Thursday, February 16, 2012

BASS & Missing Music Frequencies

While listening to music via my laptop speakers, I have no clue I am missing much of the content in the song. When using headphones, I'll hear many more sounds than were first apparent. However what truly proves to me the amount of content I am missing in a song, is when I listen on a stereo with speakers & subwoofers that can reliably reproduce all the frequencies the human ear can hear. Suddenly, there are depths, highs & lows, instruments & vocal effects not heard otherwise.

Before subwoofers became a standard part of car & home stereos, one never really knew how much one was missing in the lower frequencies of sound. We all know that animals can hear frequencies that we humans can not, especially the higher notes that are silent to us. Training devices for controlling a barking dog now rely on these higher inaudible frequencies, as well it's been proven that some animals can tell when an earthquake or natural disaster is coming before we get our first clue.

Recently a friend & I were sharing music via Skype, listening together over the internet. He used bass response type headphones, while I was using my laptop speakers. He convinced me to try headphones & I must say, the sound became much more powerful even on my cheaper set. Then I burned a CD and listened to the same music via my home stereo, which was like hearing the song for the first time, so much had been missing. My friend could not hear the additional hidden bits via his laptop or headphones, and to me it was like more than half the song had been missing!

I read in Discover Science magazine about a year ago, how MP3's are missing 85% of the music content! In order to compress music to a size an internet connection could handle, back then being dial-up especially, much of the content is left out. An entire generation has grown up hearing only 15% of the actual music content, through iPod's, MP3 players & ear buds especially. Few are aware of this fact or of missing any part of the music at all. New lossless formats have since been introduced that are larger in file sizes that broadband connections can now handle, with a choice between mp3 320, ACC, Ogg, mp4, & many more, yet still missing at least half due to compression. Vinyl is making a come back (though it never truly went away) because the newer generation recognizes a quality & warmth to the sound of a record that is missing in today's digital music age.

Back when I first got involved in car audio, late 80's & early 90's, I was blown away by the frequencies available in some music that I'd never before been able to hear. Without a speaker able to handle the lower frequencies such as 30 to 250 Hz, one can not hear or FEEL the power of the bass at those levels. A friend who gave me his hand me down Orion 10-inch subwoofer, a 40-watt Rockford Fosgate amp & two generic 6x9's in a ported enclosure box (when he'd upgraded--something addictive to all we car audiophiles), introduced me to a world I'd never known existed. I was the kind of teen who would lay on the floor with two huge speakers on either side of my ears, at full volume, or who stood immediately in front of concert speakers, and later one who competed in car audio INSIDE the car (rather than use a remote control outside the car as was considered safe) or inside a vehicle with 30+ speakers & thousands of watts worth of amps, most people could not tolerate standing 10 feet away, never mind getting inside the vehicle. Luckily, my hearing is still fine, but my friend who introduced me to car audio suffers from a constant ringing & buzzing in his ears, tinnitus, as if a blown speaker now lives in his brain turned on 24/7. As for me, high notes are all that hurt my ears these days, I can't much tolerate treble, one of the reasons I dislike jazz for the high noted horns especially.

In the early days of subwoofers being readily available to consumers, there was a huge lack in music that produced the frequencies we wanted to hear. The first time I was listening to a Pink Floyd song via my new subwoofers, I literally drove my car off the road into a ditch when the hidden explosions played that I'd never heard in Pink Floyd or any music before then, I reacted as if a bomb had gone off because, one had! After that I was addicted to trying to find music to blow me away again, and along came hip hop rap music exploiting the very frequencies only recently unveiled. I came to like the music more for the boom, than for the music itself, yet even today I still have a deep appreciation for what I call rap-hop (a blend of the two), which has now evolved into dubstep with wicked low & hard hitting bass like nothing we had available back in the 80's-90's.

I'll never forget the first car audio show I attended inside a civic center concert space, with my friend Dave of the hand me down Orion & Fosgate, etc. We were walking around, I was taking pictures & pretty much drooling over every vehicle I saw, my dream was so close I could touch it. We heard bass coming from all over, nothing special really until BOOM! What the hell was that? We both swiveled heads trying to find the source. Bass frequencies travel much further than treble, as anyone who has heard a loud bass bumping vehicle coming from a mile away can attest, one can hear and FEEL the sound coming and going, long before one can see the source. At this show were tractor trailers full of speakers & amps one could walk into the vehicles, big 4-wheel drive trucks, vans & everything one can imagine on wheels. Ranging from simple two subwoofer systems to over 50-speaker systems, sponsored and unsponsored alike.

We started heading towards the sound, getting sidetracked a few times because we'd assumed it was one of the tractor trailer comp vehicles producing the bass that over rode ALL the others. Finally a white van with JL Audio stickers all over it came into view. Here was the source of the loudest deepest lowest bass I'd ever heard, with no distortion at all. With a grin from ear to ear & probably a few eargasms along the way, I looked into the van to see what their system consisted of. To this day I still don't know HOW they did it and this was the vehicle owned &/or sponsored by JL Audio, so they were not money cramped like the peons I belonged to. However they only had 4 subs, two 12w6's and two 15w6's, 2 amps and one box enclosure. I don't remember the details because back then I was a virgin in car audio & had no idea what to look for, unfortunately. The point is that I never looked at any other manufacturer after that, I was a JL Audio addict from the very start, and never did JL Audio disappoint me. At nearly $400 per 12w6 sub, they could handle any amount of power thrown at them & just kick back more, never distorting or blowing, never letting me down. Amps let me down, my subs never did.

