U of A nanoscientists transform guitar sound

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 non-tube 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 very first consumer products available to use this type of nanotechnology. A previous pedal, called the Heisenberg and also developed in Edmonton, was released last year on a limited basis.

Guitar heroes are far from 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.

Unlike silicon, the nanoscale circuit can be tuned to reflect whatever characteristics manufacturers desire, he said.

The Nanolog also underscores the importance of basic scientific research. McCreery said the first patents on the circuit date back to 2004 and researchers were working in the field for years before that.

“Basic research can have a fairly long incubation period,” he said.

“I never intended to make music devices when I started doing this. It’s not easy to tell what basic research is going to do for you.”

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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