Previously we have briefly considered just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examining the factors which influence what audio equipment you may decide to buy. For me, and I imagine like many of you dear readers, this influence is highly governed by your expectations of the sound of the products you hope to purchase, as well as other factors such as appearance and build quality.
You may run through a series of questions such as, “Does this manufacturer know what good sound is? Do they have a reputation for quality control? How long have they been in business? Why should I buy their gear? Do I like the way it works, and the look and feel? How intuitive is it to use? Will I love the sound of it as part of my setup?”
You might have other questions besides these, regarding considerations like power delivery, cleanness of signal, total harmonic distortion, slew rate and more. Then, budget and space allocation to consider. Where to begin?
Some of the factors which have moulded my choice in equipment have been due to having worked in the music instrument retail industry for many years. While running my guitar shop, some customers would come in with a very clear idea of what brand and model of amp they wanted, while others would be clueless, and others still would fall between the two categories.
On many occasions their goal for tone was influenced by the guitar players they aspired to emulate, whether Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix, Kirk Hammett, Van Halen, Walter Trout, Jeff Beck, Richie Blackmore, Steve Morse or other greats. Bass players admired the musicianship and killer tones of Jaco Pastorius, Pino Palladino, John Entwistle, Tony Levin, Paul McCartney, Flea, Victor Wooten, Nathan East, John Paul Jones and so many more.
Yes, customers were often inspired to play and sound like their musical heroes and use the same equipment. Often someone would purchase a signature model. In recent times there has been huge success for guitar maker Paul Reed Smith with their popular John Mayer Silver Sky guitar. So much research and development went into recreating John’s elusive tone, which originated from one particular vintage guitar pickup he owned, and then incorporating that into his signature PRS model. This clearly shows how significant a personally-identifiable set of tones can be to an artist’s creativity and identity.Paul Reed Smith's John Mayer Silver Sky guitar, Midnight Rose finish.
Finding that elusive tone was significant not just because it was hard to find, but also because of a unique characteristic it possessed. Specifically, in this instance, the pickup wire was of a bespoke thickness in diameter (and number of wraps under a certain tension and winding pattern), which had proven extremely difficult to ascertain by reverse engineering, because of the wire being stretched as it was wound onto the bobbin. Although there were other factors involved, once that particular detail had been discovered, the equally great challenge was to manufacture a pickup that would reproduce this sound consistently every time so that each Silver Sky guitar would deliver that sound.
So, how can we create an audio system that faithfully reproduces the tone of an artist like John Mayer, or anyone with a distinctive musical voice? Start by buying a good-quality recording that reveals the nuances of their playing. The artist’s tone comes from the physical density of his or her finger bones and how much pressure he or she applies, the amount of flesh on the fingers and palms and other extremely individualistic factors. A musician’s vibrato alone can identify them and often conveys something inherent in their personality. The vibrato of Steve Morse gives him away instantly, as does that of Steve Vai.
Jeff Beck is probably the ultimate case in point for instantly recognizable signature tone. You can tell it’s Jeff Beck because, well…it’s Jeff Beck! Watch “Angel (Footsteps)” from the Live at Ronnie Scott’s DVD or Blu-ray featuring Beck on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Tal Wilkenfeld on bass. It’s his approach to the instrument’s potential in dynamics which reveals unearthed tonality from within the guitar.
There are other major factors which serve to support Beck’s signature sound. His signature Fender Stratocaster uses active pickups for hum-free single coil (pickup) tones and upper-mid definition; a baseball bat-thick neck profile for sustain, resonance and vibrational mass, and a metal roller nut to stop the strings from pinching at that “speaking point.” But Jeff Beck would still sound like himself if you gave him a $50 guitar to play on and would still make it sing as only he can.
For me, this is why the reproduction, as well as the source of the sound is so important. A high-quality recording is the most honorable start in capturing an artist’s essence. In my humble opinion the media you choose to play it back on is secondary. Each medium has its own character and style and offers the listener a different reward in the experience. From the sound of the needle on the record to the “cleaner” signal of CD, I expect you love multiple media for different reasons. Likely you have a soft spot for the earliest formats you listened to because they were of their time, and they represented the cutting edge of technology then.
(Even though the present-day portability of music has almost become synonymous with audio compression, likely you still love to hear the album; to hear that artist even if the fidelity is compromised. Perhaps because of where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it, and are only too glad to have the memory of hearing your cassette on your Sony Walkman at the beach with the sun on your back.)
The most significant part of the audio reproduction comes from the artists themselves. So, what’s all the fuss about using high-quality audio equipment to improve the sound anyway?
I like to think of it like this. If the quality is there in the first place, it’s like the leather a shoe is made of. It can make for a very comfortable fit (or enveloping listening experience). You can then add a certain amount of polish (by using the right equipment). Some polish will add luster, depth, shine and bring out the details and warmth of the appearance of the leather. It can turn it into something you truly love and take pride in even more than before. The same is true for audio gear. The right power amp may add new tonal character, life, vivacity, dynamics and a particularly tight ”grip” to a recording (just like an effective tread pattern of your shoe’s sole as it grips the street). If the shoe is a cotton (canvas) sneaker, or a bad recording, it’s never going to perform like a leather shoe. (Incidentally, I’ve got nothing against cotton shoes – they breathe quite nicely, which is great for the summer months.)
To carry on the analogy, like shoes, some recordings develop “holes,” gaps in their fidelity because of poor mixing or mastering. So much so that the artists remix them at a later date to try and recover the original tones that were laid down the first time. An example of this was the remixing of the Rush album Vapor Trails, completed by David Bottrill and the band in their quest to recover the overly compressed and crushed-sounding tracks. If you listen to the original “sneakers” mix and then the remixed “leather” version and pay attention to Alex Lifeson’s acoustic guitar playing, you’ll hear a huge restoration of dynamics and clarity in the new one.
The difference is how much more improved it sounds when you have a better recording and are listening with good equipment. To name one noteworthy example, producer and musician Steven Wilson has been remastering the Yes catalogue and, because of his consummate experience and skill, has developed the most discerning of ears. This difference matters to the artists, engineers and producers. How much it matters to you when deciding what equipment to buy, and importantly that which will most faithfully reproduce the artist transparently, is for you to decide.
What should you listen for and what bearings can you steer by? We will consider this more closely in future articles.
Header image of Jeff Beck courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mandy Hall.