Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Soul of a New Machine

The Stage 5 Amp began in a phone conversation between Bruce Collins and me a few months ago.  Bruce is one of the best tube amp techs on earth, and we’ve been friends for about 10 years.  A few years ago I helped him develop the excellent Chicago 32-20 line of harp amps and he helped me develop the Memphis Mini amp.

We were talking about…. Amps!  Chatting about the harp amp market in the $200 to $300 range.  There was nothing out there with the tone and performance you need in a harp amp meant for stage use.  I mentioned the Monoprice Stage Right amp as a platform, and that is where it all began.  I ordered one that day.  When it arrived at my shop in Wyoming I tore it apart and began modding and testing.  I spent hours on the phone with Bruce trying different circuit changes.  Bruce had ordered a Monoprice amp as well, and when his arrived in Denver we began the serious work of transforming that modest little amp into a blues harp beast.

The Monoprice amp is very well made, and it uses vacuum tubes for tone generation.  Its low price is largely due to its use of printed circuit boards which are assembled by robots.  All the amps we’d made in the past were hand wired point to point, a technique that is preferred by many players but which is also necessarily more expensive.  Our project became a proof of concept:  Can we create a low-priced amp based on a PCB platform that delivers the organic tone and reliable performance needed by gigging players?

Out of the box the Monoprice amp is terrible for blues harp.  In fact, it is one of the worst amps I’ve ever heard.  But the amp responded spectacularly to circuit mods designed by Bruce Collins and component changes I tried.  What followed was a LOT of the modding-testing-playing cycle.  It slowly became the Stage 5 Amp.

It is an understatement to say the Stage 5 Amp project has exceeded our expectations.  The amp is loud, punchy, warm, and responsive to the players technique.  You can make it moan or rip, depending on how you push it.  We loaned Stage 5 Amp #002 – Bruce’s development prototype – to several pro players who all were effusive in their praise and enthusiasm for the amp.

Your can own the Stage 5 Amp for $229.  It comes with some great features useful for the gigging player.  It has an extension speaker connection so you can drive an external speaker cap.  I’ve test it with a 4x10 cab loaded with Jensen speakers and it sounded monstrous…  Unbelievably loud and detailed tone.

It also has a button on the front panel to reduce it from 5 watts to about 1 watt and still retain the great tone; very handy for home practice.  There is an optional Line Out to connect directly to the PA system (or to another amplifier).  Sorry, we had to charge a few bucks for that option, but it is well worth it if you get a lot of stage time.

We are proud of the Stage 5 Amp, and the value it offers to harp players of all levels.  The amp is very solid.  It’s internal circuit boards are robust and well made.  We fully expect the amp to be reliable and consistent.  We are happy to offer a high performance amp in the lower-priced market segment.

Friday, January 12, 2018

David Barrett's Small Harp Amp Reviews

David Barrett has been running a review series for small harp amps at his website, and it is still ongoing.  The Memphis Mini amp was included and got good reviews:  David said he could recommend the amp to all levels of players from students to pros, and that he would buy it himself.  We thank him for his generous review.

One measurement really jumped out at me:  Peak Volume in Decibels.  The MM amp was the second loudest amp in the review at 111 decibels.  The only amp that topped it was the Fender Blues Junior at 113 db.  The Blues Jr makes nearly 3 times as many watts as the MM and you would expect it to be significantly louder than the smaller MM amp.  At only 2 db the difference would probably not even be perceptible.

The Sonic Pipes amp – which is very similar to the MM amp – was measured at only 106 db.  That means the MM amps is about 1.5 times louder to the human ear.  (Differences in perception are logarithmic, not linear.)  That is a huge difference.

The Sonic Pipes amp is weaker because they decided to use a 6SJ7 single pentode tube in the preamp section, when the amp they are modifying was actually designed to use a dual triode 12A tube.  The 12A tubes actually are two tubes in one, with half of it managing the mic input and the other half managing the recovery of volume lost by the tone control.  The Sonic Pipes amp has no second gain stage to do that, so the volume is lost and the amp is significantly weaker.

Volume level in small amps is extremely important.  You need to be able to hear your amp on stage among the other musicians, and you can’t always count on the sound tech to get it right in the monitors.  That 5 db deficit can be the difference between playing a great set or flying blind.  Nobody wants to have a weak amp behind them and have to grope their way through a solo.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jerry Portnoy

In 1979 my brother Jack and I decide to go see Muddy Water’s Blues Band at Dooley’s in Tempe AZ. Muddy’s harp player that day was Jerry Portnoy, and I was stunned by his tone and phrasing. I got a chance to say Hi to Portnoy, shake his hand and gush some praise. That show had a big impact on my devotion to the Chicago blues harp sound, from that day to this one.

So, I was a bit stunned when Jerry Portnoy emailed me out of the blue a few weeks ago with questions about the Memphis Mini amp. He said he was interested in a “smaller stage amp with a big sound.” He’d seen info and videos about the MM amp online and was impressed. Since he is a blues harp legend I offered to ship an amp to him on approval. Jerry called me an hour after it arrived and offered his enthusiastic endorsement.

