Checking In With Matchless and Star Amplifiers Founder Mark Sampson & 1993 Matchless DC30 Review With Commentary From Sonny Landreth and Gordon Kennedy

In Amps by admin

Mark Sampson and Rick Perotta founded Matchless Amplifiers in 1989, initially building prototypes for friends and professional contacts in Southern California. Sampson had previously been involved in importing and repairing original JMI Vox amps for resale, as well as working as an on call repair tech for some of the top recording studios in and around Los Angeles. The fledgling Matchless company received a major shot in the arm from a Guitar Player review in 1991, and the company grew at breakneck speed, adding additional models to the original 30-Series (DC-30, SC-30, HC-30 and 410C-30) such as the Clubman, Chieftan, Lightning, Tornado, and a rare beast that remains a favorite of blues player Michael Burks, the 120W Super Chief.

In 1998, however, mounting pressures caused by the company’s rapid growth and expansion ultimately brought the entire operation crashing down. Sampson went on to design amplifiers for Bad Cat, and in 2004 he began working on a new line of “Star” amplifiers. We spoke with Mark about his original vision for Matchless, and his newest venture with Star Amplifiers. Our review of a recently acquired 1993 Matchless DC30 and the Star lineup follow Mark’s interview. Enjoy…

TQR:  What was your original vision for Matchless?

It changed over time, but the initial concept was to make a roadworthy amp that wouldn’t break down. At the time, I was doing a lot of repair work on JMI Vox amps and they were notorious for breaking. You would get one working great and take it out on the road and it would break down again— lots of problems with connectors and sockets and solid core wire… So the idea was to make an amp that could resolve that problem— not an AC30 clone, because I wanted to have a master volume and two channels. I always liked the AC15, but it only had two tone positions. So the primary focus was on building a really durable amp, and as time went on it became obvious that we could make this thing sound great and not break on the road, and these two goals were not mutually exclusive.

TQR:  Were you surprised by the initial response to the Guitar Player review in 1991 that ultimately fueled the rapid growth of Matchless?

Yeah, that kind of caught us off guard, although we knew the amp sounded great… I was working in recording studios in L.A. doing a lot of repair work at the time where I would pick up amps, take them home and repair them, get them sounding great, and bring them back to the studio. So I had an advantage over a lot of other designers because I had the opportunity to hear the work I had done and how an amp actually recorded— how it translated to the recording medium, and how it sounded in a track rather than just listening to it in a room. I got to do a lot of that and it really helped. So we knew the amp sounded good, but we had no anticipation of winning the review in GP— in fact, we almost didn’t send them an amp at all. The guy that was helping us with sales at the time insisted on it, and we were thinking, “Why do we want to send an amp to a magazine? We have a bunch of these that need to be built and people want them. The magazine will have it for months and we can’t get paid!” But our sales guy wouldn’t relent, so we sent an amp and it was six months before the review was published. At the same time, GP was changing their approach to reviews, writing them with no consideration for who was advertising with them.

We hadn’t spent a dime on advertising, and I’m sure some of their big advertisers were not happy with our winning review. Later on, I was able to hear the amps they evaluated in much the same context as the original review, and our amp really did sound the best. We assumed that everyone that sent an amp for that review would have sent the best product possible, spending days selecting tubes, etc. but that wasn’t the case at all. Some of the amps didn’t even work when they took them out of the box. That really surprised me.

TQR:  And then Matchless exploded, and it seems that you rolled out new models in addition to the 30-Series like the Chieftan and Clubman with amazing speed.

It did happen quickly. Prior to the magazine review, we were building maybe one amp a week and it was kind of a part-time hobby for us rather than a real business. None of us were taking any money out of the company— I’d do the metal work, we’d share in the wiring, we had a guy making the plastic panels and we’d get together at someone’s house and put the amps together and I’d take it home and check the tubes. There was no business structure to it— we’d take all the money from the amps we sold and buy more parts. There was no rent, because we were working out of our houses. It’s really funny looking back on it now. We spent every penny we had to exhibit at the January 1992 NAMM show, but the review article didn’t come out until after the show. Although we took orders at NAMM, we didn’t sell a single amp. When the review finally was published, within a week we had to hire someone to answer the phones and literally build a business within a month. 1992 was all growth, in 1993 we were trying to grow and also stabilize, and there was a period of about 16 months where we increased output almost every week. It was really hard, because we had to train people that had no idea what to do, develop systems where there weren’t any, and build a business at the same time.

TQR:  And remain hands-on… You couldn’t simply show people what you wanted done and then walk away assuming it would be done right…

No, because it actually wouldn’t be. But we developed systems to manage that.

TQR:  Pull a chassis from an old Matchless and you’ll see one of the most labor-intensive designs among all modern amps. There was obviously no way to build them quickly…

They are labor intensive, and there are no shortcuts building on terminal strips like that. Even turret boards are easier because you can build a lot of it on an open bench rather than working inside the chassis. You also have to develop some skill in making your work look good, creating apparent value to the consumer when they look inside the amp, and they always do look inside.

TQR:  But why overbuild to the extent that you did, and still do? Insulating every capacitor lead, shock mounting tube sockets, backlit control panels… Nobody does that today.

And it is a pain to do… but it truly does last longer. Fender used shock mounted tube sockets in the ‘50s because they don’t translate microphonics quite as much on the preamp tubes, and that’s critical. And with output tubes, when the amp is moved and the tubes are still hot, it can get jarred and a tube will break. You load it up in the van or whatever and the next time you use the amp it doesn’t work. Well, the guy playing the amp doesn’t blame the tube, he blames the company that built the amp. Shock mounting just works better, so why not do it? You can’t do it on a PCB amp, but you can on amps with turret boards, like Marshalls.

TQR:  Are you as hands-on with the new company?

Yes, I designed all the amps, I’m here every day, and while I don’t play every amp that goes out the door, I play a lot of them.

TQR:  You’re also a big proponent of Class A amps… can you explain why in terms, that guitar players can relate to?

I believe it tends to generate better sounding harmonic distortion (everybody likes harmonics), and it tends to give the amp a spongy, compressed feel, yet you can still control dynamics and compression by the guitar and/or the players approach to the whole of the sound chain.

TQR:  Let’s talk about the individual Star amp designs…

The Sirius and Gain Star are technically the same amp, with amps and without reverb, and they were both intended to have a split personality, with a really high gain channel and a good clean channel. The Blues Star is a single channel amp that isn’t a knockoff of a Marshall— I really don’t like copying things— it’s not my style, but I wanted something similar in concept with 4-band EQ with footswitchable gain for just a little extra, and I wanted it to clean up really well from the volume control on the guitar. The Nova is a real simple little single 10 combo with one 6V6 output tube, a head phone out, line out, and a built-in load so you can unplug the speaker and use it as a head phone amp or a line driver with the speaker inactive. It’s our biggest selling model. Then we came out with higher powered version of the same thing called the Super Nova. Instead of a single 6V6 output tube at 5 watts it has dual 6V6’s in push/pull that is 18W-20W. The Super Nova also has reverb. Any of the amps are available as a combo or head.

TQR:  What prompted you to choose EL34’s for the Sirius?

Well, I like the sound of that tube, it can drive the bottom end a little better, the harmonic response is a bit higher and the gain is bigger. We wanted the Gain Star and Sirius to be louder. We originally offered them in a 15W version, but they didn’t sell that well because the price point was close enough between the two models that people would usually just buy the 30W.

TQR:  The reverb in the Sirius is unusual in that you can actually work within a much wider range of the reverb control itself without the effect quickly becoming too intense and splashy.

We’re in the process of patenting that circuit. The big problem with the Fender circuit is that it’s too deep. Also, if you were to play a blackface Concert and a blackface Super Reverb side by side, invariably you would choose the Concert for clean, raw tone. The reverb in the Super sucks a little of the tone out, which is unavoidable to some extent because you are adding to the circuit with the addition of reverb. I spent a lot of time working on the reverb circuit so that when the reverb is turned down, it isn’t negatively affecting the content of the signal.

TQR:  You mention on your website that all the transformers for your amplifiers are “vacuum impregnated and resin-soaked…” This must be important, but why should we care?

Well, it is important. They are wound by hand and the vacuum pulls whatever air bubbles that are inside out, so that the resin can permeate the windings, otherwise the transformer can eventually arc. That’s one of the problems with old Marshalls— when the output transformer arcs, you’ve ruined the amp.

TQR:  I can’t recall ever seeing an older Matchless with a replaced transformer…

That is actually part of the reason they don’t blow. You can pot them in paraffin and I think that is actually industry-compliant, but wax melts, and pretty soon you have no insulation and eventually the transformers arc.

TQR:  Like an old Vox… Is the quest for tone ever over?

I wouldn’t normally quote Hartley Peavey— not that I have anything against him— but he’s got a phrase that is absolutely right… “The best products have yet to be built.” I used to think that was corny and cliché, but I’m realizing the more I do this, reinventing things and making them a little better, finding more unique things to design and build… He’s absolutely right. The best is yet to come— always— as long as you don’t give up and say, “That’s all I can do,” which I’ll never do.

