June 2016 – What Does the (Digital) Future Hold?

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

CRAVE Guitars is returning to pretentious opinionated pontification (POP for short) for June 2016. The starting point for this month’s article is to have a bit of fun speculating about the future, especially given that musicians by and large tend to be a pretty ‘old‑school’ bunch. We tend to resist change and frequently pay considerable homage to the past as a reason to maintain the apparent status quo (not the band). The cause and effect fallacy that is past=good therefore future=not-so-good may be enhanced by selective rose-tinted specs, confusing perceptions about what was actually good with what wasn’t.

 

Future Guitar - Digitar
Future Guitar – Digitar

 

Whether you like it or not, we’ve already been experiencing the digital revolution for at least 30 years now. While previous paradigm shifts may have been triggered at a point in time, it often takes a very long period for society to move to a new zeitgeist. The industrial revolution didn’t happen overnight after all; it took decades for the benefits of modernisation to be fully realised as the norm and to become accessible to most.

 

I recall seeing recently that BOSS released the first digital delay stomp box in c.1984! Line 6 really turned things upside down by bringing acceptable digital modelling to the masses with its iconic POD. Digital recording now provides the mainstay of modern music production and it is generally regarded as a very good thing because it brings massive potential to musicians on a shoestring budget. We’ve also had digital music reproduction and distribution for longer than some probably care to remember. Listening to digital music wherever we are and whatever we’re doing is now the custom for the vast majority of ordinary people.

 

Line 6 Pod
Line 6 Pod

 

This fundamental shift raises a question about whether old and new can really co-exist in the long-term? Other than perhaps vinyl, analogue storage has now all but disappeared and unlikely to undergo a popular Renaissance. So, digital is here to stay. Get over it. It’s not clear from here on what music technologies will survive and which will be cast aside as minor entries in the history books. That natural filtering process will be down to us and whether the timing is right for a particular product.

 

Our obsession with musical history, whether conscious or subconscious, is likely to endure and may well influence our purchasing decisions for a very long time yet. Despite digital’s best attempts, we remain stubbornly wedded to certain bits of obsolete technology – the vacuum valves and moving magnet speakers in our amps for example. So what does digital do to capture our interest? It tries to sound just like the old stuff we had to put up with all those years ago – go figure! There is no doubt that digital provides quality, economy, reliability, consistency and convenience, as well as releasing a massive amount of dynamics, power and storage that was previously seen as unattainable. The benefits of digital music-making enable considerable freedom and choice, as well as providing new opportunities to experiment that would have been seen as ‘magic’ just 100 years’ ago.

 

Future Guitar - Gittler
Future Guitar – Gittler

 

There is no point in fighting advancement per se; the organised luddites didn’t succeed against the industrial revolution, so you won’t hold back the digital one. Individual resistance in the face of a mass movement will prove utterly futile. My supposition is sort of symbiotic relationship, with both old and new technologies relying on each other for their existence and with neither eradicating the other, i.e. we are likely to embrace the best of both worlds.

 

Technology isn’t what makes real music, it is musicians. We should not forget that unpredictable artistic creativity adds a crucial spark into the mix and it’s that which ultimately drives technological change (along with a sprinkling of economics). You can’t buy or make talent but you can make it easier for talent to thrive. To quote Keith Richards, “To make a rock ‘n’ roll record, technology is the least important thing”.

 

Future Guitar - Kitara
Future Guitar – Kitara

 

Neither can we ignore the benefits of innovation. The best of digital modelling allows most of us to get pretty close to experiencing rare and/or vintage equipment that we would otherwise have no hope of ever playing, let alone owning. Unless you’re a multi-millionaire, where on earth would you put all that gear even if you could afford it? Technology recreates great gear spookily well, all in a tiny box that doesn’t need much in the way of maintenance either. The rest is up to you.

 

However, where will it all end? Manufacturers in the digital world are continually trying to compete by leapfrogging in terms of functionality and features. Jump forward 20, 50, 100 or more years and try to think about it. A digital audio workstation of the 22nd century may well be connected directly into your brain, providing an infinite array of variables and you will adjust the tone for the minutest variation in pseudo-relic condition. No doubt, we will have digitally sampled ‘pops’, ‘crackle’ and ‘hum’ added back to a pure binary signal, just so that it sounds ‘authentic’. I would, however, assert that such a bewildering range of options can actually begin to act as a barrier to adoption, rather than an enabler. Being overwhelmed by complexity may not be good for the simpletons among us (like me).

