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Real Knobs, Virtual Knobs, and Sound - Let The Fight Begin



Another excellent contribution from David Finnamore, let the discussion begin.

A recent video interview with hardware manufacturer Bettermaker mentioned the ongoing debate over whether tangible controls make a difference in the sound of a product. In this case, a stereo analog EQ with DAW control/recall of its parameters is offered both with and without physical knobs. There’s a version with full front-panel control over every parameter, and a version with no front panel controls at all. Both can be controlled via its associated DAW plug-in. If it delivers on its promise of uncompromising sound with total recall, it just might herald an era in which we’ll have the best of both worlds. 

Of course, there will always be the downside of having only one instance per rack space or two, but that’s unavoidable. At least we would have instant recall and automation of real analog tones from within Pro Tools or our host of preference. But the question arises, will these two versions of the product sound different? Will the more expensive one, the one with the knobs, sound better? Just let somebody offer a definitive answer to that question, and the war is on. Dig your trenches and load your guns, boys. It’s going to be a long night. But hold on - can I call a cease-fire for a second? I find myself in the precarious position of trying to take neutral ground, here.  

Call me crazy, but I think the question can be legitimately answered in both the negative and affirmative. Let’s take the affirmative case first. The designer assures us that the two versions use identical audio circuits. Now, by definition, if the same signal passes through two circuits of identical design and construction, and if all parameters are set the same, the outputs will be identical (within the limits of part tolerances, which should be negligible in a product in this price range). That much should be without dispute. Let’s say you have both units on hand - one with knobs and one without. You send the same preset from the associated plug-ins to both units so they’re set exactly the same. Now pass the same signal through both, and their outputs will be virtually fully correlated. They will sound the same. One is tempted to say, “End of story.” So why do some seem to question it? How could it not be true? How could a not equal a?  

When I read arguments between the two sides on an issue like this, I get the feeling that they often end up talking past each other. The affirmative side tends to appeal to seemingly indisputable theory, backing it up with double-blind tests, phase cancellation, and similar scientific approaches. The negative side tends to be dismissive of both theory and white-lab-coat style testing, holding on to their experiences “in the real world.” It actually shouldn’t surprise us when theory people and practice people arrive at different answers. Heck, they’ve been doing so ever since the upward-pointing Plato argued with his most famous pupil, the downward-pointing Aristotle. And, really, those two were only carrying on the dispute between Heraclitus and Parmenides a century before. It probably goes back as far as humans have been performing the complementary tasks of thinking and doing. 

Things just aren’t always as simple as they seem. So, having already said, “Yes, they do sound the same,” let me say, “But…” Heraclitus, Aristotle, and the practice-over-theory engineer make an important point. Never ignore experience. Never subjugate your ears to what you think ought to be. Because audio is not as simple as circuits and algorithms. Those who study human hearing label it a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. That tells us that hearing involves two parts. The “acoustic” part has to do with physical sound waves and the physical response of the ear to them. You might think the “psycho” part has to with crazy men with knives attacking women in the shower. Surprisingly, no. Rather, it has to do with the hearer’s mental perception of acoustic vibrations. This is the old philosophy question about a tree falling in the forest. 

For some scientific purposes, we can choose to define sound as mere fluctuations of atmospheric pressure. But the moment you involve a human in hearing that sound, you bring psychology to bear. It’s true – we’re all a bit “psycho.” Human hearing is perception. And perception happens in the mind. What we hear is shaped by our frame of mind, by our expectations about what we’re hearing, by what parts of our brain we’re stimulating, and so on. And what we do with our bodies affects our frame of mind. It changes how we listen. It follows, then, that what you’re doing with your body at any given moment shapes what you are hearing in that moment. When you grab a physical knob and twist it, the patterns of nerve impulses in your brain are likely distinctly different from those that fire when you turn a virtual knob on a computer screen. That’s partly because the latter relies more heavily on visual input rather than tactile input. We can try to simulate it by closing our eyes while adjusting a parameter with a mouse. But that can only go so far. 

There’s something about grabbing and twisting a knob - particularly a dedicated knob on a familiar piece of gear - that allows us to let go of our eyes for a moment and achieve a more completely imaginative state of mind. We actually listen with different ears when we do that. And when we hear with different ears, we may make a different judgment. What I’m suggesting is, the affirmative side of the argument emphasizes the physical – what’s going on out there - while the negative side emphasizes the mental – what’s going on in here. Both sides are right. On the one hand, if the settings are the same, the sound is the same. Period. Well, almost period. Because, on the other hand, it may not sound the same to me right then, and so the settings may not end up the same as they would have. It’s important to remember, too, that all this is not to say “Knobs are good, no-knobs is bad.” They’re just different. Many good-sounding recordings have been made with all virtual control. If it sounds good, it is good. Only let’s not forget that good sound is as much psycho as it is acoustic.


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