As part of this month's Amplifier Review, John Hill of CBS/Fender takes time out to explain the reasoning behind the recent revitalisation of Fender products that has culminated in their latest range of amplifiers.
"The biggest thing that's happened in the last few years has been the fact that basically we felt that our range of products, which were probably amongst the most successful in the world, were redundant. So we decided to scrap the whole range and instead of Fender bringing out one product per year, as they were doing, we've brought out 6 new products a month for the last 18 months or so.
As far as amplifiers are concerned Fender really is known for the Twin Reverb. So what we wanted to do was to split our guitar amps, and these were our priority, into two groups — tube amps and a new approach to amps which we called the Hi-Tech series. With the tube amps we wanted to revive some names from the past which were somewhat legendary and give them a certain something, like effects loops and channel switching, which people expect in modern day amps.
So what we did was bring out the Super Champ, Princeton II, the Deluxe II and probably the one which all the pros are talking about which is called the Concert.
Again, names from the past — the Princeton, probably the all time great studio amp; we call it the Princeton II now. Jeff Beck's using it and so is Les Paul. Our Super Champ which is rated at 18 watts is being used for gigs. The power rating belies the amount of dBs you get out of the things. You've got the legendary Fender warmth and the overdrive sound which we call the 'creamy scream'.
We encourage the professionals to come up and tell us what they think of our amps and they get into the nuances of the harmonics of the overdrive sound, which I don't necessarily understand, but when they tell me they like this amp but it hasn't quite got the warmth in the top end, but put a graphic EQ in and we'll overcome that, then we start to take a lot of notice of them. We've found that our tube amps have got the legendary Fender 'clean' sound and the 'creamy scream', but they're very expensive.
All our amplifiers have got hidden aspects which people don't notice when they're buying an amp. For instance, all of our cabinets are solid pine, box-jointed. Most amps are chipboard and they're not usually box-jointed so they won't last very long. All of our chassis are premium grade steel and will actually contain a fire. All of our components are premium quality and we've got a lovely, old guy called Ed Jahns who's designed all the Fender tube amps from the year dot and Ed has recently been working on our rack-mount tube preamps and power amps. Ed's really the guy who laid down the specifications for the UL.
In America, just as we have BSA standards, they have UL approved. To pass that you have to be able to run an amp for 24 hours at 100 degrees centigrade, the output transformers have to take 4 times the load of the amplifier, and Fender is the only company whose complete amplifier range exceeds UL spec. This also helps us pass the Canadian specification which is to an even higher standard (CSA).
This doesn't really mean too much in this market but because of that we don't really want to have two production runs, and it means we're making very, very good quality amplifiers even down to the handles on the amps. There's two screws each side and a flange and after 10 years use, if you haven't got those, the handle begins to come loose. So, we had to do that because Fender are the only amplifiers which people will buy and expect to last 30 years, and they do; so we didn't want to abandon that tradition.
We've got a guy called Paul Revere who's in charge of amplifier marketing and oversees the R&D (research and development). Now Paul made a bit of a name for himself customising Fender amps and used to work for Mesa Boogie one time. He used to get hold of old Fender amps and put XLR outputs and master volumes in, and if you look on any Toto album there's always a credit for Paul Revere.
Paul's the guy Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and other top US session men call up when they've got a problem with their amps. He works exclusively for Fender now and he's put together these amps and that's probably why we're getting so much praise with our tube series for getting that sound.
Now besides Paul we have a massive R&D team, employing over 200 people in the musical division which is probably bigger than any other musical company. We've got people like Cal Perkins who's designed hi-fi power amplifiers for Marantz and JBL cabinets. He's working on our Pro Sound line of equipment. We've got the guy who designed the Lab Series — cherry-picked, cream of our R&D, which goes for all of our products but for amplifiers particularly we felt that we needed to make a name for ourselves again.
So what we've done is put together a high spec product with lots of hidden qualities. The challenge was with the Hi-Tech series which are solid state amps, but 'solid state' is a bit 'old hat', so we opted for the Hi-Tech name. What we were able to do was put a lot more features in these amps for about the same price as they're cheaper to build initially.
So looking at the Showman amp for example you have two channels with broad bandwidth on your EQ and assignable effects, to channel 1, 2 or both and you can footswitch it in. The same for EQ, and your effects loop. You've got push boost switching to give Mid or Bass boost for example. Also there's independent reverb controls for both channels so you can set up different amounts of reverb for your clean and overdrive sounds. Silent FET switching whereas on a tube amp you've got audio signal going down the line. Say, on a film sound stage a 'clunk' on a footswitch can ruin a whole take, so this amp's for the studio guys doing a lot of that type of work as it's silent. It also has a lot of applications elsewhere obviously.
Just look at our effects loop, I think that's going to be copied by a lot of people. It's a real problem interfacing solid state signal processing devices with tube amplifiers, it's like the new technology versus the old. So what we've done is put an effects loop in with level controls for your input and output allowing you to match the levels on your effects devices to the input of the amp to cut out noise and get optimum signal, as well as balance the straight and effected signals.
We wanted to put together a range of amplifiers with integrity and above all 'the sound'. What we're selling is a sound and we're calling it 'the sound that creates legends'. We haven't just said 'if we build an amp for such and such money we can sell millions of them', we've actually thought 'we want to put an amp together that will sound like this'.
The new amps are better than what the old amps ever could be. We've come into a whole new range of technology. On a broader level, I must say that the biggest investment programme in the musical instrument industry is at CBS/Fender. The biggest, most expansive programme ever undertaken in the industry. We showed the most new products any company has ever shown at the NAMM Expo this year (23). If you just looked at the market, you couldn't justify that investment but we're trying to build up the Fender name once again.
We don't copy other companies, we set the standards. The Rhodes Chroma, for instance, was a different approach to synthesisers. These amplifiers are a Fender approach — they go against the current market trend.
If you spend a couple of hours with Jeff Beck at AIR studios, you'll believe in tube amplifiers! We encourage people who've got a characteristic sound to discuss their needs with us.
People expect to get a very warm, clean, sound from our tube amps and the overdrive gives that screaming 'fat' lead sound. With some of the circuitry Paul Revere has put into our solid state Hi-Tech series, you can get very close to that sound. You can't get a tube sound very easily though.
What we have done with our amplifiers and guitars is to book all of the top session musicians in the States, like Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, Elliott Randall and others, for sessions. We did it in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles and Paul Revere was there with his bag of components, swapping resistors and tubes around then getting them to play.
We recorded the whole event on tape, took it back to our research and development department and that was the basis for our amplifiers. We did the same thing for our guitars and basses, and that's where we're coming from all the time — what do the people who really know want. Then we try and build a product for a wider market to help them get that also. Those are the people who are dictating the sounds the public want to hear; they're the people on record and on TV.
The basis for this trial was to find out exactly what was a good tube sound. Obviously, you'll get different answers from everybody — it's so subjective. There's no other company that's got the resources to do this sort of research.
The remarkable thing about our new products is that we had to say right, this is where we start from and in 1 or 2 years time we want to start seeing a revitalisation as the result of our efforts.
We have got, basically, three R&D facilities: one at Fullerton, California; one at Wover, Massachusetts and a third at CBS Laboratories, Stanford, Connecticut. Our R&D Departments work 24 hours a day and the result of that is that we develop the market for everybody really; the money always goes back into the development side of things and that's important for us as a company and for the musician, who's the ultimate beneficiary."