Distinctly Different

Recently, my wife and I attended a music showcase. One of the bands featured a very good local guitarist, one that I’ve known of for over 30 years. He’s always played well, and he’s well respected.

During the course of the show, he played several guitar solos, all of them top notch, and kept the rhythm going with style the rest of the time. He was using a Fender® Stratocaster®, which looked to me to be either a 57 re-issue or an Eric Johnson signature model, and a Bugera amplifier, with a well-stocked pedal board in between. This brings me to my first point.

Eric Johnson has a signature tone. If you’ve heard him play, it usually doesn’t take long to discern that, ‘that’s Eric Johnson playing.’ Fender recently introduced a new Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline model. While talking about this guitar, Mr. Johnson recalled some advice that B.B. King gave him years ago:

“You know, you can do this; you can do that. There’s all these things you can do, but find the one thing you do that’s unique, that nobody else can do, and just go with it!”

B.B. King had an instantly recognizable style. So does Eric Johnson. So do many others, from Carlos Santana to Willie Nelson to Roy Buchanan.

While listening to this great local guitarist play his solos, which were all on point and very good, I couldn’t help but notice his tone. To me, it sounded very, well, generic. It sounded like a Strat played through a pedal board. Nothing distinguishable about it, even though it was musically very good and well placed.

During a break in the show, my wife, who has a very discerning ear for music, had asked me who the guitarist was, and commented that he was really good. She’s very honest about her musical thoughts. If my tone or playing or singing is not very good, she will tell me. She’ll also honestly tell me her thoughts about anyone we listen to. I value her opinion; it’s an opinion forged by years of musical training.

As we were driving home after the show, I asked my wife what she thought about his tone. I asked her cold, so as not to prejudice her response. She replied that his tone, “wasn’t very good. It sounded cheap.” Interesting, especially considering that he was a very good guitarist playing what is considered to be good equipment.

That One Thing

Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received from anyone came from Mark Daven of the Guitar Radio Show. During an interview with him, after he had played two guitars through two different Texas Tone™ amplifiers, he stated:

“Many times I’ll play amps and you can’t tell one from the other. These are very distinctly different sounding amps. They made me play differently. I started approaching the instrument in a different way as I played each one.”

Mark Daven, Guitar Radio Show

When speaking about my signature amp, the Texas Tone 12, he stated that it has a “a pulsating tremolo. Different than anything I’ve heard before.”  He’s heard lots.

Don’t be generic. Don’t settle for a ‘me, too’ sound. Take advice from two masters, B.B. King and Eric Johnson. Find that thing you do that’s unique, that nobody else can do, and just go with it.

For me, it’s hand made tube amps, featuring the unique Hypnotic Slam Effect of the  Texas Tone 12 tremolo.

Advertisements

Low Noise

I’m often asked how it is that my Texas Tone amps have so little hum and hiss compared to many other tube amps, and yet have such sweet tone. It’s by design.

So many tube amps today are descended from amps in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Many builders today make tube amps that are either clones or replicas of those amps. Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are not clones or replicas. They are new designs that are inspired by those iconic amps of the past. In those rare cases where we make a traditional amp design, it’s updated for low noise and safe operation.

Why not clones or replicas?

Safety

In some cases, the choice is clear – safety. Guitar amplifiers of the past had two-pronged non-polarized AC plugs. Turning the plug upside down reversed the polarity, which was interesting because there was no way to know which end was up. The danger of this is that the so-called “ground” side of the amp chassis could become “hot” and vice-versa. Tube amp builders made compromises and concessions to this. Two of these were the Ground switch and what became known as the “Death Cap.”

The Ground switch reversed the polarity of the plug (equivalent to turning the plug over, when you didn’t want to turn off your tube amp). I recall that the trick was to get all the amps on stage to the same polarity.  How did we do that?  Hold your guitar strings and tap a microphone. If you got shocked, you needed to flip your Ground switch or turn the AC plug over.  Ouch!

The Death Cap was a capacitor wired to one side of the AC power, or to the Ground polarity switch. It was intended to get rid of hum if your polarity was reversed. The reason it’s called a Death Cap is that if the capacitor fails, then your amp chassis, and by extension your electric guitar, could become hot with 120 Volts AC, a most unpleasant situation. Today, all amplifiers are built with a three-prong AC plug and a power ground, or at least they should be.

Noise

The noise floor of many vintage amps (new ones, too) is quite high. Many guitarists just get used to the noise and hum. I know one who doesn’t like tube amps because they hum and hiss.  I told him, “mine don’t.”  Some guitarists buy noise gates or noise filters or line filters to help reduce unwanted noise and hum. This noise is due to two things – component selection and wire lead dress. A little background may help.

Grounding

Many amps are built with poor grounding techniques, with multiple ground points throughout. This is a recipe for noise, as multiple ground points cause ground loops, a main contributor to noise. Texas Tone amps are built with solid electrical engineering ground scheme to eliminate ground loops and ensure low noise operation.  Well-respected electrical engineer and amp builder Randall Aiken has a nine-point plan for proper grounding.  As he states, “Grounding isn’t rocket science.”  Makes me wonder why some amp builders don’t follow basic grounding rules.

