Amongst the guitar players: conservative fetishization and its discontents ;^)

ampeg vt40

Recently, Peter Kirn over at the excellent blog Create Digital Music wrote an article about Antares, the makers of the much misused and reviled Autotune, and their experimental onboard guitar processor that brings it to the guitar, an instrument that already has it (they are called frets).   It set off an interesting discussion that mostly bears out a couple of things I have thought about guitarists (of which I am one) for a long time. First, we are usually really conservative when it comes to technology.   Second, we usually simultaneously have a hardware fetish: When we do want tech, we want a physical thing even when there are software solutions that do the exact same thing, often better, often for free.

Got to have that box to stomp on, gotta feel it. As an avowed tube snob for the first thirty years of my playing, I have a keen understanding of this. Guitars have vibrating strings sunk into resonant wood. Tubes compress and distort in some wonderful non-linear way that creates a feedback loop, from guitarist to strings to wood to pickups to amp to speakers and back to the player. Its a little mystical and still gives me the warm fuzzies (as opposed to the solid state cold fuzzies). This is no BS and there is a connection.

But tube snobbery has fallen on hard times lately IMHO. Yes, I still think single coils through a tube amp sounds great, but digital modeling has gotten way better over the past ten years, and much of the responsiveness and harmonic structure of tube compression and distortion is available on my laptop. For example, this is all laptop guitars and it sounds as good as tubes to me, both the spanky, new string sound of the rhythm and the just-on-the-edge-of-distorted lead. Plus the Hammond B3 sound is through the guitar and the laptop too. Try bringing a real one of those through TSA, which I did with this whole setup. And try to get this out of a tube amp. Same guitar, same day, same laptop, same song. Its to the point that I never play my lovely vintage tube amp any more, which is a bit of a shame. It has no master volume and I live in a condo, so that is how its going to be. While I give up a few things, like responsive feedback (of the Jimi variety this time) and early deafness, my tonal pallete is vastly expanded along other axes, so to speak.  A look around waymusic or listening in on the waydio will give you an idea of what I mean.

ampeg vt40
My amp, the ampeg vt40

I still have a longstanding plan to lug the old tube monster (see image) and the SG out to a practice room with some new strings and earplugs, but somehow have not had time to get around to it. I also had to test drive the newest piece of future vintage gear, the all tube, no nonsense Vox Night Train. It rocks, but I probably won’t drop the five bills for it cuz I can get close enough with my laptop. But I think the guy in the video is pretty much what we tube snobs look like to the rest of the world…just not aging gracefully, no?

The thing that most of us guitarists have not figured out yet, and which gear companies don’t want us to know, is that anything that can be modelled as a DSP circuit in a piece of hardware can be modelled just as well or better, and cheaper too, in software on a standard issue laptop.  Its the nature of DSP.   My favorite example is the thousand plus dollar digital echoplex vs the free vst plugin Mobius, which is in effect, 8 echoplexes with no limit on the loop lengths. Remember, going digital means we are already out of the analog realm of the tube snob, even if the thing is in a box. But there must be something about the FEEL of that box, right? I think that is nonsense and habit rather than ears.

There is a wonderful piece of research that my friend Jon Sterne told me about, where a Stanford Prof played back different kinds of music to incoming students in different digital formats. What he found was that they liked the sound of 128K mp3 files, complete with hiss, more than the sound of uncompressed audio which was technically much better.  Why? Habit. That is what they are used to hearing so that is what they like.

I think this is much of what my cousins the vinyl snobs hear in their LP collections, which have to be massively EQd and adjusted in a giant gnarly kludge to compensate for intrinsic sonic weaknesses of scratching sound into slabs of petroleum byproduct before it ever gets to the main stage of the amplifier, and sounds different on the inside of the platter than on the outside to boot.   But cuz will insist that he (and its always a guy. sigh.) hears a warmth in the vinyl that is missing from digital audio, no matter how good the format. They are hearing something, but it is not intrinsic to the music, it is an artifact of the vinyl, and they like it.

So what is Antares doing? They have put a mini-computer into the underside of a guitar — forty thousand bucks of hardware according to the video — <sarcasm> whoo wee, wish I had that! — that brings us guitarists all that autotune goodness that has done such wonders for pop music and the news </sarcasm>.    

So this is where the discussion gets interesting on the CDM blog. One group of tech embracers drool (and we do that sometimes) over the possibility of getting their hands on one of those $40k guitars while the other says, phooey, you lose the feel.  Well guitarists, listen up:  I’ll give you most of one of those 40k jobbers for free. Autotune is software. So is GSnap, a free VST plugin. There is your 95%. There are about five other ways of doing it too. And the last five percent is doable with some DIY noodling, along with lots of other stuff that that guitar can’t touch because the processor is artificially limited to doing that one thing.

Ah, but the feel, the bends, the touch — without the $40k guitar, it is all for naught alas. One of the features many guitarists lusted after (and we do that sometimes) was instant retuning. It has been possible since the beginning to transpose midi, so I have experimented a lot with doing the instant retune trick on my midi guitar. Here is the rub though: The gizmo retunes the signal, but not the resonance of the wood, the frequency of the strings, or the quiet sound of the acoustics of an electric guitar — all those stay in the actual tuning, leading for me to a tremendous cognitive dissonance. Here it is about the feel, and you would have to play really loud to offset that dissonance in the aural dimension, and still be left with the haptic dissonance. I am sure, in fact, that the guitar mix for the demo video is run straight to the mixing board so that we cannot hear the actual acoustic sound of the guitar bleed into it. That is why the guitar comes through much clearer than the the voices.

Autotune guitar is a boondoggle, a gizmo. Anything it can do with its processor, your laptop can do, probably better and for free, with its processor. Let the guitar do what it is made for, which is get an interesting signal out to the mangling stuff that follows. A hex pickup along with your regular pups is actually a useful piece of hardware for this. Use the computer you already own to do the rest. The hardware makes you do what it does. Not that I am against hardware…I’m a guitarist, so there is always some new thing that I sure would like.

Software, when it is nice, can be made to do what you do (most of the time). That is why I opted for the no-synths-built-in synth box when I did get a midi guitar setup. I’d rather use my ideas than what somebody pre-decides for me, which is what the pricier guitar synth boxes are doing. In fact, the guitar synth box itself could be done away with if there was a six-in soundcard interface that could feed the hex signal to the computer. All that pitch recognition and midification could be done on the laptop too if there was the right I/O. I’m sure Radio shack has the adapter somewhere….

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