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After nearly four years of silence, it’s time for everyone to find out about Blackstar and why some of the world’s best amps are now being designed in Northampton… and made in Korea.
Guitarist Magazine, April 2008 - Words Nick Guppy Photos Rob Scott
When Ian Robinson and Bruce Keir quit Marshall’s acclaimed R&D department about four years ago with other Marshall employees, there was understandably plenty of conjecture within the industry about what they would be doing. This was largely met with silence, until now that is. Following on from the launch of Blackstar’s valve-powered pedals, we can now see what Ian and Bruce have been up to with the unveiling of the Blackstar Artisan range of hand-wired amps. Blackstar’s first amps combine high build quality with the multi-layered touch-sensitive tonality you’d normally associate with a top-dollar American product. But as they are built in Korea, they are accessible and not just the stuff of dreams. We caught up with Ian and Bruce to check out the superlative A100 stack (reviewed in issue 300). But first of all, we asked why anyone would quit designing amps for Marshall…
Ian Robinson: “There’s no doubt that if you’re into electronics and rock guitar then designing amplifiers for Marshall is probably the best job in the world, and we were privileged to be those designers. However, if you work as an amp designer for a company like Marshall you’re naturally constrained to develop products that fit what people have come to expect from the brand. They have to have a certain look, response and tone. Bruce and I had lots of ideas for products that we knew wouldn’t be right for Marshall and over time we slowly came to the realisation that the only way we would ever bring those designs to fruition would be to do them ourselves. Ultimately, we wanted to excel at what we do and achieve our potential as a design team, so we made the massive decision to leave. We started with the launch of our pedal range last year, now you’re seeing the first amps to come off the production line – and at last we can talk about them!”
It seems as though Blackstar has jumped straight in at the top, clearly there was no intention of being a cottage industry…
Bruce Keir: “We knew we had the capability to be a serious world contender in the market, and if we were going to take ourselves seriously there was no point in aiming for anything less.”
IR: “Being the pedantic buggers that we are, paying a lot of care and attention to detail in everything we do, Paul (Hayhoe, sales and marketing director) and I spent the first six months planning the business. Mundane but very important stuff, figuring out where we were going with our product plans, sales, marketing, everything really. That sounds boring I know, but what isn’t so boring is that for the first two and a half years we weren’t earning anything at all – that was really hairy, living on nothing but with the belief that we could actually make it work.”
BK: “We did all the research and development for the pedals during that time and that’s what secured the funding for us – so we weren’t exactly working in the dark but it was still a big test of faith.”
And then eventually, after around three-and-a-half years, those pedals were unveiled…
IR: “At Frankfurt 2007, although they weren’t in full production until May! So we’ve only really been trading for about six months which is amazing really – it feels like a lot longer. What’s happened this year has been incredible, it’s coming so fast, you know?”
It must be quite something, to have been through such a lengthy and intensive process of planning and research, then creating these products, to finally switch on the factory in Korea and watch them come off the line?
IR: “It’s all kinds of feelings… scary, gratifying...”
BK: “…and motivational. Frankfurt last year was a big motivation for me. To walk into one of those halls and see our stand with our name and our products on it was a real buzz. It’s been a real journey, pushing over the hurdles, not just the business ones but also the technical ones, actually taking the R&D innovations and turning them into real workable products.”
Was setting up the new factory in Korea a pretty major part of the whole job?
IR: “It was a fundamental decision not to produce anything in the UK. As for the quality, you can have amazing stuff made here and you can have amazing stuff made in the Far East. Ultimately it’s about how you manage your production facility, how good your communication is, building trust with your manufacturing partners and so on. All I’ll say is that given the right guidance, there’s no reason why a product made in the Far East shouldn’t be the of same quality as one built in the West. I think we’ve not only achieved that, I think we’ve surpassed it with the quality of product that we’ve got.”
What got you guys into designing amplifiers in the first place?
