Tech Voices: Tech 21's Andrew Barta

LONG BEFORE THE DIGITAL-MODELING REVOLUTION, Tech 21 pioneered a powerful and musical means of emulating the distinctive distortion characteristics, frequency curve, and responsiveness of tube amps with the all-analog SansAmp.
By Jonathan Herrera ,

LONG BEFORE THE DIGITAL-MODELING REVOLUTION, Tech 21 pioneered a powerful and musical means of emulating the distinctive distortion characteristics, frequency curve, and responsiveness of tube amps with the all-analog SansAmp. The revolutionary pedal was a new means of achieving rich and colorful tube-like tone without the expense, heft, and maintenance headaches of the real deal. Since the SansAmp’s late-’80s debut, Tech 21 has continued to innovate and expand its product line, now offering a robust selection of amps and effects for both bass players and guitarists. We talked with founder and chief engineer Andrew Barta to learn more about Tech 21’s unique approach to signal processing and recording technology.

How would you characterize the “tube sound,” and how does a tube amp’s circuit contribute to its sonic signature?

I would say tubes have a warm sound. Obviously this is not a technical term; it’s subjective. The reality is that the warmth is coming not from the heat of the tubes, but from their imperfections, as they are not 100% linear. Tubes generate overtones and harmonics on top of the input signal. As they are pushed further and further, you get more and more of this effect. Not all of the same tubes have the same exact imperfections, which is why two of the exact same amps can sound different. There are other factors, such as temperature, humidity, age, and length of time a tube amp is on that contribute to the fluctuation in sound. I’ve spent many hours in the studio setting up amps just right, only to go back the next day and have them sound completely different. They are inherently temperamental, which drove me crazy and led to the quest to find an alternative.

People often say solid-state amps and effects don’t have as pleasant a character, especially when overdriven, as tube amps. How does Tech 21 overcome this hurdle?

Solid-state devices are designed to be “perfect.” When they reach the limit of their linear operation, the distortion can quickly become harsh. My goal was to emulate the sonic imperfections of tube devices, but with consistent performance. Once I had something tangible, back in 1987, I tried to shop the technology around to some of the major manufacturers. It took two years of hearing “thanks, but no thanks” until I gave up and started the company. So in 1989, the SansAmp was introduced, which was later dubbed the SansAmp Classic to distinguish it from subsequent models.

Tech 21 was a pioneer in the design of active DIs for recording bass. When you designed the Bass Driver DI, for example, what were some critical design considerations?

When I was playing guitar in bands, I was always frustrated with the bass sounding muddy and undefined because everyone was using sterile DI boxes. The nice, warm, and punchy sound you’d hear from the amp onstage was lost on the audience. Most clubs didn’t want to use mics on bass amps because you’d lose the lower frequencies. So I wanted to translate the SansAmp technology into a DI box specifically for bass players.

There is an article on true-bypass switching on your website. Does buffered bypass represent the best option, in your opinion?

Buffered bypass has been, and still is, the preferred option for pros in the industry. But the debate continues. Ironically, “true bypass” is not truly true, even though the name certainly gives that impression. If it were as good and true as it sounds, all pedals would be made that way. With true bypass, there’s always going to be some high-end loss associated with the capacitance of those switches. And you’re always going to hear a pop when you switch. You can’t construct a true bypass switch that is silent. Also, true bypass switches are guaranteed for 20,000 operations, while the switch in our custom silent actuators are guaranteed for 3,000,000 operations.

How does EQ relate to Tech 21’s perspective on tone?

I think there was always a misconception that bass players need to have a flat sound. While this has changed significantly in the last 20 years, many players and sound people are stuck in that mindset. In nature, there’s no such thing as “flat.” Not to get all hippie-dippie, but I look to nature and classical instruments as my starting point. For example, upright basses have their own natural, built-in EQ, but it was never referred to as that. It was called a resonance box, which is simply the body of the instrument. The body is what provides the character of the bass. Without that, you have a flat sound, and only the sound of the strings, which doesn’t even resemble the sound of the bass. So, every natural or classical instrument, like violins, trumpets, and flutes, have their own “EQ.” My objective is to give natural EQ to electric instruments that reflects how nature and the human ear work harmoniously together.

The most important thing for a designer is to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, no matter what they’re designing. You start with an idea for a product, and your goal is to provide the most you can. Then you edit so it fits within certain constraints, primarily physical size and cost. I think that’s why the SansAmp Bass Driver DI is one of our best-selling pedals—it offers great bang-for-the-buck. We could have put in more EQ controls, a compressor, a VU meter, and lots of bells and whistles, but it would be enormous and cost a fortune. You have to decide what are the most important and useful features and know when to stop. Too many options often confuses people. It’s very appealing at first, but then you end up not using most of them.