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I was practicing the guitar today (no matter how much I practice I never get any better), and it struck me that at that moment I was surrounded by a perfect example of why we’re willing to give up the real analog world for the approximate digital one. Now, I’ve owned a dozen guitars, as many amplifiers, and all kinds of music gear in my lifetime, and I was never satisfied with any of it. No matter what I had, it was good for some things but lousy for others. It seemed the only way cover it all was to own every kind of guitar, amp, effect, etc., and that just wasn’t possible: too expensive and where would I keep it all?

Now I do have everything, and it sits in a steel slab about 18 inches by 12 inches on the floor in front of me. It’s a Boss GT-8 digital guitar processor. In that little box are 45 amplifiers, an unlimited number of speaker cabinet configurations, simulators that turn my Fender guitar into a Gibson, and turn my Gibson into a Fender. Or I can turn my acoustic guitars into electric ones, or turn my electric ones into acoustic ones, or turn any of them into a sitar, a synthesizer, a human voice, and on and on.

It cost less than one good amplifier. And it uses less power, and it’s a lot easier to lug around. It just doesn’t sound quite exactly right. If you’ve ever played a guitar through a Peavy amp with four ten-inch speakers, then you know the GT-8 is just a little less punchy and a little less bright. If you’ve ever played a Les Paul Custom with double coil “Humbucker” pickups, then you know the GT-8 sounds just a little less fat in the midrange. Of course the sound is unbelievably clean and hyper-controllable; just not accurate.

But the trade-offs are worth it. Same deal with my hard-drive based multi-track recorder. Compared to an old tape machine it’s better in every way except one: it doesn’t have that warm analog quality to the sound reproduction. Digital drum machine – same story. All of these machines let me do things with sound that I couldn’t possibly have done even ten years ago, wihout a lot of money and a lot of space. 

But the approximate digital world can go farther than that. I have software that lets me simulate an entire studio full of musicians who can play anything I can play, from punk rock to orchestral music. And everything looks and works like it does in a real studio, with virtual cables that connect virtual synthesizers, drums, effects, mixers, etc. If you know how the real stuff works there is no learning curve. But it all sounds just a bit weak by comparison.

Now with the Internet as a music distributor and retail outlet, everyone can take a stab at the music biz for the price of a used motorcycle, or maybe three or four months rent. The approximate digital world is, in many ways, a more egalitarian world. It just isn’t real.