How modern digital music formats are literally removing content from our songs
By virtue of the fact that you’re reading this, you fall into a very specific demographic: music geek. Have you ever wondered why music means so much to us? Why do we spend countless hours listening to music, playing music, buying gear—essentially chasing the dragon of a music addiction? Sure, you’ve read those moronic interviews with rockers who claim, “I started playing guitar to get girls,” but these flippant clichés ring false; she doth protest too much. We play guitar because of the way music makes us feel. We heard The Beatles or Zep or Green Day and wanted to get closer to that feeling, so we picked up the guitar. You can blame our addiction on our limbic system.
The limbic system, one of the oldest parts of our brain, manages our “fight or flight” chemicals. Sound is one of the strongest triggers for the limbic system, moreso than sight. When our primitive ancestors sat in their caves and heard a twig break, their limbic system kicked in, asking “threat or no threat?” assessing the world to insure survival. Through natural selection, those with a more highly developed limbic system lived to breed and pass along those genes to us, their guitar-playing great, great, great, great grandchildren.
In addition to “fight or flight,” the limbic system supports a variety of functions, including emotion, by influencing the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems, which interconnect with the brain’s pleasure center (think sex and recreational drugs). In short, sound can slip through the back door of our brains through the limbic system and stimulate us in a way that sex or drugs would, which explains why sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are so often linked together. When we listen to music, we experience something that affects us on a profound chemical level, straight into our limbic system.
Why does this matter to gear geeks like us? Neurotransmitters only respond after stimulus reaches a certain threshold. For example, the rods in your eyes, which are responsible for seeing shapes, have a lower threshold than the cones, which see color. That’s why when it begins to grow dark you can still make out shapes but can’t recognize color. A friend of mine, Craig Oxford of High Emotion Audio, maintains that there is a threshold of sound quality that stimulates our limbic system: poor-quality sound will be heard but will not give us the emotional response that high-quality sound will. Oxford maintains that the music business has stalled since the heyday of the LP because MP3s do not have the content to stimulate our limbic system. Because an MP3 contains less than 90 percent of the information, our bodies notice even if our ears do not. We hear and even enjoy the lyrics and the melody, but we do not get the high. Although music is more available than ever, people don’t listen to it like they used to, sitting around the old hi-fi for hours, because our bodies are not reacting to this emotionally depleted content. Modern technology gives us an imitation of music while stealing the emotional subtext of music bit by megabit.
One could argue that part of the phenomenal success of games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero may stem from the fact that players are listening to music at 24 bits rather than 16 bits for CDs, or a tiny fraction of that for MP3s. (an average of 33 megabytes compared to an MP3’s 0.94 megabytes). Guitar Hero I and II have grossed $360 million since the first game came out in 2005, much more than any album released in the same period. Ask Metallica. The word is they much prefer the sound of their work at 24 bits from a game compared to 16 from a CD.
Look at MTV and VH1. They were built solely on music, with the added bonus of a visual stimulus; however, the audience lost the limbic stimulus because of the poor music reproduction of television. Today, these formerly music networks rarely play music videos, because music videos—depleted of the emotional content of music—could not hook their audiences for long periods of time. It’s no surprise that MTV rejoined the music business by purchasing Harmonix, the creator of Guitar Hero, for $175 million in 2006.
Where does this leave us? Oxford has designed incredible speakers that make you feel like you’re in the room with the music as it’s being made, but they are still limited by a poor source. He’s now working on a device that will re-imbue lackluster MP3s with the missing data that will trick our bodies into feeling music again. Other companies are joining the race to make music feel right. Interestingly enough, with all of the technological advances, many of us are stepping back rather than forward for our music buzz: LP sales are up and more people play guitar than ever. Personally, I’m going to reward myself as soon as I finish this column (and possibly torture my sweet wife), with a long, self-indulgent guitar jam all by my lonesome, chasing the dragon of a music buzz that first hooked me in my parents’ basement when I was in eighth grade.
John is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television, and has recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at: youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger
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Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.