acoustic concerts. Did it matter? Of course, if one zeroed in on this aspect of the environment. For that matter, I could have focused on the absurdity of the woman wearing a full-length fur coat across from me. There are any number of psychic elements in our field of awareness that we could focus on and have it affect our perception and mood--which is part of the point that Paul was making, I believe. On the other hand, the performance was simply marvelous and an unexpected treat. Villegas took us on tour of notable genres of the Americas from Venezuela to the US and Brazil. Finally, we ended in Spain with a Flamenco inspired piece and a spectacular finale from his home region of Rioja. A night I won't soon forget. I can't wait to listen to his recorded music in my listening room. I won't be comparing these tracks to what I heard Saturday night, thankfully 🙂

  9. .... This world we live in is a perfect place to find perfect examples... of imperfection.

    "Perfect" is really a foreign concept to us. No one alive today has seen perfect yet. There is no "perfect" in this environment.

    Only achieving less imperfect is what we can hope for while we camp out on this planet.

    Narcissism is an attempted denial of this reality. 😉


    1. There is perfect in high technology, large zero defect crystalline Silicon wafers. These are turned into ICs by over 500 processing steps that require water with less than 1 part per billion impurities, which is the least imperfect substance.

      I am one of the few people to drink this ultra-pure water. I built the original international standard of ultra-purity for Anatel Corp in 1985, and when it washed down to target level I drew a cup to celebrate - it was a million times rarer than Champagne.

      It did not have zero taste in an imperfect world. It had a negative taste, as it washed away the normal background taste of my mouth that had been there since I started eating. This is analogous to the sound of zero distortion, pure acoustic music washing away the sound of audio reproduction.

  10. To me any music that has no fanfares and canon shots in it is worthless. It should be recorded binauraly in a 19th century Cage, and perfection is reached when the membranes of the subs hit the back wall, eh front wall. (;-)

  11. The beauty of porcelain china is its smooth perfection. The beauty of wood and marble is their irregularities. The contrast between perfect and irregular is what makes life artful, interesting and meaningful.

  12. Hobbyists pay attention to small differences. As such, it doesn’t take much for us to detect a problem in the sound of our system. Something a “civilian” would never notice, even if we pointed it out to them.

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