sound between strangers (and other angels)

in a remarkable scene near the end of of the film, “blue velvet”, dennis hopper’s character (frank booth) describes the leaden “love letter” he intends to send jeffrey (kyle maclachlan) as “straight from my heart to you…”. the angel of death’s high velocity love.

i love this film, a classic. it tells a particularly american story: a creepy love story, between absolute evil and innocence. and oh, how attracted they are to each other. in a manner that only david lynch seems to do justice to. these lovers need one another more than most. it is a much older story, of course, but this one is special. there are various angels at work throughout… working as messengers between the two camps. i particularly appreciate ben (dean stockwell’s character) as an an especially terrifying and pathetic fury, in my own dark heart. angels aren’t simply good.

lip-synching orbison…

it connects me also to wim wender’s “wings of desire” (“Der Himmel über Berlin”), another of my absolute favorite films… that one so particularly european. the angels are jumping ship, somewhat like humanity is, only to fall for the humans who are trying their best to climb up into the air. it is a similar love story, told very differently (not so creepy). there aren’t only two sides, and the angels have subtle conflicts and motivations. a trapeze in a circus is a way up for one of the characters (means a lot to me), but the film also has peter falk and nick cave as themselves. what’s not to like? much like “blue velvet”, it has something particular to say about brushing sides with angels… it changes everything, and yet very little is outwardly transformed.

i don’t have any belief in god… christian, jewish, muslim or hindu, or any great spiritual inclination at all.

and yet, there must be angels. i will hazard a guess that some are falling and others are rising, just as they are portrayed in the lit. in some fundamental way, they act as agents between our tiny little imaginations and something common, shared and yes much bigger than what we expect …or deny, from the world around us. at least that is how i experience it. call that what you will, but i won’t call it god. it is too of, by, and for us… on our level, eye level. without the high and low of organized religion. without a priest or mullah in sight. yes, bigger, but not always better or worse. both! “Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.” (“from such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight is ever fashioned”. e. kant). whatever god is, it is not that… and whatever it is, i don’t believe it (after groucho).

angels are something else. whether they are bodhisattvas, murphy’s law (murphy is an angel), or something more or less inspirational… not to mention the multifarious minions of love, in all it’s forms. but they come. if we are aware of them, it is difficult to experience ordinary things in the ordinary way afterwards.

there is some generally accepted connection between music and the business of angels. in ad copy, as much as art and academic circles. and it is even a part of our pop culture to ascribe metaphysical value to music. all kinds of music! i don’t think it is a controversial thing to say… but so much so, that it is sometimes easy to forget that it was long forbidden to make music, or even listen to others do it, in many european christian practices. at least you might have earned the stink eye, unless the music was of the devotional kind. i suppose they already knew it was just a stones cast away from “gangster rap”. the experience could clearly be seen as a conflict over turf, or something. it still is that way today, in some places. even the taliban don’t approve…. of any of it! except for that crappy chanting shit they do on youtube. they don’t even like miley cyrus! i know it’s hard to imagine. i don’t much like “her” music either, but c’est la guerre! she’s a kid. a little rich and distracted, but basically not the worst one could get.

music seems to wind itself around the places the angels hang… it is a nice thought, anyway.

now in the age of digital reproduction (as opposed to mechanical reproduction), one might imagine this quality does put a certain pressure on the technical side of things… since we don’t listen much to live music anymore. in practice, reproduced music is now the primary messenger of whatever it is that appeals to the spiritual in us. it might seem pretty unfair to expect that much from an ipod, or dell sound bars in terms of this… even if that has generally replaced the human to human exchange. or, is it? is it weird that musicians have been replaced with recordings of musicians? films have edged theater and even books pretty heavily over the last 50 years. video games are gaining on everything. CDs are kinda over, i hear. so where is it happening? at home? at home. in your house… in your flop. no, on the go. in the car. on the bus. in your head… was it not always just in your head? straight from a server in southern california. in mumbai. nowhere. and yet, somehow the angels make due.

it might just be me, but there’s a need, a craving, to have something a little more… authentic. i’m not sure anymore that this is right.

authentic. what a word… a controversial word, in the postmodern sense of things. a word that sets itself apart from everything important in our culture today. an idea connected with old people, a bad sense of fashion, bad breath and dandruff, and social awkwardness… something probably artificially fixed in time or place, and therefore boring, and resistant, although not immune from appropriation, and thereafter, destruction. like primitive culture. although, on second thought… authentic things have a way of coming back to haunt, on occasion. a comforting thought. even if a ghostly one. many of the younger people i talk to in my comings and goings have no idea what the word means, and why should they? some have nostalgia for the idea, even if it isn’t clear what it is. i guess this makes me sound like an old bitter grump. the kids don’t care, why should i? yeah! why should i?

