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Replacement Transformer

New Amps on the Block: The Sound of History and Innovation

Byers Amplifiers is a new company with the unique outlook and values of its founder. Trevor Byers worked at the Fender Custom Shop and has seen it all, from carefully reproducing old vintage gear to building new guitars to exacting specification. Trevor founded Byers Amplifiers because he saw a need for amps that no one else is building. One of his amps is an original product, the Byers Model 10, while the other is a faithful re-creation of one of Leo’s earliest K&F amps — an amp so old and rare that the only way to see one is to make a pilgrimage to the Fullerton Museum in California. Byers has unique values regarding the way things should sound, feel and look. We interviewed Trevor at his shop in Corona, California to talk about Leo, the history of these old amps, and the new amps that bear his name.

Where did you get the idea to start an amp company?

It was the K&F that got me started. Working at Fender and knowing the entire lineage, including the K&F era, which is kind of separate, it was really intriguing to see what kind of things he came up with. Because it was so rare, the K&F was really appealing to me.

How did you discover this cool original gear while at Fender?

People would come in with things that were not in regular production and would want to have things done and have items reproduced, and people would come in for repairs too. It was a nice influx of cool equipment coming in, and we would turn around and reproduce it to the best of our ability. One of the first pieces we did while I was there was the “snake-head” Tele set, the first regular Fender-style guitar that Leo built.

Doesn’t that predate the Nocaster?

Yes, in fact I think that guitar was a ’47 or ’48. It had a four-piece pine Telecaster-style body, two inches thick with a small, black Bakelite pickguard, volume and tone control, and one bridge pickup. The snake-head headstock was the style he was using on his K&F lap steels, so it had three-on-aside tuners, with a solid, fat, maple neck with no truss rod — he hadn’t thought about a truss rod yet! They only made a few of them, and they were made as a set with the woody Pro amp.

So, did you put truss rods in the reproductions?

No, but they are big, round, C-shaped necks, and they’re quarter sawn, so they don’t move around too much.

There are actually guys who believe that necks without truss rods sound better.

This guitar is really neat-sounding because we used antique pine. One of my first jobs there was to rough-cut these old pine boards, glue them up, and plug and fill nail holes. Looking at these old-style guitars and amplifiers in comparison to what was being manufactured at the time, I saw a night and day difference. These have a style to them that nobody does any more.

This got me started thinking about K&F. If the circuit for the woody Pro was primitive, then the K&F amp circuit was even more so. The Pro had 6L6s and a push-pull output, and a 15″ speaker — a field coil speaker, which we had a lot of problems with. The K&F amps didn’t use field-coils and were permanent-magnet.

Give us a little background on K&F.

It was Doc Kauffman and Leo Fender. The information on K&F varies, so I can’t give a perfect history. They started around late 1944, and ran probably to the end of ’45 or early ’46, then they stopped making these in mid-1946. Leo had done some really interesting things — he had designed an automatic jukebox and little P.A. systems, and he was working with his radio company. Then, he had an idea for these guitars. He started making them and it became popular enough that he needed a larger investment; Doc didn’t think he could invest in something that looked like a hillbilly guitar, and at that time, that was the type of music played on them.

I remember even up until the 1960s, many jazz guitarists looked down their noses at these and told us, “When you grow up, you’ll get a real guitar,” meaning something more traditional, like a Gibson archtop.

Yeah, so Doc left and the K&F company was dissolved. Finding pieces from that time period is hard because there’s no record of how many were made and there were no advertisements for them. I do have some pictures from George Fullerton that Doc’s son gave him of the first piece that they put together, which is nothing like the ones that went into production. It’s very beautiful.

Did you get to play that original Tele that was copied for this run of instruments?

Oh, no. The story behind that guitar was that Leo was a huge stickler for not keeping prototypes around. There were two of those — the first one was cut up and the second was thrown in the trash. George pulled it out of the trash. He was young and had just started working with the company; he was a guitar player and this was his creation too! He and Leo went to little bars and shows and listened to players. Without telling them what they were up to, they asked the players what they would want in a guitar, which became the basis for their business and designs: being able to change small parts out easily and being able to easily change the neck on a guitar. There was a bit of a stigma attached to their early instruments because they weren’t craftsman pieces — they were functional instruments.

Yes, they were outside the instrument crafting tradition. This was a modernist piece of design, rather than following classical instrument-building traditions.

Exactly. So when I started researching all the K&Fs, I talked to George who was there just after Doc left, and I got as much information as I could from the closest source. Strangely, though they made guitars and amps in sets, many of the guitars still exist while most of the amps do not. I figure that the guitar is a functional piece and all you have to do is change the strings, but if you have an amp go out, it might have been easier to just go buy another amp.

Was it through the process of reproducing old gear, and speaking with George Fullerton, that you became interested in the 1940s K&F amp?

Yes, that amplifier in particular because it was so simple and because the circuit was kind of the predecessor to the Princeton, but instead of having an 8″ speaker like a Princeton, it had a big, large-magnet, alnico 20-30 watt 10″ speaker. This was late ’44 or early ’45, and these amplifiers were made from military surplus parts, so they were all different and had this unique industrial look about them. Design-wise, it wasn’t made to be the prettiest thing out there — it was made to be functional.

So it was just “The K&F Amplifier” and they only made the one model?

No, see that’s the thing, they made one, and we know the record shows from Doc’s writing on the pictures I have, that the first one they made was beautiful! It had wooden sides, a grille cloth that was embroidered with K&F on the front, and a 15″ speaker. The photo says, This is the first K&F [lap] steel, and this is the first amplifier in the U.S. with a hanging chassis and hanging tubes.” Before that, everything was put on the bottom of the amplifier and the tubes all sat up.

And that amp is gone now?

Yeah, in John Sprung’s book, Fender Amps: The First Fifty Years, he wrote that this amp was made as a custom, one-off piece, and it is likely gone now, since the only pictures we have ever seen of it were the from the 1940s.

That would be a fun one to reproduce, wouldn’t it?

Oh, it would be amazing. There was an article in the October 1998 issue of Guitar Player with a 15″ K&F — the style of the K&F that I am reproducing. It was the same cabinet shape, just larger, and it is the only time I have seen a 15 other than that one custom one-off piece.

So what you had was three or four amps, all without names or model numbers which were essentially prototypes

Yes, they were “if this works we will make another just like it” sort of deals. There were two basic models that you see in published pictures. One is the 8″model that looked like a little lunch box. It had one volume knob and one or two inputs, no pilot light, no fuse, and the cord coming straight out — that was it.

The other is the 10″ model, which is the one I’m reproducing. It had two inputs, no fuse, no pilot light, one tone control, and either one or two volume controls, and two channels — which was something completely new. Each channel ran on one half of the input tube, which is what Fender did until the Blackface era in the ’60s.

It’s not a large amp at only 5-6 watts. The speaker was an unknown Jensen model that had a large, plug-style alnico magnet instead of the horseshoe magnet. I am sure every example varied because the parts all varied — the knobs, transformers, everything. The transformer on the one I am reproducing was a replacement transformer right out of an Allied catalogue made by some unknown manufacturer.

How did you originally come in contact with the amp you decided to reproduce?

I worked with Geoff Fullerton at Fender, who became a good friend of mine. Geoff is George’s son, and was Leo’s personal assistant at G&L for several years. He was a builder and engineer there as well. George’s father used to work at Fender in the wood mill where he ran this huge ripsaw, which George, Geoff and I also ran, so I had become good friends with the family.

George is a wealth of information and a really interesting man to talk to. He has great ideas about how things were done, the reason things were done, and craftsmanship. Even though his guitars were not traditional, the craftsmanship that went into them was impressive. They case-hardened every single one of the screws that went into a guitar, so if you had to repair it, you wouldn’t strip out the threads. Nobody does that kind of thing anymore because it is not cost-effective.

When I talked to George about the amp, he told me about one at the Fullerton Museum owned by Phyllis Fender, Leo’s widow. As he described the amp to me, I decided I wanted to take a look at it. Phyllis said sure, so they pulled it out of the museum for a day. I looked at it, taking every picture and measurement I possibly could. I worked with what I had, but it wasn’t enough to do a reproduction. Later on I was able to go back, and they let me take the chassis down and measure every single component. One thing I couldn’t do was turn it on.

You were able to disassemble this old amp down to the component level?

I was. I took my meters down there and measured everything. Not only did I measure it, but I cross-referenced it to the color code because those resistors and capacitors are 63 years old now and have drifted a lot. One of the things I noticed is that he used many of the components because they were the only things he could get. They weren’t exactly the right value for the position they were in, but he put them in there because they were close enough and that’s what he had.

So, I’m looking at it, and George leans over and says, “You know, you’re the first person who touched the inside of that amp since Leo; you’d better be careful!” Because no one had touched it in all those years, the chassis, being made of steel and zinc plated, was pretty much pure white and powdery — I wasn’t about to leave my fingerprints in it!

Are you going to reproduce the zinc plating and everything?

Oh yeah, but I’m not going to relic it or try to make it look old.

Are there any ground issues getting through the zinc?

Yes, you have to grind away the zinc to get to the steel. And that was one of the things; there’s no circuit board, it’s all point to point, and whatever had to be grounded was run straight to the chassis right there. It was function over form.

What year was the original produced?

