Port City Amplification builds high quality boutique amps and cabinets, which they sell at a remarkably affordable price. Keith Urban, Zac Brown, Ty Tabor and many more have discovered the Port City sound.
In 2008, PT Hylton and Andy ‘Pipes’ Piper interviewed Port City’s Daniel Klein for the Six-String Bliss podcast.
(Originally aired on Six-String Bliss in August 2008)
PT: What was your first guitar?
DANIEL: The first guitar I ever got was actually a Fender acoustic guitar. I’ll give you the thirty-second story on how I got it. My brother and I were going to go bowling one day, and our mom was there. There was a forty-five minute wait to get a lane, so we walked around the strip mall. We saw this music shop. We walked in, and my mom asked, “Would you guys ever be interested in playing guitar?” We were like, “Sure!”
A couple of weeks later, my mom said, “Let’s see if you guys are serious about this guitar.” We ended up getting it.
That was about eighteen years ago.
PT: Cool Mom!
PIPES: Do you still have the guitar?
DANIEL: I do still have the guitar. It’s hanging up right as you go into my home studio. It was a Fender Catalina. It was a pretty interesting guitar. (laughs) I hope I don’t get too slammed for this, but it actually does have a very unique acoustic fingerstyle sound. It records very, very well. For a $230 guitar, it is pretty remarkable.
PT: What was your first amp?
DANIEL: I was really big into Eddie Van Halen at the time. I decided I’d had enough of playing acoustic guitar. So I scrounged up some money, and I went to the same store where we’d bought the acoustic. I bought a Yamaha RGX 112 electric guitar. It’s this really short scale, kind of dinky guitar. I got a Fender Squier 15 amp that made the worst distortion sound, but to me it was just bliss. I practiced two-hand tapping, and all the stuff you do when you’re thirteen years old. Just make as much noise as possible. That was my first amp.
PIPES: That was actually my first amp as well.
DANIEL: Really? Does yours still work?
PIPES: I don’t know what happened to that amp. I didn’t have it long.
DANIEL: Mine broke. I still have anonymous parts from that amp lying around (laughs). I won’t put them in any of my new amps though.
PT: That could be a special edition Port City amp.
DANIEL: No, we’re not going to do any Squier 15 versions of Port City amplifiers. That would probably be a bad turn.
PT: Did the amp break on its own, or did it break because you were messing around inside it?
DANIEL: It broke on its own, and I was devastated. My electric guitar and its whammy bar were rendered useless. I was so depressed, thinking I would have to go back to playing acoustic guitar. It was pretty traumatic.
PIPES: So from that point, what led you to start building amplifiers?
DANIEL: I basically put down the guitar when I was about sixteen. I picked it back up after a full year off. When I was seventeen, I decided I really wanted to get back into it. I began studying very seriously with several different instructors at one time. I even arranged to be home schooled so I could dedicate that much time to studying music, composition and music theory. I wanted to be a touring musician. That was what I knew I wanted to be.
One year later, at age eighteen, I started teaching professionally. I did that for a while. I was able to get into a band, and we did okay in the regional area and released an album.
We were getting ready for our second album, and by that time I had grown up a lot. I realized that I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to have to play the shows, and I didn’t want to travel. I just knew I didn’t want that life. Some people do it and they love it, and that’s great. But I just knew at that point that the touring/studio musician life wasn’t for me.
I began to look at some of the other avenues in the musical realm that I could get into. I’d always had a couple ideas as far as amplifiers and cabinets. I had a really good group of friends with a great set of ears, and I knew I could trust them to say “Wow, that’s really great” or “Man, Daniel, that’s really, really awful”. So I started tinkering around, and things gradually took off from there.
Three years ago, I decided to take Port City full-time and really start investing in the business.
PT: What is your philosophy for amp building, if you had to boil it down?
DANIEL: Well, I think there are a couple things. You guys can probably relate to this, not only with your experience within music stores, but also music gear. There are a lot of amps out there that are twenty-five hundred, twenty-eight hundred, three thousand dollars, that sound amazing, but they’re not in line with the budget of working musicians. Or even people who aren’t professionals, but they still want to get a really, really good sound.
What I wanted to do was start a company that not only would have products that are totally unique ascetically and sound unique, different, and great, but they aren’t priced astronomically high. A lot of the amps out there are made for between five and nine hundred dollars, and then they are being sold for twenty-eight, twenty-nine hundred dollars. It’s just astronomical.
I wanted to be able to make something that would be recognized as a great product, something that stood out ascetically, but also was reasonable within the limitations of a working musician’s budget.
