Interview: James Brown from Amptweaker

For metal guitarists and bassists, getting the right tone can be an ongoing struggle. As beginners, anything that produces the saturated, totally-scooped sound (think of the tone on …And Justice for All) through our practice amps will make us happy. But once we start playing together, try recording or playing in front of people, things get more complicated. What kind of distortion pedal would go well with my amp? Can I get a few different tones? Or do I need one for death metal and one for black metal? And there’s so many options! What brand can I trust?

Well I’m here to tell you it’s ok. There’s a man who can help you. James Brown. And he has a company that specializes in creating (and tweaking) that super-specific sound you’ve been imagining all this time: Amptweaker.

Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve heard music played through James’ amps. During his time at Peavey he designed the famous 5150 and worked directly with Eddie Van Halen to help him get the sound he wanted. Nowadays he focuses his talents on Amptweaker, where he’s become a trusted source in the world of metal and rock for great pedals. I personally own a TightMetal Jr., which is a sort of a condensed hybrid of the TightMetal and FatMetal pedals. Though it comes in a smaller size, it’s versatile enough to accommodate several different sounds from a “tight” crunch for death metal, a “fat” punch for tremolo-picking black metal, and a strong scooped sound if you’re looking to rip into some Morrisound-style riffs.

But if you want a better idea of what Amptweaker is all about, we should let James speak for himself:

Hello James, thank you for taking some time to chat! What first got you into designing pedals and amplifiers?

Throughout my teen years I loved playing guitar and always wanted to try to do something in the music business, but I figured the odds of ‘making it’ as a musician were fairly slim….I enjoyed physics and math, so I went to college to study electronics engineering technology, and when I got out I taught electronics at the University of Southern Mississippi for a couple of years before finally getting a job at Peavey Electronics as an analog design engineer. Once there I learned quickly and figured out how to tweak amps to make them feel better, which had always been my pet peeve when trying other amps out. I remembered finding that amps at the time didn’t really sound much like the record…little did I know that you had to play them at insane volumes to get that tone, so I went on my quest to make amps that could get those tones at ‘normal’ volumes.

A few years into my amp design career at Peavey, I got an opportunity to design a signature amp for Eddie Van Halen, called the 5150. We worked together on that amp for a couple of years, going back and forth with all kinds of changes, and finally released it to production around 91. The biggest difference over amps by our peers was that this one had an extra tube in the preamp to give it a LOT more gain. Since Eddie wasn’t trying to get a modern metal tone out of it, he always used the amp with the gain at around 6…..but a lot of the metal bands found that they could crank it and use it with a hard noise gate to get seriously thick and heavy metal tones that could stop hard. Over the years I designed various other models, like the Triple XXX, the Classic 50 and 30 amps, and many, many solid state amps like the TransTube Bandit line. Eventually I got to design the JSX amplifier for Joe Satriani, and in 2004 I left to work at Kustom amps where I designed several amps for them.

Eddie Van Halen with some 5150 amps (in his standard colors, of course).
Eddie Van Halen with some 5150 amps (in his standard colors, of course).

In 2009, after years for designing amps that big corporations wanted, I decided that I wanted to get back to basics and work directly with consumers and artists to develop products that other companies weren’t doing…so I started Amptweaker, named after my online forum nickname. With the popularity of the internet and social media, it seemed logical to incorporate product suggestions on my into our products, and that became our major business model. As of 2017, we’re up to 24 models, and coming out with new products every few months. Our latest is the PressuRizer, a compressor/boost pedal that has a special ‘Bloom’ setting so the compression comes in after your initial attack, thereby not affecting the note’s attack. Most compressors cause the note to be spongy on the initial ‘wack’, but this one passes the original dry signal through at first, so your distortion tone is still chunky.

What drew you to work on equipment for heavier bands?

When I was young I quickly realized that it wasn’t that hard to find a nice clean tone…but distortion was a lot tougher.  When I started working at Peavey in 86, bands like Metallica and Whitesnake were very popular, so pretty much all the popular music was ‘heavy.’ And of course Van Halen’s tone was always fairly heavy as well…even ZZ Top’s tone had gotten much heavier over the years. Along with the 5150 amp line, I was also tweaking another tube amp lineup that included the Ultra/Triumph/Rockmaster/Bravo tube amps, and they all had various amounts of ‘chunk,’ so I spent a lot of time over the years trying to improve those tones. I used to say to people that my job was to make what I did last year sound bad.

I think it also had a lot to do with my own preference for a tighter tone. While I wasn’t a metal guy, I grew up on heavier but singing guitar tones such as Angus Young, Rich Williams, Ted Nugent, Ace Frehley, Tom Scholz, Neal Schon, Santana and of course Eddie. But when I played through a Marshall stack as a kid, I was disappointed because it sounded too floppy and clean to me to be what they used. Not like cranking up a Fender, but certainly it wasn’t tight…I didn’t realize that many guys cranked the amps and used the Bright input so the amp had a chime to it and a fairly tight attack. Or the other trick was to use a Tube Screamer, which had some low end roll-off, and that would boost and tighten up the tone.  Once I started working with Eddie and we got to the 5150 combo, I found some cool ways to really address that tightness, and over the years tweaked that in different ways for various artists I worked with.

