1995 Discover Awards: Sound

Thursday, June 01, 1995
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
When Lincoln Center in New York City opened its doors for the first time in 1962, the acoustics in its Philharmonic Hall were abysmal-- the audience couldn’t hear whole sections of the orchestra. The problem was corrected, but the difficulty of catching such acoustic blunders continued to keep engineers awake at night. Architects can build scale models to see what their buildings will look like before they are built, but sound engineers have had no such luxury.

Kenneth Jacob, chief engineer at Bose in Framingham, Massachusetts, recently led a team that developed computer software that can use architectural specifications for a concert hall to create a sample of what the hall will sound like when it’s built. Called the Bose Auditioner, it began life in 1985 as a computer program that tallied the dimensions of a building along with the acoustic properties of the materials used for the walls, floors, and ceilings, and calculated how sound would propagate through the rooms. Jacob’s version goes one step further: it reproduces how music or speech in the room would actually sound. With it, engineers can judge the acoustics with their ears rather than by looking at data.

The software runs on a Macintosh computer, and it requires some kind of external sound source such as a compact disc player. Using information about the architecture of the room, the program modifies the signal from the CD player in the same way the geometry of the room would. To test how accurate these synthetic acoustics are, Jacob conducted blindfold tests to see whether people could distinguish between a building’s real acoustics and those generated by the software. Virtually no one could tell the difference, he says.

Finalists:

Sound Fixer

Snell Acoustics’

Digital Room Correcting System

Innovator: Kevin Voecks

What good is a digitally perfect recording of Plácido Domingo singing greatest hits from Carmen if your room has lousy acoustics? Not much. Sound waves emanating from the best of stereos undergo a change as they bounce off walls, ceilings, furniture, and even people. The resulting distortion, known in audio lingo as coloration, occurs because the reflected sound interferes with the sound coming from the speakers.

You don’t want to hear the effect of your room’s acoustics but those of the theater or studio where the original recording was done, says Kevin Voecks, chief engineer for Snell Acoustics in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Voecks has come up with a technique for canceling the effects of bad acoustics that restores the sound of recorded music to its original perfection--making your living room sound as good as Carnegie Hall.

Voecks’s method requires, first, that an audio technician size up the room’s acoustics. While your stereo plays a series of test sounds at different frequencies, microphones planted throughout the room measure precisely how the room alters the sound. Once the coloration is known for each listening position in the room, a special computer, which Voecks designed, then goes through a series of calculations and comes out with a different sound--one that when played along with a recording has the effect of compensating for and eliminating the coloration. These compensating frequencies are thereafter reproduced whenever a recording is played by a device called an RCS-1000 Digital Room Correcting System, which plugs into the stereo. The listener hears only the recording as it would sound in a concert hall or recording studio.

The device, however, isn’t perfect. It must be adjusted for precisely the number of listeners in the room and a prespecified seating arrangement. Although this might introduce an element of rigidity to your next party, anybody who loves music enough to pay $15,000 for the device and the technician’s visit shouldn’t mind the inconvenience.

Dumbstruck

Yamaha’s Silent Series Pianos

Innovator: Rokurouta mantani

You enter a room and see someone pounding the ivories of a genuine baby grand--in absolute silence. Have you lost your hearing or stumbled on some evil house of mimes?

Not at all. The piano in question is one of Yamaha’s Silent Series pianos. In most respects it is a traditional baby grand, but push a special lever and the instrument turns silent, no matter how hard you bang the keys. The sound can then be heard only through a pair of headphones. You never know when you’re going to be musically inspired, says Rokurouta Mantani, the Yamaha engineer who led the development of the instrument. Now you can keep the peace no matter what time it is.

Yamaha introduced its Silent Series in January 1994 to combine the flexibility of an electric keyboard with the aesthetic appeal of a traditional piano. In its acoustic mode, the piano produces sound with small hammers that strike strings, just like a traditional instrument. Pressing the lever causes a metal bar to move into place, blocking the hammers from reaching the strings. Pressure-sensitive sensors measure precisely the pianist’s touch and feed the information to a computer- controlled synthesizer, which reproduces electronically the sound that the pianist would have made with hammers and strings, and pipes it through headphones.

Mantani gave both the acoustic and electric modes of the piano the same keyboard feel. The price tag? From $6,295 for an upright piano to $20,995 for a baby grand.

Hearing Directions

Sound Retrieval Systems Laboratories’ Vivid 3D [Sound Retrieval System]

Innovator: Arnold Klayman

Unless Arnold Klayman sat dead center between the two speakers of his stereo system, he lost the stereo effect. For years this shortcoming really bugged him. Why should he have to sit still to fully enjoy his music? He decided to do something about it.

The problem, he reasoned, derives from the ability of our ears to tell which direction a sound is coming from. To be more precise, the ear has an appurtenance called the pinna, whose twists and curls subtly emphasize certain frequencies of sound over others and, in so doing, give the brain directional cues. The pinna, in other words, can distinguish between direct sound, which comes from the instrument straight to the listener, and ambient sound, which reaches the ear only after bouncing off walls, ceilings, and other objects. The recording process, however, blurs this distinction: it stuffs all the sound onto two tracks, with the result that the listener gets an accurate directional reproduction only by sitting directly between the speakers. You can’t divorce the listener from the recording process, says Klayman. Aural perception is a key factor in how well a recording comes across.

