The Copper Interview

Quilter Labs' and QSC Audio's Pat Quilter, Part Three

Issue 120

Founded in 1968 as Quilter Sound Company, QSC Audio has grown to become one of the most recognized global names in sound reinforcement. In Part One (Issue 118) and Part Two (Issue 119) we interviewed Pat Quilter on a variety of topics including the history of recorded sound, non-amplified vs. amplified live concerts, advancements in amplification and loudspeakers and more. The interview concludes here.

John Seetoo: Do you have a personal preference for recorded references that you like to use in evaluating loudspeakers and equipment?

Pat Quilter: I wouldn’t remember the names, but we’ve played many of the same songs for speaker testing -- a repertoire of various music styles [including] jazz, pop, even stuff bordering on heavy metal. [There’s nothing] magic about the musical pieces, per se, except that they cover a good frequency range and we’re familiar with them, so we can make informed judgments like “I heard the bass better on that other speaker” and so forth.

JS: After retiring from day-to-day duties at QSC, you came back full circle to make guitar amps by forming Quilter Labs. Was there a sense of unfinished business that prompted that move, having dropped that product line early in QSC history?

PQ: Well yes. I did feel a sense of unfinished business, and when spring would roll around and the sap would rise, I would think about my old work – incorporating the time tested attributes of classic tube technology without the drawbacks.  For QSC’s 40th anniversary in 2008, I dashed off a 50-watt lightweight combo with all the key elements in the current generation of Quilter products: a warm-sounding power amp, a thoroughly well-designed overdrive section, a surprising amount of nuance in the equalization curves, and so forth. It played quite well and gave me confidence in the approach.

Pat Quilter in the early days of the company.

JS: You also had a hand in designing the Pignose 30/60 combo amp in the 1980s. I had one, and it was a great-sounding amp.

PQ: (laughs) That’s a whole story in itself [and included in the link to the complete interview – Ed.] The 30/60 had all of the key elements that we’re using today in our amps, although somewhat unrefined.

When I decided to get back into the guitar and bass amp business during my retirement, it was a combination of wanting to show the world what I could do, as well as to try to give back to the community of musicians  that started it all for QSC.

So I observed that guitar amp technology not only has stagnated, in that premium amps are still based on vacuum tubes, but actually has gone backwards to some degree, because the tube quality is not what it used to be back in the 1960s, when RCA used to make them by the millions to put in their color TVs.

I enjoy playing music recreationally, and when I was ready to retire I thought to myself, “well, all right. What kind of amp should I get for my lap steel?” I didn’t want some big, heavy thing. No one was making a nice, warm sounding, lightweight guitar amp with enough headroom to take out and play in front of people but handy enough to have around the house.

So, much to my surprise, I realized that’s what I’d be doing in my second career. And here we are today. I think that the one thing I bring to the game aside from a bunch of particular tricks is the use of Class D for guitar amps. It’s been a part of bass amplification for quite a few years, but it was a resource that hadn’t really been explored much for guitar amps until we got into it a few years ago.

JS: Why do you think tube amps still carry such a mystique among guitar players?

PQ: The electric guitar can now be put in the class of a “traditional” instrument, like the piano or the saxophone. The electric guitar hasn’t really changed in the almost 80 years since it was introduced. People still buy Telecasters, Stratocasters and Les Pauls, or various imitations thereof, that are all designs from the 1950s.

The electric guitar grew up with vacuum tube amplification. And through a happy accident, it turned out that magnetic pickups, with their rounded tone, when played through somewhat primitive, low-fidelity, underpowered tube amps, do some wonderful things together when pushed. At first, low-power amps were all you could get, but the instinctive process of pushing an amp into overdrive opens up a second register for the guitar, one that maps the inherent “twang” into a more sustained and harmonically rich sound. When solid state [amplifiers] were first developed, the engineers assumed that players would like the cleaner headroom, but they didn’t sound the same, and they didn’t feel the same.

