INTERVIEW: Mike Fortin of Randall Amplifiers

Randall Amplifiers has been home to many talented engineers over the years, starting with Gary Sunde and even including Bruce Egnater who invented the MTS modular series. In particular the company has long been an innovator in the world of high-gain amps. So who do you turn to when you want to kick it up to a new level? Randall Brand Director Joe Delaney enlisted the services of world-renowned heavy metal amp engineer Mike Fortin to reinvent Randall for the 21st Century. Coming from the likes of Korg/Marshall USA and Yamaha (and of course his own Fortin brand amps), Mike understands distortion. Randall purchased two of these designs – the NATAS and MEATHEAD – and these are now known as the THRASHER and 667. But that’s not all; Fortin has used those amps as springboards for new designs too, including the SATAN signature model for Six Feet Under/Feared guitarist Ola Englund, the NULLIFIER for Anthrax’s Scott Ian, and the forthcoming CAGE 103 for Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and a new line for Meshuggah’s Fredrik Thordendal. I caught up with Fortin to chat about what makes his amps tick.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started making amplifiers?
Well, it’s not something where somebody gets out of school and says ‘Y’know, I wanna build amps for a living.’ I was always a musician so I started playing guitar in about ’85. I played in a lot of bands. I also went to college and graduated in ’94 with my Bachelors in Electronic Engineering Technology. Musicians always seem to try to keep doing the same thing they love to do, whether it’s to play on stage or be affiliated with people who are in the industry, so my whole working experience has been working for other music industry-related companies like Marshall, Korg, Yamaha, Sam Ash. After I moved from Montreal to the Toronto area I ended up starting my own business while I was working at Yamaha, Fortin Amps, basically as an outlet because I couldn’t find a gig doing it anywhere else. There are not many places where you can go work as a design engineer doing guitar amps. You can count ‘em on one hand in North America and it seems to dwindle more every year. Through a mutual contact I got referred to Joe at Randall when they were looking at people to add to the team. He checked out some of the amps and then we started discussing things in greater detail. It took a while but I really like what I do. I’m really lucky to hook up with these guys. It works really well.

thordendal-fortinAnd from a creative point of view it must be really liberating to basically be handed the keys of Randall and told to go nuts!
Yeah, they gave Joe 100% faith: ‘You’re the brand manager. Whatever you see fit to do, then do it.’ So it’s just him and me and that’s it. There’s no other design engineer or anybody else on staff for the designing aspect of it. We work quickly and well, and seem to get a lot of things accomplished in a short amount of time. In 2012, 2013, the first NAMM Show that we showed we had a lot of product and it seems like it just keeps going.

You brought over a few Fortin designs to Randall – were there further tweaks to those?
Oh yeah. There are changes I wanted to do that I never got to implement in my own designs. Randall purchased the NATAS and the MEATHEAD designs from me, and those served as platforms for the THRASHER, the Scott Ian NULLIFIER, the SATAN, of course the 667, and Kirk Hammet’s CAGE 103 which is in the final stages of approval now. A lot of models were based on that, and they’re all variations on that same basic design.

When you’re working with these guys, what kind of language do they use to communicate their ideas?
Everybody seems to have their own language and you’re trying to figure out what they’re going for. Musicians have a different way of trying to express themselves when they’re trying to describe something that happens electronically. I find the best thing to do is to work closely with the artist, have them play through a bunch of amps so I can zero in on what they’re looking for or things that they like, as opposed to the endless ways of trying to explain the one concept. There are some artists I work with for whom English isn’t their first language so it’s even harder, so playing amps in a controlled environment is a great way of nailing that down.

