Amps 101 with Dan Boul of 65Amps, Part 4

Most of us don’t know, and don’t need to know, how a barely audible plunking of strings mounted over a couple of magnets on a plank of wood can transform into a wall-shaking monster of musical expression. For those of us who like to get under the hood to gain a better understanding of what’s actually happening, you came to the right place.

SMG sat down with Dan Boul, co-founder of 65amps (www.65amps.com), to break down the journey of the guitar signal from that first tinny strum through to its glorious amplification.

Dan Boul of 65Amps hanging out with Rick Nielsen and his SoHo amp!

FEATURES

SMG: Standby switch – some amps have them, some amps don’t. Is it important?

DB: It is. That’s a good question. Any tube amp will have a standby switch on it. When you have standby off, you’re heating up the filaments in the tubes but the control grids have no signal coming in to them – you’re just getting the tubes warmed up and ready. So when you flip the standby switch on, you’re completing the circuit to the control grids. It keeps your tubes hot without wearing them out. If you just flip on the amp and start feeding signal into a cold tube, it’ll start to strip the cathodes on the tube. You want to put it on standby when you’re not playing so it’ll just idle. Solid state amps don’t care. They’re either on or off. That’s why there’s no standby switch on them.

I have a little baby Gretsch tube amp without a standby switch. Is it more important in a bigger amp?

Yeah, because it’s a lot higher voltage.

SMG: You talked about biasing. What is that exactly?

DB: Biasing just means that the power tubes have equal amounts of electricity available – an equal flow of current. Biasing is a mechanism within the circuit so it auto balances itself, so if you get more current on one side it automatically tips the other way. Cathode bias is self-biasing. It’s an automatic teeter-totter. It stays balanced. With grid biasing, you feed a certain amount of negative current to each tube to balance it and you can adjust it. Guys go for grid bias because you get more power out of the tubes. But I like the sound of cathode bias better. It’s more harmonic, it’s kind of smoother and richer. But it’s less efficient. But again, it’s all about sound.

SMG: What would happen if you had a grid biased amp that wasn’t biased?

DB: It would start to hum and you’d notice the output going down because one tube is doing more work than the other.

SMG: Modern versus vintage. What does that mean?

DB: Usually modern amps have a lot more distortion and treble. In my humble opinion, a lot worse and a lot less musical. The cut off seems to be around the mid 80’s. You know, once the glam metal guys came in with their JCM800’s. That’s when everything just turned into chainsaws. And vintage amps are less distortion, a lot warmer sounding. You think of Zeppelin versus Motley Crue. Two very dirty guitar sounds. But Zeppelin is so warm and musical. Actually, side by side it sounds relatively clean compared to 80’s stuff. And then it kind of came back around with groups like the Black Crowes. They have a more vintage sound to them. Also construction. Our amps are hand wired. Modern amps are printed circuit boards. In the amp world, modern usually means cheap. They’re just printed circuit boards with overseas parts. And you can hide that with a lot of distortion but you’ll notice that most modern amps don’t have a really good clean sound to them. Their clean sounds are very mediocre whereas vintage amps have sweet, beautiful, clean sounds. It depends who you ask, but I always think of modern as more gain, more distortion, more treble. Lots and lots of treble.

SMG: Could you have a solid state amp with a vintage sound?

DB: It’s pretty tough. Transistors just don’t distort in a musical fashion. There’s no way around that. That’s why tubes are still here. They distort in what’s called even order harmonics – a natural layering of sound, whereas transistors just distort randomly and it’s usually not very musical. It’s a lot of distortion, but it’s not super musical. There’s just no way to fake it. People have been trying for 40 years. They get better, but after 40 years of some really intelligent people trying to do it, it still kinda sounds second rate to any ol’ tube amp.

WRAP UP

SMG: SMG: Final question. What is your buying advice for amps?

DB: It’s the same as with all musical instruments: buy the most you can afford, maybe a little more than you can afford. A Mercedes Benz is the cheapest car to own. It’s one of the more expensive cars to buy, but it’ll last for 25 years even if you don’t take care of it, and it will always have some value and will always give you a good ride. Whereas in the meantime you will have bought seven Chevrolets and spent five times the money and when all is said and done you’ve got a car that’s worth nothing. Just like an old Marshall. Yeah, they’re expensive, but it’s really the cheapest thing to do.

Assuming you’re of a certain budget, I prefer stuff that’s hand wired. It sounds a little better and behaves a little better. There are some notable exceptions. There are some good printed circuit board amps but as a general rule, hand wired amps are a bit sweeter sounding. You want to know what kind of tubes they’re using and who are the manufacturers. I think it’s important to know what kind of speaker is in there and what the cabinet’s made of. Is it nailed together or joined together? The output transformer – nobody at Guitar Center is going to be able to tell you what’s inside the amp. You go to a boutique shop, they might. But most guys don’t really advertise who their transformer manufacturers are because they use cheap ones. It’s only the people who use the expensive ones who say, “We use Mercury”, or Pacific, or whatever.

But most importantly does it make you feel good when you play it? If you’re going to spend money on a piece of gear, the first thing it should make you do is smile. I mean that’s the whole point of why we’re doing all this. Sometimes a little cheap amp will make you smile. You want an amp you want to keep and play guitar and enjoy and not think, “I need to buy more pedals” or whatever…because for me, every pedal I’ve bought is because I wasn’t happy with my amp. You see guys with 35 distortion boxes. It’s because they’re not happy with the way their amp distorts. Just go get an amp that distorts well. It’s cheaper than buying all those pedals. You’re never going to get a Marshall stack in a pedal – it just won’t happen. And there’s a certain element of moving air you’re never going to recreate at bedroom volumes. It’s not going to sound like a 100W Marshall. You’re not going to sound like Hendrix in your bedroom. But you can have fun nonetheless. You can still have a great time and that’s what’s important. If you’re on a lower budget, buy a used amp. Buy something from the 60’s or 70’s that still functions that you can take to a tech and spend $100 on and make function correctly. You know this sort of holy grail thing that everybody seems to chase, “I want a fantastic sounding tube amp that sounds like Jimi Hendrix, sounds like David Gilmour, sounds like Angus Young, blah blah blah, but I only have $1000”. It just doesn’t exist. It’s like if you want to buy a Ferrari but you’ve only got $25,000. Well, there aren’t any $25,000 Ferraris. You know, Ferraris you’ve got to tune them up and the tires are expensive and the brakes are expensive and the leather seats are going to cost you $5,000 to get recovered if you spill something on them, but damn are they fun to drive! That’s the same dynamic with these things. Long answer to a short question; just buy what makes you happy. If there’s something you really like, find a way to pay for it because it’ll be the last thing you’ll buy.

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Dan Coplan is senior staff writer at SMG. Dan is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and self-admitting guitar junkie. Email: dancoplan@sharemyguitar.com

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