I don’t really know if it is one of the earlier or later ones, although I think it is earlier. There is a kind of complex cutaway on the top of the amplifier and a relief on the cord panel that is pretty much decorative. Those two things are also on the 15″ amps that we know were the first ones made. Later examples don’t have either of those features on them, so it is likely an early piece.

Did your experiences at Fender and taking apart the old K&F amp lead to your decision to start an amplifier company?

The K&F thing led directly to my own amplifiers. That amp was amazing and cool, but it was so rudimentary. Boutique amplifiers are becoming a bigger business now and I though it would be interesting to see if I could do my own interpretation of the design.

I was looking at all these beautiful Fender guitars that we were making, the amazing Custom Shop guitars with custom finishes that people wait years for. There are some really nice-looking amplifiers out there, but most of them look like big Tolex suitcases.

It all started me thinking about something that was small enough that you wouldn’t worry about it getting banged around, with the form plus the function, and replicating some of the beauty of the guitar finishes. That really appealed to me – no one was doing that. Finishing it like a guitar, the correct way, is such an art. I wanted to make them so they would match people’s prized instruments.

Over the years, guitars and their finishes have gotten more elaborate, but you aren’t doing that with the new Model 10; it is using simple shape, texture and color for the amplifier, rather than the busy style of many expensive guitars.

I started out spending hours designing cabinets, and the right one just hits you. This one was simple; it effectively gave room for my logo, but with some different elements. I have 1″ radiuses on the corners instead of ¾”, which makes the amp look more spherical, instead of looking like a big square

It gives it a softer, more attractive appearance.

I started the design of the amp with the cabinet, and I got that nice angled swoop to the front, which was simple, not complex — you see some of the amps from the 1940s that had great grilles on them, and some were so complex. Once I got the design for the cabinet down, and I knew that I could physically produce it from a woodworking standpoint, I knew how much space I had, so I could work on the chassis and circuit layout.

Tell me about the Model 10’s circuit and electronic design, and the sounds you were going for.

Well, George introduced me to Bill Sterle who started working at Fender around 1960. Bill is an audio engineer who designed a lot of the original Blackface amps.

Having someone who was there and who designed amps telling me why they made certain decisions is so much different than starting with copies of what Fender, Gibson, or Marshall did. I learned distinction between the amps Bill made and the Fender amps of the 1950s, which were the easiest and simplest designs. The Blackface-era amps were much more complex designs and they were really trying to do different things with the preamps to keep them cleaner.

When Bill was designing things, he stressed that distortion is your enemy — that’s the school of amp design he came from. You have to have the cleanest representation possible. I went to Bill’s house for hours and he would describe everything from tube heater circuit design to what you want to get accomplished in the preamp section, the phase inverter section, and the power section. He told me once you get going on the tone controls, you can go crazy because there are so many variations in tone circuits — not only what you use, but where they are placed.

I wanted to have a 10″ speaker in there. A 10 just has a clarity that you cannot get from an 8″ speaker, and I didn’t want to go as big as a 12. 10s have a really neat sound to them if you find the right one. I knew it was going to be either a small, single-ended design or a cramped, push-pull design. I ended up starting off with a small single-ended design.

So, design wise, you met some of the original guys who developed modern guitar amps, and took it from there, as if you were in that era.

Oh yeah, and every single element that was put in the amp was based on what I was trying to accomplish in the circuit, not based on something I was trying to copy. My initial intention was to make it really straight and clean, without a ton of bells and whistles. It is a single-ended design with a 6V6 power section and a 12AX7 preamp tube.

I looked at a lot of Internet message boards for guys who are building amps, and for players in general, to find out what kind of modifications they were making and what they wanted out of an amp. I tried to keep it really simple and clean, but I did put in a few things that I thought would expand the tone a little more.

Is there a tube rectifier?

No tube rectifier in this. In such a small, single-ended amp that putting one in would be more of a novelty than anything functional. Not putting one in allowed me to use a smaller power transformer and to clean up the power and make it more stable, along with giving me more space to do other things in the chassis. Also, when I went back and talked to Bill Sterle, he threw his hands up and said, “Tube rectifiers are absolutely worthless!” [Laughs]

My impression is that stout, well-built power supplies produce robust tones, especially at high levels. When you are pushing the amp, and you’re not clobbering the power supply, the amp doesn’t freak out as much. If I want a little sag and compression, I use a compressor!

Well, yeah. It’s all relative though, because there is a ratio between the voltage and the current that the plates see. You push harder, sand the plates, and try to draw more current. If the current isn’t there, then there is going to be a difference in the tone.

I started with a solid-state rectifier and that is the only solid-state piece in the amp. In the preamp, I used more of a Blackface preamp design, where I split the 12AX7 in the middle because the amp only has one channel. I do have two inputs on the amp, but one is just hotter than the other.

So there are only two tubes in the amp?

Only two! It’s simple — there is just a treble and a bass control. With all passive tone controls, if you use the control, there is a certain amount of insertion loss, so on bass control I put a switch so you could remove the tone controls from the circuit completely.

The Model 10 has the standard volume, bass and treble controls; then there is the switch. What does it do?

It takes out the negative feedback loop. You turn that off and bypass the tone controls and it will crunch just like an early tweed Champ. Even with only two tubes and three knobs I wanted to be able to have a range so it isn’t just for one style of play; it is an amp that you can play around with and get a cool tone out of.

It has an amazing array of tones for having so few controls.

I have designs of every shape and size, but this is where I wanted to start. In the larger models, I am going to do a 15-20 watt amp, and I may do as much as a 30-35 watt one as well, though I don’t want to come out with a 100 watt monster.

I think people are starting to re-evaluate how much wattage is really needed.

You know, one of the many helpful things I learned from Bill Sterle was how to test everything correctly. Lots of amp makers out there will say, “This is a 5-watt amp,” and that’s what they assume because a similar one was made by Fender, but Fender tested where the wattage comes up just before distortion, on every one, and that’s how we test as well.

The Model 10 puts out almost exactly 5 watts. It has a cathode bias power section and I go through and measure every single one of those tubes and every single output section of each amp to make sure it is right for this design. I don’t want to run these as hot as I possibly can to get every last watt out of them, because it is hard on tubes. I offer NOS tubes as an upgrade, and they are not making any more of them! I run them right in the middle where you get great tone and good longevity.

What tubes have you been using?

Right now I am using Electro-Harmonix preamp tubes and JJ power tubes. I think the JJ 6V6 is a really neat tube. They can handle a lot of plate current, and they sound good.

If somebody wants a Model 10, how long would it take?

I have all of the parts ready to go, but I have a six to eight week lead time on the custom-colored cabinets, including shipping. It takes about four weeks for the paint to be completely finished, because it has to be perfect. It is a guitar finish on the Model 10 and it’s done just like any expensive guitar finish. The amps are built to order, though I may stock certain colors here and there.

It’s exciting to see the founding of a company with such an amazing product. Do you have a price set for the Model 10?

It looks like the Model 10 will be $1050, at least as an initial release price.

You spoke earlier of having several color choices and perhaps some clear finishes on nice wood available.

The cabinets right now are poplar for the solid colors, and ash or alder depending on whether the finish is a blonde or sunburst one, just like a guitar.

If someone asked you what your amp sounds like, what would you say?

Well, what I was trying to achieve was a combination of the tweed Champ and Princeton, combined with a Blackface Champ and Princeton. I wanted to be able to combine all four of those amps together so you could get a really grungy, overdriven, tweed tone or a really clean, clear tone with or without tone controls.

Tell me about the K&F reproduction amp, is that currently in the pipeline?

That amp is 99% done. Because this amp has never been done before, and because the parts are not off-the-shelf parts, everything is different from what is currently available. Everything had to be done from scratch; transformers had to be custom wound, and chassis had to be custom made — and the chassis are not normal dimensions by any means. The tubes are all NOS tubes, because there is no current equivalent to them.

It’s an octal socket preamp tube isn’t it — a large base and pins like a power tube? What tube is that?

It’s a 6SC7 medium mu triode and a 6J5 triode in the preamp section. Each channel gets half of that triode. It’s a pretty low-gain tube actually; it’s not overdriving the preamp circuit a lot like the later 12AX7s often do. There is also a 5Y3 rectifier and a 6V6 output tube. Both input signals merge into a 6J5. Instead of putting one channel with one preamp tube, he made two channels that merged into one preamp tube. There’s one volume control for both channels. The circuit is a lot different than a modern amplifier. Leo was doing it to see if it would be functional, and it was very rudimentary and basic.

The octal preamp tubes give a really unique sound to the amp. They don’t drive it very hard, but it does put out a pretty thunderous crunch when you want. I am keeping it as historically correct as I can, with carbon comp resistors, Mallory 150s as the tone caps, and all cloth-covered wiring, which I don’t do in the Model 10. I am not trying to reproduce a look in the Model 10, but am going for the best possible sound, so I’m using all the best components and wiring by today’s standards.

You selected the components for the Model 10 by listening to them, didn’t you?

Yes, but the K&F is a little different. It’s not wired like you would wire something today; it has series heaters, so you get that hum in there that makes for a unique sound. The only changes I made were necessary for safety. Of course, there is a fuse in this one, along with a 3-prong AC plug. Other than that, it is rudimentary in every way. The tube sockets are spot-welded to the chassis.

Did you actually replicate the spot welds?

Oh yeah! Lots of guys would have riveted the sockets in place, but that was an extra expense, so they spot welded them.

It probably had a terrific ground connection.