there is no such thing as digital authenticity. the very foundation of the technique is based on appropriation. on stealing… on representation. it is a measurement technique, adapted to recording data. a “measured likeness” (as opposed to “life like”) of very high resolution and infinite repeatability. but devoid of “substance”. it is data. modeled “reality”. and why would that be bad? the thing that is sampled is so crudely contingent… changeable, and temporary. in most ways the digital thing is better than real! immortal. unchanging. ideal. authentic things pass away. decay… have a knack for crumbling. just like us. digital reproduction gives the gift of unnatural long life. it is an “improved” copy. no “crooked wood” to be reminded of… and it lends itself to spectacular modification. away with the messy artifacts of the mechanical analog era. it can be edited and enhanced into something akin to… a wild imagination.

and those of us who have made the transition from the age of authenticity to the age of reproduction, no – representation, are now immigrants in the brave new world. if we cope, we can be digital immigrants. surrounded by young gangs of hip digital natives… who have never known what it was like before. don’t need to. and if you can’t cope… you barely rate.

about analog sound design and reproduction: the thing that was different is that we couldn’t so easily ignore the means. the equipment intentionally bends electricity into something that is like life. it isn’t life, but resembles it in a way that we recognize as “life like”. the equipment and media are part of the deal. the scratches on a record never completely let you forget you are listening to a reproduction. the platter turns around. the vacuum tube gets HOT! much like the grain of a photograph or film, color and especially black and white, which has the same blurry grasp of our own eyes. the blur of the frames clicking past… in the moving picture. we know it isn’t life… but it grabs like ours. it is made from physical stuff and we are never far from the manner that brings it on. digital “stuff” is nothingness. and we easily forget about nothing.

i think digital recording distances us further than we already are from the real thing. we forget it has no substance and revel in the meaning it has for us, alone. isolated from everything else. we forget it is reproduced, virtual, separated from it’s source. forget is not even a strong enough word! we no longer connect music with people who operate musical instruments or voices. the “people” are brands. institutions. ideas. and while the media is opaque, and indecipherable, the equipment used to decode it are black boxes filled with zeroes and ones… nothingness. there is no “there” there. just ideas. no people, no planet, no stuff. the land of angels.

isolation from real. alienation. the bad face is loneliness. the nice face of that would be solitude.

this is of course one of the great western fantasies… to be done with the neighbors. a popular value for many first worlders in a more and more crowded world. it is, for example, what suburbia is all about. misanthropic homesteading. “good fences make good neighbors!” that’s right. you stay the fuck over there! “and mow your lawn while you’re at it!” “wtf! color are you painting that garage?!” treating fear with isolation. for fear of, and resentment of others. suburbia has structural separation. architectural separation. with gates. lack of sidewalks. hedges. driveways. one needs a vehicle to go anywhere, within which one is also blissfully separated from the wretched others, in their own vehicles. without which, one becomes trapped. god forbid the savage creatures on foot, or gasp, bicycle. and the chance to conveniently forget that the roads, plumbing and electrical are all hooked up to the same grid. that all the shit goes into the same hole. that air in you is in everyone else, and their’s is inside you (bleh!). and also, that if you and the neighbors really do hate one another, you do it in isolation. in safety. in a city hate is primarily expressed democratically. everyone hates one another equally!  individuals can’t get away with genocide so easily in a city. mofos will kill you back!

at least in the suburbs, you can crank your stereo and not start a war in the building… well, at least not with anyone outside of your immediate household.

one aspect of digital is more than a bit like an electronic suburbia. the walkman/ipod is all about disconnection from others… and immersion into ego. separating ourselves in our own head space with a soundtrack. and fuck you very nicely. mobile suburbia.

yes, yes… this is taking things far. ha! i know. i am probably going too far! but i have a point. reproduced music has been exploited by a certain ethic that runs through much of contemporary culture: separation. and that road is well traveled. music used to be experienced together. it is primarily not, today.

not only do i believe this to be so, but i know it.

what do i want to say here?

ah yes, angels.

as our moment in time presses onward, and we become more versed with our remote connections with one another… more and more comfortable with the separation from real, the more important the angels become. they offer us a way forward, as well as back. to land. i say this as much for myself, as for anyone. a way to remember not to rely so much on our own ever more solitary imagination. to stay connected to the larger idea of humanity, as something common. shared. connected to. something to be found “out there”, as much as in here.

music still has a way of doing that. and building your own angel detection equipment, even more so.