But as I mentioned before, tubes are not as good as they used to be. So from a sheer practicality and consistency standpoint, I believe that musicians need a more reliable tool. We stand on the shoulders of giants; we’re able to look at the work that’s been done by previous generations. We study what’s good about it and where things fall short and try to emulate the good parts while correcting the bad parts. The result is a better tool to perform a familiar job for the electric guitarist and bass player. That’s kind of Quilter Labs’ mission – to make modern amps that are playable, and [will even be] collectible 50 years from now. I don’t know how many tube amps will still be operable by then.

Quilter Labs Steelaire amplifier for steel guitar.

JS: Why you decided to forego digital modeling and not use digital circuitry to simulate the sounds of various tube and other amps?

PQ: Let’s face it, I’m an analog guy. I understand in principle what’s going on with digital modeling, but I would have to undertake a massive catchup to be competitive in that field. And at the end of the day, the digital models are struggling to capture nuances and effects that just flow naturally from the analog circuitry they’re emulating. So why not just do it in analog? Admittedly, you don’t have the ability to get a hundred different sounds at the push of a button. But frankly, most people only need a few good sounds. If we can make really charming, good analog amplifiers, they can be the basis of a good rig that you can add to with outboard effects and digital processors to your heart’s content.

JS: Among other products, Quilter makes very small “micro” amps with a lot of power and a wide range of sounds. How do you do it?

PQ: Class D technology and active power supplies let us put big power in small boxes. The original, historic guitar amps from the tube era have relatively simple EQ circuits but every designer had their own theory about voicing. So [how] to get many different sounds out of a [modern] amp? One way is with a switch that selects a different circuit or [part of a circuit] or “tone stack” to give it a different personality.

We use surface mount technology, which is mainstream now.[Surface mount technology allows electronic components to be directly mounted onto a printed circuit board. It enables greater miniaturization than previous “through hole” mounting techniques. – Ed.] Since it’s a lot more compact, it lets us put moderately complicated circuits into tiny, little pedal-sized boxes. Our electronic technology is more advanced than classic tube amp stuff, but I’ve got to be honest: it’s nothing like what you’d find in a digital pedal, or a cellphone. But we use the tools we have.

One of my hallmarks as a designer is to seek the simplest way of getting a result, on the theory that it will save money and effort in the long run. Combine that [philosophy] with modern power amp technology, which is vastly more compact than it used to be, and yes – we can make an amp the size of a library book that cranks out 800 watts.

JS: I’m going to switch gears to talk about Quilter’s Panoptigon disc player, something Copper readers might find particularly interesting. The Panoptigon plays proprietary optical discs like the type originally made for the 1970s Mattel Optigan. The Optigan was a keyboard instrument that played pre-recorded sounds stored on these discs in a similar manner as the more well-known 1970s Vako Orchestron (or the Mellotron, which played sounds stored on strips of magnetic tape). Why did you decide to offer this unusual product?

The Panoptigon.

PQ: Robert Becker was my project manager at QSC and has become a vital part of the team at Quilter Labs. Some years ago he was looking at a hanging mobile that emitted a light display, and remembered seeing something like that online. He discovered that it was a British system developed in the 1920s to automatically tell you the time when you dialed up the phone number. It had rotating glass discs with [recorded voices for each digit] on them.

That led him to a fellow named Pea Hicks, who had created a website celebrating the Mattel Optigan, [which] everyone had more or less forgotten about. Of course, we all know Mattel as a toy company, but they apparently had ambitions to get into a higher-price-point adult toy range by making home organs.

Now, the home organs of the 1960s came in two classes. You had cheesy little reed organs with chord buttons, or you had elaborate electronic organs such as the Hammond or Gulbransen, which cost thousands of dollars, were as heavy as a piano, and were serious instruments that also required keyboard skills to play them.

So, somebody at Mattel came up with the idea: if we recorded rhythm tracks instead of just having chord buttons, you could sound like an orchestra playing while picking out the melody on a small keyboard. And we can then sell various styles of music on discs plus E-Z Play songbooks. They’d set these Optigans up outside the organ store at the neighborhood mall and collar people. “Look! You can be a musician! Hold this button down!” – and you’d hear, “shung-a-lunga-lunga” (rhythm sound). “Now play these notes! Two fingers and you’re playing a song!”

