Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Sonhouse Super Harp" Amplifier Build

Some of you have been waiting for this so here is a demo of an original song I wrote and recorded featuring Kenny Kollbom, the owner of the Sonhouse Super Harp Amplifier. He did a pretty darn good job recording his parts with no rehearsal to speak of at all. These were probably his third or fourth takes through the song and each take was done to get a better quality recording, not because he made any goofs (which he didn't.) Awesome job, Kenny! He did a lot better job than I did recoding the rest of it. (It's just a demo so I'm sorry that some of it is a little sloppy :)

The harp tracks were recorded using an sE Electronics GuitaRF filter with an sE Electronics VR1 ribbon mic about 1/2" off the cloth at the cone and inside the filter. A Rode NT3 medium diaphragm condenser mic was also placed about 45-degrees off-axis about 3" from the cloth. Preamp was Tascam US-16x08 audio interface. The two tracks were mixed to achieve a decent tone and a touch of light reverb was added using the Sonar Professional DAW.

Front View

Rear View
Side View

Kenny trying it out for the first time

Backstory of the "Sonhouse Super Harp" Amplifier

In November or December of 2014 I was approached by Jerry DePalma, the drummer of a local Christian blues/gospel band called Sonhouse Blues Band (SBB). He said they needed a second guitar player and that the group wanted him to ask me to consider starting down the road of seeing if I was a good fit for the band. I went to see them play and I was very impressed. The three core members of the group had been playing together for 20 years at that point and the bass player/co-lead-vocalist joined nine years prior - and it showed. They were very tight, had a great vibe and their ministry-first-focus was completely compatible with mine. We all went out to dinner after the show and I was invited to their next rehearsal. Well here I sit now a member of the band since January of 2015.

One of the things that really attracted me to SBB was the harp player/co-lead-vocalist and SBB co-founder Ken Kullbom. Kenny is a great vocalist, harpist, songwriter, and most recently to me, a great friend as well. He is just one of those genuine all-around really great guys of the variety that seems like they just don't come around often enough these days. One thing that he - and the whole band really - has done is inspire me to begin writing music again after a long, long hiatus. My spare bedroom "recording studio" was silent for 10+ years, essentially turned into a cold, dark storage room. However, now it has been cleaned out and is seeing new life and hearing new music being recorded once again. (Some of those years of my life were very, very dark. I have another post on this blog somewhere - I think - about my near-death illness which I am still recovering from to this day 4+ years later.)

On a Saturday afternoon late in the Summer of 2015, Kenny and our other guitar player Dave Angeles had gone to participate in a blues jam-session and they came back raving about this harp player's amp there that sounded amazing. Dave and I did some research and we came across Sonny Jr. amps which sound fantastic and have a pretty nice pedigree of players. Looking at the cost though, Kenny was just resigned to the fact that he would never be able to achieve that level of tone out of his faithful Fender Champ. Now the champ sounds great for what it is, but there were often times he and the rest of the band strained to hear the harp during a show and it just can't get that coveted "fatness" out of that single-ended 6V6 and 8" speaker. So from that day I started investigating what I would build given the chance, mostly just as a fun academic exercise in amp design. I knew a lot of blues harp players like the old Tweed Fender Bassman amp, but I knew any amp for Kenny had to be different... more "rootsy" than even a Bassman... just like Kenny. After more digging I discovered that the first Sonny Jr amps were modeled after the 1950's Fender Super circuit. This circuit pre-dates the Bassman by a few years so I started looking into that as a starting point. I discovered that it contains pretty much all of what most harp amp experts consider to be essential... low voltage on the first gain stage for earlier breakup, a 12AY7 as the first tube, a 12AX7 as a third gain stage and non-traditional phase-inverter, 6L6 cathode-biased push-pull power tubes, no negative feedback loop, a tube rectifier and multiple 10" AlNiCo speakers.

So now it's just before Christmas 2015 and having found what I would build given the opportunity, I really became struck by the idea that I needed to build him an amp. This was more than just a "yeah it would be nice to do this someday" kind of a feeling - I'd had that feeling since the first day I met him at that first show I attended. No, this "would be nice to someday" feeling had become a genuine, nagging, deep-down "I need to make this happen NOW and I need to get started today" certainty.

So, I took that circuit, tweaked it little bit here, modernized it just a little bit there, and I approached the rest of the band about surprising him with a new custom-built amp as a gift. They all agreed to use "the band fund" to pay for it, and well, the rest is history as they say.

This amp sounds amazing, but of course most of that is because of the quality of what goes into the input jack and that's all Kenny right there. I sure hope he has as much fun using this amp as I had making it and will have listening to him use it. After all, a guy like him deserves it.

Here's to many more years making music together with Kenny and the rest of Sonhouse Blues Band!

- All for God's glory -

- Trading our known for His renown -