More hi-fi – a remote controlled preamp

Building and learning about electronics remains one of my favorite pastimes. When I can connect it to music, so much the better.

I’m building a new preamp – this one with a microcontroller and a pile of digital hardware to provide remote control and switching. The best place for this kind of project is – a huge set of forums for people involved in building their own equipment. I’ve been involved in the forum for almost ten years, building speakers and amplifiers.

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Music is more than…

I came across this (thanks, Stephanie!) this afternoon: it’s a group of people who get together to explore home-made musical instruments, many of them combinations of mechanical and electrical or electronic components. Some of them are played in conventional ways, some make music under computer control, and some combine multiple techniques. 

What’s nice about this is that it describes a group of people who get together to share their ideas, and to have a good time together. It’s a long way from a conventional concert, but just as rewarding, and perhaps more so.

There’s a lot going on in electronic music—tonight the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (that’s right) is playing and I’m hoping to go. There’s also a group in the Bay Area that get together regularly to learn about electronics, computing and music. A week ago I went to a talk at UC Santa Cruz that presented some algorithmic music—I’ll try to post separately about that.

Home again

We’re back from our whirlwind trip to Seattle. Today we went to the Boeing museum close to the Sea-Tac airport, which has an old Air Force One (707), and a BA Concorde. Also a great exhibition of first world war planes, the Blackbird, and a simulator that the boys enjoyed (twice!).

Yesterday I met a friend at Amazon and had the chance to see one of their buildings – beautiful art deco exterior, with amazing views of the mountains all around. We were pretty lucky with the weather – one rainy day and three fine, with two blue and clear. At one point I could see Mt. Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympic mountains, all clear and cloud-free.

We did go to the Experience Music Project yesterday – the building is famously by Frank Gehry and the project funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Lots of great interactive displays (recording studio, instruments etc.), and we all had a good time. I was disappointed by the building – it seemed a bit arbitrary on the outside, and frankly dingy and rough on the inside. I think the passion and intensity of the music it houses and describes could have been more effectively expressed. But still, it was the first Gehry building I’ve seen close up, and it was interesting to see how he used the power of CAD to create shapes and textures that would have been too difficult previously.

I didn’t take any pictures of the EMP – there are enough out there already and I had a camera-free day, just enjoying the sights.

New speakers in the living room


I’ve spent the past couple of months building a new set of speakers based on a design by Wayne Parham (Pi Speakers). They are three-way horn-loaded speakers, using high quality PA (public address) drivers that are a lot more efficient than the speakers they are replacing.At the weekend I finally was able to install the new Pi Sevens in the living room. Here’s a first set of impressions.

My system is as follows:

  • Townshend Rock III turntable with Grado MM cardtridge.
  •  EAR 834P phono stage
  •  Naim CDP8i CD player
  •  First Sound passive “preamp”
  • Music Reference RM9 tube amplifier
  • Mixed cables – DIY solid silver, Cardas speaker cables

The speakers replace my Thiel CS3.6 floor-standers, in roughly the same locations (corners). The room is sub-optimal in that the speakers are in corners that also house bookcases, and there’s a baby grand piano between the speakers along the same wall. However, there’s no sign yet of any piano-contributed vibration.

I’ve been listening to lots of stuff: Beatles, Tom Paxton, King’s Singers, Lieder (Brahms, Schubert), Wagner, Gilbert & Sullivan, Dave Brubeck, and a mix of CDs and records.

The first impression is of a very delicate and accurate mid-range. The King’s Singers have never sounded better. The mid-horns seem solid and unfussy. The treble is clear, but I think a bit recessed, and definitely less audible than with the Thiels. The bass I’m not quite sure about yet. Clearly the power of the woofer is exciting a couple of room modes, and I will need to build some tube traps or something, and possibly alter the room layout a bit (I’m sitting against the back wall, which is probably not ideal). The most obvious effect is on plucked bass lines, and also some coloration on male voices. But except for the notes that are too loud, the bass seems clear and unobtrusive. I don’t know if I’m really getting all the extension I was expecting – this may be because of the bookcases, or (and I hope not) it’s possible the cabinets leak. I have been unable to detect much port action so far.

The other major change is the increased level of dynamics. I find I have to adjust the volume for every recording separately – I never needed to do that before. Popular recordings with lots of compression need to be turned well down. Classical recordings with wide dynamic range can be turned up and I still get good pianissimo, with exciting climaxes. The bass excitation limits my ability to listen loud – especially with bass or baritone voices.

I should mention Marina’s view – she has expressed three opinions:

1. “They are bigger than you led me to believe”
2. “They are uglier than I thought”
3. “They sound much better than the old speakers.”

…so I guess I get to keep them, but I will need to finish the veneering and clean up the wiring etc.