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Badass Power and Output Transformer

By now, you’re probably familiar with the Epiphone Valve Jr., the tiny, low-wattage, low-budget amplifier that hit store shelves a few years back and single-handedly energized a cadre of amp modders, so we won’t go into a cursory rehashing of its history. But it should be said that the amp’s simplicity — demonstrated by the lone chicken-headed volume knob that flies in the face of modern complexities — has since combined with a growing, gear-obsessed online culture to create a technological phenomenon. Like muscle cars in the sixties and Superstrats in the eighties, people are again obsessed with hot-rodding, and the Valve Jr. can be viewed as a major driver of that shift.

With modification tips spreading like an unrestrained virus through message boards and forums, facilitated by the tone-seeking faithful, it was only a matter of time before established companies caught wind of what was going on. One of those was Mercury Magnetics, an outfit best known for conceiving badass power and output transformers for a variety of modern and vintage amps. They wisely realized early on that the amp’s blank slate vibe would provide the perfect showcase for their talents. Mercury’sSergio Hamernik and L.A.-based amp wizard Alan Cyr went to work designing a custom set of transformers and choke for the diminutive Valve Jr. — a project that, ironically, was originally intended simply as a transformer demonstration kit.

Transformers & You

Having been intrigued with the amp’s possibilities since its conception, we’ve tested out a variety of modifications, from the homegrown (see Dirk Wacker’s web exclusive columns at www.premierguitar.com) to commercial projects, such as the popular BitMo modification kits (reviewed in October 2007). For the most part, they’ve all added some usable capabilities while maintaining the original vibe of the amp — mainly, stripped down rock tones with passable tube warmth. But while most of these mod projects have expanded the tonality and scope of the Valve Jr., none have completely changed it. Mercury Magnetics’ Epiphone Valve Jr. Kit is likely the only one on the market that can make that claim.

The basic gist of the modification kit involves the installation of new power and output transformers, the addition of a choke — a rarity in budget amplifiers these days — and a basic reworking of the amp’s circuitry to eliminate some of the noise and hum that plagued early models. And while opinions in our office were divided over the amp’s new sound — the amplifier’s single-ended tonality became more pronounced, and highlighted some of the weaker links in the signal chain, including the stock speaker — there was absolutely no denying that the amp had an expanded tonal range that was unheard of in this price range. With more consistent power flowing into and out of our Valve Jr., there was more of everything. The lows became instantly tighter, the highs shimmered and the entire spectrum of sound now had a beautiful fullness. As that single volume knob rotated clockwise, the Valve Jr. bristled and growled like a Rottweiler about to lunge. This thing had a newfound set of marbles and I, for one, was not complaining.

We should note that our Epiphone’s sudden meatiness did not come easily. The kit’s instructions, included on a CD-ROM, seemed conceived not by English majors but by engineers, consisting of a lengthy PDF file filled with close-up photographs instructing users to copy what they see. To the company’s credit, the photos are well done, providing enough detail in each shot, but more text would have been helpful for those of us who aren’t the best at spatial learning. In fairness, we received an early version of the manual, and Mercury Magnetics has said that a much more complete, easy-to-navigate version is now available.

“The basic gist of the modification kit involves the installation of new power and output transformers, the addition of a choke — a rarity in budget amplifiers these days — and a basic reworking of the amp’s circuitry….”

While the clipping and wiring of resistors and leads may be feasible for most readers, this project also requires some advanced know-how like cutting traces and drilling holes in the PCB. New entrants to the amp mod game will quickly find themselves in way over their heads, and might want to consider some of the other mod options available if they are set on doing it themselves. In the spirit of complete disclosure, we got through the first few steps before we were forced to hand the project over to a local amp tech. It cost a few more bucks in the end, but the results were absolutely worth it, giving us an amp that we could record with, or even take along to small gigs. And who saw that coming?

The Final Mojo

Put into a strict cost/benefit matrix, products like the BitMo might come out as the better deal for the weekend modder looking to push the Valve Jr.’s envelope. The work and price involved with the Mercury Magnetics kit might seem like a large compromise for some groups — you could take the money you’d spend here and put it towards a higher-end amp, like Orange’s Tiny Terror, without spending days etching lines in a PCB. But those people are not who this kit is aimed at — this project is meant for those amp tweakers that dream of turning a drab, utilitarian piece of equipment into a snarling, steroid-infused monster, no matter the cost. And for these guys, this kit will be both intrinsically rewarding and positively orgasmic.

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/PremierGuitar/PremierG-11.htm

Builder Profile – Mercury Magnetics

It doesn’t take too much digging to find a laundry list of boutique amp builders using Mercury Magnetics transformers in their products. From Mojave Ampworks to Joe Morgan Amps to kits from MetroAmp, builders have found that Mercury knows their iron. While transformers rarely receive the same level of attention of NOS tubes, speakers, or even guitar cables, they are a major contributor to tone. Think about it—the power and output transformers are the start and end of the line with any amp.

Based in Chatsworth, California, Mercury Magnetics has been building transformers for close to 60 years. I recently had a chance to talk with Mercury’s Sergio Hamernik to dig deeper into their roots, find out what one can expect from upgrading their iron, and what sets Mercury apart. Prior to our conversation, I had the opportunity to witness the remarkable transformation of an Epiphone Valve Junior modified from stock to hot-rodded, using one of their transformer upgrade kits. Not only was it a noticeable upgrade, it was a revelation in just how important the role of quality iron in an amp is. But because it is the single most expensive part of any amp, it’s no wonder we see so many modern amp manufacturers skimp on the iron to keep costs down. Let’s see what the passionate, and often hilarious, Sergio has to say about his part of the business.

I’ve been seeing Mercury transformers in amps for at least a decade. When did you get into the amp scene?

This happens to be one of our most often asked questions. Even though Mercury Magnetics’ roots go all the way back to the early 1950s, there are guitar players who are only now discovering us. But if an industry insider like you has been aware of us for at least a decade, then I suppose it means I don’t need to lay off any of our sales and marketing staff.

I would attribute most of our lingering anonymity to the old days. Back then, most of our clients from the audio community preferred to keep us as a trade secret from their competitors and the press. The typical transformer-savvy amp builder also didn’t usually want to share the credit with us, or reveal what their “unique” technical advantage was regarding audio and tone. Consequently, we were asked to maintain a low profile and generic look for our transformers for quite some time. On occasion, a customer in the know will spot a small “MM” mark on a transformer from an older piece of gear, and ask if it’s a Mercury. Odds are that it is.

It was the guitar amp crowd that pushed us to go above ground. Now Mercury gives any electric guitar player or amp restorer a taste of what the pros were using, talking about in their studios, and amongst themselves. Many players have told us their amps increased in value when upgraded with Mercury transformers, and this became evident when insurance appraisers began to contact us for verification. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when we began to market our services and various brands to guitar players.

For me personally, I got into the amp scene around the mid- to late 1970s. I just found it to be a nice way to relax from the strain of oversleeping.

Your website shows a large number of amp manufacturers you have replacement/upgraded transformers for. What are your best sellers and why?

There are so many different camps loyal to their particular amp brand, so it would be difficult to single out the best sellers. The best sellers are transitory and change from week to week because guitar amp players are a fickle bunch. That’s why we’ve built the world’s largest catalog of guitar amp transformers where nobody is left out.

But trends tend to follow their own dynamics. And the current worldwide trend seems toward smaller wattage amps—regardless of brand. Conversely, the 100-watt heads are not selling like they used to. Players are gigging with no more than 15 watts and a few pedals. Regardless of playing style, they’re doing just fine abiding by sound level restrictions and kicking ass with the tone we feel Mercury upgraded amps deliver.

These players really get the fact that an amp lacking in tone can’t be fixed with higher power or covered up with a gain mod. An amp that coughs out an asthmatic tone at 50 or 100 watts easily fatigues both music listeners and guitarists. But the audience will stay until the bar closes if the band plays well and sounds great—even with as little as a few watts going through the available PA system.

What can a guitarist expect to hear when upgrading their transformers in a newer amp?

An amp’s transformers are the most important component in determining the quality of amplified guitar tone. And it’s no coincidence that they’re the most expensive parts in an amplifier. Many of the newer amps just don’t have the same “overkill” factor with their transformers as the amps in the ’50s and ’60s. Why? Ignorance and a bean-counter mentality. What’s good for accounting isn’t necessarily good for tone from an amp. Sadly, the people making these decisions are probably not players themselves and don’t seem to realize the damage they’re doing to the industry.

It’s not unusual to find a current production amp with a power transformer running hotter than hell, even without cranking the amp all the way. Or having an undersized, cheaply built output transformer whose sphincter begins to tighten the moment the guitarist reaches for the amp’s volume knob. An amp built around anemic transformers yields only to dull, thin, noisy, fuzzy mids and mushy bass. That’s what makes your notes sound more like farts through a pillow. This overkill factor is probably the only edge that some of the vintage amps have over the newer amps.

We have made it our mission to duplicate the performance of the best original transformer designs of all time. In terms of amplified guitar tone history, these transformers represent the best ever produced. – Sergio Hamernik

Have you ever noticed how most newer amps often weigh less, sometimes a lot less, than the older ones? That’s usually the weight difference between the old and new transformer designs. There is a direct relationship between weight and having transformers that seem to stay cooler and “loaf around” with power to spare, until a player demands more from their amp. It’s like they are waiting around having a card game, waiting for the player to do something. The best vintage tone was born that way. Newer amp tone can be easily improved—if the builder follows some of the same ideas.

Upgrading with quality transformers gives a second chance to a new amp owner to make things right with their tone, by reclaiming that overkill factor. Assuming there are no issues with the amp’s circuitry like bad parts or worn out tubes, a guitarist should hear and feel improvements with the very first pluck of the guitar. They should expect to hear the notes more detailed with overtones, and a quicker and more immediate response to their playing. Clean notes will have less sonic collisions with noise and reveal more bell tones, chimes, etc.

When more distortion is required, the player will sense better control of crunch and when break-up begins to happen. The coughing and hacking that happens when a stock amp is pushed, will vanish with a transformer upgrade. It will be replaced with longer sustains and notes that reach farther. The amp will also sound closer and bigger than the power it puts out—and the bass notes will have a tighter, rounder bottom end. And when pushed, she will still be able to hold that quarter from dropping—no matter how tall her high heels—something most musicians are looking for.

It’s not uncommon for guitarists to report that it took a few weeks of playing to fully realize what they’ve gained in terms of harmonic richness. These players have typically played longer and felt more inspirational emotions sucking them in, as they have invested more time into relearning and becoming reacquainted with their amps.

Many players become very attached to the transformers in their vintage amps. When you create ToneClones or Radiospares and Partridge versions of these classic transformers, how close are they get to the originals?

Radiospares and Partridge are our brand specific clones, whereas ToneClones are “best-of-breed” duplicates culled from the hundreds of other brands that have made transformers over the years.

We have made it our mission to duplicate the performance of the best original transformer designs of all time. In terms of amplified guitar tone history, these transformers represent the best ever produced. In the grand scheme of tone pursuit, these designs are incredibility important and deserve to be considered treasures.

This is an ongoing project for us, spanning almost three decades now. And it couldn’t have been accomplished without the enormous amount of assistance we’ve received from top players and amp collectors around the world.

What about Axiom transformers? Where do they fit in?

The Axiom transformer line takes over where the limitations of vintage transformer design ended. No bean counters here—simply the sincere pursuit of answering the age-old question: What if there were no constraints on budget, time, or material quality to achieve the best possible performance? That’s our objective with the Axiom line.

Axiom transformer designs represent many new approaches—new tone with the best materials and designs money can buy, so they’re not intended for the timid or the low-budget crowd. Check out our FatStacks and SuperStacks for the Marshall DSL and TSL families for interesting comparisons.

Mercury’s vintage transformer restoration service has been gaining a reputation for quality work. Why would someone want to restore a transformer instead of replacing it? And vise-versa?

Some vintage amp owners prefer to pay the extra cost of our restoration services, because it’s very important to them that their amps retain authenticity. Collectables or rarities are valuable. They’re of the “why take chances” mind. The high road. But on the flip side, we have pro musicians who insist on touring with their vintage gear. To play it safe, and not sacrifice the tone of their original transformers, they have their techs replace the stock transformers with Mercurys. By doing this, they preserve the original transformers from road abuse while taking advantage of our reputation for tone, durability, and warranty. Restoration of vintage transformers is a tricky and highly specialized art. Sadly, too many of the great originals have been lost forever due to technically inept and musically disinterested people. We see attempts at “rewinds” here all the time.

Occasionally, it appears some people confuse “demolition” with “restoration,” and the preservation of the original tone is lost forever. There’s no shortcut to doing a proper restoration.

I understand you’re doing all of your labor and get all of your materials in the USA. How does that impact your business aside from just the straight costs?

Well, we figured that someone has to do it—and we really do make everything here with 100 percent American materials. There are plenty of products out there stamped with “Made in the USA,” but are actually assembled with non-USA, low-price materials. But yeah, we’re the real deal and proud of it.

Building transformers that make an amp sound good requires highly specialized technologies, highly skilled labor, and the right kind of materials. We love music and owe it to the players out there to do all the work “in-house,” so we can keep tight control over every aspect of our transformer designs. It’s really old-school military spec style, so our transformers don’t vary at all from batch to batch. If you need a replacement transformer 10 years from now, it’ll sound exactly the same as the one it’s replacing.

We’re hard-liners when it comes to not playing shell games with a musician’s hard earned dough and quest for better tone. Perhaps I’m a fool for doing it this way, but I was brought up in a musically minded family. From a very early age, I was taught that music is as important and necessary as food. If there is a day our services are no longer needed or appreciated, I’ll pursue my dream of owning a car wash in the valley, and get into the business of making money.

Any new or exciting projects in the works at Mercury?

Yes, but we’re planning on releasing the news sometime around summer. For quite some time, we’ve been fielding requests for accessories to accompany our transformer line. We’re being asked to apply our know-how to other aspects of guitar amps.