It does. I found an original output transformer and power transformer and had Mercury Magnetics reproduce them for me. The speaker was a 10″ Alnico plug-style speaker rated at 40 watts for a 5-watt amp, so it was way over-engineered for the circuit. Most Alnico speakers have a horseshoe shaped magnet, but this one has 2½” donut-shaped magnet. It was also used for higher-end audio and larger-wattage amps. It makes for a really heavy speaker, but it’s really neat. This Weber is the closest to the original speaker that is available.

How much is the K&F reproduction amp going to cost, and when will it be available?

I’m trying so hard to get it finished! I am talking to a paint manufacturer about the wrinkle paint we need, and if that works out we’re in business with getting the K&F out. We should be ready in October at the latest, and the cost will be about $1000.

Playing the Amps

I brought my 1987 hardtail Tom Anderson to Byers‘ shop where I got to play through the first Model 10 off the line and a K&F reproduction prototype. Here is a sample of what I heard:

Model 10

The Model 10 is a beautiful amplifier. If your favorite custom guitar builder built an amp, it would look just like this.

The Model 10 is clear and detailed in the way that only minimal circuit paths can be. Set clean, with the tone controls engaged and the feedback loop in, the highs and lows are well-balanced, the tone circuits do what you wish they would, and the result is a sound that makes you want to play more. Turn off the feedback loop and things get woollier and more tweed-like. Switch off the tone controls and the amp gets a more aggressive, throaty attitude going.

K&F Reproduction

The K&F reproduction amp is totally different from the Model 10 and totally different from almost anything I have ever heard. I can almost hear Charlie Christian playing one and I suspect that today’s players will find musical uses for this tone. The K&F reproduction is very big and a bit wooly-sounding, yet not muffled or dull at all. It gets pretty powerful sounding when you push it hard.

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/PremierGuitar/PremierG-10.htm

Feature Rich Guitar Amplifiers Review

We told this was coming.. Tes, when readers ask us to review something, we do our best to respond, and thanks to RedPlate founder Henry Heistand, we received two RedPlates for review. We’ll start this episode by telling  you that Henry Heistand appears to be a very clever fellow who is not working in the shadows of that past, which is to say that he builds feature-rich amplifiers that in no way pretend to be vintage knock-offs. Play a RedPlate and you’re firmly treading in the present, rather than mining tone out of a dusty box built by a dead man (or woman—sorry Lily). And that’s fine. There is certainly ample space in these pages for the living, and RedPlates are in fact very lively tools indeed. We asked Henry to give us a glimpse into his background and motivation, and our reviews of the TweedyVerb and BlackVerb follow….

TQR: How and when did you initially become involved in electronics and amplification?

HH: Starting around age 12 playing to the radio and jamming with friends, my first build attempt was a speaker cabinet made out of ½ plywood and covered with yellow carpeting. It had a leopard (spotted) grill cloth and contained 6 speakers recycled from various old TVs and stereos. My first real amp repair was replacing a screen resistor in a Fender Bassman in 1970. I went to college for a year and then played guitar full time until 1979 when I attended electronics school (they still taught tubes). To pay for school I got a part time job at a church organ repair shop that had a “combo” repair department and still played in club bands on weekends. Attending electronics school in the morning and repairing gear in the afternoons was a great way to instantly translate the classroom to the real world. Compared to the tube TVs and tube broadcast transmitters, the tube musical amplifiers were relatively simple. Besides Fender and Marshall, tube amps by Sunn, Ampeg, Gibson, West, Park, Hiwatt, Sound City and all the Supro/Kalamazoo/Dan Electro stuff. If I only had a nickel for every good tube I tossed in the trash back then. Many of those same companies had solid-state amps too along with companies like Acoustic, Kustom, Peavey, Randall, Lab, SG and Roland. It seems like the ’70s was the golden era of guitar amp designers. Although most tube amps have a similar topology, the differences between brands in those days ranged from truly innovative to laughable. On a few occasions when a solid-state repair would come in that was totally fubar, one of the church organ repair guys would show me how to design a new circuit right over the top of the problem area, teaching me the value of having a few simple circuit designs at the ready for emergencies. In late ’82 I got a career job in the computer field, and by ’86 purchased the part of the church organ repair shop that repaired the “combo” gear. The new company was named Music Mechanix and kept the warranty contracts with all the majors for amps, keyboards and P.A.s.

TQR: As you became more familiar with various amp designs of the past, what were your favorites and why?

HH: Thinking back to the tonal memories accumulated during those years spent repairing amps, the most musical of all of them were probably the early ’60s Fender tube amps. In addition to repairs, Music Mechanix did all the popular mods of the day (anyone remember the original Train Wreck Mod pages for Fenders?), many times we would redo almost everything inside but keeping the exterior unchanged. Most of my playing back then was strictly radio cover songs so the quest was always to find the one amp that could imitate everything. Music Mechanix was continuing the warranty station status from the previous owner (established in the ’50s) so every original manufacturer’s amplifier schematic ever released was available as a reference source, residing in 16 large file cabinets. On the side, I kept a little notebook of circuits and mods of interest to use as building blocks.

TQR: Can you describe the lasting impressions created by your study of the experiences with classic amps that have most affected your own design philosophy and preferences?

HH: As a service to friends and regular customers Music Mechanix would take a classic amp (at the time it was easy to get something like a used Bassman for $100) and do Frankenstein amps that were Fender this, Marshall that, with a sprinkling of Vox and Ampeg thrown in depending on the customer’s needs. On the weekends I was doing gigs using a pair of modified Ampeg VT-40s in stereo until somehow I ended up with a Mesa Boogie S.O.B. that had a really innovative phase inverter section controlled by a “LIMIT” knob. A bizarre variation of a PI section’s constant current source, the circuit was not in the RCA manual or on any other schematic. It sparked something in me and from hen on I started doing creative amp mods that were not copies of things I had seen on schematics.

TQR: When did you first begin to sketch out the concept for RedPlate amps, and what did you want to accomplish that would be unique and different?

HH: I had always been fascinated with “sleeper” amps that looked small but sounded big. After selling the repair business I used my free time to do a lot of experimentation on point-to-point builds in a Fender Camp sized chassis, eventually working out how to do a 7 tube, large transformer build in a Champ chassis without noise or oscillation. My favorite guitar tones were the recorded sounds of the Mesa Boogie/Dumble ODS type amps (even before I even knew what a Dumble amp was). A clean singing tone with a hint of character that sustains and blooms is my idea of the ultimate tone and the design goal of all the RedPlate models.

TQR: Can you briefly describe the unique features and differences among the current line of RedPlate models?

HH: RedPlate probably has too many models because we treat the sections as modular building blocks. We start with one of the 3 chassis sizes:

CH1. 15” width with four 9 pin sockets and two 8 pin sockets, transformers up to the 50 watt size.

CH2: 17” width with six 9 pin sockets and two 8 pin sockets, transformers up to 80 watt size.

CH3: 19” width with five 9 pin sockets and four 8 pin sockets, transformers up to 160 watts

Then we use different combinations of the building blocks with the only limitation being the number of controls (physical knob space) and the number of tube sockets available. Building blocks currently in use:

BB1. PREAMP1—Tweed—A single tone knob preamp (Tweed style).

BB2. PREAMP2—Blackface—A Treble, Middle, Bass Preamp (Blackface style).

BB3. DRIVE1—A three knob overdrive section (Gain, Drive, and Level).

BB4. DRIVE2—A six knob overdrive section (Gain, Drive, Level, Treble, Middle and Bass).

BB5. REVERB—A single knob tube reverb with medium decay tank.

BB6. EFFECTS LOOP—A fully buffered serial loop, return level is the master volume.

BB7. PHASE INVERTER—Standard Long Tail pair, very similar to the early ’60s designs.

BB8. POWER AMP #1—40 watts cathode bias (6L6GC).

BB9. POWER AMP #2—50 watts fixed bias/40 watts cathode bias (6V6GC)

BB10. POWER AMP #3—80 watts fixed bias (KT-88).

BB11. POWER AMP #4—45 watts fixed bias/18 watts cathode bias (6V6GTA)

BB12. POWER AMP #5—100 watts fixed/50 watts fixed (6L6GC).

TQR: Both of our review amps are loaded with Warehouse speakers from Kentucky, which we have reviewed before. How extensive are your evaluations of various speakers when creating a new model? Does the same process apply with transformers, tubes or other components?

HH: The current lineup is using WGS Retro 30, WGS British Lead 80 and Eminence Swamp Thang speakers in the combo amps. The decision to use these was based on side-by-side comparisons with other brands (an ongoing process).

Tube selection is mostly based on reliability (as long as the tone is still there). The current production amps use Svetlana 6L6GC, SovTek 12AX7LP (PI tube), and Electro Harmonix 6V6GTA and 12AX7s (preamp).

Selecting individual signal path components is more difficult because side-by-side comparisons can be misleading (no 2 amps are exactly alike). The signal path in current production amps use PS series Orange Drop capacitors and carbon film resistors based on low noise and musical warmth in the tone. RedPlate Amps has a good relationship with Mercury Magnetics and I like to use their transformers in most models.

TQR: How does the half power switch function in your amps, as well as the “mode” control and various voicing controls?

HH: Depending on the output section, 3 methods are used:

1. 6L6GC 100 watt/50 watt—The switch lifts two of the four tubes by 10K so they are effectively out of the circuit yet the impedance selection is still valid.

