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Now vs. Then: Was it Really Better?

Is "then" necessarily better than "now"?

As we get older, a natural measure of nostalgia tends to find its way into our lives. The good old days of high school and endless summers when we had nothing more important to do than hang out with friends and have a good time without worry can sound pretty remarkable. But with all things in the past we also tend to see them a little differently than perhaps they really were…life through rose-colored glasses if you will. I have more than a few friends who wax rhapsodic on music, gear, and just how much better everything was “back in the day” before all this “interweb” technological baloney came about. It also dawned on me that most of the people I know that feel this way are also stuck in a time warp and are waiting for the return of the ‘80s (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but progress people!), or earlier! With the spirit of Now vs. Then, I proudly present progress. Was it in fact better back in the day?

Multitrack Recording
THEN: Back when I started recording in studios in the late ‘80s, we didn’t have digital recording in the mainstream. ADATs were years away, as was the DAW, and the standard was 2”, 24-track analog tape. Nothing like going to Guitar Center and dropping $150 on Ampex 356 and getting less than 15 minutes of recording time at 30ips, less than that with the test tones. If you had a good machine you could do “gapless punch-ins.” If you didn’t, there could be up to 75ms of a gap. Not great for punching in that one note in an otherwise perfect solo.

NOW: My laptop, iPad, iPhone or portable, digital multitrack have few or no restrictions on track count, come with built-in amp simulators, virtual drummers, and models of every cool piece of outboard gear you can remember, and a million that never existed. There is no cost for tape because there is no tape. Recording time is limited only to hard drive space or memory and you can comp away until your solo sounds just like you wanted it to. Oh yeah, and the prices are lower and lower…and lower than ever before.

THEN: There was mystery shrouding tube amps and we searched high and low for that magic one that encapsulated everything we ever wanted in a tone. A few of the lucky hooked up with amp gurus and were able to tweak, hone-in and achieve tonal bliss. Amps were heavy, parts were hard to find if you weren’t near a major city and they all weighed a ton. Sure the tones could be fantastic, but the knowledge was much more scarce.

NOW: Bedroom players can now achieve incredible tones without the volume. Amp modeling has made insane strides to where many hardcore tube amp lovers in double-blind tests cannot pick out the “fake” one. Companies like Fractal Audio with their Axe-FX are giving guitarists tools and tones that were unachievable until recently at any price. Due to the shrinking world via the internet, information is exchanged and people now have access to the amp gurus, and more of them are coming out of the woodwork every day because of this information sharing. Companies like MetroAmp and Ceriatone offer parts, kits, schematics, iron, and knowledge to help players create their own tone or recreate a classic with exacting specs. Amps can still be heavy and loud, or light and loud, or light and quiet. The choices are endless.

THEN: Pickups came with the guitar. If you were lucky enough to have a ‘50s or ‘60s Les Paul or Strat, you were set! If your guitar was newer you might consider hotrodding it with one of the newer companies’ replacement pickups (thanks DiMarzio and Duncan!). If not, you might just live with it and wonder why your tone wasn’t all it could be.

NOW: Aside from the massive amounts of pickups offered by the good folks mentioned above there is now a small army of builders that create works of art for every walk of a guitarist’s life. Scatterwound, choice of magnets, vintage recreations, color choices, aged to match an older guitar, and on and on and on.

THEN: Digital came around in the ‘80s and with it came the rack effects units. Not sure I can remember the last time I plugged my Digitech DSP-128 multi-effects rack into the effects loop of any amp. You see, vintage digital is a lot like vintage computer technology…rarely is it any better because it’s older. Still waiting for my Atari 800 to be worth more than $25 on EBay. Nothing like 128 presets and all of them sounding like ass. Why did we all have these refrigerator racks and yet the guy with the best tone just had a Marshall half stack? Because for all the things these effects did, they instantly sabotaged the original tone of the amp. It’s no wonder why there was an entire cottage industry of other effects to make up for the losses of the ones we plugged in.

NOW: Boutique manufacturers abound! Vintage reissues of the best analog effects are back in spades and have updated features, lower noise and better compatibility with other pedals. Multi-effects units are clean and offer the best of both analog and digital with better switching available. True bypass is standard and pedalboard companies are creating loop-switching systems to better manage the massive setups. While there is still a vintage market, you don’t have to scour through the Recycler (remember the newspaper?!) to find a rare pedal because somebody has probably reissued it!

Stereo Systems
THEN: Four quads of power with mammoth speakers, receiver, turntable and poweramps! 8-tracks, vinyl, cassettes, and reel-to-reel. Entire rooms dedicated to albums and music stored on giant, heavy shelves. Waiting for the day when the new record would be released and you could ride your bike to Tower Records and spend your allowance on it, bring it back home and wear it out! Those were the days…and music meant everything. I won’t fight this one too much, but let’s look at the technology for a minute.

NOW: iPod, iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, LastFM, Pandora. Your stereo is no longer a boom box but a tiny device that holds thousands of songs. If you’re using a program like Rhapsody that stores music “in the cloud” you have millions—yes, millions—of songs available to you at any given time. Plug the player into your car stereo and never need the radio again. Turn on Pandora and have a radio station tuned to exactly what you want to hear from the choices you make over time. It’s instant and it’s always available. Try carrying all those CDs around now…yep, CDs are even passé.

I’m bringing this up because it’s absolutely amazing how much progress we’ve made. Is everything better than before? Not necessarily, but it is pretty incredible what we have available to us. Nothing will replace a ’59 Les Paul, but then again, not all of us will be able to afford one anyway. Were amps better in the past? I love my old Marshalls as much or more than anyone I know, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t amazing stuff out there now! Pickups? Forget it. I’ll take today any day. And tape vs. digital…well, my buddy Eric Valentine will always fight for tape, and there’s no denying the beauty of what it does, but it comes at a price. And finally the way we have access to music now versus then. I’ll take my iPod for when I’m in the car or working out or just enjoying time with my friends. The big speakers and high-end stereo are now in my studio and everything is coming out of Pro Tools, and that’s the way I like it.