Nan­otech gui­tar pedal mim­ics tubes

Sci­en­tists cre­ate com­mer­cial ‘molec­u­lar’ prod­uct for gui­tars to re­gain the rich, warm sound with­out tube am­pli­fiers.

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - BOB WE­BER ED­MON­TON —

For years, se­ri­ous gui­tar play­ers have clung to their tube am­pli­fiers, say­ing the rich sound is worth the has­sle of old-school elec­tron­ics.

Now, sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta have used the lat­est nan­otech­nol­ogy in a gui­tar pedal that du­pli­cates that beloved tone with­out the in­con­ve­nience and ex­pense.

“Peo­ple gen­er­ally use the word ‘warmer,’” said Rick McCreery, a Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta chem­istry pro­fes­sor and re­searcher at Ed­mon­ton’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Nan­otech­nol­ogy.

Most con­sumer elec­tron­ics, in­clud­ing non­tube gui­tar amps, de­pend on silicon-based de­vices called tran­sis­tors or diodes. They work ex­tremely well to help am­plify elec­tronic sig­nals ac­cu­rately and smoothly.

Too ac­cu­rately, for many finely tuned mu­si­cal ears. The sound of silicon lacks the rich har­mon­ics and over­tones added when a sig­nal goes through a non-lin­ear cir­cuit, such as a tube.

“If you take an or­di­nary elec­tric gui­tar and just am­plify it, then gui­tarists would say this is ster­ile,” McCreery said. “Gui­tarists didn’t like the silicon be­cause it was too lin­ear, too ac­cu­rate. It didn’t gen­er­ate nice har­mon­ics.”

Tubes, how­ever, are frag­ile and ex­pen­sive to re­place.

Adam Ber­gren, McCreery’s col­league and an am­a­teur gui­tarist, knew that. He also knew that elec­tronic cir­cuits at the molec­u­lar scale have char­ac­ter­is­tics dif­fer­ent from the straight-line re­sponse of silicon. At that scale, the rules of physics are dif­fer­ent.

To­gether, they and their col­leagues de­vel­oped a cir­cuit just a cou­ple of mol­e­cules — bil­lionths of a me­tre — thick. The team even­tu­ally cre­ated a non-lin­ear cir­cuit in a gui­tar pedal that re­sponded just like a tube.

That pedal, dubbed the “Nanolog” and built in Ed­mon­ton, is al­ready com­mer­cially avail­able. It makes its in­dus­try de­but this week at the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­sic Man­u­fac­tur­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, the largest such trade show in the world.

McCreery said their new busi­ness, Nanolog Au­dio, hopes to sell com­plete ped­als and li­cense the nanocir­cuitry to in­dus­try ma­jors such as Fen­der or Boss.

The gui­tar pedal mar­ket is worth $100 mil­lion a year in the U.S. alone.

McCreery says the Nanolog is one of the first con­sumer prod­ucts to use this type of nan­otech­nol­ogy. Gui­tar he­roes are not the only pos­si­ble ben­e­fi­ciary from this type of cir­cuit, said McCreery. Durable and rea­son­ably priced, it could re­place silicon in thou­sands of pieces of con­sumer elec­tron­ics from stereo amps to cell­phones.

JOHN ULAN, UNI­VER­SITY OF AL­BERTA, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Rick McCreery, left, Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta chem­istry pro­fes­sor and se­nior re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Nan­otech­nol­ogy (NINT) and Adam Ber­gen, a for­mer post-doc­toral fel­low and now re­search of­fi­cer at NINT at a lab in Ed­mon­ton .

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