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Audio Design, Guitars, and Retail Therapy

All too frequently, succumbing to “retail therapy” is a sign that something else is wrong.  This behavior can creep into every area of our lives – not just our role as audio consumer.

This can spill over into audio design as well, as the designer tries to either spend his way out of a design problem or alternatively adopt either an overly complex approach or brute force to solve a problem.

These tendencies stem from a “more is better” mindset and we need to be mindful of this.

A while ago, I wrote about how I was trying to solve a non-existent problem, in the context of some ski bindings I was considering.  I’m continually humbled, and on alert for this tendency in myself.  More recently, I have been ignoring my guitar playing as I’m putting long hours into prototyping the NiWatts and Eiger.

I have an acoustic guitar bias, and I primarily play electric to improve my touch sensitivity for my acoustic playing.  I’m not much about effects for electric guitars – a bit of reverb and perhaps some tone shaping via a boost pedal or very mild overdrive (“the tone is in your fingers” and all that).

Two days ago, I plugged in an electric and my mind immediately began to wander – what guitar effect could I purchase? The warning bells went off, and I picked up my acoustic and my technique flaws (lack of practice) were displayed in bold relief – flaws that no effect could address.

As audiophiles, there’s the temptation to “fix” a problem with an interconnect, a power cord, or an accessory. Sometimes this can help. I’m not arguing against component changes but rather in favor of recognizing that perhaps you should investigate root causes – basic system architecture issues.

A customer of mine with a very fine system has been using a highly regarded autoformer based attenuator for the past several years. I’ve been encouraging him to try an active line stage. He borrowed a fairly pedestrian line stage (in comparison with his other electronics), and he immediately experienced an entirely new level of musical engagement. This is the sort of architecture shift I mean – not a component swap, but rather the introduction of an active gain stage to better drive his amplifiers.

As a designer, you can outsmart yourself if you fall in love with a technology or a design approach and over use it, or apply it where it isn’t appropriate.  George Lucas once commented about Star Wars, and the temptation to show a scene for too long, because of how much money he invested in a particular special effect.  Use just enough, and no more.

One “solution” which has never worked for me is excessive regulation – especially of the 3-pin, solid-state variety (LM317, etc.).   I find it applies too heavy of a hand on the musical signal.  Initially, I perceive more robustness and “control” in the presentation, but as I familiarize myself with it, I find the sound to be dynamically and dimensionally flat as well as tonally threadbare.

What’s really going on with your system that compels you to think about a component swap – either as an audiophile or a designer?  I cover this from a designer’s perspective in a recent post on prototyping the NiWatt amplifiers.

Don’t get too attached … It’s always a balancing act, and paying attention to what live music both sounds like and what it does to your body and your being is key to staying on track.