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The 16th C. Roots of Computing

Hello Happy Reader,

What with the holidays and plethora of pipe organs in the Twin Cities, I hit a couple of concerts recently. The most recent was a Olivier Messiaen piece, La Nativité du Seigneur, as played by Raymond Johnson, the Director of Music at St. Mark’s Cathedral here in Minneapolis. It was dissonant, angular and altogether challenging, though I did enjoy it as an accompaniment to stained glass (not Glass, Jonah!) viewing.

Since big organs get down to the very lowest octave of our hearing, and are usually installed in a large, reverberant space, they can be lots of fun. When I heard that someone was giving a historical talk about French organs, I thought, “Way kewel,” and signed up. Extra points were awarded as the speaker is the fellow overseeing the current restoration at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. I attended Mass once at Notre Dame, and it was a transcendent experience.

Having signed up on–line, I  zipped over to Saint Paul today, to MPR’s (Minnesota Public Radio) USB Forum to grab the presentation. Organ builder Bertrand Cattiaux from Liourdres, a dapper fellow with a marvelous command of English (thank goodness as my French is abyssmal), has restored and rebuilt numerous organs, including famous instruments by the Clicquot dynasty (Poitiers Cathedral; Versailles Chapel) and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris; Saint Sernin, Toulouse).

The Clicquot organ at Cathédrale de
Saint-Pierre, Poitiers

His talk, Six Centuries of French Organ Building, included historical drawing, photographs and musical excerpts, and was lively, educational, and quite enjoyable. The discussion was a bit technical, as it was sponsored in part by the Twin Cities Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. So, lots of ivory twiddlers in the audience. An engineering geek bud and I were the exception.

According to his backgrounder, “Cattiaux was born in 1955 in Étampes, near Paris and very early on, showed a great interest in music. When he was 14, opening the back doors of the organ of Notre Dame d’Étampes, he discovered a fascinating world of pipes, wood and mechanics. He began to take organ lessons with Noellie Pierront and soon discovered his true vocation…he would become an organ builder. Having chosen Jean-Loup Boisseau as his training master, he had the opportunity to work on the great organ of Notre Dame de Paris and to meet the tenured organist, Pierre Cocherau. From 1974 to 1979, he worked as the assistant to François Carbou. Each Sunday afternoon, he would attend organ recitals given by world-renowned organists: This helped provide a solid foundation for his knowledge of organ music.”

What, you may ask, does this have to do with computers? Well, any geek worth her salt knows that early programmable computers used “punch” or Hollerith cards to store their “Holerithms” or executable instructions. Punched card were, in turn, derived from the Jacquard looms of the 19th century. Jacquard looms were the first widely used, semi–automatic (programmable to us moderns) manufacturing gizmos, and were themselves descended from the invention of a textile worker in the silk center of Lyon, Basile Bouchon. Bouchon devised “…a way to control a loom with a perforated paper tape in 1725. The son of an organ maker, Bouchon partially automated the tedious setting up process of the drawloom in which an operator lifted the warp threads using cords.”

I didn’t know about Bouchon and, more importantly, that he was the son of an organ maker, until I started writing this blog entry. What I did immediately see was the similarity of some parts of a pipe organ, shown by Cattiaux during his talk, to the programming cards employed in a Jacquard loom. Specifically, the mechanism underlying a mechanical organ’s stop is fundamentally the same as a J–loom’s punch card!

As I was watching the presentation, I thought, “Cranky, that looks and acts like a punch card!” Sure enough, Bouchon borrowed that stop mechanism; a thin, sliding flat board with holes that, when aligned with underlying holes in another piece of oak, allow the passage of air to the reeds and pipes; and adapted it to allow or prevent a peg from moving into position. Mechanical organs and simple looms have similar mechanical linkages as part of their guts, and early organs were binary in that the air was either stopped, hence the name “stop,” or flowing across a sound–producing reed.

So, Bouchon adapts the wooden version of a punch card for use in his paper tape–driven loom, Joseph Marie Jacquard refined the design with chains of punched, rigid cards, and early computers eventually used punched cards (and paper tape!) to store their programs…This micro–revelation on my part was worthy of James Burke…I think he actually did an episode on the antecedents of programmable computers, but I don’t remember any mention of organs. Anyway, thanks for staying with me through this walk down techno memory lane…it’s been fun!

RMAF 2013 – Ella Lives Pt. 3

Ciao Gentle Reader,

In Parts One & Two of my RMAF 2013 report, I discussed activities at CanJam, always fun, and some of the suites that caught my fancy. This last installment continues with coverage of individual rooms that I enjoyed, starting with April Music…

Read more…

RMAF 2013…Ella Lives Pt. 2

Hey Audio Fans,

In Part 1 of “RMAF 2013…Ella Lives,” I discussed many of the stuff at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest’s CanJam gathering. This year, it was bigger and better than ever, with some amazing high end headphones, and some budget ones that kick serious butt. In this, the second part of my RMAF 2013 coverage, I’m continuing my discussion of the remainder of the show: the suites, where it was all loudspeakers, all the time… Read more…

RMAF 2013…Ella Lives Pt. 1

Hello gentle reader,

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest happened earlier this month…This year, I decided to take a different tack than in year’s past. At previous Rock Mountain shows, I’d rush around, attempting to “take in” the whole show. Then I’d rush to crank out coverage. Bah, I say! This year, I moseyed along the corridors of amplified power and am taking a  leisurely approach to coverage. Though I didn’t find a single room that killed it, there were quite a few bits and bobs that did…

Read more…

Micromega MyDAC

Hi kidz,

The good folks at Audio Plus Services, the North American representative for  Micromega, have lent me their new almost entry level DAC. I say “almost” as it’s not spendy enough to make it into my DAC survey, but yet inexpensive enough (US$370 on Froogle) to compete with all but the bottom feeder products out there.