2. 6V6GTA 45 watt/18 watt—Full power runs two of the tube in cathode bias and two in fixed bias, the switch lifts the fixed bias tubes by 10K to effectively remove them without changing the output impedance.

3. 17 Watt (Hi/Lower)—This switch just lowers the voltage to the phase inverter tube so the amp breaks up sooner. There are two different styles of mode switches. On the Tweed style preamps the 6 position mode regressively reduces midrange and preamp output to imitate a Blackface style amp. On the Blackface style preamp the 6 position mode switch progressively fattens the midrange to imitate a Tweed style amp. Most of the models also include a Humbucking/single coil switch to set the amount of bass gain in the input stage.

TQR: How much individual customization or voicing do you offer for specific models when working with an artist?

HH: Unlimited customization is available, although most of the professionals that use RedPlate Amps are content playing standard models.

TQR: We noticed that you include the owner’s name on the back panel, correct? A nice touch…

HH: Yeah, the front and rear panels are done in-house, we could even put pictures of your dog on there.

TQR: What do you want to accomplish in the future? New models?

HH: “Amps that sing” being every guitar player! Going forward, curiosity and customer feedback will continue to drive the evolution of current designs and the development of new designs. For example, there will be a “shredder” amp in the near future (The ShredPlate) and possibly a bass amp. As RedPlate continues to gain name recognition with the music industry, models like the BlackVerb, MagicDust and TweedyVerb will hopefully be taken for granted as standard amplifier types.

The front and rear panels on the BlackVerb reveal an impressive array of controls, push/pull-knobs and switched pots. In fact, the printed operation guide includes a signal path diagram on the front page with a welcoming invitation to skip an in-depth review of the manual and just set all the knobs at 12 noon and play, which we did, consulting the manual as needed as we spent more time with the amp. So, is the BlackVerb too complicated for you “plug & play” guys? Not really, but the control panel is best reviewed in sections. You’re essentially working with a clean preamp circuit and a Drive section that includes Gain, Drive and Level controls for variable levels of distortion overdriven tones, but there are still many more additional tweakable features lurking within…

The first control adjacent to the single front input jack is the miniature Bright switch toggle with the center position OFF, Down producing the sound of “new strings” (an accurate description we might add), and Up rendering a brighter tone that will be familiar to those of you with a Fender Blackface amp with bright switch. We usually use the bright switch to put a little extra shimmer and spank on humbucking pickups, or neck pickups on single coils.

The Volume control includes a pull switch to engage a midrange boost that increases upper mids. The Middle control does what you’d expect, with a pull switch for a “Deep” setting that scoops mids and boosts bass frequencies—an excellent change-up for clean tones. The Bass control handles low end quite well, and it can be clicked OFF to be removed from the tone stack. Try that with a neck pickup and it produces the odd and very different EQ found in some old Valco and Gibson amps.

The Mod Selector is a 6-position rotary EQ switch that gradually produces a fatter, thicker tone as you rotate left to right from the “Funk” setting, to “Normal” and “Fat” (tweed). All this pulling and turning may sound complicated, but you’ll have it thoroughly digested in 5 minutes, and most importantly, these extra EQ controls expand the tonal capabilities of the BlackVerb in a clever and creative way that really is worth using and exploring. We have bitched about such bells and whistles on other amps having limited value, but no such questionable affectations plague the BlackVerb. Like we said, Henry is a clever fellow. On the Drive section…

This is where you mine and manage overdriven tones and distortion. The Gain control can be bypassed by clicking fully left, otherwise, you’re setting the amount of signal being sent to the first gain stage, which produces variable levels of smooth growl and grunt. The Drive control further ramps up distortion through two gain stages, and a pull switch on the knob serves as an afterburner for maximum burn and rip. At this point you will be channeling Metallica at full husky, so hide the dog. The Level control sets the output volume for this section, resulting in a progressively bigger, thicker, bolder voice. Of course, the big selling point for the BlackVerb is how all of your clean, moderately busted up and filthy dirty tones can be deftly tweaked and the volume managed with the Volume and Master volume controls. At the full power setting, you really can get this thing to sound like a 100 watt high gain amp on “7” at low decibel levels suitable for home recording and friendlier sound pressure levels.

The reverb control is what it is, and you can turn it off fully left and it’s out of the circuit. The Presence control is described as using “global negative feedback to remove low frequencies which frees up bandwidth for more midrange and highs,” and it can also be turned off when rotated fully left. Frankly, the appeal of this control escaped us, but we can imagine how it might be useful in a live situation where you may want to avoid too much low end muddying up the mix with bass and drums. The Master volume works very well without producing the dreaded master volume/low volume faux zizzz when you’re trying to light a fire at low volume levels.

One of our favorite features is the 50 watt/40 watt switch on the back panel that changes the boas from fixed to cathode for a completely different feel. With the 40 watt cathode biased setting you can also change the 6L6 output tubes to 6V6s, transforming the BlackVerb into an 18 watt cathode biased flame thrower, or bypassing the Gain section for a more tweedy character and voice. The Hi/Lo power switch changes the voltage on the input stage and the threshold for clean headroom.

The back panel Smooth switch is just that, adding slight compression in the clean preamp, and the Humbucker/Single Coil setting sets the amount of bass gain in the input stage, relieving you of perhaps resetting EQ when switching from single coils to humbuckers.

Additional utilitarian features on the back panel include a handy bias adjustment and test point, speaker impedance selector, main and extension speaker jacks, FX send and return, and footswitch jack. The footswitch gives you the capability to get in and out of the Tweed, Drive and Boost circuits. Tweed boosts upper mids while lifting the midrange control on the front panel for maximum push in the frequencies where the guitar really lies on stage. Drive engages the Drive feature, bypassing it when off at the footswitch. Boost makes everything sound bigger with a partial tone stack lift.

And now for the bottom line…. It seems to us that the intention of the BlackVerb is to be as tonefully versatile as a 1×12 combo amp can possibly be whether you are playing small clubs, bigger rooms or wide open outdoor stages. You could play nothing but smooth, clean jazz through this amp without ever venturing into the gain stages and be perfectly happy. Or you could do nothing but feast off the considerable gain and distortion lurking in the heart of the BlackVerb and be equally happy. Most gigging musicians want to range between such extremes living somewhere in the middle, and you can do that, too. Like most feature-rich amplifiers, you’ll find certain favorite settings that will be revisited with specific guitars, and after a few days you’ll have no trouble quickly accessing those settings, although the control panel is a bit difficult to read until you no longer need to read it at all.

The standard Warehouse Retro 30 speaker is a brighter version of the Veteran 30 we have favorably reviewed in the past. Given the considerable range of overdrive and distortion available in the BlackVerb, the Retro 30’s clear, articulate character and exceptional capacity to handle low frequencies makes it an excellent choice for this amplifier. Even at extreme gain and drive settings, the BlackVerb produces a rich and musical burn that does not mask or obscure essential overtones and harmonics. The clean tones are equally strong, powerful and clear, and the amp will nimbly spill into overdrive played clean at higher volume levels that can be managed with the volume on the guitar. The BlackVerb impressed with its ability to embody many different styles of amplifiers in one compact box, limited only by your capacity for experimentation and your imagination. Imagine that.

We were particularly anxious to experience the TweedyVerb because it seems to fit the power and volume requirements of so many players today, and it is a very straightforward and versatile 1×12 combo that is a breeze to hump to the next gig. Got your attention there, did we? We finally figured out why vintage blackface Pro Reverb amps have remained relatively underpriced… just pick one up.

The TweedyVerb is a cathode biased dual 6L6 amp with reverb, loaded with an 80 watt Warehouse British Lead 12” speaker. You won’t find a bad tone in this amp, and the controls are very intuitive, delivering outstanding “blackface,” “brown” and “tweed” tones via a 6-position Mode switch. The Bright switch is identical to the BlackVerb (you’ll love the “new strings” setting), with a single Volume control, simple Gain control, and a Tone control that can be clicked off fully left to bypass the tone stack for a very heavy and thick does of overdriven tones with excellent dynamic feel and touch sensitivity. The spring reverb is good—delivered form an original new old stock Accutronics pan made by Cary, IL, and the Presence control is identical to the BlackVerb, using global negative feedback to remove low frequencies and emphasize mids and highs. It also seems to decrease volume and gain, best used in our opinion for clean tones.

The 40 watt/17 watt switch on the back panel changes the voltage on the phase inverter. We preferred the sound and girth of the 40 watt setting, which still allows plenty of room for managing volume and variable distortion with the Gain and Volume controls, but the 17 watt setting is fine, too for close quarters. 6V6 power tubes can also be used at this setting without re-biasing for lower power output and volume. A footswitch is included to access both the fat Tweed setting on the Mode switch on the fly, and the Boost function, which acts as a tone stack bypass. Despite its compact size and relatively light weight, the TweedyVerb is a big-sounding amp that produces outstanding clean tones at usable stage volume, yet it can also be gradually pushed into the familiar sound of a Deluxe Reverb on “6” or even a vintage Marshall head at higher volume and gain settings. It’s a right fair chameleon, this one.

