News

Ex-high-tech executive heard the siren song of music

Mike Cassidy
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

In a place that is constantly racing forward, Val King has figured out a way to go back.

In a valley dependent on cutting-edge digital, King is old school, building and repairing vacuum-tube-powered electric guitar amps. In a business culture that relies on speed and huge economies of scale, King works on one machine at a time and takes his time doing it. In a valley where smaller is better, King builds bulky music blasters reinforced for the life of a rocker on the road.

Think of him as the un-Silicon Valley man.

Oh, King has done the smaller, faster, cheaper thing - spending his first career marketing Sun SPARC clones and embedded computing systems. It was exhilarating for a time, but eventually he realized it wasn't his passion.

"If I heard that word 'gigahertz' one more time I was going to scream," says King, 48, who left Force Computers in 2003, "because in my mind it was all so boring.'

What was exciting was music - playing guitar in particular. He'd loved it as a kid and has played around some in bar bands.

But although King says his career change was a "midlife meltdown" he wasn't crazy enough to think he was good enough to make it as a rock 'n' roll star.

"So I did a lot of thinking," King says. "How can I bring my love of music and my skills and love of electronics and bring those two things together? A light bulb went off."

I met King recently at King Amplification, his small shop in a light industrial tract just off the Santa Clara University campus. The back room was lined with broken amps. Another room held shelves of vintage vacuum tubes still in their RCA, GE and Sylvania boxes. The whole place is a reminder that there are dreams beyond riches to be fulfilled in Silicon Valley and that there is still room for craftsmen and craftswomen in a mass production world.

"Apple computer has been successfully convincing the youth of the world that their little things are high fidelity," King says. "There's nothing high fidelity about an iPod."

King Amplification isn't some sort of living history museum. King stumbled on a niche that needed filling when he opened his shop in 2004. The Bay Area is a hotbed of guitar players - baby boomers grasping for their youth, youth grasping for their brass ring and practical working musicians who play gigs when they can and work day jobs when they can't.

King's customers want the warm, creamy sound and peculiar, but good, distortion that many are convinced comes only from a tube amp. And they're willing to pay for it. King's amplifiers sell from $1,750 to $2,650, well beyond a standard factory model.

King's work has brought favorable reviews in trade magazines and even a brush with fame. When Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band had two amps break down in Oakland in the fall, they called King. He adjusted a couple of components, met a couple of guitar techs and guitarist Nils Lofgren and scored tickets to the show for himself and his 12-year-old nephew.

As King and I talked, less-famous customers wandered into his shop. One guy had spilled a beer on his amp at a gig. Bummer. Another was having hinkyness with his tremeleo setting. The repair end of the business keeps the cash flow steady, King says. And he says the cash has been flowing pretty well. Though King declines to give exact figures, he says sales have been doubling annually for the last two years.

He attributes that in part to customers who yearn for the personal touch.

Nelson Medeiros arrives at King's shop with two Telefunken tubes he bought on eBay for $120. He wants to see if they're the real deal and he's brought his Valvulator GP3 pre-amp so King can install them. King pops open the chassis and pops in the tubes. Medeiros plugs a Gibson Les Paul into his amp and lets it rip.

They're the real deal.

"Wow," Medeiros, 21, says. "Wow. Wow. Wow."

And Medeiros is one more customer of a new, new era sold on an old, old thing.

-----

(Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read his Loose Ends blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/Cassidy and contact him at mcassidy AT mercurynews.com.)

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