Back in the late ‘90s, one of Blog Of Tone’s esteemed writers once had the (mis)fortune to play an outdoor gig in front of a field of inebriated Harley-Davidson enthusiasts. Oversized motorcycles, beer and other related debauchery in abundance were the order of the day. Sounds like rock ‘n’ roll heaven, doesn’t it? Well, it would’ve been, had our man’s amp not exploded during sound check. If only he’d been able to call upon the magic of Tube Safety Control to save the day…
There’s one very special musical event that I can remember as if it happened yesterday; an experience so vivid it’s now hardwired into the circuitry that starts somewhere behind my eyeballs.
Allow me share it with you: my demurely named four-man band, 8Balls, had secured a coveted gig at one of Europe’s biggest Harley-Davidson get-togethers. It was much like any convention, except that its attendees were a horde of what seemed like 10,000 Visigoths on huge hogs, with an entourage of women whose only mission, apparently, was to look as stunning as possible.
The entertainment was appropriately rowdy: a rather raucous rock band of the pool-shooting persuasion (lest you think less of us), bad-ass Harley burnouts, a moped-throwing contest, a pole dancing extravaganza and more good clean fun were on the agenda.
The all-powerful Harley president, an Odin-like presence whose word was law, added a menacing dystopian touch to the chaotic drunken antics. Mountains of grilled meat and gallons of beer to wash it down with were on the menu, so this promised to be a night of epic debauchery.
With a nod to the event’s gravity, I schlepped my exorbitantly expensive, all-tube custom boutique amp and twin 4×12″ cabs on to the festival stage.
I knew these were serious bikers, and I believed I would need lots of raw power to match the roar of all those Harleys. It would be a showdown, 100 tube-driven watts versus oodles of hog-power.
Let the games begin! Or not.
You see, the grounds were in the middle of nowhere, far from the comforts of civilization. There was no power supply, the nearest outlet being miles away.
This wasn’t a problem for the bikers, who borrowed diesel generators from nearby fire departments. Perhaps they were a sacrificial offering to keep the barbarians outside the gates of their fair towns.
I didn’t bother to take a meter to the power supply to gauge amperage and voltage.
Who does that anyway?
I should have, though. It was the fastest sound check we ever had, ending abruptly after five minutes or so. My cherished über-amp crackled loudly a few times, coughed, sputtered and thumped feebly one last time before passing on to the great beyond where only the good amps go.
All its vital signs had flatlined, and there was nothing I could to do to snatch my beloved baby from the cruel clutches of death.
Of course, no biker rolls with an amp strapped to his back; that seat’s reserved for his significant other.
What to do?
I jumped in a car and hauled booty to the nearest big town, which had a building with rehearsal spaces for rent, in the hopes of finding a kindred spirit who would bail me out. I was lucky; a fellow traveler on the minstrel’s trail loaned me his solid-state combo, and we somehow managed to get through the gig.
However, my personal experience had gone from epic to abysmal the moment my magnificent amp head went up in a puff of smoke.
The bikers, though, were far more interested in their bikes, their booze, their tattoos, and sometimes even their women, whom they either dispatched to fetch more beer or displayed proudly aloft, like Pictish priestesses being marched off to the shoulder wars astride Viking marauders.
The strains of secondhand Hendrix and Stevie Ray wafted through the alcohol-laden ether, unappreciated by these wild men and women.
Not to be melodramatic or anything, but that night in the company of many more than four riders gave me a foretaste of the apocalypse.
And the aftertaste was no less evocative: for weeks, all our gear reeked of burnt Harley-wheel rubber, reminding me that the fast lane is not the place to be when you’re on the Highway to Hell.
Back at home, the troubleshooting commenced the next day.
A friend who knows the business end of a soldering iron pinpointed the defect in a jiffy. He told me a power surge had slammed into a tube in my sensitive hand-wired amp head, which first blew that tube and shortly thereafter the fuse.
Replacing the fuse wouldn’t have fixed the problem because the defective tube was still plugged into the socket. Piling insult onto what was already a painful injury, my technician buddy said the tube would have soon failed in any case.
Now, I’m not a technician, and I would’ve stood a better chance of snuffing out the fires of Hades with a water pistol than figuring out what was wrong and finding a way to get my amp back up and running.
A tube was toasted, but that’s not something anyone without the gift of X-ray vision could see. The fuse had been blown; who would have thought to carry a spare?
I was a musician, not an electrician. If the grounds had been far more remote, the show most definitely wouldn’t have gone on.
These days, my tale of woe is just an anecdote that gets a few laughs when musicians swap war stories.
I don’t worry about that kind of stuff anymore since more tech-minded brains than mine have come up with surveillance systems such as Tube Safety Control (TSC for short). Tube failures are history thanks to this pioneering system.
It’s not just that TSC constantly monitors the tubes in its care. It also switches off any ailing or failing tube and its partner in a flash.
The only thing the guitarist notices is a slight dip in output power: if it’s a 100-watt amp, the output drops to 50 watts. The difference in loudness is perceptible, but at just a few decibels, negligible.
It’s the tiniest of prices to pay for the show to go on without the crowd noticing a thing.
If you own a TSC system, you don’t need a technician to bias your tubes. That means you can experiment with any power tube set – say KT88s, 6L6s, 6550s and the like – that fits the sockets, provided you always do what Noah would have done, popping them in in pairs.
If you wish, you can even A/B different types to tune your tone to taste. One of the more interesting tweaks for those who like their metal hefty is to replace the standard EL34s with a quartet of KT88s. This usually nails that raging American-style metal sound.
If the amp that died at the Harley huddle had been equipped with TSC, the defective tube and its twin would have been switched off automatically, the power tubes’ performance parameters adjusted accordingly, and the gig would have been hog heaven for me.
The TSC system did for tube-amp reliability what cloud backups did for computing. It took convenience up a dozen notches and gave serious users unprecedented peace of mind.
Power tubes are exposed to huge temperature differences, and several of their parameters may change audibly over time.
This creeps up on you, but at some point what you’re hearing is no longer what you expect from your trusty sidekick.
And that’s just one of the factors that can cut a tube’s life short and mess up your tone.
There’s nothing more precious to the gigging guitarist than a reliable, wicked-sounding amp paired with a magical guitar; a combination that delivers to-die-for-tone, everywhere and every time.
If you’ve ever seen a middle-aged Oxfordshire man on hands and knees tending to his turf, trimming individual blades of grass with nail clippers, than you know how obsessive the English can be about their lawns.
Many of us guitarists are like those guys and gals going for Britain’s best greenery. We tend to our tone with equally fanatical devotion.
With systems like TSC leading the way, surveillance systems such as those found in today’s automobiles are making inroads into ostensibly old-school tube technology.
That’s good news indeed.
Because the better maintained, a better biased, better monitored, and better protected amp is bound to be – you guessed it – a better amp. TSC takes on all these tasks, and reliably at that.
We players should expect nothing less from today’s equipment, and if you’ve ever had an experience like mine at the biker bash, you’ll appreciate that kind of reliability all the more.
Have you ever experienced anything similar? Did an ominous change in sound, a weird whiff of something frying, or a sudden spike in temperature clue you into the fact that your equipment was on the brink of disaster?
Ever had to finish a gig with borrowed gear or improvise an on-the-fly rig to get yourself heard? What are your wildest tales of the road?
And, most importantly, do any of you ride a Harley?
First published: February 20 2015. Most recent update: October 02 2015.