 

Future Guitar - Hyper Touch
Future Guitar – Hyper Touch

 

There are also constraints on progress. For example, we guitarists have a massive dependence on the humble and archaic analogue jack plug (and socket). I’m not sure when it was invented but it is a great example of standardisation that has endured essentially unchanged since at least the 1930s. This is astounding endurance for what is actually not a very good connector. The industry has tried to move on but I’ll wager that, if you go into your local guitar store tomorrow, you won’t find a single electric guitar or amp that doesn’t still require one. After nearly a century of use, it will be a difficult item to displace, if only because of global ubiquity. Even if a new industry-wide successor is introduced, there is no way that anyone in their right mind would retro-fit a MIDI or USB port to, say, a ‘59 Les Paul Standard. Will we even still have USBs in the 22nd century and, if we do, will they be backwards compatible? Firewire anyone?

 

We can influence what happens. We continually tinker with the ingredients. We alter many of the variables on our guitars, e.g. strings, tunings, scale, frets, pickups, materials, etc., all in a quest for something we often can’t clearly define or articulate. Ultimately though, we keep coming back to the core, familiar product while duly tolerating such variations on a theme. A guitar is still a guitar… for now. Currently, most future guitars are still trees today; at least it’s an environmentally sustainable product. In the (nearer than you think) future, guitars may just be synthetic digital controllers, a la PlayStation. A quick Google search can be quite revealing (see the ‘future guitar’ examples throughout this article). Fascinating stuff.

 

Future Guitar - Maple
Future Guitar – Maple Tree

 

So… looking forward a century to the year 2116, just what will guitar playing be like? Will we still spend our lucre on current major brands? Will we need strings or magnetic pickups? Possibly not. Will guitars colour-change for mood? Maybe – we’ve had illuminated guitars for some time anyway. Will they shape-shift for musical genre or aesthetic taste? I doubt it, but you never know. We’ve actually had guitar synths/controllers/digital guitars (e.g. Roland GK, SynthAxe, Casio DG10/20, Ibanez X-Ing) since the 1980s as well as synth effect pedals from the likes of Electro-Harmonix. Sophisticated sampling has enabled digital guitar modelling to arrive with the Line 6 Variax. Modular instruments have also been attempted and these might finally find their time and become the vogue. No-one really knows the future for sure. I bet ‘we’ will still want but won’t be able to afford that real vintage ’59 Les Paul held in a wealthy collector’s secure vault somewhere, and we will still hanker to recreate the look, feel and sound of one, even though we may never get to see one for real. Not much different from now in fact, with faithful recreations of the past.

 

Casio Digital Guitar DG20
Casio Digital Guitar DG20

 

The journey isn’t clearly defined and the outcome will evolve through a fascinating mixture of the past, present and future. You, or actually your descendants, will be able to pick up a physical vaguely guitar-shaped instrument (just 3D print a new one?) and it will still be processed through something to affect the signal (probably a cool digital app) and we need some means of being able to ‘hear’ it (sensory implants?). Will we flock to online gigs using VR headsets rather than physically trek to a distant venue to watch a live band in a sweaty beer‑stained crush? No real Glastonbury mud in the future then. Whichever way you look at it, technology will deeply affect our musical experience.

 

What will our musical tastes be like? Very different I guarantee. Look back at various sci-fi films from the 1950s and ‘60s that depict the then future and see a) how ‘of their time’ the music actually was, and b) how wrong they were about what was yet to come. Look back through the last few centuries to assess the increasing pace of change. The science of music (rather than the style of it), however, remains fixed because we are bound by physical laws that we cannot change or overcome. There will be unwavering and unstoppable progress, and it will be informed by the past (including what we call ‘now’). Will progress render our ability to make real music redundant, to be replaced by computer-generated musical products controlled by technologists rather than artists? I sincerely hope not.

 

Future Guitar - DiGuitar
Future Guitar – DiGuitar

 

Personally, I look forward to seeing what unfolds. I will enthusiastically grasp those tools that make music creativity quicker/easier/better and I’ll simply avoid those things that make it too difficult to play and work. In the end, I suggest that a recipe comprising pragmatism and diversity will prevail. Advances will occur at a pace that musicians will accept – no faster or slower. We will continue to worship the best of the past (while conveniently disregarding the worst). We will also learn to venerate the best of the future (whatever it may be), maybe not when it first appears but probably with the benefit of hindsight. One thing’s for sure, ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ aren’t going to be consigned to a scrapheap anytime soon. Even CRAVE Guitar’s own 1981 Gibson RD Artist had Moog electronics back in the day.

 

1981 Gibson RD Artist
1981 Gibson RD Artist

 

Guitarists strive to be regarded as conservative traditionalists at one extreme while somewhat hypocritically we also desire (or feel obliged) to push the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable at the other. Putting my highly unreliable predictions aside, a Brave New World beckons. A combination of old and new technologies will enable us to create original music in surprising and exciting ways. Be inspired, not afraid. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Historians in the future will debate the contribution of Guitar Hero to the canon of 21st Century music. Discuss…”

 

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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