The Warehouse 80 watt British Lead 12 gracefully handles the power output of the TweedyVerb with excellent clarity, sold bass, vivid mids and a sweet and chimey top end. Like the BlackVerb, the TweedyVerb offers the sound and feel of several distinctively different amps in one box via the Mode switch, and we liked them all, from the rough and tumble Tweed, the slightly less raucous, smooth upper mid voice of the Brow, and the more scooped, open and airy Black settings. Both RedPlate models reviewed here clearly share the same DNA, which is to say that they possess a remarkably rich and music character, whether you choose to stroke big clean tones through them or dial up a tone that would make Billy Gibbons proud. Douse that light, and Quest forth….

 

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Brought Every Guitar Amp to the Studio

Quietly, outside of Los Angeles, Steve Trovato has been leaving blazing guitar everywhere he goes.

Currently, he is a full time instructor in the Studio Jazz Department at the University of Southern California. In addition, Steve has found the time to author over 20 instructional books for Warner Brothers and Hal Leonard, produce over 50 instructional videos for the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert, and has even starred in five of them. His students have achieved major success and include Scott Henderson, Frank Gambale, Paul Gilbert and Norman Brown. He has performed with Chet Atkins, Albert Lee, Robben Ford, Jeff Berlin, Jerry Donahue and Scott Henderson, and contributes to five international music publications, including Guitar Player, Guitar One, Axe, Guitar Club, Guitar World and Chittar, as well as recording for too many studio and motion picture projects to list. We caught up with Steve as he completed his new release, Country Jazzmaster.

One of the things I have always wondered about is who or what influenced you to start playing guitar?

Well, I think you’ll hear this from a lot of guys; it was the Beatles. I think I was six years old, and I had been playing the piano. I did my piano recital and played “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Then I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and I thought, “Wow, girls never screamed for me playing piano.” So that was it and I started playing the guitar. That was pretty much it, and I have never looked back.

Did you come across a single moment that it finally hit you? This is it, this is what I want to do the rest of my life?

I’ve never been asked that before; that’s a really good question. I would say that there were three pivotal moments: one of them was when I saw the Beatles, the second was when I heard Chet Atkins for the first time, and the third was when I was up on stage and I got a chance to play with Albert Lee — that was when I really knew I wanted to do guitar. For some reason those guys hit me hard — they played melodies — and I always loved the way I could track it even though it was guitar playing. It was really very sophisticated. When I heard Chet Atkins play, I could hear the melody. Even with all the notes that Albert Lee plays, I can still keep track of it– that’s what attracted me. I think since I’ve been playing, if I have anything, it’s the ability to play a melody.

You’re originally from New Jersey. How did you end up on the West coast attending GIT (now the Musicians Institute)?

Like every guitar player on the East Coast, we were always hungry for information about the guitar. I used to get this magazine and I saw an ad for this place called GIT in California. I saw pictures of Larry Carlton, Tommy Tedesco and other people that I didn’t know, like Don Mock and Joe Diorio, and they were starting this school. They were sort of advertising it being for studio musicians, and that was what I wanted to be.

Now that you already have one CD under your belt, you’ve gone into the studio a second time with some outside input. How are you achieving your tones with the studio?

When I did my first album, I just took my rig into the studio with the thought that if it sounds good live, it will sound good in the studio. I’ve found that not to be true. I also realized that amps that are made specifically for recording don’t necessarily sound all that good in the studio. It really depends on the studio, the mics, and everything else. I brought every amp that I had down there — I even borrowed some amps. I ended up with five or six different amps and I had to just go through all of them to find out which one sounded the best in that studio — with that particular set up of room and microphones. I wound up actually using a boutique amp from a company in Virginia called Talos. I love those amps. It’s a 60-watt, one-twelve, and it just has two knobs on it, drive and gain.

Well, I think you’ll hear this from a lot of guys; it was the Beatles. I think I was six years old, and I had been playing the piano. I did my piano recital and played ‘The Blue Danube Waltz.’ Then I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and I thought, Wow, girls never screamed for me playing piano. So that was it and I started playing the guitar. That was pretty much it, and I have never looked back.”

What about guitars? Did you find that’s the same scenario to be true?

It’s something I suspected, but I never really had the chance to put it to the test. I usually use my G&L Legacy live, with the Kahler on it because it sounds great. You’re playing loud enough where if there’s a bass, drums and everything cranking you lose the nuances and the subtlety. But in the studio you retain those nuances and subtleties because everything is under a microscope. I found that using different guitars expresses that better.

If I want to play a sensitive, sort of Chet Atkins jazzy piece, the Legacy wouldn’t work because it sounds too thin, but with a loud phrase it will sound fine. For a quiet passage, I decided to use a Gibson — a Howard Roberts with two old humbuckers that I had. Of course, for the Straty-sounding things I used my red Legacy with a Kahler on it, which I absolutely love. For the rest of the stuff I used one of two Teles: a Fender solid body Telecaster and a G&L semi-hollow. None of them are stock. Seymour Duncan custom built the pickups for both of them.

What amps do you prefer for live performances?

I play rock, I use my Dumble. That, of course, is Alexander Dumble. It says “Built to win” and it really does, it’s just really something. I put a pedal in front of it to make sure it’s got enough overdrive. In the country bands I use a ’65 Pro Reverb, which Dumble rebuilt for me.

What do you use on the jazz side?

I use my Talos.

Throughout your time as a guitar player, you’ve been labeled as the chameleon of guitar. Do have a huge arsenal of guitars at your disposal that you have hiding in the back room to take out whenever you need to?

For the live work I pretty much grab whatever is nearest to the front door on the way out. I was never really one to take ten guitars to a session because I figured that one guitar would sound just as good as 10 guitars, but when you really start to do this seriously, there are subtle differences between all guitars that may or may not sound better for the tracks. You really have to have an arsenal of quite a few to do the job right.

What would be an ideal arsenal?

I would have to say you have to have a solid body, Strat-type of guitar with single coil pickups, a single coil Tele-type, a Les Paul-type solid body with humbuckers, a thin semi-hollow body sound, like a 345, and a jazz box, then, of course, steel string acoustic and a nylon string.

You mentioned putting a pedal on the floor in front of one of the amps.

Live I use a Boss GT-6. I use it for time delay effects such as reverbs, delays and chorusing. It sounds great for that and it’s also great on the floor. For distortion I’ve been using the AC Booster and the RC Booster by Xotic Pedals.

The Xotic pedals are fairly new. Can you tell us some more?

Oh, I love them. Those are the kind of the boutique pedals that all the guys in town are using. Scott Henderson told me about them. Studio guys like Michael Thompson are using them. Basically, the RC Booster is a pre-amp boost that keeps it clear, but gives it a little oomph. The AC Booster is an overdrive — basically a really high-end Tube Screamer with a bass control on it. Everybody loves Tube Screamers, but it takes the bass away from it; this is a Tube Screamer that sounds a lot more transparent and smoother than normal. You can also roll the bass back in because it has bass and treble controls.

You mentioned the Kahler Tremolo on one of your G&L’s. What do you like about it?

The thing I love about the Kahler is its flush and mounted solidly on the guitar body, versus another one. I won’t mention any names, but the initials are Floyd Rose. It is not really mounted on the body of the guitar as solidly and or as flush as a Kahler. With a Kahler, the tone sounds pretty darned good. I really like that about the Kahler. Since you have that big plate to rest against the body, you get more natural wood resonance, it doesn’t sound thin and small. The other thing that I like is the adjustable string spacing. I don’t think other bridges can do that.

On the first CD, About Time, you cover a whole spectrum of guitar playing. You do a dedication to Danny Gatton, you’re hitting a little Django, you’ve got “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from Harold Arlen, and then you even do Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag.” What can we expect hear on the new CD?

When I spoke with Steve Vai, he was saying the last CD was really good but I needed a little bit better recording quality. He said the problem with the first CD, as far as marketing, is that I don’t know where to market it stylistically; it’s all over the map. I came up with this concept in my mind called “Country Jazzmaster,” with Jazzmaster being one word, like the guitar. I kept that thread in my mind as I was recording this album, and all of the songs leaned into that concept. Everything that you’re going to hear is country-jazz. Western swing, country jazz — that sort of a thing.

There’s a thread of continuity running through the whole album that you will hear. I recorded everything from the old Jerry Reed tune, “Guitar Man,” to “Back Home Again in Indiana,” “That She Could Ever Be,” “Panhandle Rag” and my ultimate version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

I still remember this vivdly: a NAMM show where you, Steve Vai and I were standing around talking, and Steve hailed you as, “One of the greatest Tele players of all time.” Will we hear evidence of this on the new CD?

That was very nice of him. But, yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for, and I think that it’s really extremely well played, if I can say so myself. We all worked really hard on it.

Trovato Gearbox: Here’s what Steve is plugging in, when it’s time to shine.

