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What is Stereo? Do you actually know? Well I got some surprising results in my mini-survey!

by Tony on 21st March 2016 , No comments

Don’t be daft, of course everyone knows what Stereo is‘ you say. But they don’t!

Let’s start with a bit of very unscientific, non-empirical and very loosely recorded (one post-it note of ‘data’) market research. Essentially I phoned a few people up and just asked ‘Do you know what stereo is? I also asked (depending on the answer to the first question) ‘How does it do it?’ and ‘Does the same thing come out of each speaker?’ The answers were variable, those who have invested in a turntable and amp etc. and have something other than a passive interest did know, or were able to describe it in some way that meant something to them (one chap referred to a man running from one speaker to the other on the track ‘On The Run’ by Pink Floyd. Other people I asked suggested it was something to do with volume.. or tone.. or just couldn’t come up with any meaningful description or explanation. So ask yourself, do you know what Stereo is?

When we go out to buy anything audio (or TV/AV) related it is ‘Stereo’ this and ‘Surround’ that and ‘Multi-Channel’ the other, and when you go to buy your music it is recorded in stereo, you play it back on something that reproduces it in stereo, you have two speakers on your PC/laptop and now some phones are bigging themselves up for having stereo speakers or whatever, theoretically you are spending more on it because it is stereo (more speakers for a start), but why???

Well I’m gonna tell you how it works in case someone phones you up and asks!

I know what stereo is because one day as a youth I had an epiphany! I grew up in the gritty North of England.. we never had any money, I’m not saying it was rough but when I’m asked what it was like growing up I liken it to a scene from ‘Kes‘ (If you haven’t seen it watch it! Coincidentally I read this morning that the author sadly died yesterday). Anyways, back to the point; We never had any money, so when I wanted something I used to save up my paper-round money and put 50p a week or whatever into the Christmas Club at the little electronics shop near me. Very slowly I managed to buy a succession of radios or radio cassettes but could never afford the stereo ones, I used to look enviably at Philips Stereo Radio Cassettes and mini ghetto-blasters. SO I learned to tinker, I used to buy little tiny speakers and things from the Tandy shop near me or butcher other radios or old radiograms; and by attaching second speakers to things or putting them in radio-cassetes in the spaces where they didn’t belong – or by connecting two radios together in some pre-steampunk way I made things stereo! At least so I thought.. I had discovered multi-channel mono at best!! But at that stage I was pretty sure is was stereo, even though if asked, like the people in the survey, I wouldn’t really be able to describe it in any meaningful way.. something about sound? Tone? Speakers?

Then one day I bought a walkman, probably not a Sony one (too expensive!), maybe a ‘Saisho’ or something, with those orange foamy headphones that were crap. I took it out one day with either a Gary Numan tape or possibly Ultravox ‘Rage In Eden’ and KAPOW!!! I had an epiphany!! I was so amazed by the sounds flying around in my head and the whole 3D-ness of it all I took off the headphones and stared at them and put them back on!! It was like VR for the ears! It was such a pivotal moment in my life that I remember to this day exactly where I was stood. Gone were the sellotaped flimsy additional speaker wires of my childhood, from that day on it was full on stereo snobbery – if it didn’t play in stereo, or wasn’t recorded in stereo then I didn’t wanna know! I acutely listened for the ‘stereoness’ of certain recordings, listening for sounds flying round from right to left or whatever, I could pick up on these easily but the whole purpose of stereo is not just that, a few whizzing synths didn’t explain the amazing 3d-ness of the whole sound that I experienced. I later learned that by having two points of sound, two earphones, two speakers, (two ears!) that you have access to or the ability to reproduce a sound either right or left or hear a sound at any point in between. I’m not going to go into the science of it (don’t know how!) but ask yourself this… if you have only two ears how come you can hear stuff from any direction and pinpoint it? Well the same goes for stereo, only two speakers but when you catch it just right the speakers seem to ‘disappear’ and the music takes on a holographic quality; a neat trick! Modern stereo was developed way back in the 30’s at EMI I think, probably by men in white coats, and they changed everything for me.

In simple terms the type of stereo sound we are used to is called ‘pan -pot’ stereo and it works by sending different amounts of the same sound to both speakers – and sometimes it sends something only to one speaker. Take for instance the sound of a drum kit.. one cymbal could be just in the right speaker, the next could be 90% in the right and 10% in the left, so when you hear them both they are both coming from the same general direction but one is clearly next to the other – just slightly to the left of it – and so on…

But let’s talk about this holographic immersive nonsense for a minute; ‘It doesn’t sound like on my stereo…’ I hear you say, and you are probably right. At it’s most ordinary stereo just sounds like music coming out of you car speakers/boom-box or whatever.. you may have become aware of more tinging in one side or some synth sweeping about, but that’s hardly holographic. The thing I am trying to describe is it’s potential. You need to give yourself the chance to ‘see’ it.

I liken it to those magic pictures that came out in the late eighties or early nineties, where you stare at them till you feel sick then a three dimensional dolphin suddenly appears. When I sit down for a proper listen sometimes I don’t get it straight away… it sounds good, and is clearly in stereo, but no magic apparitions! So I sit and focus a bit on the middle ground, close my eyes maybe and really listen to all the different sounds. Then it happens!! It’s like the speakers are nowhere in particular and the sound is immersive and three dimensional and you can hear little instruments and sounds floating around like you could pluck them out of the air…!!!! Wild you think!! Anorak you say!!! (maybe a thin one) but this stereo experience is so significant that you deserve an epiphany yourself. So either put on some headphones, or sit roughly in the middle of two speakers (in a sort of triangle shape) and really ‘listen’ to some music, it isn’t just coming from one point in front of you – it is all around, it can be a three-dimensional immersive experience for some.  Now take a few moments and close your eyes and listen for a minute to real life.. do you know about mindfulness? Really listen, you will hear things you wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t take the time to be mindful – the cars going past the window, a voice somewhere, a bird? (or was it a phone) and the dogs snoring… life is in stereo.

If this little experiment does nothing else but make you stop running about and sit down for a bit and listen to the world with some degree of mindfulness then it has been worth it. I hope you can achieve that at least but I do believe you can achieve so much more. When I put some music on I listen with mindfulness – not all the time but when I really sit and listen, it’s a different experience from just hearing or just blasting it out in the car.. it can serve a different purpose, kind of therapeutic,  an indulgence… a spa for the ears…

Happy listening!

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