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The Sound of Distortion

Are you one of the people with "golden ears"? Can you hear the difference in opamps or the distortion components of electrolytic verses mylar capacitors? The amount of distortion that an electrolytic capacitor can add to the circuit is on the order of 0.001% and replacing several of them in a stompbox might only improve the distortion by 0.005%.

Let's do a little experiment... Sine waves are pure bell-like tones and it is easy to hear impurities in them. So I have generated two sine waves; the first is a pure 200Hz tone and the second has 1.0% added second harmonic. That is a full one-percent distortion, which is 1000 times more than the distortion contributed by a single bad electrolytic capacitor in a circuit and 200 times more than if you replace all of them in a pedal... I'm being very generous with these numbers since we're assuming the mylar capacitors will have 0.0% distortion and they do not.

I have combined the two wav files into a single file, the pure sine tone and the other with 1% second harmonic distortion, and you can play them by clicking the image to the left. Remember... this wav file is part pure tone and part distorted. I won't tell you which comes first nor how long each selection lasts, but believe me that both distorted and pure are in this one sound clip. Put on the headphones and click the link... if you dare!

Done? Can you hear the sound of 1% second harmonic distortion? Still think those opamp and capacitor substitutions are making big differences in the sound? You decide for yourself.

This not presented as an audiophile testing regimen but as a simple listening test. It's not an example of typical capacitor or opamp sounds. It is merely to put in perspective how subtle 1% distortion can be. Some people can hear it and some cannot... that's not important! It is to get you thinking... so if you are stimulated by it to look for further answers or to think twice about tweaks that are proposed, then it has been useful!

More to come...

©2004 Jack Orman
All Rights Reserved

This page last modified on Friday, 01-Jan-2010 17:13:16 PST

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