Not long after saying goodbye to Tom Wagner, Mass Street Music’s former go-to for pro audio/amp repair, we were fortunate enough to find Cliff Smith Audio from Overland Park to service our customers. While we knew his work was top notch, we came to realize there was much more to Cliff than just amp repair. An electrical engineer by trade (in the medical field, as a matter of fact), a musician by choice, and an audio guru by virtue of both, Cliff is a venerable encyclopedia of vintage amp and electrical knowledge. To him, your audio gear isn’t simply “electronics” – it’s an extension of your tone, and therefore, an extension of yourself.”
Cliff graciously took the time to answer a few questions for us. You might happen to see him in the store on Tuesdays, when he picks up and returns repairs, so be sure to welcome him and say howdy.
MSM: What do you think plays the biggest part in the tone that comes from your amp? Tubes, transformers, speakers, guitar, the player, something else?
Cliff: Outside of the player and the guitar (not going there!) in order of importance:
Speakers: Your speakers make the most difference, in terms of bang for the buck. In certain situations you can even double your volume level, just by changing types. Experiment till you find the ones for you.
Tubes: Different types of tube do have different sounds. I encourage folks to experiment with what they can. No one can tell you what is the right for you or your amp.
Output Transformer: It seems like the cheap small ones made in China sound about 60% as good as the bigger US made ones.
A good finger-jointed non-particle board cab will sound maybe 15% better than a butt-jointed pressboard cabinet.
Changing/tweaking these components can improve the tone maybe 5-10%. You can modify things farther, but you will be vastly changing the usefulness and versatility of the amp.
Least bang for the buck. Usually reserved for those with a blown transformer.
MSM: New production vs. vintage gear: what’s your preference? Any new manufacturers you feel are doing a good job replicating the sought-after tone and build quality of yesteryear?
Cliff: Like everything else in this disposable world, most things that were built years ago were made to last for decades. Nowadays, you must pay a big premium for new production gear to be made that well. There are quite a few manufacturers that are building quality equipment, but it is amazing to me how many of them copy the errors/shortcomings in the classic circuits. There are many improvements that can be made on these circuits that will improve noise levels and reliability without sacrificing the quality of the tone.
MSM: Tubes: NOS vs. new. What’s your take?
Cliff: My take is that reliability is the main issue with tubes. The greatest tubes in the world don’t do you any good if the amp quits working correctly. I stick with new tubes that are under warranty for the vast majority of my repairs unless the customer specs something different. I have had many “NOS” tubes over the years and in my experience they can sound very good, but it seems that a large percentage of them have issues with microphonics, and noise. These aspects are not detected with normal tube testers, but must be weeded out by ear. It can be a crapshoot, especially when buying NOS tubes on the web.
MSM: You have a quote on your website – “Great tone is not a destination, it’s a journey.” What does that quote mean to you?
Cliff: No matter how good your tone may be, it seems that most of us lust for better sound. Getting just the right sound is a process of learning and growing – it can take years, maybe your whole life! Keep experimenting until you find what works for you.
MSM: What’s one of the toughest amp or audio repairs you’ve ever run into?
Cliff: Whatever amp I have on the bench that I am struggling with at the moment – changes all the time!
Cliff picks up and returns repairs from Mass Street Music every Tuesday. He’s even Fender certified (as well as Ampeg, Crate, Visual Sound and many more). There is a $45 bench fee, which is applicable to your repair. Those in a time crunch can call Cliff directly at 913-912-7065.