Interviews

Precision Tweaking: A Chat with James Brown of Amptweaker

  • By Yoel Kreisler @tonereport
  • November 27, 2015
  • 1 Comments

In the rolling hills of northern Georgia, deep within the heartland of the American South, a man sharing a moniker with an endearing soul legend is combining perfectionism, ingenuity, and years of experience with some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll. Since 2009, James Brown, an industry veteran with an impressive track record as a chief engineer for both Peavey and Kustom Amplification, has been crafting these rock solid, ultra-tweakable masterpieces of tone with his wife Phyllis. With 14 different models currently being offered, and more on the horizon, I sat down with James and talked about the origins of his company, his plans for the future, and the unique way Amptweaker works from the bottom up; where customer feedback shapes the executive decisions of the company.

Tone Report: Thanks for talking to us today James!

James Brown: Thanks for having me, Yoel. It’s good to have an opportunity to talk with you a bit, and to give your readers an inside look into our pedal company!

TR: Let’s start off with the big question, why did you decide to start Amptweaker? Was there a goal or lack in the market you saw?

JB: Well, after working in the corporate music product business for so many years, I wanted to get back to the basics, working directly with musicians to develop cool products that they wanted. As a guitar amplifier engineer at Peavey Amplification from 1986 to 2004, and then engineering manager at Kustom Amplification until 2011, I learned a lot about how the music product business works, as well as how it sometimes doesn’t work. Having said that, I’ve also learned all kinds of things since then that I had no idea about when it comes to running a small business, and it’s a lot tougher than it looks!

 

In 2009, I decided to give it a shot—part time at first until 2011 when Amptweaker got too big to just do “on the side.” My wife Phyllis was still working full time and helping me stuff boards and build pedals at nights and on the weekends. We finally got so busy that we just had to go for it, so she joined me full time and we’ve never looked back! She and I still build everything by hand, although we farm out some things like having our custom metal housings built, powder-coated and screened at a factory in Dallas, for example.

Our market strategy has been to offer electronic products using customer suggestions, using the best parts, that are intuitive and easy to use, and to build a brand that people know will provide that. I‘ve been an Apple Macintosh fan since way back in the ‘80s, and have always admired that blend of technology and simplicity, so our focus is less on the tool and more on the job at hand.

TR: How did you pick the name Amptweaker for your company?

JB: While at Peavey, I used the alias Amptweaker on forums like Harmony Central. When I designed amps and was working with artists I considered myself better at tweaking the tone than at being an engineer in the strictest sense. I would plug somebody in, and instinctively know which way to adjust the amp’s controls to get closer to what worked for how they played, just by listening to how their playing changed; I kind of have a knack for it. And being a guitarist myself helped me understand how to translate their lingo into the engineering required to make the particular change. Once I had decided to build pedals with our company, I figured that a pedal is a way to help people tweak their amps without having to hire a tech, so Amptweaker was born.

TR: What is the design philosophy behind your pedals and other products? Why are your pedals heftier than the standard fare?

JB: In the process of deciding how to kick this off, I was talking to one of my peers about what I should do first, and immediately found myself in another of the same types of meeting I was trying to get away from; guys in their 40s sitting around arguing about what 18 year-olds want us to build them. And suddenly it hit me, “Hey, why don’t I just ask them what they want?” So, I put a big red product suggestion button on our website, and for the first three months I just gathered people’s input. You’d be surprised how much people will share their ideas, in hopes that somebody will actually listen and make things that they need. And with all of the social media things going on now, it’s easy to interact directly with consumers to work out details, rather than using artificial “focus groups” of corporate business.

