Know Audio: Stereo

In our occasional series charting audio and Hi-Fi technology we have passed at a technical level the main components of a home audio set-up. In our last outing when we looked at cabling we left you with a promise of covering instrumentation, but now it’s time instead for a short digression into another topic: stereo. It’s a word so tied-in with Hi-Fi that “a stereo” is an alternative word for almost any music system, but what does it really mean? What makes a stereo recording, and how does it arrive at your ears?

From West London Trains, To 3D Audio

A steam train passing through a station, from a distance in black and white
The driver of this Great Western Railway train had no idea that he was making audio history.

As most of you will know, a mono recording uses a single microphone and a single channel while a stereo one uses two microphones recording simultaneously a left and right channel. These are then played back through a pair of speakers, and the result is a sense of spatial field for the listener. Instruments appear to come from their relative positions when recorded, and the sense of being in the performance is enhanced.

Stereo recording as we know it was first perfected as one of the many inventions credited to Alan Blumlein, then working for EMI in London. We have one of his stereo demonstration films in “Trains at Hayes“, filmed from the EMI laboratories overlooking the Great Western Railway, and featuring a series of steam-hauled trains crossing the field of view with a corresponding stereo sound field. His work laid down the fundamentals of stereo recording, including microphone configurations and what would become the standard for stereo audio recording on disk with the channels on the opposite sides of a 45 degree groove. Continue reading “Know Audio: Stereo”

Equalize Your Listening With HiFiScan

Audiophiles will go to such extents to optimize the quality of their audio chain that they sometimes defy parody. But even though the law of diminishing returns eventually becomes a factor there is something in maintaining a good set of equipment. But what if your audio gear is a little flawed, can you fix it electronically? Enter HiFiScan, a piece of Python software to analyse audio performance by emitting a range of frequencies and measuring the result with a microphone.

This is hardly a new technique, and it’s one which PA engineers have used for a long time to tune out feedback resonances, but an easy tool bringing it to the domestic arena is well worth a look. HiFiScan is a measuring tool so it won’t magically correct any imperfections in your system, however it can export data in a format suitable for digital effects packages.

Naturally its utility is dependent on the quality of the hardware it’s used with, but the decent quality USB microphone used in the examples seems to give good enough results. We see it used in a variety of situations, of which perhaps the most surprising is a set of headphones that have completely different characteristics via Bluetooth as when wired.

If audio engineering interests you, remember we have an ongoing series: Know Audio.

2022 Hackaday Prize: Boondock Echo Connects Your Radios With The Cloud

[Mark J Hughes] volunteers as a part of a local community fire watch which coordinates by radio. The La Habra Heights region of Los Angeles is an area of peaks and valleys, which makes direct radio connections challenging. Repeaters work well for range improvement, but in such areas, there is no good place to locate these. [Mark] says that during an emergency (such as a wildfire) the radio usage explodes, with him regularly tracking as many as eight radio frequencies and trying to make sense of it, whilst working out how to send the information on and to whom.

This led him together with collaborator [Kaushlesh Chandel] to create Project Boondock Echo, to help alleviate some of the stress of it all. The concept is to use a cheap Baofeng radio to feed into a gateway based around an ESP32 audio development kit. Mount this in a box with a LiPo based power supply, and you’ve got yourself a movable radio-to-cloud time-shift audio recorder.

By placing one or more of these units in the properties of several of the community group radio operators, all messages can be captured to an audio file, tagged with the radio frequency and time of transmission, and uploaded to a central server. From there they can be retrieved by anybody with access, no matter the physical location, only an internet connection is needed.

The next trick that can be performed, is to reverse the process and queue up previous recordings, and send it back over the cloud to remote locations for re-transmission via radio into the field. This is obviously a massive asset, because wherever there is some urbanization, there is likely an internet connection. With the addition of a Boondock Echo unit, anyone that has a receiver within a few miles can be fully connected with what’s going on outside the range of direct radio communications.

Source for the ESP32’s firmware as well as the web side of things can found on the project Boondock Echo GitHub, complete with some STLs for a 3D printed box to sit it in. Like always, there’s more than one way to solve a particular problem. Here’s an amateur radio repeater based using an RTL-SDR and a Raspberry Pi.

This Simple Media Player Will Inspire Beginners And Invite Experimentation

While it would have been considered science-fiction just a few decades ago, the ability to watch virtually any movie or TV show on a little slab that fits in your pocket is today no big deal. But for an electronics beginner, being able to put together a pocketable video player like this one would be quite exciting, and might even serve as a gateway into the larger world of electronics design.

