January 14, 2014


I love progress: the integral of marginal improvements. I bore my lovely bride with disquisitions on cheese and tortilla containers with a Zip-Loc™ closure device built in. The only reason to provide this is to sell more -- it's a huge pain in the ass to convert your factories and equipment and purchasing. Yet, to sell more, somebody does it and pretty soon everybody else has to. Laugh at #firstworldproblems all you wish, but life gets a little better on a million different frontiers.

Between our engineers and musicians -- and folks who are just plain weird -- I think this will be of interest. The part of an electric guitar or bass that actually makes the noise is the pickup: a magnet wrapped in wire.

A bit of pickup history: In the early 1930s, George Beauchamp applied for a patent on an odd looking guitar-like instrument that included a "pickup." (The patent uses the variations "pickup," "pick–up" and "pick up" interchangeably.) His invention was the now-famous Rickenbacker “Frying Pan,” which hosted the first guitar pickup. (To acquire the patent, Adolph Rickenbacker had to send Hawaiian guitarist Sol Hoopii to Washington to demonstrate Beauchamp's invention, proving to U.S. Patent Office examiners that it worked.)

The winding and materials are a black art. Like "good" amplifier design, what guitar players dig has nothing to do with engineering best practices -- a perfect reproduction amplifier doesn't sound good.

On a recent custom purchase, I paid almost as much for boutique pickups as for the rest of the guitar. Just a guy in Oregon (Jason Lollar) who is a savant with this primitive technology. As hard as writing the check, the decisions among his many offerings were worse. Do I want a vintage or a crisper sound &c.?

Fishman is well known for making piezo pickups for acoustic guitars. I'm sure they posess their own voodoo but they represent the more classical engineering problem of reproducing tone faithfully. They admit in this article they have steered clear of the other market, where you are creating the tone for fear of not having something new to offer.

Ahem. They've found something. Instead of expensive and temperamental hand-winding, they are printing the coils on PC boards and positioning them precisely on the magnets. This technique has a bunch of advantages. The precision allows a hum free single coil (put one "virtual coil" out of phase with the other to cancel any external RF), the manufacturing tolerances are reduced by magnitudes, and the costs can certainly be lowered.

The other advantage is a real tabula rasa to reproduce tones and change them on the fly. Digital Signal Processing has brought this exact benefit to amplifiers -- you can "model" a 1960's Vox amplifier, or a Marshall Stack. I stole an effects pedal from blog friend sc that spoofs a 1965 Fender Super Reverb (shh, he thinks he lost it ...)

The DSP models are not perfect and I am sure this is not either. But they are progressing to make it so that a player can choose a vintage '54 strat pickup with a Fender twin amp and a Celestion speaker all on the spur of the moment, without buying a 1%ers batch of vintage gear.

Cool world.

UPDATE: Greg Koch takes the new system out for a spin...

Technology Posted by John Kranz at January 14, 2014 3:21 PM

I read the article from your FB post, and then came over here on the assumption that you'd expand on it.

Note that I don't have your level of guitar expertise; I hack around on a twelve-string acoustic and fantasize about having the leftover coin one day to add a good electric twelve to my arsenal (two guitars is an arsenal, right?). I am strictly a back-porch picker and strummer, though I think my covers of "Ventura Highway" and "Hotel California" give me a little bit of cred.

But I read the article you link, and read it rabidly. This is a modern engineering solution to which has been eldritch technology for decades. Seriously, we're still using Rickenbacker's basic technology.

I have visions now of computer-designed humbuckers being manufactured on 3-D printers (right after I finish printing a Sig, I mean...) - and yes, I caught the reference to "one virtual coil out of phase with the other". The notion of these guys designing pickups with the intention of perfectly and consistently producing the ideal sound, and being able to swap sound profiles at will -

To quote a better blogger than me: faster, please.

Posted by: Keith Arnold at January 14, 2014 7:32 PM

I wish you'd share a video of your Eagles medley. Srsly.

Right after I posted this I happened to visit that better blogger. He had a post about "Printed Eye Cells Could Help Treat Blindness." It is really all the same on some level.

Big fan of Tyler Cowen, but I have to call shenanigans on "the new normal." If the blind can see and a $200 guitar can have a vintage strat '54 that by the way doesn't hum we are talking brave new worlds.

Posted by: jk at January 14, 2014 8:01 PM

Brave new worlds, indeed! Add to that a robot that replaces burger-flipping fast-food jockeys, and we've suddenly null-and-voided the federal minimum wage law: http://bit.ly/1clBc8m

Let me ask you a loaded question: where does this all lead? When you have technology that can inexpensively make the blind see, give everyone a Les Paul on the cheap, and obsolete the entry-level labor sector, what does the future realistically look like? The cashless, statist Star Trek of Gene Roddenberry, or the dark and ominous Blade Runner? The crony corporatist world of Robocop? I ask you: realistically, starting from where we are now (technologically, socially, governmentally), where do you realistically and foreseeably think it's all going?

