Mercury Magnetics interview with Irving Blacker of TONEHENGE Amplification
Saturday, 07 August 2010 11:39
Tonehenge develops and hand makes its unique high-end guitar amplifiers in Germany.
MM: Tell us what got you into Mercury transformers!
Irving: When we started developing our Monolith amps (due in late 2010) we were a bit let down with the tone and how the amp had been responding. That wasn’t logical to our two technicians because if you know what you are doing you can’t do much wrong in a tube circuit. After hearing so much about Mercury we thought we would give you a try. All of us at Tonehenge are highly-trained to German standards and we understand that it’s just not economically possible to make an excellent component cheap. So we figured Mercury must have the solution to our woes as your transformer designs are notoriously time-consuming to build and made with the best materials.
MM: So what happened then?
Irving: Well, to make sure we could fully appreciate the impact changing to Mercury would make, we changed the transformers one at a time. First the
output transformer, which is what almost everyone does. What happened? It blew our socks off! Much more tone was all of a sudden happening, the tone controls came to life and a lot of other cool things happened. Your Radiospares 045RS-L proved that our design has world class potential. The Monolith was starting to become a reality. But something was still missing. After changing the power tranny with your FDP-20/240 from a Blackface Deluxe Reverb all of a sudden the amp began to respond much better, had more dynamics and attack. Also the amp lost its muddiness that was previously there at higher volumes. This muddiness when played loud is actually very common in today’s amps because of under-dimensioned power transformers. After thinking it doesn’t get any better than this we installed a choke which was the icing on the cake. Even more underestimated than the power transformer, the choke is such an important component which in our case made for even more touch sensitivity.
What’s really cool about the choke is that depending on the value you can shape the tone and response of your amp. While not a secret, I’m astounded that this “trick” is seldom mentioned anywhere.
MM: So all-in-all it was a very educational experience....
Irving: Yes, and fortunately we are able to pass along what we’ve learned to guitarists every day.
MM: What in your opinion makes guitarists hesitate to try Mercury?
Irving: If a product has a good reputation it’s easier to convince people to give it a try. With Mercury’s 30-day tonal satisfaction guarantee a customer has nothing to lose. However, cost and a lack of general knowledge about transformers remain the biggest hurdles. When someone gripes I’ll sometimes ask how much their custom guitar pickups cost. Relating this to transformers means that on material alone transformers are a steal! It’s just not possible to pay a little and expect miracles. For the thrifty out there they should look at it this way; if you pay a lot of money for great quality the worst what can happen is that you might have spent a bit too much. On the other hand if you put out less money for a low-quality product you risk losing your entire investment because it doesn’t fulfill your expectations. Again, I think the Mercury trannys are a great value for the money.
MM: What does it take to get guitarists to at least give Mercury a shot?
Irving: Well, your 30 day satisfaction policy is a big help. Germans, for the most part, are gearheads and they often have a good understanding of technical jargon. The fact that we tend to be so critical plays against us – but at the same time it is an advantage. The great thing about Mercury transformers is that they really do deliver what is promised. Once the technical superiority of a Mercury is explained: the iron used, over-built quality, your cloning technology, etc., they are more willing to give them a try.
MM: And how do these critical customers typically respond?
Irving: Whether the customer is extremely critical or not the standard reaction is always “Wow!” I keep expecting someone to not get it, but they always do. It’s an awesome thing to witness.
MM: How is it with your customers from other countries?
Irving: I’m amazed and grateful for how good their English is (laughs). It’s incredible how music crosses borders. The international guitar community is probably the “funnest” place to work. Regardless of where the guitarist comes from and how knowledgeable he or she is, our customers are all looking for improvement in their amplifiers. The majority of them are shocked with the results. After the standard “Wow!” comes the standard second reaction of, “I never would have thought that a transformer would make such a huge difference!” There are, of course, customers who already know Mercury and will put no other makers’ transformers in their amps.
MM: Any other points that you think are important?
Irving: For those of you who intend on changing “only” the output transformer, don’t stop there if you are looking for a killer amp. Rip out all the stock transformers. If it has a reverb transformer upgrade that as well. Everything makes a difference. Transformer upgrades will make a much bigger difference than changing any other components.
MM: You mentioned that we cloned a transformer from not just any AC30 but the AC30. What do you exactly mean?
Irving: I have a customer from Berlin who started playing in the ’60s. He told me that at the end of the ’60s, used JMI AC30s were very popular. He also remembers that even back then they all sounded different. His was a good example but his band mate had a dog, yet both amps were the same model built the same year. Mercury utilizes this discovery in your ToneClone series transformers. ToneClones duplicate the best-sounding transformers for specific amps from specific periods in history. And for any specific type of amp, you may have several ToneClones, all producing different variations
in amp tone. I tell my customers that because of your ToneClone technology that they are getting the best clone possible for their desired classic tones.
MM: Is there anything that surprises you out in guitar land?
Irving: One thing that constantly baffles me is when a guitarist spends piles of money on a great guitar but then puts very little thought into what he’ll amplify it with. If you take a money-is-no-object, hand-built, custom dream guitar of your choice, and plug it into a standard mass-produced amp for around $1,000, you just aren’t going to be happening. By the same token take a cheap guitar, like a Korean Squire Strat, and hook it up to basically any Mercury-equipped amp, and you’ll quickly belong to the club of the tone enlightened. Of course both the priceless guitar and high-grade amp together create the most wonderful experience. Remember it doesn’t have to be a boutique amp. Almost any amp upgraded with Mercury iron can be awesome. But my point is that the tone budget money is often given out backwards.
MM: Being a Mercury dealer working with our transformers everyday gives you quite an insight into our products. What is one of the things, besides great tone, that you like?
Irving: There’s just so much more being offered and many awesome choices available. For example, when upgrading an AC30 you offer Radiospares and ToneClones series transformers of the original Haddons, Wodens and Albions. Each time Vox changed their supplier they got a different sound, along with all kinds of variations in-between. Now that’s a pretty cool thing to know and have access to! Or, if you want to build a Tweed Bassman you can choose from a number of different years. It’s so cool... and I’m sure most guitarists and amp techs aren’t even aware of this outstanding service you offer.
MM: What are your plans for the future?
Irving: We are looking forward to bringing our Monolith amps to market. Here we have combined design, technology and art into a masterpiece that’s made in Germany. What’s also very exciting is our plans of building up a collection of vintage amps. But surprise! – not vintage originals! Instead, we’ll make our own series for R&D use (and the odd Friday afternoon BBQ) utilizing new components.
With Mercury we will have the best classic amps available without having to search them out. So to all you not-quite-happy guitarists out there: stop searching and discover what you’ve been missing!
MM: Any parting thoughts?
Irving: Well for such a passionate subject it’s difficult to hang on a single point. Many guitarists are unsatisfied with their amps and reckon the best remedy is to change their speakers and tubes. Although the amp may be improved they are often not fully satisfied with the results. And just as typically these amps get sold while the search continues. Even with NOS Mullards and RCAs you will not reach your full sonic potential until you have the right iron in place. Playing an amp with low-grade transformers is like trying to drink while someone is strangling you (a quote from a German engineer customer). Many of our Mercury customers note, “It’s easy to have great tone but it is just as easy to have mediocre tone.”