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Company Report - Trace Elliot


If air is so light, insubstantial and... well... airy, how come the stuff's so difficult to move? Miniaturisation may have soothed problems as widely separated as computer graphics and Esther Rantzen's teeth, but it's done little to console the bass player. A good bass sound still requires the movement of large quantities of aforementioned wispy stuff — cleanly, efficiently and powerfully. Small does not work, and Trace Elliot faced up to the fact in '78 keeping their heads when all about them were shrinking their's.

Now they are the producers of the country's most prestigious, recognisable and renowned bass gear — the gamble on big paid off. Few leading bass players are to be spotted without a Trace Elliot rig behind them; funk slappers took to them as the answers to their thumbs (a parade led convincingly by Mark King), and demand is such that every amp is sold and paid for before it's made.

The dateslate overleaf charts the stage by stage development of Trace Elliot (strange name, means nothing, they invented it in the pub). For the somewhat more colourful details step forward Sales and Promotions Manager Paul Radford.

The original Soundwave company began by making small PAs, a rare occupation at the time of the late '70's. Soon they spotted a gap in the market for high quality bass rigs. Elsewhere the flavour of the day was 100W bass combos with two 10in speakers...

"Ridiculous. The bass guitar is the most vicious thing you can do to a speaker," confesses torturer Radford. "It's worse than a bass drum because the note carries on. You cannot amplify the bass guitar properly without a lot of power and a lot of speakers. At the outset we said, sod the expense, let's make the best we can and fortunately it worked."

Trace Elliot concentrated on three factors — extensive EQ, high power and a large speaker area overall, not necessarily from individually large speakers.

The familiar 11 band graphic had an uncommon spread of frequencies (now copied by other bass amp firms). They ditched the standard octave spacing and chopped the important, lower end of the range into finer divisions for better control (40, 60, 100, 180, 340, 660, 1300, 2600, 5000, 10,000, 15,000 Hz). They gave it an extreme range for extreme effects, and kept the noise to a minimum by using discrete components and shunning ICs where practicable.

Most bass amps are designed with tone pre-shaping — an inbuilt middle cut plus bass and treble boost. Trace Elliot made their's switchable, recognising a new breed of fretless players who wanted that middley clarity (it helps harmonics, too). Details such as DI outputs with their own transformers were incorporated, as well as cooling fans. The danger is not in a hot amp erupting into flame, but in the loss of power that results from cooked transistors.

And power was important for clarity. The smallest Trace Elliot combo is 150W with 500W heads sitting at the top of the range and bi-amping as standard in models such as the AH500 so low and high frequencies don't compete.

Forced into generalities, you could identify their sound by the two, common Trace Elliot speaker configurations — 15in cones for the lowest, smoothest bass, befitting rock and some fretless players, and arrays of 10in cones for tighter, slap/funk formulae. At the outset, technical director Stuart Watson evaluated as many speakers as he could lay his hands on. All had pros and cons, but only certain manufacturers were ready to tweak designs to Trace Elliot's desires. They still fine tune to match customer feedback; extending the low end of the 10 inchers went ahead recently.

The 18mm birch ply cabs were first painted matt black, a hangover from the PA days. In one of those well meaning but doom laden moves, they decided to upgrade the appearance and swapped to a satin/gloss finish. Great, said the customers, who continued to treat them like PA cabs, inflicting huge scratches on the now glistening surface which couldn't be easily patched. Time for some indestructible covering. Most of the cabs are conventional ported reflex designs, and those with four 10 inchers are braced into pairs of speakers, keeping the cabinet rigid and cutting the boom potential.

The fastest selling Trace Elliot device is the 4x10 GP1110 combo (a model which retails at £704). Reason for success? "It makes you sound like Mark King". The man with the thumbs actually uses an AH500W top with a quartet of 4x10 cabs, chosen over two 8 x 10s so he can spread them around the stage. Prize for the largest rig goes to Pino Palladino who lugs onstage, an AH500X head, two 2x15 cabs and two 2x10 cabs.

By careful analysis of the memory aiding biro marks on the graphic panels, Trace Elliot can also tell you the two most popular settings — one is the regular 'gull's wing', lifting the bottom and top ends, but coming up fast behind in acceptance is a lower-mid boost with the extreme bass and treble sliders right down.

This produces a penetrating tone, crisp and clear for fast staccato playing. It doesn't blend into the background, no matter how much other noise is racketting on. Perhaps why John Paul Jones and Greg Lake were among the first Trace Elliot purchasers.