Country Gigs

Guitars

  • G&L ASAT Tele stock
  • G&L ASAT semi hollow body w/Seymour Duncan P90’s

Amps

  • Groove Tubes Trio Pre amp
  • Groove Tubes 75-watt power amp
  • Groove Tubes 2×12 cabinet w/Celestions

Effects

  • Boss GT-6
  • Keeley Compressor
  • Xotic RC Booster
  • Xotic AC booster

Rock/Blues Gigs

Guitars

  • G&L Fullerton Red Legacy with Kahler and custom Seymour Duncans
  • ‘69 Fender Strat (stock)

Amps

  • Early ’80s Dumble Overdrive Special
  • Two 1×12 Dumble cabinets with Mojo Tone Speakers
  • ’65 Fender Pro Reverb with Mercury Magnetics Bassman replacement transformer and 2×12 Mojo Tone Speakers modified by Dumble

Effects

  • Boss GT-6
  • Maxon Tube Screamer
  • Fulltone OCD pedal
  • Zendrive Pedal

Steve Trovato: It’s About Time and the new, Country Jazzmaster, are available at: cdbaby.com / myspace.com/stevetrovatomusic

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/PremierGuitar/PremierG-07.htm

Crimsontone SE Mini Amp Review

Decades ago, practice amps were effectively no-frills versions of their bigger brothers. Even so, those little amps of yesteryear became something magical in the studio. From Jimmy Page and his Supro to Joe Walsh and his Fender Champ, getting big sounds from little amps became the stuff of legend and a go-to approach for recording. Crimsontone Amplifiers embraces this philosophy in a big way—only two of the seven amps the company offers are 20 watts or more. Their newest amp—the 4-watt SE Mini—is a testament to the power of small and a cool nod to the role of low-wattage amps in the history of rock ’n’ roll.

In the Court of the Crimson
At just 7.5 pounds, the SE Mini certainly lives up to its name. The cabinet is covered in a tough red tweed fabric, and it features a sporty aluminum handle for easy transporting to the studio—or a gig in the park for that matter. Crimsontone didn’t design the SE Mini with gimmicks in mind either, which is evident in the simple feature set. It has just four controls—Gain, Tone, and Master knobs, along with a tiny Gain Boost switch.

The single-ended, all-tube head is powered by a Sovtek EL84 coupled to a JJ ECC803 preamp tube and a Mercury Magnetics GA5-P power transformer for a maximum of four watts. The GA5-P is part of Mercury Magnetics’ fantastic Toneclone Plus line, which is stocked with the company’s replicas of famous power transformers from the past. In this case, it’s a faithful reproduction of the transformer in Gibson’s 1950s Les Paul Jr. combos. I was pleased to see that the output transformer was also a Mercury Magnetics model, an FTCO-M that replicates the units in Fender’s Tweed Champ amplifiers of yore.

The SE Mini doesn’t rely on modern circuit design, but instead forgoes current technologies for a traditional, handwired, point-to-point circuit. Upon pulling out the adorably small chassis, I was treated to the sight of tidy wiring held together with clean solder joints and tight mounting. And the Components—F&T filter caps, Alpha pots, Orange Drop capacitors, carbon-comp resistors, two Xicon power resistors, and a Cliff input jack—are all top-of-the-line.

Good Things … Small Packages
Crimsontone touts the SE Mini as a practice amplifier, but it excels at hitting tones in the ’60s classic-rock vein. With a Fender 60th Anniversary Telecaster and a feed to the two 12″ speakers in a Fender Twin Reverb reissue, the Crimsontone’s clean mode belted out seriously raw, garage-rhythm jangle with a dash of classic Neil Young sting thrown in. The highs are crisp and brash, with tight lows and a gritty midrange. With a Gibson Les Paul Studio, the amp accentuated the midrange and softened highs, but the amp still retained its bold essence, staying tight in the low end and having a nice, even sag. It’s not a sound for everybody, but it speaks in the raw, unadulterated tones of no-holds-barred slingers of the first classic heavy rock era.

It’s worth noting that, while the SE Mini kicks with James Gang-worthy tones, I did have to really work with my picking hand to squeeze any real dynamics out of it. That said, that’s not uncommon with most small-wattage amps, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the amp isn’t touch sensitive. But if you’re used to using a big Marshall to get your ’70s tones, the SE Mini will feel like an entirely different animal. The amp doesn’t have excessive gain or saturation to hide behind, so it assures that you hear every single mistake. The sweet sounds that come as a trade-off are well worth it, though.

This Dog Bites
Getting the most meat and bite out of the SE Mini requires careful adjustment of the Gain and Master knobs. With the Gain Boost switch off, not much grit is available from the Gain control. Rather, it acted more like a voicing control, altering the feeling and response of the tone. Most master-volume tube amps have a gain structure that changes from tighter and crisper to warmer and spongier as you increase the Gain. Without the boost on, the Gain control on the SE Mini reacts the same way, but without adding huge amounts of saturation. Kicking in the Gain Boost adds a dose of rage to the tone, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing quick double-stops and soaring country bends with the SE Mini’s overdrive-infused, high-midrange snap.

Predictably, the boost kicks up the volume a few decibels, too. And I discovered by lowering my guitar’s Volume knob just how well the amp cleans up at even the dirtiest settings. The Gain Boost adds noticeable touch sensitivity, too. I got one of my favorite tones by dropping the Telecaster’s Volume down a quarter of the way and letting my picking-hand attack determine the amount of overdrive.

If you’re looking for more aggressive tones, it also pays to keep the Master at or near its highest levels. At practice-amp volume levels, the Telecaster sounded a little thin, and understandably so—I wasn’t pushing the single EL84 enough until I moved the Master to 3 o’clock, where there was a considerable volume jump. The sweet spot on the SE Mini’s Master is just a little higher, where it retains just the right amount of definition, while maintaining ample punch. Set the Master there and use the Gain control to set the flavor of the attack, and you’ll find a load of tone variation at your fingertips. Working within this range helped me keep the Tele’s bite under control and let the raw nature of the amp’s voicing shine through.

The Verdict
Four watts may not be the right recipe for tearing the paint off walls, but the SE Mini uses a well-designed circuit and quality components to sound much bigger than it looks— especially with a few 12″ speakers at the receiving end of its signal. Crimsontone’s SE Mini is a great choice for lovers of dirty, jangly rock guitar tones. But, like tube practice amps of yesteryear that needed to be driven and played hard to achieve their fullest tonal potential, it can require a more dynamic and forceful touch to tap into its inherent dynamics. Still, there’s nothing quite like a healthy, low-watt tube amp cranked to high heaven for creating sweet, raw, rowdy sounds. In that musical category, the SE Mini is a hit.

Buy if…
you’re a fan of dirty, to-the-point guitar tones at reasonable volumes.
Skip if…
you need to be heard over a drummer or can’t abide bone-simple feature sets.
Rating…

Street $799 – Crimsontone Amplifiers – crimsontone.com

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

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

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?

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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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

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

 

 

British Tone in an Amplifier

Following up on the successful introduction of 65 Amps’ flagship London 18W, the company has launched its second model — the Marquee. Named for the legendary Soho music venue where every ’60s British band of note once honed their craft, the Marquee is a bigger-sounding, louder version of the London 65 in some respects, endowed with great headroom and presence. We asked co-founder of 65 Amps and Sheryl Crow guitarist Peter Stroud to describe the musical intention of the Marquee, and our review follows….

TQR: What inspired the development and design of the Marquee, Peter? What did you want to accomplish specifically?

Peter Stroud: We had guitarists loving the sound of the London, but still needing either more volume or clean headroom. Personally, I wanted an amp to replace the Super Reverb in my live rig with that Fender clarity, but more of the openness and touch sensitivity of an amp like the London. Our initial idea with the Marquee was to create a more powerful version of the London 18 watter using 4 EL84s. But we also wanted something with the midrange clarity of the British amps and the clean sparkle of the American Fender Blackface sounds — just not as hard sounding as the 6L6 cleaner tone can be. On top of that, it has a higher gain tone that really roars.

TQR: To what extent were some of the design features in the Marquee such as the cascaded twin-triode operating in pentode mode and the 6-way Color control inspired by vintage amp designs?

Peter Stroud: Our initial intention for the Cascode (note spelling) configuration in this amp was to find a sound similar to the pentode type EF86 tube we use in the London, but more quiet. Due to vibration and noise issues inherent with EF86 tubes, we were apprehensive using it in a higher powered combo. The cascode circuit, which utilizes a 12AX7, was popular in early hi-fi preamplifiers. It has a harmonic content similar to the pentode circuit but produces more even-order harmonics. Randall Aiken helped us greatly with this circuit and we’ve continuously tweaked it’s current configuration in our amp. The end result is a distinctly different sounding channel from the Treble-Mid-Bass channel — very warm and rich sounding. It sounds beautiful with single coils and 12-string electrics. So, the Marquee initially came from many inspirations. Dan (Boul) and I are big fans of the Selmer amps. A few years ago while on tour in the UK I had picked up a Selmer Treble & Bass 50 MkIII, which is the early ’70s silver metal front — the ugly one. But that amp sounds awesome, like a “British Fender Blackface” with two EL34s. We’ve since found a Mk I Treble ‘n Bass from the first year they were built.

The font end of the Marquee Treble-Mid-Bass channel was initially inspired by the Selmer, but it branched off quite a bit. We just aimed for that sound. There are also similarities with the Selmer front-end circuit and the early ’60s brown-Tolex Fenders. I know one of your favorite amps is that killer Vibrolux 1×12 you have. The (Marquee) power stage is a fairly typical British-style 4-EL84 circuit. From there we spent months tweaking the tone circuit. We wanted the Treble-Mid-Bass tone configuration for more control with a higher powered amp.

TQR: You’ve played just about every conceivable guitar amp and for years your rig consisted of a Super Reverb and Marshall 50W. To what extent does the Marquee succeed in giving you both the clean and overdriven tones you need at usable state volumes, and how do you use it specifically?