in the meantime, here’s some more circuits. straight from my heart to you…

a basic amplifier

i want to do a bit of channeling this time. for some teen spirit. i want to play with the idea of a simple amp based on a 6L6GC. the “big” 6L6. yes. that tube has no rep at all for hifi. these days it is a “guitar amp tube”. but the 6L6 is also the world’s most popular output tube! and, along with the 12AX7, the most manufactured vacuum tube today. you can find newly made ones from russia and slovakia… they are also made in china. and old used and NOS from everywhere. if you bias the tube at a lower current and use “regular” 6L6s, that will increase your choices by a factor of ten. lots of things to choose from. but i will focus on the “GC” version now. because it is so available, as is the all stuff to make a “typical” guitar amp power supply, the cost is low for this entire exercise. we will need 450 volts, @ about 80mA for the output stage, per channel (that would be about 35 watts dissipation if self biased, which is the limit. 25 watts for all other 6L6s), and a bit more for the means to drive it.

now when i say “basic”, i do mean simple. simple for me, relaxes the demands on the end result, keeps the number of parts to a minimum, and will need to get the most from the components. “doesn’t all electronic design do this?” not at all. every single design is a set of requirements and compromises. don’t believe the ad copy, OKAY?! in this case, i will not worry about reaching .005% THD and noise, or a 200KHz bandwidth, or a damping factor to be envied (whatever that is…). no. if it is possible to meet the old school specifications of max power at 5% THD, or there abouts, or perhaps a little better, that will do.


well, simple amps are fun! they don’t take much time to put together, can often be built out of the remains of some junk you pulled out of the garbage, or the salvation army… they don’t cost much. and, very importantly,  the chances of actually building it are high if one removes the idea of perfection from the mix. simple implies humility. don’t expect a rose garden from a “simple amp”. and perhaps best of all… it is possible to be really adventurous with a simple project… very little is at stake. and any and all advances in knowledge and experience come simply, apart from the pressure of humiliating the rival DIYers in your neck of the woods. and as for competing with the “high end” of audio design and manufacture… why? yes, why? if that is where you are heading, you don’t need any of what you’ll find here. you need to read bob cordell. just do exactly what he says, and you’ll be done. finished. NO disrespect towards bob cordell, who is a gentleman and brilliant. i don’t agree with his goals or analysis of what matters most, but his skill and experience as an engineer and researcher… even as a teacher! – is rarely equaled. and what you will end up with is patent applied for high end audio. sigh. such a waste! all that work and energy, for that?! look, you should read everything he says anyway, because it is deeply revealing into the world of analog electronics. it is valuable. and he is really good at explaining it.

you can’t get new results without trying new things. or in this case, simplified new/old things.

so what follows is a little overview of what we could do with a few stages, and just one B+ (and the heater supply). as you probably know by now, all is fair. look at it as a game. one played with LTSpice. although, i think it will require building one of them afterwards, and give it a spin. the weirdest one. the one with the most teen spirit.

we should start with a single stage of triode strapped and tetrode 6L6GC, in self bias, in yer basic grounded cathode setup, as a reference. just to find out what we can expect. and drive them from an ideal source of no distortion… this way we see what the tube is capable of.

and the tetrode…

no surprises. note that the result for the triode strapped 6L6GC, very similar to what a 2A3 would do, measurement-wise, in the same arrangement. the 6L6GC can take more volts across it at a higher current, but doesn’t deliver much more for the trouble. an ordinary 6L6 would more or less match a 2A3 for power out and distortion, so you have some idea why several old amps were arranged to accept either 6B4Gs or 6L6s interchangeably, in the output sockets…

in any case, for 60 volts of peak signal in, one would get about 4 watts out and 4% distortion in the triode mode. 6 volts in will do about the same, in tetrode. you would barely hear a difference in amplitude or distortion between these two, although the increased 3rd harmonic in the tetrode arrangement would “sound” a bit brighter and definitely more “dissonant”. like a car radio. maybe you like car radio?

okay lets drive the triode version with a typical triode driver stage… the most basic kind of amp.

okay, you see just what one would expect. and it’s quite respectable for basic. there is a small advantage with the triode driver… we get a tiny bit more swing into the load without any more distortion. the 2nd harmonic component in the driver stage swing is canceled in the output. now, there isn’t much swing because you can’t get much signal into the first stage before everything clips. only 1.6VPP. we have a lot of gain. if we add some nfb, we can do a bit better in terms of power into the load and distortion. now, what would that look like?

right away you can see we have got a bit more into the load, at half the distortion of the no nfb version. no surprises. a very respectable simple tube amp. not so many parts and a long connection to the history of audio. now lets go to the tetrode version of things. here is what the standard pentode SE amp would look like.

okay. now there is even more swing into the speaker as well as a 8 times reduction in distortion. what was all that business about SE triodes? hmmmm…. SE tetrodes and pentodes deserve much more attention than what they get. for good reason. well, it’s “not only a matter of distortion”, is it? yes, there are probably those of you who would laugh at this whole train of thought… if it isn’t a directly heated triode, then why bother? lets go back to the triode thing. but let’s look at some other ways to drive it.

i will stop here and post a part two tomorrow.