• Paul James Hesse

Going Tubular - Old Analog Technology in our Modern Digital Society


Photo by Paul James Hesse

The golden glow subtlety flickers in my darkroom, bringing with it quiet pops and hisses. The sound of strings sparkles to life with grace, warmth, and clarity. The needle bobs and sways harmoniously in the groove of the vinyl record on my turntable. Even though I’ve heard this song many times, the goosebumps come with those initial notes as sure as the autumn winds outside. For the next 45 minutes, my short attention span is fully captivated watching the tonearm of my record player gradually drift inwards on the disc and listening. Listening to the subtleties, nuances, and life that is projected from the voice coils of my speakers. The driving force bringing everything into harmony sits between my turntable and speakers, the Vacuum Tube Amplifier.


As modern as it looks, this is very old technology.


Amplifier - Photo by Paul James Hesse

Vacuum Tubes, also known as Valves in the United Kingdom, have been around since the 19th century but didn’t find a proper application till the early 20th century with radios and telephones. What is a tube (or valve), you might ask? Well, think of a lightbulb, but instead of brightly illuminating a room, it amplifies power. In the case of audio, it helps with the amplification of the audio signal that comes from its older brother, the vinyl record turntable, to send current to the speakers.


Vinyl records aren’t going anywhere soon; they're the most simple and faithful physical reproduction of uncompressed audio out there.


Vinyl Record - Photo by Paul James Hesse

The warmth, clarity, vibes, and aesthetics are what drew me to the world of high fidelity audio equipment. It all started when I was an infant, growing up listening to my parents' music. I sought out the clearest reproduction of the music I heard and the emotions that followed from it. As a teen, my uncle and I would often go out to his studio, flick on the lights in the barely heated room, and he would turn on his tube amplifier and his preamplifier, reach behind his left speaker and pull out a bottle of Glenfiddich and two tumblers. We would then wait for the tubes to warm up.


The sounds of Hammock’s music fills the void in my mind’s eye and my music room; I know where each instrument is on the stage that isn’t actually there.


Hammock’s Oblivion Hymns album on the turntable - Photo by Paul James Hesse

The magic is in the dark; that’s where you really hear the music, feel it, see it. That’s when other sensory distractions are at a low and your mind slows down to take in the sounds. As a part-time filmmaker, this is where I get inspiration for stories and small films. Sometimes older technologies just stand the test of time. When we’re on the go and want to listen to music, pairing a set of Bluetooth headphones is much easier than turning on the tube amplifier to warm the tubes for 15 minutes to a half-hour; but that’s where the beauty lies, taking the time to slow down and enjoy the small things; instant gratification doesn’t always mean instant enjoyment. In that half-hour, take that time to brew a cup of tea, select your music lineup, and get cozy; do the little things that make it a more enjoyable experience.


Just like reading a good book, listening to good music can take you away to places and times you have never been to before.


Mountain Road - Photo by Paul James Hesse

Casual music listening and reading are very similar and go hand in hand with each other; a good record can enhance a good book. For myself, it provides that cinematic soundtrack to the book and really brings to life the setting and characters. As a musician, it can work the other way as well; sometimes what I read affects what I make as music.


Investing in a tube amplifier taught me one thing: take the time to slow down and enjoy the things you love, whether it be getting lost in a song or getting lost in a good movie or in your favorite book. The warmth of the sound and the gentle glow of the valves have seduced me into a whole different realm of savoring the music I love and slowing down my day to day life. It’s not out of date, it’s timeless, and without it, the advances we know would not exist.


Warm in glow, warm in spirit, and warm in sound. Hi-Fi tubes have stood the test of time for audiophiles everywhere.


Glowing Tubes - Photo by Paul James Hesse


WORKS CITED:

Bellis, Mary. “The History of the Vacuum Tube and Why They're Important.” ThoughtCo, 2019, www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-vacuum-tubes-1992595.

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