Meet Your Maker: Amp Designer Steve Grindrod

Behind every great company is a great designer, and that can certainly be said about Steve Grindrod, who left his mark on every Marshall amplifier that rolled out of Milton Keynes, England, from the mid 1970s to the turn of the century.
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Behind every great company is a great designer, and that can certainly be said about Steve Grindrod, who left his mark on every Marshall amplifier that rolled out of Milton Keynes, England, from the mid 1970s to the turn of the century. Along the way, Grindrod guided Marshall development from the early master-volume models to the JCM800 and Silver Jubilee lines, and up through the JCM900 and TSL2000 series amps. Of course, he designed many other products for the company—including all the Marshall-made Vox amps—before accepting a position as managing director for Vox when Japan’s Korg took over the brand in the early 2000s. Grindrod left an indelible stamp on the modern Vox line too, and anyone who loves their Custom Classic or Heritage AC15s and AC30s— or appreciates the tactile, tube-like feel of Vox’s digital modelers with Valvetronix circuitry—can thank Grindrod for those too.

After relocating to China around 2005, Grindrod partnered with IAG (a producer of everything from hi-fi gear to yachts) to create Albion Amplifiers, a partnership that enabled Grindrod to introduce a wide range of forward-thinking guitar and bass amps to the world. Somewhat ironically after so many years of creating amplifiers for the companies he worked for, Grindrod has now become the sole owner of Albion—a situation that finally gives him complete freedom to design and build amplifiers the way he sees fit. In some ways his situation is not unlike that of many boutique amp makers, and it will be interesting to see how the Albion line evolves now that Grindrod is calling all the shots.

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How did you become interested in music and electronics?

When I was six or seven my parents enrolled me with a classical piano teacher, and I got turned into a protégé and was pushed into doing concerts. After I discovered rock and roll by listening to Radio Luxembourg, I asked my music teacher if she could teach me to play it, but was promptly told, “No way, that music will never catch on.” Undaunted, I understood that rock was guitar driven music, so I saved up my allowance and went to the Bexleyheath Vox store, as we lived nearby, and bought a Vox electric for the princely sum of 9 guineas. I started learning rock songs and quickly realized that I also needed an amplifier. I asked my dad to buy me an amp and got a resounding. “No. ” I said to him, “You’re an engineer, can you make me one?” Again, “No.” But he told me I could use his library and learn how to make one myself. He was probably thinking that would be the end of it.

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You proved him wrong, I assume?

Yes, I used the parts out of his beloved radio and lived to tell the tale. My next project was electrifying a Spinet reed organ using ex-army throat mics that I fastened to the soundboard, fed into a simple mixer, and ran into a Watkins Westminster amplifier. My dad had relented by then and actually bought it for me, with the caveat of making sure I realized there was no money in music. Throughout the ’60s, I concentrated on playing guitar and keyboards, and I studied what I could about the technology of amps and effects. I earned a degree in mechanical and electronic engineering, and gained practical knowledge by building and servicing stuff. I played in everything from school bands to more professional bands, and undertook much session work. At the start of the ’70s, I was married, had two young daughters, and was struggling to get by in London. My father’s words were definitely ringing true.

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How did you land a job at Marshall?

Well, as a result of being penniless we moved from London to Milton Keynes, and I got a job with EMI, based at Simms-Watts. I was involved with sales and design of specialist PA installations, such as Wembley Conference Center and British Airways air terminals. Unfortunately, the UK suffered a big financial crash in 1973 and I was laid off. Needing a job, I saw an advert in the local paper for a test engineer at Marshall, which was trying to rebuild after having cut their workforce down to about 20 employees. I applied thinking, “That’ll be a job until something better comes along.”

What was your first project there?

Initially I was in the test department, but it was a very small team and getting product out the door was the primary concern. We all did whatever was needed, and even my wife was brought into the company to manage Jim’s chain of music stores, Marshall Music. To try and ease the strain on production, my first projects were mainly production engineering and getting them to properly through-test the JMP valve models, and, especially, the first Marshall solid-state amps that were introduced just before I got there, as they had a bad habit of catching fire. I put a lot of ideas forward for new models and improvements, and one day Jim called me into his office and told me he was making me R&D manager. I said, “We don’t have a R&D department.” Jim replied, “We do now.”

Give us a rundown on the models you designed for Marshall.

In the ’70s I designed some new JMP solidstate amps, the Club & Country amps, the Model 2150 100-watt 1x12 valve combo, and the JMP MV combos. I also designed the late-’70s Park amps—including the infamous Rock Head and the R’N’R Baby—and some PA gear. In the ’80s I designed the model 2000—a 250-watt lead valve amp—and the model 2001, a 375-watt bass amp. Then there were all the JCM800s—Lead, Bass, Split Channel, and solid-state heads and combos—the JCM Artist Hybrid amps, and their solid-state brothers, the Studio 15, Silver Jubilee range, Integrated Bass and Jubilee Bass ranges, most of the 9000 rack models, and did a lot of the pre-design of what we planned to start off the ‘90s with. This included the JCM900 range, the 30th Anniversary amps, JTM 30s and 60s, JCM 600s, the Acoustic Soloist, the 9000 series tube power amps, and the JCM 2000 range. I also did a bit of the JMP-1—along with my good friend Mike Scuffham, who did most of it—the Valvestate series 1 and 2, and part of the last VS range. Of course, along with these, I designed many speaker cabinets and did a lot of speaker development with Celestion. I designed a lot of Marshall pedals too, starting with the Guv’nor and continuing through until I left. My parting gift was the JTM 45OS Offset reissue.

Did you also design the Vox amps that were made by Marshall?

Yes, the AC30TB/TBX, and the AC15TB/TBX, which were made under license to Korg/Vox.

What do you recall about developing the JCM800 series?

The JCM800 range came about initially when the Rose-Morris (Marshall’s exclusive world distributor from 1965 to 1981) contract came to an end in 1981. We wanted to regain control of the Marshall brand, which we felt was being constrained by having an exclusive distributor. For the 1981 Frankfurt Musikmesse trade show, Jim decided we needed a new look for Marshall. It put us up against a pretty tight deadline, though, and I didn’t have an opportunity to design any new models. We could only go with basically what we were already producing: the standard 4-holers—1987 and 1959 models—and the 2204 and 2203 master-volume amps.

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Cosmetic changes were all I could do, so out went the scooped-front amp panel to be replaced by the full-width front panel with grille-cloth covering instead of vinyl. The front panel lettering was changed to include Jim’s signature and “JCM800 Series.” For those who don’t know, JCM800 was the registration plate number from Jim’s car.

The change in cosmetics and distribution worked wonders, and the JCM800 range created the upturn in Marshall’s success and growth. It also gave me a lot to do in designing all the rest of the JCM800 series, including the Split Channel 2205 and 2210 heads and associated combos. These came about by being asked by a distributor for a two-channel 1x12 combo to compete with a certain competitor for a certain price. I came up with a design that sounded good, but no way could I get the price down to meet it without stripping some features out. To make matters worse, increasing the gain brought on a problem with microphonic preamp tubes that we had at the time. Fortunately, I had been experimenting with using diodes as clipping devices, and because a lot less drive was required to make them distort, less gain stages were required to get high-gain distortion. So I designed these in and the problem of microphonics was greatly reduced.

Was the JCM800 Split Channel Marshall’s first high-gain multi-channel amp?

No, the first high-gain footswitchable twochannel valve amp was actually the 250-watt model 2000. It’s not that well known, though— I think we only made about 250 of them. But, the first big selling, high-gain offering was the JCM800 Split Channel range. The Jubilee amps of 1987 were distinctly high gain and two channel— though relatively simple—and the JCM900s that launched in 1990 were groundbreaking in many ways, and became one of Marshall’s all time biggest selling products.

What led to the Jubilee series?

In 1987 we needed an amp to celebrate Jim’s silver jubilee of 25 years of Marshall as a company, and of him being 50 years in the music business. The design spec called for a simple control panel with six controls—it ended up being seven—and three 12AX7s. We still had microphonic tubes, so I decided to stick with the diodes but try and get more out of them. I also added a loop and channel switching, and made the EQ more flexible. As Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash lived up the road, I enlisted him to help me get the voicing right. That was a good move, because these amps are still revered as some of the best sounding Marshalls.

Your last project for Marshall was the 2000 series right?

The JCM2000 range was definitely my last major amp line project, along with the limited-edition reissue of the offset JTM45 OS and its cabinet.

How did you begin working for Vox?

After 26 years at Marshall I was starting to get somewhat disillusioned with the direction the company was headed, so over the 1999/2000 winter break I decided to leave and try some partial retirement. To stop me from going insane doing nothing, I started a small consultancy concern called ToneSculpture. After about six months my friends at Korg, mainly Mitch Colby, asked me if I could help them out on a project they were having a lot of problems with. That was the start of Valvetronix. I studied the drawings, realized where it had problems, built a prototype board, and flew over to Japan with it. I took the board out of my bag, hooked it up and played it, and was immediately engaged in a consultant design position to sort out all the analog side of things, which is where they really needed help. I spent a long cold winter working in my garage getting that sorted out.

At the end of 2000, Korg asked me to join them full time as the managing director of Vox, with the mission of getting the brand resurrected. It was a lot of teamwork between myself and the Korg engineering staff. They did the digital side of things, something I am a complete Luddite at, and I did the analog and sonic sides. They were trying to model a lot of amps that I had designed in the first place, so it seemed like a great idea.

Besides working on the Valvetronix project, what else did you design for Vox?

Mainly the AC15 and AC30 Custom Classics, the AC50 and AC100 Classic Plus, and the Heritage AC15 and AC30 hand-wired and limited edition ranges. I also designed the Pathfinder 10 and the Cooltron pedals. Of course, to the horror of the world, I introduced Vox production to China, based at the IAG factory in Shenzhen. There were many good reasons for doing that, as Marshall did not want to carry on building AC30s for us, and I didn’t have another suitable manufacturing source without going to the Far East. And besides, we were already building Valvetronix amps in Korea.

How did you jump from Vox into the IAG/Albion venture?

I was spending more time in China, Korea, and Japan than I was spending back home in UK,so I thought it would be a good idea to relocate to China before my carbon footprint got bigger than my boots. It would also save a lot of money in time wasted and cost of travel. I had also met a very wonderful Chinese lady and fallen in love. Unfortunately, Korg’s big wigs didn’t see it my way and refused my request. As I was also getting frustrated with trying to run a British amp company for Japanese keyboard company, I decided that I needed to change again.

The guys at IAG came to my rescue and offered me the opportunity to do what I wanted in China as a partnership. Over the last seven years, however, they have moved in a different direction, and in the interest of their core business of hi-fi, pro sound, and luxury yachts, it had become difficult to sensibly use IAG as a manufacturing base for Albion.

We came to a very amicable agreement to the parting of ways, and from the first of January 2015, Albion becomes 100 percent mine in ownership, which finally gives me complete control in what I am doing.

Talk about the Albion product line and what you feel you have accomplished with those models

My philosophy with Albion is basically to build products that do the job without compromise, and satisfy my desires as a guitar player. If I want a control or function to do a specific variation, I do it—no deep discussions with accountants or non-guitar playing executives who have no clear understanding of what a guitar amp is all about. The product lines up to now have been valve as well as hybrid, but in a good way. For instance, my latest bass system is 100 percent tube derived, including graphic EQ and compression, but obviously a 1000-watt power section is rather impractical to do with tubes. Hence the power stage uses tubes in the same away as a tube amp, for phase splitting and output driving, but into a fairly unique solid-state output stage.

On the guitar side, the GulfStream has been an incredible success. Combining five different amp voices into a simple, retro styled range has really hit the spot. After so many years of designing “black boxes,” I have taken a different route as far as styling is concerned—for instance using real wood veneers and panels that are finished in piano finish lacquers, as on the TCT Series amps.

Basically, I want a boutique feel and look—and, where possible, build—but on a production line to make a distinctly competitive amp range for a price that suits the pockets of working musicians. After all, I came into this business because I was a penniless player, and I still keep that in mind with everything I design.