Do you have any advice for guitar players and techs in their quest for tone?

Don’t let anybody fool you—every player has the ability to discern the difference between good or bad tone. Unfortunately, there are a few too many self-styled “experts” who irresponsibly dispense advice without having a clue. As a result, we’ve all seen amps completely lose their tone by being modded to death.

There’s no excuse for the old “damn, I’ve done it this way for many years so it must be right” mentality. More than ever, it’s so easy to seek opinion, advice, and help online and elsewhere. I highly recommend the old textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s as a good place to start on vacuum tube audio circuits.

Do your homework and follow what the smart players are doing—improving your tone isn’t that elusive. If what you have sounds good to you, leave it alone. But if you know your amp’s tone could use some improvement, then start where it begins … the transformers.

Source: https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/Builder_Profile_Mercury_Magnetics

Sergio Hamernik: Don’t Blow that Tranny! Part 3

Last month, Sergio Hamernik, head honcho at Mercury Magnetics, walked us through the intricate process of rewinding a vintage transformer. This month, we dig a little further into the details of winding, materials, the ways age affects some transformers, and why some of them fail.

When you rewind a transformer, do you use the same wire used in the 1950s and ’60s?

No. We use high-purity, oxygen-free copper magnet wire made in the U.S.A., and we use it because of its tonal properties – it’s sonically superior and more consistent than the wire used in the ’50 and ’60s. Wire, back then, had about half the temperature and electrical performance capability of Mercury’s standards.

We, as players, would prefer to use wire from the ’50s and ’60s compared to offshore and south-of-the-border wire. We tried them, thinking we’d save our customers some dough, but test results yielded dull tone and we saw inconsistent batches with too many instances of insulation breakdown. The stuff was not even up to the standards of vintage wire. Further, in real-life tests putting amps through their paces, the sonic differences were noticable to the guitar players here at Mercury, and those working for the recording studios here in Southern California.

Have you ever seen a negative effect of age on a transformer?

In some cases, yes. Sometimes, your ears pick up on the effects of aging before you realize what’s happening – they produce dark, dull, and fuzzy tones with a general sense of lower output volume.

If anything in a transformer suffers from aging, it will most likely be the core. Two major contributors cause a negative effect of aging and affect your tone. Before World War II, the science of processing iron was not up to snuff. It was difficult to boil out residual carbon, and even a miniscule amount of carbon in older iron causes it to age. As an iron core ages, its magnetic conductivity begins to poop out, slowing the transformer’s responsiveness with increasing losses. The result is less output with only lower mids breaking through.

During WWII, the war effort created a shortage of iron. So, many transformer companies made cores from sheet metal, like that used to make soup cans! These had the wrong kind of iron and harbored plenty of carbon, to boot – do not confuse iron with steel! Finally, when silicon was implemented to help force the carbon out of post-war iron, transformer iron became stable enough to outlast us all.

Another contributor to transformer aging comes from humidity. Amp owners who live in humid climates have noticed their tone changes over the years, especially if their older amps had transformers built around paper bobbins, which have always run the risk of moisture absorption affecting tone. Conversely, we found that transformers with plastic bobbins weren’t likely to suffer tone degradation via moisture saturation. A couple excellent examples are the original Partridge and Radiospares transformers from England – with the fog and rain they experience, these transformers held up quite well. That may explain why coating paper in wax was attempted early on, and to verify that humidity affected output transformer tone, we flew in transformers from amps made in the ’60s that had never left the U.K., all with paper bobbins, and put through a dehumidifying process, then re-sealed them in varnish and gave them a full bake. The owners freaked out and thanked us for giving them their original tone back! One called to thank us personally when he realized it was his tone fading over the years, and not his ears! He said that as time passed, he noticed less treble and a lot less note separation and definition. Others had this mastaken belief that their amps were getting too old to play.

Obviously, the rewound transformer for the 1960 Vox AC15 we’ve been working on the last few installments won’t be dipped in wax. What will you use to insulate it?

It’ll receive a fresh dip of varnish.

What can we expect the differences to be between the rewound transformer and the original?

It should sound as good as when it left the showroom in 1960. The only other option, as far as upgrading the tone, would be to try one of our ToneClones, which are copies of the finest celebrity-owned and played “pick of the litter” transformers. It’s likely you’ve heard these transformers in action on your favorite recordings.

Has a rewound transformer come back to you shortly after it was sent out?

Yes. Installer error happens, and if you don’t find and fix the problem that caused the transformer to blow in the first place, you’re setting yourself up for a repeat performance.

Another thing that’s fairly common is the use of N.O.S. tubes, usually bought from an online auction. We had a customer who, after installing his rebuilt output transformer, decided to re-tube his amp with 40-year-old American-made originals. As luck would have it, one of the tubes shorted and caused a different failure in the newly rebuilt transformer.

Is every old transformer destined for a rewind, or could some go on forever?

Not every old transformer will need to be rewound, if taken care of poperly. Most may outlast the “Iron Age” of guitar transformers, which we’re living in now. The push for solidstate technology is tenacious enough to replace tube-/transformer-based amps in the long term. Tubes may go, but they’ll have to pry the transformers from my cold dead fingers before I’ll give them up!

We recently put transformers of all kinds – old and new – to the test by volunteering to help flood victims in Nashville. We offered to test and restore water-damaged transformers, and encountered some pretty nasty stuff. Yet, less than five percent of them needed to be rewound – namely, those with paper bobbin insulation or amps that had been turned on before the transformers were tested. Some transformers were from amps that had been submerged in sewage for weeks! The odor was so foul we had to air them out, and the staff actually had to draw straws to determine who was going to work on them.

You must have your share of unpleasant jobs….

Man, you got that right! But there’s nothing like the fresh smell of varnish in the morning to help one deal with that challenge. We did manage to extract the moisture and re-seal these transformers with varnish. The sacrifices you have to do to help fellow musicians….

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Evil Robot Tube Combo

Unless you’ve purposefully dodged guitar-related forums or YouTube product demos for  the past couple of years, you’ve likely beheld the work of madman guitarist Phil X. With millions of views of hundreds videos to his credit, Phil X is and online guitar-culture fixture

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An Interview with Sergio Hamernik of Mercury Magnetics

In late 2009 I had the opportunity to talk with Sergio Hamernik about the history of the Mercury Magnetics, how he became involved in making transformers for guitar amplifiers, and the difference a high quality transformer can make on your tone.

How did Mercury get its start?

The company’s roots date back to the early ’50s. Mercury was started by an old General Electrics transformer engineer who was working there pre-World War II. He then went on to do a bunch of design work for the war effort. And in the early ’50s, hung a shingle and became self-employed.

The name “Mercury” came out of his passion for Mercury cars, he always drove a Mercury since the late ’40s — he loved those cars — and eventually moved from the East Coast to the West Coast where he found that there was a lot of military and aerospace work. A booming economy in the early ’50s gave him a lot of business.

I met him in the 1970s when I was an engineering student and an audio enthusiast. Back then the electronics world was well into its solid-state “evolution,” and interest in tube gear was quickly disappearing. Not for me, however. I found myself in demand as a guy who knew about those “old things”; not only the math, formulas and specifications but I also had the “ears.” I could fix and keep the old gear running. So, I worked as a hired gun for a bunch of studio heads and pro musicians.

Typically when an amp’s output transformer blew. No one seemed to know any better so it was just swapped by whatever “factory” replacement or an off-the-shelf “equivalent” catalog transformer was handy. The invariable result was that the amp’s characteristic sound was gone. And no matter what resistors, caps or tubes were used, it could not be rescued or returned to its original sound. It was the transformers, it turned out, that were the key. The problem was coming up with a way to remedy the blown transformer replacement or repair that wouldn’t alter its tone.

To further complicate things, most transformer people I dealt with just didn’t want to bother with the music industry. For the most part the established electronics industry considered the needs and opinions of the audio and MI (Music Industry) communities as subjective, run by kooks, and occupied by people who didn’t know what they are doing. Audio and MI had always been considered the illegitimate stepchildren to the rest of the industry.

Out of pure necessity I had to got involved with transformer design and manufacture. As a customer of Mercury, they had built many custom transformers to my specifications — although we had many heated, on-going debates on the subject because the company owner hated audio! He never did understand what made guitar amp transformers tick, or how musicians thought and reacted to them.

That aside, he pestered me for almost a decade to take over the company because he felt I was the only one qualified. Eventually I did, and that was when Mercury got serious about the guitar amp connection. Sometimes you end up becoming an expert at something when no one else wants to do the job.

By the time I took the helm we were developing a really good and workable understanding of the relationship of transformer design to decent tone and how amps should behave. And around 1980 we began the long and arduous task of collecting and cataloging transformer specifications for every vintage amp, from all over the world. The deeper we dug, the more apparent it became that there were all kinds of factors that no one had previously suspected that affected guitar tone. And likewise, no one seemed to be paying attention to such things.

In turn, we invented proprietary technologies to aid this work. Even after three decades, we’re still innovating and discovering new things. From that fundamental research came our now famous ToneClone series, and later the Axiom line, which is probably the most significant advancement in toneful guitar amptransformer designs since the ’50s. Both product lines, we’re proud to say, have distinctly different niches in the annals of guitar amp tone.

We’ve not only cured the old transformer tone issues, but made it possible for musicians to upgrade their existing amps. And we’ve also made it possible for amp builders to reproduce amps of the same or better grade than even the most outstanding vintage amps of the past.

When did you become involved with making transformers for guitar amplifiers?

Back in the ’70s I worked for people on a one-to-one basis, usually under confidential arrangements, with certain rock stars that just didn’t want to be bothered by their names being flaunted around. What they want was their amps running right for recording, projects, touring, etc.

The problem was that when technicians would fix the amps they’d often loose their tone. It turned out that the culprit was the replaced output transformers. A changed output transformer would completely alter the character of the amplifier. So as I was the guy doing most of the work to resolve this issue, this expertise was brought to Mercury where we began a special division to cater to the guitar heroes.

Word got around rather quickly that Mercury was able to repair, rewind, and restore the original transformers and it just grew from there. The whole “Tone Clone” thing came from artists who had these amazing irreplaceable amps, amps that often made recording history. They didn’t want to take these amps on tour. So we came up with the innovative idea of cloning their original transformers that they’d fallen in love with. With the clones we could now easily make, for the first time ever, several identical amps for them. Or they would assign their techs to drop-in the cloned transformers so they would have, for example, six amps that would all sound the same as that first perfect amp.

These artists could now go on tour and not worry about breakdowns or theft, and keep their prized-originals back at home.

I worked with Ken Fisher, the whole Trainwreck thing, and a lot of the early boutique guys — and still do with Alexander Dumble. They preferred to keep things confidential and not let too many people know who their sources were because there were so few transformer designers that catered to the guitar amp market.

There was also a slow-but-steady dumbing-down occurring in audio and all that had been the post World War II momentum. Many of the ex-military components we’d been using were high tolerance parts, with mil-spec formulations of iron and copper and so on, that had been used to win the war effort. During the ’50s and ’60s we enjoyed the benefits of those high quality components at surplus prices. But by the late ’70s, and definitely in the ’80s, steel manufacturers started to change recipes to make the iron and other materials much more affordable.

You can hear the differences between a late ’60s Marshall, a late ’80s Marshall, and a Marshall today. A good listen will really help you to understand what changes took place. Unfortunately they made so many of those changes more out of economic considerations than anything else. The amps were loud but they seemed to be losing sight of the fact that their tone was disappearing — the “recipes” had been changed.

In addition to many other factors, the iron that Mercury uses is custom-formulated specifically for us. We buy enough of it to be able to dictate the exact recipe from the foundries. And all of our iron is literally from American ore processed right here in the USA. 100% American madeto the original specs. Are there drawbacks? Well, some of the iron rusts more easily, but that’s actually a good thing because rust is a natural insulator. But the opposite is also true. When you see a modern transformer with a silvery or a shiny core just know that they aren’t worth a damn when it comes to tone.

Can you tell us more about guitar amp transformer history?

Here’s an amusing anecdote that may help explain our case for guitar amp transformers: There’s a great deal of documentation, from back in the mid-’50s, where engineers, and other technical people, were writing really scathing reports on how awful the transformers were in the audio industry. Those darn transformers! When tubes were plugged into them there was a tendency to distort! And they couldn’t have any of that! Likewise with harmonic distortion — especially even-order harmonic distortion.

Many amp builders, techs and players, today, don’t understand that tubes were originally designed to run dead clean, linear, and be efficient voltage amplifiers. That the tone we’ve all come to know and love is caused by the transformers literally “irritating” the tubes into distortion.

Which is, of course, the whole point of what we are looking for in guitar amps. Back in the ’50s, they were fighting to get rid of those nasty distortion tonal characteristics. Now we embrace them. But that was audio – guitar amps were still in they’re infancy and yet to be realized. It took a generation or two of innovative musicians to take those “undesirable” tonal characteristics and create music; to work with distortion and make it into something musical.

Ironically, it was that no-distortion engineering mindset that ushered in solid-state, and why it was so openly embraced in the ’60s. It was solid-state electronics that eliminated the output transformer.

In the late ’60s, Vox went to Thomas Organ to have solid-state amps built. They were very proud of this state-of-the-art amplifier. Curiously, I met a few of the musicians from the late ’60s that were sponsored by, and using, those amps. The tone was so awful and unbearable that they used the enclosures but hid their old tube gear inside! As you may already be aware, the vacuum tube industry is alive and well, and we’re still waiting for the solid-state industry to catch up.

Part of the confusion is that musicians assume it’s the tubes that give them their tone. There’s a lot of synergy going on in an amp, and the tubes certainly contribute, but let me illustrate this another way. Did you know that there is what we call “output transformer-less” amplifiers in the HiFi world?

