Mr Bastard is not a cat

This article has come about because the level of electrical illiteracy is now so low that it is causing a great deal of unhappiness.  Many people are so lacking in their understanding that they can barely react productively with the physical world at all.  Let's take a small example.  I think most people would agree that valve amps are not computers. Not even remotely. In fact they are so unlike computers that none of the IT concepts, metaphors, practices that we seem to find so useful in applying to almost everything, living or dead, are the slightest bit useful when applied to valve amps.  They're not just useless, they're harmful.  This unlikeness of amps to computers is actually essential, it’s what makes them so well suited to feed our appreciation of music, so well equipped for the irrational, primitive brain that music sings to.  It releases us from the tyranny of the worship of the logic favoured frontal lobe in whose image the computer is created.  However, I have customers now who simply cannot get along with valve amps at all, they have a complete breakdown, fervently believing their amp is broken when it is working perfectly.  In the wider music industry  there is an increasingly  pervasive view that valve amps are an unfortunate anachronism, and they look forward to the day when they are no longer necessary, when finally all those awkward, noisy, hot, unreliable, heavy transformers, valves, capacitors & resistors, can be supplanted by chips running millions of processes on billions of digits to produce a sound that purports to imitate the integrity, meaning & beauty of actual music.  At that point all the awkwardness will be gone, there will be so many millions of lines of code, endlessly churning through their logic statements at unfathomable speeds that we will be fooled into believing that it is able to support & nurture artistic expression.  Too mechanistic? Turn up the entropy knob, re-introduce some randomness, make it less predictable & bland, spice it up a bit.  No dynamics? Mix in some code which identifies the transients and boosts them.  When it crashes, patch it.   When the feedback is too nasty, submit a bug report.  Maybe your amp will have a chatbot built right into it so you can have your disappointment managed right out of you without even needing any human intervention.  Voice activated so you can shout at it if it lets you down.  Happy days!  If it can't be faked, it's not worth faking.


Does this really matter?  Yes, it really, really matters.  Well, if you harbour any hope for the future of humanity then it matters, because if this doesn't matter then there definitely isn't.


Let's remind ourselves what a valve does that is so unique and irreplaceable.  The acoustic guitar, remember, sounded great, but it was quiet.  Quiet compared to the drummer, too quiet to be heard in a dancehall.  The acoustic guitar has a sound chamber that amplifies the waving of the strings.  Not just amplifies them but adds all kinds of texture, harmonics, phases, hums, squeaks, it takes quite a simple vibration, of a string, and imbues it with such depth, richness, tone, dynamics that it seems to speak directly to our hearts, filling us with hope, love, laughter, tears.  Beautifully, but not very loudly.  So people starting playing around with pickups.  As soon as you stick a pickup on an acoustic guitar it feeds back.  To fix this, Leo, Les, Bigsby & pals got rid of that amazing resonant chamber and soundboard and all that complexity and replaced them with thermionic valves.  Doesn't seem very likely, but that's what they did.  So the guitar now, is even more simple, it is just strings vibrating in air, those vibrations of metal strings in a magnetic field cause the little coils in the pick ups to send tiny pulses of electricity up the wire to the amp, which then performs the function that the chamber use to do it, to amplify and enrich the sound.  The amp is a box with a tiny simple signal at one end and a huge, roaring,  soaring, raucous rock n roll yell at the other!  How does it work?  Well, it's taking that tiny pulse and injecting huge amounts of energy into it, in stages, until there is enough energy to turn it back into a huge sound at the other end where the speaker is.  So, where does the magic come in that turns a simple, fairly sterile string twang into the sound of airplane dive bombing to the ground?  The trick is that by using an amp you have passed the baton from one branch of physics, sound, to another, electricity.  They're similar but different, they both have waves, frequency, phasing, amplitude and, most importantly, harmonics.  The process of heating and firing electrons from one end of a valve to the other, passing them through grids to imbue them with melody and harmony has all the same qualities of waves, non-linearity and chaos that the acoustic chamber had before we dispensed with it.  The amp makes the electric guitar whole again by reintroducing all the character and spice the physics provides, and then adds a whole lot more.  All this perfectly designed to go into our ears and jiggle our primitive little brain in exactly the way that it learnt to love long before will started fucking around with numbers and other lifeless bullshit.


So there, that’s it, the reason why the valve amp is so perfect is that it directly mucks about in physics, the physics of electrons in this case, rather than the physics of sound, but it’s basically the same physics just a slightly different branch, and that’s what counts, it’s the same physics that we are made from.


So, what’s this got to do with IT & computers?  Absolutely fuck all and it should stay that way if we’ve got any sense.  Computers use physics sure, but in order to abstract from it, to create a layer of binary logic that has absolutely fuck all to do with the operation of the universe and everything to do with the understanding of the universe.  IT, currently in the ascendant, has become a project to reduce the entirety of human experience to a rational representation of reality.  A project that will inevitably fail for obvious reasons but, at least for now, human society is mesmerised by the prospect of weeding out all the annoying little non-linearities, the irrational, from human discourse.  This process is is coming at a terrible cost, it’s only slightly behind our inability to organise ourselves without burning carbon as the No. 1 threat to the future of mankind. 


We now have an ever growing community of guitar owners who either just reject valves amps outright or when they do interact with them they expect them to behave like computers.  If you leave the amp with the reverb turned up to 10 and it slowly starts to feedback until it becomes a howling banshee, that is apparently a fault.  Their empathy for this magic box, which can enable them to directly manipulate huge voltages in order to bring them immense joy, is non-existent.  They sit there with their leads and pedals and power supplies turning knobs in all directions and recording videos of “faults” which are nothing other than demonstrations of their own utter ineptitude.  They often haven’t even plugged a guitar in before reaching their verdict, they are not even trying to make music, they are compiling bug reports to submit to me, or to the Internet, or to anyone who when listen to them when complain that this kind of behaviour is just not acceptable in the day and age.  They couldn’t give a fuck that it is a miracle of engineering that their amp doesn’t just kill them outright, what they want is a clean, predictable, reproducible, logical way of creating… what?  Do they even know?  Money, fame, clicks, views?  To say "art" seems niaive, doesn't it?


But I get it, it’s progress right?  Yes it is, but it's the wrong kind of progress.  It's the kind of progress that believes everything in the world is be bent to our will, to serve us, to enable us to produce whatever we can think of.  To ignore all the inconvenient realities of the real world and to dwell, isolated in a flacid, plastic representation of reality where hard truths are banished.  And look how well that has worked out so far.

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1 comment

I loved this, I love my valve amps.

They make weird noises and don’t always behave

But then again so does my Son and I love him to bits.

David Cahill

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