State of the Stomp: Will Analog Die?
What if we live in a simulation—a digital emulation of the world?
I was eating an apple the other day and it got me thinking about food. What if, in the future, there was a way to digitally (or otherwise) emulate food? With this question in my mind, I was eating this particularly delicious apple, crunching away … and more questions started coming. What if this thing was a fake? And if it was fake, what if it tasted and felt exactly the same as the real thing? Would I enjoy it as much? What if I didn’t know whether or not it was real? It made me realize that the experience matters, beyond the taste, when it comes to food—or anything else. I suspect that I wouldn’t enjoy the apple as much if I didn’t believe it to be real. Transferring this idea to the gear world, I enjoy what tube amplifiers do, conceptually as well as sonically. I also like that they glow.
So, will analog die? This is a question I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about. It seems inevitable, right? Analog technology has fallen by the wayside to its more advanced and accessible digital counterparts in many industries. What makes music, gear, and sound different in some contexts? One thing I know for sure is, we musicians are a fickle bunch, and in some cases, we prefer decades-old technology against the convenience of something digital because of the sound or experience of that sound.
This brings up a strange reality. If I had a digital device in front of me that could make exactly the same sound as an analog device I love, it seems I’d still prefer the analog device because of the way it makes me think and feel. I’m aware some people would think this is crazy and stupid, but I cannot deny this reality for myself.
You can extrapolate this one step further, of course. What if we live in a simulation—a digital emulation of the world, perhaps? That’s right, I’m going “matrix” on y’all. I bring it up, because I think in some ways it supports my desire or preference for wanting things to feel “real.” I’d prefer that we don’t live in a simulated world, just as I’d prefer to eat a real apple over an emulated one, just as I’d prefer to have my guitar signal distorted by glowing tubes rather than ones and zeroes.
You can try to tease everything apart more and more, and it gets more silly and ridiculous. It’s music, after all, so at some point you have to go with what makes you happy and feels right, because I think that actually does affect your performance and music composition in a positive way.
This is the part where I start (somewhat) contradicting myself. One of my favorite State of the Stomp articles to date is “The Myth of Real Guitar Tone” by Philippe Herndon, where he makes the true and effective argument that when you’re playing electric guitar into an amplifier, “Once you’ve plugged in, you’re basically making electronic music.” This is where it’s important to understand that my truth is different than your truth, and what feels “real” or good to me is not quite the same for anyone else.
Don’t get me wrong. I love weird, ambient, spacey, digital stuff as much as anyone else. For me, digital is at its best when it’s not just trying to emulate something that I already love, but when it starts treading new, beautiful digital ground.
I think I draw mental lines at things where there is a full-blown digital emulation of a thing that I already love. For example, I love analog delay. That’s probably an understatement. I love it so much that even the idea of playing through a digital emulation of it just doesn’t sit right. It’s almost like I couldn’t allow myself to enjoy it even if it sounded exactly like the real thing (just like the apple analogy from before). Fully going back to my bizarro-world digital food analogy, I think I’d be more open to it if they made some cool new fruit that could only be created with the new technology. They left my apple alone and let me enjoy my apple for what it is (and isn’t), but they innovated and created some tasty new fruit that pleased my taste buds in ways my old apple couldn’t even touch. That also speaks to my affection for crazy digital spacey reverbs that don’t really exist naturally. There’s nothing to compare them to, because they’re a new thing—a new sound.
I think that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you for allowing me some time and space to try to understand why I prefer analog things, sometimes even beyond tone.