Wits and Woo

Blogging has still been rather down my list of priorities recently. This is partly because of the need to clear a huge swathe of brambles and nettles on the Garvey estate – Genesis 3.18 has been much in my mind, though with theological nuance added by my being able to wolf large quantities of sweet blackberries from the former. I passed on the nettle soup. The other reason for not posting much has been the continuing need to work on new material for my band and, associated with it, the realisation that my equipment has needed work to keep it up to par.

This process has included sorting out replacement valves for my Marshall guitar amplifier, in the knowledge that the current set are well beyond their predicted lifespan. It soon became clear, on consulting various Marshall fora, that there is a whole gnostic cult associated both with valve amplifiers, and with the tubes themselves.

The basic situation is that there is a small priesthood of experts (self proclaimed, but acknowledged by their acolytes on the forum and those who pay for their ministrations on their equipment) who really understand vacuum tubes, and how only the right makes, cryogenically treated or, better still, salvaged from 1950s radiograms, will really produce the genuine Marshall (or Fender, or Mesa Boogie) tone. So the interested newbie who’s keen to get the best sound, but quite likes what the valves originally fitted do already, will be told, “You may find that’s not a popular view round here.” In other words, “Do not dishonour a high priest” is the message.

The odd thing, of course, is that these brands of amplifier became famous – even iconic – amongst players because of their sound, using their stock tubes. Indeed, occasionally an engineer from a manufacturer will appear on a forum to say that acoustic tests and double blind tests show that any differences between brands are inaudible. But to no avail – the experts can clearly hear the difference as soon as they switch on after a tube change, and the motive of the manufacterers in using Brand X must therefore be for purely financial, rather than audio, gain.

To a musician this secret knowledge trope is familiar territory, actually. Saxophone (or flute) players are often convinced, flying in the face of theory, data and blind testing, that silver plating, or the material of a mouthpiece or ligature, or inlaid gemstones, will improve their sound. In this case they are aided and abetted by many of the manufacturers, whose marketing people will hype up purely cosmetic variations as musical breakthroughs in ways that have been shown, repeatedly, to be contradictory even within the same company’s literature. For example, silver plating one year will ensure a “dark” tone, and the next (presumably by using a bit of metal polish) a “bright” tone. Indeed, many changes over the years have been suggested to R&D by the marketing boys needing to renew interest in a flagging line.

The most astonishiong thing is that it is not just gullible amateurs who swallow this stuff, but players (and hearers) at the very highest level. Indeed, in the ethereal world of classical music it’s just as rife – whether it’s James Galway extolling the superiority of gold flutes in contradiction of acoustic theory, or violinists paying millions for a Stradivarius that can only be told from a high-end modern instrument by the costs of maintenance and the abject terror induced by carrying it on public transport.

One violin site I visited explains the undramatic performance of a Strad in acoustic trials in terms of the importance of setup, the inexpertise of the players who participated in the listening trials and so on – neglecting the bottom line, which is that real, rather than idealised, people hearing real, rather than idealised, instruments can’t hear the difference between £10m and £30K. Another specialist (and high end) site claims that every single component of violins – the wood, the ingredients of varnish, the stickiness of animal glue – is inferior to what was available in the 17th century. Horses’ hooves aren’t like they used to be.

Nor are musicians the only victims of wish-fulfilment posing as science or connoisseurship. Athletes are notorious for their fads in training methods and diet (not to mention illicit drugs) which, in most cases, have a dubious effect on actual performance. It’s sometimes just a high-angst version of the feeling of wellbeing that ordinary people insist on after taking multivitamins… in the face of all medical evidence.

That last statement is a bit risky, since in many cases athletes are actually following the advice of people who are medically trained. But I’ve been there and done that, and know that woo is alive and well not only in the habits and beliefs of ordinary medical practitioners, but even in the interpretation of actual research by academic types. Scientific medicine is intended, of course, to weed out the subjective in favour of rigorous data. But, to tell the truth, that is intrinsically impossible when both the treater and the treated are the same kind of humans who are utterly convinced that real 1950s Mullard valves transform the quality of their Hi-Fi system (or Lo-Fi Marshall) compared to a modern clone produced under computer control.

I’d like to think there is an application in all this to the pricipal concern of this blog, the origins question. I’m not sure there is, directly, except at the level of reminding ourselves just how subject we are to confirmation bias, and to undue reliance on expert authority, whatever side we take on any kind of question. But even that’s enough to caution us against over-confidence in our dogma.

By the way, I swapped a red-logo and a white-logo ECC883 in the pre-amplifier stage of the old Marshall, and I’m sure it’s warmed up the tone. But then red’s a warmer kind of colour, isn’t it?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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