That old isolation tweak

by Gautam Raja

One of my earliest memories is of my brother and I, so young we’re still shaky on our feet, bopping up and down to The Beatles being played on my mother’s HMV record player. Over the years I’ve collected a number of precious audio moments like that. The first time I properly listened to Deep Purple on a tape borrowed from my friend “Ash Sabre” in 1992. My first concert of an international band—Jethro Tull playing in Bangalore in 1994. That moment when ‘Comfortably Numb’ started during the 2002 Roger Waters concert in Bangalore and I looked across at my close friend who stood frozen, his hands over his mouth, his eyes wide–unable to believe this was happening in front of him.

But strangely, the audio memory that has stuck with me the most wasn’t as expansive. It was, in fact, hobbyist and pedantic for it involved two inner tubes for a child’s bicycle and two heavy books (the content didn’t matter).

The track was ‘Crush’ by Dave Matthews Band from their 1998 album, Before These Crowded Streets. It begins with a gentle bass line for a couple of bars, then a plucked guitar chord, followed a couple of bars later by a kick from the drums as they join in with saxophone and violin in tow.

I was skeptical but trusting. So many people online had spoken of the amazing improvements from isolation or damping tweaks. I doubted very much whether I would hear a big difference, but it hardly cost anything, mere fils for those barely inflated inner tubes, and the two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary that I happened to have on hand.

The tubes went under my Sony CD player and Indian-made Cox integrated amplifier, and were intended to work by absorbing vibrations that causes electrical noise or distortion through a phenomenon known as microphony. The dictionaries were placed on top of each component, and damped the vibrations caused by the cabinets ringing in symphony with the sound from the speakers.

It all sounded a little too “cross my palm with silver” to be true, and I was sure I’d listen, scrunch up my eyes and listen again, and then decide that there was an improvement. Just to, you know, justify the time spent .

I cued the CD player to track eight of the album, hit ‘play’, and became a cliche… frozen except for gently dropping jaw. The sound was profoundly improved in every way. It was deeper and clearer. The instruments had more texture and stood out more from the background. It was so smooth that it made me think of toothpaste squeezing out of a tube.

Over the years, I’ve had people dismiss my experience with brazen confidence. People with science backgrounds who insist these improvements aren’t possible. “It’s placebo.” “You heard what you wanted to hear.” People who pick on the most extreme examples (such as audiophiles who spend thousands of dollars on cables alone) to dismiss by allegations of insanity.

But to me, this has remained a little shrine of a memory. I hold on to how, though I was skeptical, I tried it anyway. I hold on to the hobbyism confirmation that sometimes the small changes really do matter, and can bring great rewards. I hold onto the lesson that acknowleging and allowing for an inherent bias lets the music play through with even greater fidelity to the truth.

Did I just suggest that you, metaphorically, sit on a slightly inflated butyl tube and place a heavy book on your head? I’m afraid I did. Enjoy the music.

First published in Gulf News, June 23, 2015