The 2011 Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?"

In the summer of 2011, Stereophile's long-time editor in chief, John Atkinson, was invited by the Technical Council of the Audio Engineering Society to give the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture at the 131st Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York, October 21, 2011.

The AES website notes that the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture series was established in May 1999 by the AES Technical Council, the Board of Governors, and the Richard Heyser Scholarship Fund to honor the extensive contribution to the Society by this outstanding man, widely known for his ability to communicate new and complex technical ideas with great clarity and patience. The Heyser Series is an endowment for lectures that will bring to AES conventions eminent individuals in audio engineering and related fields.

With thanks to the AES Technical Council for their permission, the preprint of John Atkinson's lecture is presented here.—Ed.

Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?"—John Atkinson, Editor, Stereophile magazine

"Even a cursory read of the academic literature suggests that in audio, all that matters has been investigated and ranked accordingly. But his 40-year career in music performing, record engineering and production, audio reviewing, and editing audio magazines leads John Atkinson to believe that some things might be taken too much for granted. The title of his lecture is a metaphor: all real numbers have two roots, yet we routinely discard the negative root on the grounds that it has no significance in reality. Perhaps some of things we discard as audio engineers bear further examination when it comes to the perception of music. This lecture will offer no real answers, but will perhaps allow some interesting questions to develop."

Essential reading for the informed audiophile: the AES anthology of the late Richard Heyser's writings

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is an honor to have been invited to present this evening's lecture in memory of the late Richard Heyser. Audio theorist, engineer, reviewer, scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, inventor of Time Delay Spectrometry, and Audio Engineering Society Silver Medal recipient, Dick was a man I was privileged to have met just the once, at an AES meeting in London in March 1986. His comments that night gave me much to ponder in the years ahead. I was also in the audience for the presentation of his final two papers to the AES, given by telephone at the fall 1986 AES Convention in Los Angeles, from his hospital bed. I had not realized until that evening that his illness was terminal.

My wife got to know Dick well when they both worked for Audio magazine; she remembers going round a Consumer Electronics Show with him. Before entering each exhibitor's suite, Dick would cover up his name badge: "That way they won't know who I am," he said with his usual modesty, "and I will hear the system as it really is, not how they want 'Richard Heyser' to hear it."

It is also an honor to follow in the footsteps of such visionaries as Ray Dolby, recording engineer Phil Ramone, futurist Ray Kurzweil, mathematicians Manfred Schroeder and Stanley Lipshitz, film-sound pioneer and editor Walter Murch, Andy Moorer of Sonic Solutions and Adobe, Roger Lagadec, Kees Schouhamer Imminck (who developed the optical data-reading technology used in the CD), Karlheinz Brandenburg of MP3 fame, and acoustician Leo Beranek.

When Robert Schulein of the AES Technical Council e-mailed me last summer to invite me to give this lecture, I was sure that a mistake had been made. The gentlemen above invented the future. By contrast, I am just a storyteller; worse, I am a teller of other people's tales, including tales told by some of the people above.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," Laurie Anderson was once supposed to have said, and to be an audio journalist is not too different. However, as a generalist in a world of intense specialization, I think I can dance a step sufficiently varied to cast some interesting shadows.

I am sure that some of the questions I will ask in the next 50 minutes or so have already been answered, perhaps even by one or more of the people in this room. Nothing I will say is either original or new. Much of it has been examined in articles I have written and speeches I have given over the past decades. However, it is unlikely that everything will have ever been grouped together in the same presentation before. And, of course, given the large amount of ground I will be covering, I am well aware that I am skating over crevasses of deeper understanding. So I beg forgiveness for the inevitable generalizations.

Early Days
I had a schizophrenic education. On the one hand, I was an academic overachiever in the sciences. On the other, music meant more to me than any other interest at school, and I continued playing bass guitar in bands, first while I kept my nose to the scientific grindstone at university, and later when I took a job in scientific research.

I started out working, in a government laboratory, on the development of LEDs. This is my ID card at the lab—long hair was mandatory for government workers at the end of the 1960s, of course.

One of my tasks was to grow my own junctions, using a slice of a zone-purified n-doped gallium phosphide crystal and depositing a layer of p-doped material on it with a vapor-epitaxy oven. I would then cleave the material into individual dies and make transistors from them under a stereo microscope. I would characterize the charge-carrier mobility by measuring the Hall Effect with an enormous magnet—I once stuck my hand in the magnet but felt nothing, despite all the ions in my nerves presumably pressing against one side. I later worked for a mineral-processing laboratory, where I learned to pan for gold, among other skills.

