- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

Years ago, Eric Clapton, in town for a concert at the then-MCI Center, sent an emissary to Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center in Wheaton to procure yet one more of the guitar legend’s most cherished amplifiers — the Fender Tweed Twin.

So apparently rich in vintage Tweed Twins is Mr. Clapton that, during his performance at the arena, he never once plugged in the freshly purchased amp; it was onstage only as a backup.

When Mr. Clapton returns to the renamed Verizon Center on Tuesday night, he’ll no doubt still be playing through his choice of Tweed Twins. He’s more than wealthy enough to afford surplus vintage gear — and, at 61, old enough to have bought it firsthand.

But increasingly, rock stars who want to stay close to the cutting edge — and save themselves thousands of dollars in the bargain — are plugging their axes into digital devices or buying computer software that can replicate the tones of beloved old amps and supplemental effects pedals.

In its way, the technology represents a “downloadable history of rock and roll,” says Marcus Ryle, co-founder of digital music-gear industry leader Line 6, based in Calabasas, Calif.

The percussive shock waves of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” solo at Woodstock; the very different flavors of fuzz that Keith Richards and Ernie Isley used on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Who’s That Lady?” respectively; the screaming distortion of ‘80s hair-metal riffs; the “clean” tones of West Coast jazz — these are broken down to their constituent parts through a process called digital modeling.

Researchers at audio manufacturers like Line 6, Behringer, Boss and Vox have, during the last decade or so, refined the modeling process so that digitally produced tones more closely match their analog ancestors.

Basically, Mr. Ryle patiently explains, the sound of an electric guitar comes from voltage that produces an audio signal — the same as a CD player or a car stereo. In the old days, that signal ran through the analog circuitry of an amplifier, in addition to various pedals that could tweak the resulting tone with the stomp of a foot.

Now all that circuitry has been reverse-engineered and converted to ones and zeroes.

Sound familiar?

It should, what with the ubiquity of portable MP3 players and Internet file-sharing services. But digital tone-modeling actually predates the IPod revolution. In fact, Line 6 introduced its own POD, a plug-in guitar accessory replete with decade-specific amp settings, in 1998 — three years before anyone had heard of Apple Computer’s little hand-held miracle.

The digital revolution in guitar gear got under way about the same time filmmakers began experimenting with computer-generated imagery — and with it came the same cries of inauthenticity.

The problem, explains Mr. Ryle, an accomplished pianist before he was a gearhead, is that musicians “hear with their eyes” — meaning that there’s a kind of aesthetic recoil from digital technology. Much as moviegoers know that dinosaurs don’t exist in reality, they will simultaneously “marvel at and look for flaws in the recreation of” the prehistoric beasts of “Jurassic Park.”

More and more guitarists are joining the fold, though. Mr. Ryle points out that six-string pioneers such as Jeff Beck and Yes’ Steve Howe use Line 6 products.

The technology, by now, is no longer an experimental trend, but rather an industry mainstay. Antediluvian companies such as Gibson Guitar Corp. — which literally changed the face of electric-guitar technology, most famously with Les Paul’s solid body model — are keeping pace. In 2004, the manufacturer introduced a guitar with all-digital hardware.

Gibson chief Henry Juszkiewicz said at the time that digital guitar offered “a virtually unlimited world of possibilities to guitarists by removing some of the limitations that have been inherent in electric guitar design throughout its history.”

“We are now at the point,” says Line 6’s Mr. Ryle, “that the sound of our products is indistinguishable from the originals.”

Boosters of digital guitar modeling say the point of their labors is not merely to push the envelope of technology; nor is their goal to democratize the availability of great tones — though that is a happy byproduct.

Mr. Ryle insists that digital amps, pedals and guitars are more reliable and easier to maintain than analog gear and that they offer “the widest possible range of tones.”

At bottom, he says, they inspire artists; they translate into live tones what guitarists hear in their heads.

By the sound of things, inspiration is exactly what Eric Clapton could use right now.

“I think I’m definitely on the decline,” Mr. Clapton candidly admitted to Associated Press after watching video footage of his 1997 concert tour. He added that he was “shocked by how much more proficient I was then than I am now.”

“It was a good thing, in a way, because I get the reality of what my life is like,” Slowhand lamented. “I can’t do what I used to be able to do, with my hands or my voice or anything.”

Perhaps Mr. Clapton’s roadie should pick up a Line 6 POD on his next trip to Chuck Levin’s.

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