In our latest column offering thinly disguised and mainly unwanted careers advice we found ourselves heading deep down into the heart of the UK's creative core, Digbeth in Birmingham, in the shadow of the Custard Factory and more pertinently perhaps the west midlands hollywood bowl of punk, the Adam and Eve, meeting with Jon Elliott founder of the critically acclaimed Branston Amplifier all-valve amplifier line, all round good guy and amp builder, repairer and restorer...
First of all we wondered...
OL: How would someone get into this line of business?
Jon, TLC-Amplifiers: I got into valve amplifiers when I was 16, but left them alone. I had a go at repairing them in my youth, but took a bite (electric shock) from one when I was in my late teens, and decided to leave it to braver souls. I instead worked with low voltage electronics, such as synthesizers, effects units and transistor amplifiers for years.
I tried to have my valve amp fixed about 5 years ago, but found my old friend, Martin Locke, had died of cancer, so I found a new guy - Mike at QTV in Quinton. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago.
When my father-in-law, blues guitarist Tim Branston, asked me to see if I could fix his 1959 Watkins Dominator, I thought, what the hell, I'll give it a go. It turned out to be much easier than I had expected, and the sound that came out of the amp once it was fixed was incredible. It's his amp that I used as the basis for my Branston Mistress range.
I've got a degree in Electrical & Electronic Engineering, and have many years experience in repairing, designing, testing, and teaching electronics and music technology.
OL: How long is your typical working day?
Jon: A typical working day is 10 until 6 in the workshop, then maybe an hour or so in the evening, on research, part buying or admin. I'm home early on a Tuesday and Friday, for child care and chips, respectively. Starting at 10 am means I get to take the kids to school, and also miss the traffic. If I'm on a particularly intensive amp build I might stay later.
OL: Do you have a favorite aspect of your work?
Jon: I love bringing amps back from the dead, some of which are uneconomical repairs, just because. I love creating new things, and breathing life into them. I love the look on people's faces when their precious amp sings to them, or when they try out one of my babies, and they can't stop smiling.
OL: Does your job involve any international travel?
Jon: Not yet.
OL: What's the best/go to piece of equipment you enjoy using?
Jon: My latest amp is called Bertha - she's a "tailoring amp" - covered in switches, so I can tailor the sound to customers' needs. I can switch between some classic circuits, which are then combined to give the customer the sound they want. Of course, some people (normally studios) want it all. It's a 25W 6L6 based guitar amp. It's got classic Fender, Marshall, Watkins, Soldano and Polish Black Dog based circuits inside. She got given the "Big Balled" 6L6 treatment late last year. My first production Mistress amp, Betty, will be getting the same treatment later this year, at the request of it's owner.
OL: Do you have a favorite amplifier, maybe one you kept, something your built and felt so happy with you were sorry to see it go?
Jon: I've still got Rosie, the prototype, and she's undergoing a major refit at the moment. Her first chassis was made out of a piece of sheet aluminium out of a kitchen, and she rattled. Bertha will be retired as the demo amp once the first production models are built. She'll be going to one of my friends. I'll be checking up on her, like an overprotective father. I don't get as protective about the production models.
OL: Who are your favorite type of clients?
Jon: Working musicians. A lot of the ones I meet are struggling to make ends meet, and should be paid more. I don't believe in this "not paying the musician because we're giving them exposure" bullshit. It's a cop-out. Bars and promoters are making money. Council workers are making money. The PA, lighting, staging, rigging and infrastructure are all being paid, as are the advertising. Certain big council run music festivals (and I mean Birmingham) are pulling a fast one by not paying the bands.
OL: Can you anonymously relate any horror stories without going out of business or upsetting your paranoid client list?
Jon: I had a lightweight switched mode (transistor) power amplifier in for weeks... months even. I spoke to the technical support guy, and he said that they didn't have schematics for that amp in a format that could be sent to me, so I had to ask him loads of questions. I thought I'd fixed it, so it went back, then it started to go wrong again. I tried again, then shorted the whole power supply to the chassis by mistake while trying to re-create the fault. I fixed it again, at my own cost, but found the original fault still wasn't resolved. I must have spent days working out the circuit, only to find out that the manufacturer did actually have a schematic of that part of the amp. It turned out to be a tiny sliver of solder shorting underneath a tiny surface mount capacitor - almost undetectable without the schematic. The work was guaranteed, so it was all done in my own time. On the plus side, I now know that circuit inside out. The amp's owner was very understanding - he'd tried to get it fixed before, but when it broke again it had ended up in his "graveyard". He was very pleased when he collected it, but only after it had been tested for 2 weeks solid, driving the subs at the workshop.
OL: What are you best known for professionally?
Jon: I have a great collection of gear that I've collected, or been donated over the years. Mainly stuff that was unwanted, or had been deemed "Beyond Economical Repair" my myself or other repairers, that I've toiled over and got working again. approximately once a month we hold something called the "Werewolf Workshop" where a bunch of friends come over, and we put the equipment through its paces. It's a good way of finding faults and flaws in the gear, and ways to improve it. I guess people like to know that I've got a real passion for the gear, and for music. I've been told I'm like a geek you can communicate with, without having to talk binary.
OL: Working from home it's such a trend. If you had to set up in my house, could you do it? What would the neighbours think?
Jon: No. Saying that, I do my admin from home. Kids and high voltage amplifier circuitry do not mix. Kids and hot soldering irons do not mix. Kids love opening those little component trays and exploring the tiny little bits inside. My workshop is outrageously well organised. You would receive a noise abatement order within maybe a week of me starting work there. Valve guitar amps need to be run at pretty much full power to get the best sound out of them, which is why I tend to build lower power ones, but even those would drive your neighbours to distraction.
OL: Why would you say "Everybody needs their own Valve Amp Guru?"
Jon: When was rock and roll was born, valves were powering it. When you push transistors to the limit, they just limit. When you push valves to the limit, they give a bit more. It's a clever interaction between the valves, the output transformers and the speakers that give them a sparkle that cannot be achieved through modern transistor amps.
OL: *Knowing us and the outsideleft office as you do. Can you even give me any idea of the annual/monthly/daily/hourly cost of having our own Amp Guru? We really think we could do with being a little more "quality audio" over here...?
Jon: The basic rate is £35/hr. We offer discounts for instant payment. Parts are extra, but charged fairly. There will be a charge for opening and assessing your equipment, whether it is repaired or not, however, if the repair is simple enough, it can be done within the first hour. You get a full breakdown of the repairs on the invoice, along with any recommended further works. The work is guaranteed for 3 months, we carry full liability insurance.
Jon's TLC Amplifiers amp repair shop is in Digbeth, Birmingham as you will have surely noted, on Lombard St. The phone number there is 07773 765 964
Visit is website at http://www.tlc-amplifiers.co.uk/ to see his work and things happening down there.
If you want to initiate almost any sort of discussion about amplification, you can find Jon on Facebook here https://www.facebook.com/RRTransmigResearch and he can be reached by email too, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is there good parking? "So-so - you can always park, but you might need to park down the street a little. It's not as bad as the Deritend side of Digbeth."
I like to look at things while listening to things I am not looking at. But doesn't everyone.