We get a lot of “built like a tank” comments from our customers, and we’ve all used all kinds of cheap pedals before. The last thing you want is to have a pedal or its footswitch break at a gig. I’m an engineer, but at a gig I’m just like every other guitarist, freaking out when my sound is gone and I’ll start plugging and unplugging cables like mad trying to figure it out. So when we did our pedals, I decided to spare no expense; I also just don’t ever want to have to repair their pedal! We use one-percent metal-film resistors, five-percent capacitors, and things like that to ensure repeatability in our production, which has always been a big deal for me when I was designing high gain production amplifiers. I’m not big on trying to sell people “perceived value” or “mojo” by naming off expensive brands of components, but suffice to say we use quality parts. We use powder-coated 14-gauge galvanized steel chassis, that are laser cut for accuracy, and they are very resilient. You could easily use one to chock a tire on your car so it doesn’t roll down the hill. I also use no connectors, since that’s the most common failure mode in all electronics. We hand-solder every connection between boards and switches, and use custom circuit boards for all of our pedals.

 

TR: Can you tell us what makes your pedals different in an absolute sea of clones?

JB: It was important to me to do something different and create a brand, not just another Tube Screamer with swirly paint. I have a friend named Bob Hopkins who does awesome industrial design, and who I worked with at Peavey back in the early ‘90s. I wanted something functional but unique, so Bob came up with a bunch of cool ideas for various ergonomic designs for the pedal housings, and after going round and round a bit, the current shape was born. The rear protection rollbar was a slight tweak I made to make it look a little more like an old convertible roadster, and it protects the knobs as you step over our pedal to hit the pedals in the second row.

I’ve designed many different solid state circuits to emulate various guitar amp tones, and designed 12 patented circuits while at Peavey, so while there's nothing particularly wrong with a Tube Screamer design, I wanted to try my hand at doing something unique. Tube preamps use multiple stages of gain, each one inverting and clipping the opposite end of the waveform harder than the previous, and the result is that the note changes in harmonic content as it dies down. You can look at it on an oscilloscope and see the asymmetry of the “square wave” changing with smaller or higher signals, and at different frequencies. Most of the Tube Screamer-ish circuits, even ones with asymmetry, don’t have that “changing” phenomenon, so making a circuit that accomplishes this tube-esque quality was important to me. I spent a lot of time on the TightDrive developing a new approach, and added more stages to get the higher gain TightMetal and TightRock, and so on.

Now about the Tight control, back when I was working at on the 5150 with Eddie Van Halen, the tone was muddy due to the lower power of the combo compared with the head. It’s a tough balance to get it chimey and chunky without going to the point where you think it sounds thin. We hadn’t really discussed this tightness issue while I was designing the 5150 head. Once Eddie had said he was happy, I had stopped tweaking! So anyway, on the combo I started adjusting the tightness in the preamp, and he got really excited about it, and asked me to modify one of his 5150 heads to have this same change. That modified head was used on the Balance tour, and became the basis for the 5150 II amp.

Years later when working on the JSX head with Joe Satriani, he had kind of the opposite request, he wanted to get more legato tone out of the lead channel. So I added a Fat switch that changed the low end to make it less chunky and a little more fluid. Over the years from designing amps and tweaking rigs for guys like Van Halen, Satriani, George Lynch, Steve Cropper, Shawn Lane and so on, I found that the feel of the pick attack was one of the most critical parts to each player. Since Amptweaker is all about building pedals to help guys tweak their amps, I focused a great deal of time in developing a way to adjust that with a knob, and that’s where the Tight control came from.

It can be tough sometimes to balance between having lots of options and oversimplifying too much. On the one hand if you specialize a tone you’re going after in a pedal design, you’re more likely to make that one crowd happy, but I try to add some switches and things to make sure more guys can get their preferred tones. To keep it simple I build in some automatic things you don't see, like automatic adjustment to the noise gates based off of the gain control knob. Another is the Fuzz control on the TightFuzz, which automatically tweaks the bias too so you can get awesome cleaner tones at the bottom of the control, but not at the sacrifice of the heavier fuzzy tones at the top. Sometimes I’ll hide switches inside to keep from scaring everybody off, and I’ll preset them so it works well for most people. I try to make my pedals work like hammers or screwdrivers that are like simple tools you can use to build your own tone, not just for some endless search for Jimi's, Joe’s, Stevie's, Eric's, David's, Eddie's, or Robben’s tones. That way we can all get back to making music.

 

TR: Those are the kinds of tone philosophies I like to hear! How did you go about developing your TightMetal series of pedals?

