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GWYNN T ROBINSON: The Sound Of Silence

Sounding Off
Published November 1999

GWYNN T ROBINSON: The Sound Of Silence

Gwynn T. Robinson enjoys the sound of silence — but wonders why it's so difficult to achieve.

Music is joy to me. Sound is joy to me, pure sound, my choice of sound. That's all I want — nothing else. Not getting anything else, however, is not as straightforward as it appears.

As far as I can make out, in its simplest terms, music consists of only two things: sound and, well, no sound, in various combinations, rhythms and arrangements. The sound part has been researched and implemented in as many ways as you can imagine. The 'no sound' bit, on the other hand, lacks glamour, and certainly lacks attention. Its requirement is very simple — silence. And that's it. Okay, there are the laws of physics to consider: quantum noise, heat, and so on mean there will always be some hiss (except at absolute zero!). Being generous, I'll put up with that unavoidable noise. But why should I have to put up with noise introduced by poor or cheap design as well?

My complaint lies fair and square with unnecessary mechanical and electrical noise. As an example, my new, expensive keyboard hums alarmingly. Its case acts as a soundboard for the physical vibration of the mains transformer — is that good design? It's distractingly loud: it would be irrelevant or inaudible in most places, but in a home studio, it becomes a maddening irritation. There is also the hum introduced into the signal path by poor power‑supply design, shielding and positioning. Many pieces of equipment have this added 'quiescent hum' feature, and it could always be overcome with better regulation, filtering and component positioning — none of which is costly to do. So why don't the manufacturers do it?

You might think that I am being too critical, but once you have experienced silence, there is no turning back. It is amazing that few, if any, manufacturers seem to put enough effort into 'gagging' their creations.

Then there is the need for (noisy) fans to cool the circuits and power supplies, which are crammed into ever smaller spaces in modern equipment. Worryingly, more and more equipment requires fan cooling. Using low‑noise fans (which cost more) would help, but in general they're not used. Why not?

I suppose at least the fan noise drowns out the other hums and buzzes...

Most people get used to the background drone that emanates from their equipment; it can become strangely invisible. Some have never 'heard it', and most just put up with it. But why? As musicians, don't we care? Or is it ungrateful to ask for silence rather than more facilities? Given a choice I would opt for silence every time. But shouldn't everyone? Isn't silence just as much a part of music as sound?

'Near silence' is possible. Manufacturers could and would design it in, if the demand was there. But I guess it's hard to make silence a sexy, saleable 'angle'. Maybe they think we don't care. Perhaps we should start to make a noise about silence! Demand nothing! Be prepared to pay more for less!

A recent experience may illustrate my point. I needed to buy a power amplifier for 'home and field' use. The requirement was for silent operation (no fan) and reasonable power (300 Watts RMS per channel into an 8Ω load). To my amazement, 100 percent of all such amplifiers have fans. Fans are compulsory! However, I did not want to buy two amplifiers to do the job, and after much investigation I found just one supplier, whose product had an accompanying prohibitive price.

I can hear you saying now ‑‑'that's why people put up with the noise'. But shouldn't we start demanding silence and start to drive down the cost of 'nothing'? What's the point of having the best sound and facilities if it's all wrecked by the noise? Isn't silence equally as important as sound and facilities? As for me, I bought the silent, fanless power amp. It stung financially, but I am delighted with the vast amount of nothing it gives me. I can now concentrate on the music, and experience its atmosphere and 'feeling' without annoyances or distractions.

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambs CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: