Interview by Joe Yanick
By this point, seeing members of well-known punk or metal bands involved in companies producing musical gear comes as little shock. Some of the highest quality boutique gear available on the market brandishes the mark of these individuals. Emerging in the last few years, one of these companies is Science Amplification. Co-founded by Alex Gaziano, formerly of Kidcrash, Science Amplification build high quality boutique amplifiers, applicable for a wide range of different players. In talking to Alex, it became clear that these are not just punk amps, they are not built with a single community in mind. Alex shared with us why he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed as a punk-amp builder, in addition to recalling the history of Science, his thoughts on other boutique gear and his prospective future:
To start, how did you get into building amps?
I was never a big guitar or pedal person, but always had a fascination and love for tube amplifiers. After using vintage tube amps for years in bands, and consequently spending a lot of money to have them fixed and maintained, I thought it would be awesome to learn how to fix them myself. While living in Olympia, Washington, I contacted a local amp builder on a whim and asked if he would let me apprentice for him, and surprisingly he invited me over to his shop. I was really lucky to have his help. You can’t go to school for tube-based electronics anymore, and it’s all learned from old texts, online resources and experience. We didn’t meet many times, but he showed me basic tube amp safety, construction techniques and some great resources; enough to climb the steep learning curve. My first project was modding an amp I had, and from then on I was hooked.
Why did you choose the name Science? Do you think the name has had a significant effect on the company, either positive or negative?
The original co-founder’s son, who was 5 years-old at the time, actually came up with the name. Anyone who has been in a band knows that coming up with a name is a funny thing – it’s either very natural or shockingly frustrating. And so after some frustration, we jokingly asked his son, and he quickly replied: “Science.” We both just instantly knew that that would make a great name. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek in that tube technology is pretty much outmoded, besides in audio amplifiers. The idea that not too long ago in human history tubes were cutting-edge science is pretty crazy to think about. I think the name has had a positive effect on the company, because people always mention that the name caught their attention or was memorable. There is a long tradition of amp companies being named after their owners, but I never liked that. If I don’t have your name on my amp, I don’t think it’s fair to put mine on yours… plus, I don’t think I would sell too many amps if they said “Gaziano” on the front.
Considering Science as part of a larger community of punk/metal amp companies, what was it in the community that you thought was maybe missing, any void that you wanted to fill?
I never set out to build amps exclusively for more aggressive styles of music, but I definitely have an appreciation and passion for all kinds of heavy tones. I’m not sure if I could ever build an amp without a good and versatile clean tone (although, I’ve been debating designing a high-gain-only amp). A lot of people use the amps for all sorts of music, and in general I always wanted to build amps that were simple and easy to dial-in, but still had flexibility and utility. I find that most designers either take the bare-bones approach, or have an overwhelming amount of “features” that scare away a lot of players, especially in the high-gain realm. My approach has been to walk a middle course and keep the amps feeling classic and stripped down, with enough features to make them work with an array of musical styles.
So, it actually seems like you are almost opposed to being lumped into a smaller subgenre of amp builders. Is this more out of a desire to not be pigeonholed, or do you see a downside of being considered a ‘punk amp’ company?
Yeah, I’d like to avoid people thinking the amps are only intended for just one kind of music. I love all kinds of electric guitar music. I have done a lot of work to develop the different models to suit different genres and more importantly to be versatile enough to work across different genres as well. It’s not uncommon that a customer will play in crossover thrash band and a shoegaze band! I would also hate to scare away any potential customers who are not familiar with underground music, thinking the amps can’t be used for more traditional/classic sounds just because they read they’re “good for doom and math rock”. On the flip side, I do like the idea that people playing more obscure genres of music find the amps as an ideal alternative to the mainstream, or even the boutique, world of amps that rarely cater to their needs. (Laughs) I guess I’m trying to please everyone.
What was the first amp that you ever built?
My first amp was a variation on a Tweed Princeton designed by my mentor. Building a little single-ended amp like that is kind of a right of passage in the amp building world. It was a good learning experience, of course, but from then on out it was big amps for me.
Almost all boutique gear is solely tube-based; have you ever considering making solid-state gear?
