Tuesday 22 July 2014

A look inside the mind of Hovercraft Amps: An Interview with Nial McGaughey

If you play guitar or bass, you need to know about Hovercraft. Why you ask. Well if you like to play overpriced shit that was made by someone that does not know the difference between a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker and a Radial snow tire, go ahead  do not learn about Hovercraft. But if you want to be educated  about a place that is ran by musicians, that will actually converse with  you about the gear  you are inquiring about, then this is a must read for you. Oprah has just put this on her best musical gear reading list. Simply put, Hovercraft is a musicians dream.

If Hovercraft is Oz then the man with the very golden plan would be Nial McGaughey. Enjoy yourself as I take a walk down the road of golden amps and cabs.

Gaff- How did you get into this type of work?

Nial- Well, I actually started a business called Solid Cables in Pasadena, about 13-14 years ago, while I was doing that company I met Dan who owned an amp company, I actually did modifications on amps for him, music manufacturing is small so you get to know other people, ended up doing pedals, and what not, long story short I ended up falling into doing amps on the side. When I moved to Portland I said what the hell I will start making an amp under my name and it snowballed pretty quickly, I made an amp on my couch basically by hand, then started building other ones, and it started going, going, going.  I am a bit of a scavenger, a garage sale guy, so I figured out that I can take other parts of broken amps or perform modifications on other amps and get the part way cheaper than if I was to purchase the part brand new from a supplier and build amps that way.  Also, looking to keep the price down, realized this is a great way to make an amp, a really good sounding amp for not much money. I realized there was a big gap between the 150 dollar tube amps you can buy all day long by the pallet at Guitar Center and the 3 grand boutique amps, there wasn’t anything in the middle that was like really good sounding or well made. Shit I could do that and the results speak for themselves, and it grew organically. There is an appetite or market for them, so I hired a few guys to make guitar cables. They are guitar makers and musicians interested in other aspects so let’s try doing other stuff, so we ended up being a soup to nuts shop, where we can be working on motorcycles one day, amps, pedals, or whatever, anything that is interesting or weird that has something to do with music gear, we have taken it on or built it.

Gaff- How did you get into working on motorcycles, are you guys doing fabrication and electronics work?

Nial-  Yup, a lot of the hand fabrication, the motorcycle thing is like Hovercraft, finding used bikes that don’t go for a lot of money and are reliable good motorcycles and I looked at the way they design the bikes, I like old motorcycles and really cool designs, I look at the bones and re-architect the way it looks and sometimes I can find off the shelf parts but a lot of the times I have to hand fabricate the stuff, the electronics, the lighting, the appearance is all done in the house, using a hacksaw, bench vice, grinder and a drill press built fender support or whatever.

Gaff-That is insane. How long have you been in Portland doing this type of thing?

Nial- I lived here twice, once in the early 90’s, met a lot of people when I was playing in bands, and then I moved back in 2009. I got a job doing game software testing for a company that did contracting work for Microsoft. So in a kind of roundabout way, that was my escape hatch to get the hell out of LA.

Gaff- Are there favorite types of amps that you like to work on, say a Sunn Model T as opposed to a Plexi?

Nial- Actually, I am the type of person that if everyone likes the color blue, I like yellow. Wherever the crowd goes is where I am not. Working with 65 amps and knowing a lot of other boutique builders, and doing a lot of other amp stuff, I kept seeing the same thing over and over again. This is a Marshall clone, a Plexi clone, everyone had their hamburger, French fries and milkshake stuff, what about the other amps that people want?

There are a lot of people out there looking for Matamps, Sunn T’s. Amps that are kind of rare. There is a lot of stuff that no one has tried to make, there are examples but they are 3 grand. So I actually built the hamburger and fries amp first to get a background, then started researching the oddball amps, and listening to those because I couldn’t find a real one. Like Jimmy Page had a custom Hiwatt made for him that had distortion and gain and channel switching that other Hiwatt’s did not have and there was only one. So I made one to sit with and hear it. By doing this it actually gave me a background to know what circuits do. I guess the third phase of my evolution was that I can take all these diff flavors and turn them into something unique; like hybridize them or blend certain parts of that, build other bits, an example would be Hiwatt tone controls are amazing, but the power circuit is incredibly stiff and almost everyone I know that has played would say, where is the gain?

