Thursday, April 25, 2013

Voodoo Amps and Trace Davis - The New Kings of Live and Loud?

Fifteen years ago, Trace Davis took a natural attraction for electronics and a love for rock 'n' roll, and founded Voodoo Amps. Today he stands at the top of the heap, servicing the amps of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Aerosmith, Rammstein, Alice Cooper's band, Mark Tremonti, and building Voodoo Amps  masterpieces for the masses. He does it one customer at a time, and the customers could not be happier.

Trace Davis on the job.

I considered not writing up anything about our recent chat and simply reprinting examples of Trace's letters from his customers, which are probably the most enthusiastic and effusive I have ever seen - whether he is modifying a Fender Vibro-King, a wall of Rectifiers, or delivering one of his own, Davis seems to receive raves from those he serves, and in these days that says a tremendous amount about his commitment to his customers, and to great tones.

Voodoo Amps came to my attention back in 2011, when I happened to view a video of Thin Lizzy's performance at Hellfest in France. Vivian Campbell (a Voodoo endorsee who has a prototype Signature preamp - the VC-2 and utilizes Voodoo V-Plex amps) had just left the band and had been replaced by Richard Fortus of Guns 'N' Roses fame. Two things about this performance blew me away - one was the passion and excitement contained within Fortus's playing, he was the most exciting co-guitarist I had seen next to Scott Gorham since a young Gary Moore. I realize that this is a subjective opinion, but I also acknowledge that I am favorably comparing him to some amazing players, but I feel he earns it. The other thing that amazed me was the tone coming from Fortus's amps. He was using a Voodoo Custom V-Rock 100 and the tone was amongst the finest I've ever heard - goose-bump good.

Trace recently had the honor and pleasure of modifying thirteen (13) Marshall JMP-1 preamps for none other than arguably the king of tone, Billy Gibbons - who also gave a Voodoo V-Rock head the once over:

Trace: "All thirteen JMP-1s had been on the road for years and as such, had drifted a bit - they no longer sounded quite the same, and the requirement was to make them indistinguishable from one another. I performed the same JMP-1 Platinum Mod that we offer on our website. 

"We meticulously went through each, so that when all was said and done, they would be identical to one another. Of course, I grew up listening to Billy, so it was an honor to work with him! I always loved his sense of phrasing and he has had such great tones throughout his career. I am thrilled to no end that he enjoys the tones and feel of his preamps. 
"He also played through one of my amps that I had brought along - I didn't know if he would have an interest or not, and I took a chance and brought one along. Things were very hectic backstage, and Billy was there one minute and gone the next, but when we finished up, he stopped by and played for a few minutes through the amp. He played for a bit, and then handed the guitar back to his tech, Elwood Francis, and you can imagine how thrilled I was when he said, 'Son, that's one hell of an amp you got there.' Tony, if I died tomorrow, I would die a happy man"
Aerosmith's Brad Whitford and his Voodoo
Trace spends much of his summers being deeply immersed in the touring season, servicing back-lines as a technician and consultant to the biggest acts on the road - last year he spent much of the day re-tubing, biasing, and otherwise making sure that there would be no technical difficulties with Aerosmith's extensive amp back line. You have to appreciate that none of these thirteen amps are of the same model and make - they run the gamut from yesterday's tweed classics, British standbys, and a superb collection of modern boutique beauties, and Davis tends and tweaks them all:

Trace: "I think that when I do support for an act, I go a bit deeper than most. I basically service all of the amps, and I also try to make sure their guitar techs are comfortable when I leave. Doing a band like Aerosmith, well, that makes for a long day as they are able to bring out and use as many amps as they like on the road. 
"I recently did Alice Cooper's back-line and one of the things I got into was with Orianthi's amps. They were brand new, but they were a bit noisy on the high gain channel, so I helped her tech move some ISP Decimaters around in the rig to help quiet things down. You just have to listen to the player, listen to the amp and address their needs."
Scott Ian approved!

If you're wondering how Trace got into the amp business, well, the apple apparently falls not far from the tree:

Trace: "My father worked for the Westinghouse Corporation, and part of his job was overseeing the production of vacuum tubes. Westinghouse made their own tubes, but they also OEM'd tubes for GE, RCA, and many others. Then much later, I owned an amazing '68 Marshall Plexi, and one day I was playing it and lightning struck nearby and shorted out the amp's output tubes and transformers. The amp was never the same after that, and ironically, that's what got me into this business - trying to duplicate that perfect tone. 
"A few years later, a gentleman brought a very late '68 or early '69 Plexi into our shop for servicing. We service and refurbish a lot of old Marshalls, but this was the first one that truly captured that lost tone! I couldn't believe it. Of course, the fellow had no desire to part with his amp, but after several offers I finally purchased it. That amp became the basis for our V-series of amps. 
"We sent the transformer to Mercury Magnetics to be cloned - I wanted every player to be able to experience that tone without having to go through a bunch of old amps to find it."
Mark Tremonti and Trace dialing in Tones.

