Think of the color yellow. I’ll think of it, too. What are the chances our thoughts are the same?
If instead I said “submarine yellow,” would we both picture the shade on the cover of the Beatles’ album? We might, because memory necessarily affects our perception of senses, but that’s beside the point.
The spectrum of shades of yellow might span 8 or 9 terahertz, and our eyes can quickly spot a thousand shades between those insane light frequencies. Amazing.
Hearing and sound are just as crazy complex, and they operate very similarly. Our brains are built to process an uncanny amount of information just to determine whether a sound is a flute or a trumpet.
In nature, there is never one solid color. Look closely enough, and even the most monochromatic subject reveals gradients and combinations of colors.
In music, there is also never one solid tone. Every sound around us is different, and even the most single-tone-sounding note is full of what are known as harmonics and overtones.
The only exception is the synthesizer, which can come very close to producing pure sine, square and saw waves. But that’s entirely synthetic, so we’ll put it aside at the moment.
In school, we learned that sound is made of vibrations in the air that excite our eardrums and produce music in our brains.
In music class, we learn that certain frequencies — how fast the vibrations are — can be tied to specific notes on the piano or other instrument.
But when a pianist plays a middle C and a violinist does the same on an violin, nobody is confused between the sound of the two.
That’s because even though the fundamental frequency for a middle C is 261.63 vibrations per second (or hertz), there are a dizzying number of other frequencies — some appearing and disappearing during a sustain — that are present when C is played on the piano, and completely different ones are present when it’s an violin.
These other sounds are created in myriad ways. In pianos, there are often two or three strings for every note. Sometimes the outer two are detuned intentionally, to give the notes some character. The body of the piano also resonates out of every angle, and the net result of all of this crazy spewing of sound is that the piano sounds like a piano.
This is a column series on amplifiers, and you may wonder what all of this has to do with them.
The fact is, recreating music close to the original energy of the live event is no small feat. Within the spider web of connected notes and chords and instruments of every song lies an ever more vast landscape of harmonics and overtones to characterize it all correctly in our brains.
When you learn that amplifiers and speakers regularly contribute harmonics of their own during this effort, you might appreciate that there will be differences between them — some good, some bad.
Now that we’ve covered distortion and harmonics, it’s time to chat about the differences between tube amps and “solid state” or transistor amplifiers. Catch ya next week.