TQR:  Or you begin to believe that you’ve seen everything, know everything, and there is nothing left for you to learn. Put another way, “If I don’t know about it… haven’t heard about it… it can’t be valid.” And there is a bit of that kind of thinking present among certain “experts.”

Well, you’re effectively giving up then. If you can’t learn anything, it’s time to check out.

www.staramplifiers.com

REVIEW

Among modern, custom-built amplifiers, the Matchless DC30 remains one of the most highly regarded, sought after models ever built. From the late ‘70s throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Southern California was a breeding ground for custom amp builders like Randall Smith, Dumble, Demeter, Soldano and Matchless’ Mark Sampson. The music scene in L.A. thrived as the global pulse of commercial rock music, and there were plenty of well-heeled studio owners, guitar players and producers intent on pursuing the perfect amplified note. But the lines have blurred considerably in 2007, with more small custom amp builders emerging every day across the country, while L.A. has evolved into the rehab capital of the world, but as the mecca for American rock music… well, not so much. The breadth and scope of the global business of building guitar amplifiers is nearly impossible to fully absorb, yet the Matchless DC30 has retained its stature as one of the all-time greats, but for reasons not always apparent to the uninitiated…

Our ongoing adventures with vintage Vox amps got us thinking about Matchless again, which prompted us to begin poking around for a “Sampson era” DC30 (1991-1998). If necessity is the mother of invention, chance must be counted as the cosmic cool breeze that blows people and things in and out of our lives with no warning. So when we slid into Galaxy Music on Georgia 78 only to be confronted by a green and brown 1993 Matchless DC30 staring us down, we knew what had to be done. With a friendly hand from one of Galaxy’s fine staff (dude could be Warren Hayne’s brother) we heaved the Matchless 2×12 into the isolation room, lit the fuse with the best guitar we could find and laughed as we hit the standby switch on the DC30 and the backlit Matchless logo flickered on. Alright… now show me what you got.

As much as we all talk about different guitar amps new and old and what they do or don’t do, how they do it, and which ones do it better, this can be a huge waste of time. At the end of the day— any damn day— what really matters more than anything else when it comes to an amplifier is this— “How does it make you feel?” This question can be fairly raised about so many things in life, but it is the only question that really matters when considering an amplifier, and the played hard DC30 left us with a smile as wide as the distance from Decatur to Stone Mountain, which is where we left the Matchless after we’d had our way with it. Why? Because it cost two thousand dollars— a princely sum in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and we didn’t feel we were at risk of losing it in 24 hours. Yeah, we were impressed— mightily— but we also knew a couple of players who were supremely equipped to corroborate our preliminary findings— Sonny Landreth and Gordon Kennedy. So we called them (this is also why we have an advisory board).

We had already interviewed Sonny in the March 2006 issue of TQR about the rig he used when he recorded his first ever live album, “Live at Grant Street…” “I had two going… a Dumble Overdrive Special pushing a Bandmaster cab with two Vintage 30s, and a very early Matchless DC30 with another Bandmaster cab loaded with EVs. That’s a little bit of a trick there, too, because I find that the Matchless has a really beautiful compression and midrange but it’s a little too mushy on stage with the Vintage 30s. The DC30 works at a nice stage volume that is great in that room…” We reached Sonny by phone in April while working on his next 2007 recording, and he expanded on his appreciation of the Matchless DC30, commenting that it was simply an amp with “great character, compression and harmonics that perfectly suits my playing style.” In fact, he had just cut tracks for his current project again with the DC30 and a 2×12 Bandmaster cabinet loaded with EV speakers.

Gordon Kennedy has assembled a ridiculously pristine collection of the most coveted vintage amps ever made, including a Marshall JTM45, Bluesbreaker combo, tweed Twin and Deluxe,AC30, a Hiwatt Custom 100, and a Gibson GA40, among others, along with an early HC-30. Gordon’s comments on the Matchless were instructive… “I was just tracking and doing overdubs this week with the group Little Big Town. I have been using my ‘59 Les Paul, ‘61 Tele, ‘57 Esquire and ‘59 Strat playing either my ‘68 Marshall 50 watt top or the Matchless HC-30 head through a 1968 Marshall 4×12 with 20 watt Celestions. I have also been using a Royer ribbon mic that was a gift from Peter Frampton. Let me tell you, I never wanted to finish a part because of how much I was loving working with these sounds. Great songs, too! The Matchless is one of the more deceptive amps I’ve ever encountered, perhaps because when you are up close and personal with it, it is so NOT what you are referencing in your head for guitar sounds. But on mic is where it leaves most everything else I’ve ever heard before in its wake. An old Fender guitar, a little compression and an Echo Plex and I am in heaven. I bought mine from Sampson in 1992 and since then have used it on about 95% of the recordings I’ve done, sometimes varying the cabinet I play it through. I will decide time and time again to use some of the other great amps I have, but every time I come around to plugging back into the Matchless I ask myself, “Why am I bothering?” The Matchless just does it! Funny story about mine… I spoke to Mark Sampson on the phone when ordering it and he asked what color I wanted? I knew he had the three colors and said, “Oh, just the black tolex is good,” not realizing he didn’t use regular tolex, but some faux leather-looking covering. He went out and got tolex for me. I’ve never seen another one like mine — no plate to hold the lights to the logo either, just floating in there like some forgotten Christmas decorations. From the front you see some sort of blue hue.”