Micromega’s diminutive MyDAC

Micromega’s diminutive MyDAC

It’s still burning in so, haven’t formed an opinion but folks I trust like it a lot. I have a couple of additional DAC scheduled to show up in the next month or two, so I’ll be able to compare what sort of value the MyDAC is relative more costly offerings…

Back panel of the Micromega MyDAC

Back panel of the Micromega MyDAC

Stay tuned, more as I get into it!


MidPriced DACs — Part VII

Hello Digiphiles,

There seems to never be enough midpriced DACs out there for your dancing and dining pleasure. I’m up to 89 now!

An example of one of the new entries is the DSD-capable ARK MX+ DAC from AURALiC.


In related news, the 13th edition of Hifi Zine is out, and I have a piece in there about EQ plug-ins for audiophile players…Check it out.

MidPriced DACs — Part VI

Hello Digiphiles,

I’m up to a frankly incredible 86 DACs in my list of mid–priced DACs. In related news, the 12th edition of Hifi Zine is out, and I have a piece in there about shopping for DAC. It’s a 10,000 foot view, but you may find it interesting.

An example of one of the new entries is the very capable X-Sabre DAC from Matrix Digital Audio.



Matrix Audio’s DXD-capable X-Sabre DAC

P.S. – Let me know if there’s a DAC in the $500 to $2k price range that I’m missing…I’ll add it ASAP!

MidPriced DACs – Part V

Fresh off a recent presentation on computer audio for Analog Audio of MN, welcome to version five of my mid-priced DAC survey…The updated version adds several new products, so I’ve added an asterisk to those that are new to v5. Once of the new entries is RATOC Systems’


RATOC Systems’ lyrically named RAL-24192UT1 DAC


I want to again thank everyone for coming out to the session. I had fun, and I hope y’all enjoyed it as well!

Aufmerksamkeit übergeeks! Send me suggestions for new additions to the list! Until the next revision…


MidPriced DACs – Part IV

OK, enough with the French, am switching to roman numerals! Welcome to number four of my mid-priced DAC survey…The updated version adds Audiolab’s $900 M-DAC;


Hey all you übergeek audiophiles out there, send me suggestions for new additions to the list! Until the next revision…


MidPriced DACs – Part Trois

Hey folks,

As I dredge up more DACs for your comparison pleasure, I add ’em to the table. The updated version adds the current version of the Music Hall dac25, an easily upgradable DAC that takes kindly to better voltage regulators and op amps…

The Music Hall dac25.3

Music Hall’s latest DAC, the dac25.3


MidPriced DAC Survey — Part Deux

Hey folks,

Around Black Friday, I put together a survey of some mid–priced DACs to use with your computer and hi–fi system. Since the original posting, I’ve found a few more to add so, instead of updating the original post, I’m going to continue to update the stand-alone table; one chart to rule them all!

Take a look at the current version with four additional DACs

Let me know if you have a correction or suggestion…If it’s within the US$500 to $2000 price range, I’ll add it!


HR Playback Host

On Dec 8, 2012, Marco, one of my TS&G readers in Italy, wrote me with the following:

I’m reading your book today, and It’s very easy to read, complete and interesting. Next year, I’ll be buying an iMac and I’m undecided which of the following configurations to go with:

Configuration 1
– iMac 21,5″ CPU – i5 2,7 GHz Ram – 8 GB
– External SSD 40 Gb for the OS
– External HD to store my music, (upgrade to NAS or RAID ASAP)

Configuration 2
– iMac 21,5″ CPU – i5 2,9 GHz Ram – 8 GB Fusion Drive – Double Boot (partition with OS dedicated to the music server)
– External HD to store my music, (upgrade to NAS or RAID ASAP)

Thank you for your advice.”

Since I wanted to answer Marco’s question, I thought you might be interested as well in my thoughts on this…

My advice for an ideal configuration based around and iMac would be an iMac 21,5″ ( i5 2,9 GHz), with the cheapest internal “normal” drive you can buy. Here in the US, that means a 1TB, 5400 RPM, Serial ATA drive. Then, buy a big SSD (I like the 240 GB OWC Mercury Electra 6G at, remove the 1 TB internal drive, and replace it with the SSD. Now you’ll have a fast Mac, which will serve you longer as things inevitably need more compute power over time, and a fast SSD internal boot volume. If you partition the SSD, you can have your dual boot version; one partition for day-to-day work, and the just other for audiophile enjoyment.

Drop the 1 TB rotating media factory drive that came with the Mac into an external case, and use it as your Time Machine volume. OWC also sells their On-The-Go Pro “Add your own Drive” enclosure kit, which is perfect for repurposing that factory drive.

The minimum factory complement of RAM is 8 GB, which is fine for most work, including file-based music playback. If you’re rich you can always swap it later for more…Combine that host with an external volume or RAID (you need to protect your music library, don’t you?) to store your music and, wow, you have a very nice host!