I had three 12w6 JLA's wired down to 1/3rd ohm, on their own 900 watt ESX amp, four 8-inch Kicker subs, two 6-inch mids and two tweets, all on a Hifonics Taurus amp. A Pioneer P1R deck that required separate amps to even work (no pre-amp built in as most car stereo's come with), a one farad cap, also frequency limiting caps on the non-sub speakers (inline), had the frame of the car built & rosined from metal up into a sealed enclosure to JL Audio volume specs (giving up spare tire & entire back of the car), plus Dynamat everywhere else to control the rattles. I had to get an extra glass rider on my auto insurance because I'd been known to blow windows from the sound levels. 24-kt gold fuses, deep cell marine battery, Monster cables bigger than a doubled garden hose, etc. I bought the car brand new in 1998 & drove it to the car audio store where they ripped the entire car apart to rebuild it, wiring and all, from the tires up, to handle what I'd be expecting from it. I was making $4k-$6K a month at the time, I miss that kind of money now, lol. (One of these days, I'll get the pictures posted once I get them off the dead hard drive that's waiting to be restored by pros).

I competed in both SPL (sound pressure level) and IASCA (sound quality, international), in my late 30's, being one of the oldest in the groups as well as the only woman made me stand out more I think. In my first competition, I hit 144 DB SPL and won 2nd place, which of course got me hooked even more on my very first time out. However, one of the known facts in car audio (or any audio systems really) is that for each gain in DB/SPL, it requires a near doubling of the power & equipment needed to produce the original level! When I stopped competing, I had reached 161 DB SPL at great cost. The woman competing nationally with $100,000 system was hitting 174, so I feel pretty good that I got so close with my own money & resources, as well as envious that she'd had her system paid for by sponsors, what I wouldn't have given to hit her level of BASS boom and national exposure.

I no longer compete in car audio, after spending $50,000 on my infamous '98 Eclipse install, being invested in constant & expensive upgrades (to which my now-ex husband got my hand me downs), I could no longer afford to keep up. I was the only female in many states who competed, since for some reason car audio has been a male sport, though the men were extremely encouraging, supportive, friendly & welcoming to have a woman competing with them. There was only one national female competitor, and she had over $100,000 of sponsored system components, while mine all came out of my own pocket, so there was no way I could compete at her level. I eventually had sponsors too, my car was featured in magazines & on web sites, and I won a ton of trophies. What I wanted to win was MONEY to keep throwing back in to my audio system, trophies meant little to me & I've since actually thrown out 6 of my first 9 trophies (lesser wins like 2nd place) from my 1st six comps. The rest are dust collectors with little meaning--it was the BASS I was hooked on, not the winning & certainly not the cheap trophies.

I still respond viscerally to bass in music. I miss being able to shut down an entire drive in theater (everyone would put the tinny speakers back on the poles since my car put out the sound & FEEL for the entire lot of cars), or having teenage boys fight over who got to wash my car at the automatic car wash (they rode the cars through the wash while doing interior), and I especially miss the vibrations through my entire body that made the hair on my head stand up and dance. About the closest I can get these days is making my apt. walls shake with dubstep on my two 12-inch stereo subwoofers, which having to fill a larger volume of space, can't come close to reproducing what one can feel in a closed smaller space such as a car. I can no longer afford to spend thousands a month on upgrades & stereo system components, though I'd love to go to a competition and hear what a difference dubstep has made to the sound and FEEL. The closest I've come is watching youtube videos of bass audio comps, enough to get a vicarious thrill.

While I'm a definite bass junkie, I also appreciate & require sound quality. My home stereo has numerous EQ settings from concert hall to pop & custom settings, yet the one I set it to most is classical, because that allows all frequencies to be expressed equally. Occasionally older classic rock albums, such as Led Zeppelin, need to be set to rock because of their muddy sounding bass levels around 500 hz. My current car has the original TAPE deck in it, with 6x9 speakers in the rear window shelf, a couple mids in the doors & some tweets on the dash, all standard in 1987! As you may imagine, it's a huge loss of bass & other frequencies, but it's better than none at all. My home stereo is my favorite listening apparatus and gives me more bass & volume than my neighbors can handle, apt. living does suck for that reason. I lived my dream, I don't regret a second or a dime spent achieving it, although if I had that money now, there are many areas I'd spend it, none on car audio. Music is my life today as it has always been in one form or another, but the full spectrum is more important now than ever before. I look forward to the new digital formats for music, and the technology to come that will again fully represent all the sound a song has to give.

Tags: car audio, subwoofer, speakers, SPL DB, competition, JL Audio, kicker, farad, amps, watts, orion, rockford fosgate, esx, hifonics taurus, bass, dubstep, mp3, lossless, hz

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