IR: “I’ve played guitar seriously most of my life. I did a degree in electronics and music technology at Salford University and during that time I wrote to all the amp companies I could find asking if I could come and design amps for them, and of course they all wrote back saying ‘no chance’. Talking about things that were meant to be, I used to walk past this noticeboard at university and there would be jobs on it, like ‘Come and work for the British Antarctic Survey’ or ‘Help us design a new timer for our washing machine’, you know… Just before my final exams, on the board was a Marshall logo, and the words ‘Required: Junior Amplifier Designers’, so before I got my degree, I’d got the job! I think at the time they wanted someone who could play in a modern rock style, which I sort of did. Getting that job was like a dream come true for me, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
BK: “I was literally born into it, my father was an engineer for the BBC, where he was responsible for the Far Eastern relay station. I was only about two so I can’t remember too much about it, but I have vague recollections of this clearing in the jungle, where this big shortwave installation was. Then my father returned to the UK, to manage what was at the time the world’s biggest shortwave installation, up north in Cumberland. We lived on site and I used to like walking through the transmitter halls, looking at these huge radio transmitters, which were all valve of course, built back during the war. While we were living there, one of the stations was completely stripped out and rebuilt, and so one day I found these big piles of 1943 valve equipment. I took them home and started to figure out how they worked and that was really the start of my interest in electronics – I got to know a lot about valves at an early age because of that.
“A few years later my elder brother got an electric guitar, and he wanted an amp to go with it, so we would play around trying to build amps. While I was still at school I got a Saturday job as a service engineer for a music shop in Carlisle, fixing their equipment. That got me familiar with all the Marshalls, Laneys, Selmers, WEM’s and what have you. Having nothing better to do I went to university and got a degree. After that, because I didn’t want to design washing machine timers for a living, I set up my own small business building power attenuators. It wasn’t amazingly successful but it generated enough money to allow me to do research, because I wanted to find out why all these audio circuits behaved the way they did. Anyway, the need to get a proper job materialised in the end and so I ended up working at Marshall.”
Now the Artisans are out, what’s the next amp down the line?
IR: “The Series One, which is a high gain contemporary amp. That’s going to be different, and not just a bit different either, but radically different, because of all the research and innovation that’s gone into it. I think that’s fair to say, isn’t it?”
BK: “Yes. And that’s not just because we want to be different for the sake of being different. A lot of amp designers won’t use tried and trusted technology simply because their egos drive them to be different, even down to the point of interfering with schematics to make them appear to be their own, when the idea originally came from someone else. But just copying and using these circuits isn’t enough for me, I always wanted to understand why certain circuits give you certain tones and why some sounds are preferred over others. That’s what drove the research behind the Series One. There’s a lot of new technology in there as well as some traditional stuff. It’s going to be quite something, believe me.”
And the Blackstar name?
BK: “There were endless meetings. You have to go through so many checks with trademarks and we’d check our ideas only to find that we couldn’t use them. In the end it has turned out all right. I wish we’d come up with Blackstar on day one though!”
IR: “We got it off the fridge! No, actually as Bruce says it was brainstormed over and over and I think Richard (Frost, operations director) came up with it. And it’s a Radiohead song, which some of us like. We didn’t want to use one of our own names or an acronym. And in an industry with so many people’s names on the front of their products, we just thought it would be good to have a cool name that wasn’t someone’s surname
“Here’s something interesting: a former employer of ours has this story of how he had an idea for a sound in his head and that idea was what shaped the products. If you asked me whether I had a particular idea for the way our products would sound, I’d say I don’t think we had that philosophy at all. I don’t want to sound egotistical but I just had this innate belief that whatever we did would be better than anything else around, based on Bruce’s technical knowledge and hopefully my ears, listening and challenging Bruce with, Can you do this?, Why can’t we do that?.
“We never intended to give people a ‘Blackstar sound’ – what we wanted to do was give them the flexibility to get any sound they wanted, hence the tagline ‘The Sound In Your Head’, which is not just a piece of sales bullshit. Everybody has a different guitar and plays in a different way, so everybody has a different expectation of their perfect tone. Bruce puts it very well – he says that traditionally everybody goes into a music shop to try out a limited range of signature sounds and the buying choice is down to which signature suits them the best. Our philosophy is to make products with the flexibility to give people the sound they want to hear, so that they’re really inspired by them and want to play them. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about for us”.