Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Digital v Analogue #5: Too soft, too loud

In the early 1980s I was working as a freelance designer from a small studio near London. In the corner was a (for its time) state-of-the-art stereo system which provided the audio accompaniment to our days' (and often nights') work. It was one of the first systems I had ever seen with a remote control, and I remember much fun (read 'annoyance') being generated by people stealing the remote and changing the volume at inappropriate times.

One evening I was alone in the studio, grappling with another stupid deadline. A recently purchased cassette of Brian Eno's Music for Airports seemed a fitting accompaniment to the work I was attempting. The problem was that I couldn't get the volume 'just' right… no matter how lightly and briefly I pressed the volume control on the remote, the sound levels were either too high, or too low.

Using the volume slider on the amplifier itself was no better. Unlike the analogue rotary controls I was used to, this system adjusted the volume digitally, in 'steps'. And '1' was too soft, and '2' was too loud. There was no '1-and-a-bit'.

Without realising it, I had hit one of the limitations of 'digital'. At its root, things are either 'on' or 'off'. The engineers who had created the volume control mechanism hadn't allowed enough 'steps' at the lower end of the adjustment scale, making it impossible to get the volume into the 'Goldilocks Zone'.

My solution was appropriately analogue, I set the volume to '2' and draped a couple of towels over the speakers. Yes, I am a genius.


Can Opener Boy said...

Ah, but there again, you were using digital technology. You chose "a couple of" towels -- two? Not "one and a bit" -- can't have "half" a towel any more than we can dig "half" a hole.

It always comes down to the graduations between the numbers; the infinity between 0 and 1 -- or is it the infinity between 0 and 0.5? No, wait, maybe it is the infinity between 0.25 and 0.50?

I can never remember!


(slowly walks halfway to the wall, then halfway to the wall, then halfway to the wall...)

Skep said...

"Yes, I am a genius."

And completely modest, too... *rolls eyes*

I've noticed that this problem has since been overcome... the volume control is still digital, but you can at least go in steps of decibels now, rather than factory-set "steps".

brett jordan said...

Yes, you're right skep... things like volume controls have now been refined, with variable stepping rates, etc... and various anti-aliasing technologies helps with digital images... however, the 'full-on or full-off' aspect of digital is something that will always need to be addressed and re-addressed as new technologies emerge