An old amplifier and the deceleration of change

For the nine years or so that I was in a band in North Carolina I used amps that the bandleader had because my old one was kind of noisy. I’ve played a few times here and I’ve had my keyboard go through the PA, which meant how much I could hear myself was dependent on how much they put me through the monitors, which weren’t exactly pointing in my direction. I tried putting a little portable monitor on my keyboard but the lack of bass bothered me. So last Thursday I took a PA speaker, an old Celestion 12” two-way, and the only amp I had. I’d just discovered that one of my cables was noisy and realized that that might have contributed to my noise problem with the amp. That and I bought some spray contact cleaner to get some of the noise out of the knobs. 

My amp is actually an old Yamaha PA head. It looks like this:

I bought this because back when I used it, just after college, keyboard players had multiple keyboards. I had three: a biphonic synthesizer, a portable organ, and a clavinet. (I don’t have any of them any more.) If you know what you’re looking at, you can tell this is old because it’s basically a PA mixer-amplifier but it has no XLR inputs. Back then a lot of microphones used quarter inch plugs. 

The unit in use wasn’t dead quiet but I don’t think the audience heard any noise out of it. The contact cleaner got enough of the static out of turning knobs. 

Here’s the thing: It’s a piece of electronics over forty years old and it’s perfectly useful for what I need. I can’t imagine having played in 1978 using an amplifier from 1938. Granted, digital equipment has become available since 1978 but an awful lot of what is bought now is still analog. The most popular microphones in the music industry remain the Shure SM57 and SM58. They’re substantially older than my unit, as in at least half a century old, and not only are there still a ton of them around, they’re still being made, albeit Shure now makes them in Mexico instead of the United States. 

During the mid seventies through the early eighties I was, in addition to being in the commercial sound business, in the consumer sound business. In English, that means I sold stereo equipment (to stores, not to end users). I had a sample CD player before CD’s were available in the US - we just had whatever demo CD the manufacturer included. I think I had Jun Fukumashi Plays Gershwin. And what are we seeing now? A resurgence in vinyl. Why? Because at its best, it still sounds better. CD’s were introduced in the US over 35 years ago, that technology is largely replaced by MP3’s and such, and yet the best available consumer format is Vinyl?? (I can, incidentally, explain why if anyone cares.)

People will tell you about the exponentially increasing speed of change. I don’t buy it. I think my life in 2018 looks a whole lot more my life in 1978 than my parents’ lives in 1978 looked like their lives in 1938. Suburbs, shopping malls, air conditioning in houses and cars, seat belts in cars, FM radio, color television, pretty good home music systems and studio recordings (Abbey Road does not sound dated from a technology standpoint), rock n roll (including synthesized instruments), interstate highways, jet airlines, color photographs, a lot of what we buy made in Asia, telephones in every home, a large portion of the population college educated, etc. Even a lot of social mores had shifted: civil rights and feminism were way closer to today than to 1938, and the LBTGQ community had at least begun its transformation toward more general acceptance. Sure there are significant differences between now and 1978, particularly in computerization and its ramifications, but the computer was actually invented (Turing’s version) between 1938 and 1978 and a lot of fields were using computers by 1978, plus the bare beginnings of the internet had already started with computer to computer communications taking place between college campuses. 

I can’t tell you why this is, except that I guess change meets needs and, once technology got good enough, radical innovation became less of an imperative. There’s probably a sociological study to be made in here somewhere, though it probably has been made and I just don’t know about it. 

Views: 151

Comment by Steel Breeze on June 24, 2018 at 6:47am

much of the 'tech' change is just window dressing.......not all,but alot of it.....geared toward the 'gotta have the latest group'....

Comment by koshersalaami on June 24, 2018 at 7:20am

Yes. If we had different election results in Washington, or rather if the election results had followed the popular vote in 2016 and especially in 2000, we’d have more technology - or at least its general adoption - driven by energy. In cars that’s about to happen, oddly enough because of a business fraud problem. The VW diesel scandal was huge, bigger in Europe even though it was discovered by Americans. VW is, depending on exactly what day you measure this, the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. They had put their energy faith in diesel, but in PR terms that imploded because of the scandal. There are now European cities that are considering prohibiting diesel vehicles in their city centers for air quality reasons. That puts VW in a very dangerous competitive position, so they’ve elected to switch their emphasis to electric. The potential consequences of that decision are enormous. 

