Back around 1991 I worked for Angela Instruments in Annapolis Junction Maryland. For those of you who don't know Mr Steve Melkisethian he was perhaps the biggest vintage Marshall dealer in the country who dedicated much of his time scouring the British countryside looking for old English amps and hauling them back to the states. He did the same here much to the jealousy of other vintage dealers. Dude worked harder than anyone and served as a huge inspiration for me teaching me much about old tube amps and how to build new ones as well. At one point he even published a Xerox copy of all his haunts across America (army mess halls where he bought tweed bassman amps they were using for PA systems, pawn shops, crazy collectors etc) that you could buy for $300. Steve is perhaps one of the most brutally honest men I've had the pleasure of knowing. He doesn't hold back. When the vintage guitar and amp business got too sleazy and gross (fake brokers, drug money buying Plexis) he stopped messing with it and scoured the Maryland landscape for vintage Hi Fi. You could buy Marantz 8B amps at yard sales for $25 and sell them to Lenny Kravitz for $1600. See, the country where you are from, people don't appreciate what they have until a foreigner does. Look at the Chinese paving archeological digs over with cheap shopping malls or the British giving away old Voxes (Steve bought 2 AC-30s from a clothing shop owner for thirty quid once! And he even told me about a dealer in England who burned vintage Marshall cabs for firewood! There was an over abundance of this stuff around!) and here in the US we were willing to throw away old Heathkit, Eico, McIntosh and Marantz and buy Sansui cause it was new. Steve saw the value and put the kids through college. "Turn that trash into cash" he said once. We would get phone calls from folks who were pissed off cause they sold that high quality wonder for pennies. Hey, not our fault. You failed to see it's true value.
It was around this time when the USA stopped producing tubes. The Reagan era. The Berlin wall fell down and the nuclear threat was no longer. Why were we still making tubes? Cause they can handle high doses of radiation. Our radios could potentially still operate. So the threat of an atomic ending went away and so did a whole industry. A happy day for the world, a sad day for a lot of glass blowers, grid winders and plate stampers.
We started buying tubes from Russia. We needed them. Making tubes is a nasty, toxic business and Russia has looser laws around poisoning the environment. I was one of the first at Angela to buy a pair of Sovtek 5881 tubes for my Super Reverb. Oh, they didn't sound as delicious as my old tubes, but they were tough as hell and cost me a fraction of what Groove Tubes was charging. It was actually an exciting time. Buying old world technology from the old country.
Angela was the first to get a shipment of Sovtek Mig 30 heads. I bought #32. Sounded freaking great, especially for a modest $200! (Keep in mind, Steve was selling ugly original JTM45 heads with maybe a transformer changed for $750 on up! I was just too cheap and broke to go for it!).
#32 lasted a few gigs then it blew up. Fried output transformer. They didn't really have it together. But that sound was great. Perfect blend of a Black panel Bassman low end with a Marshall top.
I was given #8 since the first was still under warranty. Didn't sound nearly as good so I sold it. Cool thing was they looked entirely different from each other. They were still working on a 'look'.
They got better over the years. I've worked on many. This was the first time I've seen one of these:
Lovely wood cabinet and BRUTAL sound. They aren't at all like a Marshall to my ears. More like, well, pure fuzz. Psychedelic soul dig baby? These aren't the easiest amps to get around in and the transformers weigh a ton. I have a 50 watt Marshall up next and it's significantly lighter.
This one came to me as weak, please re-tube it. Turns out that wasn't the problem. Oh if I was a dishonest man I'd make the rent easier! In this case I just needed to clean it thoroughly and re-bias it, tighten up the horrifically cheap plastic jacks and send it on it's way. The preamp tubes are JJ, the power Svetlana. My client says it's performed 150 shows with no servicing. Tubes are still a close match and it's loud as a damned bomb!
What was the real issue? My client says she just bought new cables from (biggest cable company you can think of with a lifetime warranty). My guess? It's one of those cables. They are notoriously bad even though they are expensive and have great marketing to help them sell. You may ask me which company but you've probably already guessed by now. I won't say lest they sue me. That's the way big company America works. Sad but true. And that is one of the most inspiring things I'll take away from working with Steve. He was unafraid to take on big bullshit. We had the occasional threats and folks selling snake oil hate an honest man.
Lordy. Imagine if we all possessed that kind of candor. We'd all be a lot better off!
Anyway, if you like your amp loud and cheap, seek one of these babies out. Oh, and here is a schematic. 4 gain stages before it hits the tone stack. Amazingly enough, the tone knobs are more responsive than any Marshall!
I should mention, Steve, his wife Sue and I all share a love for the camera. Here's their photo website. Some pretty damned good shootin' here!
Happy soldering! JB