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January 22, 2009

Back Where It All Began...

...or "What's that fat man doin' in the bathtub with the blues?"

Y'all think I'm crazy by now, right? No? Then you spotted that the above is a bastardised Little Feat lyric!

Don't want nobody who won't dive for dimes
Don't want no speedballs 'cause I might die trying
Throw me a line, throw me a line
'Cause there's a fat man in the bathtub with the blues

Interestingly, over the weeks that I've been moaning about wanting a new amp nobody... yes NOBODY (as far as I can remember, at least) has tried to tell me that I should ditch the plan to get an all-valve amp and stick with a trannie instead.

TRANSISTOR AMP... not the other kind of trannie...

Before I get too far off course, here's the actual tie-in to "Fatman"... for your listening pleasure I give you... [drum roll]... the Fat Man iPod dock!

It's what I would call 'full circle technology'.

Back in the day there was live music. Someone played it, you listened, you appreciated, you went home. Then some young upstart had the idea to somehow 'record' sounds, or at least a representation of them. Some 20 years later a rather clever gentleman by the name of Thomas Edison refined the idea and created the first playback device, dubbed 'the phonograph'. A decade later came the gramaphone. Technology was refined further and further and the playback quality of recordings improved immeasurably.

At some point another clever bloke or girl (NO IDEA!) realised that the human brain couldn't actually keep up with changes of a sufficient frequency and we entered the digital age. Sounds were sampled at a high rate and stored as digital information. Now, instead of climbing up and down nice gentle grassy knolls, our brains were forced to cope with stair-stepping.

It took a little thing called a 'laser' to (temporarily at least) kill off recording on magnetic tapes and listening to LPs on vinyl.

Technology got better and better. Recorded media and playback devices were tweaked in response to this quantum leap in music reproduction. Transistors replaced valves. Everything got incredibly clever and scientific.

But people could hear the difference. The new sound was artificial... it had ceased being this organic, natural thing. So, the boffins scratched their collective heads and said 'okay', you want something that's new, but which sounds old. No problem... we'll write an algorithm which replicates the old stuff but which uses efficient new-fangled, reliable technology. It'll sound the same(ish) but it'll be lighter, cheaper and more robust.

But music, especially electric guitar music, is something that abhors uniformity. It craves slippery slopes, subtle flourishes... expression and innuendo. It's a voice.

And yet, and yet...

Valve amps are generally touted by audio-snobs as being where you'll find the holy grail of tone. To tune in that magical distorted tone, though, what you're actually doing is pushing the valves up to and past their design limit. You're making them do something outside of what they were originally designed for. Isn't that always the way?


In the 'modern world', where everyone lives on top of one another, pushing amps to their limits, 'moving air'... well, it's deemed anti-social. It's not very nice for the neighbours, is it? And yet, that's where valve tone lies... at the limit. So if you want a valve amp that you can use at home you have to go small and step on it hard. Not much good for clubs, but at least the Old Bill won't be popping round for tea every other day.

So surely a trannie's a good option.


Well, it's the 'CD' to a valve amp's 'Vinyl', isn't it?

Oh, I suppose I should come back to the Fat Man thing! Look closely at the picture. That's the embodyment of the modern digital age, right there... an iPod. See it? But what's that it's sitting on? Yep, it's a VALVE AMPLIFIER!!!! Someone out there with a smidgen of retro-mojo still alive and kicking in their undercrackers decided that it was time for the modern-day audiophiles to be reintroduced to analogue technology. Right there is someone sticking two fingers up at progress!

I guess I'm just yearning to rekindle my own retro-mojo. Be it 5W or 10,000W, I'm gonna get me a valve amp.


Ad said...

I've got one of those Fatman ipod thingies.
It's great.
I know it's all fake really.
A bit of overdrive does wonders to the sterile ipod mp3 sound. It does 'warm up' the sound.

The valves look really cool and glowy too.

Kenski said...

Hey Ad, thanks for stopping by! I actually wouldn't mind a Fatman if only I had a shelf to put it on... yes, it would pay for itself over a winter, what with the saving in heating!

We actually have a tricksy surround-sound-alike thing by Denon that's supposed to be able to hifi-wifi to some iPod e-dock. Still haven't figured out how that's supposed to a) work and b) sound good, so I've not forked out the £100 to purchase one (before they become obsolete!)

Hmmm... got me thinking, though... why not just hotwire an iPod into a valve amp... hmmm... 'Things to try when drunk #43'!