Are you constantly searching for a guitar sound based on one of the classic Marhall or Fender amps, but never been able to find the cash needed? Then handmade point to point from Asia may be your thing. Imagine a great sounding Marshall Plexi, JCM800, Fender Blackface or Hower Dumble Series for a pittance in the context? Asia is a big area and knowledge is developing rapidly in today's globalized world. I think we should get used to the idea that stuff from Asia can be as great as stuff from USA or Europe.
Ceriatone, creates affordable "boutique clones" of classic amplifiers without compromising on quality. When I checked it out thoroughly, it appeared that Ceriatone, founded by entrepreneur Nik S Azam, started to make hand-built amplifiers back in 2000. Now they're exporting to 70 countries, mostly to EU, USA, Japan and Australia. But very few people seems to know about these guys, which is odd considering that their amps sound so good.
Admittedly, prices have gone up a bit since Tobias bought his, but the prizes are still less than half of the prize for a new new Marshall Plexi reissue or a used "vintage" on eBay.
But more interesting is actually their really classic models, which most of us can't find at all. Ceriatone do not work in the vintage market, they are more of an alternative to the "digital stuff", for people like myself who don't have $ 100 000 for a 35 year old Fender.
Ceriatones capacity is 100-200 amps per month, which is exactly where they want to be. A bigger business is often equal to lower quality in the long run. Nik is smart and passionate about guitar tones...
Overtone Special Series (OTS) is based on Howard Dumble series, one of the most sought after and most expensive boutique amplifier in the world. Dumble Amps are clones of the Fender Tweed and Blackface, and this is of interest. Because if you make clones and crave shameless amounts of money for it, then it is more appropriate than if you do equally great clones but prizing them low. Then it becomes a "copy" in peoples minds. Weird....
According to the reviews, OTS sound very similar and authentic to Dumbles, but with one the major difference, it costs about $ 1600 dollars compared to a Dumble Overdrive Special that runs loose in between $ 20,000 to $ 50,000 dollars. As you can't patent a circuit board, you just have to tweak it a bit, there is no issue of copying here. Ceriatone is not a "copy cat", they use their own brand inspired by others, just like everyone else...
Ceriatone OTS is one of the more expensive amplifiers they make, but most of them goes for $ 1,000 for fully working amp and with starting prices of $ 300- $ 500 if you're willing to do some of the work yourself.
I contacted Nik and asked if I could asked him for an interview, and if I maybe have the opportunity to buy an amplifier for testing later on. There is a long queue to get the hands of one and it takes a while to build stuff by hand.
How did your work actually start, and what is your background as an amp builder?
It was really just a hobby for me. I play the guitar, and of course the gear hunting bug got to me. I started tinkering and repairing vintage tube amps, and before you know it, it got a bit serious. I started by offering turret boards, and from there, I added things, including complete amplifiers. I am ECE by training (Electrical/Computer Engineer), as well.
Where are you stationed with your workshop?
We’re located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
What is your own preference, when it comes to music and amps?
I grew up with classic rock, and old school metal. So, it’d be the Fender and Marshalls, pretty much. That’s all we had, back then, really.
Even though your amps are inspired by other well known amps, you build them from scratch don't you?
Yes, we do build them from scratch. We draw/design our own chassis, boards, faceplates, etc. And the builds all start from the raw ingredients.
The average customer do they buy a kit and assemble them by their own or do they buy "whole amps"?
We actually sell more complete amps than kits.
I know that you are very truthful to quality, is there a thin line between less quality, by using cheap components, profit and sound experience in the business in general?
There is no silver bullet to kill all demon types. A component deemed not so great, might work excellently in certain parts of a certain amp. Plus, if you look at it, the passive components do not really cost much, esp in bulk. A Mallory 150 coupling cap, for example, is less than a dollar, while Sozo and such, they don’t go for more than five.
Same thing with transformers. We use own own transformers for all the builds. They do cost less than bigger names, but that’s because it’s made here, where labor is cheaper. It is not the case that we haven’t opened up many vintage transformers, to see how it’s done. The parts do contribute, as they have their own sounds, but the designer needs to hone his own ears as to what works best. Having said that, more percentage of quality is about quality control, including the testing of the amps. I test the amps personally, and I usually test them very loud, over long periods of time. Plus, we also burn in our amps, to ensure no infant death occurring.
