Phillip Dodge: You guys started out doing repair, live sound, and rentals, right? How did that evolve into the custom and boutique shop you are today?
Ben Juday: Our company was founded in 2002 and we spent the next nine years doing pro-audio repairs, Hammond organ repairs, live sound production, and backline rentals. In 2011, I decided to build a guitar amp from one of the hundreds of vintage Hammond organ amplifier chassis sitting in our shop. This was done on a whim with no intention of shifting the whole focus of our company. After building that first Sarge amp and hearing how great it sounded, I decided to go ahead and make another couple of amps to try and sell. I took one along on a family vacation to Nashville and made a few sales calls. This was how we got our very first dealer. We now have 15 dealers in 4 countries and are working on getting a few more!
PD: So after the success of the Sarge, you decided to go head-first into amp making?
BJ: After repairing thousands of guitar amplifiers and other audio gear, I really started to learn what circuit designs sounded great, what manufacturing techniques stood the test of time, and what circuit components contributed the most to great tone. I also had the great fortune to have met a physics professor in 2000 at the University of Illinois who mentored me on vacuum tube circuit design. This friendship continues to this day. We like to refer to him as our “secret weapon” as he is an absolute audio genius. He has helped us get every last bit of available tone out of all of our designs.
PD: So you guys are using not only transformers from old organs, but in some cases, even the wood and other materials?
Ben: We reuse chassis, transformers, tubes, wood, and even the speakers from unwanted or unused organs. We use 100% repurposed wood for our speaker cabinets; most commonly maple, redwood, aspen, walnut and mahogany. In most cases the cabinets are loaded with vintage Alnico speakers, many over 50 years old.
PD: The ORGANic 15 is beautiful to look at. What's it based on and how does it sound?
BJ: The ORGANic 15 has the same simple preamp stage as all of our amps (volume, treble, bass—loosely based on a blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb). The main difference with the ORGANic 15 is that it has a cathodyne phase inverter. This type of phase inverter has different overdrive characteristics than our other amps. Personally I prefer the harmonic content of the Sarge, but I’ve had plenty of customers tell me that the ORGANic 15 has the best breakup of any of our amps. It really comes down to personal preference.
PD: Tell me about the Sarge. It also uses vintage Hammond transformers and even the vintage PI circuit.
BJ: The Sarge is a 15-watt EL84 powered circuit housed in an aluminum enclosure with a removable lid. The amplifier enclosure formerly housed now-obsolete scientific equipment, and the faceplates we use are vintage embossed tin signs. It has volume, treble, and bass controls. Originally we developed the Sarge for use with guitar, but we’ve heard about a handful of people using them for bass, synth, and even harmonica. The natural sound and simple controls make it a very versatile amp. We kept the original transformers because of their quality, and in the case of the Sarge we did reuse the phase inverter circuit. It is unlike any phase inverter circuit I’ve seen but it has something magical about it so I decided to leave it alone!
PD: The combination of two EL84s and a Fender Deluxe tone stack is cool. Is the vibe generally a cross between a Deluxe and an AC15? I'm guessing the Hammond transformers and phase inverter add to the sonic fingerprint.
BJ: All of our EL84 based amps have a little of that Vox “sparkle” to them. The EL84’s are a big part of that. The reason we chose the very simple tone stack and preamp is because we want to keep the circuit as SIMPLE as possible. No mini-toggles, no boost pots, no overdrive circuits. There are a zillion great stompboxes out there that people can use for additional tone shaping. Having a simple amp not only keeps costs down for our customers, but it keeps the audio path clean with fewer places for unwanted signal degradation and coloring. After working with EL84 tubes for a few years now, I can officially say that it is my favorite power tube. The magic of our amps really comes from two places in my opinion. The vintage output transformer, and inherent distortion characteristics of EL84 vacuum tubes.