But even as I began slowly climbing the scientific ladder, music pulled even more strongly, and I resigned from the lab in July 1972 to join a band that had just been signed to Warner Bros., and was to make an album at Abbey Road Studio and then embark on a tour of America. Well, we made the album, but our manager did a runner with the advance from Warners and the LP was never released. One memory I have of Abbey Road was this young tape op who, one lunchtime when the producer and engineer were at lunch, sat at the console and did a superb mix of one of our songs.

This slide is a montage of two photos I took in Abbey Road's Studio 3—you can see that the tape op sitting by the 16-track Studer machine was a youthful Alan Parsons!

For the next four years I played with other bands, toured, and made other albums, but it eventually became clear that I would need a steadier source of income, and in September 1976 I joined the British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review as an editorial assistant. At a magazine devoted to audio equipment and recordings, I felt as if the scientific and musical sides of my brain could finally coalesce. And working on audio magazines is what I have done ever since.

As I said, I am a generalist in a world of specialists. The problem with being a generalist is the vast amount of information published in every field. It is impossible to stay current. Back when the Scientific Method was a radical new idea, and science was the preserve of wealthy gentleman amateurs, it was just about possible for a single person to know everything. But those days are long gone . . . one group of researchers reckon that 1.3 million articles were published in scientific journals in 2006 alone.

I am also old enough that my education in electronics and audio was exclusively based on tubes. Even the logic circuits I constructed at school used tubes! But looking back, I think there was one experience that foreshadowed my career as an audio reviewer. For one of my bachelor's degree final exams, I was handed a black box with two terminals and had to spend an afternoon determining what it was. (If I recall correctly, it was a Zener diode in series with a resistor.) That experience is echoed every day in my endeavors to characterize the performance of the audio components reviewed in Stereophile—every product, be it speaker, amplifier, CD player, is fundamentally a black box with input and output terminals. All I have to do is ask the question "What does it do?" And remember that testing a product is not just a case of pressing "F9" on the Audio Precision; you are faced with trying to get into the head of the designer and asking, Why did he do it this way? What is the trade-off the designer has felt worthwhile? (There are always trade-offs.) And why?

Concours d'elegance
I am addicted to elegant ideas. When I first realized that the square root of negative 1, i, could be visualized as meaning a rotation of 90° into a second dimension of what was hitherto a one-dimensional number line, it was a moment of satori. In the one-dimensional world of numbers, the concept of the square root of negative 1 is meaningless. But by adding a new dimension, you enter a new, rich reality where i does have meaning.

But it didn't take me long to realize that elegance is not always equivalent to truth. As a teenager, I thought that the hypothesis of the Static Universe propounded by Fred Hoyle, along with Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi (whose passing significance I'll mention later), was supremely elegant. (And it didn't hurt that, as a science-fiction fanatic, I was familiar with Hoyle's fiction.) Hoyle's idea was that, as the universe expands, it causes new matter to be created, if I remember correctly, at the rate of one hydrogen atom per century in a volume "equal to the Empire State Building," so that if you took a series of snapshots of the universe, one every billion years, they would all be identical. Of course, as soon as the cosmic microwave background was discovered, Hoyle was proved completely wrong. (This is ironic, as Hoyle had invented the term "Big Bang Theory" to disparage what turned out to be the correct theory.) But the Big Bang Theory means that the universe had a beginning and will have an end, which strikes me as inelegant in the extreme.

A glass of what by rights should be a gas at room temperature

I am also fascinated by things that don't seem to fit. For example, when I first studied the Periodic Table of the Elements, it struck me as very strange that water is a liquid at normal temperature and pressure. If all you knew were the properties of its constituents—two of the lightest elements in the Periodic Table—you would expect water to be a gas like hydrogen sulfide, but less dense and less smelly.

But water obstinately isn't a gas, and we all take for granted that it isn't. In fact, our lives depend on it not being a gas. It takes a deeper knowledge of the properties of water to understand why it doesn't fit.

It is the combination of elegance and apparent anomalies that I will be talking about in this lecture. Which brings me to an explanation of its title:

GeorgeHolland's picture

No you may address me as George or Mr Holland. Georie is an attempt at making fun but then again that's about all you know to do anyway.

Please ask a relevant question or just shut it.

The lamb would first have to prove they can hear a difference with a dbt

The shepard can buy whatever he wants.

The big bad wolf tried to convince both that the expensive boutique amp was the one to buy

They told him to shove it and bought a less expensive but well built amp and they all lived happily ever after except for Mr Big Bad who soon folded his shop due to no sales.

ChrisS's picture

So Georgie,

Let's make this question relevant....

Let's say we're testing two amplifiers with two listeners. The first listener is an 18 year old young lady who is trained in classical piano at a Grade 10 music conservatory level. She can hear that Amp A has an excellent range 16hz-40khz through the test system, but even though Amp B doesn't have the same range, she likes the "sound" of it better.  The second listener is the shepherd boy who's grown up now. He's 54 years old, likes big band jazz, but his hearing has been damaged by working with heavy machinery without hearing protection. He can't hear a difference between the two amps.


Which amplifier should the ex-shepherd buy?

GeorgeHolland's picture

The 18 year old can hear to 40KHz?  Were her parents bats?

"Like" doesn't have anything to do with blind testing. You don't pick which one you "like" you see if you can tell WHICH amp is playing. You don't even know how a dbt test is run I can see already.

 Who cares which amp they buy?  Maybe the people selling them do but that is completly irrevelant to dbt. You have no clue as to what blind testing is all about.

ChrisS's picture


Are you a real person or a computer generated figment from JRusskie's russian clone of an old IBM PC? Do you know anyone with normal hearing? Do you know how real people shop or do you isolate yourself in the sanctuary of your closed mind and order everything on-line after reading extensive reviews in Consumer Reports?

ChrisS's picture

You call those proper Double Blind studies?

GeorgeHolland's picture

Oh so you are an expert on double or single blind studies. The ABX system is a proven dbt way to do things. Just because the results have you so upset, you claim the people doing the testing are doing it wrong? Laughable. Tell me some more jokes.

ChrisS's picture

...Swinging down the street so fancy-free..."


In fact, Georgie, my major(s) for my undergraduate degree were in Developmental Psychology (including Perception) and Statistics (including Research Methodology). So yes, the set up and methodology shown in those links are crap and the results are laughable...

ChrisS's picture

Get thee to a local college and enroll in a first year research methodology course. Have fun learning!

GeorgeHolland's picture

Either address me as George or STFU you stupid little boy. I think you majored in being a twit and smart ass. Who can take anything you say as serious? Grow the fuck up already. You act out like a lil boy with the IQ of a rock.

Go tell the people who make the ABX test system what you just said and see how they laugh you out of the room. You bring nothing to this discussion other than what you don't agree with , with zero facts to back up your claims. Come on show us all how the ABX test methods aren't any good or why the blind testing done in the othe link was faulty. Better yet tell Harman Kardon that their blind testing techniques are faulty and not worth doing.

ChrisS's picture


You must be running out of neurons if you don't trust your own eyes and ears. Yes, the facts are out there.

JohnnyR's picture

.is what SBT and DBT are all about. Using your eyes to test audio products? Well yes I can SEE that YOU would have to look so you would know which one is "better".

ChrisS's picture

Whose ears? Why?

John Atkinson's picture

GeorgeHolland wrote:
I find it sad that Stereophile keeps saying that DBT or even SBT are not a valid way to test those claims.

Please do not put words in my mouth. That is not what I have said. What I _have_ written is that to design a blind test that limits the variables to just that which you are interrsted in and that produces valid results when there is a small but real audible difference is complicated and time-consuming. The literature is full of poorly designed and performed blind tests that have been proclaimed by audio skeptics as "proving" that there are no audible differences. Such people demonstrate both their ignorance of the Scientfiic Method and their unquesitoning faith in "Scientism."

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

GeorgeHolland's picture

JohnnyR was right more EXCUSES.

It's pretty simple Mr Atkinson but then having the will or gumption to put a dbt into the line of testing is the first thing you have to have,

You obviously don't have that or just don't care so it's a moot point anyways.

JohnnyR's picture

.nor ever will when money is involved.

dalethorn's picture

I would hate to see magazines and websites like Stereophile become intimidated by naysayers who demand "proof" of everything they say, in advance or after the fact. There's a lot of that in mainstream media, due no doubt to controversial topics and false information being fed to reporters. But come on, people - this isn't a mainstream news outfit reporting life or death stories. We have here an incredibly rich article full of facts that can be researched and questioned with references that are well established over time. Instead we have people questioning the author's motives or his pursuit of truth? I think people who are looking for "The truth" should be looking in a religious forum, not a hi-fi forum. There's very little you can "prove" on these topics - the value here is the very informed opinion that costs you nothing.

Ariel Bitran's picture

nice comment Dale. as an attendee of this lecture, i can tell you it was surely enlightening.

GeorgeHolland's picture

I think you have it all backwards there friend.....

"I think people who are looking for "The truth" should be looking in a religious forum, not a hi-fi forum. There's very little you can "prove" on these topics - the value here is the very informed opinion that costs you nothing."