Can you describe you quality process?
Our process is, I test the amps for voltages, functions, tone. And then, we burn in for abt 15-16 hours total, over 3 days. Ie, about 4-6 hours a day. Then, I test it again. The chassis is then put into the cabinet, and I test again, before shipping. Other than that, I really emphasize on the execution of the wiring, especially soldering. There is an art to it. It's not complicated, but it's time consuming for sure.
The best amp you have ever built?
There is no best amp, it depends on what you want to achieve, your moods, etc. I could be happy with an OTS, and I could be happy with my Champ Ultra.
The best amp you have ever heard, and who played it?
We have noticed that for a given vintage amp X model, some are good, some are not, and a couple are just perfect. I think, our S&M OTS (which is ODS based, but tweaked), when the magic happens, is just perfect. The S&M was actually our first OTS. Having been accustomed to Fenders and Marshalls, it was very hard to get used to the Dumble ODS sound, especially the OD. I think lots of people find this as well, you need to adjust your playing to accommodate that, in a way. So, the S&M is more like, at the time, a culmination of my experience and influences, expressed through an ODS platform.
Does any well known players use Ceriatone?
There are. But understand this: Endorsement deals is something we do not do, it is how we conduct business. I do understand, endorsement or the potential for endorsement is something that could mean revenue for the artist. So, I usually don’t name names, because we did not pay the artist to advertise our stuff, and we do not want to hurt their chances to get one, from another company. I think that’s fair... Of course, if the artist wants to tell, it’s our honor and pleasure. We’re about trying to make the best amps, with the lowest possible price.
Tell me a little about the Yeti stuff?
The Yeti is the Jose Arredondo type of mod done to Marshalls, which were very popular in the 80s rock/glam scene. Of course, I have added our own tweaks to it, to suit my tastes.
On the #35, did you built in out of the sound or did you look in to AFD100?
We had some info on the circuit, and went from there. I do not think it’s possible to just hear an amp, and a circuit comes on like a light bulb in your mind. There are so many ways to tweak, and the original SIR #36 definitely had weird things going in it (hindsight is always 20:20, of course).
It´s PPIMV in that one, is that the power scaling used by AFD100?
Usually, I refer/compare our amps to the vintage/ real issue. The PPIMV was added as a feature for low volume playing. The reissue AFD has some sort of power scaling, it’s not the same. Power scaling allows for the voltages to go down, in tandem with scaled biasing. PPIMV is simpler.
How well do you think Marshall nailed the AFD tone?
I haven’t played the reissue.
Is there any differences in the #35 tone compared to the "original" on the album.
You’d definitely get in the ballpark, but there are other things than just the amp involved. Post production, for one, and you cannot really buy that in the store.
Do you work with the power supply when you develop gain, or what philosophy do you have?
Yes, that’s quite critical, you have to know your PS. But I don’t really have any philosophy behind it, as you can tweak so many parts of the amp.
Which amp is the best selling and best reviewed by users?
We sell lots of the Yeti and Chupacabra amps, as well as the OTS series. Now, we have the OTS lunchbox, and they do sell real well. We will have more lunchbox type amps in the future – easy to make, sell, and ship.
Have any big company tried to get close to you to buy you out?
No, actually. I am not sure if they even know Ceriatone exists. On a personal basis, Playgirl approached me, but I tastefully declined.
Do you have any "idols" in the business, who build awesome amps beside you?
Leo Fender and Jim Marshall, they started it all! But I think all builders are cool. A lot of times, it’s labor of love. Nowadays, I don’t tend to mod or make custom 1 offs that much, because of time constraint. But the amps are made with lots of care, lots of testing, each of them. I am sure it’s the same with other small time builders, so it takes lots of dedication.
Do you have any new amp models coming out soon?
Yes, we do release new models from time to time. We’d lunchbox the Yeti, and we’d do a modern type high gain amp as well. You know, for those drop tuned 20 string guitars.
Thanks for talking to me and letting me borrow some of your time...
I will get back when I have a review of the the Chupacabra 50...