Colorless writings, part 21 – Shoulders of the Giants

Your title doesn’t give much hints this time…

That may be true. I was planning on calling today’s article “evolution”, but backed out. Granted, that would have been more informative. The issue i wanted to discuss is how everything came to be. From a story about The Kinks razoring small speakers in the early sixties to modern high end multieffects that cost more than custom guitars. What happened in between those two points? Between the very first Tone Bender and Kemper Profiling amplifier? A lot. What we are looking at here is a span of 50 years, from around 1965 to 2015. For this time, the guitars have been more or less the same. Only with a few “innovations” along the way. Most of these have failed hard, as the first guitars and basses with onboard effects did. It seems that those onboard effects come back every now and then, but they will never be a sufficient hit. Robotic tuners have been around for 30 years and still never sold well. Reissues of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Fenders and Gibsons are still selling well. All the modern additions just seem to lower the true value of the instrument. Most players will not go further than using a floating, locking tremolo. That’s pretty much the only big “improvement” that is widely acknowledged. Ok, maybe an occasional Tremsetter is allowed or some high end brands may make their guitar bodies out of aluminum, but that’s it. Aside from hype creating websites or paid print articles, i have not heard anyone praising the current Gibson Minetune robots. Somehow i think that will pass too. And yes, there were the Line6 Variax guitars too. Got a friend who plays with one actively in a band? Thought so. Neither do i.

It may always come down to “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. I believe this is  the reason why guitars have not evolved as much as the electronics. But how did electronics take so many and so big leaps forward? I believe this is due to the fact that many effects and amplifiers are not as unbroken as guitars. The Tone Bender had room for improvement and that got us the Fuzz Face. Roger Mayer came up with Octavia by blasting a (sort of an) tweaked Fuzz Face trough a small signal transformer and signal rectification. Then there was the Jordan Bosstone that did things in a manner that’s not too far from operational amplifier done with discreet transistors. And as the commonly used germanium transistors had one true fault (temperature changes kiled the tone), the next step was to use integrated circuits for their stability. Use of these chips also opened another realm of tones. And voilá, now we had Dan Armstrong Blue Clipper, followed by MXR Distortion + and DOD OD250. And soon someone in asia was to improve on those with Tubescreamers and OD-1s and number of other, similar designs. This took only ten to fifteen years. Then came the 80’s.

The time where digital was all the rage?

Up until mid-80’s the analog was the one and only option. Then the “digital” became a huge selling point. Just like early stereos were nothing more than a mono speaker pushed out of two cones, the digital was not always the digital we know today. And as the real processing power in a 80’s Digitech multieffect was what it was, the results were often close, but not close enough. As digital effects go, we need to transform the guitar’s signal to a digital form first, apply the effect and turn it back to analog state. This conversion was crucial part in digital effects and it usually required a lot more power to achieve the same things the analogue world had faithfully done over the years. This simply meant that the rack mount effect was the next logical step. It was later in that decade when manufacturers started to move the rack effects back to the pedal form. One of the most successful endeavors was the Boss RV-2 Digital reverb.

Late eighties and nineties was the greatest era for cheap plastic pedals that were mostly analog. The key word is “cheap”. Designwise this era was just reinventing the wheel. The same circuits from past decades were simply toned down in cheaper and smaller form. Of course, as with all evolution, there were tons of improvements on the old designs. I’d be wasting a lot of my valuable time if i was to list every single tubescreamer, rat and big muff derivative made between 1985 and 1999. Number of those derivatives did really improve the original design and some of them are still pretty relevant today.

What about the “attack of the clones”?

I’d be lying if i tried to pin out when there was a time for the “clones”. Every single item modifying your guitar’s tone is always a derivative of something else. I’ve said this so many times before, but there is only so many ways to hook up a transistor or an opamp. All analog effects are small signal amplifiers with filtering and possibly signal clipping. Even analog delays, choruses, tremolos, flangers, autowahs and so on, are all using the same semiconductors for amplifying and filtering. Even those digital effects must have unity amplifiers before their AD-conversion. And after DA as well. So in fact, it’s all the same.

And what comes to “clones”, those have been around since  the beginning of effects. Just compare the schematic of the first Tone Bender against a schematic of a Fuzz Face. And do the same thing with Blue Clipper against Dist+ against OD250.

What’s even more interesting is the number of modern digital effects that have the same board and DSP design for several different effects. Only the code  inside is the differentiating factor. And since these pedals often pack a punch of modern PC’s and/or smartphones, the quality of the tone is usually good. Not necessarily great, but good. In a sense, these are the modern clones. More processing power equals better modeling of analog circuits. If i was to make a guess, i’d say it’ll take at least a decade to model a transistor based fuzz to a degree that it’ll sound close enough. Those uncontrollable overtones of overdriven semiconductors are not there yet. So those Kempers and alike are basically a straight evolved descendents of Strymons and alike, which are basically just evolved descendents of those rack mount effects that were huge in thte 90’s. And those? They were just a logical follower for the previous tone shaping devices. So everything was and is just an attempt to push the previous device just a bit further and make it sound better. Every single designer stands on the shoulder of a giant. The previous designer that made a circuit to sound closer to his/her preferences.

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