JB: As you can expect, as lead engineer on the original 5150 I got a LOT of requests from players wanting something like it in a pedal. One of the guys with this idea was Mark Kloeppel from the death metal band Misery Index. He wanted a simple pedal he could take to fly-in gigs to get consistent tone by plugging straight into the power amp. Many metal bands play shows where a bunch of bands fly in and play whatever backline is on stage, so you can imagine how tough that is. Mark explained to me that on recordings, all the death metal guys were either using the original 5150 or an older Ampeg VH140C, and they all used noise gates with the gate set very hard, to help stop the notes down to dead silence. I had a friend who owned one of the Ampegs, so I borrowed it and set it up with Mark’s favorite settings.

I was surprised how chunky it sounded, with the notes stopping very tightly (which is an important part of the death metal tone), but equally interesting was the frequency response curve of the EQ at the settings Mark liked. I recognized the curve, set up my 5150 block letter head to Eddie’s settings from the time, and the two curves matched! Obviously that EQ curve was a good starting point to use for the basis of the pedal, and should work for lots of different modern metal and rock tones. I spent a lot of time working with the gain structure so the thickness/harmonic distortion was in between the Ampeg’s tight attack and the 5150’s buzzier, thicker distortion. The Tight control further adjusts this detail, so you can dial in the “chunk.”

I included a noise gate that stops the notes really hard, and many say it’s one of the best gates they've ever used for metal. And I added a Thrash switch to help go from the more modern tone of the 5150 to a heavier scooped ‘80s metal tone.

The TightMetal has become our most popular pedal ever. We’ve built several variations since then, including the FatMetal which is thicker and a little less chunky, sort of like going from a 5150II back to a regular 5150. Our newest in the TightMetal line is the TightMetal Pro. The Pro has a ton of features, and has taken over as our number one selling pedal, and is especially popular for the fly-in crowd since it has three-band EQ and multiple boosts, and three effects loops.

TR: I think the question on everyone’s mind is: what’s the deal with all those effects loops?

JB: When I did my original product suggestion button on our website, I found that people were asking for all kinds of pedals with combinations of two effects—delay/reverb, overdrive/boost, and so on. So I thought about it and realized that what they really wanted was to be able to hit one switch and get both sounds together. So I decided that rather than build every combination of two effects you could think of, I decided to put an effects loop on the back so you could patch your favorite delay in with my distortion for a one-click system.

After discussions on some forums where guys mentioned effects that would work better in front of the distortion than after, I came up with a switch that moves the loop before or after the distortion in my pedal. So you can patch a clean boost or EQ in front or you can patch a delay or reverb after. Whatever is in that loop can be left on and when you turn my pedal on, you hear both, or when you turn my pedal off, the added effect is bypassed too, so effects in the loop become dedicated to the pedal.

Early on I got a mod request from a customer to make a loop on his TightDrive pedal that worked when it’s off. He wanted to automatically shut off his compressor when he turned on the TightDrive, avoiding the tap dance. After tweaking this idea through a few iterations, I ended up with the SideTrak loop, and I introduced it on the TightRock. You patch in dedicated clean effects, just leave them on, and your solo delay in the back, and the TightRock does all the switching. Some guys will patch an alternate distortion pedal in the SideTrak, and then alternate between the two with one click, instead of stacking them or tap dancing. 

Then, when we did the two-button Pro versions, people were asking for a boost and a third loop that only comes on with the Boost footswitch. The regular loop is still on there, and the SideTrak is on the front as well for your clean stuff. Bottom line: You can use our Pro pedal as the controller pedal for your whole pedalboard, and just preset the clean, rhythm and solo pedals in those three loops for each song, so you can get back to thinking about making music instead of tap dancing.

TR: How do you use customer feedback to design and improve your products?

JB: The suggestion button has continued to be huge for us, and I also participate on forums and Facebook, etc. We get many ideas, and I constantly sort them and store them in categories for future designs. Many times I can add a simple switch or adjustment and make another crowd of people happy with a product design. And sometimes we’ll get a really special idea, like the SideTrak Loop.