Klayman, director of advanced development at Sound Retrieval Systems Laboratories in Santa Ana, California, came up with a way to break down the stereo signal and reconstruct it so that the stereo effect is preserved no matter where the listener is in the room. His device, the Vivid 3D Sound Retrieval System, plugs into a stereo’s amplifier. With the help of a built-in microcomputer, it obtains the direct sound by adding the sound coming from the left and right speakers. To get the ambient sound, it finds the difference between the sound of the two speakers. Then it boosts certain frequencies of the ambient sound, restoring the proper directional cues. Klayman’s company licensed the technology to NuReality in Santa Ana, which started selling it last fall for $79.95.

Talking Software

Berkeley Systems’

OutSpoken for Windows

Innovator: Marc Sutton

As the computer revolution makes communication more and more visual, are blind people in danger of being left behind? Not if Marc Sutton can help it. The product manager at Berkeley Systems in Berkeley, California, developed software, called OutSPOKEN for Windows, that converts graphics and text into synthesized spoken English.

Verbalizing what’s on-screen gives blind users access to the computer as a working, productive tool, says Sutton (who himself is blind). With Sutton’s program, a blind person uses a keyboard to select the same kind of graphic icons used in the popular Windows software. The difference, however, is that a speech synthesizer reads aloud text identifying what the icon stands for. It does the same when the computer user selects pull-down menus, points to numbers in a spreadsheet, or indicates words in a document.

The trick in designing the system was to provide the extra speech capability without interfering with the other, conventional software running on the computer. That means that a blind person can use the same computer as a sighted person merely by adding the Berkeley software--though the software requires a special card for synthesizing speech that is not usually found on garden-variety PCs. The $595 program, released early this year, works with any application that runs within Microsoft’s graphics- based Windows system.

Awards Judges:

AUTOMOTIVE & TRANSPORTATION

Janet Guthrie - First woman to race in the Indianapolis 500; former aerospace engineer.

James R. Healey - Automotive editor, USA Today.

Maryann Keller - President, Society of Automotive Analysts.

Shirley Muldowney - Drag racer; three-time National Hot Rod Association world champion.

Danny Sullivan - Race car driver; 1985 winner of the Indianapolis 500.

AVIATION & AEROSPACE

Buzz Aldrin - Gemini and Apollo astronaut; walked on the moon during the first lunar landing.

Scott Carpenter - Mercury astronaut; U.S. Navy SeaLab II aquanaut/team commander.

Donald Fink - Editor in chief, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

Jim Lovell - Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13; flew on Apollo 8, America’s first mission to the moon.

Walter Wally Schirra - One of NASA’s original seven astronauts; flew Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft.

COMPUTER HARDWARE & ELECTRONICS

Jim Hartz - Host of PBS science series Innovation.

David Horowitz - Radio/TV consumer commentator; syndicated columnist; president, Fight Back! Foundation for Consumer Education.

Dan Muse - Executive editor, FamilyPC magazine.

Penn and Teller - Masters of magic; debunkers of New Age pseudoscience; computer gear experts (Penn is a columnist for PC Computing magazine).

Gary Shapiro - Group vice president, Electronic Industries Association’s Consumer Electronics Group.

COMPUTER SOFTWARE

Stewart Cheifet - Host/executive producer of PBS series The Computer Chronicles.

John C. Dvorak - Nationally syndicated computer columnist for PC Magazine and MacUser.

Esther Dyson - Editor, RELEASE 1.0; president, EDventure Holdings, Inc.; Forbes contributing editor.

Michael Miller - Editor in chief, PC Magazine.

Marvin Minsky - MIT professor of computer science; pioneer of artificial intelligence.

ENVIRONMENT

Kathryn Fuller - President and CEO, World Wildlife Fund; member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Overseas Development Council, and the U.S. Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.

Denis Hayes - Chairman of the board, Green Seal; organizer, Earth Day 1970 and Earth Day 1990; president, Bullitt Foundation; environmental columnist for USA Weekend.

Fred Krupp - Executive director, the Environmental Defense Fund.

Thomas Lovejoy - Assistant secretary for external affairs, the Smithsonian Institution.

Michael McCloskey - Chairman, Sierra Club; adjunct professor of public policy at the School of Natural Resources, University of Michigan.

SIGHT

Harry Benson - Award-winning photojournalist.

Hans Fantel - New York Times consumer electronics columnist.

David Friend - Director of photography, Life magazine.

Marvin Kitman - Television critic; humorist; syndicated columnist for Newsday and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

Gene Siskel - Nationally syndicated film critic; cohost of the Siskel and Ebert syndicated television show.

SOUND

Louise Boundas - Vice president and editor in chief, Stereo Review magazine.

Ray Charles - Jazz and blues singer, musician, and composer; recipient of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award.

Michael Greene- President and CEO, National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, presenter of the annual Grammy Awards.

Eugene Pitts III - Vice president and editor in chief, Audio magazine.

Timothy White - Editor in chief, Billboard magazine; host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Timothy White Sessions; award-winning music journalist.
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