Religion is based upon belief and subjectivists cling to their belief, they don't go looking for proof or the scientific method. No you can't prove very much when the reviewers use subjective say so instead of actually measuring the units. Opinons are a dime a dozen or even less than that and worth next to nothing. Just look at all the opinions here.

dalethorn's picture

No, George, you don't get it. You're still stuck in religion, looking for proof of something. Here you get 'information' only, and if you want 'proof' of something, you have to do the work in proving it to yourself. What *you* believe, outside of yourself, is purely opinion. Perhaps all these people looking for truth or proof are just lazy, and trying to intimidate others into doing the work for them. Like bullies.

JohnnyR's picture

......the facts there pal. Your "arguement" is FLAT.  The only "info" Stereophile shows us is what the WANT to show us. Cables, power cords, magic bowls are off the list of even testing them in anyway what-so-ever. The reason? Ohhhhh we really don't know how to test those duhhhhh. How lame an EXCUSE is that?  Stereophile is SUPPOSED to be a magazine for information NOT excuses.

"Perhaps all these people looking for truth or proof are just lazy, and trying to intimidate others into doing the work for them. Like bullies."

 BWAHAHAHAHAH!!! that has to be on my "Top 10 WTF Things of 2012"

 You DIDN'T just say that did you???? So let me get this straight, Stereophiles job as you see it is to just fling out "say so" and it's up to the readers to wade through the muck and mire of those reviews to try and grasp one little bit of truth? Yeah right, you must really love it then because they rarely show any truth at all.

Ariel Bitran's picture

why is it so hard to accept that double-blind listening tests are difficult to achieve as JA has explained in his lecture?

the fact that our existences are commandeered by individual perception based on thousands of variables makes it very easy for me to understand, just as how one person may enjoy spicy foods but not grapefruit or where some may hear too much bass and others not enough. so many VARIABLES!!! culture, upbringing, what sounds you are surrounded by, traffic signals, your genetic structure, your actual physical position when listening. perception is a learned skill that we do not choose to accept, it just happens and it is different for every single person.

i think THESE are the sort of differences between individuals that make DBT difficult: everyone hears differently. there is no absolute sound.

the best example of how an ear and sonic preference can change is in the study of language and sounds. the chinese language has a completely different set of sounds to that of the english language, thus their speaking intonation, laughter, and music reflect their cultural and sonic inclinations. eastern and western and andean and greek and celtic and ... and ... all use completely different scales based on their preferences of sound learned over time through language and their environments.

Thus, i often wonder do hi-fi listeners across the globe prefer different sounding systems based on their installed sonic memory? or is there a constant in terms of preference across the globe? probably not. or even more interestingly, can one find similarities in preferences in sound based on linguistic sounds of an individual region? are the frequencies accented in the german language more easily noticed by a german in his hi-fi? DBTs are a waste of time. instead of focusing why not, it is much more fun to focus on the why.

the heart of all of this lies within JA's question: where do the negative frequencies go? there are aspects to our perception of sound that simply cannot be measured because they are based on individual perception which is different for every single one of us.

GeorgeHolland's picture

If blind testing is so difficult then how did the people that I linked to manage to do so?  Harman Kardon does blind testing at the drop of a hat. Go ask them how they do it so easily. Mr Atkinson's refusal to do so is simply an excuse as to not have to bring up why cables, power cords and other snake oil is indeed snake oil. He can merrily go along his way as he has for years now ignoring such products and letting his reviewers say whatever BS they want about the sham products and not have to worry one bit. He just doesn't care is the bottom line.

ChrisS's picture

Georgie Porgie,

That you cite these links as authoritative sources indicates the level of your understanding of testing methodology.

JohnnyR's picture

......nothing to back up whatever it is you are trying to say but it is amusing.

ChrisS's picture

Research methodology courses are taught in colleges and universities all over the world, even Russia...

Let us know when you and Georgie take one.

JohnnyR's picture

Nothing to cite other than your own wandering silly posts? Thought so.

Regadude's picture

Well little Johnny, at least Chris is A REAL psychologist. He's not a, you know, a hobbyist like yourself...

JohnnyR's picture

........credentials from ChrisSy just say so. Oh lets see I think I'll be a nuclear scientist now just because I say I am on the forums. There now it's a done deal. Besides how he acts out is more like a 3 year old than an adult. Some professional he is and tell us all again just what your expertise is? Trolling perhaps?

Regadude's picture

...credentials from Johnny the hobbyist speaker designer. Let's see some pictures of your Johnny brand speakers! Post some pics, or provide a link to a site where we can see these speakers of yours.

I demand to see these speakers of yours! 

ChrisS's picture

If JRusskie has a misguided and limited understanding of DBT, and....

Georgie has a misguided and limited understanding of DBT, then....

Are JRusskie and Georgie one and the same person?

Has anyone seen them in the same room together? Hmmmm.

Please, one of you (I guess it doesn't matter which...) ask Harman Kardon how they do their DBT's and how they use the results.

Thank you.


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