Interview with Michael Soldano

Discussion in 'Amps and Cabs' started by Jim S, Jan 29, 2012.

  1. Jim S

    Jim S Silver Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Jan 6, 2002
    Incline Village, NV (Lake Tahoe )

    Exclusive Interview with Soldano
    11 Questions for Mike Soldano, Owner and Founder of Soldano Custom Amplification


    Michael J. Soldano Jr., Owner and Founder of Soldano Custom Amplification, was born and raised in Seattle, Washington USA, and has been a guitar player for 33 years. The Soldano brand name is revered for building rugged, all tube guitar amplifiers for the last 24 years, but Mike has been building them for more than 28 years! Mike Soldano shares his lifelong passion for tone with IK Multimedia in this interview about custom amplification, and what it takes to make the sought-after gear guitar players have come to know and love:

    1. Your amp designs seem to be in stark contrast to many other amp designs that use variations of existing, tried-and-true circuits. What motivated you to use such radical designs?

    "I'm not formally trained in electronics engineering, so I learned everything I know about guitar amps on my own from reading books on electronics and old radio manuals, as well as doing a lot of trial and error experimentation. It was because of this approach that I was not bound by any of the constraints of, for a lack of a better word, 'proper engineering'. When you go to school, there's often a real academic approach to things, which can sometimes bog people down in their thinking. I didn't have any of that, so I just figured out what would work. Rather than setting out with the idea that 'I'm going to use this particular circuit and create a sound', I had a sound in my head that I wanted to hear and I decided to work backwards to design whatever circuitry it would take to create that sound."

    2. Can you tell us a little bit about your famous SLO-100, the number one selling gear in AmpliTube 3 Custom Shop?

    "I spent about four years developing the 100w Super Lead Overdrive, or SLO-100, as it is more commonly known. I initially designed it for my own personal use. I knew exactly what I wanted in a guitar amp – 100 watts, two channels, and a ton of gain in the overdrive channel. Starting with the power amp section, I messed around with a number of designs until I found that I liked the good ol' 'Western Electric' circuit the best. This is the same circuit that has been used in many great guitar amplifiers over the years. You'll find it in Fender Bassmans, Marshalls, you name it – there are a million amps that use this circuit.

    The pre-amp is where I thought the tone had to happen and that's where I took a turn off of the beaten path and started to explore with my own ideas. I designed and tested a vast number of different distortion and high gain circuits which I just kept working and massaging until I got the copious amount of gain that I was looking for in a guitar amp, along with the attack and response that was important to me as well. The end result of this fine 'ear tuning' is the gain circuitry in the SLO that is somewhat unique and slightly unorthodox.

    As things turned out, I ran into other guitar players that were looking for the same things in an amp that I was. When they heard my 100w Super Lead Overdrive prototype, they wanted that sound for themselves, and that's what inspired me to start Soldano Custom Amplification. The SLO-100 was the first amp I offered, and it remains my top seller to this day".

    3. Often when you add gain and clipping to a sound, especially in the extreme, you lose low frequencies. How do you deal with that in your high-gain designs?

    "This is probably one of the things that have set my designs apart from others that have preceded them, and it's tricky. It's true that the minute you start distorting a signal and chopping it up into smaller and smaller harmonics, the bass goes away. This is because many of the fundamental frequencies are getting lost.

    I decided rather than taking the same approach that some of my predecessors had done when building a high gain amp - that is, to take and jam the signal through one tube and clip the hell out of it - I would do things with a little more finesse. So, rather than having one tube stage where all the compression and distortion happens, I have multiple tubes that aren't really compressing and distorting all that much by themselves. When these are all put together in series, they get me to the gain level that I desire.