Buoyed with the knowledge that the green ‘93 Matchless would provide plenty of fuel for this review, we went back to Galaxy in Stone Mountain the next day, scored the DC30 for $1900 and brought it home.

The Valve Job The preamp tubes in the DC30 were older Sovtek 12AX7WAs, and the single EF86 preamp tube was a double logo Sovtek/ Svetlana, along with a well-used quartet of JJ EL84’s and a Groove Tubes GZ34. As good as the amp sounded, we knew we could do better, so we called Mike Kropotkin at KCA NOS tubes to discuss possible replacements. A few days later we received an assortment of EF86s, Tesla 12AX7’s , a factory mismarked bargain Philips GZ34, two RCA 5V4s (the DC 30 can run on one GZ34 or two 5V4s), and a new, matched quartet of JJ EL84’s.

Replacing the JJ’s tightened up the overall sound, imparting a crisper tone that nicely softened a bit as we put more time on the amp. The Tesla 12AX7s were an improvement over the Sovteks— warmer and not as tight and chiseled— but we eventually chose to use a combination of JJ and new Tung-Sol 12AX7’s. The JJ’s are a solid and warm, sonically neutral choice, while the Tung-Sols offer more attitude and harmonic shimmer in the style of the old Tungs, Amperex and Mullard 12AX7s. This is a great, all-purpose tube— highly recommended. The Philips GZ34 subtly improved the way the Matchless responded to pick attack, allowing us to better feel what we were playing. We also tried the dual 5V4 setup, which created an even chimier sound with less punch and gain. We chose to revert back to the single GZ34.

However, the money tube emerged when we began experimenting with the all-important EF86s. Mike had sent examples of nearly everything he had in stock— an NOS Tesla, Dario Miniwatt (Amperex) from Holland, and three different Mullard EF86s— two “mesh plates” and another rare NOS “solid plate” version that closely resembles certain Telefunken EF86s. All of the NOS pentodes outperformed the Sovtek and a new ElectroHarmonix Russian EF86 in both tone and microphonics. The Tesla was the least spectacular— neutral and pleasant if a little subdued, with low microphonics. The Dario was very bright and extremely rich in harmonic shimmer, and both the short and long mesh plate Mullard EF86s were very similar to the Dario— 3-dimensional, rich and spanky. The NOS EF86s as a group were more lively than the current production Electro-Harmonix EF86, which sounded dull, a little stiff, and lacking the character and intensity of the NOS tubes.

The NOS Mullard solid plate EF86 was in a completely separate category that produced a $1,000 difference in tone… The lively, chimey character and deep harmonic content present in the other NOS EF86s were all there, but rather than sounding as bright and trebly in the style of the Dario and Mullard mesh plates, the solid plate Mullard added a fat tone with a weight and authority that had been absent in the other tubes. Lows and mids were peppered in the mix, balancing the top end and producing tones that were far more round, balanced and pleasing. We repeated our tests at Bakos Amp Works, where Jeff Bakos agreed that the Mullard solid plate ruled in the Matchless. If you play an amplifier that uses an EF86 tube such as Dr. Z, 65 Amps, Badcat or Matchless, super-sizing yer tone with a new old stock EF86 may be worth the expense. New EF86s cost as little as $16 for the EH, and nearly $40 for a gold-pin Tung-Sol. NOS Miniwatts are under $50, Mullards range from $60-$95, Telefunkens and British Genelex EF86s can be had for around $150.

The DC30 was really killin’us now, especially with single coils. One of the original Matchless signature Celestion Vintage 30s remained, the other replaced with a British-made Greenback. Otherwise, the DC30 was all straight, green, mean and ready to party. The backlit logo flickers like an old neon sign beckoning us to an oasis at the desert’s edge… steaks… seafood… cold beer… no cover… live band…

Matchless. Quest forth… TQ

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