An embarrassment of volume control

Old Radio, by Rob Mac, 2005
Old Radio, by Rob Mac, 2005

The electronics age is saddled with many weird contradictions, brought on as layer after layer of gadgetry or software is pasted onto legacy systems in the holy name of upgrade. Eventually, inevitable, the whole conglomeration becomes so unwieldy that it’s thrown out for a fresh start. Or it becomes  a permanent ironic footnote, like the Windows trope of having to click the “start” button to stop your computer.

One peculiarity that has puzzled me for years is the plethora of volume controls in computer systems these days. On a 1940s tube radio, there was a single knob for volume, that usually doubled as the on-off switch as well — a miracle, or at least a high point, of simple, intuitive user-interface design (not that they jargonized it like that, back then.)

By contrast, on the 2007-vintage computer i’m typing this on right now, while listening to spooky Dark Oceanic Meditations by Y’ha-Nthlai Rising (so weirdly occult it doesn’t even show up in a Google search), there are three volume controls in action simultaneously:

  • the ThinkPad’s three-button set-up for volume up, down and mute;
  • the Ubuntu volume slider in the top menu bar, controllable by mouse to change volume or to mute;
  • the volume control in Rhythmbox, the program playing the music — another mouse-activated slider.

If i were using my wrap-around headphones, rather than the earbuds, a FOURTH volume control would be added to the mix: a small, in-line roller on the headphone cord.

Four volume controls seems like overkill to me. I wonder if anybody really has a solid grasp of how these all interact with each other. I do know through experience that if any one of them is low or muted i don’t get any sound out of the system, and must cycle through them all to find the culprit.

I also know that the buttons and the menu bar slider are linked (though seemingly not on every system). That makes a bit of sense: one hardware and one software option, both controlling the same thing. But given that every computer has the hardware buttons, and every operating system has a software slider, why does every player program add its own volume control? And given that every sound-generating system already has three volume controls, why the fourth on the headphone cord? It’s an embarrassment of volume control.

Being of an engineering bent, i always wonder how they play off against each other, and what’s the optimal way to adjust one against another to get the “best” sound out of the computer. Main volume cranked to max, Rhythmbox slider to dial the volume down? What about the headphone roller — high or low? My intuition is to keep all the hardware ones cranked to high, to keep from pissing away battery energy in rheostats, and use the software controls to lower the volume to listening level. But really i have no idea.

Note: I put “best” in quotes above because high-fidelity stereo sound is pretty much kaput these days, shot to hell by downsampled mp3 files, low-quality earbuds and mini-speakers, a generally noisy environment, and the ubiquitous abuse of music as constant background filler, rather than something to be listened to deliberately and attentively. There are still audio aficionados who seek out quality, but for the rest of us“”good enough” is about as good as it gets.

Seems like this is the audio version of another modern phenom, the ridiculous range of consumer choice we are all assaulted with these days. That’s the “rule” that says, if two or three different choices of [insert any consumer product here] are good, then forty or fifty must be better. Really, i’m at the point where going into any large store, even one as benign as Mountain Equipment Co-op, is an exercise in consumer shock.

Too many volume controls, because we can toss ‘m in so why not?; too many choices of daypack, because the invisible hand of the market so decrees. But that’s a different blog rant, innit?

Author: Greg Blee

Poster to my own blog, and others.

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