    An analogy I often use when trying to explain this is that of driving a manual transmission car. If you take off in first gear and go straight into fourth gear, you lug the engine and it is unable to perform smoothly, efficiently, and at its full potential. It stumbles, shudders, pings, and overall makes for a rather unpleasant ride. That's kind of how everybody else was doing high gain. The gain from those amps was scratchy, lacked tone, and was hard to control. If you take off and shift through all four gears, the engine operates at its best with a greater degree of smoothness, control, and efficiency with the driving experience being much more enjoyable. Instead of trying to get to full 'speed' (gain) in just one 'gear change' (tube stage), I get to full 'speed' (gain) in four 'gear changes' (tube stages), which means each one is a more subtle and gradual step. The way the gain builds in a Soldano amp, the signal is amplified in the first stage, and then goes to the next where it starts clipping – but I limit the amount of distortion and compression so that the fundamental frequencies are still intact. Then the signal goes onto another stage, and the distortion and compression are limited once again. This repeats several more times until the signal is boosted to its full gain level. Doing these multiple, limited increases keeps the fundamental harmonics (the longer waveforms, where the bass and 'fullness' lie) intact. This is how I get the nice, sweet overtones and harmonics, while still achieving all the gain I want.

    The other thing I do - and I am not the only guy that does this - is to add a little bit of equalization in the very front end of the amp to compensate for the various string gauges because the heavier gauge (bass) strings on a guitar generate a higher electrical output than the lighter gauge (higher pitched) strings. This higher output voltage hits the amp harder which causes those notes to break up and distort sooner, and it is with this additional compression / distortion that you can lose the bottom end. So, I add frequency compensation on the input of the amp to limit the amount of gain in the lower frequencies and to boost the amount of gain in the higher frequencies in an effort to even out the signal coming from the guitar. This way, when the amp gets to the higher gain stages, the signal it's seeing is a very uniform signal from low to high frequencies, and the low notes are not getting destroyed by being overly compressed and distorted."

    4. In designing an amp what qualities do you prize the most?

    "What I mostly look for is overall tonal quality. I really don't care how I get it done. If the requirement is a singing lead tone and it takes a lot of gain to get there, that's what I'm going to do. If a clean, sparkly tone is what is desired and I need no gain at all, I'll do that, too. For example, we build some amazing clean amps here at Soldano. They have your totally classic, undistorted, clean sounds – so, of course, they have virtually no preamp gain whatsoever. Here, the amp just takes the sound of the guitar, shapes it, and makes it louder.

    What I'm ultimately looking for is a very nice tone with clarity and definition. A term that I like to use is 'transparency' - in other words I want an amp to be very responsive and true to what gets plugged into it. If you plug in a Telecaster, I want you to be able to tell that it's a Telecaster coming out of the speakers. Even if there's been a gazillion tons of gain dialed up on the amp, I still want the essence of the Tele to come through. If you plug in a Strat, it should sound like a Strat, and I want a Les Paul to be obviously different from that. It's easy to do with a clean amp, because by nature they are very transparent. But in a high gain amp, it's tricky because you run into a place where everything is getting so compressed and the gain is so high that all of a sudden you start losing the subtle nuances that make these different guitars sound the way they sound. That's what I think I've done a good job in succeeding at. I think I've been very successful in having that 'transparency.' So that's my ultimate goal - to make the amp very organic and almost like it's not there, so the player can have that instantaneous feel between him or her and the sound that is coming out of their speakers."

    5. As a guitarist yourself, it must be quite amazing to see so many top players using your amplifiers. Do you have any favorite moments of seeing artists using your gear?

    "Yes, it has been quite amazing to see so many talented players using my amplifiers! I have had so many great experiences of seeing and hearing artists use my gear, that it's hard to single out any particular one. I guess one of the earliest of these exciting experiences was meeting Eric Clapton and seeing him play his SLO-100s at Irvine Meadows in 1988. He was a big reason I started playing guitar in the first place, so it was cool to see him using the amps that came to be as a direct result of my taking up the guitar."

    6. Aside from designing the classics, you are clearly a fan of guitar amplifiers. Without taking anything away from your own products, what other amps do you think are great designs, new or old?

    "My favorite vintage amps are the early Hi-Watts and Oranges. Those amps were well built and the wiring in them is simply beautiful to look at. You can tell that a lot of care went into their design and assembly. These amps each have very distinct tonal characteristics and some rather unique circuitry that I like as well. I also like some early Fender amps – pre 'blackface' stuff mostly. Of these, the amp that was probably most influential to me (and many others) is, of course, the 4x10 tweed Bassman. I'm of the opinion that it is the best amplifier Fender ever built. I like some of the old Ampegs, and you can't beat the tremolo in the old Magnatones.

    As far as new stuff goes, there aren't any modern amps that have really knocked me out. However, I have seen some remarkably well built and cool looking amps being made by some of today's boutique builders."

    7. What makes a guitar amplifier a "high gain" amp? How does this differ from a classic amp like the old Marshall Plexi or Fender Twin?

    "Before we get too far into this question, we should first define what this thing called 'gain' is in reference to guitar amplifiers. In simple terms, it is amount by which the electrical signal from the guitar's pickup is amplified as it travels through the amp. This electrical signal is measured in volts, so what we will be talking about is voltage gain.

    Old Twins and Marshall Plexis are two very different kinds of amplifiers, however, the one thing they have in common is that they have a pretty short signal path from the input jack to the power section. That is to say, not many tube stages and therefore there isn't much voltage gain happening. The signal is being boosted but it's not being boosted to the astronomical numbers that happen in hi-gain amps.

    Generally in a 'high gain' amp, take the SLO-100 for example, the potential voltage gain is over a million. This means that when the tubes aren't clipping or compressing, the input signal voltage is being multiplied by a factor of a million or more! One might be thinking 'wait a minute – if my guitar puts out one volt that means that the amp's output is going to be a million volts, and that's really dangerous!' No need to worry, because that's not what is really happening.

    Here's how it works: when a note is first picked, the output from the guitar's pickup is high, maybe around one volt or more. However, the output voltage is going to be extremely limited, or 'clipped', by the tubes. How this happens would take a very lengthy technical discussion to explain, and is not important here. What is important to understand is that this voltage clipping does occur, and that the amount of clipping is dependent on the amount of signal that is present at the tube. The higher the input signal voltage the tube is subjected to, the more it is going to clip. It should also be noted that it is this same clipping that causes the distortion and compression that is characteristic of high gain amps. So, getting back to the story, when the signal from the guitar is still strong, tube clipping is happening and thus limiting the amp's output voltage to a particular level. As the signal from the guitar is decaying, the input voltage being applied to the tubes is decreasing, and therefore less clipping is happening. This means that even though the signal from the guitar is diminishing, the output from the amplifier still remains relatively even. This is why high gain amps are able to sustain notes for seemingly forever. Eventually, if no feedback is being introduced to excite the strings again, the guitar signal decreases so far that none of the tubes are clipping anymore, and then the output of the amp begins to diminish in step with the guitar's output until the note or notes decay completely."
  2. Jim S

    Jim S Silver Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Jan 6, 2002
    Incline Village, NV (Lake Tahoe )

    8. You've said before that you shouldn't need to use an overdrive pedal to get a good high gain sound, that the amp should get you that sound. Why is that?

    "I think what I've actually said is that 'these days, you shouldn't need to use an overdrive pedal to get a good high gain sound, that the proper amp can get you that sound.' Meaning that if you are looking for a good high gain sound, there are many amps nowadays, including my own, that can give you that sound without relying on the added gain boost of an overdrive pedal. A well designed high gain amplifier, by its nature, has the 'overdrive' built right into it. I mean, that's exactly why I named the Soldano 100w Super Lead Overdrive as I did. The main advantage of an amp such as the SLO-100 is that you get an all tube signal path and - as was covered in one of the earlier questions - the various stages of this signal path are designed to work together to create the most tonal, responsive, and 'organic' high gain sound possible.

    Overdrive pedals are still very useful for making a low or medium gain amp sound like a high gain screamer. If you've got some kind of favorite vintage amp that you just love to play through, but sometimes need a hotter, fatter lead sound – a good quality overdrive pedal is a great way to go. In fact, I used to make an all tube overdrive pedal called the 'Supercharger G.T.O.' that would make an old Marshall sound simply amazing!"

