Tracing the 50-year trail from Van Halen and Zappa to the DSP chip and firmware.
By most accounts, the digital effects revolution began almost 50 years ago, when Eventide created the H910 Harmonizer. Early digital denizens included guitar players Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, who used the harmonizer’s continuously variable pitch shifting to great effect in their recorded and live work. While extraordinarily clever, the earliest digital effects were absolutely primitive compared to the types of digital signal processors on the market today. That H910 harmonizer cost the equivalent of $7,500 when released, and equally capable effects can currently be had at about a twentieth of the cost, bringing digital effects to the feet of the masses, and their processing superpowers to our pedalboards.
The circuit board above shows the density and complexity of old-school (DSP) digital signal processing, while modern DSP technology allows cleaner, simpler, and higher-functioning pedal builds.
At this point, the amount of words written in the analog versus digital debate likely rivals the number of celestial bodies in our galactic neighborhood. Discussing the chewiness of analog mids relative to the number of Big Muff variants your modeler offers is a surprisingly well-trod path, but how did we get from the revolution of the ’70s to the current digital regime?
The first digital effects were not like the highly integrated DSP (digital signal processing) pedals of today. Those pioneering engineers did not have the benefit of many of the building-block integrated circuits that have since proliferated the electronic component marketplace. A quick search for high-fidelity analog-to-digital converters yielded well over one thousand results. Back in the digital age’s infancy, none of these monolithic options existed. Designers had to roll their own ADCs using discrete components. What can be currently done with one chip would have taken upwards of 100 times more components to accomplish. This DIY ethos actually created some interesting artifacts that now make vintage digital effects coveted. For instance, the preamp of Lexicon’s classic PCM 42 digital delay had a compression and limiting circuit so that your signal would not overrun its primordial discrete ADC. That preamp became part of the “thing” that made people love the unit.
At this point, the amount of words written in the analog versus digital debate likely rivals the number of celestial bodies in our galactic neighborhood.
It wasn’t until the Boss DD-3 that engineers were able to produce a commercial digital signal processor in a compact pedal. The DD-3 benefitted from the fact that Roland/Boss had created an application-specific integrated circuit for use in their SDE-3000 rack mount delay and other products. Making a custom integrated circuit was (and still is) extraordinarily expensive, but Roland used its considerable buying power to condense many of the required digital delay functions onto a single piece of silicon. Boss designers shoehorned the chip into one of their compact pedal enclosures, added some analog signal conditioning, sprinkled in some RAM, and the DD-3 was born. Even the DD-3’s level of integration was bound to be bested, though. By 2006, a company called Spin Semiconductor developed an affordable DSP chip that contained practically everything required for effects processing, resulting in a small, easy-to-use platform that has facilitated a boutique DSP effects explosion.
Many of these effects are still a relatively black-box affair. Whatever the manufacturer programmed the effect to do is all that it will ever do. The first digital effects were immutable, but decades ago, the industry started using MIDI as a means of off-loading and on-loading sounds and programs in effects processors and synth modules. These days, with the ubiquity of the personal computer and USB, everyone has a device and a means to upload new features to their suitably equipped gear. The number of guitar players that know how to update firmware is approaching the number that can actually read music. Firmware makes up the programs that govern how your device behaves, and, like software, it can come with bugs. New pedal releases sometimes have broken features due to latent firmware bugs. Analog designs can suffer from design shortcomings, too, but their digital brethren can at least be updated. Moreover, designers like those from Line 6 and Fractal not only use the flexibility of firmware to fix broken things but to add features that did not exist before, adding value to a product you already own.
Digital effects still feel very new to the scene, but in reality, they are only about a decade younger than the first analog guitar effect ever made. While the amount of development they’ve had for over half a century is incredible, it is still possible to see the thread that connects the late, great effects of the 20th century to the latest and greatest of the 21st.
Plus, 'Me/And/Dad,' the first album Billy Strings has recorded with his dad, Terry Barber is out now.
Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and musician Billy Strings will continue his extensive headline tour through the spring with 22 newly confirmed shows, including eight arena dates. Upcoming stops include Mobile’s Mobile Civic Center (two nights), Tampa’s Yuengling Center, St. Augustine’s St. Augustine Amphitheatre (three nights), Phoenix’s Arizona Financial Theatre, Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, Austin’s Moody Center (two nights), Tulsa’s BOK Center, St. Louis’ Chaifetz Arena and Chicago’s Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island among many others.
