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Past Imperfect?

Leader By Paul White
Published June 2011

It always intrigues me that the music industry suffers from what is probably the worst case of nostalgia outside the antiques business. In fact, it's all summed up rather well by that old joke: how many folk singers does it take to change a lightbulb? Twelve — one to actually change the bulb and 11 to sing about how good the old one was!

Manufacturing techniques have improved hugely since the early days of recording, not least because of the ability to replicate precision parts using computer‑controlled machinery. Why is it, then, that we still bang on about how great ancient mics such as the U47 were, when it was pretty much the first capacitor mic to be developed for mass production? Can it really be that, despite all the mechanical and electronic advances of recent years, we've actually gone backwards? I can understand it to some extent with guitars, as the wood does tend to age gracefully and that can improve the tone. (On the other hand, the 1960 Strat I had when I was at college was one of the worst guitars I've ever owned, so I used it to practice re‑fretting and then sold it on for £150, which was about the going rate back then.) Then there are all those early compressors and equalisers that were cobbled together using the available technology, with little or no previous expertise to draw upon, yet we still treat them with reverence. Is that because they really were better in some way, or have we just become conditioned to the sound they make because of the number of records that were made using them? Even guitar pedals made in the '60s and '70s are taking on the same mythical status, when in many cases the modern equivalent does a better job.

Today we have plug‑in designers trying to model every little imperfection and nuance of these pieces of classic gear. I have to admit that I'm as much a sucker for the vintage sound as anyone else, but is it really better, or is it just what we're used to and feel comfortable hearing? I suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the middle; at today's prices, it could be very expensive to recreate some of the earlier designs exactly and expertise that was common in the days of valves and transformers is now a rare commodity. There are also fewer companies producing valves, and I'm sure the production staff at the time knew a few tricks and techniques that have been lost along the way, so maybe some of today's valves aren't quite as good as the old ones. On the other hand, modern solid‑state circuity can give us much lower distortion, wider bandwidths, and lower noise than some of these revered antiques, so are we just hearing the past through rose‑tinted ears? 

Of course, there are many plug‑in designers trying to push the envelope by coming up with new concepts. But when it comes to processing hardware, we have only a handful of relatively small companies brave enough to push high‑end audio forward, obvious examples being Tubetech, Manley and Thermionic Culture, and even then most still seem to incorporate elements that belong to an earlier era, such as valves and transformers. I can't help but wonder if these products will be considered priceless classics in 50 years time or whether engineers will still be saying 'There's nothing quite like a real U47'.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published June 2011