One of the most distinctive visual features is the glowing front panel, a trick worked by a concealed ultraviolet tube illuminating fluorescent paint. It's practical, too. Stuart Watson: "If an amp has four knobs and only produces one sound, you don't need to see it in poor stage lighting. With ours we felt you had to have some form of clear illumination."

Perhaps that won't matter so much with the next Trace Elliot step — a programmable graphic with nine memories and a remote control pad. It's yet to be refined for production purposes but at trade shows earlier in the year, they were showing the memory unit linked to a small pad fitted on a Status bass a brother product to Trace Elliot, also distributed by the Essex company.

Down at the Witham headquarters a staff of 18 looks after sales and final production, and rigorous testing. Some of the preliminary cabinet construction and wiring is given to outsider contractors, "but usually, when someone buys an amp they can phone us up and not only speak to the person who designed it, but the person who put it together... 'oh yeah, I remember that one'.



DATE SLATE



1976


Fred Friedlein diversifies from the family ivory business to follow his personal interest, and opens a small, general music shop in Brentwood, Essex.

1977


Begins to manufacture and sell Soundwave PA's from the family business premises in East London.


1978


Alan Morgan, pro bass player, says goodbye to playing for a living in his band Fusion, and fuses with Soundwave, becoming manager of the shop rapidly being outgrown by the expanding business. They move to Romford. PA is manufactured at the rear of the shop and technical direction placed in the hands of Stuart Watson. The shop's reputation grows, especially among bass players thanks to Alan's specific knowledge and experience. Bass players start to outnumber other customers.

1980


Well, they never stocked much in the way of keyboards and drums, anyway, so this year they take the gamble and go all bass, possibly the first store in the world to cater purely for the four stringer.

1981


Now importing Alembic and Steinberger basses, and the PA department begins to notice an increasing interest in its custom bass rigs. At the same time, many other British companies catching onto their idea of small PAs, so the specialist urge proves irresistible. From now on, it's all bass rigs, under the name Trace Elliot which was conjured in a pub session.


1982


So far all Trace Elliot gear has been built to order and sold from the shop. A 250W top had been the first device to carry the Trace Elliot logo, ironically sold to a local keyboard player. But the reputation has spread in the best possible way-by word of mouth from top, pro bass players ALL of whom have bought the gear, at street prices, from the shop. Trace Elliot never have and never do give gear away to their endorsees. It's all paid for, at the same rate as anyone else who walks up to the counter.

But at the Frankfurt show of '82 Trace Elliot first offer their equipment to the rest of the trade and the gear begins to move out of Soundwave into dealers up and down the country.

Also at this time, bass repairer Rob Green, working in the Soundwave shop, commences a guitar and bass project to produce an instrument matching the quality of the Trace Elliot gear. Working with the knowledge and co-operation of Ned Steinberger in America, he perfects a carbon-graphite headless-neck bass originally called the Strata and, after CBS/Fender legal sabre rattling, changes it to Status.

1983


Demand soars, and the founders realise it's unfair to continue dividing their attention. They move to new factory premises in Braintree Rd, Witham, Essex and close the shop. Anxious that bass players should still have a specialist store to go to, they negotiate with Barry Moorhouse, and all stock and goodwill is passed on to his Bass Centre in Wapping, East London.

1984


Bigger markets still, and it's time to expand the operation. Alan Morgan moves to establish Soundwave Inc in America, where TOTO are his first customers.

1985


Paul Radford formerly of Future Music and Turnkey joins to liaise with and serve British customers; Trevor Cash formerly of CBS/Fender and The Bond Guitar Co arrives to investigate European export markets.

The range now includes 4x10 and 1x15 combos such as the GP7 series and top line 1110 and 1150, PLUS, six cabs from the high pass 1024 2x10, through 8x10, 4x10, 1x15 and 2x15 configurations to the 2x18 ultra low bass 1824, PLUS the nerve centre unit, the GP11 pre-amp with its graphic eq and noise reduction system which links with Trace Elliot's power amp sections to form free-standing heads — the AH250 and AH500 — or combos.

Planned for the future are Trace Elliot's MP10 programmable preamp and the EP AS, the first professional electronic percussion amplifier system, drawing on Trace Elliot's knowledge of bass clarity and power to give the electronic drummer the same top quality sound.

TRACE ELLIOT

HEADQUARTERS: Soundwave, (Contact Details)

CONTACTS
Fred Friedlein — Managing Director
Paul Radford — UK Sales and Promotions Manager
Stuart Watson — Technical Director

Best known endorsee: Mark King


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