These amps basically parallel a bunch of power tubes together until they get down to 16, 8, or 4 ohms. There is no output transformer, so you literally connect the speaker directly to the tubes. If you ever get the opportunity to do an audio demo with this style of amp, you will find that while it works, it sounds nearly solid-state. The output transformer is what provokes a tube into giving the characteristics that we find desirable as far as tone. Audio engineers didn’t want the tubes to distort, as tubes are basically nothing more than very clean voltage amplifiers. But when you have a reactive element like a transformer, you irritate the tubes into harmonic distortion.

Therefore, the difference between a good and mediocre transformer is based on how it works and syncs with these tubes to produce the kind of tone or distortion we are looking for. It is not as easy as winding some wire around a steel core, if it was then we would not be having this conversation.

How does a Mercurytransformer made today compare to the transformers made in the golden age of amps (the ’50s and early ’60s)?

One of the biggest mistakes existing in today’s amplifier community, especially amongst hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, is to blindly copy every aspect of a vintage amplifier hoping to get a piece of that golden tone. At best, this method still produces very random results. One of the key reasons for this is the often-overlooked missing transformer formula. A builder will fuss around with the tiniest of other details but completely miss how the transformers fit into the equation. In short, get the transformers right, then the rest is much easier. Here’s another look at theses deceptively simple devices:

For vintage-style transformers, Mercury starts by duplicating the transformer design, build errors and all. We use the best grade components like they did in the ’50s and ’60s. We wind every layer and every turn as if it were a circuit in itself. In fact, the diagram on the left shows an output transformer circuit equivalent. Most people would think it is an audio circuit. These things are fairly complex, and all the numbers have to be right in order to get the tone we want as musicians.

We really do follow the recipe to a point. Although we don’t repeat any of the mistakes or inconsistencies that were prevalent, but didn’t affect tone. For example, if you were into Fender tweeds or late-’60s Marshalls. To do this we would literally put the word out to rent or borrow dozens of amplifiers to find the one or two that had thesound, and dismiss the rest. There were typically many inconsistencies as well as “happy accidents” in the best-sounding examples we’ve auditioned. A lot of this has to do with the sloppy tolerances of the original transformers.

For our transformers we extract the best parts and virtues of the original best-of-breed transformers and remove all of the obstacles to tone. Perhaps just as important is that we adopted a “cost is no object” approach, making our transformers equal or better than the originals — and then add consistency. We now have this so finely tuned that if you bought a transformer from us five years ago, and then the same one today, it would sound exactly the same. You don’t want good batches and bad batches, which is precisely what made the original production runs vary so much.

Another issue is the so-called controversy between paper tubes and nylon bobbins. In the vintage years they used both. Some people think that somehow, some magical quality comes from using a paper tube winding form over a nylon bobbin. Tonally it made no difference at all. Paper tubes were widely out of tolerance most of the time because of how they were made. They would wind multiple coils on long sticks then use a saw or blade to cut off the various coils. In order for these long tubes or coils to come off of their winding forms they had to be conical. So this invariably meant that the first coil would be larger in diameter and the last coils smaller. As you can see, it’s easy to see why each of these inconsistently-made bobbins had a greater difference than the material they were made from. And there are other issues that occur over time, like paper has a tendency to disintegrate, collect moisture, etc.

When we switched to using nylon bobbins the tolerances were within 3,000’s of an inch of each other, as opposed to the wildly varying amounts found in paper tubes. If you were ever to take apart a really old transformer (pre-’70s) sometimes you’ll find wood wedges that are jammed between the paper tube and the core because that piece of paper was too wide and too sloppy to fit into the core correctly! They would force a wedge in there so the darn things wouldn’t rattle!

Which method, paper or nylon, made for the best tone? It’s the luck of the draw. We’re fortunate in that we have all these stars as clients who have these amazing-sounding amps. They went through the hassle of culling and choosing and picking the special amps that inspired them. The amps they recorded with. When we analyzed their transformers we sometimes found happy accidents or other little anomalies that would set a transformer apart from already sloppy tolerances of the standard production run.

There are little subtleties and changes from one transformer to another that make a heck of a difference tonally. So when you look online at our list of ToneClones, just know that they are from the hand-picked, best-of-the-best amps of their model and era. We continue this “weeding” process every day — and there’s apparently no end in sight. And that’s why, with some amps, we have several versions — each with its own tonal qualities — and others only a single set to choose from.

We use this process to establish new benchmarks. And you never know, tomorrow a new variant may arrive that totally blows away what we already thought was as good as it could ever get.

It is interesting that you take that approach to upgrading — the never-ending search for better-sounding benchmarks.

There is no real money or glamour in what we do, it is really all born of a passion for music. I come from a musical family, my Mom taught me as a little kid that music was a form of “food.” And that hasn’t changed. Everyone who works at Mercury is just in love with playing and listening to music, and we all believe that there is always some room for improvement or a way to raise the bar somehow.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s there wasn’t really a need for a company that designed and sold transformers to the public, so I stayed away from the general public for as long as I could and really only worked with professionals.

But at some point I realized that it was the average player who was getting ripped-off. Things were getting dumbed-down, the tone is slowly and steadily being vacuumed out of the amps. They were becoming duller-sounding, less interesting and more noisy. So, we decided to formally launch this product line so the average guy could have access to our technology. It takes an extreme amount of labor and effort it takes to build them to this standard. You know, even if someone wanted to buy 1000 transformers we would have to no-bid them because we really don’t have any way of doing things quickly.

Automation isn’t a practical solution. Everything we do is wound by hand, one at a time; it is the only way it can be done. Say you have 100 turns and 10 layers, well that would mean 10 turns per layer — that is how a machine would think of it. But what if a rock legend’s best transformer was 9 turns on one layer, 11 turns on the next, 7 on the next, 3 after that and so on, but the sum total ended up being 100 turns. Sometimes one layer can have a different winding style than the other; sometimes it is non-symmetrical meaning, if it is a push-pull, that one side of the primary doesn’t have the same turns as the other side. If that was the recipe that created the magic, we’d have to duplicate it. It’s just not practical to build machines to do that, so we end up having to do it by hand. It’s the proud old-school craftsmanship way of doing things. Something I think we could see a lot more these days.

We have a reputation for nailing tone. Our Fender transformers don’t sound like Marshalls, they sound like Fenders — and vice versa. In fact, we’ve become the industry’s new standard. If you were going to design or create a tube-based amp, it’s clear that we’re the folks to talk to.

Can you explain how a Mercurytransformer can improve an amplifier’s tone and how they outperform the stock transformers found in most amplifiers?

In designing toneful transformers specifically for guitars (and that’s all we’re talking about here, not necessarily transformers for HiFi or any other purpose), the trick is in the magnetic field and how it behaves. The nature and the speed with which the iron reacts to the changing of an alternating current, in an alternating magnetic field, is what makes tone happen.

If you have “slow” iron, you’ll have a dull, non-sparkly sound with no bell tones — no matter what you do with the amp it will always be kind of noisy and fuzzy.

Where others have tried and failed they’ve blindly followed generic transformer formulas without understanding that guitar amps are different animals. They’ve somehow missed that point despite all the evidence to the contrary. The fact is that transformers for guitar amps do not necessarily follow textbook rules.

Indeed, it should probably be noted that we’ve developed a whole new technology around transformer design specifically, and only for the guitar industry. And that these designs are essentially irrelevant to any other use. But Mercury is also in a highly unusual position. Our decades of transformer “vivisection” have revealed all manner of unconventional tips ‘n tricks to us. And we’re now the keepers of this new, but proprietary, technology.

I seriously doubt that we could have done it without the, let’s call it “archeological benefits,” of our observations. Decades of studying the good, the bad and the ugly of guitar amp transformers have revealed a great deal.

Nothing that I have found in the reissue market, transformer-wise, even resembles anything that was made during the “the golden age of tone.” They are unrelated. The inductance, magnetic fields — all of that is just completely different and far removed from the original designs and recipes. So there is no way that a reissue amp is ever going to sound vintage unless they bother putting in the right ingredients.

With our Upgrade Kits, for example we’re trying to show people that we can move forward into new sonic territory from where vintage designs and tone left off. And our Axiom series transformers are the definitive showcase for this technology. Their tone is just amazing.

To push the point even further, we don’t include any “voodoo” parts in our Upgrade Kits. With the exception of the transformers, the Kits use only common, everyday, and off-the-shelf components. And most of our Kits also include a Mini-Choke. When the circuitry is correctly designed a Mini-Choke will make a huge improvement in an amp’s tone because, in terms of its power supply, it changes the way the amp works.

A good guitar amp is only as good as its power supply. If you have a dynamic and moving power supply that reacts to the demands of the audio end you’ll get get great note separation and good bass dynamics. You start to hear chimes and other phenomenon, and even the harmonics between the strings like a “5th note.” What the heck is the “5th note”? In barbershop quartets, if they get their harmonies right, they hear the “5th note” which is basically a harmonic of all four singers. We are doing that with our guitars thanks to distorted amplifiers.

Where did the idea for offering an Upgrade Kit for amplifiers like the Champ “600” and Valve Jr. come from and who designed the Upgrade?

I designed all of the magnetics (the transformersandMini-Choke) and the general concept behind the Upgrade in league with Allen Cyr from the Amp Exchange. He is one of the most competent, finest amp designers I know of; there are only about five in the world that are true masters of the art — those who really know the math, how to read tone, how to listen to the subtleties of clean and overdriven sounds and tones, design circuits, and understand tube behaviors. As a bonus to those who appreciate this kind of thing, we always try to throw in some interesting tweaks and tricks that are unorthodox.

The idea is to spark some interest and perhaps get more people involved in tube-based amp tone and evolution. We expect some folks to study our Upgrade Kits, learn from what we’ve done, and take off into new territory from there. No one is offended by that.

But our initial concept was to take an inexpensive stock amplifier, one that cost no more than $100 or so, and modify it into a professional- or recording-quality amp for very few bucks. The Valve Jr. was the amp that gave us the inspiration for this project. Epiphone broke the mold with their little Valve Jr. amp. Out of the box it’s a remarkable value. So, although it was a bit of a challenge I thought it was interesting because we were not stepping on anyone’s toes — we were just taking something that already existed and designing an Upgrade Kit around it. A simple proof of concept that made the case of transformers and guitar tone. It just seemed like a cool thing to do. The project was validated when pro players began demo’ing our prototype amps — they couldn’t believe how amazingly great such a tiny amp could sound, it freaked them out, and they all wanted one of their own!

Our intention was to give the kid who was practicing guitar in his bedroom, whose parents are on a limited budget, REAL guitar tone. In a typical scenario, the parents buy a cheap little amp and guitar combo because they want to see if their kid will stick with it. But the kid doesn’t understand that the sound of the amp is fatiguing. He doesn’t understand why the amp doesn’t sound good. And he doesn’t realize that the amp is fighting him, tiring him out. I know that happened to me and so many of my friends when we were kids. Struggling with hard-to-play guitars and poor-sounding amps is probably the single-most reason so many budding young (and old) guitarists give up the pursuit of their dream. But some are rescued. One day they visit a guy, or hear someone play, who has the amp with the tone and with just the sweep a few chords they experience the “My gawd!!! I want to sound like this!” phenomenon.

That is what we’re trying to offer with these Upgrade Kits — where thetone is accessible to just about anyone. So they could have an amp that wasn’t dull or desensitized. An amp that allows them to make that real connection to the tone. Tone is not just about noise and volume, it is rather complex, and undeniably emotional.

At the LA Amp Show we had our Upgraded Fender Champion “600” running into a full Marshall stack. Here we had this little amp powering eight 12″ speakers and it sounded great. People kept asking to see the back of the amp thinking that we had somehow rigged up something, but it was just the little Champ “600” with our Upgrade Kit.

When you have a nice open tone it is not about counting watts because the window is so big and wide and the soundstage is so deep that it gives you the impression of more power. We are not putting out more power with the Upgraded “600” — but it sure sounds like it! It’s about opening up that tone window and giving you more.

It’s kind of like taking a radio whose volume is set to half way and having it placed about 20 feet away from you then bring it right next to your ear — the volume has not changed but you hear a lot more of its content.

One of the things we do when modifying a circuit is to lower the noise floor, which a lot of people overlook. Many amps, like the Valve Jr., have a nasty hum in standby. We had one that would just start to howl if you left it alone for a while! So whatever high noise floor it had would eventually feedback on itself and cause that noise.

Our focus is on inspiring people. We are trying to show people that they really can get great tone today, that there is no age that has come and gone. There is still a lot of fun things left to do with your amplifier when you are on the search for great tone.

Hearing how much these Kits improve upon the tone of the amplifiers, and how well thought-out they are, will a Mercury amplifier that is designed and built by you ever make an appearance?

No. We are a supplier of key components to the boutique industry and to several of the large amplifier companies, and that is a comfortable spot to be in.

There is no shortage of amplifier companies out there and it really is a conflict of interest if we were to start selling amps and transformers. I would rather stay out of it.

The whole point of the Upgrade Kits was an area where I didn’t see any conflict with the people who were in the amplifier business. In the end the Kits really represent a transformer demonstration. If you were to just show someone a picture of a transformer or even had one in your hand and tried to explain how much better their tone would be, no one would care — it’s a yawner. But when you build one of these inexpensive Upgrade Kits and you actually hear the difference that the transformers make, it really drives home our point that transformers are important, that they are the building blocks of guitar amp tone.

And in the end we do this because we love it, we really love what we do. We get to create all of these products that help people find their tone, and who wouldn’t what to do that?

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/GuitarFixation/SHinterview/index.htm

 

 

Dumble-Inspired Guitar Amplifiers

Something very cool is happening the basement of Mr. Music, Boston’s favorite family-owned music store in Allston, Massachusetts.

After a lifetime of gigging, amp repair, studio building, and tone tweaking for stars like Joe Perry of Aerosmith, master technician Rob Lohr is building some of the finest boutique tone monsters to come along in a while.