Some of the more important ideas in all our designs included something as obvious as having a power switch on the back of the pedal, to turn off the battery without having to unplug the input cable. Why hasn't anybody ever thought of that before? Another cool idea was to have LEDs shining on the knobs, so you can see them in the dark. With our angled knob arrangement, I came up with an idea to drill holes on the side of the knob that get higher up as you rotate the knob more, and there are hidden LEDs that shine on the side of the knob, lighting it up nicely for dimly lit stage performances. People were asking for easier battery access, as opposed to the typical four screws on the bottom, so my mechanical engineer friend Ken Chappell helped develop a cool battery door that slides open on the side, and is held in by magnets inside, so you don't need any tools to get to the battery.

Another important use of customer feedback is to find out what people don’t like about our pedals. I pay attention when people make negative comments like, “I thought it was too fizzy” or “it needed more gain,” and try to work that stuff out on new models. The Pro series have a lot of little switches and hidden tweaks to address stuff like that: The Smooth/Edge switch knocks out some fizz, the Fat switches give a thicker attack, the High/Low gain switches are to help get cleaner and heavier tones from one pedal, internal Noise Gate adjustments help “tweakers” dial that effect in, and there’s an Octave-Up blend knob inside the TightFuzz Pro.

I also offer mods for our pedals. For example, some guys with vintage output pickups thought the TightFuzz pedal needed more fuzz, so I designed a switchable More Fuzz mod inside the battery door for those guys. I had bassists asking for a blend control so they could maintain the low end of their normal dry tone, so I developed our popular Dry/Low knob that blends in the bottom part without the highs, eliminating weird phase shifting on the high end. We do some custom mods too, like a Bass TightFuzz with a switch to change it to a regular guitar version. We’re still small enough to offer that kind of specialized service, and I usually only charge $50 for mods, or $30 if you get them with the pedal direct from us in the first place. I like doing mods sometimes because some of our best future features come as a result of these.

TR: Are there any nuggets of wisdom you could share with us from your experiences as a musician and a builder?

JB: Of course I learned a lot about designing products and tweaking guitar tones while at Peavey and Kustom, but over the years the most important thing I learned was that you can always learn more, no matter how successful you are, you never really “know it all.” Times change, people change, their taste in music changes, and you need to find ways to work within those constantly changing guidelines. As I’ve gotten older, I began working with younger players who had grown up playing differently than my generation (like not using palm-muting as much, for example) and I found they needed something different. So I listened more to people who liked amps I hated, to try and find ways to incorporate the part they liked while still leaving out things about it that bugged me.

It turns out that everything has trade-offs, and people learn to live with the bad part to get the good, like using single coils on a Strat and putting up with the hum, or touring with your favorite tube amp even though it breaks down occasionally. Learning how to appreciate the bright side of imperfect instruments, amps, and effects and find ways to incorporate that while designing out their down-sides has become even more important at Amptweaker, and I’ve used that thought process as part of our design philosophy ever since.

TR: What are your plans for the future?

JB: Right now we’re swamped with pedals to build and are up to 14 different models, but I do get a LOT of questions about when we’ll be doing an amp. It’s definitely something I’ve been working towards, and a lot of the pedal research we’ve done is also helping me come up with amp ideas to implement once we get to that part. The market has down-sized dramatically in amp-land, with everybody and their brother coming out with smaller and smaller amps.

As for new pedal ideas, we’re working on several new requested pedals, with some planned launches at January NAMM, including getting some smaller footprint pedals up and running. We’ve also been spending a lot of efforts toward streamlining our production so we can get more out quicker, and trying to stay ahead of this wave!

TR: Thanks again for your time James!

JB: Thanks a lot!

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1 Comments

  1. Don Lang

    I haven’t had a chance to try any of your fx pedals yet. But I just bought a boss gt100 gt, and am sure I’ll be looking to modify my tones on it eventually. I like the interview, and agree the big company’s sometimes just don’t get it or its not cost effective. But that leaves the field wide open for guys like you! I’ve heard good things about amptweaker products, so I’ll definately be checking them out and ordering from you in the near future!