The A-Zed of Audio
The year is 1887 and in what is modern-day Poland, a physician-linguist named L. L. Zamenhof set out to solve a problem. In his town a handful of different languages were being spoken, and these language lines divided their speakers into tribes that hardly intersected.
Zamenhof's solution? Construct a universal language that everyone would speak and which would bridge the gap between people that were physically neighbours, yet psychically foreigners. The language was Esperanto, and suffice to say, you don't see it on the backs of cereal boxes tucked underneath the English and French.
Esperanto may have never caught on as the universal language of a nineteenth-century idealist’s dreams, but the idea of a common form of communication isn't completely foreign, if you're willing to include the way computers communicate with the gadgets that are attached to them.
The 'language' that has found a little more traction than Esperanto is USB, or Universal Serial Bus, with special emphasis on the first word. The upstarts and the somewhat successful generate all sorts of excitement in the world around us, but you know something is truly established if it’s boring. That' definitely the case with USB – it's pretty hard to find anything exciting to say about that little rectangular connection we all take for granted. But if you're looking for real excitement, the pre-USB world was a hell of a place to be.
If you have fond memories of the old serial and parallel ports, your memories are probably oriented more around the security those threaded screws afforded especially when you had only one hand to reach blindly behind a computer wedged into an inconvenient corner. The fond memories surely end there, and unless you're some sort of technological sadist, can't possibly extend to the nightmare of incompatibility, the adapter cards, and bent pins that regularly turned users back to their abacuses.
The Universal Serial Bus marked a significant milestone in computer history when a bunch of competitors got together realizing that it was more useful to agree than it was to disagree – that is, in a way that didn't have anything to do with the price-fixing and collusion that are more often the case today when rivals sit down together. I'd like to think that when Microsoft, IBM, DEC, Compaq, NEC, and the old hometown hero Nortel began developing this computer Esperanto in the mid-'90s, they had the despondent computer user in mind: sobbing and tangled in a mess of inconvenient, poorly designed cables. More likely they had their own interests in mind, yet similar to MIDI's history, when these rivals were able to step back far enough to see they were all playing for the same team, it benefitted everyone for decades to come.
Beyond introducing a far more elegant connection, USB also brought with it dramatically improved data transfer speeds which allowed for a whole new generation of media interfaces. Serial and parallel ports offered about as much bandwidth as a drinking straw, which wasn’t an issue when all you had to transfer was a little trickle of information. But with the bandwidth increases – especially with USB 2.0, and more recently USB 3.0 – we were suddenly given a firehose, and then a watermain pipe through which to transfer our data.
If there's a nearly irrefutable law which we humans obey, it's that we use whatever space is made available to us. It was only natural that with the introduction of USB 2.0 in April 2000 we quickly saw (heard, really) USB being used for a medium that took advantage of the newly-introduced bandwidth: digital audio.
When it comes to audio, there are two main considerations for USB, both of which have to do with the bandwidth it offers. The first is the feel that this bandwidth allows. If a connection doesn't have sufficient bandwidth for the traffic moving through it, things get clogged up in the cable between the interface and the computer; think about any Toronto road at pretty much any hour other than 2:00-5:00 AM. If this bottleneck happens you'll have noticeable latency between the sounds you make and when you hear them, just like how it can take you an hour to travel 2 kilometres on the 401 during rush hour. And just as these delays can be infuriating for commuters, latency can be especially upsetting for a musician who's playing or singing live and listening back to herself through headphones at the same time.
The other area in which USB is valuable for music folks is more on the listening end. Being able to avoid a computer's onboard soundcard is nice because computer manufacturers don't include a premium part when most people are satisfied with a 37-cent onboard DAC (digital to analogue converter). Allowing audiophiles to buy dedicated DACs which are connected by USB is a simple way to bypass the built-in DAC and get the stratospheric fidelity that makes their palms sweat and gives them a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Yet as soon as you're into the world of audiophilia you quickly realize you're surrounded by insane people with a fortune to spend. The Audioquest Diamond USB cable can be had for a modest $550 for .75 m, $1000 for 3 m, and $1460 for 5 m; the good news is there' free shipping. The cables are made of pure silver and the sellers claim this produces a more accurate signal. When it comes to analogue cables, a metal with fewer imperfections will have an impact but a USB cable is digital, so it's only transferring 1s and 0s. Are there better quality 1s and 0s if they're transferred through silver? All I'll say is I've never heard one of these cables in a shootout with a $5 USB cable, but if I think about it, it makes no sense.
Aside from melting precious metal into cables (and getting people to pay for them), what' remarkable here is that USB 2.0 has been around for 15 years and it’s still in common use. Very recently, Apple's heavily-touted Thunderbolt has started to appear on some high end audio interfaces, but knowing how this pattern has unfolded in the past (see: FireWire) I'd hesitate to invest too heavily here either. USB is like some unkillable creature that just gets stronger every time it’s attacked. USB is into the 3s now, and its latest iteration (dubbed SUPERSPEED+) can send data at blinding rates, and as is the case with all of USB, is backward compatible.
Backward compatible. It's music to my ears. Backward compatibility is such a beautiful thing, and it's so rarely found in consumer electronics. If you find yourself with a USB 3 device and your computer can only handle USB 2, the device works at USB 2 speeds, without the need for adapters or an altogether new unit.
There's incredible elegance here. The fact that one form of connection can work in so many places is a lot like Zamenhof's dream with Esperanto – one language with which you can order a coffee, or ask a person why his palms are sweating, or ask anyone anywhere in the world if they've seen Carmen Sandiego . Backward compatibility brings USB closer to language in a certain way – natural languages develop and change, but we don't flat out replace them. If we treated our language the way we treat our electronic gadgets we'd have regressed to the days of cave-dwelling and grunting.
Maybe Zamenhof's oversight with Esperanto was trying to introduce something too new, too suddenly. Technology giants can do this from time to time, and they managed to do it with USB. Languages make connections. Whether it's German, Esperanto, or USB, once it's in place it lets us craft what's being transferred and stop concerning ourselves with the method of transfer. If you start messing with the method, you'd better have a damn good reason.
Jordan Mandel is a Digital Media Lab Instructor at the UW Stratford Campus, and writes for this blog regularly. His hobbies include ant farming, glass blowing, and ham radio. More of his work can be found at jordanmandel.com/blog, which is home to the award-winning satire rag, The Outa Times.