So maybe you can tell me a bit, how did you get started in music, how did you wind up in L.A., what's your story?
What's my story? (laughs). Well, let's see.. I went to Electronics School in Atlanta, Georgia and originally I was interested in getting into engineering and stuff. There weren't any recording school's at the time. I felt I had to learn some electronic knowledge before I got into the application end of it. Meaning I want to know what happens behind the knobs. So I decided to go to electronics school and learn about electronics first. I was thinking to get to work with live sound and engineering that way and do maybe recordings. Because I always loved music. I was the guy with the biggest stereo on my block you know. (laughs) So I went to electronics school in Atlanta, I did really well there and I was recruited by Hughes Aircraft to come out to California and to work on an assembly line kind of thing in electronics. They bought and paid my way out to California, I thought; Oh well, California, let's see what's going on there, the music's out there and everything. So I came out to California in late '78. I thought I'd work for Hughes Aircraft and try to pursue other things.
I've had been working for them for a year when I answered an ad in the newspaper for musical instrument repair work at a place called Musician's Service Center. That was around 1980. And from there I started working on musical stuff. In the meantime I'm reading magazines, I was very influenced by Craig Anderton, a guy who used to write for different magazines. He's an educator, musician and an engineer. And I was influenced by articles in Guitar Player Magazine who would show you how to build different things.So I'm working for Musician's Service Center, fixing stuff, getting the shit shocked out of me in Marshall Amps and stuff (laughs). I've never worked on this stuff before, I just jumped right in.That place was in Santa Monica. During this time, Paul Rivera was the guy that build pedal boards for everybody and this was the time everybody had all these pedals. Way before any 'rackmount stuff' would be around. We're talking late seventies-early eighties here. There was a guy in the back of the store kind of building pedal boards trying to do what Paul Rivera did, but he wasn't doing it very well. I started thinking about loops and I got some ideas from Graig Anderton. I looked at it and thought: shit, this is ridiculous to have all these different kinds of pedals on the floor on this board, most of 'em didn't have lights, they never had LED's in 'em back then, you know, it was all MXR, Electro Harmonix and stuff. I'm thinking, shit, you should have a board that's got a LED for each pedal, control pedals remotely. Because it was ridiculous to see a guy playing bending down tweaking his gear on stage not to mention you're tap dancing all over these pedals. So I started working on prototypes of my own. I came up with a box with a LED for each switch, which isn't that different from the stuff we're doing now. First thing I know is I get hooked up with Buzz Feiten. I was actually a big fan of his, he was a big musical heroe of mine. I actually had my girlfriend go up to him, I was to shy to even go up to the guy! I had a nice blonde girlfriend who got his attention first. She said 'my boyfriend can help you out here' and so he was into it. He asked me what I could do, I told him about my idea and everything and he said, 'Yeah, let's try it.' So here I was working with an established pro right away. Mind you I had done some stuff before for some local club players. But Buzzy was very early on in the development of what I was doing. He's a real tinkerer too, so we kind of fed off each other. You see these pedal boards around, they're real common these days. They're trimmed in aluminum, well, simple as it was, I came up with that. Just to have a nice platform to mount the footcontrollers or whatever else which is real common today. But Buzz Feiten, being the little woodworker type that he was, he actually built my first one, cut the aluminum and put the strips around it. (laughs). So he actually built the first one for me.
We did that and from there it was just word of mouth, I never advertised. And it just developed from there. There were different milestones in development, refining things, perfecting aspects of the old switching things.
Were you specializing only in switching? What's the story with the amp line for Custom Audio?
The ampline came way later, like ten years later.
I can remember you were in the magazines all over the place for a while.
This business is all about what's hot and what's new, bla bla bla you know. But yeah,I got my name going out there with Rocktron and along with Buzz Feiten comes Mike Landau, from him comes Steve Lukather, from Steve comes Ed Van Halen, from Ed comes Steve Vai, it's all word of mouth. And in between there were many, many others. Studio/session guys to …Poison for example.
