Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Bass abuse

It's spring in northern Illinois. I can see the green grass and the tulips and the dandelions, and I'm told that the birds are singing, but I'll have to take the word for the latter since I can't hear a single cheep. Yes, spring is in the air, so it's time for the noontime concerts at my college campus. Today's band, a typical rock band, was just as loud as any of its breed, so they did an excellent job of drowning out the robins. Thankfully, my lunchtime walk took me far enough away to escape most of their, er, music, but yet I never quite got away from all of it.

I'm no Luddite. I think most technology can be put to good use. However, I'm a bit baffled as to how the modern loudspeaker, the subwoofer in particular, is of good use. Oh, it can put out nice clean sound when amplification is employed judiciously, with the subwoofer providing a welcome body to the sound, but my ears tell me that this device is often grossly abused, perhaps because a substantial portion of the population has encurred permanent hearing loss from past abuse, thus necessitating the use of more and more amplification.

At home, at the office, and on the road, it seems that more and more people are occupied with discovering just how loud a loudspeaker can be. When this experimentation is performed on the loudspeaker's miniature cousin, the headphones, it harms only the ears of the researcher, but all too often larger speakers, invariably with the help of a big honkin' subwoofer, are employed, so innocent bystanders are provided with the dubious privilege of sharing in the sonic experiment. Now, I'm as big a music lover as anyone--witness my collection of several thousand CDs--but I'd rather that folks share their music with me when I give them permission to do so. Since my tastes in music are doggedly retro, I strive to not inflict my favorite tunes on unwelcoming ears, but I find that many of my neighbors are not so polite, or perhaps they so eager to share the music of their taste with me that they don't bother to solicit my permission.

This state of affairs would not be quite so bad, I suppose, if the music that's being shared wasn't so downright loud. To my ears, it would help even more if the subwoofer had never been invented. Perhaps I'm blessed with ears that are unusually sensitive to bass, but I find it to be extraordinarily difficult to escape the bassier portion of music. The ordinary means at my disposal--cranking up my own tunes, closing the windows and doors, etc.--are often insufficient to mask the thump-thump-thump that assults not only my ears but also my entire body. For me, bass is not just an aural experience. It's holistic: it affects my whole mind and body.

Oh, how I long for the days of yore when the air wasn't filled with the sound of booming bass! In the earliest days of the phonograph, there was hardly such a thing as bass: the acoustic process used to record and play records was technically incapable of reproducing the lowest tones. Bass didn't become a factor until the introduction of radio and electrically recorded phonograph records (the latter coming out in 1925), but up through the heyday of the transistor radio, bass was pretty much limited to one's home radio and music system. In the 1970's, however, bass became big business. That decade saw the sale of the first boomboxes and the first subwoofers. Every stereo system came with a "loudness" switch that, although intended for use only at low listening volumes, was kept on permanently by almost everyone who wasn't a true-blue audiophile because it added an extra thud to the thump-thump-thump. First invented for the home, the subwoofer eventually found its way into the automobile and truck, and from that mobile perch it's been rattling the frames of countless vehicles ever since.

If I had my druthers, I'd love to see the subwoofer go out of fashion and quick. It's my opinion that today's constant soundtrack of thump-thump-thump helps to drown out not only the birds of spring, but also the sounds of genuine person-to-person conversation, not to mention the flow of silent thought or reflection. Yes, today's hi-fi hammering is toxic to serious thought. I enjoy music in its time and place, but when I need to talk with someone or think something through, I turn it off. Therefore, I call on my neighbor to turn down the volume--or at least the bass--so I can hear myself think.

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