David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: digital, history, technology, tubes, @musings info


With the hot weather here in the Pacific NW over the past few days, I've spent a lot of time in the basement. I spent some of that time sorting through stuff that has accumulated, separating stuff that I want to keep from the stuff that I wonder why I ever bought in the first place.

One thing that really struck me is that guitar gear has a remarkably long useful life. One of my favorite amps is 43 years old (I've had it for about a year), and going strong. One guitar is 25 years old. Most of my other gear, while manufactured much more recently, is solidly based upon design principles established some forty to fifty years ago.

That's what I'd call a robust, well-established technology.


On the other hand, I have piles of computer equipment and software disks that not only have virtually zero monetary value, but also are just flat-out useless. Hardware that won't interface with anything not of the same (two- to three-year) "era", expensive software programs that won't run under current operating systems, and data disks that can't be read unless I'm willing to resurrect the hardware-plus-operating system-plus-application program platform upon which they were created.

The words "planned obsolescence" spring to mind. I must have been somewhat aware of this when I got back into music five years ago and made a commitment to avoid programming as part of my music-making activities.

That's not to say that I've totally avoided digital gear - my studio uses digital technology, but the details are pushed far enough down that I don't care. I manipulate real buttons and real faders, and don't have to worry about compatibility and upgrades. It cost me a bit more to start, but it has been totally trouble-free and has not cost me one penny more in added features or upgrades in the five years that I've owned the studio.

I've had a couple of digital amps along the way, too. My first amp in 1999 was a Line6 Spider. More recently I bought a Fender Cyber Deluxe. They're both fine amps for certain applications, just like my Vibro-King and `62 Pro are fine for other applications. Realistically, though, I know that serviceability issues will kill the Spider (which I no longer own) and the Cyber Deluxe long before I can pass them on to my grandchildren, whereas the Vibro-King and the Pro could certainly still be in good shape for even my great-grandchildren.

Think about it: There's nothing high-tech in tube amps. The most complicated component, the vacuum tube, is simple enough to have been manufactured using technology developed something like seventy or eighty years ago. The challenges in modern vacuum tube manufacturing are not technical, but rather environmental. As long as there's a market, some entrepeneur will find a way to manufacture tubes. Remember: Tubes were pronounced dead twenty-five years ago.


I think that someday digital modelling amps will capture all of the nuances of a good tube amp circa late `50s to early `60s. I don't think that day is just around the corner. The intersection between the set of people who have a deep understanding of vacuum-tube guitar amp technology and the set of people who are designing the firmware for DMAs is pretty close to a null set. The firmware designers don't know any better, and believe that they can model an amp using transfer functions obtained by passing test tones through the amp in question. I've seen no evidence that they understand that the guitar amp is essentially a chaotic system whose response to an incremental input depends upon its current state. You can't get there with piecewise transfer functions and Fourier transforms. Modelling won't be accurate until the circuitry can be represented accurately at a physical level. Processing power has a long way to go before that can happen. Meanwhile, the people who understand the host technology are dying.

Again: The people who have a deep understanding of vacuum-tube technology are dying. This is an obsolete technology. People who care about it are pretty much on the "lunatic fringe" relative to our capitalist society's goals. There's relatively little money to be made because the sales volume are so low, the profit margin is slim because manufacturing costs are so high, and it's just not sexy technology any more. What kid going into an EE program would rather learn about 6L6s and magnetics than VLSI and computer architecture?

Even the people who love vacuum tubes are, for the most part, mimicing the past. What we see are lots of minor variations on classic design work done fifty or sixty years ago. Modern tube amp designers are at almost as great a disadvantage as the bit-bangers designing the next DMA. The tube amp designers work mostly from old schematics, layouts, and rules of thumb. Yes, there's some science to their work, embodied in their understanding of Ohms law and basic AC reactance. But how many amp designers have an analytical understanding of the operational behavior of a pentode, the power-bandwidth of an output transformer, or the transient response of a closed-loop amplifier? Those guys retired in the `70s.


My point, if I was going to try to make one (actually, I was mostly rambling and am just now getting around to justifying myself) is that mature technologies are those that survive because they fulfill a need. There's little to no innovation, partly because the technology has been found to be sufficient to its intended purpose, and partly because there's no one left to break new ground. On the other hand, immature technologies (PCs for example) go through endless short cycles of discovery and obsolescence because there's a market for "new and improved" and because there are lots of people who want to bring new ideas to market.

So "obsolete" technology is devalued only if there's newer technology to replace it. In the case of vacuum-tube guitar amps, that technology peaked forty years ago and has experienced only the slightest of "improvements" to satisfy modern markets. Which is why we have forty year old guitar amps that are cherished, and four year old computers that are useless.

July 26 2004 05:04:38 GMT