Oh well you have to turn it up until your eyeballs are rattling out of your head to get a crunch, that is ridiculous. I had to do a bit of problem solving.  So that is how it has evolved. Some are uniquely designed, some are pretty by the letter, but usually those are a request for someone that lives in a foreign country and wants a Model T and they aren’t available for any price in their country and always wanted one. Alright I will build them one of those, but I do other stuff that is really awesome and stuff that is dumb but it has been a learning experience the whole time.

Gaff- Are there instances when you will get a request for something that really isn’t up your alley?

Nial- Yeah, perfect example, couple guys crawl out of the woodwork, and say there is one boutique amp that is being made for 5 grand and will you make me one? My initial response is no, I do not want to rip off another company and just make something that is already being made, cloning a boutique amp, the person is alive and the amp is still available. I do not feel good about making the amp and I won’t. I don’t think it is right to do that. I have had other people request stuff, I don’t know if it is their experience level with amps is there, or they are asking for stuff that is crazy. An example, I had a guy ask me to make two amps in one, with 2 sets of power tubes and transformers, and all this other stuff. Just because they had an idea that they want an amp that is two amps in all this other stuff, engineering stuff that is kind of ridiculous, by ridiculous I mean using a 10 pound sledge hammer to kill an ant. Just buy two amps.

I say I can do that but the amount of money it is going to cost you is not worth it. It would be like a guy buying a Ferrari to go to the corner store to buy groceries; just walk! I treat it like it is a learning opportunity for both of us and I explain why. I just don’t come out and say no. I will also get guys that will change their minds 2 or 3 times thru the build process, I want a fender blackface, now I want a high power gain, so I will usually stop and ask the person what are they really looking for, what do you want? What type of music do you play and do you want pedals and what kind of band is it? Hopefully I have a good suggestion for them and maybe it is a problem solving thing where it is almost like talking to a doctor or a therapist, ok well if you only use this one effect once, you probably do not need to add an effects loop and I can save you some money. So that is usually how that is solved.

Gaff- Do people get pretty wacky with the electronic requests they make?

Nial- That is a pretty typical thing, a lot of people read stuff on the internet and they take it as gospel, and then they get a thing in their head and if that thing is not in, they are not happy.

Gaff- I would imagine that people ask if I put a switch on an amp will it do this or that. Do you have to be incredibly patient or do you deal with more people that are amp savvy?

Nial- There are examples, some get it right away, again I try to explain it as well as I can and I try to be as neutral as I can, I get frustrated if someone is, shall we say challenging, I have to go back and forth, and then take a break from the conversation because I am tearing the hair that is left on my head out. I am not here to be an educator I am here to make amps, and I don’t wanna be a dick and tell them to search on Google and get back to me. I try my best but yes, some people just do not get it.

Gaff- I think that there are a lot of false impressions or people may watch too much television when it comes to sound of an instrument?

Nial-One of my favorites is when they read an article from a Guitar Player magazine; Eddie Van Halen, is a perfect example, he would purposely mislead people that were trying to copy his sound, he would say stuff like, “ I put parts from a drill inside my guitar.” Just wacky whatever stuff and people take it as gospel and they are saying to themselves, “Well I need to put drill parts into my guitar now.” Or they will say I wanna get the sound just like it is on that album and I know the player used a Hiwatt. Well, he also used Hiwatt and about 50 pedals and post processing, you are hearing a chain.

Gaff- So now you are based in Portland, you have the amps, cabs, pedals, motorcycles, how many people do you have working with you these days?

Nial- Well that depends who is on tour at the time,  I would say 8, right now I have 4 guys out on tour so we are pretty small right now, depending on the days, between 3 and 4. A couple of the guys that work for me play in a band, Witch Mountain. They just got back from tour.

Gaff- I was really lucky, I worked with Alyssa Herrman and she was amazing; she answered every question I had and was so easy to work with. It must be nice to have such solid people working for you.

Nial- It very much is.

Gaff- I see that you are making a head for Scott Reeder-

Nial- Yeah, I am launching a new bass amp company, partnering with Doug that owns Jet City amplifiers. We are doing a bass amp only company, high end designs under this company Bison, amps for Scott Reeder, Abbey Travis, we will be doing more bass amps in the future. Those amps will be higher priced partly because of the wattage and the iron that is involved. We use Mercury Magnetics custom transformers, we will be using higher end components, so they will be a different price range and they will be really custom, custom stuff. We are trying to push the boundaries on Tube bass amps. We are working with a specific genre of music doing these things.

