As far as polarizing figures go, Ethan Winer is an unlikely candidate. Now 63 years old, Winer is a former audio engineer and computer programmer who plays the cello, owns a successful acoustics business, and frequents online messageboards in his spare time.
In the most pervasive photo of him on the web, Winer is pictured wearing oversized spectacles and an oversized sweatshirt, as he holds his equally-oversized pet cat.
In person and online, he is generally pleasant and mild-mannered, with a ho-hum attitude and a genial, nerdy kind of charm. Based on the innumerable essays and videos he’s produced over the years, Winer doesn’t seem to take himself especially seriously, and tends to be exceptionally reasonable – almost to a fault.
But somehow, Ethan Winer did become a polarizing figure in certain pockets of the audio community – mostly for his unflagging persistence and steadfast devotion to no-nonsense empiricism. One niche audio forum has even barred him from posting, and keeps “stickies” (permanent posts glued to the top of every page) which aggressively mock him in the kind of way that would be easy grounds for a libel lawsuit (if Ethan Winer was the kind of guy who would think to sue someone for libel.)
To these hardcore “subjectivists,” Ethan Winer is like a pedantic Bond villain (which of course, would explain the cat.) But to mainstream audio scientists, Winer is just a smart, quirky man with a dry sense of humor, a tireless typing hand, and some very sensible ideas about sound.
This Spring, Focal Press published his all-new book The Audio Expert. In a sentence: It’s a painstakingly well-researched, 650-page reference guide that seeks to fill in the gaps of knowledge so prevalent in the audio community today.
Background and Credentials
Ethan Winer has racked up hundreds of thousands of posts on online audio forums. Usually, this is the kind of feat that suggests a lack of any real credentials and propensity to rarely do anything useful for society. But in many ways, Winer is an exception.
He’s written articles for Tape Op, Sound on Sound, EQ, Mix, Electronic Musician, Keyboard, Recording, and Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, among others. He’s been an audio engineer, a session musician, a computer programmer, a circuit designer, a studio owner and an acoustics consultant at RealTraps.
Perhaps most impressively, Winer sold his software business at the age of 43 to take up the cello. He went on to release a video called “Cello Rondo” that features an original piece comprised of no less than 37 cello parts, which he played entirely himself. In the video, Winer is dry, goofy and unassuming as ever. So far, it has received than 1 million hits on YouTube alone.
Winer’s written opus, The Audio Expert, was inspired by his memorable Audio Myths panel at the 2009 AES convention. The book is the work of a clear-thinking and disciplined empiricist, and in it, Winer aims to present facts and casts light on poorly understood concepts. The Audio Expert is not intended for beginners, and even its first chapter, “Audio Basics”, is anything but.
As he notes in the introduction, Winer assumes some level of audio knowledge as he begins, and readers without any college-level background or equivalent work experience could get lost quickly. As Winer begins, he assumes you have some basic familiarity with the harmonic series, decibels, impedance, routing and the Nyquist Theorem, and he assumes you’ve heard of summing and dither and jitter and THD. But he also assumes, rightly, that to most audio engineers (even working professionals) the details behind these concepts are often half-understood or misremembered.
One of the great strengths of Winer’s writing stems from the fact that he’s spent so much time reading and answering frequently-asked questions on the web. Because of this, he’s able to immediately zero in on some of the most commonly confused concepts in audio with laser-like precision.
Sure, you may already understand that phase-shift is a necessary aspect of all traditional equalizers, but do you understand how it functions in the circuit, and what the side-effects are, if any? Winer has found this to be largely misunderstood even among active engineers, and he’s not wrong. He also provides tests that reveal whether phase-linear EQs really perform better, and the results may be surprising to some.
Likewise, if you’re an average working engineer, chances are that you have some knowledge of how dB works, and you may even understand that it’s a logarithmic way to describe voltage in a circuit or sound pressure level in the air. But do you really understand what that means? Do you carry around in your mind the fact that if you lower a signal by 80 dB, then you haven’t decreased its voltage or SPL by 80 times, but rather by a factor of 10,000? And are you aware of whether or not noise at this level is audible to you?
Similarly, Ethan assumes you may understand the basics of THD and IMD and have some sense of how to read a spec sheet, but do you understand how these measurements are made, what they show, and what they can hide?
It’s advanced concepts that Winer illuminates simply and cleanly in the opening chapters of his book. Even if you’re only able to get through the first 100 pages of it, chances are you’ll come out knowing more about the most misunderstood subjects in audio than many of your peers do now.
But be warned: Although reading The Audio Expert is likely to be enlightening – even if you’re an audio expert yourself – there are times when it may make you squirm.
In the tightly-packed opening chapters of his book, Winer pursues myth-busting in earnest, and rest assured, even the smartest and most accomplished engineers among us sometimes get things wrong when it comes to the underlying science of audio. With detailed and largely airtight refutations, Winer soundly busts common myths such as these:
–“Analog has higher fidelity than digital.”
It doesn’t, and if you enjoy analog recording (as I do) this is not the reason why.
–“Digital can’t sum properly.”
It can, and if you enjoy analog summing, chances are that the “summing” part of it is not the primary reason.
–“The ‘stacking’ effect can cause exaggerated buildups at particular frequencies.”
Winer demonstrates that if a preamp or microphone is perceived to sound okay on one signal, but not so great when used on several sounds in a mix, this is not because its effect on frequency and noise is additive. As a measurable fact, that would only be the case if the device were used in series – not in parallel, as is normally the case with preamps and microphones.
(Unfortunately, on this point, Winer over-corrects slightly and writes off the term “stacking” completely. Instead, he might have conceded that a piece of gear could be thought to “stack well” for other reasons – namely that its EQ curve might be flattering on a wide variety of sources, regardless of whether or not that curve is additive in normal use.)
By and large, Winer’s evidence is well-presented, well-supported and hard to argue against. This is what makes it so enraging to many hardcore subjectivists who maintain that “science” is unable to measure what the ear can hear.
While Winer can be flexible on isolated points, when it comes to arguments that question the basic validity of measurement and scientific testing, Winer would reply that, in reality we can measure more than the human ear can hear. The truth, he says, is that test equipment can pick up extremely low levels of noise, distortion and frequency incongruity that cannot be heard by the human ear – Not the other way around.
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