One thing it means is that Tesla doesn’t have much time, though this is a minor consequence. Another thing it means is that the technical drawbacks of electricity as a power source for vehicles is now being very seriously addressed by a company with very serious resources. Depending on how successful they are, we could be looking at the first major step in the general replacement of internal combustion engines for transportation. 

Comment by Steel Breeze on June 24, 2018 at 7:43am

when it comes to autos there is a lot to consider.......average mpg today=26mpg.....Model T=21mpg.......there have been innovations in the past that have been 'stifled'....the Wankel engine,whose shortcomings when introduced can be remedied by current metalurgical tech.....a nuclear powered,laser ignited engine that was 'disappeared' by the feds....my 1988 Ford Escort Pony that got 41mpg highway,etc......you will know the replacement for the internal combustion engine by the amount of money invested by big oil......almost forgot,i just finished reading the history of the Chrysler turbine engine project.....a true,viable,road tested and proven alternative power plant that burned anything combustible as fuel......ultimately went nowhere...

Comment by Rodney Roe on June 24, 2018 at 8:20am

I was about to write what I see Steel Breeze has written.  As someone born at the beginning of WWII, I lived as a child in a world more like the 1938 world you mention.  We had a radio in a cabinet with a few preset stations in cities like New York and Chicago, no T.V., no computer, a toaster that didn't pop up, no A/C and heat only in the dining room, kitchen and bath.

I used a "slip stick" in college while my brother, four years younger, paid $150.00 for a Texas Instruments calculator that had only basic arithmetic functions.  Within a few years calculators with multiple mathematical and statistical functions were dirt cheap.  My first computer, a Commodore, used cassette tapes to record the program you wrote in basic and I bought it in 1982 or '83. 

My two channel amp, a Vox, wasn't that expensive and has a tube amp in one channel, because, for some sounds, the warmth of a tube amp sounds better.

I have a Hartke Kick Back bass amp which I'm told functions more like a P.A. than an amplifier.  I'm not sure I really understand the difference between Amps and P.A.s, I have bought everything musical based on the way it sounds.  I don't really understand what the electrons are doing inside.  I'm glad others do.

I'm relating the "tube amp" experience because I think that some innovations like digital recording, while they have provided a great improvement in storage don't necessarily improve the final experience, and we have returned to some of the things that were abandoned in the name of change.  My daughter and her boyfriend bought themselves a turntable for Christmas and we listened to vinyl recordings played through more modern speakers at dinner the other day.  The record skipped in the middle and had to be moved by hand.  Perfect.

Comment by J.P. Hart on June 24, 2018 at 9:04am

Germany unveils zero-emissions train that only emits steam
The world's first 'hydrail' can travel almost 500 miles per day at speeds of up to 87mph

Good topic gentlemen - - - Barack not the Roil!

Just learned: Zev - Wikipedia i.e. zero emission vehicle cross-acronyms to disambiguation. The dic.com adjacent advertisement proffers really cool Chic loafers so I 'need' ah, a pair.

Two Harleys rumbled past on down the way.

As two red (sunglinted) red cardinals (Ms pecks the birdbath at the rim near the faux geodesic dome where the miniature dolphin leaps. In a moment Mr. perches atop the totem pole (Old Man River). One after another the cardinals flee faster than sound. Now hidden in the nesting crabapple. Writer continues to hear AM Joy. Spiritually, he uncaps the Rose'. From his speaker: '...let my people go...'

Comment by koshersalaami on June 24, 2018 at 10:51am

I never heard a slide rule called a “slip stick.”

PA vs. amplifier: Not that I’ve been around retail for a long time, but I would think the differences would be functions. PA’s need a lot of channels in because a band often has several mics, and they all need a degree of individual control, like the PA/amp in the picture. The only special effect they’d need is reverb and maybe an insert point for something like an external equalizer. No need for tremolo, no need for overdrive, as both of these would be counterproductive in a PA system. 

When transistors were developed, they fixed certain things but they weren’t better about everything, and so a lot of people like the sound of tubes more than that of solid state. Digital vs. analog is a different thing, though. After a certain point, analog is not inherently audibly superior, but getting to that point is an issue. We know that digital has a bunch of inherent advantages in terms of convenience, portability, replicatability (?), and durability. When digital was first introduced in a consumer format, the guys introducing it noticed it didn’t sound very different than analog and they needed to differentiate it a bit, so some of the tweaked the EQ a bit, which is where the original assessment of “harshness” probably came from: deliberately introduced distortion for marketing reasons.

