Reviving the Great American Vacuum Tube #Audio #Vintage @wired
Rossville, Georgia, on the border with Tennessee, doesn’t look like a tech town. It’s the kind of place where homey restaurants promising succulent fried chicken and sweet tea are tucked among shuttered businesses and prosperous liquor stores. The cost of living is moderate, crime is high, politics are red, and the population has withered to 3,980.
But in the view of entrepreneur Charles Whitener, Rossville is the perfect place to stage a revival in US technology and manufacturing—albeit with a device that was cutting edge when the Ford Model A ruled the roads.
Whitener owns Western Electric, the last US manufacturer of vacuum tubes, those glass and metal bulbs that controlled current in electric circuits before the advent of the transistor made them largely obsolete.
Tubes are still prized for high-end hi-fi equipment and by music gear companies such as Fender for their distinctive sound. But most of the world’s supply comes from manufacturers in Russia and China, which after the transistor era began in earnest in the 1960s helped sunset the US vacuum tube industry by driving down prices.
The promise of better sound is, like most things among high-fidelity fanatics, subject to vicious debate. Some hear vast differences between brands of tube, or even individual tubes of the same make and model. Others will tell you each tube is indistinguishable from the next. Most agree that tubes in general have a sound that transistors, circuit boards, and algorithms can only approximate, one often described as warm, rich, or even romantic.
“Tubes just distort things in a very pleasant way,” said Daniel Schlett, a sound engineer whose Brooklyn studio, Strange Weather, is known for the analog punch it gets from tube-powered mics, amps, consoles, and equalizers. Artists who have sought Schlett’s hallmark sound are as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Booker T. (of MGs fame), and The War on Drugs. “Tubes are part of the equation,” Schlett says. “It’s big and amplified, and it has the voodoo on it.”
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