Thursday, December 07, 2006

Warm Tone

I like science; it fascinates me, even though it doesn’t seem to like me back. My relationship with science is like that of the music connoisseur who can’t play a note on a musical instrument: I think it’s really cool, and I like to imagine that perhaps if I’d paid attention, or discovered my interest at an earlier stage, I might have been able to understand more of it. As it is though, I just read stuff written for the laity and try and understand it to the best of my feeble abilities. I know this sounds strange coming from an English Literature student, but there it is.

I make no claims to be some great empiricist (I’m a very trusting person and well aware of my inability to comprehend anything more complex than literary criticism*) but I do have a reasonable grasp of basic scientific principles gained from my father, brother and school and know when things don’t smell right. In recent months this incredulity has been fed and educated by the discovery of Ben Goldacre’s rather fantastic pseudoscience bashing blog/newspaper column.

When people think of Pseudoscience they generally think of the obvious practitioners – alternative medicine, cosmetics companies and various conspiracy theorists of various hues and flavours. But I think I have discovered a wonderful new area of wonky science to poke at…

As I’ve mentioned in other posts (ones that, like this one, are best avoided) I’m a musician, of sorts,** and I take my hobbies seriously. The ‘Guitar Stuff’ folder in my favourites, for example, is subdivided into numerous different flavours of geekiness*** and my face is known in guitar shops throughout the land. Reading reviews of instruments and websites/press releases from various manufacturers always makes me cringe; generally, with the exception of one or two small-shop luthiers everyone seems to feel the need to justify and explain various design decisions, and how this gives the instrument/amplifier/effects pedal/component part/cable/strap a ‘warm tone,’ with all kinds of scientific claims. I think this is especially prominent in the realm of electric instruments as there are just so many variables in what constitutes a players signature ‘sound’ including: First and foremost, the ability of the player then The materials of the instruments construction, the pickups, the hardware, the brand of strings, the effects, the amplifier, the speakers etc..

Now as I said, I’m not exactly hot shit when in comes to thinking about stuff that isn’t meaningless, but the following there is so much stuff associated with this industry that smells distinctly of bollocks. Most of it is just wild exaggeration; attributing a major, audible difference in the quality of sound to a design feature that might, at best, make a miniscule difference to the sonic properties of an instrument, detectable only with expensive scientific equipment and certainly beyond even the most discerning ear. The following two (there are many more examples, but it’s late and I’m tired) instances really get on my (ample) tits:

The belief that making the distance between the anchor points of the string (the tuning pegs and the tailpiece) longer will somehow raise the tension of the section of the string which is used to make the noise (between the nut and the bridge saddles). I would have thought that you could have a headstock the size of a cricket bat and the strings would be the same tension

The assertion that the kind of finish used, as in what sort of varnish, paint or wax the body is coated in, makes a difference to the sound. People speak disparagingly of polymer based paints – claiming that they don’t allow wood to ‘breathe’ or resonate properly and others speak knowingly of the ‘natural’ sound got from using no finish at all.

Both of these seem to be examples of rather more wild exaggeration than I normally tolerate in advertising or press-release bravado. I mean seriously, what the fuck? It’s paint for crying out loud! The main objection I have to all of this is the belief prevalent amongst many musicians that this bullshit encourages – namely that spending money on new gear will improve your sound more than just practising for a bit longer or, you know, actually having some talent. Buying an Eric Clapton signature Stratocaster will not make you Eric Clapton.

Basic rule of thumb – if it is science being used to sell something, then it is probably a load of horsecrap.


*Although I’ll admit that the more complex narratological and linguistic stuff tends to make me go cross eyed a bit when trying to understand it.

** not a very good sort, but nevermind, I enjoy myself

****Guitar Makers, Amp Makers, Retailers, Parts/effects, and Reference.