This is his own quote: “My Memphis Mini gives me that classic Chicago sound in a small lightweight cabinet. I love it!”

It is indisputable that Jerry Portnoy knows the classic Chicago sound for amped blues harp.

In all his great career with Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton and the rest, Jerry Portnoy had endorsed only one amplifier: His Victoria 45410 “Bassman.” And now he has chosen to endorse the Memphis Mini amp.

Jerry sent me a photo of himself with the amp and I posted it to Facebook to announce the endorsement. The post has more than 500 likes as I write this, an incredible level of interest for the arcane world of harp amps. I’ll have video of Portnoy playing his MM amp soon.

It has been a long and winding road from that day in Tempe when I watched blues legends on stage at Dooleys to this day when that same harp player – who has had more impact on my blues harp sound than anybody – has become an endorser of the sound of my Memphis Mini amps. The circle is complete.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Pedal Debate

The old school amped tone came about partly because great players in the 50s needed amps they didn’t have to fight every step of the way.  They needed amps that were less prone to feedback, and didn’t sound glassy or shrill from the metal reeds.  They needed amps that warmed up the tone of the harmonica and reacted to the unique mix of harmonic overtones.  So they settled on old PA heads and small tube amps.   That became the classic amped blues harp sound for a reason.

Still, 60 years later, a good harp amp is about a lot more than just getting louder.   We face the same challenges the great players of the 50s had to overcome.

Many harp pedals purport to do the same things a good amp does:  Reduce the feedback potential, warm up the tone, and give the amp more breakup and more of a tube-like sound.  The problem is the pedals impart a processed electronic element to your sound.  And they cost a lot of money.

It is common to see online threads with photos of elaborate pedal boards for blues harp players.  One recent photo I saw had 10 pedals on it.  I’m not sure how much they all cost, but let’s say they average $150 each.  That’s $1500 in pedals!  You can spend a lot less than that and get a fine harp amp that does not need any pedals at all.

I know why some players collect effects pedals.  I’ve done it myself.  It is frustrating and expensive to try different amps and find your tone.  Pedals seem like simpler, less expensive ways to incrementally get to the tone you seek.   But since so many pedals promise to mimic the sound of a classic tube amp, doesn’t it make sense to start with a good harp amp and add pedals only if needed? 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

MM Cables

This is a rugged, no-nonsense cable for working blues harp players. It is tough but supple, coils easily, and performs perfectly. It is built for gigging on barroom stages.

The MM Cable is 18 feet long (5.5m) with a 1/4 inch phone plug on one end and a Switchcraft 5/8 inch screw on connector at the other. Your signal is carried from the mic to the amp by a twisted pair of stranded copper 24AWG wires, each protected by insulation. There are two layers of RFI noise shielding around the wires: A metal foil jacket surrounds the twisted pair, covered by a copper wire mesh braid that carries the ground signal. The cable’s outer jacket is tough black PVC. These cables are low-noise and long-life.

The orange shrink tube at the cable ends is not just for looks. It provides an extra measure of strain relief to ensure the solder connections between the wires and the connectors do not get damaged from hard use on stages.  The price is $32.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Lining Out to the PA

Lots of players seem interested in lining out their amps to the PA but I don't see a lot of discussion about it. There is more to it than just plugging in. This photo is a channel from my Mackie 808M powered mixer, which is typical of what many bar bands use. It is set up for a line out from a harp amp.
From top to bottom:
-Monitor Send: You definitely want some harp in the monitors if you are using a line out, but not too much. Just enough so you can hear yourself and hear your balance with the band. I have it set halfway here.
-Effects Send: I send nothing to the effects buss. I prefer the sound of the amp by itself or with the FX pedals I use.
-Highs: Roll off about 25%
-Mids: Flat or roll off a bit.
-Lows: Boost about 20 - 25%
-Trim: Start at 0 - unity gain. It depends on many things. Dial it in so you are not clipping.
-Volume: It depends on where you want to sit in the mix.
PAs tend to be bright. If you just plug in and dial in the setting as if it were a vocal channel your sound might be shrill and annoying.
If there is a sound tech ask him/her politely but firmly to set the channel like this. There may be some small adjustments during sound check, but starting out this way will get things moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Memphis Mini Speaker Test

Speaker comparison test, please listen and vote. Many thanks to JD Taylor for his wonderful playing.

Five different 8-inch speakers in the Memphis Mini amp. Which two do you prefer? You may leave a comment here or email me at


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Kinder Soulful Amp

Some of the best amped harp tone you will ever hear:  JD Taylor playing his custom Kinder Soulful amp with MM Delay pedal.

Orange Tiny Terror amp

The Orange Tiny Terror 15-watt tube amp has always been interesting to harp players, I think, but it was less than ideal because of its very high gain preamp stage and its EL84 power tubes.  That makes it a fun guitar amp but makes it shrill and feedback-prone when mic'd up for harp.

I developed the MM Harpman pedal with amps like this in mind, but I haven't had the chance to test the pedal with this particular amp.  Today a customer ordered the Harpman to put in front of his Orange Tiny Terror.  I'd like to hear the TT amp calmed down and warmed up a bit.  Hopefully he'll send a video.   I'll post it here if he does.