No, not really. I have respect for some of the more toneful solid state gear of the past, but it’s not something I’m passionate about. There’s nothing cooler to me than tubes. Tube circuitry and construction methods also lend themselves to hand-wiring, which I do exclusively. PCB design never seemed like an exciting endeavor.
Is there an amp of yours in particular that you are most partial to?
This may seem like a cop-out, but I really do like them all for their individual tones and applications, and as soon as I think I’m prejudiced toward one model, I remember what’s unique about the next. There’s no one-size-fits-all amp in my experience, no matter how many knobs and switches you put on the front panel, and some amps just seem to bond with certain players, guitars, styles of music or even particular riffs.
What kind of a musician do you see most benefiting from owning a Science amp?
Someone who loves classic loud tube tones, but can’t afford a vintage Marshall, needs an amplifier that will be reliable (e.g. is tired of their V4 catching on fire), and wants something more than a straight up clone of an older make and model. I think they would also benefit a player who likes the simplicity of the older amps, but is looking for a little more versatility tonally and feature-wise, without being so convoluted that the amp is awkward or frustrating to use.
Do you offer custom builds, or do you try to focus on your own designs?
I don’t do any custom work at this time. I have added custom features to some of the models upon request. I spend a lot of time prototyping the amps, and love the process, but it would just be too time consuming, especially since Science is a one-person operation at this time. I’ve designed each model to have its own voice to achieve a certain set of tones, and hope that there’s a model that appeals to everyone. If there’s enough of a demand for something I don’t make, I’m always interested in developing new models. That is actually how the Mother and Street Sweeper amplifiers came about, after requests for a higher powered bass/guitar amp, and a clean pedal-platform with reverb. So if you want something custom, just lie to me and say you and everyone on the internet wants (fill in the blank with your dream amp), and I might just build it!
What is your favorite current amplifier (either vintage, boutique or new)?
It’s hard to say because over the years I’ve really learned to appreciate many classic heavy-weight amplifiers for their unique sounds. Hiwatt, Fender, Vox, Marshall – they all have their own thing going on that’s really wonderful. Same goes for a lot of new amps. I’m so impressed by builders re-imagining classic designs for better tone and reliability, or some of the over-engineering that goes into some high end modern stuff. I have to say in general that I have a passion for loud amps (that also have the ability to be turned down). Oh, and vintage Marshalls, I fancy those.
In your opinion what makes a bad amp? Any common trends in amp manufacturing that you see as hurting tone?
To me, a bad amp is one that really doesn’t have the real-world player in mind. This can manifest itself as an amp that is so feature-laden that the average player doesn’t even know the purpose of half the jacks and buttons on the back panel. All this does is increase cost, points of failure, and makes it harder to find a decent sound. I can understand from a designer’s perspective why they’d want to include these features, but it’s easy to lose perspective of what most people in bands need out of a tube amp. I think that’s what makes a lot of simpler boutique stuff seem appealing. At the same time, I don’t think it’s great for an amp to be too simple, just for the sake of being stripped down. It can be frustrating to only have one sound, and it’s hard to justify $2K for that. The worst is when amps so blindly follow tradition that they copy noisy, even unsafe, building practices from the past.
Tell us a little about the aesthetics of the amp? What were you trying to achieve?
The aesthetic design of the amps is not too dissimilar from the ideology behind the circuit design in that we wanted the amps to look unique and eye-catching, but remain familiar and straight-forward at the same time. It was also important to me that the amps didn’t just look like “metal amps” or “stoner-rock amps”, etc., and would be classic looking enough that they would appeal to everyone the way many vintage amps do. A lot of people say they look ‘retro-future’, like something from “the future,” but in the 60’s. I couldn’t be happier with that description.
What is next for Science?
I always have ideas for new amplifiers, but I’m trying to restrain myself in order to focus on the current product line. That said, a ported 2×15 cab is in the works for the Mother amplifier as well as a Shiv 1×12 combo for those wanting a more compact, slightly less bone-crushing rig. I’ve never done any formal advertising, and all my sales come from word of mouth and/or people seeing the amps being used by bands live. I don’t have any formal product videos or a fancy website, so those are probably in order if I can get the soldering iron out of hand for a moment.