Part of it is mad scientist; like I wonder what a sextet of KT 150’s would sound like, doing shit that no one else has done. Basically I am scratching an itch that is out there. I do not know of anyone using a sextet of KT 150’s. I also over the years have gotten people as friends such as Scott Reeder, and he will say to me, “Goddam is there a better bass amp out there than blah, blah, blah.” I keep hearing that, I guess if there isn’t then I should see what I can do because I know I can build a better mouse trap.

Gaff- Reeder is the one that actually turned me on to you guys. I bought the Burnt Orange v1 faceplate Head.

Nial- There is a lot of history with that thing. Billy brought that with him from SF, we were able to get 3 face plates out of it. He was remodeling his studio, and said, “Man I know you used wood for stuff, do you want the desktop?” I was like are you fucking kidding me, hell yeah. That was really awesome of him.

Gaff- Is their one of your amps that is the best selling?

Nial- The Dwarvenaut is the best seller by far, partly because of the price and it is quite a loud amp for 20 watts, also some of the look of the amp and the versatility, not everyone gigs out, so playing at home with a cool head and cab, the Dwarvenaut makes sense. Kylesa tours with a 20 watt Dwarvenaut through a 4x12. Another nice thing is that it doesn’t weigh much. It is a good all round amp. Next would be the Falcon, then whatever else weirdo shit we are doing. The Elder Giant bass amps have started becoming really popular but we haven’t made a lot of them partially because fewer bass players are using tube amps and they are a little more expensive.

Gaff- Do you foresee more bass players, because of the warmth of tubes or players in general enjoy using your heads because there is room to run pedals?

Nial- To be honest with you I was a guitar to cord to amp guy when I was gigging, not much else. If an amp comes out of the shop, I want it to sound amazing without pedals, and that actually has become a technical issue with some amps because I actually push the gain itself very high, which does things for fidelity, and response, overtones, all the cool shit that people want out of a tube amp. The unfortunate thing, because I am running the levels so high within the amp, that if you pound the shit out of it with certain pedals you can damage the amp. An example, when I was prototyping our fuzz pedal, I had a Plexi  KT66 kit amp and it was sounding glorious through testing, until the point when then KT66 power tube blew, too much signal going through. It sounded amazing; it was rattling the internal organs through my body. The amp was set at about 5, and then I hit a huge open chord and it went, pop, then I ran my numbers, oops. I probably should not be doing this.

Gaff- I would say that because of the way the amps sound that if you are in the first row, it is like being punched in the face. The Hovercraft amps have a 1-2-7 combo, they hit you face, then the gut, then the face.

Which leads me to cabs; did that happen because the cabs you were playing, you were not digging?

Nial- It is mostly because I have customer requests. I have been there where I have this matching head and wouldn’t it be cool to have the matching cab? I was really thinking about stupid shit like that. There are limitations to the cabs that are out there. So, I knew that this was something else I could push this direction or that direction. I can get more articulation, or get more bass or have a clean clinical sound. The cab is an intregal part but my god, the speakers are so important. Usually unless someone is local, I try and match someone with a good cab suggestion to try out to get started with, because of shipping. I ship cabs all over the place and they get the shit kicked out of them, and the shipping cost these days is outrageous. Sometimes, I will say look, you can get a great sound out a Marshall JCM 900 loaded with real English Celestions and you can probably get one on Craigslist locally for 400 bucks. The knowledge and the learning have opened my eyes to what is possible. I have heard 2x12’s sound better than 4x12’s because of the cab dimensions with speakers. Again it is part of the process of what sound are you going for, do you have an example of the sound? There are a lot of sacred cows out there, your cab has to be made out of this or 24 carat gold plated wire, or you won’t get that sound, well that is a bunch of shit. I have heard so many cabs blow away other cabs because of the dimensions or the speakers, or wiring or grille cloth.

Gaff- Do you ever have people that want you to make crazy cabs?

Nial- I get people requesting a 6x15, requesting all kind of stuff, I guess just doing it for the giggle, I love being able to do stuff like that. Generally speaking, I don’t have the time, but yeah, 10x10 bass cab would be kind of fun to make, what the hell, why not. The thing that is funky about cabs is that there is so much labor involved that after you pay for the all the pieces, the wood, the parts, assuming you are scratch building something and designing it, after all that is said and done, we basically lose money on every cab we make, and that is pretty common among amp makers, you will hear that from everybody. I have seen some cabs out there that are stained hardwood it is beautiful and then there are other ones that are just plywood and vinyl tolex and standard off the wall speakers; why the hell is it 1500 bucks for a 4x12, that is crazy.