So it’s by no means a budget amplifier, but it is boutique quality, boutique sound, great customer service, and a small company that really cares who plays their stuff, at reasonable prices.
PT: Tell us about the Wave Cabinets.
DANIEL: Having played in clubs and also having done some studio work, I realized that, when it comes to cabinets, the majority of people are either doing open-back cabinets or closed-backed cabinets. Would you guys agree with that?
DANIEL: There are some cabinets that have some small ports on them that can kind of accentuate certain things. But I knew that there had to be a different way and a better way.
The thing with open-back cabinets is that no matter what room you’re in, it’s always going to be different than your prior room. So if you are playing venues with an open-back cab, you are always going to get a different sound. So the consistency really isn’t there. And also you lose a little bit of volume and bottom end, just because a lot of the sound that’s coming out the back is just making its way around the room, and it’s not hitting your ear the way it should.
And with closed-back cabinets, there are several design flaws. Number one, when a speaker moves, it moves in both directions. When you’re standing in front of a cabinet, whether it’s a 1×12, a 2×12 or a 4×12 cabinet, obviously the majority of the sound you’re hearing is coming from the front of that speaker. But there’s so much that’s being emitted from the rear of the speaker. In a closed-back cabinet, those frequencies normally aren’t strong enough to penetrate through the wood, through the glue that holds the Tolex on, and through the Tolex itself. So what happens is that a lot of those frequencies coming from the rear of the speaker simply stay inside the cabinet, and bounce around, and, as they slow down, they can become these standing waves.
If you guys go into any mixing room, you’ll find little bass traps, little Styrofoam or plastic things in the corner that absorb low frequencies. That’s because low frequencies, when they become standing waves, tend to go toward those corners or wherever there’s a right angle. Obviously there are a ton of right angles inside a cabinet.
So what we did was design a cabinet that has two different forty-five degree angle sound deflecting panels which would shoot all the sound waves from the rear of the speaker down to the bottom of the cabinet, then from the bottom of the cabinet to the front of the cabinet. That’s where the real magic of the Wave Cabinet comes in. The cabinet is ported all the way on the bottom, the full width of the cabinet. It’s about an inch and one-eighth port. So what happens is from the back of the speaker, the sound waves are projected down, then out the very front, The cabinet breathes tremendously well.
Not only is it ported along the front, but it has a ramped port. Some other cabinets have a smaller circular port located on the bottom of the cabinet. If you put your hand down there, you can feel the pressure coming out, but you’ve got to think, “Okay, where’s this going?” It’s coming right at your ankles, and that’s really not doing a whole lot for you. Granted, it fills the room and that’s better in some situations. But you’ve got to think “Is there any way I could possibly design that better?”
What we have is a ramped port in the front. It’s a thirty-one degree angle. What that does is elevate those frequencies right into the stream of the speaker. So you’ve got the frequencies coming straight off from the speaker, and then you’ve got these other frequencies coming through the bottom of the cabinet that are pushed through this ramp. It’s kind of like when two rivers collide, the current picks up. It’s the exact same thing with the Wave Cabinet. Since the sounds from the rear of the speaker are being pushed out, it actually mixes with the front frequencies being produced by the speaker.
It’s a tremendously mixed sound. Peter Thorn of the Chris Cornell Band recently took his 4×12 cabinet. I delivered it to him at the Raleigh, North Carolina Amphitheater where they were playing. And after playing it, he just looked at me and said, “The sound that I’m getting from this cabinet sounds like it’s coming out of a PA. It’s so balanced.”
You know how some cabinets can be overly woofy and kind of muddy and dark? That’s because the standing waves inside of the cabinet are cancelling out a lot of the high end. And some cabinets are really bright and harsh. With the Wave Cabinet, because you are getting one hundred percent of what your speaker is producing due to the patented design of the cabinet, you are really getting a balanced, even sound.
Dave Weiner of the Steve Vai Band said it better than anyone else. He said, “Playing a regular cabinet is like watching standard television. Playing a Wave Cabinet is like watching high definition television.”
PT: Would there ever be a situation where someone would want to mic the bottom port of the cabinet? Or would you want to move the mic back further to get the mixed sound?
DANIEL: That’s another great question. A lot of the guys who buy Wave Cabinets are studio guys and producers, just because you are going to be able to mic the room and get great coverage. There’s this huge spread of sound that, in any room, is going to be great. But also you can do the traditional close mic’ing.
You can actually mic the port. It is one of the very few cabinets where you can mic the port. So you could put like a Sennheiser 421 about six inches back and about six inches up to catch that ported sound, and it’ll work just fine.
On a lot of cabinets, you can’t mic the ports because some ports are two or three inches, depending on the manufacturer. If you have one 2” or 3” port, and there is one speaker pounding out the sound, there is just so much air coming out of the cabinet.
Imagine you have a two liter bottle that’s full of water, and you turn it directly upside down. What’s the result of that?
PT: Well the air’s going to rise to the top, right?
DANIEL: Right. And is the water going to pour out smoothly, or will it glug-glug its way out?
DANIEL: Right. The bottle has to inhale and exhale, and, when it does that, the water comes out. Think about your cabinet in the same way. When your speaker is pushing out all that, the air is coming through that port, and then it’s going to be sucked in. It goes back and forth. When you have something as inconsistent as that, you are not going to be able to mic it because there are going to be phase issues. Because the Wave Cabinet breathes in a circular fashion, you can mic the port, you can mic the speaker, you can mic the room, and together those work out to be a remarkable combination.
PIPES: When I was at Fat Tone (Fat Tone Guitars in Northbrook, IL), I played the Twelve which had the 1×12 cabinet… the sound from this 12 watt amplifier was absolutely blowing me away.
DANIEL: Cool. Glad you liked it. The 12 watt amplifier is called the Twelve. I’m kind of simple when it comes to names. Some people have these really complex names, and I guess I am not that creative. I try to put it into the design of my cabinets and amplifiers, and when it comes to names I come up a little short.
The Twelve is two 6V6s and also two 12AX7s for the pre-amp section. It’s just really simple. It’s got one volume and one tone. It’s just a straight up utilitarian amp. I think one of the things people dig is that it is not one of those amps that you have to tweak a lot. You just plug in and go.
One of the ways I like to use it is to crank the volume, just dime it, and then turn the tone about halfway up. Then control everything from the volume, tone and toggle switch on your guitar. From that you are going to be able to get a lot of different sounds, because the Twelve is so dynamic and so responsive to touch.
It’s hand-wired, and you can feel it. There’s an immediate attack that fine hand-wired amps have. There’s an immediacy and feel to it that’s special. I’m not saying I’m the only amp company that has that, however, this is the only 12 watt amp on the market that’s hand-wired with boutique components for less than a thousand dollars.
PT: To get a little philosophical for a second, when it comes to tube amps, it seems most people are looking for one of the classic tones. Do you think we have discovered all the best tube amp sounds, or is there ground still waiting to be broken?
DANIEL: Well, while we do have traditional and classic sounds, I always believe in innovation and evolution when it comes to things like this. So, do I think that we’ve had the best tube and tube amp days behind us? Absolutely not. I figure that as long as people are continually striving for what’s better, and different ways of applying technologies and electronic theories, I believe that we are going to continue to push the barrier.
There are so many wonderful amp builders out there. Fortunately a lot of them are my friends, and I believe that the passion these people have, myself included… I don’t think we’re ever going to sit back and say, “Well, we did it.” I just don’t think that is going to happen. And because of that, I think that the best sounds are going to be ahead of us. I really believe that.
And that’s not to say they are going to overshadow or nullify anything that’s happened in the past, because I think we have to have great respect and pay tribute to that. But looking at the passion and the dedication that a lot of these amp builders have, I have full confidence that we are going to be able to continue to do very special things.
PT: It seems like we are living in a golden age of guitar amplifiers. There is so much great stuff out there.
DANIEL: Oh, it’s unbelievable. I had the privilege of going to the New Jersey amp show a couple of months ago, and there were sixty different amp companies and small pedals companies. The company that I was keeping in the reception area… there was Andy Fuchs, and Paul Sanchez from Red Iron Amps, and George Metro from Metropolis Amplifiers. There were so many amazing builders. I think the world of all those guys, and they all bring something different to the table. That’s why we at Port City don’t advertise our amps as the end-all, be-all amps. Our amps are great for what they do, and, if it fits your purpose, fantastic. But I don’t believe that there’s an end-all, be-all amp, and I don’t think these other guys do either. They just try to make the best amp for what they are going for, and they do a great job of it.
So just looking at the technology that is happening with the likes of Line-6 and other solid state digital technologies, they are getting better and more sophisticated. I’m really happy that the guys building amps like mine, the point-to-point tube amps, we are trying to keep up. I’d hate to see the day that tube amps are obsolete… and I know that I’m not – and my friends are not – going to let that happen.
Check out www.portcityamps.com to see their amps and cabs in action.