Posted by: Keith Arnold at January 14, 2014 10:14 PM

Wildly optimistic. As mopey as I get about freedom and government, the innovation economy recharges me a'la David Deutch. The burger machine needs a salesperson, delivery, maintenance --and it opens untold opportunities for new restaraunts which need accountants and graphic artists.

The 3D printer opens opportunities for design and increased wealth will support more custom and artesianal work. Roses , rises, everywhere!

Posted by: Jk at January 14, 2014 10:51 PM

Allow me to applaud your enthusiasm and propose, perhaps, a credible alternative.

Let's presume, ab arguendo, that the innovation that excites you becomes subdued over the course of the next ten to fifteen years - perhaps, say, as a result of a gigantic tax levied on innovative medical devices like your printed eye cell therapy. Government and its appetite, ever increasing (like the temperature of the frog's pot), slowly increases its economic demand over private citizens. A vocal minority continues to long for individual liberty and economic freedom, but the complacent majority continues to grow further and further addicted to panem et circenses, gradually surrendering liberties in return for the care of the nanny state and its safety nets. There is never a crisis point - just gradual worsening.

The major nations grow ever deepen in debt, spending money they don't have, until they are more awash in red ink that we could possibly imagine today. Eventually, the cold, hard bitch we call math comes to her final result: that which can't continue, doesn't. Bankrupt of resources, national governments begin to collapse under their own weight. The dependent classes demand to be fed, clothed, and housed; the gulf between them and the producers, the individualists, and those like them has grown wide.

Worldwide economic stagnation. Not just in America, but in China, Japan, and throughout Europe.

Sure, computers have grown faster, and some consumer goods have improved in keeping with limited demand. But too many people have discovered that they had the power to vote themselves the government's wallet, and those who govern enjoy being the ruling elite class more than they should.

Some say we're already a good ways down that road.

There are no more national space programs; the private and corporate space program we see today have long since become the only resource left for venturing across the black. Sixteen million people live on the Moon, in habitats where mining and metal manufacturing go on. Thirty million people live on a terraformed Mars. This is not a vast population compared to the four and a half billion still living on Earth, but it represents a significant number of the producers, many of them economic refugees willing to work and invent.

Not suprisingly, a disproportionate segment of the Earth's wealth has relocated off-world. Not a whole lot of people have noticed this, but those holding it have decided it's not a bad idea to move it outside of the reach of the power of nations to tax and regulate. You may be right about the roses, but not everywhere. Think of it as free-market economics on an interplanetary scale, and put it about a hundred and sixty years into our future, following the path we're on right now.

Is that a realistic possibility? Would you find that a credible possible future, perhaps in the realm of speculative fiction?

Posted by: Keith Arnold at January 15, 2014 1:48 AM

The 40th Anniversary of Reason Magazine a few years ago (I know, libertario delenda est) documented the huge encroachment of government and yet, in broad strokes, the great advancement of liberty with the Internet, fall of the USSR, advancing ideals on race and gender.

You can call them all anecdotal and note that none are irreversible, but I posit an increase in personal liberty pari passu with an increase in global wealth and innovation. As billions emerge from poverty and access technology, I think true Mugabe or North Korea style despotism becomes more difficult to manage.

I'll agree that there is a concomitant risk-aversion that makes a California or France style mini-bread-and-circuses despotism more likely.

But in broad strokes, I hold that wealth good, innovation good. Ultimately the ideas underpinning liberty are so strong that they will find purchase somewhere. I was sorely tempted to respond with a Libertarian Detroit Utopian Counterfactual.

As the US tumbles ass-first down the rankings in the Heritage-WSJ Liberty Index, the torch lights in Eastern Europe. My dreams are far from guaranteed, but I don't underestimate the power of wealth and innovation.

Posted by: jk at January 15, 2014 11:44 AM
When you have technology that can inexpensively make the blind see, give everyone a Les Paul on the cheap, and obsolete the entry-level labor sector, what does the future realistically look like?

It leads to more prosperity with less work. But what is done with that prosperity is the wild card in the prediction formula.

We've seen the two competing approaches on display since the dawn of the industrial age. One is self-sustaining, the other is cannibalistic. And thus it is inhumanly ironic that they who advocate for the cannibalistic approach, do so with rhetoric that claims it is "sustainable."

Posted by: johngalt at January 15, 2014 12:04 PM | What do you think? [7]