In Conversation: An Interview with Alan Durham from Durham Electronics- Part 4
June 15, 2018
38 min read
Mitchakes Music: So basically you're limited with certain things you can do from a circuit design perspective you're limited and because of how the tube works or the technology you're using. This is really the way to make something because of the tools that go in it. You mean essentially with the slight tweaks you do to a circuit design, you're more seasoning your pedal to taste like a cook might make a standard dish to their liking?
Alan Durham: Yes, exactly. The basic template is already there. I have a tube, I need to apply a voltage to the plate, I need to have a cathode, I need to have an input, I need to have a grid to get this voltage increase. This goes back to Ohm's law. One thing gives, it's like a Triple Beam scale, more goes on one side then the other side is going to react. You have to balance the equation out. If voltage changes, resistance needs to change in order to maintain where it's at. Those changes, those subtle changes, are what make things sound different.
So, for example there’s a builder in town, you could call him boutique and he says he’s boutique- there's that word again! He's is a cloner. He clones things. Now clown-clone is the same word to me. You're going to clone these things and take credit for these things as if you built it?! I hear him say “mine are totally original!”, “No, they're not original, you are building yet again a tweed 5E3 circuit. You are ordering your parts from Mojo just like everyone else and you just put the thing together. Oh my God, would you look? You changed a 56k to a 47k… how original?! It’s not original, what you’re doing is not original.
For people to come in and charge a price that can exceed the original circuit price, you can buy an original vintage 5E3 circuit amplifier for some of these prices. The vintage originals will hold or exceed the value you paid for it, while these cloners charge what they do by saying well their components are better. But why would you buy a copy of a 5E3 circuit amplifier? However, the second you buy the cloned product it loses more than a quarter of its monetary value off the lot. While a vintage original 5E3 circuit will continue to just go up and up and up in value. The luxury is that these other guys like Leo Fender got there first. Jim Marshall got there first. They get the luxury of getting there first. Henry Ford gets the luxury of being the first car guy. Just because you make cars under a different manufacturer it won't take away the fact that Henry Ford was the first guy there. Sorry he got there first. You got to accept it, you got to also do what you said and keep trying to reinvent the wheel. That brings us to The SiTone you mentioned earlier. It is a project I’ve been working on. I named it after my son Silas and my Dad Silas.
MM: Tell me about that because I got really lucky going to the Dallas Guitar Show a few weeks ago and I got to talk to Redd Volkaert about your amp the SiTone. In our very brief conversation we had, he had nothing but great things to say about the SiTone amp you were making. The only details he knew to share with me was it had 12ax7 tubes inside the unit. At the time I only was seeing whispers of this on the internet. I noticed there is a lot more detail on your website about this as of this interview, but is there anything you would like to share about it?
AD: Well it's just coming out of the gate and we were talking about Reinventing the wheel. I used to always work on tube amps and Redd plays these big high-power Tweed amps and I was always telling him there was more out there than those amplifiers. He told me I should go for my own design in what I thought an amplifier should be. So, I started building an amplifier for Redd Volkaert where I was more in the Hi-Fi audio realm than the tube amplifier guitar realm. Tube amps accept a lot of harmonic Distortion as normal and Hi-Fi amplifiers don't.
MM: That was very similar to what I spoke to Andy Fuchs about when speaking about his amplifiers. He came out of the Hi-Fi audio world before he ever made amplifiers for guitarists. Playing his amplifiers reminded me sonically to listening to records on a McIntosh amplifier. Were you trying to make that idea of Hi-Fi audio more accessible to guitarists through a dynamic playing amplifier? When I play records on my stereo at home, the amplifier is getting the same input signal every time through the McIntosh amplifier. So, I understood when I play guitar I'm varying my dynamics and changing the input source at-will with a playing style through a guitar amp. That’s a very different thing than listening back to a constant sound source. That's why I like my Mcintosh, when I'm listening to music is there is no harmonic Distortion, it’s incredibly full of clarity. What you hear is what’s happening on the recording. I have been wondering the last few years since I’ve become a Mcintosh listener, why weren’t more guitar amplifier makers chasing this idea of Hi-Fi audio with as close to zero harmonic distortion as possible? Trying to get the truest audio signal back out of the speakers. It’s a brilliant concept because it showcases a truly great player, one who doesn’t have to hide behind harmonic distortion like on a Fender amp or a Marshall. Every playing nuance is showcased.
AD: I’m going to use the term ultra linear on that sound. That's what it's doing when it’s trying to get rid of that distortion, the harmonic distortion. If you tried to play through Redd’s rig, he played for the longest time Peavey LTD's, which can be super clean. It's a brutal high-wattage clean amp. There's nothing to hide behind. There's no sag, there's nothing to hide behind.
I started building Redd an amp. I designed a circuit that was not in any way shape or form an amplifier, a guitar amplifier circuit. I've called it the “Not-a-Clone” Circuit. I called it such because that's what it is. It's a not a clone of any other circuit out there, it is a true original in the guitar amp world. So, as I started working on that the more, I started realizing my limiting factors here were the speakers and the power section being able to reproduce what I wanted to.
MM: That's very interesting. You're saying because the speaker is going to fart out so you have to rely on a certain speaker for the amplifier to reproduce sound efficiently. So, going from a greenback to an EV for example, so you get so much weight to lug around. It sounds like to me you're bypassing all that and saving your back at the same time. That is incredible in and of itself for working musicians.
AD: Yes, so you have multiple levels of the preamp section, which on every other guitar amp out there they have a lot of distortion going on. These tube amplifiers are not working efficiently, which is what's going on when there's not true 200% amplification at a true clean signal volume. You're losing things as you go along. Then you go to the power section and it can only do what it's going to do before it starts sagging and can't keep up. It’s primitive technology. So, I knew my preamp section did what I wanted it to do and I would go to the power section and no matter what I did it was compressing. It was doing all this stuff that wasn't what I wanted it to do. So, I was not happy about it.
Then it just hit me you know if you could get this thing into an incredible high-powered system and reproduce what's going on you don't need to have a cabinet, you don't need speakers! Most modern clubs have $20,000-$50,000 minimum of PA gear to push volume in the room. The best speakers are in these places already. These places have Meyer PA systems and this stuff is much better than any guitar speaker cabinets on the market. That stuff is the s***. It's awesome. So, can I get my amplifier into that system and have it not sound like a horn coming back on you when you play live. In live scenarios, they’ll have an amp onstage, they stick on Mic in there and when it comes back through the speaker monitors it sounds terrible. It'll sound harsh and brittle. We don't like it and it kills our tone so we don't want to hear it.
So, I was looking to get this problem solved. I know you can't run a line out of a tube amplifier and get a good sound. We all know that from the recording studio. That sounds horrendous. It doesn't work. When I started working on the SiTone, I thought there has to be a way we can run through an all tube amplifier, into a PA mixing board, and with that monitor at that club hit me back in my face or move it to where it’s behind me and it’s behind my legs and have it sound exactly like how I want. So, I built an actual amplifier inside of the small box, which has a small power transformer, and its own power section and a preamp section, with the “Not a Clone Circuit” in there and start playing it to where it feels right. Now when I listen to it when there's a horn in the cabinet, I want it to sound not thin, brittle, and harsh. I want that to go away. I took it out with Redd to the Continental Club in Austin Texas. I wanted the SiTone to hit me in the face sonically, so we started turn it up, and turn it up, all the while waiting for it to not work. No matter what we did, it just sounded good, and so clean, and it had all the compression, tube squash and qualities you want out of a regular guitar amp. It’s got a tone stack on it that's a different tone stack with treble, mid, and bass. It also has a high and a low powered section switch that’s more like changing from a Fender Deluxe Reverb or like a Fender Twin in terms of power. So then after our success, I took it into the studio with Redd. I brought and used my 1958 Tweed Deluxe in the studio. I set out to recreate that special amplifier’s sound with the SiTone as if I was using all the great mic’s Royer Ribbons, etc. that I usually record with in the studio. I pulled up an old song I had written and played around with it. I tracked the same song again with the SiTone instead of the Tweed Deluxe and just destroyed the sound I had with the Vintage 58 Tweed Deluxe. It was unbelievable! I describe it like if you took your stereo and put your blanket over it, that's what my guitar sounded like through the Tweed Deluxe. The Tweed Deluxe, I might add, that I thought was so good for so many years. Right then I realized it wasn't.