Gaff- Do most people do their homework before talking to you about cabs?

Nial- Usually when someone is inquiring about a cab, there is a Japanese chef term called Omakase, which means ‘trust the chef’. So, basically they are trusting me to give them a good recommendation, and again that deals with what type of music, do you have recorded examples, and usually I can get things pretty quickly. Also, the genre of sound is pretty narrow; I do not get some guy saying I need to play High on Fire and then Chicken Picking. It makes it a lot easier and I when I know, and I have sat in front of these speakers, it’s pretty easy to put the recipe together, and then it boils down to how much weight do you need, how loud or not, 90 percent of the time I can come up with a good mix. If you are playing with a shit ton of gain or fuzz, you have got a larger amount of selection available then if you are playing an ES 335 for jazz. It is quality, quantity and in between.

Gaff- When I had emailed you, you had told me exactly what to get which was great and made it a very easy process. I think talking to the builder is key. It seems with you all, you will actually spend the time and the fact that you get involved, from a musicians standpoint is rather huge. You will read that some builders will not budge, it is what it is. What is your thought on that?

Nial-  Well usually my first question is what is your budget, if a guy says sky is the limit, that actually makes things harder, but if a guy has about 300 bucks and needs a 4x12, I can figure something out. Also, hopefully their expectations are fairly realistic. That is usually how I handle it. The nice thing is because I can get fairly some pretty good deals on used gear around here, or broken or empty stuff, I can look at the cab and assess what materials are out of it, and this cab is going to soak up a lot of treble, so we need to put in some fairly bright speakers and some fairly thin grille cloth material, and then this one has a massive air box size, I can tailor things as best as possible. Really on cabs it comes down to what is the person’s budget, and what is the application? If you are playing at home, a good 2x12 would do all you need to do. You really do not need a 4x12 to play alone, or is it for studio recording?

Gaff- You have so much shit going on, talk to me about Hover Fest and when did that first hit you?

Nial- Well, the Portland music community is pretty small. I do not know everyone but I know a lot of people, and Nathan and Todd, my de-facto partners in the festival, they have put on a couple of festivals’ over the years here in Portland previously. This summer, for the outdoor concert season, whatever you wanna call it, I don’t know what happened, there are no heavy bands, not even any hard rock guitar bands performing at any of the outdoor shows and I thought that was ridiculous. I have had a few bands ask me if I had thought of putting together a festival. So hanging out with Nathan and Todd I brought it up and they said, “We could do this.” I was like; let’s do it and the pieces kind of fell into place. If it wasn’t for those 2 guys there is no way in hell this would have happened. I would have lost my mind a long time ago. They are both, this isn’t their first rodeo. Nathan is a booking agent and has done festivals all by himself. Todd has the facilities, he does the nuts and bolts  kind of stuff to making one of these happen, and it fell into place and everybody that is on the bill has been a band that has been  interested in doing something like this anyways so it was a perfect time and opportunity, so we hit the go button.

Gaff- In terms of bands, are you all friendly with the ones on the festival? Also, in terms of gear, is it all Hovercraft gear?

Nial- Basically how I am looking at this whole thing; is that it is a friends and family thing; that just happens to have live music. Everybody that is playing I would go to see anyway because I love their damn bands. As far as gear is concerned, I don’t care what you play. I understand that you need things to get your sound, I am not gonna stand in your way, that is completely ridiculous. Artistically, it is almost insane. It is like being a professionally bike rider and here, use these roller skates and do just as well. The deal with the bands is we will have more than enough Hovercraft backline, to keep things simple for change over but I do not care if they use their own stuff. I do not care if anyone doesn’t use our equipment; that is not the point. The point is to have fun and make some noise.

We make some cool things but we can’t be all things to all people, I get that. Far be it from me from standing in front of anyone for getting their sound. I have been there when the backline sucks ass, I can’t get any of my sounds, and it turns into a horrible gig.

Gaff- Do you see yourself putting on anymore shows?

Nial- The festival is a try it this year and see what happens type of thing. Obviously it would have to be in the summer because of the weather.  I would love to have another one, but let’s see what happens this year. Obviously if it goes really well I would not say no.

Gaff- You guys send your own cables with your heads. Have you always done this?