Peter Stroud: On the latest tour I used both a London and a Marquee and A/B’d between the two. The two together worked perfectly for our stage volume. I’d set the London for a slightly driven rhythm sound playing through an EF86 channel and would use the gain boost for leads. The Marquee took the place of my Super Reverb as my clean sound, and it proved to be better since the mids are more pronounced and you get the nice dynamic saturation of EL84s. It’s much more touch sensitive, which is hard to get with a clean sound without using a compressor. The only time I’d kick on both amps was for Led Zep’s “Rock N Roll,” which we play as an encore. I’d crank the Marquee to 6, hit the gain boost and boost the mids. It totally hit the “Pagey” kind of sound. You can dump the mids and boost the bass and highs and get a chimey sparkling clean tone — settings around 4 on the volume, treble and bass around 6 to 7 and midrange around 4. For a cranking rhythm I’ll set the volume around6, boost the mids to 8 or so, drop the bass around 4, treble at 5. There’s also a footswitchable gain, like on the London, so you can set a rhythm tone on the T-M-B channel and kick in the boost for lead. If you turn the amp up to 10, look out!

TQR: You mention “mustard” caps on your web site being used throughout the amp — are these modern reproductions of the original “mustard” caps used by Marshall in the ’60s?

Peter Stroud: Yes, we use the SOZO caps made by John Gaynor. John’s a Marshall enthusiast who has totally nailed (and surpassed, in our opinion) the “mustard cap” tone where you get the nice smooth mids and bell-tone clarity.

TQR: What else are you working on?

Peter Stroud: We have two new models in the works — a smaller “grab n go” 1×12 combo which actually incorporates a master volume with two EL84s. It has a great sounding master volume that has a sound of its own that can be disengaged so that the amp ha a non-master function. Sort of a “British Fender” vibe again. The thing screams, it can get chimey clean, and it’s incredibly versatile. And over the past six months, we’ve been developing a KT77 head using our Marquee as the springboard with a KT77/EL34 power stage. We had a handful of pro level artists who wanted extreme volume and headroom, where they were used to their 50 and 100 watt EL34 hears and quite a lot of volume. Plus, Dan is a big fan of the Vox AC50 and I’m the Marshall fanatic, so we got into that mindset again. We sent a prototype out for a test run with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes and he ended up using it as his main amp for the entire last month or so of their tour. When we got it back, all the knobs were dimed. Couldn’t ask for better testing in the field! We’ll introduce both of these amps at Winter NAMM.

REVIEW — 65 Marquee

We spent a lot of quality time with the 35W Marquee Club, and it impressed us as a feisty chameleon that can gracefully move between big, jangly clean tones and an impressive roar with a deep palette of voices available from two very different input channels.

EL84 amps typically produce a distinct, musical compression characteristic that is absent in amplifiers using 6L6 output tubes, yet the Marquee produces gobs of clean headroom — albeit British headroom rather than the trademark 6L6-fueled fidelity of a Fender amp like the Twin or Super Reverb. As far as we’re concerned, British tone in an amplifier denotes rich harmonic depth and chime, often augmented with a dominant midrange emphasis, while Fender amps (Blackface models in particular, sound scooped in the mids by comparison with a wider, broader, looser feel and toner not unlike the difference between the sound of oooh and ahhh. In the Marquee, individual strings seem “closer together,” yet still well-defined throughout its range of clean settings. EQ coloration is accomplished in the “Classic” Channel bass/mid/treble/cut controls, and in the “Normal Channel via six EQ presets on a rotary switch. This “color switch” progressively thickens tone with gradual increases in lows and mids, but the Marquee’s chime and sparkle remain audibly preserved in every setting.

The Marquee produces moderate levels of smooth, overdriven tone at higher volume settings (+6) in the Normal Channel that can be neatly managed from the volume on your guitar, while the footswitchable Boost feature in the Classic Channel yields scorching distortion and sustain that nearly rival that of a Marshall JCM 900 Series Mk III. However, the Marquee delivers a chimier crunch rather than the more linear and cutting, laser beam focus of a high-gain Marshall. It’s a prettier brand of mayhem, if you will. And unlike many vintage British amps, the Marquee succeeds in delivery an enhanced range of both clean and overdriven tones, as well as a more versatile and varied range of EQ emphasis. Overall, we found it to be an inherently bright amp with the EQ controls in neutral settings, but you are also given plenty of room to shape the voice of the Marquee, from brilliant and clangy, to thick, heavy and imposing. We had no trouble dialing in great tones with all of our guitars — thickening the Teles and Stratocasters, planting a wet kiss of treble emphasis on the humbucking Gibsons, and alternatively mining the jangly clean chime and perfect meltdown of P90s. A potent rock amp that can cover a lot of ground, the Marquee is handwired with point-to-point construction that meets the high standards we have all come to expect from custom builders today, the transformers are custom-made by Mercury Magnetics, and the fit and finish of the cabinet work were flawless. As the name implies, the Marquee is steeped in the tones that defined modern rock & roll, viewed through a properly British perspective. And as Fender’s Ritchie Fliegler is fond of saying, “If this is what you like, you’ll really love this!” Quest forth, mate.

Source: https://mercurymagnetics.com/pages/news/ToneQuest/_2007/TQRJan07-2.htm

What you need to know about Transformer Mounting Styles

Transformers mount onto various chassis in several different ways. How the transformer mounts to your chassis determines the mounting style you order.

Most transformers have standardized mounting styles. However, within the industry there are several naming conventions used. Mercury has adapted the following simple and easy-to-remember system.

When ordering you’ll need to know the following —

    1. Layout: 2- or 4-hole.
    2. Method: Horizontal, Vertical or Flat.
  1. Footprint: the center-hole-to-center hole dimensions (in inches). The distance between the center of each of the screw, or bolt, holes that will be used to mount your transformer.
  2. Style: A-Frame, “Special Brackets” (designed to accommodate many of the original Fender amps), L-Bracket or UTM (Universal Transformer Mounting) bracket. (See illustrations below.)

 

Notes:

  1. Endbells (caps that cover the bobbins and laminations) for transformers are optional. Ask your Mercury Representative about color options and custom graphics.

  2. Not all transformers and chokes can be fitted, or need, endbells. For example, chokes and single-ended outputs are gapped, therefore endbells are not used because they will short the gap. If you have any questions, please consult your Mercury Representative.

  3. A-Frame Mounts are standardized.

  4. 4-Hole Mount transformers mount in several ways, including L-Brackets, “Special Brackets” or UTMs.

  5. UTMs (Universal Transformer Mount) brackets will greatly increase your mounting options and are available in several colors. They can help to strengthen the chassis, especially for Flat Mount applications.

Contact us to with any questions or to go over mounting options.

 

 

Experience with Electronics and Guitar Amps?

Somewhere along the way, guitar amplifier tone got carelessly shoved into two broad categories – American and British. Fender being the quintessential American tone and Marshall being the obvious default for midrangey and reverb-less British tone. Within each, of course, there are distinct variations… Ampeg, Magnatone, Valco and Gibson, for example, are also American through and through, yet they remain distinctly different in sound and construction, and would rarely be mistaken for a typical Fender. Among British amps, Hiwatt, Sound City and Vox present equally diverse varieties of “British” tone that won’t be confused with a classic plexi Marshall head. But simply adding reverb or delay to a British amplifier will often throw listeners completely off as to its origins, while plugging into the Normal channel of a vintage Fender brown or blackface amp with the right guitar can produce an exceptional “Marshall tone.” Our recent experiment with our ’62 brown Vibrolux and a Goldtop Deluxe Les Paul with Lollar mini humbuckers rammed this point home with alarming clarity…. The point is, labels don’t always serve creativity and discovery well, and in the realm of supposed “vintage amp tone” where different examples can vary so dramatically, labels are worthless in generating much more than “skull chatter,” to quote Kye Kennedy. But, we still crave “Marshall tone,” whatever our individual perceptions of that sound may be. Well, since you asked….

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT!Yes, Gear Page wankers, we just did it again. Careful you don’t get a scab on that thing… it might get infected and fall off. We’ve unearthed two alternatives that will give you the bigger, bolder version of Marshall tone that you remember from your early Jeff Beck Group, Zeppelin and Cream albums, but at a volume level you can easily live with and actually enjoy in 2008.

A reader alerted us to Roy Blankenship, oh, about a year ago, and it took that long to get an amp shipped for review and develop an interview. It was worth the wait. Blankenship builds a manageable range of custom amps in Hollywood, and he seems more interesting in building what he wants, the way he wants, than going big time. We like that. So here’s an introductory dose of Roy Blankenship – an entertaining and frank fellow to e sure. Our review follows Roy’s interview.

TQR: Can you summarize your experience with electronics and guitar amps? How did you get started initially with mods and repairs, and how did that evolve into actually building your own amplifiers?

RB: First, I was born in California. My father worked for North American Aviation, and was transferred to Columbus, Ohio when I was 6 months old. Therefore, I was born crazy, but grew up normal. My father was a genius – he could build anything, and, in fact, he built my first guitar amp. It was a single-ended 6L6 design and had a field-coil speaker. It wasn’t loud enough to play in a band, but I still have it and it still works. I later discovered the cabinet he used was the extension speaker for an old film projector.

I started playing piano when I was 3, and played brass instruments in the school band. When I was a Junior in high school, I bought my first guitar. A Kent solid body, for $49.95. I finally convinced my dad to let me buy a Health kit 2×12 solid-state kit so that I could play out, and that was my first experience with electronic assembly. I was the guy in the band who would dick with all of the equipment. We bought some PA cabinets that had JBL’s in them, I refinished and rewired them, having no idea what I was doing, but it always worked. My dad had a whole workshop including lathe and drill press, so I often did small projects and repairs, like building my own speaker box to house two Jensen 6×9 speakers for the car. I wish I would have had the vision to go into production….