For inspiration, [Alex] from Super Make Something on YouTube looked to the Rickrolling keychain media players we featured back in January. His player is quite a bit larger and more capable, with a PCB design that allows the player to be built in multiple configurations, from audio-only to full video and a LiPo battery. The guts of the player center around an ESP32 module, with an audio amp and speakers plus a 1.8″ LCD screen with SD card reader for storing media files. Add in a few controls and switches and a little code, and you’ll be playing back media files in a snap. Build info and demo in the video below.

It may be a simple design, but we feel like that’s the whole point. [Alex] has taken pains to make this as approachable a build as possible. All the parts are cheap and easily available, and the skills needed to put it together are minimal — with the possible exception of soldering down the ESP32 module, which lacks castellated edge terminals. For a beginner, getting a usable media player by mixing together just a few modules would be magical, and the fact that it’s still pretty hackable afterward is just icing on the cake.

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Hackaday Prize 2022: A Plasma Tweeter For Ultimate Clarity

In the world of audio there are a huge variety of esoteric technologies which are rarely seen. One such is the plasma tweeter, a type of loudspeaker which generates sound by modulating a small electrical discharge. The benefit of this design comes in its delivering the closest possible to a point audio source, in effect the theoretical ideal speaker for treble frequencies. They’re a little hazardous due to the voltage but aren’t too difficult to make, as demonstrated by [Mircemk] whose version uses a recycled power pentode tube — which is how it showed up in the Hack it Back round of the Hackaday Prize.

It can be thought of as a cousin of the Tesla coil, with the same resonant oscillator but no capacity hat. Instead the top of the coil ends in a point, from which in the perfect speaker a ball of plasma replaces the Tesla’s impressive sparks. In this case the pentode is joined by a high-voltage TV line output transistor as a bias supply, which is in turn modulated with the audio through a small amplifier. It sometimes needs the plasma teasing out of it through discharge to a screwdriver, but the result is a very effective and clear plasma tweeter.

If plasma tweeters interest you, we’ve featured them before.

Building A Tube-Based Stereo Amp, In Classic Style

It’s not every day we see the results of someone putting their own spin on a vintage tube amp, but that’s exactly what [lens42] did in creating the McIntosh 217, created as a “mini” version of the McIntosh MC275, a classic piece of audio equipment. Both are pictured next to each other, above.

When it comes to vintage hi-fi stereo amplifiers, two units had particular meaning for [lens42]: the McIntosh MC275 Power Amp, and the Dynaco ST35. The Dynaco was a more budget-friendly amplifier, but looked like a plain box. The McIntosh, however, proudly showed off its tubes and transformers in all their glory. The “McIntosh 217” is design-wise basically a smaller McIntosh MC275, with the innards of a Dynaco ST35.

With so much needing to be designed from the ground up, CAD was invaluable. Component layout, enclosure design, and even wiring and labeling all had to be nailed down as much as possible before so much as heating up the soldering iron. Even so, there were a few hiccups; a vendor had incorrect measurements for a tube socket which meant that the part would not fit. A workaround involved modifying the holes and as luck would have it, the change wasn’t an eyesore. Still, [lens42] reminds us all that whenever you can, have the required parts in-hand for confirmation of dimensions before sending CAD files off for cutting or fabrication.

Many of us can relate to the fact that the whole project was a labor of love and made no real financial sense, but the end result is fantastic, and creating such a thing is something all of us — not just chasers of that elusive “tube sound” — can appreciate.

Simple Universal Modem Helps Save And Load Data From Tape

Back in the early days of the home computer revolution, data was commonly saved on tape. Even better, those tapes would make an almighty racket if you played them on a stereo, because the data was stored in an audio format.  The Simple Universal Modem from [Anders Nielsen] is built to work in a similar way, turning data into audio and vice versa.

The project consists of a circuit for modulating data into audio, and demodulating audio back into data. It’s “universal” because [Anders] has designed it to be as format-agnostic as possible. It doesn’t matter whether you want to store data on a digital voice recorder, a cassette deck, or an old reel-to-reel. This build should work fairly well on all of them!

On the modulation side of things, it’s designed to be as analog-friendly as possible. Rather than just spitting out rough square waves, it modulates them into nice smooth sine waves with fewer harmonics. On the demodulation side, it’s got an LM393 comparator which can read data on tape and spit out a clean square wave for easy decoding by digital circuitry.

If you find yourself trying to recover old data off tapes, or writing to them for a retrocomputing project, this build might be just what you need. [Anders] even goes as far as demonstrating its use with an old reel-to-reel deck in a helpful YouTube video.

There really were some weird ways of storing data way back when. Just ask IBM. Video after the break.

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