I have always been impressed with anything I heard that was built in his shop, located in the basement of Mr. Music. Rob is a person of great detail. A technical question put forward to Rob usually yields a tutorial on the workings of electrons with respect to our favorite instrument, the guitar. Through the years, Rob and I  have had many conversations about what a practical amp should sound and look like. A veteran of the gig scene himself, Rob understands what the working artist needs. In my world, 50 percent of the reason why something sounds good is because it does not need a crew of roadies to transport it, set it up, and break it down. These days, as indie artists, even for high-profile shows in theatres, we usually show up with our own favorite rig. It had better be light and tone-worthy!

When I heard Rob’s Dumbalina, an amp inspired by the legendary Alexander Dumble’s Overdrive Special, I was instantly hooked. Here was an amp the size of a Fender Princeton Reverb that was a very high quality, point to point, hand-made tone machine that had a kick like amps twice its size. Rob Lohr had somehow managed to pack all of the essential features of the best Dumble-inspired amps into a space the size of a Fender Princeton Reverb. He did this with no sacrifice in power (45w) and the highest quality components!

There are many other great D-Style amps whose components are a cut below Dumbalina’s. Yet Rob charges a modest $1800.00 for the basic amp, with additional costs for any custom work. Okay, yes, I did have to pay extra for him to add my name to the front in vinyl lettering with Fender-style script. Don’t be confused though, this is not the “Thaddeus” amp!

With a switchable  4, 8, 16 ohm extension speaker output, the amp offered everything you might need to grow your rig. Small gig: use the onboard 12-inch G12-T75 and walk in with the amp in your right hand and guitar in the left. Large gig: take an extension cab and utilize all of the 45 available watts to rock the stage with two or more 12-inch speakers.

The footswitchable Overdrive channel sounded like the mating of a Dumble Overdrive Special and a Two Rock Custom Reverb Signature. Overdrive that sings without over-saturation and responds to tonal tweaks on your guitar or subtle finger ornaments. The quality of OD of this amp, I will testify, is simply one of the best I have played. The clean channel can be crystal, but if you push it, you can get a singe on the top notes and a roar on the power chords.

The +4 effects loop provides you with the opportunity to use the highest studio grade effects in the loop. Aside from being whisper quiet, plugging in a high-end effect processor seems to lend a three-dimensional quality to the amp that makes it sound much bigger than its physical proportions might suggest. Of course, you can use a dumble-ator or clone thereof to use line level floor pedals, but why not use some of the high-quality studio grade pedals that are coming out these days? TC Electronics makes a couple and so does Eventide. More and more pedal manufacturers are giving you the option of the studio level +4 signal, ready to plug into your D-style effect loop. (See previous post on Effects Loops).

The three switches that you normally find on D-clones for Bright, Mid, and Bass are neatly hidden in Dumbalina: Each  tone knob (Bass, Treble, Mid) has a hidden, whisper quiet, pop-less pull-boost feature which takes the whole thing up to a different kind of 11 heaven. The Volume knob has a presence boost. When the Tone Bypass is engaged (often called Pre-Amp Bypass or PAB in other Dumbl- inspired amps) the treble pull pot doubles as a bass boost. The result is the most useful “PAB” option that I have ever seen with a corresponding increase in low end that makes this feature a very practical and useful option for me. Usually I shy away from PAB because it might sound a little gnarly, or less friendly in lower volume settings, even though it works wonders for cutting through in the heat of the mix at high volumes.

My most recent gig was a power trio gig, a Hendrix tribute concert. I used Dumbalina’s overdrive channel for the solos that were not over-the-top, so to speak. When the band started really bashing, I could get away with using my Tone Bypass to cut through the mix. Really very flexible tones on this puppy! The 45w is just what you need to sing at lower volumes. Push the envelope a bit and you get great power amp overdrive without scaring the non-guitarists out of the room. In addition, there is a master volume/loop send level that allows you to get the tones you are using at lower volumes without changing the character of the settings. A well thought out amp for the working musician. At 34 pounds, the amp is welcome at any gig that I play!

In the studio, Dumbalina reigns supreme. I have just completed tracks for a tribute cd. R&B versions of Jimi Hendrix tunes. I used Dumbalina for many of the guitar solos and rhythm tracks and, well, tune in next year in the Spring to hear what I think are pretty amazing guitar tones.

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Rob builds every aspect of the amp. From the cabinet and grillcloth to the faceplate (painting and vinyl lettering)

the meticulously wired components inside this amazing amp.

Current wait time is only something like three months, since Rob is building each one by himself. I am sure as the word gets out, that list will grow and grow. It will still be worth the wait, I promise!

Here is the icing on the cake: roughly six months or so after you get the amp, after the amp has been broken in. Rob will sit there with you and do the final tweaking of the components WHILE YOU ARE IN THE SHOP! He will look at the levels and settings that you choose and tweak the internal components so that a great amp becomes an even greater amp, tuned to YOUR signature style of playing. This is an amazing benefit and it is the feature that pushes Rob to the front line of amp builders. (Isn’t that why Dumbles became so popular and expensive? Alexander Dumble would tweak them to the playing style of the owners). Rob recently spent 10 hours—yes folks, 10 hours in the basement at Mr. Music—tweaking an amp for client Alex Potts, so he could have it ready for his move to LA. In my Berklee Online course, Funk/Rock and R&B Soloing, I talk about signature tone. Folks like Robben Ford, who within a couple of notes, announce their presence on the recording whether or not you are even close enough to read the album credits. I believe that this amp can open a door to this concept, and with the post-build tweak, you just might be creating some new history.

Here is the latest version of Dumbalina that Rob is completing, with a couple of new tweaks and slightly different cosmetics on the faceplate, which include corresponding faceplate lights for the lighted footswitchable Overdrive and Tone Bypass features: Sweeeeeeet!!

Here is the scoop on Dumbalina, from the hand of the builder himself, Rob Lohr:

CABINET-The cabinet is Grade “A” pine joined with machine cut half blind dovetail joints and internally braced with poplar. I will cover the cabinet with any available tolex and grille cloth, and you have your choice of appropriate loudspeaker*. The standard faceplate is brushed aluminum with black letters, but I can do colors for a small upcharge and you have your choice of knobs**. The handle is a good quality faux leather that comes in brown, black, or blue, and I use 1″x2″  heavy duty rubber feet and stainless steel cabinet corners and hardware.

*speaker must be of appropriate power handling.

**knobs must fit 1/4″ shaft and comply with existing chassis hole spacing.

CHASSIS– The chassis is steel with welded joints and all hardware is stainless steel. The transformers are MERCURY MAGNETICS FBFVL-P 120v power transformer, FC-VIBROL choke and FBFVLR-OS Fatstack output transformer(4,8,16 ohm selectable). I can do selectable AC input for a small upcharge. The tube compliment is: 2x 12ax-7(pre), 1x 6sl7(PI) 2x 6L6GE(output) and a GZ34(rectifier). I use Belton tube sockets and retainers. I use a combination of Alpha, Clarostat, and Bourns potentiometers, Cliff and Switchcraft jacks, plugs and switches. All shielded leads are Mogami console cable. All unshielded signal leads are teflon coated solid copper core silver clad. All power supply wiring is PVC jacketed stranded copper.

ELECTRONICS– 100 percent hand-wired point to point construction. Hand made 1/8-inch fiberglass turret board, a combination of Metal oxide, metal film and carbon composition resistors, Oil and foil signal capacitors, and high quality electrolytics. There are some other solid state components, but they are related to the switching circuits and are not in the audio path.

LIMITED LIFETIME WARRANTY– I don’t warranty speakers, tubes, or output transformers for obvious reasons …but if anything else ever breaks I will fix it for free for ever and ever. Or until I die, which ever comes first.

Here is the bullet list of Dumbalina Specs:

Output power———–45 watts

Tube compliment——–2x 6L6GE, 2x 12AX-7, 1x 6SL7, 1x GZ34

Output Impedance——4,8,16 ohm selectable

Effects loop———— post pre/ pre power half normalled break out with send level.

Foot switches———-Over-drive and tone bypass(PAB). Both can also be controlled by front panel switches and are indicated with both front panel and foot switch mounted LED’s. The footswitch over-rides the front panel switches.

Controls—————-Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, Overdrive, Level (ratio), send level.

Pull Pots:

Pull Volume————-Bright

Pull Treble————–Hi mid boost

Pull Mid—————–Lo mid boost

Pull Bass—————-Bass boost

Speaker Celestion G12T75, 8 Ohm

Rob Lohr can be reached at Mr Music in Allston Massachusetts at 617-783-1609 or at  robmadoak@hotmail.com

Here are few demo videos that I just did:

OVERVIEW:

Mercury Magnetics Transformer Replacement

In 1963, the Silvertone 1484 or “Twin Twelve” was top-of-the-line among the amplifiers offered by Sears, Roebuck and Co. It debuted with a whopping catalog price of $149.95 (the equivalent of $1000 today)! Though once headed north of $800 on the latter day collectible market, the economy has seen these tone bandits recently dip back under the $500 mark. The 1484 is one of tone expert Andy Brauer’s all-time favorite amps, and rightfully so, since this baby can rock the socks off the meanest swamp alligators!

Every time someone asks you about sleeper amps, you bring up the Twin Twelve and how it’s one of your favorites. What’s the deal?

Twin Twelves are killer – really magical. Back in the day, you could pick one up at a garage sale for $25 or $50! People sold them as speaker cabinets; they didn’t even know it was an amplifier because the head sits underneath in the cab. It’s an innovative design feature for which we can thank Nathan Daniel; he developed and supplied them to Sears.

How long ago was it they were going for $25?

In the ’70s. But even today, these amps remain very undervalued. Most I see are fairly unmolested and still have the original tubes. They’re clean, or easy to clean because for some reason they weren’t as used or abused as other amps I see in my shop – most have remained closet-classic clean.

Their values jumped, though, when The White Stripes became popular and players learned Jack White’s killer sound was through Silvertone amps.

I agree. He was using a 1485 – the 100-watt version of the 1484, with six 10s. It’s much cleaner-sounding, with more headroom, punchier, with big, tight low-end. Jack liked the clarity – the chimey highs, the thick midrange, and the whoompf on the bottom.

What makes up the heart of the 1484?

It has two 6L6s for power, three 12ZX7s in the preamp, two 6FQ7s for the phase inverter and reverb driver, and a solid-state rectifier. And there’s a funky little reverb tank in them, but most I see are broken.The example on my bench at the moment is from early 1964. Some of the post are ’63, but most are ’64 and the speakers are ’64, which leads me to believe it’s an early-’64 model. The speakers are Jensen C12Qs, ceramic, with 20- to 25-watt capacity. Their small magnetics tend to break up faster and be a little honkier.

Funny, it doesn’t sound like a modern 50-watt amp. More like20 watts.

That’s partly because the voltages on the power tubes – the first-stage plate resistors – are 229k. First-stage plate resistors on the typical Fender amp are 100k.

So the Fenders’ allow more current to flow?

Yes. This results in a lot more headroom, a lot more clarity, and more overall punch. Most modern amps run their tubes, and their entire circuit, hotter than vintage gear. They try and squeeze more bang for the buck out of their amps, sometimes mistaking louder for better.

The nice thing about Silvertone amps, and the Twin Twelve especially, is that by raising some of the resistance, and the way Nat Daniel developed the circuit, results in a very nice note compression that isn’t found in many other amps. The hard edges are taken off the notes. Also, the Twin Twelve’s tone controls are interactive – the more you turn up the Treble and Bass, the more gain you get. So if you want it real clean, turn the Volume to 3 or 4, turn the tone controls down to 2 or 3 respectively and you can get some clarity out of it. But after 3 or 4 on the dial, the amp gets gainier and gainier.

I noticed that the tremolo and reverb affect gain, as well. If you turn everything up, the amp turns into a real monster.It’s not a multi-tasking amplifier. It likes to do reverb, or it likes to do tremolo. If you do both, it gets fussy… but it sounds great, by the way! The 6L6 screen voltage is about 150 volts below plate value, so these amps are not pushing the tubes much at all. When you’re that conservative on the wattage, you reduce headroom. It’s almost like talking a Variac to the incoming voltage. When you Variac it down a touch, you lose clean headroom and get more overdrive.

These amps are not extremely loud, but what they do have is a instantly likeable, friendly tone that really grabs you and kind of encourages you to play with it. It’s very bluesy. It’s aggressive, and it’s compressed, but without the drawbacks of compression. It’s not like a 6V6-driven amp that squashes the sound, it’s more of a high-fidelity sound. It compresses the sound like an LA2A limiter – almost limiting the compression versus squashing it like a 6V6 Deluxe or like a brown Deluxe. The tone stack enhances the tone and adds gain, versus cutting or boosting lows and highs.

So, do you like to just turn everything all the way up on the Twin Twelve?

Who doesn’t like to do that every once in a while on any amp? But no, not as a general rule. Amps that I like, I set the tone controls to five, to start. From there I play with the Volume. And then, believe it or not, I’ll go around the amp with a screwdriver and a socket wrench, and start tightening bolts on the speaker, or tune the cabinet to a certain frequency to get the amp to ring. The Twin Twelve has a ported cabinet with a back panel that’s open on the bottom. One can play with the screws inside the cabinet to torque them all to the same tension, so that sound reverberates off all parts of the cabinet at the same pressure.

Kind of like tuning the head on a drum – you want even tension all the way around…

Exactly. When I do that to a cabinet and the speakers, I hear a difference.

These amps came with 25 feet of cable to separate the speaker from the head. The old Sears catalogue claimed that this was to eliminate feedback. Is there any truth to that?

That was a marketing gimmick. They wanted the musician to be able to place the head near where they were standing, and place the cab away from them, with the idea that the further the cab was from the pickups, the less chance there was for feedback.

Who are some high-profile players who use these?

Obviously, Jack White brought them into the spotlight. But I’ve seen many players – Dean Parks, Ronnie Woods, Keith Richards, Lyle Workman, Josh Homme, Ry Cooder, and David Lindley – use them. It tends to be a staple in major recording studios, so music fans have heard them on countless albums, though they may not be aware.

Do a lot of these amps come in for repairs and such?

