Virtue of the Ugly: When AV Mirrors Rock n’ Roll

It’s time for AV integrators to follow in the footsteps of great rock n’ roll musicians… and aim for more than just aesthetics.

George Tucker
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“Rock ‘n Roll: The most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” —attributed to Frank Sinatra (via INS news service).

Dear Ole’ Blue Eyes may have had the advantage of good looks and a mellow voice but his statement was both truth and a misunderstanding of the form. Rock was a break from the previous fanciful forms, speaking to gritty realities and desires.
The origins of Rock n’ Roll are deeply rooted in the various forms of the blues and in particular the Mississippi Delta variant. A musical expression born of the poor with simple instrumentation and lyrics that spoke to the hardships and struggles of the working class. 

The blues is an artful wail at the state of things which does not hide from the realities its authors lived. The music can be picked up relatively quickly by beginners yet to play it with purity takes a devotion to the perfection of a skill.

It is a model the upstart youths who created the British Invasion of the 1960’s idolized, imitating the records and performers in their english working class cities. 

There was a time when anyone could be a rock star, looks could help but physical perfection was not expected nor desired. To be too pretty was a mark of inauthenticity. Discord was a welcome element which left lipstick traces further enflaming the genre and its listeners.

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Today, it is nigh-on-impossible to make any pop success without conforming to an ideal visage. Even the modern arbiters of punk are pretty (and not vacant) even while the music is even ‘uglier and brutal’ as the chairman of the Rat Pack could have envisioned. 

AV was once ‘ugly and brutal’ business and sometimes it is still necessary to be so. Beauty can be a detriment.

Wires are a constant bane — they require extensive space, require toilsome effort and are, to many, unsightly. Unattractive as these conduits of electrons are, the medium is the most reliable way to deliver high quality signals. Wireless may have the advantage of being sleek and sexy — not to mention out of the way and innocuous — but comparatively is less reliable.

Excluding touchpanel design, the dressing of cable in racks and at the termination point is an AV art form unto itself. It can also quickly become an explosion of spaghetti looking like the result of a beginners knot-tying convention. The rub here is that being too neat can cause serious system degradation and client dismay.

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Beauty in wire dressing can cause serious issues of crosstalk. Run those wires in straight clusters, tied tight like a bad high school click, the influence between them is trouble. Bend them beyond the prescribed radius and the symmetry created signals certain doom. Let’s not even ponder the results of running power and signal too nicely.

Modern equipment places a premium on aesthetic of modern minimalism. Rounded lines, polished surfaces and waif-like profiles are the order of the day. When placed side by side to their modern descendants, gear of even recent past looks clunky and oddly square. This presentation comes at a cost though.

In order to make devices smaller, sleeker and sexier the components must be smaller. While this may seem like a win-win situation it can hide more ‘sinister’ tradeoffs, like quality audio. Transformerless is the de rigueur for the vast majority of modern audio outputs. 

If you follow Bill Whitlock of Jensen Transformers it becomes clear that in gaining micro versions we lose a lot of control over noise (or even errors in digital systems). These blocks of wire and magnets are beasts which resist any attempts to beautify. Transformers are “brutal and ugly” yet they still work circles around their silicon sisters.

This is not a call for disorder or the recoiling from the aesthetic of neatness, rather it is a meditation on moderation in the quest for beauty.

Sometimes pretty is just enough. At least for a while, until fashion and tastes change. But the music, ah, the music may have a legacy of brutality but it is beautiful.

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