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That utilitarian spirit is a central theme in your company’s history.
Oh yes. Not many people realize that when I started out making a guitar and bass amp, quite honestly I wasn’t very successful at it. This was 1965 – 66, everybody and their brother was making guitar amps. I mean, even Martin had an electric guitar amp. There were so many guitar amps. I got thrown out of so many music stores… one day over in Alabama, a guy said, “Well, you know, I’ve got all the amplifiers I’ll ever need. If you have a sound system it would be great.”
Remember, in those days there were only a few choices. One was the Shure Vocal Master and the other was the Kustom K200 for about a thousand bucks. A thousand bucks was a lot of money back then—it’d be like ten times that today. In other words, PA systems weren’t for everyone. So I went home and thought about what to do to come up with an affordable system. I found an even better way to put one together, so I brought out a 100-watt, fourchannel PA system with two column speakers, which was the rage then,
and it retailed for $599. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. Well, doing it the way they were doing it, they were right.
Your first passion was guitar, though.
I went to see Bo Diddley in 1957 and went crazy. I just wanted to play guitar. I went back and, to make a long story short, my Dad [who ran the town music store] wouldn’t give me one. I built my own out of old
pieces of guitars and made my own pickup and then, once I had the guitar and pickup, I wanted an amp. It was the same story. He said, “Son when you learn how to play that damn guitar, I’ll think about buying you an amplifier or buying a nice guitar.” So, I made one. One of my friends saw it and you know the rest of the story.
Hartley often doodled iterations of his now-famous logo during high school.
You were forced to realize that you were a better gear maker than a guitarist?
When I got out of college in 1965, I had been thrown out of three bands. I was just about good enough to be in dormitory bands. We’d play little dorm parties for the beer. For every group I was with I would build their gear and then a strange thing started happening—once I built all the gear they needed, they’d kick me out. The first time that happened I thought it was just one of those things, and then the second time it happened it kind of bothered me. You know, sometimes when it rains it pours. I had a little shop in my basement so if our bass player needed a bass then I’d build him one and it was easy. I thought everybody knew how to do that. So, when I got thrown out of the third group, I had to do a very difficult thing. I had to look in the mirror and be totally and completely honest with myself and I said, “Okay big boy. Looks like you’re not going to be a rock star so what are you going to do?” The answer was clear. I love music and I love musicians, so I’ll just become what every musician has always told me they wanted to find: somebody to build good gear at a fair price for them. I’ve been doing it ever since.
How did you turn the corner as an amp designer?
A lot of people seem to think there was magic to it back then, but I quickly learned that wasn’t the case. In fact, if you look through some of the old Fender catalogs or the old Gibson catalogs, they’d go on and on about the amps being free of distortion when nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is they didn’t think about gain staging and they didn’t know the first thing that should overload is the power amp and then the pre-drive. The last thing that should overload is the front end for good dynamic range and they didn’t do it that way. Ironically, most of the amplifiers that are thought to sound good by today’s standards were not designed by engineers!
We should talk about tubes here. Many people identify with Peavey products that were very popular during the solid-state era, but you certainly know your way around a vacuum tube. Put the solid-state thing into perspective for me.
You know I’ve been seeking the Holy Grail called “tube sound.” We’ve been doing this for forty something years and I think we’ve probably come closer than anybody else. We have a number of patents on what we call TransTube Technology where we synthesized the overload characteristics of the amp and transformer—the asymmetrical clipping when the tubes clip. They almost always clip asymmetrically. We’ve tried to simulate what happens when you overdrive the grid of the tube, which actually becomes positive and you encounter something called grid current where current actually comes out of the grid and this causes what they call bias shift. All of this occurs in a magnificent choreography that ends up making the tube amp not only sound the way tube amps sound, but respond and feel like a tube amp feels.
There are guys out there who can certainly tell the difference between real tubes and our solid-state technology, but on the stage it’s pretty damn close. It’s ninety-five percent, and when I was in school ninety-five percent was a passing grade. The reality is, I’m not one of these people who wants to get on a soapbox and proclaim that our solid-state amplifier is as good as any tube amp out there, because if somebody wants a tube amp they’re going to buy a tube amp, no matter how good the solid-state version works. That’s why we still make lots of tube amps!
That acknowledgment is evident with your new Vypyr modeling amp. That amp is a straight up modeling amp.
It combines the best of digital modeling and some analog circuits right out of our TransTube playbook. The interplay between the loud speakers and the power amplifier is very, very important. Some people try to do it all with the preamp but frankly, you can’t. The best you could ever hope for is kind of a pseudo snapshot of a tube amp. A tube amp has to push back. It has to have that feel, you know, that response. It has to mimic the situation where you overdrive the grid of a tube. Power tubes have a negative grid bias and when you start pushing the grid positive, the tube is literally stumbling while trying to maintain its equilibrium. You can actually hear this and you can feel it. When I heard the final version of our Vypyr, I couldn’t see it. I could’ve sworn it was a tube stack but it was a solid state, open back with 75 watts and it had that—you can’t describe tone quality in words but I’ll try—it had that choke, that kind of visceral feel like a big tube amp when you hit a power chord. It had that.
So let me get this straight, guitar players are going nuts over tube-driven boutique amps for a few years now, but you’ve just put out a very affordable [and metalfriendly] modeling amp called the Vypyr.
This follows on the coattails of your popular ReValver modeling software
Yes and by the way, this new software is the future. It is amazing because it absolutely mimics anything you’ve ever heard. The beauty of this is it doesn’t just model well-known amplifiers, it lets you literally design your own amplifier. One of the problems that we have with language, written language and spoken, is that no matter how good your vocabulary is, you can’t describe tone. What does “fat” and “thick” mean? It may mean something totally different to you than it means to me. For the first time, we’ve allowed people to go in and design their own virtual amplifier to change the tubes, to change the voltage on those tubes, to change their placement, the plate resistor, the cathode resistor, the cathode bypass resistor, etc. Anything, any sound, you have in your head that you can’t describe to anybody, you can now design and achieve those things.