I see the 1×12 version, the 1482. And I’ve definitely worked on my share of the 1484s. When I’m servicing a Silvertone, nine out of 10 times it’s merely pitted and dirty and just needs its pots cleaned, and maybe tension the tube sockets or re-solder something for good contact. Generally, the tubes are pretty good, and many Silvertones have original tubes.

Were the Silvertone tubes in these made specifically for Sears?

There were OEM. I’m not sure if they were RCA, GE, or Sylvania, but they were definitely American manufacture. Vintage RCA and GE tubes are considered some of the best, and the tubes in these are terrific. Consider it’s possible to purchase a Silvertones for a few hundred dollars. If original tubes are in there, that’s at least $100 just in tubes!

Are they good for mods?

Not that I’d recommend. Just restore them back to stock.

Other good Silvertones?

The bass version, the model 1483, is pretty awesome. It’s the same circuit minus the reverb and tremolo, and driven through a 1×12 cabinet. It’s 50 watts, as well. Most Silvertones were given numbers as model names, but the Twin Twelve was branded because it was top of the line. The only other amp Silvertone branded was the 1434, which was dubbed the Medalist.

How do the tremolo and reverb sound?

The reverb isn’t the best, but it’s not bad – it’s fashionably anemic. The tremolo is great – very surf-sounding and muted, in a nice way, unlike a Gibson tremolo, which is bright and pingy.

Are there a lot of Twin Twelves out there?

Yes. They were manufactured only form 1963 to ’66, but were apparently churned out in large numbers. There’s almost always one for sale in online auctions, and I often see them in music stores. As I said, they tend to be in fairly good shape, though if exposed to moisture the particleboard tends to fall apart. Aside from that, there are no major issues. They don’t always ship well, though – the reverb tanks can get messed up. But there’s nothing that can go wrong on these that can’t be fixed; all the parts are readily available. If you blow the transformer, a Mercury Magnetics replacement is available.

Another interesting feature is that if you open up the back panel on the speaker cab, you’ll see there’s a hidden shelf. It’s a baffle.

What for?

It’s a bass trap, for lower frequencies. When the bass comes off the back of the speakers, the baffle catches it and sends it forward again. You get a little bit more of a thump than with most open-back cabs. It was really kind of a revolutionary design Nat Daniel came up with, and I don’t know of any other amps that employ it. (Ed. Note: Daniel had a patent on the speaker cabinet design with inclined baffles called the “acoustical case”.)

Sonically, what would you compare this amp to?

Probably a Fender, as it has a really nice twang. But it’s a bit darker. It offers a terrific Dick Dale surf tone as well.

Cranked up?

Well, listen to any White Stripes album!

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Amp Transformers, Output Transformers & Chokes

The Difference a High Quality Transformer Can Make on Your Tone

In late 2009 I had the opportunity to talk with Sergio Hamernik about the history of the Mercury Magnetics, how he became involved in making transformers for guitar amplifiers, and the difference a high quality transformer can make on your tone.

How did Mercury get its start?

The company’s roots date back to the early ’50s. Mercury was started by an old General Electrics transformer engineer who was working there pre-World War II. He then went on to do a bunch of design work for the war effort. And in the early ’50s, hung a shingle and became self-employed.

The name “Mercury” came out of his passion for Mercury cars, he always drove a Mercury since the late ’40s — he loved those cars — and eventually moved from the East Coast to the West Coast where he found that there was a lot of military and aerospace work. A booming economy in the early ’50s gave him a lot of business.

I met him in the 1970s when I was an engineering student and an audio enthusiast. Back then the electronics world was well into its solid-state “evolution,” and interest in tube gear was quickly disappearing. Not for me, however. I found myself in demand as a guy who knew about those “old things”; not only the math, formulas and specifications but I also had the “ears.” I could fix and keep the old gear running. So, I worked as a hired gun for a bunch of studio heads and pro musicians.

Typically when an amp’s output transformer blew. No one seemed to know any better so it was just swapped by whatever “factory” replacement or an off-the-shelf “equivalent” catalog transformer was handy. The invariable result was that the amp’s characteristic sound was gone. And no matter what resistors, caps or tubes were used, it could not be rescued or returned to its original sound. It was the transformers, it turned out, that were the key. The problem was coming up with a way to remedy the blown transformer replacement or repair that wouldn’t alter its tone.

To further complicate things, most transformer people I dealt with just didn’t want to bother with the music industry. For the most part the established electronics industry considered the needs and opinions of the audio and MI (Music Industry) communities as subjective, run by kooks, and occupied by people who didn’t know what they are doing. Audio and MI had always been considered the illegitimate stepchildren to the rest of the industry.

Out of pure necessity I had to got involved with transformer design and manufacture. As a customer of Mercury, they had built many custom transformers to my specifications — although we had many heated, on-going debates on the subject because the company owner hated audio! He never did understand what made guitar amp transformers tick, or how musicians thought and reacted to them.

That aside, he pestered me for almost a decade to take over the company because he felt I was the only one qualified. Eventually I did, and that was when Mercury got serious about the guitar amp connection. Sometimes you end up becoming an expert at something when no one else wants to do the job.

By the time I took the helm we were developing a really good and workable understanding of the relationship of transformer design to decent tone and how amps should behave. And around 1980 we began the long and arduous task of collecting and cataloging transformer specifications for every vintage amp, from all over the world. The deeper we dug, the more apparent it became that there were all kinds of factors that no one had previously suspected that affected guitar tone. And likewise, no one seemed to be paying attention to such things.

In turn, we invented proprietary technologies to aid this work. Even after three decades, we’re still innovating and discovering new things. From that fundamental research came our now famous ToneClone series, and later the Axiom line, which is probably the most significant advancement in toneful guitar amp transformer designs since the ’50s. Both product lines, we’re proud to say, have distinctly different niches in the annals of guitar amp tone.

We’ve not only cured the old transformer tone issues, but made it possible for musicians to upgrade their existing amps. And we’ve also made it possible for amp builders to reproduce amps of the same or better grade than even the most outstanding vintage amps of the past.

When did you become involved with making transformers for guitar amplifiers?

Back in the ’70s I worked for people on a one-to-one basis, usually under confidential arrangements, with certain rock stars that just didn’t want to be bothered by their names being flaunted around. What they want was their amps running right for recording, projects, touring, etc.

The problem was that when technicians would fix the amps they’d often loose their tone. It turned out that the culprit was the replaced output transformers. A changed output transformer would completely alter the character of the amplifier. So as I was the guy doing most of the work to resolve this issue, this expertise was brought to Mercury where we began a special division to cater to the guitar heroes.

Word got around rather quickly that Mercury was able to repair, rewind, and restore the original transformers and it just grew from there. The whole “Tone Clone” thing came from artists who had these amazing irreplaceable amps, amps that often made recording history. They didn’t want to take these amps on tour. So we came up with the innovative idea of cloning their original transformers that they’d fallen in love with. With the clones we could now easily make, for the first time ever, several identical amps for them. Or they would assign their techs to drop-in the cloned transformers so they would have, for example, six amps that would all sound the same as that first perfect amp.

These artists could now go on tour and not worry about breakdowns or theft, and keep their prized-originals back at home.

I worked with Ken Fisher, the whole Trainwreck thing, and a lot of the early boutique guys — and still do with Alexander Dumble. They preferred to keep things confidential and not let too many people know who their sources were because there were so few transformer designers that catered to the guitar amp market.

There was also a slow-but-steady dumbing-down occurring in audio and all that had been the post World War II momentum. Many of the ex-military components we’d been using were high tolerance parts, with mil-spec formulations of iron and copper and so on, that had been used to win the war effort. During the ’50s and ’60s we enjoyed the benefits of those high quality components at surplus prices. But by the late ’70s, and definitely in the ’80s, steel manufacturers started to change recipes to make the iron and other materials much more affordable.

You can hear the differences between a late ’60s Marshall, a late ’80s Marshall, and a Marshall today. A good listen will really help you to understand what changes took place. Unfortunately they made so many of those changes more out of economic considerations than anything else. The amps were loud but they seemed to be losing sight of the fact that their tone was disappearing — the “recipes” had been changed.

In addition to many other factors, the iron that Mercury uses is custom-formulated specifically for us. We buy enough of it to be able to dictate the exact recipe from the foundries. And all of our iron is literally from American ore processed right here in the USA. 100% American made to the original specs. Are there drawbacks? Well, some of the iron rusts more easily, but that’s actually a good thing because rust is a natural insulator. But the opposite is also true. When you see a modern transformer with a silvery or a shiny core just know that they aren’t worth a damn when it comes to tone.

Can you tell us more about guitar amp transformer history?

Here’s an amusing anecdote that may help explain our case for guitar amp transformers: There’s a great deal of documentation, from back in the mid-’50s, where engineers, and other technical people, were writing really scathing reports on how awful the transformers were in the audio industry. Those darn transformers! When tubes were plugged into them there was a tendency to distort! And they couldn’t have any of that! Likewise with harmonic distortion — especially even-order harmonic distortion.

Many amp builders, techs and players, today, don’t understand that tubes were originally designed to run dead clean, linear, and be efficient voltage amplifiers. That the tone we’ve all come to know and love is caused by the transformers literally “irritating” the tubes into distortion.

Which is, of course, the whole point of what we are looking for in guitar amps. Back in the ’50s, they were fighting to get rid of those nasty distortion tonal characteristics. Now we embrace them. But that was audio – guitar amps were still in they’re infancy and yet to be realized. It took a generation or two of innovative musicians to take those “undesirable” tonal characteristics and create music; to work with distortion and make it into something musical.

Ironically, it was that no-distortion engineering mindset that ushered in solid-state, and why it was so openly embraced in the ’60s. It was solid-state electronics that eliminated the output transformer.

In the late ’60s, Vox went to Thomas Organ to have solid-state amps built. They were very proud of this state-of-the-art amplifier. Curiously, I met a few of the musicians from the late ’60s that were sponsored by, and using, those amps. The tone was so awful and unbearable that they used the enclosures but hid their old tube gear inside! As you may already be aware, the vacuum tube industry is alive and well, and we’re still waiting for the solid-state industry to catch up.

Part of the confusion is that musicians assume it’s the tubes that give them their tone. There’s a lot of synergy going on in an amp, and the tubes certainly contribute, but let me illustrate this another way. Did you know that there is what we call “output transformer-less” amplifiers in the HiFi world?

These amps basically parallel a bunch of power tubes together until they get down to 16, 8, or 4 ohms. There is no output transformer, so you literally connect the speaker directly to the tubes. If you ever get the opportunity to do an audio demo with this style of amp, you will find that while it works, it sounds nearly solid-state. The output transformer is what provokes a tube into giving the characteristics that we find desirable as far as tone. Audio engineers didn’t want the tubes to distort, as tubes are basically nothing more than very clean voltage amplifiers. But when you have a reactive element like a transformer, you irritate the tubes into harmonic distortion.

Therefore, the difference between a good and mediocre transformer is based on how it works and syncs with these tubes to produce the kind of tone or distortion we are looking for. It is not as easy as winding some wire around a steel core, if it was then we would not be having this conversation.

How does a Mercury transformer made today compare to the transformers made in the golden age of amps (the ’50s and early ’60s)?

One of the biggest mistakes existing in today’s amplifier community, especially amongst hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, is to blindly copy every aspect of a vintage amplifier hoping to get a piece of that golden tone. At best, this method still produces very random results. One of the key reasons for this is the often-overlooked missing transformer formula. A builder will fuss around with the tiniest of other details but completely miss how the transformers fit into the equation. In short, get the transformers right, then the rest is much easier. Here’s another look at theses deceptively simple devices:

For vintage-style transformers, Mercury starts by duplicating the transformer design, build errors and all. We use the best grade components like they did in the ’50s and ’60s. We wind every layer and every turn as if it were a circuit in itself. In fact, the diagram on the left shows an output transformer circuit equivalent. Most people would think it is an audio circuit. These things are fairly complex, and all the numbers have to be right in order to get the tone we want as musicians.

We really do follow the recipe to a point. Although we don’t repeat any of the mistakes or inconsistencies that were prevalent, but didn’t affect tone. For example, if you were into Fender tweeds or late-’60s Marshalls. To do this we would literally put the word out to rent or borrow dozens of amplifiers to find the one or two that had the sound, and dismiss the rest. There were typically many inconsistencies as well as “happy accidents” in the best-sounding examples we’ve auditioned. A lot of this has to do with the sloppy tolerances of the original transformers.

For our transformers we extract the best parts and virtues of the original best-of-breed transformers and remove all of the obstacles to tone. Perhaps just as important is that we adopted a “cost is no object” approach, making our transformers equal or better than the originals — and then add consistency. We now have this so finely tuned that if you bought a transformer from us five years ago, and then the same one today, it would sound exactly the same. You don’t want good batches and bad batches, which is precisely what made the original production runs vary so much.

Another issue is the so-called controversy between paper tubes and nylon bobbins. In the vintage years they used both. Some people think that somehow, some magical quality comes from using a paper tube winding form over a nylon bobbin. Tonally it made no difference at all. Paper tubes were widely out of tolerance most of the time because of how they were made. They would wind multiple coils on long sticks then use a saw or blade to cut off the various coils. In order for these long tubes or coils to come off of their winding forms they had to be conical. So this invariably meant that the first coil would be larger in diameter and the last coils smaller. As you can see, it’s easy to see why each of these inconsistently-made bobbins had a greater difference than the material they were made from. And there are other issues that occur over time, like paper has a tendency to disintegrate, collect moisture, etc.

When we switched to using nylon bobbins the tolerances were within 3,000’s of an inch of each other, as opposed to the wildly varying amounts found in paper tubes. If you were ever to take apart a really old transformer (pre-’70s) sometimes you’ll find wood wedges that are jammed between the paper tube and the core because that piece of paper was too wide and too sloppy to fit into the core correctly! They would force a wedge in there so the darn things wouldn’t rattle!

Which method, paper or nylon, made for the best tone? It’s the luck of the draw. We’re fortunate in that we have all these stars as clients who have these amazing-sounding amps. They went through the hassle of culling and choosing and picking the special amps that inspired them. The amps they recorded with. When we analyzed their transformers we sometimes found happy accidents or other little anomalies that would set a transformer apart from already sloppy tolerances of the standard production run.