    9. Who are the five guitarists that you are listening to the most right now?

    "I'm not really listening to any specific guitars players right now. My musical tastes are all over the place, so I'm always listening to a bunch of different things on any given day. From surf instrumentals to '80s metal, blues to New Wave, Motown to garage rock, punk to pop – I listen to whatever catches my ear. However, when listening to guitar players that have inspired me – it's the greats of the 60s and 70s like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Pete Townsend that I always come back to. I'm a big fan of Neil Young and Lou Reed. Billy Zoom is another amazing player – my list of faves goes on and on. Rock, heavy blues, and psychedelic guitar sounds of the late 60's and early 70's - those are my influences tonally."

    10. What inspired you to work with IK Multimedia in modeling your amplifiers?

    "It was the Ferrari that they promised me - I've always wanted one (ha,ha,ha!). Seriously, though, the reason I'm working with IK Multimedia is that they have an excellent reputation for doing accurate and user friendly modeling. I figured that there are musicians out there that would like to be able to access the 'Soldano Sound' through modeling, and IK were the people to do it."

    11. What role do you see Amp modeling like AmpliTube for a guitar player who is crafting his sound?

    "I see amp modeling such as AmpliTube as a convenient way for a guitar player to try out many different amplifier sounds to find the one, or ones, that fit his or her style. However, where I really see the advantage of AmpliTube is in the recording studio. Instead of having a roomful of amps and speaker cabinets, as well as the space and the microphones to mic them, a player can simply plug into AmpliTube, dial up the amp they want and its settings, and away they go. Quite amazing, really! If someone had told me twenty years ago that this was going to be possible, I wouldn't have believed them (ha,ha,ha!)."

    Released in June 2011

    Download AmpliTube 3 FREE Custom Shop and enjoy IK's new fully expandable effects powerhouse with an incredible selection of analog-modeled effects capable of the widest range of distortion, saturation, modulation, delay, dynamics, time-based effects, amps and cabinet simulators and much more.

    AmpliTube® is a registered trademark property of IK Multimedia Production Srl. All other product names and images, trademarks and artists names are the property of their respective owners, which are in no way associated or affiliated with IK Multimedia. SOLDANO® is a registered trademark property of Gremlin Inc. DBA Soldano Custom Amplification Corporation.

  3. midnightlaundry

    midnightlaundry Member

    May 18, 2006
  4. James BCM

    James BCM Member

    May 13, 2008
    Memphis, TN.
    Thanks Jim.

  5. theaxedoctor

    theaxedoctor Member

    Jan 22, 2011
    Thanks for the post, really inspiring! I'd like to attempt my own tube amp build one day.
  6. robertkoa

    robertkoa Member

    Feb 19, 2009
    Very Interesting!

    I remember talking to Mike in the 80s I think about essentially making an SLO type with full channel switching with only 1 6V6 for studio/home recording.

    He was real nice but it would have been too expensive......there were many I asked about this back then- now high gain/ low power is much more available.
  7. Jim S

    Jim S Silver Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Jan 6, 2002
    Incline Village, NV (Lake Tahoe )
    Soldano is suposed to be coming out with a HR+ 25 watt head. JLB has the details.
  8. traviswalk

    traviswalk In the Great State Gold Supporting Member

    May 3, 2007
    Yavin Prime
    Good read, thanks Jim.
  9. Guitar James

    Guitar James Member

    Dec 8, 2003
    Lost in the mix......
    Mike is a pure legend!

    Slo is my fave amp ever.
  10. RSRD

    RSRD Member

    Nov 13, 2003
    Alexandria, Virginia
    Thanks! Really enjoyed that and couldnt agree more about not needing an overdrive pedal with amps like the SLO !
  11. grantster

    grantster Member

    Dec 16, 2004
    Great amps, I love my SLO. They have been around long enough now to be considered classics. Anytime I have emailed, I have got a prompt response.
  12. diagrammatiks

    diagrammatiks Member

    Jan 6, 2010
    love mike. can tell he's a car guy.

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