With the popularity of digital modelling and profiling, these amps seem to have reinvigorated some dudes’ appreciation for tube amps. It’s like “Oh! Tubes! I remember those!”
Y’know, we have a lot of Axe-FX users and guys, big-name artists, that have come full circle back onto amps. Y’now, this is really just the starting point for us. Joe’s whole idea was to get the official Randall tube amp, the backdrop for the company of amplifiers, and now all the fun stuff is going to happen – all the cutting-edge technology stuff we’re working on now, which will be pulling from that resource that we developed over the last couple of years. But we can’t just be selling cool digital stuff right from the get-go. You need the real amps to pull from. It’s just like the Kemper: the Kemper is nothing unless you use an actual real amp, and the Axe-FX stuff is based on real tube amps. It doesn’t have any mojo on its own. So we’re working on some cool, innovative products that allow you to get all that vibe but in a very portable package. Cos more and more of our artists are flying and doing these gigs where it’s not like the old way of getting on a bus and going across the continent. It’s a lot of flying around, and I mean, not everybody’s Metallica. And freight costs are through the roof now. It’s unbelievable. It’s getting to the point now where it’s even problematical for people to bring guitars. So form factor is a big priority. Nobody needs 99 presets – you need three, four core sounds and then everything else is just effects. Having the portability and some modern conveniences, maybe some IR stuff that you can send to front of house, that you can either do yourself and then load in some good ones, maybe use some backline support stuff so there’s a power amp-based configuration or speaker stuff that way. It’s interesting stuff. The digital stuff is cool, it’s just that nobody’s quite got it right yet. They’re on the right path. It’s getting better and better but it’s still not there. You still need a lot more processing power to make it real. I consider digital to be the Pinocchio of audio: it wishes it could be real analog audio.

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What’s the Kirk Hammett amp gonna be like?
He has five MEATHEADS that I built for him. A couple of them are three-channel versions which gave rise to his KH103 which is also three channels. Essentially it’s the MEATHEAD design with some variations in the tweaking on the channels, power amp settings and that sort of stuff. And now it’s down to cosmetics and tube types. The KH103 came out really great. I like it and I know they like the way it sounds, so it’s just down to the cosmetics phase now. But they’ve been touring so much, it’s how they make a living. Nobody makes a living selling albums any more and they’re always out on tour. Hopefully we’ll be able to nail this stuff down in the next month or so.

It must be mind-blowing to step back and hear Metallica music coming out of your amp.
Yeah! That was a very surreal moment!

Was there anything else you’d like to chat about before we wrap up?
Well, we’re working with Fredrik Thordendal doing a brand new from the ground up amplifier design which is probably going to be at least four different products extracted from this one, and there’s going to be a lot of great DSP stuff involved… partnerships with other companies, forming other alliances, it’s gonna be cool, man. Hopefully we’re gonna be doing something different. The industry is kinda… overall the industry is not always looking for alliances, they’re looking to set up the wall and fences: “This is my stuff, I’ve got a patent on it and screw everybody else.” And really in the end, that kinda hurts consumers. But yeah, we’ve got a lot of great stuff… some other stuff we’re going to be working on with Ola as well, and we’ve got some other artists that have just come on board. We’ve got [secret guitarist] from [secret band] just sign with us. We haven’t done the official release yet – we’re waiting until I physically hand off an amplifier which will be probably at the end of August, and they’re back in the studio in September to finish up their album before hitting the road, so you’ll see him with a THRASHER and some Randall cabs. Ola’s gonna be doing some clinic stuff in South America and I think they’re gonna try to do some stuff in Australia too. Got George Lynch’s signature amp that’s probably gonna show at NAMM, and the first official prototype is coming soon and that’s gonna be really cool, very different from anything that he’s had. Got some stuff for Nuno too, which should see the light of day at NAMM as well.

When I interviewed Nuno he said he loves his KB King amp but then he feels that it’s not quite it, then he loves it again, then he feels like it’s not quite it again.
Hahaha. Y’know, it’s typical for these guys to go through constant evolution, wanting different stuff, so I can understand that. Everybody knows George is like that, but this is really going back to what he’s always gravitated towards, so finally we’re zeroing in on something that he’s gonna actually use. It’s different from anything else in the catalog. It’s gonna be a hardwired amp. And we’ve got a lot of other stuff but I can’t say much more. I’m just very lucky to be doing this because it almost doesn’t feel like work.