There are little subtleties and changes from one transformer to another that make a heck of a difference tonally. So when you look online at our list of ToneClones, just know that they are from the hand-picked, best-of-the-best amps of their model and era. We continue this “weeding” process every day — and there’s apparently no end in sight. And that’s why, with some amps, we have several versions — each with its own tonal qualities — and others only a single set to choose from.

We use this process to establish new benchmarks. And you never know, tomorrow a new variant may arrive that totally blows away what we already thought was as good as it could ever get.

It is interesting that you take that approach to upgrading — the never-ending search for better-sounding benchmarks.

There is no real money or glamour in what we do, it is really all born of a passion for music. I come from a musical family, my Mom taught me as a little kid that music was a form of “food.” And that hasn’t changed. Everyone who works at Mercury is just in love with playing and listening to music, and we all believe that there is always some room for improvement or a way to raise the bar somehow.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s there wasn’t really a need for a company that designed and sold transformers to the public, so I stayed away from the general public for as long as I could and really only worked with professionals.

But at some point I realized that it was the average player who was getting ripped-off. Things were getting dumbed-down, the tone is slowly and steadily being vacuumed out of the amps. They were becoming duller-sounding, less interesting and more noisy. So, we decided to formally launch this product line so the average guy could have access to our technology. It takes an extreme amount of labor and effort it takes to build them to this standard. You know, even if someone wanted to buy 1000 transformers we would have to no-bid them because we really don’t have any way of doing things quickly.

Automation isn’t a practical solution. Everything we do is wound by hand, one at a time; it is the only way it can be done. Say you have 100 turns and 10 layers, well that would mean 10 turns per layer — that is how a machine would think of it. But what if a rock legend’s best transformer was 9 turns on one layer, 11 turns on the next, 7 on the next, 3 after that and so on, but the sum total ended up being 100 turns. Sometimes one layer can have a different winding style than the other; sometimes it is non-symmetrical meaning, if it is a push-pull, that one side of the primary doesn’t have the same turns as the other side. If that was the recipe that created the magic, we’d have to duplicate it. It’s just not practical to build machines to do that, so we end up having to do it by hand. It’s the proud old-school craftsmanship way of doing things. Something I think we could see a lot more these days.

We have a reputation for nailing tone. Our Fender transformers don’t sound like Marshalls, they sound like Fenders — and vice versa. In fact, we’ve become the industry’s new standard. If you were going to design or create a tube-based amp, it’s clear that we’re the folks to talk to.

Can you explain how a Mercury transformer can improve an amplifier’s tone and how they outperform the stock transformers found in most amplifiers?

In designing toneful transformers specifically for guitars (and that’s all we’re talking about here, not necessarily transformers for HiFi or any other purpose), the trick is in the magnetic field and how it behaves. The nature and the speed with which the iron reacts to the changing of an alternating current, in an alternating magnetic field, is what makes tone happen.

If you have “slow” iron, you’ll have a dull, non-sparkly sound with no bell tones — no matter what you do with the amp it will always be kind of noisy and fuzzy.

Where others have tried and failed they’ve blindly followed generic transformer formulas without understanding that guitar amps are different animals. They’ve somehow missed that point despite all the evidence to the contrary. The fact is that transformers for guitar amps do not necessarily follow textbook rules.

Indeed, it should probably be noted that we’ve developed a whole new technology around transformer design specifically, and only for the guitar industry. And that these designs are essentially irrelevant to any other use. But Mercury is also in a highly unusual position. Our decades of transformer “vivisection” have revealed all manner of unconventional tips ‘n tricks to us. And we’re now the keepers of this new, but proprietary, technology.

I seriously doubt that we could have done it without the, let’s call it “archeological benefits,” of our observations. Decades of studying the good, the bad and the ugly of guitar amp transformers have revealed a great deal.

Nothing that I have found in the reissue market, transformer-wise, even resembles anything that was made during the “the golden age of tone.” They are unrelated. The inductance, magnetic fields — all of that is just completely different and far removed from the original designs and recipes. So there is no way that a reissue amp is ever going to sound vintage unless they bother putting in the right ingredients.

With our Upgrade Kits, for example we’re trying to show people that we can move forward into new sonic territory from where vintage designs and tone left off. And our Axiom series transformers are the definitive showcase for this technology. Their tone is just amazing.

To push the point even further, we don’t include any “voodoo” parts in our Upgrade Kits. With the exception of the transformers, the Kits use only common, everyday, and off-the-shelf components. And most of our Kits also include a Mini-Choke. When the circuitry is correctly designed a Mini-Choke will make a huge improvement in an amp’s tone because, in terms of its power supply, it changes the way the amp works.

A good guitar amp is only as good as its power supply. If you have a dynamic and moving power supply that reacts to the demands of the audio end you’ll get get great note separation and good bass dynamics. You start to hear chimes and other phenomenon, and even the harmonics between the strings like a “5th note.” What the heck is the “5th note”? In barbershop quartets, if they get their harmonies right, they hear the “5th note” which is basically a harmonic of all four singers. We are doing that with our guitars thanks to distorted amplifiers.

Where did the idea for offering an Upgrade Kit for amplifiers like the Champ “600” and Valve Jr. come from and who designed the Upgrade?

I designed all of the magnetics (the transformers and Mini-Choke) and the general concept behind the Upgrade in league with Allen Cyr from the Amp Exchange. He is one of the most competent, finest amp designers I know of; there are only about five in the world that are true masters of the art — those who really know the math, how to read tone, how to listen to the subtleties of clean and overdriven sounds and tones, design circuits, and understand tube behaviors. As a bonus to those who appreciate this kind of thing, we always try to throw in some interesting tweaks and tricks that are unorthodox.

The idea is to spark some interest and perhaps get more people involved in tube-based amp tone and evolution. We expect some folks to study our Upgrade Kits, learn from what we’ve done, and take off into new territory from there. No one is offended by that.

But our initial concept was to take an inexpensive stock amplifier, one that cost no more than $100 or so, and modify it into a professional- or recording-quality amp for very few bucks. The Valve Jr. was the amp that gave us the inspiration for this project. Epiphone broke the mold with their little Valve Jr. amp. Out of the box it’s a remarkable value. So, although it was a bit of a challenge I thought it was interesting because we were not stepping on anyone’s toes — we were just taking something that already existed and designing an Upgrade Kit around it. A simple proof of concept that made the case of transformers and guitar tone. It just seemed like a cool thing to do. The project was validated when pro players began demo’ing our prototype amps — they couldn’t believe how amazingly great such a tiny amp could sound, it freaked them out, and they all wanted one of their own!

Our intention was to give the kid who was practicing guitar in his bedroom, whose parents are on a limited budget, REAL guitar tone. In a typical scenario, the parents buy a cheap little amp and guitar combo because they want to see if their kid will stick with it. But the kid doesn’t understand that the sound of the amp is fatiguing. He doesn’t understand why the amp doesn’t sound good. And he doesn’t realize that the amp is fighting him, tiring him out. I know that happened to me and so many of my friends when we were kids. Struggling with hard-to-play guitars and poor-sounding amps is probably the single-most reason so many budding young (and old) guitarists give up the pursuit of their dream. But some are rescued. One day they visit a guy, or hear someone play, who has the amp with the tone and with just the sweep a few chords they experience the “My gawd!!! I want to sound like this!” phenomenon.

That is what we’re trying to offer with these Upgrade Kits — where the tone is accessible to just about anyone. So they could have an amp that wasn’t dull or desensitized. An amp that allows them to make that real connection to the tone. Tone is not just about noise and volume, it is rather complex, and undeniably emotional.

At the LA Amp Show we had our Upgraded Fender Champion “600” running into a full Marshall stack. Here we had this little amp powering eight 12″ speakers and it sounded great. People kept asking to see the back of the amp thinking that we had somehow rigged up something, but it was just the little Champ “600” with our Upgrade Kit.

When you have a nice open tone it is not about counting watts because the window is so big and wide and the soundstage is so deep that it gives you the impression of more power. We are not putting out more power with the Upgraded “600” — but it sure sounds like it! It’s about opening up that tone window and giving you more.

It’s kind of like taking a radio whose volume is set to half way and having it placed about 20 feet away from you then bring it right next to your ear — the volume has not changed but you hear a lot more of its content.

One of the things we do when modifying a circuit is to lower the noise floor, which a lot of people overlook. Many amps, like the Valve Jr., have a nasty hum in standby. We had one that would just start to howl if you left it alone for a while! So whatever high noise floor it had would eventually feedback on itself and cause that noise.

Our focus is on inspiring people. We are trying to show people that they really can get great tone today, that there is no age that has come and gone. There is still a lot of fun things left to do with your amplifier when you are on the search for great tone.

Hearing how much these Kits improve upon the tone of the amplifiers, and how well thought-out they are, will a Mercury amplifier that is designed and built by you ever make an appearance?

No. We are a supplier of key components to the boutique industry and to several of the large amplifier companies, and that is a comfortable spot to be in.

There is no shortage of amplifier companies out there and it really is a conflict of interest if we were to start selling amps and transformers. I would rather stay out of it.

The whole point of the Upgrade Kits was an area where I didn’t see any conflict with the people who were in the amplifier business. In the end the Kits really represent a transformer demonstration. If you were to just show someone a picture of a transformer or even had one in your hand and tried to explain how much better their tone would be, no one would care — it’s a yawner. But when you build one of these inexpensive Upgrade Kits and you actually hear the difference that the transformers make, it really drives home our point that transformers are important, that they are the building blocks of guitar amp tone.

And in the end we do this because we love it, we really love what we do. We get to create all of these products that help people find their tone, and who wouldn’t what to do that?

A Fantastic Guitar Amp Transformer

It was originally built around the design of one of Jim Marshall’s favorites, the Fender Bassman; like the Bassman, the JTM45 was actually a fantastic guitar amp. Because of its consistent popularity, Marshall has offered a reissue version of the head — more than 20 years after production of the original JTM45 ceased. While the reissue is built with modern components and assembly techniques, it retains much of the tone, responsiveness and character of the original, hand-wired versions of the early days. No wonder builders today still carry on the tradition of the JTM45, and guitarists continue to seek out the pure simplicity and touch response of this tone machine. To celebrate the JTM45, I got together with my Sunday afternoon amp group, after contacting a handful of respected amp builders who sent us their versions of the amp. We fired them all up alongside an original and a reissue JTM45 to take a listen — and to enjoy one of the best amps ever designed.

About the Authors

About 5 years ago, while playing a 9/11 benefit show, I had the good fortune to meet two people who would not only profoundly impact my life with tube amps, but would become lifelong friends. John Rossi and Tony Burns were there that day; Tony, a killer player and a regular on the Tempe/Phoenix music scene, and Johnny, his friend and amp tech, making sure Tony’s amps were running well in 115 degree heat at the outdoor amphitheater. When I saw Tony’s wall of Marshalls next to my backline of Marshalls, it was an instant conversation starter.

We spent time between sets that day discussing the various finer points of our amps and gawking at each other’s rigs. The show went great but my ’67 Super P.A. felt a bit stiff, and wasn’t reacting in the most flattering way. This incident proved to be the catalyst, as Johnny was an underground semi-retired tech and ultra-fanatic Marshall enthusiast, and he had some ideas that he wanted to try out. He invited me over the following Sunday to check out the amp, and to experiment with various preamp and power amp tubes while BBQ-ing and having a beer. Tony was there, and it became clear that we all had a deep respect for these amps; rather than modify them, we wanted to bring them back to their former glory. After five years, and dozens of hacked-up Marshalls coming back from the dead, here we are. Over that time we’ve learned more about these amazing amps than any of us ever anticipated, and we’ve have had a blast in the process. I have no doubt in my mind, based on my readings of the various amp forums, that there are plenty of groups just like us all over the world doing the same thing.

The Lineup

The lineup consisted of our own 1965 original and 1990 reissue heads, two MetroAmp JTM45s (a kit version as well as the GPM 45), a Germino Classic 45, a Wallace Amplification BKW45 and Mojave Ampworks’ new Special Edition Plexi 45 head. After searching through our collection of cabinets, we settled on both an eighties Marshall JCM800 4×12 with black back 25s, and a Mojave 2×12 cab with 1963-era Celestion Alnico Blues. It may sound strange that there were no pinstripe or basket weave cabs used for the roundup, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. Among all the members of the amp group, we actually have a pinstripe, a basket weave and a variety of Marshall 4x12s, but for some reason we always come back to the early-eighties JCM 800 cab with black back 25s.

That particular cab has more clarity, tone and authority than any other, and it remains our favorite in the bunch — despite the cool factor of the older cabs. The 2×12 with Blues was a natural choice, as that flavor shares similarities with the mid-sixties Marshall cabs and is also a popular speaker configuration for Bluesbreaker combos. The guitars we used were our standard array of Les Pauls from the ’70s, ’80s and 2000s, as well as a newer 2008 Fender Strat and two early-seventies Strats. With everything in the room (it was quite a sight!) we were ready to begin.

Original 1965 JTM45

To get our ears accustomed to the JTM45 sound, we began by firing up our ’65 head with a Les Paul. Normally, this head has EL34s in it, but we borrowed the Genelex KT66s from the Mojave and biased the amp to accommodate them. It made sense to us to use KT66s, because they were what the amp was designed for. With everything looking good, we flipped it from standby and beheld the beauty of this vintage masterpiece. It’s no wonder players and collectors are paying big bucks for these amps; everything we played through it sounded incredible.

What was amazing was how much of a rock ‘n roll amp this really is. Considering how long it’s been since it was conceived, the amp’s sound remains surprisingly current. The distortion is organic, full-bodied and earthy, and it allowed the personality of the guitar and player to shine through. While it was very easy to play, this is an amp that still requires a level of discipline and control to fully harness its capabilities. It makes sense that players who want to be heard would play on this style of amp, because like it or not, whatever you play through the amp is… well, amplified. It just comes out better.