I was a hobbyist for the next 20 years, getting into tube hi-fi and going through a dozen Dynaco Stereo 70s, not knowing anything about them, but doing little stuff like biasing and tube exchanges. I was employed in the music biz as a sales rep for four different firms, and the pinnacle of my career was as national sales manager of Symetrixin Seattle, WA. In 1991, I had a three-state sales territory selling body shop equipment. I stopped to see my friend, Dan Abell (of Abell Audio, 909 King Ave., Columbus, OH), best tech in the world, and drop off some octal sockets my dad had left me. Dan was all upset and expressed that his assistant had quit that day and he was in a bind because he had so much work. On a whim, I said, “Hire me. I have always loved this stuff.” “Can you troubleshoot a circuit?” I said, “Not yet, but I have people skills and can do any number of things so that YOU can work.” I knew his assistant wouldn’t answer the phone or wait on customers, so, after the first day, Dan said,“Man, I can’t believe how much I was able to get done. You’re hired!” Within two weeks, I was repairing circuits. The info that opened the door was the difference between negative and positive polarity transistors. We worked together for the next four and a half years, never an angry word between us. At one point, I wanted to live in California, so I went to a NAMM show and was hired by Groove Tubes as production manager. The learning curve was straight up – there is an incredible amount of information in that place. From there I started my own place in Santa Monica. To escape the chaos that is L.A., I moved to Florida to escape. I realized the repair biz was not a big money maker, so when two clients started encouraging me to build my own designs, I was up for it. We beat it around fora while, they finally ponied up and I built two EL84 amps.They loved them, I was shocked (they were nothing special),but they were the start. I still have number 1 that I bought back from the third owner. My experience with amp repair changed when I came to L.A. People in Ohio and Florida were happy when their amps worked… players in California wanted their amps to sound good. That opened a whole new area of learning. About the same time, I was running into a lot of overly-modified amps that oscillated themselves to death, so I added “demodification” to my business card. People would call me back and say, “Man, this amp really sounds great now,” and I would reply, “Yes, I made it stock.” The only mods I deem worthy are tone-stack bypasses on Fenders and one of two master volume circuits that actually work well. They each allow you to attenuate volume without losing everything, and they both originated with Ken Fischer, amp guru, God rest his soul. Tube amplifier technology stabilized in the mid ‘60s, and very few amp builders have done anything innovative since that time. In order to separate myself from the pack, I wanted to improve on the existing circuits. When these amps were made, people were playing clean, now everyone wants to crank them up,and in order for them to deliver, my belief is that they need a stiffer power supply. I get a lot of comments on how “loud” my amps are for a given wattage rating. One client said, “I have played a lot of these amps, they give up when you hit them, but yours sounds like a big amp.”

TQR: Describe the different models you build in terms of features, construction and tone, how they differ from vintage or other custom built amps, and what you specifically wanted to accomplish and/or improve on with each model.

RB: I build my own take on American and British circuits,and I employ a stiffer power supply than most. I am currently using turret and eyelet board construction, but a printed circuit board can be useful if made properly. The compromises made by volume manufacturers is where the “circuit board-is-bad” myth started. Proper CAD design can lend itself to a quieter, more reliable product as long as the bean counters don’t try to take a nickel out of it at every turn. All of my current product is hand-wired, and as you know, there is a lot of snob appeal and dick-measuring in this business. For example, some of my clients wonder why I do not use Clarostat potentiometers… I have tested all of these devices, and I have never had a bad Alpha pot, but the Clarostats I ordered for testing were 50% defective!

In the Leeds amp, I went with different trannies than most and a stiffer power supply; this gives it more beef. In the Fatboy, I discovered an output tranny that would allow me to use 6V6’s (for 15 watts) or 6L6’s (for 25 watts) without changing the speaker load. Though the tranny was originally designed for an 8 ohm load, it actually worked more efficiently at 16. Overall, using Mercury trannies has been one of the best decisions of this whole venture. Now when I hear an amp with any other tranny, they sound flat. I took one of my amps to visit a friendly competitor, he played it and enjoyed it, then fired up his own amp, and it sounded flat. He was looking at his amp as if,“Hey, what’s going on here?” I think that was his first side-by-side comparison and he could hear the difference, much to his own chagrin.

TQR: What inspired the use of a Variac with the VariPlex? Why not just build a master volume circuit?

RB: We wanted to create a cranked-up Marshall sound at lower volumes, but people have time and again expressed their dissatisfaction with the attenuators on the market and the smashed sound of a bad master volume circuit. I credit Dave Friedman of Rack Systems with the concept and the prototyping. We tried five different kinds of coupling caps, different types and brands of resistors, different trannies…you name it. Eddie Van Halen popularized the whole Variac concept, so we modified the circuit so you could go from full tilt boogie down to 1 watt and the amp would not shut off. We have sold 40 of those amps with no marketing other than clips on a forum. We are now introducing a similar amp with a master volume for those who want it whisper quiet, but saturated. There are two master volume circuits that I know of that sound great even when turned down to speaking levels. We are using one of those and a few other mods in the new model, the Custom 45.

TQR: You describe a process on your web site in which you A/B’d the VariPlex with a friend’s ’68 Plexi and you didn’t stop tweaking the design until 10 out of 10 guitarists chose the VariPlex in a blind test. Can you elabo-rate on how those tests progressed and the changed to the circuit that you made to achieve those results?

RB: I could, but I won’t.

TQR: In your experience, how much variation in tone and component values, including transformers, have you observed in vintage Marshall amps? Isn’t it necessary to listen to a lot of different examples and then choose an exceptional amp as a benchmark?

RB: Yes. We already had “the Holy Grail” plexi in house, so we compared to that one. Most amps will respond to love, but there are some that are just exceptional. The reason for this amp-to-amp variance is manufacturing tolerances. If your trannies are built with plus or minus 20% tolerances, that means your amp could vary as much as 40% from sample to sample.

TQR: The VariPlex doesn’t sound “new” in the sense that it isn’t shrill or bright and sharp like some replica Marshall amps. How did you accomplish this?

RB:That’s my secret.

TQR: How long is the wait for one of your amps once it has been ordered?

RB:We have Carry-Ons in stock for the first time. Generally, we like to say 3-4 weeks just to be safe. Most of this is the gray area of vendor delivery on cabinets.

TQR: What’s ahead? What do you want to accomplish in the future?

RB: I want to be a thorn in someone’s side so they will offer a butt load of dough, I will sign a non-compete, and go away. Then, I can sit on the beach and light my cigars with $100 bills and sip pina coladas. The funniest thing about that picture is that I don’t drink OR smoke. Actually, we are introducing a bass amp shortly. As we gain more exposure, I am sure we will have enough to do. I am happy with people’s response to my products. I do not want to get huge, and I will probably not offer many more models – it gets too confusing. But thanks for considering me as a worthy contributor to your magazine. www.BlankenshipAmps.com (818) 530-8853

Our experience with “vintage Marshall tone” was formed with two stout examples that we were fortunate enough to own and play for years. The first was actually a late ’60 Park ’7550 watt head, followed by a metal panel 1969 Marshall50 watt. Both amps displayed the classic tone, smooth distortion and touch-sensitive dynamics we love to love and eagerly oozed the warmth and dimensionality that reissues lack. This isn’t complicated…. We’d simply drag a newish Marshall clone of some sort into the music room, compare its sound to the old one and invariably say, “Not bad, but this one sounds and feels better.”

When we fired up the Blankenship, however, not only did it sound richer and fuller with more depth than our old Marshalls, but the tone controls actually produce changes in EQ that allowed the amp to achieve a level of versatility that has always been sorely lacking in the originals. And then, of course, there is the nifty Variac that allows the VariPlex to be played at nominal volume levels with no audible deterioration in the responsiveness or tone and the amp. Essentially equipped with features that mirror an original Plexi, the VariPlex is a 2 channel/4 input design with presence, bass, mid and treble controls. Channel 1 is the bright input; channel 2 is more bassy, and the two can be jumpered and mixed to taste.

We took our time developing an impression of the VariPlex, playing it for over two months. Bottom line – it produces an authentic, old-school Marshall voice with better EQ, clarity, and fresher, more vivid harmonic content. Its voice is exceptionally smooth, yet capable of acquiring the melancholy edginess of an early Clapton recording by simply managing EQ, and the Variac as a master volume control works brilliantly. The VariPlex impressed us as a near-perfect example of an overbuild, hand-wired, low-production amp inspired by arguably the best efforts of Jim Marshall and company, circa 1968. Just as the Balls M18 became our modern benchmark for low-powered, classic Marshall tone, so goes the Blankenship VariPlex in the 50-watt range. If there is a better-sounding modern alternative toa vintage Marshall, we have yet to hear it.

We also admired the neat, clean and easy-to-read design of the VariPlex silver control panel, somewhat reminiscent of our old Park. Among all the clones being cloned with Mojo boxes, this amp is a visual standout. And as far as internal build quality is concerned, let the pictures speak for them-selves. In all respects the VariPlexis a solid piece of work,returned to the builder with as much regret as any amp we have ever reviewed. In fact, we’re still thinking about it. Plex forth….

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