Lead Dress

In the mid-1960s Leo Fender sold his company to a large conglomerate. They immediately instituted cost-savings, partially due backorders of items sold but not yet produced. The Fender General Manager, Forrest White, had implemented a quality bonus program to ensure high quality work, but this was one of the first things scrapped to increase production numbers. Due to the rush to push product out the door, and without the quality incentives, amplifiers were built without proper attention to wire lead routing, called “lead dress”. Poor lead dress can lead to hum, hiss, oscillations, squealing, and generally negative impacts. Rather than fix this, the company changed their circuits to add anti-oscillation components, and changed component types and values to save money. The end results was that guitarists began to seek out the older amps that sounded better.

Components, Wire, and Lead Dress

Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are built exclusively with aerospace grade military specification wire. It’s flexible and yet holds its shape, even with right-angle bends, is conservatively rated at 150C (300F) and 600 working volts. I’ve seen some tube amps use 105C or even 85C wire rated as low as 300V. Since most tube amps produce between 300 and 500 Volts DC, using 300V wire is asking for trouble.

I make sure that the wiring inside Texas Tone amps does not induce noise, by ensuring that high voltage wires are kept away from signal wires.  Any time wire paths cross, they do so at right angles and sufficient air space.  Many sensitive signal wires are shielded.  There are lots of current spike and noise in transformer center-tap wires and choke wires.  These are kept away from sensitive preamp nodes.  I’ve seen some amp builders, in the name of neatness, bundle wires together with tie wraps – a sure recipe for noise.

Amps of the 1950s used carbon composition resistors. Why? Because that’s what was available and cheap, not because of some “sound mojo”. Allegedly, and subjectively, carbon comp resistors are said to be somehow warmer sounding.  Huh?  Many of these resistors aren’t even in the signal path!  Carbon comp resistors have notoriously loose tolerances, poor drift and noise characteristics, and are responsible for most of the crackling and frying sounds heard in most old tube amps.  I’ve also tested 220k carbon comp resistors that read anywhere from 185k to 240k!  Not good when the circuit calls for two 220k resistors tied together, or using one as your supply voltage for a gain stage.  Rest assured, the gain and distortion characteristics of a preamp with a 190k versus a 240k are quite different.

Most of these carbon comp resistors are rated at 350 Volts, not a happy situation in tube amps that routinely see more that 400V!  The resistors used in Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are known for their stability, high temperature and voltage rating, and extreme low noise, and they don’t drift like carbon comp resistors. Here’s a comparison:

Type Tolerance Temperature Voltage Low-Noise
 Carbon Comp 1/2 Watt  ±10% 125C 350V NO
Texas Tone USA ±1% 175C 500V 0.10 μV/V
Texas Tone 1 Watt ±5% 155C 500V -10x Carbon Comp

Not only are these components low-noise, high voltage, and high temperature, they have tighter tolerances and they don’t drift, so they maintain your sound.  You want your sound to be consistent, night after night, gig after gig, session after session. You want a reliable musical instrument, not one that crackles, pops, hums, and is unreliable.

When you hear a Texas Tone amp, you’re not hearing hum and hiss, you’re hearing yourself at your best!  When you sound your best, you play your best.  Your tone matters.

Fight Marketing BS

I was looking at boutique tube amp websites, since I’m in that business.  I’m looking to see what other builders’ websites look like, what they’re selling, what their prices are, etc.   I’m often amazed by the amount of marketing lingo, and frankly, total BS that can be found on some of these sites.  I will list a few of these.

Period-Correct Transformers

This one is pure BS. Household voltages in the 1950s were perhaps 10 volts lower than they are in 2017.  Therefore, if you take an amplifier built in the 1950s and run it on today’s power, the test/idle voltages, bias numbers, etc., will all be off.  The high voltage may as much as 30 Volts DC above specification.

However, an amp built today is built with transformers designed for 120V operation, so that negates any need for “period-correct transformers.”  As a matter of fact, if a 1957 amplifier uses a 115/650VAC transformer, and a new amp uses a 125/650 volt transformer, guess what- they both put out 650VAC, it’s just that one does it with a 115V input, and another does it with a 125V input.

While it’s true that if you run are using an old amp from the ’50s today your voltages will be too high, a new amp is designed for today’s higher line voltages.  A “Period-correct transformer” only matters if you’re replacing a power transformer in an old amp.  To that end, some of the new replacement transformers have two primary taps.  One example used in my amps has a 115V primary and a 125V primary.  Bear in mind also, that although 120 VAC is the modern U.S. standard, actual measured voltage is plus or minus 5%.  I usually see 122 Volts in my shop.  When I test my amplifiers, I always use a variable AC transformer to test at 120VAC.

Tube vs. Solid-State Rectifiers

I read on one site about an amp’s tube rectifier having excellent sonics due to a lack of solid-state components.  That’s debatable enough, as many guitarists like the sound of their solid state amps, but then he goes on to say that solid-state rectifiers slam the tubes on power-up causing excess tube wear.  That is simply not true!

