I had been an analog snob until recently–and I’m speaking only as a player, not a producer–you ask me what the knob does, I say “I don’t know.” One day, maybe four years ago, it dawned on me that the combination of caring too much about what I heard from my vantage points, and a bias against digital gear were limiting my musical expressiveness and costing me too much money (as snobbery often do).
As I began a new gig with musicians I had never played with before, and I was forced to listen more carefully to get in the pocket with unfamiliar players, I realized that listening must be an active thing, and everything that is not crucial to the song is secondary. That includes tone.
I started doing what I could to hear things from the listeners’ point of view. I made a great effort to think of every note I played in the context of what the rest of the band was doing. Listening, as Scott Collins stresses, has become as important to me as playing.
Back in Boston, where you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a fellow Berklëe alum, I had a ridiculous rig made up of a dozen all-analog pedals going into an 80 lb., 100 watt tube amp. My current live rig consists of a compressor, a boost/OD, and a Zoom modeling pedal going I to the house PA. Does it sound like my analog/tube rig costing 20 times as much? No, but it’s close enough, and my listening skills have gotten me to where I can dial in the right tone for the song, and the audience digs it. Or at the very least, no one can tell the difference between my digital amplifier simulation and the tube amp it is meant to emulate.
My tone is not 100% authentic, but it is GOOD ENOUGH, and once I’d learned to be happy with that, more precious brain space became available for more important tasks, like developing good practice habits.
Moving ahead, gear like the Axe FX (damn, I wish I could afford one of those) will allow young musicians AND producers to approach the art of tone sculpting with way less biases and preconceptions. They will often look to reproduce classic sounds of the past, but they will also start with a blank canvas and create tones far beyond what existed previously.
Soon, digital will not just be a good-enough simulacra of analog gear, it will be the foundation of a new, unlimited world o’ tone.