Did you already have your own work place at the time?
I've always been doing it from here. I worked out of my house a while in the beginning. As I would build systems, the one that I would finish, would be the one that I would show to the next guy who came along. I demonstrated Steve Lukather the capabilities of my system using Dan Huff's rig he was about to get. So it just kind of snowballed from there. Word of mouth happened and with a lot of these guys it got crazy. From 1985 to 1990 I toured with Steve Lukather on all the Toto shows. We were taking a lot of equipment to Europe and it got to the point were we needed to scale down and change things a lot. I go well: here we are with this big rack full of amplifiers that we're basically using as preamps. It was a Mesa-Boogie for a clean sound, a Marshall for a crunch sound and a Soldano for a solo sound.We were just using the preamp section of those amps, so I thought, why can't we make a three channel preamp with clean, crunch and overdrive and we'll use power amps that were using anyway. So I went to Mike Soldano and explained him the situation that we needed to scale our rig down to take overseas. Hence the Soldano X-88 R. Which was my concept, Soldano came up with the circuitry and everything, but it was my thing. The amp came out and it was a big hit. $1800 a piece. Soldano sells em to me for $1700. I only make a $100 for each amp I sell myself, it's like, com'on you now. But I own the prototype. In the meantime I start working with John Suhr. John is building great guitars at the same time, he's interested in doing amp work. John was on the eastcoast. The Soldano preamp needed help, it always needed an extra EQ to breathe some life into it. It was a great basic thing, but it needed some top, some bottom. There were things about it that we wanted to change. Mike Soldano was kind of reluctant to make any of these big changes, he had something going and was happy the way things went. So I went to John Suhr and asked him to collaborate on a preamp, after all this is my basic concept here, I'm not stealing anything, it was my idea in the first place. So John and I started talking over the phone and added some features to the preamp and changed to tonality to suit our tastes. We added the switchable EQ at the tail end because you never know what kind of power amp people are gonna use. It could be a guitar type power amp or even a PA type. And that's where the bad wrap comes in about preamps. A lot of the times guys will use power amps that's a flat response power amp that you can use on your home stereo. Use a guitar amp on your home stereo and it ain't gonna sound right. It's just voiced for guitar. With the EQ on the preamp is easy to make it sound great with almost any poweramp. So the 3+ tube preamp comes out. John and I collaborated on this product and we now started Custom Audio Amplifiers. So that's how the ampline started.Subsequently down the line, after the preamp had been out for some time we decided we wanted to collaborate and make a head. We decided to skip the power amp part of things because there were already so many of em out there already. VHT had come along, Mesa has their 2:90 which is the only they make that sounds any good. The rest of their power amps are awful and they continue to be. That's according to us and the way it sounds with our preamp, all the other stuff might work fine for other things, I'm just talking about my stuff. Also, it's a lot easier to get a guy to change his preamp then it is to change his poweramp. What are we gonna contribute to power amps that is gonna be so revolutionairy and want a guy to change his power amp? As far as I'm concerned, 80 to 85% of the sound is in the preamp.And unless you're using a lower-wattage power amp that you can really crank up and get power-stage distortion, there's not gonna be much difference between power amps.
It's popular belief that a head sounds better than a preamp-power amp combination because the two are integrated. How do you feel about that?
I don't buy it. I don't believe in that. I believe that if you take a guitar amp-voiced power amp and you take a good preamp…what's the different between that and a head? The only difference is that they're not sharing the same power supply and there might be some interaction and 'sag' between preamp and power amp, but that's it. I think there's more to do with the difference in tonalities of the two and the 'stigma' that there is between preamps and rackmount stuff that there is with an amp wrapped in a piece of wood with some colex around it and some grille cloth on the front of it.
Talking about power sections, how did you come up with the power stage for the CAA OD-100 head?
We wanted to use tubes that were readily availabe so we went with 58/81's, we designed our power stage around that and we designed the output transformer to accommodate that. At the time, EL 34's were very scarce, we wanted a 100 Watt power stage, we felt we would be better off going with a good reliable, 6L6 style tube. Soldano is based on that, so are a lot of great Fenders.
Did you change any major things about the preamp section compared to the 3+?
Yeah, the preamp is different. One thing that is the same is the clean channel, channel 1 is virtually identical to the clean channel on the 3+. Channel 2 is definitely a different voiced stage then the 3+. Channel two and the amp boosted is then similar to channel 3 on the preamp. When it's boosted it does kick in another gain stage and has more gain. We wanted to design an amp that's very basic and easy to use. We're looking at a place between say a Matchless, which is a one-trick pony, a nice sounding amp, but it's got basically one sound. The other extreme you got all these crazy German amps that are out of control with knobs and switches on them that are like "Oh my god, how many choices do I need here'.
Can you give an example what kind of amp you are talking about?
Like Bogners, the Ecstacy. I've seen some other ones, like the Diezel's have that too. A lot of Marshalls now have that too. Some of them are just a knob-festival you know. Rivera has the same thing: boost this, EQ that, pull / shift there. Forget it. We jut wanted to design an amp that fitted in between there. If you want an amp with a lot of knobs, fine. But plug into an OD -100, put all the controls at 12 o' clock and you'll get a great sound either way. Then you can fine-tune it from there. The tone controls really work, they're at well thought out places in the signal path in terms of frequencies that we decided to use. It's all interactive.
How much input would you say your customers had on the OD-100?
Good question. The OD-100 was primarely Mike Landau's focus on that, he gave us a lot of input. Although John Suhr really put all the time in. Mike offered suggestions but we were looking to John for a yes or a no. You can call the OD-100 a Mike Landau signature amp in that sense.
What about the difference between the older 3+ preamp, the blue one with the rounder knobs and the silver-face newer 3+?
The clean channels are the same.The original channel #2 was hotter and a little harsher.So we chilled out a little bit of the gain on channel #2 on the newer model and made it more, if you want to put it in a bag...it's more of a plexi Marshall kind of a sound. We gave it a little bit more midrange, too. And also smoothed out the highs a little bit. On the third channel, the newer one is hotter and we smoothed the highs out a little bit and we changed the EQ.
The original EQ had presence and bass and subsequently that's an active tube-stage EQ. In other words, it's actually boosting and cutting certain frequencies, it's not just filtering them out. So when you set those controls straight up and down and you engage that EQ, the frequency shift caused a midrange dip. So we shifted the frequency's down so that when you kick it in and out, basically it's flat.
There's also a few 3+ SE's out there that have a hotter clean channel, too. It's similar to what the OD-100 does when you boost channel #1. It kinda takes it from a blackface Fender Twin to a Super.You can crunch the clean channel, although it stays pretty clean. The OD-100 just has a boost on channel #2 and an A/B select.Two switches, that's all. And it's got a series loop. We didn't bother going with the series/parallel thing, nobody has done it right and done it with tubes, in terms of a real decent parallel mix loop. It's always a compromise, it never seems to work right. So many loops out there can't handle lows when you start plugging in outboard gear. It sucks the tone down.You gotta watch out for bleed between preamp out and the power amp in. If you have real high gain and you plug a volume pedal into the loop, you pull the volume pedal back and you can still hear a little bit of bleed, we try to eliminate that as much as we can with the series loop.
What in general is your day like these days?
Well, right now, I'm a little shorthanded. These days I find myself doing a lot of assembly work, but I want to get away from that. We've had outside assembly help, but right now it costs a lot of money to gear up production for stuff. So basically I'm running from doing administrative stuff to overseeing any other production going on, designing new systems for people and doing all kinds of other stuff in between, which gets me going 12 hour days pretty much. The other thing, personally for me right now, I'm kinda going back to my original interest that I wanted to get into 20 years ago and that's engineering. I do a lot of live 2-track recording which is what all this stuff is about. (points around the room to various mixing boards and rackmount processors) I do some remastering jobs on live shows on the available gear that I have, it's not mastering persé, but it is tweaking a two track mix you know. We've been contracted to do a whole bunch of instructional videos too.
Any plans for the future as far as releasing new amps for CAA?
Yeah, there's several things coming up, but I don't really want to give out a lot. (laughs) There's some new things we're working on, for both the amp-end of things and the switching-end of things, hopefully next year we'll get that stuff going. It's been pretty crazy how the rigs have changed over the years, there used to be big refrigerators, now it's sort of back to pedals and a few little combinations of rackmount gear and pedals. It's all real hands-on around here, we stayed small, we're still here.(laughs)
What's Custom Audio Japan?
That's a collaboration I've had for about ten years now almost and they're basically an exclusive distributor of our products in Japan. The have a couple of their own little products that they make that are based on some designs that we've done in the past. They have been a real good distributor for us.
What about distribution in Europe? It seems to be happening on and off every once in a while.
Well it is eventually probably going to happen all the way, but right now I really prefer working with the end user. I know it's limited distribution that way, but we are so limited in our production right now. It's like we sell everything we make. Until I got products on the shelves that I'm kind of figuring where it's gonna go, I feel I can't even consider doing that right now if I can't produce. All I will have is a distributor with no product. I'm open to working with a big manufacturer, but I'm such a control freak, I'm just a little worried to what's gonna happen to the final product. I could do it if it was the right collaboration, if people let me do what I do, I would love to not manufacture. I love to get out of that game. If it could be done right. I would just sit back and do R & D work. And not having to worry about the day to day grind of manufacturing and distribution. But I'm not gonna work for Peavey. I'm not gonna go to work for Fender. I'm not gonna go to work for Digitech. Sure as hell not gonna work for Rocktron, they're trying to get out of a lawsuit now anyway.They went bankrupt and now they're climbing back out. I think it happened last year. GHS, those string people bought them. I don't know what the end result of that was, but now they have limited manufacturing on some of the products they're making.It seems to me that they're making these little dinky amps and stuff, almost like they're going for students or something! They're just not contenders to me anymore. They wanted to be the next Lexicon with their processing, and they're nowhere now. I just stayed small and stayed here. A lot of people like me have come and gone.
You also have a name going with your amp modifications. How much of your work consists of that nowadays?
Martin (Golub) does a lot of that stuff, we collaborate on that kind of thing. Not as much as it used to be, because people aren't doing that as much nowadays. We used to modify a lot of Marshalls back before we were making our own amps. We did develop modifications over the years, especially for Marshalls. There were so many of 'em out there that sounded bad, that needed help. I don't like to modify FX or anything like that. I feel like they are what they are. That's why we designed an interface to allow one to interface a variety of things. The switching stuff is the glue that holds your rig together. The idea behind the switcher is not to have any sound of it's own, it's supposed to be as transparent as it can be. That was the problem with the Rocktron switching system, there was a lot of active electronics in the signal path. There was an active loop on the board to integrate pedals, stick that into the front end of your preamp and it colors the sound. Take it away and things started sounding a lot better.
Do you still like the Hush?
I haven't used the Hush in years.
What do you recommend for eliminating noise?
A volume pedal! (laughs) It's been years since I've used Hush noise reduction. There's still people that kind of need it. There's only one model Rocktron makes that's any good and that's the guitar silencer, but they kinda stopped making that. I think they still make something called the 'Super C', but when I heard it, it sounded so bad that it was unusable. I very rarely use a gate or anything.
If you hook up your stuff correctly with the right lenght cables, there shouldn't be too much noise problems.
