The other week my friend Ed Burki contacted me and told me he’d caught some kind of bug and was bored sitting around the house, so he’d decided to try his hand at audio writing. A day or so later he sent me his article, which was about the history and impact of the 12AX7 vacuum tube, and asked if I’d critique it.
I thought it had potential, but it needed work. I vacillated a bit – how do you tell a dear friend that their work isn’t up to a professional level, whether it’s a song without a hook, a badly-composed photo, or an article that’s not ready for prime time?
I told him it basically read well, and even had a certain poetry to it, but that among other things the history was wrong, so it would either have to be given another major go-round for factual and historical accuracy, or re-cast as an impressionistic kind of ode to the 12AX7, or even an alternate history tale. Either way, it would need editing and revision. No self-respecting writer would use the cliché “with bated breath,” for one thing, or leave out important details like the dates when things actually happened.
Here's the article as submitted. I’ll get to the punchline after you read through it.
The Story of the 12ax7 Vacuum Tube
Once upon a time of electronic technology, there existed a remarkable device known as the 12AX7 vacuum tube. This miniature glass marvel held within its slender frame the power to shape the course of music and communication as we knew it.
In a bustling laboratory, deep within the heart of a sprawling city, a brilliant engineer named Dr. Alexander Graham tirelessly pursued his passion for innovation.
Driven by a desire to push the boundaries of sound reproduction, he dedicated his life to perfecting the audio amplification process.
One fateful day, while experimenting with different electronic components, Dr. Graham stumbled upon an unusual-looking tube. Its elongated shape and delicate glass envelope fascinated him. Intrigued, he decided to incorporate it into his latest amplifier design.
As Dr. Graham painstakingly wired the components together, he couldn't help but feel a sense of anticipation; little did he know that the 12ax7 tube that he had chosen would prove to be a game-changer.
With bated breath, Dr. Graham powered up his creation. As the electric current flowed through the circuit, the vacuum tube began to glow with a soft, warm light. It hummed with life, as if awakening from a long slumber, the sound that emerged from the speakers was unlike anything he had ever heard before.
The 12AX7 tube possessed a magical ability to enhance and refine the audio signals passing through it. It added a touch of warmth, a rich harmonic complexity that brought music to life in ways previously unimaginable. Dr. Graham was astounded by the tube's capacity to capture the nuances of each instrument, to recreate the subtle tonal variations with astonishing accuracy.
Word of Dr. Graham's revolutionary amplifier spread like wildfire throughout the music community.
Musicians and audio enthusiasts flocked to witness the extraordinary capabilities of this new device. The 12AX7 tube became the coveted centerpiece of countless recording studios and live performances. It transformed ordinary sound systems into transcendent experiences, captivating audiences with its ethereal soundscapes.
As the demand for the 12AX7 tube grew, manufacturing facilities sprang up across the globe. Skilled craftsmen meticulously assembled these fragile wonders, ensuring that each one met the highest standards of quality. Musicians treasured their 12AX7 tubes, carefully swapping them in and out of amplifiers, seeking that elusive tone, that perfect balance of warmth and clarity.
Decades passed, and the 12AX7 tube stood the test of time. Its enduring legacy remained unchallenged, even as transistors rose to prominence. It became a symbol of a bygone era, a reminder of the magical allure of analog audio.
Today, the 12AX7 vacuum tube holds a revered place in the hearts of musicians, audiophiles, and vintage enthusiasts. It serves as a testament to the power of human ingenuity and the eternal quest for sonic perfection. Although modern innovations have brought forth new possibilities, the 12AX7 tube remains an irreplaceable artifact, a testament to the profound impact of a single, elegantly designed electronic component.
And so, the story of the 12AX7 tube continues to be whispered among the audio aficionados, reminding that sometimes, the simplest of inventions can shape the world in the most extraordinary ways.
After I talked with my friend he told me, “I didn’t write that. It was written by ChatGPT.”
He then informed me that he’d gone onto ChatGPT, punched in some parameters, and the site then generated the story.
He’d suckered me in, and I’d fallen for it.
Sure, he had presented it as something he’d written, and that’s not something I would normally question, but I didn’t see through the ruse. As an editor, it was a sobering moment.
AI writing isn’t there yet – I’ve seen what I think are some obviously terrible examples of AI writing online – but having been suckered, I’m kind of disqualified from being Judge Judy about this whole AI thing. And we all know resources like ChatGPT are going to get better, probably exponentially so.
The late, great Stereophile editor Art Dudley once wrote that some audio reviews were so formulaic that they might as well have been written by a software program. Just type in a few specs and audiophile buzzwords and the software would do at least as good a job as a boring human writer. And now, here we are.
So, what happens to our little world of audio reviewing when more and more overworked editors or lazy and/or inexperienced audio, tech, and consumer electronics writers decide to use a resource like ChatGPT? Perhaps the process will be insidious. “I have to hand this review in by the end of today and I’ve been procrastinating all week…maybe I’ll just have ChatGPT fill in the specs for me…I’ve got writer’s block and maybe I can just get some ideas from this thing and then massage it…I’m tired and stressed and overworked and underpaid…this thing can save me hours…”
Will it get to the point, five or 10 years from now, where no one can tell a human from an AI…or care? If so, I think we’ll have bigger concerns than wondering if a product reviewer actually took the thing out of the box.
On the other hand, call me stubborn or old-school or naïve, but I don’t think there will ever be a replacement for human insight and wisdom and intuitive leaps. I’m no Carl Sagan or Ray Kurzweil (read The Singularity Is Near), but I think it’s pretty obvious that as AI becomes more inevitably present in our lives, we’ll need more and more human judgment, not less.
I hope AI never replaces Judge Judy.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/Gerd Altmann.