We played through it for a good long time, switching guitars and speaker cabinets to hear it in as many different configurations as possible. Whether it was a Strat, a Les Paul, a 2×12 or a 4×12, the sound was always remarkable — perhaps the very definition of great tone. Subjective? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely. Rolling back the volume on the guitars exposed a beautiful clean tone that was harmonically rich and defined, never muddy or dull. Even with the guitar’s volume knob all the way up, the dynamic response of the amp, and the way it musically fed back, was awe-inspiring.

Once we had established a base tone for comparison’s sake, it was time to play and listen to the other amps. Before I break down each individual amp and builder, I must observe that each and every one of the amps had ridiculously good tone, and they all sounded like JTM45s, but each had its own unique voice. Aside from the reissue Marshall, all of the amps are hand-wired. The reissue Marshall was of PCB-construction, and used the standard parts and components that Marshall was building their amps with during that era. I spoke with Mitch Colby from Korg USA (Marshall’s US distributor), who told me that the reissues have not undergone any significant changes since their reintroduction 20 years ago. While they are using the components that Marshall builds with today, they should yield very similar tones to the earlier reissue amps.

MetroAmp JTM 45 Kit and GPM 45 Custom Build

George Metropoulos is no stranger to the world of Marshall amps or to the online amp building community. Having run MetroAmp for some time now, George offers everything from fully built replicas of many classic Marshalls to ready-to-build kits and hard-to-find replacement parts for vintage Marshalls. A player, George honed his amp-tech skills by adopting a DIY approach, taking care of his own amp repairs on the road. This extended into repair work at home, and then really took off when amps began coming in for restoration rather than simple re-tubing. After his ’73 Super Lead was stolen from a gig, he realized it might be best to leave the valuable amps at home, and so he embarked on a never-ending quest to replicate the tone of the old Marshalls.

Like all the builders in the roundup, George is passionate about vintage Marshalls and obsessive over the details that make these amps so coveted. We received two amps from Metro: the JTM45 kit (which can be purchased already assembled for an additional $400) and the GPM45, George’s custom-built JTM45 using NOS vintage parts. When we fired up the MetroAmp 45s, it was clear that they both came from the same camp. Both amps were meticulously built and incredibly precise in their layouts. The main physical differences between the amps came down to the caps, resistors and tubes. Both amps shared the same iron and layout, so they also shared a lot of the inherent tone in their circuits. As George is a fan of the mid-sixties JTM45s, Metro’s transformers are based on the Drakes, rather than the earlier Radiospares iron [editor’s note: Kit also comes with optional Mercury Magnetics transformers]. Still, there was no question that the GPM45, which included NOS Phillips mustard caps, Allen Bradley carbon comp resistors and a gorgeous set of Genelex KT66s, was sweeter sounding.

While those differences accounted for a tonal upgrade, what made the differences even more compelling was the way they affected the touch factor of the amp. Much like our ‘65, the custom-built Metro had an ease about it that felt like a broken-in vintage head, making it a breeze to dig in, or to lay back on the strings and feel the amp act as an instrument. It was truly inspiring. Of all the amps in the roundup, this amp sounded most like our ’65 — frighteningly close! I should mention that the Metro kit version was actually plugged in first, and before comparing it to the GPM45, we all agreed we’d be thrilled to have one in our collection. We may be splitting hairs here to some degree, but knowing that anyone can buy a complete kit for under a grand, and have that kind of quality and tone — that says a lot.

Metro’s JTM 45 Kit:

Metro’s GTM 45 Custom Build:

Wallace Amplification BKW45

www.WallaceAmps.com

Brian Wallace has electronics in his DNA. His father, an electronics engineer, and his grandfather, an RCA tube repairman, were both instrumental in his early education and development in tubes and electronics. When he was young his father gave him a 75-in-1 electronic projects kit and further encouraged Brian by letting him watch as he built his own projects. Like all of the builders in the roundup, Brian is a player. He began modifying amps in 1974, when he removed the speakers and baffle in his Checkmate amp and replaced them with a baffle he created and some purchased speakers — altering the sound of the amp and thus beginning his lifelong journey. In 1995, he was approached by Guytron Amplification to help out while they were getting started. A positive experience, it propelled him to the next level and led to the creation of Wallace Amplification, which now offers several amp models as well as replacement transformers under the Marstran name.

Wallace’s first amp is the BKW45, but he is more than a clone maker. Recently he introduced the Abaddon, which is a 50-watt master volume head consisting of four gain stages in the preamp. There is much more to come, including a line of pedals and a reissue of the Fuzz Ace pedal he made back in the early ’90s. The BKW45 is a unique flavor of JTM45. A hair darker in tone and possessing slightly less gain than all of the other models, including both the vintage and reissue Marshall, it yielded enormous bloom and a bold, thick, sustaining quality. Even though there was a little less gain, it didn’t affect playability, and we never struggled with the amp. It was one of the rarest qualities I’ve experienced in an amp, and certainly an unexpected bonus.

The Wallace had a magical ability to push notes through loud and clear while still being able to dish out gritty and harmonically pleasing chords that didn’t fight the non-perfect intervals they were built on. This all came out of an amp that was using tubes you can buy today without breaking the bank.

Speaking of breaking, check out the sidebar on what the BKW45 was subjected to by UPS en route to our roundup. In spite of the gorilla treatment it received, the amp arrived without shattered glass and performed flawlessly throughout the entire set of three sessions of playing and listening. That’s a testament to a solidly built and roadworthy piece of equipment. And one look inside the amp will show what a dedicated and precise builder Wallace is. In tone and build quality, the amp is a work of art.

Ever wonder what could happen to your amp in shipping? In the case of Brian Wallace’s BKW45 amp, UPS had a field day, and decided it would be a lot of fun to throw it around. When the amp arrived, it was packed neatly in a new cardboard box with padding inside suspending the padded road case that housed the amp. That’s double-boxed and protected by a case built for heavy abuse. Sadly, it took one good slide down the end of a ramp and collided with either another box or the wall of the truck. Though the box didn’t show any signs of abuse on the outside, it was clear that something had shifted when I opened the case. Take a look at this picture of the damage and the way the entire amp was shifted to one side because of the impact. Believe it or not, the tubes didn’t shatter and the amp worked fine, but it was cosmetically damaged by a broken front Plexi panel. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it happen with this type of road-worthy packing. Let this serve as a reminder to always insure your amps, as the shipping company can’t tell if you’ve got a bag of peanuts in a box or an amp that was lovingly built by somebody like Brian.

Germino Amplification Classic 45

www.GerminoAmps.com

Greg Germino is another lifelong guitarist who was bitten by the tube-amp bug after catching the Allman Brothers Band back in 1972. He was so inspired by that show that he switched over from acoustic to electric guitar and began taking electronics classes in high school. In 1979, he requested schematics from both Ampeg and Unicord (Marshall’s US distributor at the time) and began his hands-on education with tube amps. He spent the ’80s at an electronics job, and by the early ’90s he was moonlighting doing tube amp repair for a few music stores. He continued to play live with both 50W and 100W Marshalls during that time and moved to Durham, NC to work at Bull City Sound — working on tube amps from the big-name amp companies.

This led to Greg’s being commissioned by Mojo Musical, where he built their Tone Machine amplifier. The following year, 2002, he began work on the prototype of his Lead 55 amp, which debuted in May of 2002. The Classic 45 model is based on the earlier Radiospares-style output transformer, rather than the Drake 1202-103used in the ’65-’66 era, and the circuit is exactly what you would find in an earlier original. The Radiospares-style OT is supplied by none other than Chris Merren, who is highly regarded in the world of Marshalls, and known to make some of the most accurate transformer replicas out there.

The Classic 45 was the only amp in the roundup that used 6L6 power tubes. Greg’s decision to use them was a combination of staying true to the earliest tubes Marshall used on the original JTM45 amps and his belief that the current crop of 6L6s sound and perform better than newer KT66s. NOS and vintage 6L6s are also less expensive and more plentiful than NOS KT66s. Our immediate response to the Classic 45 was that it was a lively and aggressive amp, with tons of power that made the pick explode off the strings. In ways it reminded us of our favorite ’67 Super Bass in its volume and attack, but it still retained the sound of a 45. It may very well have been the loudest amp of the bunch, and that volume translated to a feeling of excitement that made the amp extremely fun to play. It was present without being shrill and had a super-tight bottom end, no matter what guitar we played through it. While the Classic 45 had tons of natural gain on tap, it also cleaned up nicely when rolling back the volume on the guitar, revealing a bright and sparkly chime. This amp is a real beast, and it could hold its own against 100W amps without flinching.

Mojave Ampworks Special Edition Plexi 45

www.MojaveAmpworks.com

Anyone familiar with the JTM45 would surely be jealous of Victor Mason. Not only has he seen more than his fair share of vintage Marshall, Vox, Hiwatt and other rare treasures come through his shop, but Victor recently acquired 26 of the all-time greatest JTM45s ever assembled via the Kronemyer collection, and he’s got the pictures to prove it! This is just one of the factors contributing to the obsessive nature of Mojave (and the associated Plexi Palace). Having been around for over a decade on the internet, Vic has been repairing, restoring, buying and selling vintage Marshalls for quite some time now. Stemming from his early desire to find out how EVH created the classic brown sound, Victor embarked on his journey through countless hours of digging into vintage amps and learning where their strengths and weaknesses lay. Mojave now offers an entire line of amps to serve the classic Marshall tones and well beyond with innovative features and designs. The Mojave Plexi 45 also has two very unique features over a stock JTM45. First is a simple feature to allow volume control by way of throttling the power level. Second is a line level output, which is adjustable and incorporates a ground lift.

Standing apart cosmetically from the rest of the amps, the Special Edition Plexi 45 is built on the same footprint as the Coyote and Scorpion designs, with a white-and-black color scheme and chrome hardware. The head is built with an open grille cage that allows for maximum airflow to keep the set of completely NOS glass cool. The 45 supplied for the roundup consisted of a pair of 1970 NOS Genelex KT66s, 3 Mullard 12AX7s and a Mullard GZ34. Like the Germino, the Plexi 45 is based on the Radiospares transformers, which are custom wound by Mercury Magnetics.

The chassis is a thing of beauty; the .09″ thick aluminum, with a high tensile strength and welded edges and seams will ensure it will not flex, bend or develop fatigue, like the early, folded, softer chassis, and will prevent the heavy transformers from causing the chassis to sink in and sag. Mojave deviates from the original JTM45 by using modern, tight-tolerance parts. Custom manufactured caps and metal film resistors allow each amp to sound as close to the one built before it as the one after it. Consistency is something that Vic definitely strives for, and it shows in the build quality and attention to detail, and the desire to add convenient functionality to his amps.

We found in testing that not only did the amp have an extremely low noise floor, but that it was an authoritative and powerfully voiced amp. There was definitely something different in the tone of the Plexi 45; it was cleaner sounding, but still very bold. Having been to Vic’s shop, I was fortunate enough to play one of the 26 JTM45s he had acquired, and I’m positive that the experience with those amps had more than a little to do with the design of the custom Mercury Magnetics’ Radiospares transformers made for his Special Edition model. The amp is built like a tank.

Marshall Reissue JTM45

www.MarshallAmps.com

While the reissue looked very similar to the ‘65 on the outside, especially due to the fact that it’s already 20 years old, the differences on the inside were quite pronounced. Assembled with more modern methods, and using a PCB rather than hand-wired turrets, you could easily be fooled into thinking that it wouldn’t perform like the others. This particular amp was the only one in the bunch to use EL34s rather than KT66s or 6L6s, so the sound was definitely different. It was incredibly loud and focused sounding, and actually had many of the characteristics of a Super Lead. The sustain and power of the amp was incredible, and for an amp that can be found used for around $1000, this is a sleeper bargain. Marshall has taken some flak for their amps sounding stiff and cold from the factory, but with a little attention — slightly hotter bias and good tubes — this amp is a monster. And just because it says it’s a 45-watt amp, don’t harbor any illusions that it would be a good bedroom amp. This is a loud and powerful beast, and a tone machine as well.

The Blindfold Test

As a final, fun test, we did a blind study, to see how accurately I could identify each of the various amps in the roundup. Johnny and Tony set up the group of amps, and I sat in a chair with my back turned away from them. With the guitar plugged in, they began to fire up the various amps, and we got rolling. Out of all the amps, I was always able to distinguish the Wallace BKW45, due to it’s slightly darker sound. The Metros were also fairly easy to spot, but I ended up guessing the kit as the custom build and vice-versa. The ‘65 was also an easy amp to recognize, but as ear-fatigue set in, the lines began to blur substantially. Pretty soon, I was confusing the Germino for the reissue JTM, the Mojave Plexi for the Wallace, and the Metros for the real JTM. It just goes to show you that all of the amps performed remarkably well, and you can be fooled when you’re not seeing what you’re playing, so never discount a PCB reissue head as a second fiddle to the real thing. In the mix of a band, these differences become small, and any one of these amps would hold their own any day of the week.

Wrapup

To have the opportunity to play through so many variations on a classic theme was not only fun, it was educational. Each one of the builders excels in creating their own unique version of the great rock and roll amp that Ken Bran, Dudley Craven and Jim Marshall built back in 1962. While like all Marshalls, the JTM45 went through changes in tubes, components and designs over its lifetime, there is a trademark flavor and color that still can be found in all of them. Not everyone can afford a vintage 45, but with the help of these builders we have the opportunity to get into that sound and have build quality that will last for years.

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/PremierGuitar/PremierG-20.htm

Interview with Sergio Hamernik of Mercury Magnetics

It doesn’t take too much digging to find a laundry list of boutique amp builders using Mercury Magnetics transformers in their products. From Mojave Ampworks to Joe Morgan Amps to kits from MetroAmp, builders have found that Mercury knows their iron. While transformers rarely receive the same level of attention of NOS tubes, speakers, or even guitar cables, they are a major contributor to tone. Think about it—the power and output transformers are the start and end of the line with any amp.