They sold these things for $600. They had a surge of popularity and planned to release an endless stream of new discs so the thing wouldn’t go stale, but – the machines just weren’t very well made. The discs, made out of clear film. began to slip; wouldn’t stay in tune and if you didn’t take care of them they’d get scratchy pretty quick. So after a couple of years, the Optigans all wound up in the closet.

Forty years later, Pea Hicks becomes fascinated by this history, digs up some interesting material, and manages to contact one of the remaining engineers who had worked on the project. The engineer had kept a carton full of memorabilia about the Optigan, including never-issued master tapes! So Pea got his hands on all this stuff and started featuring [it] on his website.

Robert stumbled across this and chatted Pea up on what was going on. Pea mentions, “My Optigan needs restoration. You’re in electronics, aren’t you? Could you do something with it?” So Robert winds up restoring several Optigans. It was a frustrating job. The electronics and transport were primitive and even with great effort, never really worked that well.

Robert ended up saying, “I could make a better one from scratch.” Long story short, he came up with our Panoptigon. It uses a servo-controlled drive so you can set it to discrete pitches. It has the ability to start and stop from [a MIDI-linked] keyboard, you can [play the discs] backwards, [change the pitch]...and many other user-friendly features [and improvements].

After the Optigan came and went, another company, Vako, issued the Orchestron, which used the same disc format, without the rhythm tracks. The Orchestron [was designed to] to compete with the Mellotron, which used little strips of tape that gave you the actual notes, but could only play for eight seconds before the tape had to rewind. You can imagine how finicky a machine like that would be. The Orchestron was somewhat better built, [and] more capable of being hauled around on tour. But they too gradually went under. Digital synthesizers and sampling keyboards put all these guys out of business.

So now we come to the present day, where the optical discs have become kind of an art form in themselves. They do have a distinctive tone quality, and the limitations of the format, with everything in two-second loops, can actually lead to artistically interesting results. You can experiment with recursion and create interesting rhythm patterns.

 

Pea had mentioned he had all of these unissued tapes and lamented, “It’s too bad no one’s ever going to be able to record new discs.” Robert thought, “I can think of a way to do this on a computer with a .WAV file and an art program” [without using an optical recording head]. So by using modern resources, he can actually master optical discs from scratch. [As a result] Pea has been able to release some never-before-issued disc Mattel [would have issued but never did], as well as create new ones.

They’re having a lot of fun with it, and...it’s of my unspoken missions for Quilter Labs to do cool things that you couldn’t justify on a business level, but that somebody ought to do. So this was one of our opportunities to bring something to market that may have a small band of aficionados who appreciate what we’ve done. It’s an interesting, creative piece of work [and] I don’t know where else you might have gotten something like that to happen.

JS: I can imagine someone like Brian Eno getting one.

PQ: There have been a couple of famous keyboard players who have either acquired or expressed an interest in getting one. It does things you can’t readily do on other keyboards, so it’s kind of its own thing.

Pat Quilter today.

JS: As a musician yourself, do you share the notion that music is a language and that musicians communicating with each other and with an audience through music is the primary goal for the existence of music?

PQ: I absolutely see music as a language. I think one of the most fascinating elements of music is that I can go to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, but if I find a fellow musician, if we sit down, chances are we can make music together. I can listen to what the other person is doing, they can listen to me, and we can end up doing something together that harmonizes. And of course, the word “harmony” is fundamental to the practice of music. Heaven knows we could use all the harmony we can get in today’s world.

“Harmony” has always been a part of QSC’s culture. It’s even on our official mission statement. The act of collaborating with other musicians in real time, working in a pure art form, is practically unique to music [although you see this kind of collaboration in sports]. Of course, a solo musician can be pretty impressive. But an ensemble, for me, is where it’s really at. You work with other people, hear new ideas, build on them, it triggers something...if you have experienced the joy of a good musical session, you come away feeling, “I just went someplace I’ve never really been before, and it was great!” And you live for those moments.

QSC GXD 8 power amplifier.

If QSC and Quilter Labs can help deliver high-quality gear that’s [easy to] get a good sound [from], and [help people] pursue making beautiful music, I will feel that I’ve done something helpful for the world.

JS: Music has evolved through innovations in technology that expand the possibilities of what kind of music can be created. In what ways would you characterize technology as a disruptive force for musical change over the past hundred years, and how would you place the contributions of QSC Audio and Quilter Labs in that timeline?

PQ: Back in the 1960s when I was young and knew it all, by virtue of having a record collection that went back to the 1920s, it did seem to me that music changed dramatically about once a decade.

You had your ragtime era, then the hot bandstand music of the 1920s. The driving technical impact of this era was the fact that music could be recorded at all, so that a band could make a hit record and actually make money off record sales, instead of having to perform over and over again.

In the 1920s the introduction of electric recording “opened up” the sound quality of recordings, which led to the more percussive, string-bass-driven swing era of the 1930s, and enabled soft-voiced crooners to become popular entertainers. Of course, this was coupled with the advent of radio, which allowed recorded and live music to be piped into millions of homes at the same time.

In the 1930s, the Big Band still remained the way to fill a dance hall with exciting sound. For most of the 1930s, the “vocal chorus” remained a one-verse interlude, but as wartime travel restrictions set in, vocalists backed by a combo took over.

The big technology of the 1950s was, of course, the rise of the amplified electric guitar. A small, four-piece combo could fill a dancehall with loud, exciting music. And in the 1960s, amps became bigger and louder, overdriven amps [and distortion] became a thing, and we had this fantastic outpouring of musical creativity, just as I was just getting started in the business.

The last thing that I expected was that we would still be listening to those same songs, 50, 60 years later, which is kind of unprecedented. Nobody in the 1960s was listening routinely to music recorded in 1910. I firmly expected that some new technology would let the next crop of musicians dazzle their peers with fresh material. Although the guitar is a great stage instrument that lets you jump around and sing, I didn’t really expect the advent of the modern keyboard. A good player on a keyboard can of course sound like several musicians at once and play bass lines, chords and melody lines and sing at the same time, which you can’t do playing a horn.

The economics of music performance continued to drive the music towards fewer performers making a bigger sound, which kind of culminated in DJs and rap artists, stripping the song down to vocals and a rhythm section, or even just a drum track.

QSC WL3082 sound reinforcement loudspeaker.

It’s fascinating to trace the history of popular music as the systematic paring away of elements in favor of lyrics and rhythm. But at the same time, even though rap is [so popular], other forms that involve more players and melodic elements have remained in play. So we have a very fragmented music scene now that’s not as monolithic, for [lack of a better term], than what we had in the 1960s and 1970s. People then were always waiting for the next big thing. We would all drop everything to check out the new Beatles album. That really doesn’t happen anymore. At the same time, it does mean there are more [musical] outlets than ever.

As home video became affordable, I thought that video technology would be one of those major enabling factors that takes music in a new direction, much like the advent of the PA system. I don’t see much evidence that this has happened. It seems like video is just another kind of fancy lighting or effect. It’s an embellishment of [the music], but it’s not an element in its own right. Maybe there are creative people out there blending sound and motion in new ways that I don’t know about, but I would have thought there would be a form of music that involves creative motion as much as creative sound.

JS: Where would you place the contributions of QSC Audio and Quilter Labs within that timeline?

PQ: In terms of live sound and music, you could fairly categorize both companies as essentially second-to-market companies. QSC did not invent the powered speaker or the power amplifier, or any of the other things that we do. We have seen trends developing and have gotten in on them, tried to learn from the efforts that went before, and tried to do a better job [with products that are] hopefully more streamlined and easier to operate. We try to smooth off the rough edges and raise the state of the art. By the same token, although I still have some hopes of doing highly original things at Quilter Labs, most of our projects have been efforts to do a known job better with the goal of establishing a revenue base to underwrite the development of more out-of-the-box types of things.

This interview is taking place in the middle of a worldwide health crisis, but hopefully we’ll soon be able to have people return to enjoying live music in groups again. That will be nice. But now it’s interesting to see what people can do online.

JS: Pat Quilter, this has been wonderful and I thank you for your time. I know you’re a pretty busy guy.

PQ: It’s been a fun talk. Thank you John.

 

Editor’s Note: There’s a lot more of this interview that we didn’t have the space for, and if you’d like to read the complete text of Pat and John’s conversation, please click on the following link: Pat Quilter: Complete Interview

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