Tickets for the tour will be available for pre-sale starting tomorrow, December 7 at 10:00am local time through Thursday, December 8 at 10:00pm local time. General on-sale will follow this Friday, December 9 at 10:00am local time. Registration for pre-sale tickets is now open, full details are available at www.billystrings.com/tour. The spring dates follow Strings’ winter tour, which includes 15 additional arena shows with stops at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena (two nights, both sold out), Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena (three nights), Charlottesville’s John Paul Jones Arena (two nights), Atlanta’s State Farm Arena (sold out) and Charleston’s North Charleston Coliseum (two nights) among others. Additionally, Strings will return to the historic Ryman Auditorium on February 26 for a third sold-out Nashville show. See below for complete itinerary.
Billy Strings released Me/And/Dad, the first album he’s recorded with his dad, Terry Barber, last month via Rounder Records (pre-order here). The product of a longtime dream, the record features new versions of fourteen bluegrass and country classics that the two have been playing together since Strings was a young child. In celebration of the release, Strings and Barber were recently featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” speaking with host Ailsa Chang, while Strings was also featured on “CBS Sunday Morning” earlier this fall speaking with correspondent Conor Knighton.
BILLY STRINGS CONFIRMED TOUR DATES
December 7—London, UK—O2 Forum Kentish Town (SOLD OUT)
December 8—Manchester, UK—O2 Ritz Manchester (SOLD OUT)
December 9—Dublin, Ireland—The Academy (SOLD OUT)
December 11—Glasgow, UK—Galvanizers Yard (SOLD OUT)
December 30—New Orleans, LA—Lakefront Arena
December 31—New Orleans, LA—Lakefront Arena (SOLD OUT)
February 2—Denver, CO—1STBANK Center (SOLD OUT)
February 3—Denver, CO—1STBANK Center (SOLD OUT)
February 4—Denver, CO—1STBANK Center (SOLD OUT)
February 16—Atlantic City, NJ—Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena
February 17—Atlantic City, NJ—Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena
February 18—Atlantic City, NJ—Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena (SOLD OUT)
February 21—Charlottesville, VA—John Paul Jones Arena
February 22—Charlottesville, VA—John Paul Jones Arena
February 24—Nashville, TN—Bridgestone Arena (SOLD OUT)
February 25—Nashville, TN—Bridgestone Arena (SOLD OUT)
February 26—Nashville, TN—Ryman Auditorium (SOLD OUT)
March 3—Winston-Salem, NC—Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum – Doc Watson’s 100th Birthday Show
March 4—Winston-Salem, NC—Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum
March 7—Athens, GA—Georgia Theatre (SOLD OUT)
March 10—Atlanta, GA—State Farm Arena (SOLD OUT)
March 11—Charleston, SC—North Charleston Coliseum
March 12—Charleston, SC—North Charleston Coliseum
March 16—Cincinnati, OH—The Andrew J Brady Music Center (SOLD OUT)
March 17—Cincinnati, OH—The Andrew J Brady Music Center (SOLD OUT)
March 18—Cincinnati, OH—The Andrew J Brady Music Center (SOLD OUT)
April 13—Southaven, MS—Landers Center
April 14—Mobile, AL—Mobile Civic Center Arena
April 15—Mobile, AL—Mobile Civic Center Arena
April 18—Tampa, FL—Yuengling Center
April 20—St. Augustine, FL—St. Augustine Amphitheatre
April 21—St. Augustine, FL—St. Augustine Amphitheatre
April 22—St. Augustine, FL—St. Augustine Amphitheatre
May 11—Morrison, CO—Red Rocks Amphitheatre (SOLD OUT)
May 12—Morrison, CO—Red Rocks Amphitheatre (SOLD OUT)
May 17—Phoenix, AZ—Arizona Financial Theatre
May 19—Los Angeles, CA—Greek Theatre
May 20—San Diego, CA—Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre
May 21—San Diego, CA—Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre
May 24—Las Vegas, NV—Brooklyn Bowl
June 2—Austin, TX—Moody Center
June 3—Austin, TX—Moody Center
June 7—Tulsa, OK—BOK Center
June 9—St. Louis, MO—Chaifetz Arena
June 10—Indianapolis, IN—TCU Amphitheater at White River State Park
June 11—Indianapolis, IN—TCU Amphitheater at White River State Park
June 13—Cleveland, OH—Jacobs Pavilion
June 14—Cleveland, OH—Jacobs Pavilion
June 16—Clarkston, MI—Pine Knob Music Theatre
June 17—Chicago, IL—Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder