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The Ultimate Tone – A Book Review of the Best DIY Guitar Tube Amplifier Series
This article is a book review of a six-book series that is the most comprehensive and lucid explanation of the architecture, circuitry, tone, components, and construction technique of tube amps from guitar for DIYers I have ever found. The review discusses each book separately and recommends buying them in a specific order to expand your knowledge based on your building experience.
Kevin O’Connor of London Power has created a series of books under the main title of “The Ultimate Tone”. These books are truly unique and carefully crafted for the DIY (DIY) guitar tube amp enthusiast and boutique amplifier builder. The books also have a homemade “feel”…all illustrations are handmade and the books are photocopied on 8.5″x11″ paper and bound with plastic spines and clear plastic covers. There are six books in the series now, with the most recent coming out in late spring 2008. You may want to buy the whole series at once and save a modest amount of money, but I think you should consider buy one at a time. and digest as you go, building projects along the way. One key point though…you don’t necessarily want to buy them in numerical order. I recommend the following sequence:
- The Ultimate Tone Volume 3 – Tone Generations
- The Ultimate Tone Volume 5 – Tone Capture
- The Ultimate Tone Volume 2 – Systemic Approach to Staging Sound Nirvana
- The Ultimate Tone Volume 4 – Advanced Techniques for Modern Guitar Amp Design
- The Ultimate Tone – Custom Tube Guitar Amp Mods & Builds
- The Ultimate Tone Volume 6 – Timeless tone designed for the future today
The Ultimate Tone Volume 3 – Tone Generations
This is the most important book in the series for the beginning tube amp builder.
Chapters 2-4 lay the foundation for good DIY tube amp construction, teaching you about proper electrical connections, grounding technique, lead holding and other wiring techniques, and mechanical layout, including assembly methods such as terminal blocks, turret and grommet panels.
The following chapters each choose a particular ’emblematic’ amplifier, each emblematic amplifier being a prototypical example of amplifiers in its class, and they are examined in detail as to the circuit topology, the resulting particular tonal characteristics and the fatal flaws that the product is notorious for. Kevin provides the original schematics and then shows how you can apply the techniques detailed in previous chapters to improve icon performance and reliability without compromising tone. Schematics are redrawn, layouts are provided, and mechanical solutions are worked out to make each chapter a complete, self-contained, build-your-own amp project.
This process is repeated for several variations of the Champ in Chapter 5 (this chapter greatly influenced my own single-ended amp project), then in quick succession: the Bassman, Plexi, 800, Bull Dog, AC-30, Portaflex, SVT, Bass Master, Custom Special, Guitar Mate, Herzog and Laney amplifiers are processed.
If you can only buy one book for your DIY guitar amp hobby, I highly recommend this one.
The Ultimate Tone Volume 5 – Tone Capture
Volume 5 picks up where Volume 3 left off, with a project-oriented approach and sophisticated DIY tube amp solutions for guitar and bass.
The book begins with a chapter on the operation of the vacuum tube called “tube tone”, followed by a chapter on the electronics of the guitar and the characteristics of the microphone.
The next two chapters are small projects: Sigma for switching effects and Triple-X for switching amplifiers.
Chapters 5 and 6 are about transformers… important components but that made me yawn, sorry.
From Chapter 7, all the stops are out and you’re in project heaven… Major (200W), Soma 84 (EL84 amp), Standard (the 1995 London Power Standard Preamp paired with a 50W amp using four power tubes), Doppelsonde (mix of power tube types), AX84 (discussing the initial goal of a very low power output amp), Kelly (50W from 4 6V6) and several other projects from smaller scale.
A favorite project I did was based on Kevin’s reworking of the HotBox tube preamp pedal from Matchless in Chapter 16. I built this pedal in true “dot-to-dot style” (i.e. say terminal blocks) in a Doug Hoffman tube pedal box, replacing a stack of Baxandall tones and reworking the preamp values to be more Dumble-esqe (non-HRM type).
What would you do to match an amplifier in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen? See chapter 18, ‘Swedish.’
The Ultimate Tone Volume 2 – Systemic Approach to Staging Sound Nirvana
Volume 2 is not project oriented. The bulk of the book, Chapters 2 through 5, covers power supply tips and a comprehensive overview of power amplifiers, including tube, solid-state, and hybrid power amps. Chapter 3, on Tube Power Amplifiers, contains very practical information on mods and fixes for Marshall and Fender bias circuits.
I like the 1st and last chapters of Volume 2. The first chapter is a brief discussion of soundstages and how you can set up your stage gear for the best audience/band experience. The final chapter, Chapter 6, is titled “Pillars of Tone” and in this chapter the major block level contributors to the design of a guitar tube amplifier system are discussed one by one and Kevin provides very valuable information about shaping the sound throughout the preamp/amplifier.
The Ultimate Tone Volume 4 – Advanced Techniques for Modern Guitar Amp Design
This is the book you’ll want to buy if you feel the need to get deeply involved with the power scaling technology that Kevin has developed. Power scaling, invented and trademarked by Kevin, is how you can get aspects of power amp distortion (as opposed to preamp distortion) into your sound at volume levels from the room. Volume 4 is not DIY project oriented but explores issues including attenuation, power scaling (both down and up), sag and handling of power, tackled by designers of modern tube guitar amps.
That said, the penultimate chapter of Volume 4 could be important to a wider group of passionate builders…design philosophy. In this chapter, Kevin provides a hierarchical design process that could be used to make key decisions about how you approach your next project.
The Ultimate Tone – Custom Tube Guitar Amp Mods & Builds
There is no volume in the title of this book, it was the 1st. Personally, I bought it to be complete. I specifically wanted to have the information on the “perfect effects loop”, although the loop itself is built into a project in volume 5. TUT also has excellent documentation on reverbs and signal switching methods which are not explained in the other volumes. The first half of TUT introduces/introduces tube amp systems, power supplies and grounds, then focuses on modifications from preamps and power amps to commercial amplifiers (e.g. Marshall/Fender)…if you are totally new to tube electronics, you might want to purchase this Volume 1 along with Volume 3.
The Ultimate Tone Volume 6 – Timeless tone designed for the future today
In many ways, Volume 6 is a continuation and expansion of the content of Volume 4, where Power Scaling is introduced. In volume 6 a new “direct control” version of Powerscaling is presented, which was introduced in volume 4 but flushed with full circuitry and applied to “sag” and sustain control also in volume 6. new scaling circuits have many advantages for a DIY builder like greater noise immunity and less sensitivity to layout etc.
I applied the new DC Power Scaling to a Trainwreck clone project and was really impressed with the improved “playability” at lower volumes…the unmodified Trainwreck Express circuit is just too loud for home use, it needs to be pushed to get the sweet tones it is renowned for.
One of the chapters in volume 6 is dedicated to Dumble amplifiers…something I was looking forward to as a lot of my hobby projects focus on these circuits. I found this short chapter to be a good introduction to the overall architecture of Dumble amps, written from the point of view of evolution from the first modified standard amps that Alexander Dumble started making, but I felt that the chapter didn’t talk enough about some of the more important intricacies of the latest Dumble models.
Volume 6 also contains many other items, including an excellent tutorial on designing very high output power amplifiers and an excellent chapter on designing high gain amplifiers with referenced and detailed real-world circuits.
Kevin’s books have a very empirical approach. It encourages you to put convention aside in some cases or not be afraid to try hitting combinations or even hitting hits and in any case clearly explains why it’s ok and gives reasons why this wouldn’t be ok All the examples in the books are very practical and he certainly has the handyman in mind when he writes.
All of Kevin’s work is truly encyclopedic in nature, and given that, one feature his books are sorely lacking is any kind of indexing…this is compounded by Kevin’s constant reference to earlier writings rather than being repeated in a new volume, and it is very difficult to put your finger on the reference even with the other book in hand. Perhaps search engine technology, like Google’s ability to search for copyrighted content, could be put to good use in this case and provide a kind of web-based “automatic index” of all of Kevin’s books. without actually disclosing the book itself. Or better yet, how about an e-book format of Kevin’s entire collection of TUT books…I think all e-book readers include search capabilities…and the hand-drawn diagrams Kevin’s hand would probably be adequately scaled and very readable on the e-paper displays these devices feature.
In the meantime, how do you get Kevin’s books today? The best way to get the books is to order them direct from London Power Press. They now have a shopping cart at http://www.londonpower.com.
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