With sterling credentials and classic roots, a new company that almost wasn't, flexes the right not to do things the way they were done before.
Blackstar Amplification Ltd. was incorporated in 2004 but didn't present its first products commercially until 2007. To paraphrase a familiar old adage, the intervening 2-1/2 years that might have killed the company probably made it stronger. Former Marshall Amplification R&D Manager Ian Robinson and Technical Director Bruce Keir, along with fellow former Marshall colleagues Paul Hayhoe and Richard Frost, nearly exhausted their life savings to debut Blackstar prototypes at the 2007 Musikmesse convention. They didn't know it then, but another deadline - the global recession - loomed. Robinson recalls, "It was all a little bit close to the wire."
A Marshall fan since he was a kid, Robinson felt privileged to work for the iconic brand. But after ten years there he'd also begun to feel constrained. "One of the great things about working for an established company," he says, "is that you can go to the drawing cabinet in the design office and pull out great schematics, one after another, that are the basis of new designs. But doing something really different was challenging because there are certain prerequisites for what a Marshall product has to do; a Marshall has to sound like a Marshall. It was very exciting to think about designing outside those boundaries."
Confident in their technical and sonic abilities, Robinson and Keir always thought their products would find a place in the market. Robinson now admits, "We'd never tried fundraising or business planning before, so we naively felt if we kept plugging away at it, good things would come to us." But when?
Blackstar's launch was, after a fashion, also delayed by ethics. Robinson says he would have considered it unethical to plan a new business while employed by another company. Besides, he and Keir had been "completely absorbed and 200% committed to the Marshall cause." So it was only after they were ethically at liberty (unemployed) that Robinson and Hayhoe, who was appointed sales & marketing director, began drafting a business plan and consulting with business advisors and a few encouraging senior industry figures. With ambitions to introduce a catalog of 26 products to more than 30 markets within the first three years, thorough planning was critical.
Meanwhile, Keir and Frost, appointed operations director, began designing the company's first products, investing more precious time for extensive technical research to ensure that, once started, the actual development process could proceed without major hitches. Poised to enter a fiercely competitive market crowded with iconic and highly successful brands, they knew being right the first time was their only option.
The company's inaugural products included a valve (tube) overdrive pedal and some high-end handwired amplifiers. The combination of those two technologies - a high-gain valve overdrive with a boutique power amp - formed the foundation for other Blackstar amps to come.
After about 18 months Robinson, Blackstar's managing director, revved up the company's fundraising efforts including formal presentations to venture capitalists and banks. He was met with a Catch 22: "Investors tend not to invest until you've got a product and orders," he says. "Over time we learned that financial backing tends to come shortly after you need it."
A degree-qualified electronics engineer, Robinson has played guitar since he was 12. Since childhood he'd imagined "the great 'reference' sounds" of Fender and Marshall amps he heard on recordings. But in live performance situations he found that he could achieve those sounds only by miking the front or back of the cabinet, modifying the circuitry, or blending the sounds of multiple amps.
Robinson constantly challenges Keir, a "musician with a great ear" and the company's technical authority, to develop and refine product functions and sonic qualities. "Bruce has a very strict engineering approach," notes Robinson. "He keeps what's good about classic designs, but he doesn't mind throwing out the rest; there are no sacred cows. We're not just tweakers; all of our designs start from the bottom up. Although we're guided by tradition, we're not slaves to it. We don't follow tradition; we follow the sounds in our heads and do anything we have to do to realize them. The early Marshalls were modifications of Fenders, the early Soldanos were modifications of Marshalls, and so on. Blackstar sidestepped that evolution and started with a different premise."
Acrucial breakthrough came when two private investors chipped in £30,000 (then about $45,000) each, enabling Blackstar to exhibit and officially launch at the 2007 Musikmesse. Based on the prototypes they exhibited, they finally secured additional financing, logged their first distributor's order, and cemented a partnership with an OEM manufacturer in Korea.
