I remember a time in second grade when we started learning about sound. "Sound is made of vibrations," Miss Thomas told us. To demonstrate, she brought a speaker and a receiver into the class. She connected the two and added a tape player as a source. She laid the speaker flat on its back and turned the treble and midrange down on the receiver.
Then, she placed a shoebox over the speaker and poured in a layer of rice, just covering the bottom. She arranged the shoebox directly over the biggest speaker driver, which is called the woofer. Then she pressed play.
Wow! The music made the rice dance in rhythmic patterns — a direct visual representation of what we were hearing. It was clear then as it is now: Sound really is just vibrations moving through air and causing eardrums and microphone diaphragms and rice to move sympathetically.
This is not news to you guys of course. Who hasn't seen the license plate rattling on a booming sedan at an intersection?
I've always been in love with bass, and I want to take a detour down bass road in the next few columns. My current stereo system is subwoofer-less, but in the past it's seen 7-foot-tall tapped horn subs, backloaded horns driven by 4-inch drivers as subs, bass reflex subs, open baffle subs, isobaric subs and of course acoustic suspension — those small cube-shaped subs. All of these I built myself using plans I found online, so I think my bass cred at this point is reasonable.
If you Google each of these types of subwoofer cabinet designs I mention, you'll see the clearest variation between them is size. Size is always an issue in audio, as I've discussed in previous columns. Tiny Bluetooth speakers are selling like hot cakes, but there's no way they can recreate the feeling of being immersed in bass waves.
Just think about the difference between listening to something on a small speaker and standing in the front row at the Fox Theatre. Every hit of that bass drum kicks you in the pants, and it's not because the subs are under the stage and you're standing right in front of them. They could be anywhere, to an extent. Bass waves are huge, and sound travels pretty fast.
It's more about the fact that those longer wavelengths (lower tones) are closer to the frequencies that make clothing and skin resonate. Think about a crystal wine glass and how, with a wet finger, you can hear a high-pitched resonant frequency. Glass is very hard, so the frequency is high. Mushy skin and flappy clothes vibrate at much lower frequencies.
Even stomach acid has a resonant frequency. I can attest to this, because in my bass-obsessed middle school years, I would occasionally give myself stomach aches from listening to too much bass. This was usually after I knocked a picture off the wall or, in one case, a toolbox off a shelf. My mom was a saint.
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