Taking the scenic route to my ears

We truly live in an age of technological marvels and I’m not just talking about sliced bread or the fact that our every thought – at least as expressed in the physical realm through movement or word (spoken or typed) – can be sucked into a vast database which spits out an almost (but not quite) entirely irrelevant marketing message to accompany it: often while sodium ions are still crawling across the synaptic gap to generate the next thought.

As I ate my breakfast this morning, I was listening to James McVinnie (a chap with whom I have shared a beer which, according to the customs of my tribe, makes him my brother) playing Mad Rush by Philip Glass on the organ (no sniggering at the back, please!).  Unremarkable – if slightly pretentious – you may think but until relatively recently this would have been impossible except for those at the very top of their local monarchical or imperial court.  However, even more astonishing was how this music came to my arrive at my ears.

I was listening to the concert on Radio 3: not ‘live’ but using the iPlayer.  So the original sound of the concert had been digitised and its data compressed to make its way, via cable and thence luminiferous æther, to my laptop.  It then took to the æther once more to cross my lounge by Bluetooth – involving further data compression – before my DAC attempted to reinstate some of what had been lost and produce a richer, analogue signal to reproduce through my corner reflex cabinet (OK, my hifi).  From there it made its way as vibrations through the congested airspace of my modest apartment into my thoroughly immodest ears.

However, this already complex journey was only a part of its rather roundabout route to my auricular apparatus.  The concert was original recorded by the good folk of Radio 3 at LSO St Luke’s: a rather fine Hawksmoor church, but one which does not boast an organ (and this is not false modesty on its part, it was removed – along with its font – in 1959 to allow it to spend some time as a dramatic ruin: very much a career path I’m considering myself).  This does render an organ recital a bit of a challenge as the full church organ may be the least portable of musical instruments: unless a reader know better?  Luckily, James came armed with two MIDI keyboards, a pedal board and a laptop (and I assume some sort of amp).  The laptop contained the sampled sound of the organ of a Dutch church: one which unlike LSO St Luke’s has retained its organ and, I like to imagine, can still generate a full 12 inches of “Stifflute” and bring its “Choir to Swell” when the occasion calls for it (the organ console is truly the gift that keeps on giving!).  Through a miracle of modern computation (and I’m assuming some reliance on the work of Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier) this sampled organ had been be-housed into the acoustic space of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and it was this chimeric sound which the ‘organ’ produced.  This already geographically complex sound then interacted with the acoustics of St Luke’s before being recorded by Radio 3.  As a result, my breakfast listening was a sonic palimpsest of a church in the Netherlands, King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, St Luke’s in London and my front room.  This struck me as such a remarkable and miraculous conjunction of sound and place that I felt compelled to write a blog post about it.  It didn’t hurt that it allowed me to use the word ‘palimpsest’ without it appearing too contrived.

The sheer volume of computation that must have been needed to bring Philip Glass’ musical vision to my ears is almost beyond imagining: not to mention the key- and pedal-board skills (both by James and a myriad of unsung programmers).  The audio purist might imagine that interposing all this mathematics and these approximating algorithms between the music and the listener would ensure that nothing musical could possibly survive – how very long far from the truth the strawmen (and I’m assuming they would mostly be men) they would be.  As I masticated my way through my porridge, the music retained a significant emotional punch and my day was not allowed to continue until the piece had finished.  My eyes may have moistened a little: partly in response to the music but also to the near miraculous method by which it came to my ears.  An almost unremarked upon feat (if we ignore my own current logorrhea) that would have been impossible at any time prior to the last handful of years.  We live in a veritable age of miracles…  and stupidity…  and horrors… (so, pretty much like any other ages then).

3 thoughts on “Taking the scenic route to my ears

  1. matathew says:

    Are you sure that Bluetooth performs “further data compression”?

    According to Wikipedia, each Bluetooth channel has a bandwidth of 1MHz, while audio is typically 44kHz. So it’s not obvious to me why the overhead of carrying out further compression at this stage would be necessary.

    I think I’ve pointed this out to you before, so it would be nice to get to the bottom of it …

    • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

      It would seem that there is not an easy answer to that question. In theory, with an already compressed format (e.g. MP3 and AAC) and under the right circumstances at both transmitter and receiver, then Bluetooth does not need to apply compression to work. However, even in such a situation it might still do so as it is predicated on a world of limited bandwidth and so uses a CODEC to move the data. So far as I can tell, there aren’t any Bluetooth audio implementations that avoid re-coding the data to transfer and so it seems likely that something is being lost in my Bluetooth link, though maybe not much as I think both ends use aptX (rather than basic SBC).

  2. matathew says:

    Good answer, thank you. Like you, I would expect the wave to be “re-coded” by Bluetooth, and a tiny amount of the original “accuracy” might be lost in the process, but I think what matters is that it (Bluetooth) is using a relatively large bandwidth to move the data, and the tiny loss of accuracy in the conversion process will, I suggest, be beyond the ability of the human ear to detect.

    So, in the interest of getting to the bottom of it, I am happy to go away thinking that Bluetooth doesn’t degrade the quality of an audio signal perceptibly, and maybe anyone who worries that it does needs to get out more. So, in your case, that will mean eight nights out each week!! Please provide full reports on all eight nights out on FaceBook…

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