Thursday, May 11, 2017

Digital horizons, and guitar amplifiers

I was astonished to see a digital modelling guitar amp given high-profile prestige coverage by Quartz, of all venues.
Quartz isn't your usual destination for guitar gear appraisal, for one thing. More than that, digital modelling amps are generally considered "entry-level" items. They are light-weight in every sense of the word, and typically sell for less than $1000 (usually around half that amount). In other words, if you've got a 13-year-old who's been dilligent about attending lessons and practicing guitar, this is the sort of thing you reward the kid with.

Or if you are (as I'm assuming writer Mike Murphy is) a Neil Young fan with a few bucks to spare on your burgeoning future as an amateur musician, this is the sort of thing you reward yourself with.

I can't claim to be a Young fan, myself -- I don't dislike him, but I don't often willingly queue him up. That said, even I know Neil would never give this device the time of day. He loves old Fender Mustang amps for the same reason he loves old cars with finnicky carburetors -- he knows he can actually get his hands under the hood and tweak as the spirit leads him.

For those of us who don't have that same urge to feel tubes and wires with our fingertips and inhale the ephemera of hot soldering wire, digital modelling amps present an Aladdin's cave of wonders. Digital modelling is its own artform -- to get it to the point where even Shakey couldn't tell the difference between hot tubes and cold zeros-and-ones requires two or three times the cost of the Mustang GT. That is changing with the speed we've come to expect from digital innovation, and there are a number of models on this device that fool my ears. Throw in any combination of dozens of effects, and the possibilities become dizzying.

The most remarkable toolkit in this particular amp, however, ekes out sounds that are utterly distinct -- tones and utterations that cannot be produced by anything but digital means. If you skip to the 9:00 mark on the Quartz/Fender video you'll get some idea of the potential. It's too early to declare this THE FUTURE!! of digital tone-shaping for guitar, but I have to wonder what an enterprising kid might make of this potential.

Amp modelling is a noble calling -- anyone who makes elite and fiscally-out-of-reach tone-shaping immediately accessible to enterprising musicians on a tight budget is doing commendable work. But it strikes me that digital potential could reach well beyond "mere" modelling. Where is the digital horizon for guitar tone-shaping?

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