With the launch came the beginning of a coordinated marketing campaign headed up by Hayhoe and Artist Liaison and Marketing Manager Joel Richardson. This quickly brought the brand to the attention of artists and media around the world. Blackstar products can already be seen on the world's biggest stages, used by artists ranging from James Hetfield and Gus G to Rascal Flatts and ZZ Top.
Blackstar's first product to market, the HT-DUAL Overdrive pedal, was an unqualified success. Designed to deliver the "absolute monster" overdriven sound associated with a high-gain tube amp, it competed with very few products, all costing much more. The HTDUAL effectively offers two channels. The user can bypass it for a clean sound, hit one switch for crunch and another for lead, transforming a single-channel vintage amp into a three-channel highgain amp. An emulated speaker direct out facilitates recording world-class overdriven sounds without an amp. The HT-DUAL also features Blackstar's patented Infinite Shape Feature (ISF), which Robinson says "takes you from 'British valve' to 'modern American' and anywhere in between."
In one very narrow respect, Blackstar's timing was fortuitous: Considering the trajectory of the world economy, if its pre-game had coalesced any slower, the name Blackstar might never have graced the market at all. Taking off the rose-colored glasses, though, the highend/ boutique amp market that was vibrant in 2007 collapsed just a year later - right on top of the $2,000-and-up Artisan Series hand-wired amps Blackstar had introduced alongside the HT-DUAL Overdrive. "Amps over £1,000 stopped selling almost entirely," Robinson recalls. "It was a bit of a fight to keep our heads above water until we were able to release some mass-market products." He attributes surviving the market's plunge to Blackstar's being small, "quite light on our feet," and owned by hands-on designers and engineers who can "quickly make a decision and follow through with it when the market changes."
Their decision, in response to an earlier request from their Japanese distributor, was to build a small five-watt tube amp based on the HT-DUAL. But five watts was a challenge. "Most manufacturers use a single-ended EL84 [tube] design, with just one valve in the power section," says Keir. "That design, when driven hard, tends to get very messy sonically. It's okay for blues and clean, but not very good for crunch. Purists would say you can't produce much gain with a single valve."
Robinson continues, "Bruce knew how to augment the tube design with some clever op amp circuits to achieve a high level of gain very tonefully. We designed a push-pull amp circuit using an esoteric 12BH7 valve that gives you really classic British crunch sounds right down at five watts. At the time, nobody was making low-power pushpull amps; a few companies have since followed our lead."
In contrast to the company's seemingly glacial start-up, within eight months the HT-5 hit the market and quickly became, and remains, Blackstar's bestselling amp. As with the HT-DUAL Overdrive, ISF played a significant role in the HT-5's popularity. "Tone control circuits in amps made by Marshall, Fender, and Peavey are basically the same," Robinson explains. "Different component values produce the characteristics of their respective tone stack frequency responses. ISF delivers exactly the same response of all those amps, plus all the infinite positions between them. So instead of having to choose a Fender tone stack or a Marshall tone stack, the guitarist playing a Blackstar amp can find a sound at any point in the tonal continuum to get exactly the sound they want. The circuitry that allows this is very simple, but also very clever. That's what comes from spending 12-hour days for two and-a-half years in a shed, doing technical research!"
Though thrilled with ISF's capabilities, Blackstar's principals were initially concerned that guitarists might find the level of flexibility it presented confusing and prefer a number of selectable presets. But when they invited a group of guitarists to the lab to test a prototype and determine its presets, all of them found the feature easy to use-and each had a different favorite setting! With that, the designers left ISF as-is and made it a standard Blackstar product feature.
ISF's development process confirmed the design team's instincts. But it's also indicative of the company's m.o.: consulting with real-world guitarists and giving them what they want rather than designing "from on high" and counting on marketing to conjure up the "need."