OK, this is a good example. In the past I have used the Hush a lot and I have grown dependent on them. Especially with the rigs that were all big, multiple preamps, FX. It was easy to throw a hush in there rather that really dig in. It's an art to eliminate noise in a multiple component system. That's something you can't write down in a book or explain it. It's like asking a guitar player to break down a solo and ask him were every note came from. A lot of the noise reduction work is intuitive and comes from having years of experience. But it's not like something you can catalogue each little step of the way. I can do it somewhat, but it's hard. Rocktron also started changing the hush and people started working more with pedals. Sometimes with a Hush unit, especially between the instrument and the input of the amplifier, there's not so much you can do there. A high gain cranked amp with a hush before it isn't gonna get any quieter.
And sometimes kicking in a hush made it even noisier cause you're going through the Hush circuitry. So we sort of eliminated that stuff and got real picky about placement of pedals, where things go in the rack, keeping things away from things with transformers in them, building several power supply's that could be kept away from critical components that amplified the noise. It's funny you mentioned that noise and everything cause I just got a call. I gotta try and figure out how to get the noise out of Wes Borland's light suit that he wants to wear with Limp Bizkit. He's got this suit that puts 400 Volts into these lights and it picks up in the guitar. You pull the guitar near and it goes EEEEEEEEEEEEEEH. Because the thing got a frequency it's running at and I got to figure out how to get rid of that noise! I can't gate it, that will ruin the sound.
You have to come up with a Custom Audio line of light suits that are noise-proof.
When did the line of speaker cabinets come? After the OD-100?
The speaker cabinet line is born out of the fact that we needed something to set the freakin' amp on in pictures.It's born out of the same guy that makes our head cases and everything. Our cabinet is just like a Marshall cabinet, but made with better wood and better built. We did design a special 2 by 12" cabinet with Vintage 30's that's pretty revolutionary. It's the only 2 by 12" I've heard that sounds like a 4 12". It's as close as it can be with two speakers pushing that amount of air. There's actually 4 ports around the speakers, designed to put some 'oomph' in it. I like close backed cabinets better than open back. I want to hear everything coming out of the front. But other than that it's not that big a deal really.
What would be the timeline of all these Custom Audio products?
Let's see.. 1980/81 started the switching system, '82 we toured wich Olivia Newton John and Buzzy Feiten. That's were I met Michael Landau. In '83 I further developed the switching system with Michael Landau for a year on Joni Mitchell's tour. Summer of '84 I met Steve Lukather. '85 I started touring with Luke.'85 to '90 was touring with Toto. Early '90's the Rocktron thing started and I developed a passive switching system which was another leap in terms of technology with the 4 by 4 audio controller. '91 the 3+ preamp. '95 the Head came about. Right after that the cabinets. More things coming out. The preamp of the OD -100 in a single rackspace is next sometime 2001. The prototype board is done, I just gotta wrap a box around it.Find time to do it.
What about buying Custom Audio right now in Europe?
We sell worldwide through the internet right now. I'll sell to end users in Europe. People contact me through email or phone and we take care of the rest. One of the things that hurt me in Europe was the CE mark thing. It's not that the amps are not compatible, it's just you have to go through this stuff and spend thousands and thousands of dollars to get things certified. Just to basically tell you "Yeah, no problem'. That is something I can't afford to do being a small manufacturer. That's what keeps distributors weary of doing anything. It's just all bureaucracy. It's pretty lame. And I don't want to have a distributor who is yelling at me because I can't deliver. Until I got product on the shelves, but that may happen pretty soon. There's some other things going on that will help us along in the future...there may be some changes coming along pretty soon that will be beneficial to everyone involved. We just need to get the stuff out there to everybody. All it's ever been is word of mouth, we never advertised. I should, but we get to sell everything we make, so... I'm hindered by my own stubbornness to want to let go of some aspects of it because my name's on it. Until I can get it to a point where I'm comfortable with larger distribution, we'll see.
richardhallebeek.com, September 2000