Nial- I have always included our cables with the amps mainly because I know how a lot of musicians are.  They have had the same crappy piles of cables for a long time and they don’t really work. You plug something in and it sounds weak and crappy and you realize it is a bad cable. So for me, it is deadly important to make sure that when someone un-boxes the amp, plugs it in for the first time that they are getting the best possible experience with the very first chord they get out of their guitar. I have seen some of the cords that come with some of these amps and scratch my head and said why the hell didn’t you just spend the extra dollar instead of using this piece of crap cable that will break and will cause a failure, or possibly a warranty because they used this piece of shit cable. It is mind boggling what happens from a business perspective when a company short changes their gear; we have this amazing $2,500 head that comes with a five cent cable, well that is not going to sound good. I don’t believe on short changing things that are simple to make and will sound better. So many things with gear, I have told people that if you just changed the wiring in that 4x12 cab, it would sound so much better, people do not believe that, and I have witnessed that happen.

Gaff- If a lot more people sent cables of this quality, you would have much happier musicians. Speaking of musicians are there any that you get excited about that use your gear?

Nial- When I heard Kylesa was using our gear, I got some tingles, Tad Doyle used our gear. It is the music itself that I hear that I really get excited by, I hear the music coming out of the monitors, I am like that is my amp making that sound. That is really what I get really happy about.

Gaff- Did I read that you guys are going to start making guitars?

Nial- We have made a few, a couple have been rebuilt, recycled out of existing guitars. We usually will take something boring and putting a cool paint finish on it, replacing the pickups. Cutting a piece out of plywood, let’s see what happens. I can make a great amp, can I make a great guitar from scratch? I’m not sure yet.  The question is can I design something that is really cool that I would want to play? That is the impetus of it.

Gaff- In terms of the straight up builds and the everyday aspects of Hovercraft, from wiring, tolexing, packaging, do you have people say interns ever come into the shop to help out at all.

Nial- It depends on what my time looks like. I am doing the books, the graphic design, the marketing, the emails, web site, all that shit and then I will be like, oh wait, I have to wire up the heaters or fabricate this thing. The answer is it depends. If the trash needs to go out, then I bring out the trash.  There are times when I will over a weekend work from soup to nuts get a whole piece done.

Gaff- So everything that goes out of the shop has your approval.

Nial- Yup, nothing leaves that doesn’t sound good. Multiple people listen to the amps before they go out. If it sounds goofy, it is not going in the box. I learned from working at a record label; first impressions mean everything. The first note you hear is everything. If someone takes out an amp and it sucks, that is awful. My nightmare is something was messed up in shipping and if I would be on the other side, I would be pissed. It is really hard to get back from that moment, kind of ruins it for you.

Gaff- The thing that I am hoping is that you guys blow up. Every person that I have spoken to about your gear is crazy about it and has nothing but the best things to say. Also, working with Alyssa, she made everything so easy and smooth that you can tell people stand behind your project and dig working there. In this day and age you cannot say that about every place.

Nial- I have to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and ask myself if I did the best I could; I sleep well at night. If it has my name on it, it is going to be good. If I cannot keep it fun or keep a handle on it, then fuck it. The shit that comes out of my shop has to be awesome. People that are using my gear to create things need to be inspired by it. It may not happen every time; who knows, but I want people to be inspired and make great music. In a weird existentialist kind of way, if I am improving the quality of music and art through the shit I do, then I am making the world a better place. To me it is very important.

I really want to Thank Nial, Cat Jones for setting this up, and Alyssa Herrman for helping me very much with my own dealings with Hovercraft. You all have been so incredibly willing and helpful. That is not a trait that is shared by all in this business of letting the rock roll.

If you truly want to see art at its finest, then look at the artist and what is included in the portfolio they have accumulated over the years. It is the end product that we as a culture judge the artist by. It is rare to find an artist smiling brighter when his piece of work has enabled others to find their true calling by using the artist work to truly fulfill their goals.

I would say Nial is a complete artist in every being of the word.

Eat a peach, Gaff

Hoverfest Info

We are proud to announce the final lineup of the first annual HOVERFEST, happening on August 23rd at noon in the alleyway behind Cravedog, Inc. in North Portland:Yob
Acid King
Witch Mountain
Eight Bells
Wounded Giant
Holy Grove
Mountain God
Tickets are $15 in advance and can be found HERE: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/784344
Only 500 tickets will be sold, so get yours ASAP.

See you there.

For more information: