Samick Motherlode

December 2014
more... Builder ProfileFebruary 2009Fluxtone

"Why Can't You Turn That Down?" An Interview with Steve Carey of FluxTone

Almost every guitarist is familiar with the enduring problem of how to control the overall volume of a powerful amp without losing the killer tone it can deliver when it’s cranked. We thought we’d heard of every method there was for handling that problem, so when Steve Carey arranged to drop by the PG offices while on a cross-country trip to demo his new FluxTone speaker system, we were certainly curious.

Telling us in advance that his product took a wholly different approach to reducing the SPL of any amp up to 25dB, without attenuation and without changing the tone, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. When he arrived with a fine, tweed-covered Mojo cabinet containing a single FluxTone speaker with a control knob and power cord, we were intrigued.

After plugging in several of the rowdiest 50-Watt heads in residence and hearing the sounds of dimed amps at levels that could barely pass through an office door—we were persuaded. And we could tell from his reaction that Carey recognized the mixture of surprise and gratification that was surely written all over our faces.

The fact that Carey’s method isn’t one of those we already knew about made us want a closer look—while the FluxTone speaker system really is a new idea, the Variable Magnetic Technology at the heart of the system is itself based on a pretty old idea. What appeared to be obsolete a half a century ago turns out only to have been waiting—for a guy like Carey, with a knack and need. I had to pick his brain to find out just how it works.

CB: Can you tell me about your background and how you got started with this?


SC: I had a pretty good introduction to tube electronic theory and circuitry in the sixties. I was in an experimental electronics course offered one year in high school. There were like a hundred and forty of us… it was a disaster… too much data, but I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and took it all in. We went from atomic charges to super heterodyne receivers in nine months. I built my first tube amp in the late sixties and got into hi-fi repair all the way through the seventies.

Then I started building PA systems for the disco era, doing church sound systems, things like that. We built big transistor amps back in the early seventies, when you couldn’t get them… a few years ago, I got into the restaurant business, and we set up a stage. We were doing blues jams and local acts. Sure enough, the age-old problem came up: my girlfriend would say, “I can’t take the orders on the phone, because those guys are too loud. Can you turn that down?” Of course the guitarists always responded, “No, that will ruin my tone.” One by one by one, we went through all the versions of how to turn it down without losing the tone. And one by one by one, the guitarists would say either, “Yeah… that sounds just like my other thing that has a master volume control,” or else they’d say, “It doesn’t work.” We tried building regulated power supplies for the output tubes, driving a small output tube into an inductive load and then re-amplifying it, all the normal master volume controls. There were various kinds of load boxes and such. Being in the hi-fi business, we always had load boxes when testing amps.

All that time in the back of my mind, I knew about what would become the FluxTone system, or VMT (variable magnetic technology), but I always thought it was just such a long way around to get the desired effect. Why would I want to do that? After everything else was undesirable to the guitarists playing in our restaurant, I finally said, “Fine. Okay.” FluxTone manufactures hardware for speaker assemblies in small production runs.

That’s when you decided to go ahead and take the long way around the problem?

Yeah, I got an old field coil speaker and built a variable power supply for it. I did all the preliminary testing. I’d call up a few guitarists who live nearby, who’ve been playing thirty or forty years—when there were tone issues—and tell them to get over here and play the thing, test it out.

Then we showed it to other guitarists. They would hear it, and then the inevitable… what I call the FluxTone smile would creep across their faces. I swear they hear things I don’t, and that’s because they’ve been playing twenty, thirty or forty years and they’re tuned in to the nuances. I’m just an oscilloscope guy, looking for distortion. It’s hard enough to see on equipment, and it’s even harder to hear. But players hear it, and when they heard the VMT system work, they said, “Wow! You did it!” So, we started demonstrating at local shops here in Colorado, and every single time it always ended with, “That really works!” Three years later, I have yet to find anybody who says it doesn’t work. It’s been unanimous.

When did that turn into the decision to start a business?

After demonstrating to maybe fifty or a hundred people, we couldn’t find anyone who would say, “You’re full of it.” Instead, we were hearing, “Why hasn’t somebody else done this? Why did it take fifty years?” We also heard a lot of, “When can I get one?” and of course, all the time I’m doing my tests, my buddies are giving me their tonal input; I set them up with VMT systems and they’re totally addicted. They’re going to their gigs with it. We’ve gotten only positive feedback.

So you didn’t run into any problems?


The only negative was that field coil speakers were abandoned in the fifties. Who makes them? Nobody.

Our patent is not for a field coil speaker. The FluxTone patent is for a certain method of use. The field coil speaker has been around since the twenties. It was abandoned when the technology moved forward. Back in then, we didn’t have Alnico, and there was no way to make a really strong magnetic field with rare earth, so the magnetic field was produced with a field coil. It also doubled as a power-supply-quieting device in those early crude amplifiers… it managed to get the hum out of the power supply, because back then there weren’t these great big capacitors—so the field coil was used to smooth the power supply and to create a magnetic field that was strong enough to be viable. But then after WWII, and Alnico, people figured out how to make stronger magnets. Then field coils went by the wayside. They were just too expensive, they were too hard to make, there’s too much copper involved, there’s too much labor… they’re just a pain the butt.

So, you’re going in the opposite direction of the technological development?

Right. Back then nobody ever wanted to reduce the power to the field coil of a speaker. Why would you do that? They were trying to get all the efficiency they could. Not to mention those old speakers operated at lethal voltages! With FluxTone we redesigned the field coil system, and our speakers operate at a completely safe voltage… you can even stick your finger on the field terminals.