What were you trying to accomplish when you created the TightMetal pedal?

At Kustom I designed an amp called the Double Cross, which was a very heavy sounding amp…Mark Kloeppel from the death metal band Misery Index had used it, and after I started Amptweaker he contacted me with a dilemma that many of those bands face. Metal bands play a lot of festival style gigs where 10 bands all show up to play, and they usually all share the backline…..but you never knew what you’d find there.  Mark asked me if I thought I could design an amp that sounded like an Ampeg VH140C, or 5150, or some combination, so he could travel to these gigs and just plug it into the effects return or power amp input and get his tone…and it needed a noise gate. I had already come out with our TightDrive overdrive pedal, which uses my own proprietary design quite unlike all the tube screamers out there…so I spent a few months boosting the gain and tweaking. Mark told me that many of the main death metal bands used that 140C, and he told me the settings that they all used. I had a friend with one, so I borrowed it and set it up with those settings so I could curve it on my spectrum analyzer and listen to it.  

When I curved the Ampeg, I thought the curve seemed familiar…so I hooked up my block letter 5150, and set it to Eddie’s favorite setting from back in the 90s.  I was blown away that the EQ curve matched almost exactly. So I used that curve as the basis for my TightMetal Pedal. Over the years I had used a really simple but effective noise gate that stops the notes really hard, so I put that in there too. And I included the Tight knob we had on the TightDrive pedal, which allows you to dial in the attack to be really chunky and in-your-face, or thicker and more buzzy.  When I sent it to Mark, he couldn’t believe how close it sounded to the 5150 and also very much like the Ampeg VH140C, and that’s where that whole line came from. Since then we added the Pro versions, which have a Boost system that boosts before and after the distortion and includes multiple effects loops that come on with the pedal, another with the Boost, and a third that comes on when the pedal is OFF so you can kick off some clean effects that you patch in there. One click to go from clean with a chorus to that massive metal tone with gate, and another to kick on your solo boost and delay.

How about the FatMetal pedal? Did you get a lot of feedback from doom and black metal people demanding a thicker tone?

Some manufacturers spend all their time trying to convince customers to like their products.  I spend all of my time trying to tweak mine to suit the customers, or come out with alternate versions that meet their goals. The death metal and djent guys loved the TightMetal, but some of the other metal genres were looking for something that wasn’t SO tight. Something that had a little bit of buzz riding between the notes, which comes in particularly handy for the tremolo-picking styles of black metal. The doom/sludge metal tones are extremely dark and thick. So I decided to make a version for them that didn’t sound quite so chunky, and the FatMetal line was born. I find that there are a lot of crossovers between the two, and you can certainly tweak either to sound a lot like the other, but basically the FatMetal is that looser feeling, more amp-like distortion that also works great for brighter rigs and guitars. The TightMetal tends to favor the tighter stops, with a lot of grind and punchy attack, but you can always dial back the noise gate a little bit to loosen it up some as well.

When I did the JR series pedals, I added a Smooth and Fat setting on the TightMetal JR, so that you can get the FatMetal tones from that same pedal. That way we only had to carry one model to cover all the metal genres. A lot of people think it’s nuts to have pedals with all these switches and options, usually because they think I’m trying to help a guy find 20 different tones in one pedal…but in fact, I’m really just trying to help find 1 sound for 20 different guys in that pedal. Those tweaky sound choices are the difference between buying a generic pedal that’ll get you 90% of the way there, and a pedal like ours where we spend a lot of time to get that last 10% right.

Can you tell me about any pedals you have in the works? Would you ever merge your stuff into a multi-effects setup?

One of my biggest mental problems is that I continuously work on several new products in my head and on the bench as I go…right now I’m JUST starting to ship a new compressor/boost pedal called the PressuRizer, which is particularly cool because it has a ‘bloom’ setting that allows you to blend in a LOT of compression, but it comes in a few seconds after the attack. In other words, as your note starts to die off, the compressed signal blends in. That way you can still get chunky tight attack on your notes, but the PressuRizer helps your note sustain as it starts to die off. It was a big hit at January 2017 NAMM show.  

Other things I’m working on are a 3-band EQ/boost pedal called EQuator, and an analog DI with a speaker simulator design that I’ve been using in amps for years. I’m also working on making some JR sized versions of our TightFuzz and Bass TightFuzz, and several other longer range projects. I get a LOT of requests for rack-mount versions of the TightMetal Pro, for example.

On the multi-effects setup idea, I came up with a plan to do a 2 and a 3 switch chassis that we can offer semi-custom pedals for customers. Basically you can get whichever JR models you want mounted in a 2 or 3 button housing, whatever color you want. The idea was a big hit at the show, and as soon as I get a couple more JR sized pedals done, we’ll be launching that Custom Shop multi-pedal system later this summer.

Do you have amp designs in production as well?

As of now we don’t have any amps in production, but I’ve been designing an amp system as we go along….mostly developing the ideas of what it should do and how it can do it. I definitely want to do some amps, but so far I’ve held off on launching it, mostly because amp sales seem to be light, and a LOT of amp guys are using things like Kemper and AXeFX…but who knows?  Stay tuned…..this might be the year……

(I don’t know about you, but that custom multi-effects setup with the color of your choice sounds AWESOME!)