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."
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.
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 lablong 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 magnetI 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 3you 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 Stereophileevery 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?
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.
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 constituentstwo of the lightest elements in the Periodic Tableyou 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: