This is the first post of what I plan to be a year-long effort focusing on my process and progress, as I try to launch a line of amplifiers under the Rootbeer Audio brand. Join the mailing list here.
When you purchase the goods or product(s) of a small manufacturer, artisan, artist, or in this case amp-builder, you’re buying their vision, opinion, or belief in regards to a specific discipline or problem. With far less “links in the chain” than a large-scale manufacturer would have, small, or possibly one-person businesses allow everybody involved to have a greater voice.
Due to the size and nature of Rootbeer Audio, most of the “voice” will be that of my own. The amplifiers I intend to create are made up of my own beliefs and vision – whether it’s the aesthetics, sound, or the sourcing of components, every detail about these amps will be carefully chosen by me.
Hand-made “boutique” amplifiers aren’t cheap to manufacture, and such aren’t “cheap” by today’s throw-out/disposable product standards. With that being said, if you are to buy an amplifier designed and built by me (Rootbeer Audio), you should know a little bit about my story, and Rootbeer Audio.
It’s been almost ten years since I first emailed Jess Oliver. I was in the middle of my spring semester of my junior year of college. I had recently taken an electronics course and a friend had taught me how to solder and repair cables. I began repairing my broken cables and building guitar pedals out of my dorm room. I remember etching the boards in Tupperware next to my mini-fridge, just as I remember leaving rectangular-outlines (from spray-painting enclosures) in the parking lot next to my dorm. I remember going into the electronics lab late at night and taking apart my Ampeg B25B (just to put it back together an hour later), and I remember how surprised I was that Jess Oliver, a mythical god of audio electronics, responded to my email.
Jess Oliver (originally Oliver Jesperson) invented the B-15 Portaflex (known as a “flip-top”) bass amp for the Ampeg company in 1960. For those that don’t know, this is an amplifier that is still being used, replicated, reissued, and coveted today. Jess’s contributions to both popular music and the audio/music electronics field are as significant as Leo Fender’s and Les Paul’s, yet most people haven’t even heard of him, nor do they know he’s responsible for putting the spring reverb effect into guitar amps.
I don’t recall how I found Jess’s email address, and it doesn’t really matter, but I don’t think I expected a response when I contacted him in 2007. I knew Ampeg was at one time in Linden, NJ, and for some reason I thought Jess might live around there. Considering I lived in northwest New Jersey during the summer at my parent’s house, I thought I would take a long shot and ask him if he needed an intern or assistant during the summer months. Jess responded rather quickly and informed me that while he appreciated the offer, he already had an assistant. He then went on to write that I should contact his friend Andy Fuchs who had recently opened up Fuchs Audio Technology in Clifton, NJ. He had mentioned my email to Andy, and Andy was expecting to hear from me. Although it was only ten years ago, there seemed to be less (or perhaps less exposure to) boutique amplifier companies than there are today, so there weren’t as many opportunities to learn from a veteran of the industry. I was, in my own way, about to talk film with Francis Ford Coppola, or music with Lou Reed – whatever you’re into, this was a chance to learn from someone who unequivocally knew what I wanted to know.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Fuchs shop. I walked into a warehouse filled with amps, tools, oscilloscopes, circuit-boards, guitars, giant spools of wire, and Andy Fuchs at the helm of it all. My memory is foggy, but I think Andy was as surprised as I was in regards to why Jess set us up. After we talked a bit and Andy offered me a summer internship, I remember his friend Mike taking me to the side and saying, “You don’t get it. This is one of the few guys out there (meaning Andy) that actually knows what the fuck he’s doing.”.
The quote might not be totally accurate, but it’s close enough for reference.
I spent the summer of 2007 “stuffing” (populating) circuit boards for the new line of Fuchs pedals (Plush pedals) and making sub-assemblies for the amps. I would go in three days a week to stuff boards and make sub-assemblies, and after my shift I would hang around and ask Andy questions. Andy and Annette (his wife and partner in the company) gave me all of the necessary parts to build my first amp, (a Fender 5E3 circuit with some mods courtesy of Andy) and they even gave me a speaker cabinet to go with it. The lessons I learned while building that first amp were (and are) integral to any successes that came after. Although it sounds great, due to some layout and grounding issues (my fault, obviously not Andy’s), that amp is mostly used to show my electronics students what not to do when building anything from the ground up.
After my summer at Fuchs, I went back for my senior year of college. During that final year, I built two more amps and started doing repair work for friends. I found a section of the college library that had electronics textbooks leftover from the 60’s, and I began reading as much on the topic as possible. I bought a bunch of books from Gerald Weber and other “niche authors” that I read and tried to understand, only to learn it would take years for much of it to sink in. I am still reading and rereading many of those books today. For those reading this that are going down a similar path, I can’t reiterate this enough: it takes time and patience for these concepts to make sense, especially if you’re mostly self-taught.
After college I moved back home to New Jersey, and in between teaching guitar lessons and flipping burgers (literally), I tried to find an audio-electronics company or shop to work/apprentice for. I applied to Electro-Harmonix (I naively applied for an electrical engineer position– they sniffed me out pretty quickly), and probably ten other companies – some as small as one person-basement-shops. I eventually landed an “internship” as the assistant studio technician for a major recording studio in Times Square, NY. I was excited for the opportunity, but after months of working and commuting (over two hours each way) without compensation, I had to look for the next lily-pad.
While I was working at the studio, I emailed Jess Oliver again to see if he needed help. Again, not totally knowing where he lived (North Jersey, right outside NYC somewhere?), I offered to be an assistant. He informed me that his last assistant had left, and after suffering from a stroke he could use a “jack-of-all-trades” to help him in his home and with his repair load. He gave me his address and told me to be there by 8am ready to work. I was excited, but that wore off just a little when I realized where I was going.
According to Google maps, it takes three, to three and a half hours (depending on route, and not counting traffic) to get from my parent’s house in Hacketsttown, NJ to where Jess lived in Massapequa Park, Long island. I still think he assumed that I lived right outside NYC, but regardless, I wasn’t going to argue over time, and knowing him he may of not cared. I got into the habit of waking up at 4am, driving through the dark, and sitting on the George Washington bridge for a long commute that was usually even longer on the way home. I would work from 8 until 4 or 5, and then embark on my three or more hour drive home. Jess paid me $96/day which covered the almost $50 in gas and tolls it took to get there.
During the few months I spent with Jess, I learned a lot, and often in a trial-by-fire method. One day I showed up for work and he handed me a router and some hand tools. He pointed to his garage door, which had a large chunk of wood missing, and basically said, “fix it”. After he trusted my skills a bit more, he gave me the task of trying to repair some of his old Oliver Sound amps. This particular model that Jess made in his basement (which could have housed an amp company during the apocalypse due to the sheer amount of tools and stocked components) featured a motor that would raise the amp chassis out of the cabinet – like a fliptop of the future. He couldn’t find the color code for the motor wires, so he figured I could do the leg-work for him. There I’d sit, in the basement (and borderline amp laboratory) of an amp god/guru, eating a peanut-butter sandwich, trying to repair something I knew little about, surrounded by pictures of notable bass-players posing with Jess, and a floor of Ampeg fliptops. This probably doesn’t sound like a “Cameron Crowe experience” to most, but I felt very lucky to have any of Jess’s time.
The fondest memory I have with Jess, is from when he asked me to search through his attic one afternoon. He needed me to bring his holiday decorations down from the attic, and since he was often wheelchair-bound, he asked me to climb up the ladder and look for the box. I remember having difficulty finding it, and while in search I scraped my head pretty badly on the ceiling. He would holler like an aggravated parent telling me, “I know it’s up there” – hinting (not so casually) that it was my fault that I hadn’t found it. I think that was the angriest I ever made Jess, but like a grandpa that yelled at his grandson, he seemed to feel bad after the fact and gave me an Ampeg hat that I still have hanging above my workbench (see photo).
After a few months of working with Jess, I was offered a part-time shop manager position at Fuchs Audio. I began working three days a week at Fuchs, and spent the rest of the week either at Jess’s in Long island, or teaching guitar lessons. Working at Fuchs was an incredible opportunity that I may have not fully realized at the time. I was building pedals, performing amp repairs, ordering parts, meeting with vendors, making sub-assemblies, managing our inventory, talking to retailers, and learning things from Andy when he wasn’t too busy (this industry is filled with passionate customers, hobbyists, the similar, so everybody wants to get Andy on the phone and talk shop or ask a question). Coincidentally I saw what it took to run an amp company, and I had a great example to recall for the future.
While working at Fuchs I started putting out repair ads (under the moniker Rootbeer Audio) on Craiglist to make extra money, and to get some experience. Since I was living on a farm out in the “boonies”, it seemed to make sense to meet people in more populated areas for pick-ups/drop-offs. I started meeting some people at a gas station on Route 46 in Budd Lake, NJ (across from the international trade zone). I would take in almost anything; mixers, amps, pedals, whatever. I didn’t guarantee I could fix it, but the price was right (read: cheap), and I tried to be as transparent as possible, so most people were willing to take the risk. I learned a lot, and made very little money – something I did for quite a few years after.
I eventually left Fuchs to pursue a teaching certificate/Master’s degree in Philadelphia.
Once I settled into Francisville – a neighborhood in Philadelphia - I began putting up ads on Craigslist for repair and studio tech services, again, as Rootbeer Audio. I drove around a lot, met a lot of people, saw a lot of studios, and made pretty much no money in the first few months. After a few months the word had spread (and some people helped that – thank you Michael Johnson), and I started taking in more amp repair work. My “shop” space for the repairs was the same room that I slept, studied, and lived in. When business was great, I would have amps lining the halls of the house I shared with my three roommates. I was also working at a local commercial studio as a tech (intermittently), and as a “work-study” of sorts, I was repairing equipment for the university where I was earning my degree.
After graduation I began teaching electronics and various audio classes at a local college and university. When I first started teaching electronics I had plenty of experience in repairing and building audio gear, but due to a lack of “traditional” education on the topic, there were gaps in my understanding. The corner of electronics I’m interested in – somewhere between engineering and music - has a lot of anecdotal “baggage” information mixed in with the actual science and facts. Statements like, “carbon composition resistors sound warmer” don’t necessarily have conclusive evidence. Since you can’t answer a student’s question with, “they just do”, you need more than a working knowledge to explain concepts. For this reason, along with difficult-to-diagnose repairs that have come by my bench, I’ve never stopped working to answer the “why’s” in my understanding of electronics. Every book I open, amp I build, or repair I make, helps to peel away yet another layer of this invisible electro-motive force. It’s a rabbit hole I have to yet to get sick of.
In between teaching and repairing, I try to find as much as time as possible to design and build amplifiers. Whether it’s for myself, or a customer, the thrill of making something from scratch hasn’t evaded me. Even though flipping the power switch for the first time can induce some anxiety, it’s Frankenstein, every time.
I understand electronics in a very different way than I did when I built my first amp at Fuchs. I am no longer limited to cloning circuits, or making subtle tweaks to the classics. I know how transformers work. I know how to calculate cutoff frequencies and reactance. I’ve heard and played enough amps to know what sounds pleasant to my ears, and I know how to translate that sound into an electrical circuit. With that being said, this year I decided to focus on designing and building amps more than usual.
I’ve been plotting and planning to build amps “professionally” or rather sustainably, for a few years. Aside from the inherent expense of quality components, you need the extra capital to try different parts and speakers. Experimentation can be expensive, and using anything other than off-the-shelf cabinets, chassis, and faceplates, usually translates to expensive setup charges, multiple “prototypes”, and an insane amount of time spent on each amp.
Although I have made leaps and bounds in the past, I was never able to truly get the ball rolling in terms of making amps consistently in a sustainable and repeatable fashion. Whether that was due to my own flaws, or other external inhibiting factors, there are many facets to designing, making, and marketing a tube amp, and all of them require time and money. As I said in the beginning, you are buying into the beliefs and vision of a builder when you buy their product. For this reason, I wanted to be uninhibited, or rather not as inhibited, while executing my vision and designing my amplifier.
In May 2016, I applied for an “incubator grant” through the Corzo Center at The University of the Arts. I gave a presentation to a panel of artists and entrepreneurs explaining my vision for a line of Rootbeer Audio amps. I explained my aesthetic for the amps, how I intend to manufacture (build) and market them, and why mine are different. Right before Memorial Day I was informed that the panel awarded me the grant.
As per a requirement for the grant, I’ve made a detailed plan on how to use the funds, and a scope of work explaining specific benchmarks and targeted completion dates. The first targeted date is set for October 1st, 2016. I plan to have a prototyped guitar amp design and bass amp design, both with a schematic and bill of materials.
As I sit, trying to finish this post, I have rough-draft schematics drawn for both amps, one finished chassis, one not, Illustrator files for the faceplates and cabinets, and a ton of work ahead of me.
Please follow along as I try to bring these sketches and circuits to fruition. Any support – be it digital-social-currency (“like”/share), purchasing an amplifier, or an awkward thumbs up – is appreciated.
Thank you for taking the time to check out what I do, Matt Manhire
p.s. here's a song