Blackstar followed the enormously successful HT-5 with its high-gain, multi-channel, MIDI-capable Series One amps ($2,129-$2,749 retail). Series Ones offer another patented feature, Dynamic Power Reduction (DPR), which allows the player to set the amp's output anywhere between full power down to 10%. "The idea is to produce screaming amp tone without all the volume," Keir explains. "Unlike other systems, there's nothing in DPR between the amp's output and the speaker, so as you turn the power down you don't lose any tone. In fact, compression rises as the power is reduced, resulting in fatter, more fluid tone."
In 2010 Blackstar introduced its midpriced HT Venue series amps ($629 - $1,129), which combined the boutique clean sound of Blackstar's hand-wired Artisan series with the high gain of its Series Ones.
A common refrain among the growing pool of Blackstar devotees praises the amps' exceptional clarity and articulation. "Even with a lot of gain they project every note in the chord, and when turned down they still deliver a clean sound," says Keir. But their most salient sonic quality is almost an "anti-signature."
"Our products aren't necessarily about giving people 'the Blackstar sound," Robinson explains; "they're about giving them the ideal guitar sound they hear in their heads. Right from the beginning we didn't want to pigeonhole Blackstar as a rock brand, or a blues brand, or for clean or…. We always wanted to excel in every sphere. How many times have you heard that Fender's great for clean, but not for overdrive; and Marshall's great for overdrive, but not for clean? It comes back to doing whatever it takes in the electronics to achieve the sound in our heads rather than being restricted by tradition or purist philosophy."
Recently Blackstar introduced additional digital effects pedals including vintage-style delays; modulation pedals with various phase, chorus, and flange sounds; and reverb with spring reverb models. A proprietary Saturation control emulates the compression found in vintage tube tape products. It uses a single 12AX7 driven in push-pull at 300 volts and a tube compressor fed on the input of the DSP circuit. "Our aim," says Keir, "was to emulate the valve compression you get from the tube plus the tape compression you get from a vintage valve tape echo unit. It adds compression and a little bit of 'dirt' and distortion."
Blackstar products were initially distributed exclusively by Guitar Center. Later the company developed nonexclusive distributors, then began handling its own distribution in 2009. Over the last 18 months the company has focused on developing its relationship with independent dealers. It currently works with about 160 storefronts in the U.S. and about 1,000 worldwide. "Independents' biggest concern is being able to maintain a good margin," says Robinson. "The retailers we're working with are very respectful of MAP, so we've had no problem attracting new independent dealers."
In part, Blackstar survived its harrowing start because of its structure, culture, and blend of confidence and humility. There's no single guru at the top of the organization dictating the sound of its products, and no bean counters plotting its direction. Owner-managed, with a team of very passionate musicians and engineers nudging the tiller, it's small and nimble enough to respond to shifting consumer needs and market conditions.
Are Blackstar amps different enough - and good enough - to make notoriously traditionalist guitarists switch from comfortably familiar and iconic brands? In 2009's decidedly slow market the company rang up more than $4 million in global sales. "We're not the first amplifier company to come from out of nowhere and make a significant impact," Robinson observes. "Line 6 comes to mind, and their story was very encouraging to us. Line 6's modeling was a revolutionary innovation. Ours are step-changes based more on traditional technology - analog and valve - that many guitarists love. While our products aren't the cheapest on the market, we offer compelling pricing and great value for the money. And fortunately for us, guitar players are never satisfied with their tone."
The more immediate and gratifying indicator is what Blackstar International Sales Manager Keith Dudley first called "the Blackstar grin." Robinson explains, "When Keith began introducing Blackstar amps to dealers he noticed that guitarists would plug in, play a few chords, and smile, as if to say, 'Yes, this is the sound I've been looking for.' Along with great reliability, great margins, and great point-of-sale support, our amps give our dealers' customers that Blackstar grin, at all control settings, right out of the box. In the end, that justifies the long road getting here."