Tube-rectified amps generally behave differently than solid-state diode rectified amps.  In general, solid-state diode amps are “tighter” than tube-rectified amps, and tube-rectified amps generally exhibit a bit of voltage “sag” under high loads, leading toward a compressed sustain.  Again, in general.  Some people like solid-state rectified amps, and those amps have excellent sonics.  Amps such as a Twin Reverb® of Vibro-King® have solid-state rectifiers and excellent sonics.  My Texas Tone™ Ranger comes with a solid-state rectifier, and can also use a tube rectifier.

Solid-state rectifiers do not “slam the tubes on power-up.”  In fact, the type of rectifier has nothing at all to due with slamming the tubes on power up!  That particular symptom is a function of the Standby switch.  The Twin Reverb® and Vibro-King® use solid-state rectifiers and a Standby switch.  When a Standby switch is used on startup, waiting 15 seconds between turning on the power switch and switching the standby switch on, then there is no slamming the tubes on power-up, regardless of the type of rectifier.

The whole idea of slamming the tubes on power up is debatable anyway.  Books have been written about it.  The official tube manuals speak of things such as “cathode stripping” and the need for standby switches, but add a qualifier, “except for receiving tubes.”  Tubes used in guitar amplifiers are all receiving tubes.  Some tube rectifiers heat up gradually, and don’t even need a Standby switch.  I like to use a Standby switch, and I isolate them for trouble and noise-free operation.

Cathode-Biased Watts

Some boutique amp builders claim that their cathode-biased 6V6 tube amps produce 18-22 Watts with two 6V6 tubes in a Class AB push-pull configuration.  Um, no.  With 350V plate voltage you might get 13 or 14 watts.  If you’re running 420V B+ you might even be able to get to 16 watts.  By the way. the 1955 GE tube data lists 315 V DC maximum for their 6V6GT tube; a modern JJ 6V6S indicates a 500VDC maximum.  Either way, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get more than 16 Watts from any cathode-biased push-pull 6V6 amp, and that’s running way-above-spec (for anything but a JJ 6V6S) plate voltage (some people call the JJ 6v6S a cross between a 6V6 and 6L6).  I don’t know where they’re getting those 18-22 Watt numbers.  Instantaneous millisecond peaks at the speaker with 50% total harmonic distortion?  I don’t know.  I rate my amps in real, tested Watts.  My cathode-biased 6V6 push-pull amps will output around 14 Watts +/- 2W, depending upon the model.  No BS.

Surface-Mounted Components

One builder claimed a “surface mount capacitor” as the main power supply filtering device.  Huh?  Then he includes a photo and the model of the capacitor.  It’s not a surface-mount capacitor. It’s a multi-section can electrolytic capacitor, the same one used in hundreds of other amplifiers.

These are surface-mount capacitors, not used for power supply filtering in tube amps (they’re tiny, smaller than a dime):

surface-mount

This are multi-section can, of the type used in tube amps (they’re about the size of D cell batteries):

nice

Point-to-Point Wiring

Don’t get me started.  I wrote a whole blog on this.  I do not use “point-to-point’ wiring.  With point-to-point wiring, each component is connected to a tube pin or solder lug or jack.  There are no “boards” whatsoever.  Examples of this style of construction include most old tube hi-fi equipment, 70-era Sunns, and more recently BadCat and Carr.  I sturdily mount all passive components on turret boards or tag boards.  Wires are carefully routed to avoid noise and cross-talk, and I color-code all wiring for easy tracing.

True point-to-point wiring example:

point_to_point_thumb.jpg

Turret board wiring example:

LilDawg12_thumb.jpg

I looked inside one award-winning boutique amplifier advertising 100% true point-to-point wiring.  He is correct, and it’s a mess inside, with gobs of silicone holding everything in place and wires and components everywhere.  On the other hand, I see other builders that seem to be neat-freaks, with wires tied together in bundles, which is a recipe for noise.   Neatness counts, but neatness in correct wire dress, not looks. Substance over flash is one of my values.

It matters not whether an amp uses a PC board, tag board, turret board or true point-to-point wiring.  What matters is whether the components are sturdily mounted and selected for long life, laid out logically, and that signal, power, and heater pathways are routed for low noise and easy troubleshooting, and that you tell the truth about your amps.  Rest assured that all of these criteria are met in Texas Tone™ amps.  In many cases, the hiss is so low that you have to play your guitar to verify that the amp is turned on. It’s why power lights are so important!

Be aware

Don’t fall for marketing BS.  Don’t just buy an amplifier because your guitar hero plays one.  Do you play and sound exactly like your guitar hero?  If not, then using the same guitar and amp won’t make you sound like him.  I can play with a Twin and a 335, and I still don’t sound like BB King, nor if I use a Strat and a Marshall stack will I sound like Hendrix.

If you want a reliable amplifier, with high quality components, low-noise and easy troubleshooting wire routing, and above all great tone with no BS, chose Texas Tone™. Why? Because “Your TONE Matters”.

Your.Tone.Matters.07

I’m not going to lie to you or trick you into buying one of my amps with marketing lingo.

Thanks.