The functional difference between digital and analog is that digital is sort of like drawing a line with a bunch of really tiny really close dots instead of simply drawing a line (which would be analog). Think of a TV set and pixels: the more you have, the more detail you have. Digital sound is kind of like that, but in this case what you need is sampling rate: the more times per second you sample, the closer together your metaphorical dots are. The trouble with the CD format is that it was released before they’d reached optimal sampling, such that if you listen closely to a long crescendo on a classical passage, it will increase loudness in tiny steps instead of continuously. MP3 is worse because that’s all about convenience and not audio quality. Good analog can get you more detail.

But

You’re introducing a ton of potential problems. Records wear, so they deteriorate over time. The stylus (needle) on phono cartridges deteriorate, so they not only sound worse over time, past a certain point they can damage records. You need to clean both the stylus and the record to keep dust out of the way because dust affects the motion of the stylus, thereby affecting the sound, whereas in digital dust will at worst cause dropouts because dust isn’t encoded, so it isn’t read. Same with scratches: on a CD you can get a dropout because it isn’t encoded but on a record you get skips because of how it affects motion. Then there’s the issue of the angle of the stylus (not all tips are round), which changes if you use a conventional turntable rather than a tangential tracking turntable. And, of course, you’re highly dependent on the quality of the phono cartridge in the first place because the worse they are the less accurately they track movement in the record groove so the worse they sound, and it costs money to get good. Then there’s possible resonance in the tonearm, depending on length, design, and material. Then there’s consistency of the motor speed of the platter transport; inaccuracies introduce a form of distortion called “wow.” (If severe, that’s what it sounds like.) Then there’s the isolation of the platter from the motor and the base; rumble in the motor can vibrate the record which vibrates the stylus which gets translated into audio, plus if bass from the speakers moves the base of the turntable and you don’t have good isolation, the bass base movement gets picked up by the stylus and gets re-amplified, which then vibrates the turntable more, resulting in bass feedback until the note ends. 

As you can tell, I used to sell both turntables and phono cartridges. What the field needs isn’t analog so much as better digital. And there are guys working on that but, at this point, good digital sound costs a lot like good analog sound costs a lot. 

By the way, not everyone agrees on what causes minute differences in sound, and so you get some smoke and mirrors approaches among audiophiles. 

Comment by Dicky Neely on June 24, 2018 at 5:09pm

An old pic of my home setup. It's a Kent guitar and shows its age. I also have here a Fender Deluxe and a Champ. I gave the Deluxe to my cousin a couple of years ago who was just gettin' started in show biz. If you look closely you wlll see a Shure Green Bullet mic, which is a favorite amongst harp players.

Comment by koshersalaami on June 24, 2018 at 5:29pm

If I noticed the Green Bullet I’d have assumed you used it for harp even if I didn’t know you played.

My keyboard, by the way, is an Ensoniq KS32

Comment by Rodney Roe on June 24, 2018 at 10:12pm

This is not my amp, but it looks just like it.  Since I play either a Gibson ES125 hollow body jazz guitar or a Harmony acoustic with a

DeArmond Tone Boss pickup (Guild)

The amp has a little reverb and "color" available.  It works for me since i usually play a voice mike through one side and a guitar plugged into the other.  I don't use any distortion.

Comment by Rodney Roe on June 25, 2018 at 5:16am

The DeArmond pickup is a magnetic pickup rather than a piezo pickup which made it a little more expensive.  The Tone Boss is a modern pickup styled/patterned after a vintage pickup that is still available on ebay and other sites online, but is expensive and often available in parts that have to be sourced from multiple sellers.  I gave up looking for it because of price and fear that I would wind up with a drawer full of parts that didn't work, or that I couldn't see well enough to put together. 

I'm happy with the Tone Boss.  The only irritating quirk is that the pre-amp volume is adjusted by sticking your finger in the guitar and turning a little wheel that you can't see.  That's not necessary as long as you are using your own amp and have previously made the necessary adjustments.

I got someone else to install it.  The 1/4 inch plug-in replaced the strap peg on the butt of the guitar.  That meant modifying my strap, yada, yada, yada.  The pickup cost almost as much as the Harmony guitar which I bought as a "beater" prior to going to New Orleans in 2007 to work on some flood damaged houses with a church group, but then ended up liking.

Thanks, kosh, for the explanations.  I knew that you would have a pretty good handle on all of that.

I always imagined that part of the wear between the stylus and the vinyl was due to dust acting as an abrasive.  I've had some pretty good turntables in the past where the weight of the arm could be adjusted so that the stylus had just enough contact to work reliably, but it is still a mechanical system that requires  friction.

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