Wednesday, June 27, 2012
The March of Time
I'm no longer young in body but I am still youthful in spirit. I grew up in an era when televisions transitioned from black and white to color, from consoles to portables, from tubes to transistors, from transistors to integrated circuits, from CRTs to LEDs, and all during this evolution in technology was another revolution going on in my body.
When a mere child, sounds fascinated me catching my attention from whatever direction they came. Others I played with seemed undaunted and unimpressed by such simple noises, and I found that odd. For example, I was amazed by the numerous sonic details I could hear coming from a grandfather clock, mostly in the top octaves. Tiny creaks, simple clicks, and of course the primary tick-tock. Automobile engines revealed their own symphony when my grandfather popped the hood and I listened to the mechanisms for the first time. Sounds always captivated me.
I lived rural and on a lightly traveled street, unpaved for the majority of my stay there. Quiet came easily, especially when the sun went down. Crickets, frogs, and owls ruled the night with their rhythmic voices, lulling anyone to sleep through an open window. Without air conditioning and other appliances to interfere, one hears the house talking with its moans and groans, creaks and sighs, and those sudden pops of metal contorting back into a cooler state. No doubt, as a child I used my ears and to their full potential.
As television grew common, this technology appeared in living rooms across the country. They were big, hot, of limited quality, and most of all inherently noisy. Whenever I walked past a store selling them, a high-pitched whine emanated from the open door. It was eerie and I did not understand its purpose until much later in my life. If I wanted to watch television, and I did, I had to ignore the ear-piercing whine they emitted, putting up with whatever detrimental effects this noise may have.
Funny that when I was watching television, I no longer noticed the subtle noises I had enjoyed before its arrival. No longer did I hear the creatures of the night now that the high-pitched noise was louder than their songs. I had to learn to ignore the things I grew to value, those wonderful sounds of my early youth.
The device in a television causing this high-pitched whining noise is a piece of hardware known as flyback transformer and without going into detail as to its function, know that some televisions had noisier ones than others. Some were blaring and others, well, you get the idea. Every television had one. Then came along computers.
The noise now migrated from the picture tube to the CRT monitor and there was no escaping it. Banks, retail stores, every aspect of life willingly embraced the computer and so did the presence of this flyback noise. Soon, there was no escaping it, and almost no relief.
I worked for Bell Labs, the inventors among other things of the transistor and the UNIX operating system. This company in its glory days embraced such change and soon my days were filled with conscious efforts to find relief from this high-pitched squeal. I recall entering my office one day and hearing my officemate's monitor blaring away, his hearing unable to detect its incessant whine. Pointing to his monitor, I asked him, "Can you hear that?" to which his reply was, "Hear what?" Oh well, he did play a really nice harpsichord.
As the numbers of computer monitors grew exponentially, so did my tolerance to their upper-octave acoustic distress. One day I remember saying to myself from that place where truth emerges in us all, "I can't wait until I get older and my hearing begins to fail." Such was my burden that the only hope of escape was for age to take its inevitable toll.
And then one day ten years or so later, what I had asked for on that day in my mid 30s came to be. I walked into an office from where I knew one of the loudest noises came and there was no noise...none, zip, zero, nada. I leaned over to the offending monitor to check to see if it was on and indeed it was. For a moment I was jubilant...but just for a moment. For with this thing for which I asked came the realization that the tiny tinkles, the subtle swishes, the whisks of brushes on the drums would be but a memory, something I did not really want to forget.
As an audiophile, I was at a juncture of wishful-sinful, one where to get relief, I had to give up the one thing that gave me pleasure. It was a sad moment and one that turned into regret and remorse. You see, the noise flyback transformers make is a consistent 15,750 Hz whine and I knew that my hearing threshold had now dropped well below that point. At one audiophile meeting in 1980, my hearing was measured at 18,300 Hz; on this sad day, I realized I lost 3,000 Hz, more than 15% of my total hearing. That was in 1990 and such is the price for longevity.
The point of this tale is this: Value your youthful ears. Take care of them and listen to everything you can recalling clearly what it all sounds like up there in the top octaves, for one day if you live long enough, all of these tiny intricate sounds will fade, like your favorite shirt washed too many times. Don’t do stupid things like sit next to speaker stacks at rock concerts or deliberately expose yourself to very loud sounds of any kind because each of these slowly impacts your ability to detect what you love - sound.
If you want to hear what you now hear when you are old, take care of your ears. Think about longevity and not instant gratification. My well-nurtured ears have faded and according to a rough listening test, my hearing limit now only reaches to just over 13,000 Hz, a depressing figure from what it once was. Memories are all I have now of what a breaking glass really sounds like, how ear-piercing baby cries can be, how intriguing tiny sounds are, with a 30% loss of my top octave. Such sounds are now reconstructed as best as I can recall from the sonic images I impressed in my mind.
Value your ears for time will take from any audiophile what s/he values most - music. Listen to everything you can and scrutinize each performance for its loving details. Catch all nuances and lock them into your memory for sadly one day these will be all you have. There is a reason we all instinctively to this; trust your instincts.