Friday, May 10, 2013

Paper Coned Loudspeakers: Electric Guitar Speakers?

Despite advances in hi-fi loudspeaker cone materials in the 1990s, does paper coned loudspeaker still mean electric guitar speakers like Heinz means catsup? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Since the heyday of Les Paul to recent concerts of Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani that still attract hoards of electric guitar music fans, it seems like the paper coned loudspeaker – especially ones with a whizzer cone and seems to have dated back to the early 1920s – had been exerting a stranglehold on the electrical musical instrument industry as the only musical instrument loudspeaker suitable for electric guitar playing use. But how did such a self-made paper coned loudspeaker empire came to reign over the electric guitar playing world? 

Guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen may have recently endorsed paper coned loudspeakers as the only ones suitable for serious electric guitar use. A recent “tone testament” by Malmsteen on the paper coned Celestion G12T-75 speaker shows his praise for its fluidity and praises its violin-like tone sustain and feel that compliments his style of guitar playing only reinforces the facts – and preconceived notions -  surrounding paper coned loudspeakers use in the electric guitar playing world. Boutique Marshall electric guitar amplifiers that use their exclusive paper coned Sheffield speakers still further reinforces the perception even more. 
Enthusiasts in the audiophile world who are heavily into rock music are not helping much either. Retro-looking hi-fi loudspeaker systems made in the 1990s like that by Lowther that looks like it dates from the early 1920s with its horn-loaded paper coned alnico-magnet equipped loudspeaker with a whizzer cone are often praised for its realistic rendition of late 1980s electric guitar heavy hair metal era heavy metal music. Given that electric guitar and hi-fi speaker system for playback both use paper coned loudspeakers - it is safe to assume, and in actuality, that both seem to compliment each other seamlessly. 

Hi-fi reviewers can never be accused of being miserly in their praise for paper coned loudspeakers and their righteous reproduction of electric guitar based heavy metal music. Hi-Fi World magazine reviewer Douglas Floyd-Douglass stated in the October 1995 issue of the magazine on his review of the Wharfedale Valdus 500 that: “Lead and rhythm guitars sound excellent, which I’d attribute to the paper cones – a favorite choice used in hundreds of famous electric guitar amplifiers. Their partiality to rock was further emphasized by Richie Blackmore’s scorching lead and powerful backing on ‘Rainbow’s Power’ and Miss Mistreated’.” And high-end hi-fi manufacturer Yamamura Churchill further reinforces the mystique surrounding paper coned hi-fi loudspeakers with the use of rare paper from Japan made from select bamboo pulp as its “magic ingredient”. Given the dominance of paper coned loudspeakers in the electric guitar and hi-fi world, how does the alternative cone materials fare? 

Around the late 1980s, an electric bass guitar amplification manufacturing firm named Hartke Systems had used metal coned – as in aluminum coned - loudspeakers to go with their electric bass guitar amplifiers. Around that time, Hartke Systems electric bass guitar amplification systems were used by Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton among others and many of its users say that Hartke’s aluminum coned speakers provide a big, clear dynamic sound on top with maximum punch on the bottom, though nobody tested it for heavily distorted loud electric guitar use for obvious reasons. 

Part of what makes paper coned electric guitar loudspeaker and vacuum tube amp system like Marshall’s have a “musically desirable” tone is due to the fact that paper coned loudspeakers act – according to the laws of acoustics – like a bandpass filter that works between the audio frequency of 75-Hz to around 6,000-Hz. Especially with a distorted electric guitar tone, high frequencies produced by an overdriven tube amp that sounds bad to our ears – and can destroy tweeters - are brought down to desirably pleasing levels via the paper coned loudspeakers inherent inability to produce very high audio frequencies. While the paper coned loudspeaker’s inability to produce lower bass frequencies below 75-Hz – as it is most often mounted in an open baffle configuration in electric guitar applications – filter the “reactance thumps” between the electric guitar strings and the pickups that can easily overload dynamic microphones in live stage miking situations. 

I’ve also experienced using first hand a mineral-filled polypropylene coned loudspeaker into electric guitar use back in the late 1980s and all I can say is – it was the quackiest mess I’ve ever heard. Unless you are doing a rock concert scene for a sequel of Howard The Duck or a quacky, parody version of Mötley Crüe’s Kickstart My Heart, mineral-filled polypropylene coned loudspeakers are only suitable for domestic hi-fi use, as they have been since the mid 1970s, when they are not played too loud. It seems like paper coned loudspeakers are the only ones that distorts in a musically consonant manner when played at excruciatingly loud levels. 

Germanium Transistors: The Best For Electric Guitar Distortion Pedals?

Even though 9-volt battery powered electric guitar distortion pedals that use germanium transistors are the best ones around, how come these types are still a rarity?

By: Ringo Bones 

Every self-respecting electric guitar wielding musician with experience knows that germanium transistor based 9-volt battery powered electric guitar distortion pedals are the best there is – as in those 21st Century era reissues of Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face pedals now starting to appear again in musical instrument stores. Even though such pedals are not that expensive in terms of quality guitar accessories – at around 150 to 300 US dollars each – why then are germanium transistor based electric guitar distortion pedals rarer than their silicon transistor based or even integrated circuit / IC operational amplifier based counterparts? 

The reality is, germanium transistors – which are the first of its type mass produced for commercial applications during the 1950s onto the early 1960s are not very stable and somewhat difficult to manufacture compared to more modern silicon transistors and semiconductor devices. Even during the start of the 1960s where the relatively affordable prices of transistorized radios started to capture the market previously dominated by vacuum tube based radios, germanium transistors are very hard to mass produce with consistent parameter quality. Electronic enthusiasts “toying” with germanium transistors during the early 1960s have noticed first hand that they have very variable gain, leakage, noise and overall tone – even germanium transistors manufactured from the same batch. 

The inherent parameter variability of germanium transistors means resistor values selected for proper AC and DC biasing, feedback, gain and stability that worked fine on one functioning circuit – like an electric guitar distortion pedal – will have to be “tweaked” (use a slightly higher or lower resistor value) to make one sound as close as possible to the previously finished circuit – even from germanium transistors of the same batch. Thus making the manufacture of germanium transistor based electric guitar distortion pedals a somewhat very labor intensive endeavor. 

Although, one can make silicon transistor or even I.C. op-amp based electric guitar distortion pedals approach the sound of germanium transistor types by using germanium signal clipping diodes in the feedback loop, purists still prefer the tone of the authentic germanium transistor based electric guitar distortion pedal, especially if your hi-fi system is righteous enough to realistically reproduce the guitar intro of Iron Maiden’s Two Minutes To Midnight – as in the original vinyl or the mid 1990s era Sony Super Bit Mapped CD reissue. The Sony Super Bit Mapped mastering even brought out the “germanium signature noise” on the very start of this iconic Iron Maiden track.