Based in Chatsworth, California, Mercury Magnetics has been building transformers for close to 60 years. I recently had a chance to talk with Mercury’s Sergio Hamernik to dig deeper into their roots, find out what one can expect from upgrading their iron, and what sets Mercury apart. Prior to our conversation, I had the opportunity to witness the remarkable transformation of an Epiphone Valve Junior modified from stock to hot-rodded, using one of their transformer upgrade kits. Not only was it a noticeable upgrade, it was a revelation in just how important the role of quality iron in an amp is. But because it is the single most expensive part of any amp, it’s no wonder we see so many modern amp manufacturers skimp on the iron to keep costs down. Let’s see what the passionate, and often hilarious, Sergio has to say about his part of the business.

PG: I’ve been seeing Mercury transformers in amps for at least a decade. When did you get into the amp scene?

SH: This happens to be one of our most often asked questions. Even though Mercury Magnetics’ roots go all the way back to the early 1950s, there are guitar players who are only now discovering us. But if an industry insider like you has been aware of us for at least a decade, then I suppose it means I don’t need to lay off any of our sales and marketing staff.

I would attribute most of our lingering anonymity to the old days. Back then, most of our clients from the audio community preferred to keep us as a trade secret from their competitors and the press. The typical transformer-savvy amp builder also didn’t usually want to share the credit with us, or reveal what their “unique” technical advantage was regarding audio and tone. Consequently, we were asked to maintain a low profile and generic look for our transformers for quite some time. On occasion, a customer in the know will spot a small “MM” mark on a transformer from an older piece of gear, and ask if it’s a Mercury. Odds are that it is.

It was the guitar amp crowd that pushed us to go above ground. Now Mercury gives any electric guitar player or amp restorer a taste of what the pros were using, talking about in their studios, and among themselves. Many players have told us their amps increased in value when upgraded with Mercury transformers, and this became evident when insurance appraisers began to contact us for verification. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when we began to market our services and various brands to guitar players.

For me personally, I got into the amp scene around the mid- to late 1970s. I just found it to be a nice way to relax from the strain of oversleeping.

PG: Your website shows a large number of amp manufacturers you have replacement/upgraded transformers for. What are your best sellers and why?

SH: There are so many different camps loyal to their particular amp brand, so it would be difficult to single out the best sellers. The best sellers are transitory and change from week to week because guitar amp players are a fickle bunch. That’s why we’ve built the world’s largest catalog of guitar amp transformers where nobody is left out.

But trends tend to follow their own dynamics. And the current worldwide trend seems toward smaller wattage amps—regardless of brand. Conversely, the 100-watt heads are not selling like they used to. Players are gigging with no more than 15 watts and a few pedals. Regardless of playing style, they’re doing just fine abiding by sound level restrictions and kicking ass with the tone we feel Mercury upgraded amps deliver.

These players really get the fact that an amp lacking in tone can’t be fixed with higher power or covered up with a gain mod. An amp that coughs out an asthmatic tone at 50 or 100 watts easily fatigues both music listeners and guitarists. But the audience will stay until the bar closes if the band plays well and sounds great—even with as little as a few watts going through the available PA system.

PG: What can a guitarist expect to hear when upgrading their transformers in a newer amp?

SH: An amp’s transformers are the most important component in determining the quality of amplified guitar tone. And it’s no coincidence that they’re the most expensive parts in an amplifier. Many of the newer amps just don’t have the same “overkill” factor with their transformers as the amps in the ’50s and ’60s. Why? Ignorance and a bean-counter mentality. What’s good for accounting isn’t necessarily good for tone from an amp. Sadly, the people making these decisions are probably not players themselves and don’t seem to realize the damage they’re doing to the industry.

It’s not unusual to find a current production amp with a power transformer running hotter than hell, even without cranking the amp all the way. Or having an undersized, cheaply built output transformer whose sphincter begins to tighten the moment the guitarist reaches for the amp’s volume knob. An amp built around anemic transformers yields only to dull, thin, noisy, fuzzy mids and mushy bass. That’s what makes your notes sound more like farts through a pillow. This overkill factor is probably the only edge that some of the vintage amps have over the newer amps.

We have made it our mission to duplicate the performance of the best original transformer designs of all time. In terms of amplified guitar tone history, these transformers represent the best ever produced.—Sergio Hamernik

Have you ever noticed how most newer amps often weigh less, sometimes a lot less, than the older ones? That’s usually the weight difference between the old and new transformer designs. There is a direct relationship between weight and having transformers that seem to stay cooler and “loaf around” with power to spare, until a player demands more from their amp. It’s like they are waiting around having a card game, waiting for the player to do something. The best vintage tone was born that way. Newer amp tone can be easily improved—if the builder follows some of the same ideas.

Upgrading with quality transformers gives a second chance to a new amp owner to make things right with their tone, by reclaiming that overkill factor. Assuming there are no issues with the amp’s circuitry like bad parts or worn out tubes, a guitarist should hear and feel improvements with the very first pluck of the guitar. They should expect to hear the notes more detailed with overtones, and a quicker and more immediate response to their playing. Clean notes will have less sonic collisions with noise and reveal more bell tones, chimes, etc.

When more distortion is required, the player will sense better control of crunch and when break-up begins to happen. The coughing and hacking that happens when a stock amp is pushed, will vanish with a transformer upgrade. It will be replaced with longer sustains and notes that reach farther. The amp will also sound closer and bigger than the power it puts out—and the bass notes will have a tighter, rounder bottom end. And when pushed, she will still be able to hold that quarter from dropping—no matter how tall her high heels—something most musicians are looking for.

It’s not uncommon for guitarists to report that it took a few weeks of playing to fully realize what they’ve gained in terms of harmonic richness. These players have typically played longer and felt more inspirational emotions sucking them in, as they have invested more time into relearning and becoming reacquainted with their amps.

PG: Many players become very attached to the transformers in their vintage amps. When you create ToneClones or Radiospares and Partridge versions of these classic transformers, how close are they get to the originals?

SH: Radiospares and Partridge are our brand specific clones, whereas ToneClones are “best-of-breed” duplicates culled from the hundreds of other brands that have made transformers over the years.

We have made it our mission to duplicate the performance of the best original transformer designs of all time. In terms of amplified guitar tone history, these transformers represent the best ever produced. In the grand scheme of tone pursuit, these designs are incredibility important and deserve to be considered treasures.

This is an ongoing project for us, spanning almost three decades now. And it couldn’t have been accomplished without the enormous amount of assistance we’ve received from top players and amp collectors around the world.

What about Axiom transformers? Where do they fit in?

The Axiom transformer line takes over where the limitations of vintage transformer design ended. No bean counters here—simply the sincere pursuit of answering the age-old question: What if there were no constraints on budget, time, or material quality to achieve the best possible performance? That’s our objective with the Axiom line.

Axiom transformer designs represent many new approaches—new tone with the best materials and designs money can buy, so they’re not intended for the timid or the low-budget crowd. Check out our FatStacks and SuperStacks for the Marshall DSL and TSL families for interesting comparisons.

PG: Mercury’s vintage transformer restoration service has been gaining a reputation for quality work. Why would someone want to restore a transformer instead of replacing it? And vise-versa?

SH: Some vintage amp owners prefer to pay the extra cost of our restoration services, because it’s very important to them that their amps retain authenticity. Collectables or rarities are valuable. They’re of the “why take chances” mind. The high road. But on the flip side, we have pro musicians who insist on touring with their vintage gear. To play it safe, and not sacrifice the tone of their original transformers, they have their techs replace the stock transformers with Mercury’s. By doing this, they preserve the original transformers from road abuse while taking advantage of our reputation for tone, durability, and warranty. Restoration of vintage transformers is a tricky and highly specialized art. Sadly, too many of the great originals have been lost forever due to technically inept and musically disinterested people. We see attempts at “rewinds” here all the time.

Occasionally, it appears some people confuse “demolition” with “restoration,” and the preservation of the original tone is lost forever. There’s no shortcut to doing a proper restoration.

PG: I understand you’re doing all of your labor and get all of your materials in the USA. How does that impact your business aside from just the straight costs?

SH: Well, we figured that someone has to do it—and we really do make everything here with 100 percent American materials. There are plenty of products out there stamped with “Made in the USA,” but are actually assembled with non-USA, low-price materials. But yeah, we’re the real deal and proud of it.

Building transformers that make an amp sound good requires highly specialized technologies, highly skilled labor, and the right kind of materials. We love music and owe it to the players out there to do all the work “in-house,” so we can keep tight control over every aspect of our transformer designs. It’s really old-school military spec style, so our transformers don’t vary at all from batch to batch. If you need a replacement transformer 10 years from now, it’ll sound exactly the same as the one it’s replacing.

We’re hard-liners when it comes to not playing shell games with a musician’s hard earned dough and quest for better tone. Perhaps I’m a fool for doing it this way, but I was brought up in a musically minded family. From a very early age, I was taught that music is as important and necessary as food. If there is a day our services are no longer needed or appreciated, I’ll pursue my dream of owning a car wash in the valley, and get into the business of making money.

PG: Any new or exciting projects in the works at Mercury?

SH: Yes, but we’re planning on releasing the news sometime around summer. For quite some time, we’ve been fielding requests for accessories to accompany our transformer line. We’re being asked to apply our know-how to other aspects of guitar amps.

PG: Do you have any advice for guitar players and techs in their quest for tone?

SH: Don’t let anybody fool you—every player has the ability to discern the difference between good or bad tone. Unfortunately, there are a few too many self-styled “experts” who irresponsibly dispense advice without having a clue. As a result, we’ve all seen amps completely lose their tone by being modded to death.

There’s no excuse for the old “damn, I’ve done it this way for many years so it must be right” mentality. More than ever, it’s so easy to seek opinion, advice, and help online and elsewhere. I highly recommend the old textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s as a good place to start on vacuum tube audio circuits.

Do your homework and follow what the smart players are doing—improving your tone isn’t that elusive. If what you have sounds good to you, leave it alone. But if you know your amp’s tone could use some improvement, then start where it begins… the transformers. PG

 

 

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The Little Magnatone that Could

When Time runs into a dangerous power situation in an old Magnatone lap steel amp, he’s tasked with completely reimagining the project.

It seems as if almost all of our clients have at one time or another, purchased something online. Often a funky old guitar or amp that was acquired at, what seemed to be at the time, a decent price. We hear the same words uttered over and over again. I just got an amazing deal on this at e… (rhymes with hey) but I think it needs a bit of work. Often, the amount of work required to transform the instrument into something playable makes the “great deal” now seem like a thorough hosing. Sometimes items come with a trial period in which the buyer can return it if doesn’t meet his/her expectations. Other times the piece may be salvaged or kept, though unusable, simply because it has a certain amount of character that makes it worth having if only for a wall hanger.

This month we’ll be taking a look at one such project. It involves a Magnatone lap steel and amp set.

A client purchased a beautiful (and very early) Magnatone lap steel and amp set. They were brought into our shop to have a basic “check and clean” done to the amp and to have the lap steel repaired/restored. The lap steel needed to have the tuning machines replaced as the buttons had deteriorated to the point that they were now little ratty stubs that needed a pair of pliers to aid in the tuning process. A similarly styled set of Tone Pros 3-on-a-strip tuners were installed, scratchy pots were salvaged with a bit of electronics cleaner and some minor setup work was done to level the string heights at the nut.

The amplifier was powered on to see if it was working and to listen for any nasty noises that would need to be addressed in our “check and clean” procedure. Surprisingly, the amp sounded pretty darn good. It had a very unique character to the break up as the amp was pushed into distortion. The amp was then disassembled to check for leaky caps and resistors that may have drifted out of spec that would cause the voltages to swing to unsafe/improper levels. First I tried to locate the power transformer to get my bearings. Hmmmm, strange I thought, no power transformer! Then it dawned on me. This amp is running on pure AC!

While this isn’t that unusual in very early amps and it certainly contributes to its unique tone, it’s also very dangerous. One leg of the AC is tied to the chassis as a buss in the same way a ground would be in a more modern design. This would almost be okay if the instrument being played through it had the strings isolated from the electronics (though it’s still present on the metal chassis). However, in most modern guitars, the strings are attached to the ground. In this instance it means that the player now has one leg of the AC on his/her strings! This puts me in a rather precarious position. As the tech and owner of the shop, there are some obvious liability issues associated with this project.

The client was consulted and told of the dangers that lurked within this design. As he loved the look and character of the box, he gave me the go ahead to build a simple and more “modern” (late-’50s) design into the existing chassis. A promising schematic was found (a Valco of some sort) that used a 6SL7 octal preamp tube a 6V6 and a 5Y3 rectifier. This design was chosen simply because of its funky character, which was thought to be in keeping with the original design.

The build was a bit tricky as the amps chassis was quite small and was never made to carry the bulk of a power tranny. Every component was stripped off and the task of figuring out a layout that was physically possible, considering the tight space, begun. It was necessary to make a metal plate to cover a hole left by one of the tube sockets that had to be relocated to make room for the new Mercury power tranny. The output transformer had to be located inside the chassis due to lack of room caused by the speaker’s magnet protruding into the optimal space. New holes had to be drilled/punched for the input jack, transformers, IEC style AC socket and tube socket.

It’s freeing being charged with the task of simply making something funky that works. Certain liberties can be taken in component selection that wouldn’t necessarily be considered when shooting for a dead silent recording amp or a rock solid touring amp for example. I was able to use some really neat Soviet-era paper in oil caps that I found while traveling in Bulgaria last year as well as some interesting carbon comp resistors acquired at the same time. Fortunately, the original speaker was still in good shape and was reused.

Mission accomplished. The end result was a marriage between over-the-top vintage form and functionality. The amp was transformed into a safe and usable conversation piece and I’m told, gets many hours of use a week. While this project may not have been the most economical way to go about getting a small practice amp, it did end up salvaging a very cool set and making it safe and enjoyable for the proud and happy owner.

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/PremierGuitar/PremierG-28.htm

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