The topic of transformers is one dear to Trace Davis - he feels that the transformers are the heart of the amp, and he has worked closely with Mercury Magnetics to insure that his designs are seen through to the highest quality. He also is a big proponent of transformer upgrades when doing modifications - Voodoo Amps is the largest mod shop in the world, and Davis and company can tackle most any amp and make it all it can be:

Trace: "We have modified literally thousands of amps - we have Standardized modifications, but that's just the beginning. We spend a lot of time with customers, finding out exactly what they are looking for when they want a modification done. While most customers love our Standard Mods, some players have more specific needs, or needs outside the ordinary, and we are here to meet those needs."

One of my favorite Trace/Voodoo amp modification stories comes from a fellow who was looking for a certain tone that he heard on AC/DC's tune, Night Prowler. After several phone sessions, and the customary filling out of the Mod Form that helps break down the customers complete signal chain, he received an additional e-mail from Davis, from which I will quote:

Trace: " Bill, I spent most of the day and all morning making some fine line tweaks based on the song you referenced. 
"AC/DC Night Prowler tone - when you listen to the studio version the guitar tone is great (truly). However - there are (2) different guitars creating the tone you are hearing. Combined, they sound great. 
"I tried to morph both tones together in the Treble channel, going by the guitar/pickups you have, speaker cabinets, speakers, etc. I would recommend plugging into the Treble channel only to start with. Set the Preamp/Gain control full up/wide open. Set Treble, Mids, Presence to 12:00, and the Bass to 10:00. Raise up the Master and play - this should be a good starting point."

The customer went on to rave about how the exact tone he sought had been achieved and how Davis had made the entire transaction one of ease and enjoyment.

Customer service above and beyond the call of duty seems to be Trace Davis and Voodoo's stock-in-trade. A visit to the company's Facebook page finds a wall covered in customer love. I asked Trace where such a devotion found its beginnings, and his answer was simple - it all kind of starts with the old Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Of course, we know that in the every day hustle and bustle of life it's not always that easy, but I have always found Trace to be not just receptive, but eager to be of assistance in any way possible at any time.

New products are often the lifeblood of the boutique amp builder, and the latest addition to Voodoo's amp line, the ODS-60, might be Davis's boldest move yet. After building his reputation as the lord of live and loud, Trace has now went after the 'holy grail' of boutique amps, but at a fraction of the price of a genuine Dumble. Davis stops short of direct comparisons, but is confident that the amp is what it is intended to be, and as such opens yet a new avenue of tones for Voodoo lovers.

Also, Davis has done what some have called impossible - he has built an iso-cabinet that actually works and sounds great. It's built to reduce volume by 30 dB and will retain a tight and full bottom end at up to 130 dB. He told me that the Iso Cab took over two years to design and R&D to get it where he felt confident to offer it to a public that had been failed too many times by isolation cabinets that simply didn't deliver.

So - when he's not making loud better, Trace Davis is making louder more tolerable and usable at home, onstage, and in studios. There are loads of great amps out there, but to my ears nobody is doing the classic 50 and 100 watt heads better than Voodoo Amps - even if their name isn't seen on the stage, there's a good chance that amps you are seeing may have been made better by David and his crew at Voodoo.

Click here to hear loads of great Voodoo Amp samples on Soundcloud!

He's even a great matchmaker - when we spoke, we talked about a couple of friends of ours - one Trace's and one of mine, who had never met. One needs a hot guitar player, the other is looking to spread his wings a bit and work with yet another world class vocalist. We arranged an introduction, and as fate would have it, they both happened to be on the same island continent at the same time. A match made in heaven? Hahaha, we'll have to see, but if it's not it won't be for a shortage of effort and genuine good will. Trace Davis is a great amp builder, designer (did I forget to mention that he does a tremendous business as a design consultant for some very large, unnameable amp companies?), and modification/restoration specialist, but even above all that he's a helluva guy and a damned decent human being - who could ask for anything more, I ask?

EDIT: Huge thanks to Trace Davis - even after the fact, he's making things better with some great facts and pics to help make this article better.

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