“Infamous” Myth-Buster Ethan Winer Rewrites The Audio Rulebook
June 14, 2012 by Justin Colletti
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.
As the book progresses, some of the chapters deal with less advanced ideas from time to time, but I was still surprised to find how many fascinating and under-reported factoids show up even in seemingly elementary chapters, like the ones on audio connectors and musical instruments.
Towards the end of his book, there’s another welcome treat as Winer devotes a full 150 pages to the subjects of monitoring and acoustic treatment; both areas where his professional expertise is especially welcome. This is one section where Winer clearly transitions from skeptic to advocate, and it becomes clear that his career in acoustics has stemmed from his love of measurement and analysis, rather than the other way round.
Quibbles and Qualms
If I ever quibbled with Winer while reading his book, it tended to be over matters of taste, presentation and emphasis – almost never over accuracy.
For instance, Ethan Winer is a vocal proponent of recording “clean and flat” and deferring judgments about EQ, compression and effects until later. While this may be sensible advice for beginning recordists and for some styles of music, nearly all of the great creative engineers I know tend to get a sonic vision in mind and pursue it ruthlessly from square one.
Once you have the confidence and experience, our side would argue, why would you defer decisions, leave thousands of options open and risk “analysis paralysis”, when you can instead make the music sound the way it should right now and then again every step along the way? I’ve definitely drunk the Kool-Aid on this front and tend to roll my eyes like a teenager whenever Ethan advocates the opposite.
Although I respect Ethan’s efforts to restore sense and balance to an often insane and unbalanced field, there are a few isolated moments where Winer may make minor rhetorical over-corrections in his mission to dispel widely-held misconceptions.
For instance, when Ethan debunks misunderstandings about phase-shift in equalizers or the stacking effect of preamps, he under-emphasizes the fact that both of these can still be considered measurably audible phenomenon under certain circumstances Still, Ethan’s corrections on these subjects are valid, and reading his take will add depth to anyone’s understanding of these ideas.
There are a very few, minor internal inconsistencies in this 1st edition of the book, which I hope would be corrected in a future edit. At one point, Ethan states that “there’s no such thing as subharmonics”, but later tells a story of how instruments can create subharmonics through acoustic IM distortion.
Similarly, his wording is contradictory in a brief passage when he discusses whether distortion and noise are meaningful side-effects of recording at low levels in 16-bit digital devices.
In both cases, these come across as a fleeting semantic oversights rather than full-on errors, and over the course of 650 pages they were the closest things I could find to inaccurate statements.
These are minor quibbles, and thankfully, the author does us the service of making his biases plainly known so that readers can filter through his personal opinions if desired.
More often than not, his positions are balanced. Although Winer stresses the importance of accounting for the effects of expectation bias and placebo in our perception, he also clearly states that there are often times when it is possible to hear real differences between devices. He also allows that other engineers are not “wrong” for preferring gear with a “colored” sound, even though his own preferences skew far in the other direction. And finally, he admits to sometimes enjoy the sound of printing to tape or using digital sound-manglers to similar effect – even though his own ideal is to capture and playback audio with gear that is as transparent as possible.
The Final Analysis
It’s difficult to say exactly what kind of book The Audio Expert is. On one hand, it’s well-researched and thorough enough that it could be used to teach a college-level audio class. On the other hand, it’s too personal, too opinionated and has too much of a sense of humor to pass as a straight-ahead textbook. In the end, the effect lies somewhere between academic reference, manifesto and consumer guide.
Winer is guided by some basic principles in his writing – Chiefly, that all audio which reaches our circuits and our ears consists of measurable components; and that when it comes to purchasing audio devices, scientific testing and blind listening are preferable to magical thinking and blind superstition.
“The amount of public misinformation about audio is staggering,’ Winer writes in his introduction to The Audio Expert. “This book, therefore, includes healthy doses of skepticism and consumerism which to me, are intimately related…There’s a lot of magic and pseudo-science associated with audio products, and often price has surprisingly little to do with quality.”
This ingrained skepticism and bias toward consumer advocacy is a welcome perspective in a field that so often becomes obsessed with its tools and the hype behind them. Winer’s critics suggest that his is an attempt to rain on the pro audio’s parade and to make professional engineers look foolish.
But although he can seem prematurely dismissive from time to time (especially on the 71st page of a 91-page forum thread) Winer’s real mission is to shift the focus from the things that barely make a difference and toward the places where the benefits are measurably huge.
To him, this means focusing less on mic preamps and more on microphones, less on high-end clocks and more on high-performing speakers, less on D/A converters and more on room acoustics. In every case, he’s accurate to say that upgrading the former will usually make for a tiny improvement, compared with the benefits of the latter.
For all of the thought Ethan Winer gives to audio, it’s also clear that he understands first hand that even bigger gains come from a factor that lies outside the circuits: Time spent in study and practice of the music and the craft. If you like to spend some of that time reading, rest assured that there’s no way you could read through The Audio Expert and not come out smarter than you went in.