“Golden Boxes and Golden Ears are a Boring Lie”
I admit it: I spend too much time reading about gear on forums. I should be making more music instead. For some reason I find the endless repetition of themes relaxing: “What pedal do I need?” “What amp is the BEST?” “Check out my RIG!” I like to get a sense of how others are experiencing music making and what can only be described as a golden age of guitar gear.
For the most part it’s all more or less fun. Forum chatter is a way to connect musically with people, share our varied senses of gear style, and from time to time learn something new. But there’s a dimension to some threads and discussions that gets me down and occasionally even pisses me off: mystification of music, musicians, and the tools we use.
Gear is fun, and superstition and lore can be a part of that fun. Sometimes feeling like you have a magical box on your board, or an amp that someone rocked out with a half-century ago can make you play better, or at least play differently. But when magic starts to assume the status of valid technical and scientific argument, it’s not only bad for our wallets; I think it’s also bad for our music. Whether the discussion is about the unique magic of that box that begins with “K,” or the supposed merits of $200 instrument cable, rational skepticism and genuine curiosity are often displaced by an almost religious fervor that rejects any questioning of subjective experience and belief, not to mention even the most basic electrical and physical principles.
There are a lot of reasons why fervent belief in magic is so common in our little gear universe. One obvious reason is that “magic” can sell product and is passively or actively encouraged by some (thankfully not many) manufacturers. I suppose that’s to be expected though. What’s more depressing to me is that often the mystification of gear comes from us players and originates in a deeper mystification of music itself. Golden magic boxes only have meaning in world where “golden ears” exist. I see nothing wrong with spending $2,000 on a rare overdrive pedal because it’s, well, rare: an object that is interesting, perhaps even artful; an artifact that represents someone’s innovative or idiosyncratic design. But alongside with the collector boom in guitar gear we’ve seen the emergence of a “connoisseur mentality” that argues, “The fact that I own this high priced box/guitar/amp/cable clearly shows that I am sophisticated enough to know the difference! If you don’t get it, well, you probably can’t hear the things I hear!”
Invariably, any attempt to actually learn something about the nature, extent and causes of actual sonic differences in pedals, cables or other gear, are met with aggressive mystification: “Your blind test cannot duplicate my personal experience!” “You are reducing the art of music to a question of lab testing and engineering!” “Science doesn’t explain everything! Sound is a spiritual experience and so is my overdrive pedal!”
Why should such differences of opinion matter? Why do I care that some people are happy to believe and promote irrational ideas, or draw conclusions about musical tools based on a profound misunderstanding of how they work? Does that matter to making music?
Hell yes it does. Here’s why: Take for example the entirely baseless, endlessly debunked but still recurrent claim that “speaker cables of different ‘quality’ sound different.” Technically speaking this claim is fundamentally no more credible than the claim that, “Cables sound different when the moon is in the Seventh House.” In both cases, as musicians we have a choice of how to respond. We can stroke our chins and say, “Well, if it’s true for you, then sure, it’s real. How interesting. How magical.” Or we could ask a simple question: “How do we know that?”
The former response while masquerading as “open-minded” actually evidences a very closed attitude, a lack of curiosity about the tools we use to make music, and about the world that we make music about and for. I can’t see such an attitude leading anywhere particularly innovative or creative musically. It naturally tends toward a kind of musical solipsism: my music is about me! Who can question my personal expression?!? And that attitude invariably leads to artistic and musical sterility.
The latter response—to question our subjective experience and faith and look beyond it–evidences the kind of curiosity and skepticism that can help us make interesting, fresh, unexpected, and compelling music. Mystification of music technology is no different than mystification of music making; both encourage artistic complacency and mediocrity.
Where musicianship is concerned, the analog to “music gear magic” is the idea that “talent” is something one is born with or that is spiritually or divinely inspired. Neither is the case. Anyone can make highly original, compelling, totally rocking music provided he or she develops the right techniques to realize his or her ideas in sound. Some musicians and sound engineers may have a more developed vocabulary of sound; some may have greater experience in how to listen to certain things; but these things are learned and can be learned by anyone. And just as technique is not equivalent to musical expression, a developed vocabulary is not equivalent to careful, thoughtful listening.
In my experience it’s almost always the case that I get more useful critiques and feedback about my music and even my gear choices from non-players because a non-player tends to listen to the whole of the sound, not focus on the technique and technology being used to produce it. As is the case in any art form, technique and tools are the means to make and express the ideas and associations that are a part of every person’s experience.
We all have the raw materials with which to make great music. A few years ago I did a residency at a public high school in Chicago, which aimed to explore this premise. The first day I asked a group of 30 students with no musical training to compose and perform some original music using whatever combination of instruments, or unconventional sound sources they wished to use. I gave them one hour. After a few minutes of stunned silence they spontaneously split into groups and began working. An hour later they all performed shockingly musical, coherent, interesting short pieces—some more conventional, some very abstract. They were surprised; I was not. After all, we’ve all been listening to music and sound since at least birth and we all have opinions and ideas about music. We also all have some basic rhythmic, melodic and harmonic tools available to us that develop unconsciously through speech, movement, and gesture of various kinds. All that remains is to realize an idea in sound. You can see and hear these same students performing their own orchestral compositions a few weeks into the residency, right here: https://vimeo.com/12124797 Only a handful had even the most basic technique on instruments and yet they were all able to compose and perform compelling, coherent music as a group.
If there’s any real “magic” in music, it’s precisely the fact that when we make music we assemble elements that already exist in our remembered experience and somehow allow them to be shaped in real-time by what we are hearing around us at any given moment. But then that’s not really magic, it’s really just moving air.
“Just Nick” Jaffe is a musician, recording engineer, teacher and editor. In addition to being a member of several bands and sharing stages with some well known names in the industry, he’s also made a name for himself with his incredible video gear demos and lessons. Nick was based for many years in Chicago and is now based in Saint Paul, MN.