Hiwatt Amplify Their Success With TubeSync

IT TAKES more than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to make a guitarist sound great. John Hill meets North East amplifier makers at the cutting edge of technology.


Hiwatt & TubeSync

ANDY Fallon and Colin Arrowsmith are not guit- arists. Their affair with the valve amplifier isn’t born of a youth spent practising solos or arguing over kit specifications next to the counter of their local guitar store.

In fact, Andy’s experience lies in automotive and military engineering, while Colin is an expert in microelectronics.

However, their contribution to a piece of kit beloved of the White Stripes, The Who and Black Sabbath has attracted the attention of major international amp-makers.

Andy and Colin are co-founders of KBO Dynamics, a Consett company created to market technology designed to improve audio and guitar amplification.

They are the men behind TubeSync, a “tube management system” which monitors the performance of valve amplifiers to avoid meltdowns while maintaining sound.

The product won the innovation award in the Durham and Wearside heat of the nebusinessawards 2009, run by The Journal and Evening Gazette.

KBO co-founder Andy said: “We were looking for a niche market. Neither of us plays the guitar, but we did a lot of brainstorming.

“Colin worked with microelectronics, but he’s also an expert with valve technology. We realised very quickly that the biggest application for valves was inside guitar amps.”

The valve amp isn’t exactly a rapidly advancing technological product. The technology was developed between the world wars and uses a series of vacuum tubes to regulate a signal. It was present in items from TVs to radios, but fell out of favour in the 70s.

The resurgence of such equipment has been prompted by high-end users in the audio and guitar amp market, who praise its natural sound.

Andy said: “There’s a warmer, more rounded tone to it. Anyone who’s serious about playing a guitar would only use a valve amp.”

When they developed TubeSync, the pair didn’t set out to change the sound. Instead, they set their sights on the downside, the problems that plague valve amp users looking for that special sound.

He said: “The closest you can compare it to is an engine management system on a car. It’s like having a maintenance technician looking after your amp 24/7 without you noticing it. It’s continuously monitoring the circuit, looking for faults.

“We got a market research report from Think M in Newcastle. It conducted a series of live interviews with OEM companies and guitarists.

“We looked at the problems people were talking about, but we didn’t change the sound.

“It can detect faults. It can disconnect a pair of valves if it finds one is faulty. You normally have to buy valves in matched pairs and you need to take the amp to a technician to tweak it, but with TubeSync you only need to buy one valve if one fails and it can tweak the system for you.

“One faulty valve can blow up the output transformer. TubeSync can detect this and prevent catastrophic damage.”

KBO had support from a number of North East backers. It won £90,000 from NorthStar Equity Investors’ Proof of Concept fund, developed its prototype with help from Business Link and got £20,000 from the North East England Investment Centre. The process was then advanced by a grant of £20,000 from One North East.

In all, Andy estimates the product has taken 18 months and around £200,000 to develop.

He said: “We built and developed it from the bottom up. We tried to use components that were available in the marketplace and we created our own unique algorithm.

“We don’t think there’s a similar product to this on the market and we’re hoping to receive a patent in the next couple of months.”

Right now, KBO is on the hunt for buyers. The team has just returned from the international Musikmesse instrument trade show in Frankfurt, where they saw a live band perform using TubeSync technology for the first time.

He said: “It was being used by a band playing Pinball Wizard by The Who. We’re expecting to see the technology on stage properly some time this year.

“The lead time on the product is about eight weeks so it could well be appearing in the summer.”

British amp manufacturer Hiwatt, whose users include Arctic Monkeys, The Killers and The Kooks, has incorporated TubeSync into its amps and Andy says that others, such as fellow Brits Orange, are keen.

The company is talking to manufacturers about fitting it in amps this year and down the line it may create variants of the product that could be fitted by amp technicians or even end users.

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