Friday, May 10, 2013

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. 

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