Komet Amps - a Factory Visit
By Team HC |
by Blake Wright
KOMET AMPS’ first Winter NAMM show was just a few years back. Mike Kennedy and Holger Notzel set up shop in the back corner of Hall E — the basement, as some know it — to show off their latest and greatest guitar amplifiers and other wares. It was a big step for the company. Even though this was their first trip to the annual gear party in Anaheim, Komet Amps was nearing its 20th year in business. NAMM was a conscious decision for the partners. The builder had spent many years flying under the radar from shop headquarters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Between Kennedy and Notzel, they would produce some where between 20 to 30 amps a year, and over the years would add models to the overall Komet range.
— Opening Image: The new Komet KODA, designed by Scotty Smith, is now shipping—
If you haven’t heard the Komet name before, that is part of the reason why. But if you are an amp enthusiast you’ve probably heard the name Ken Fisher. Fisher, based in New Jersey, was the genius behind Trainwreck Amps, and it was a friendship between Fisher and Notzel that gave birth to Komet.
“I was on Ken Fisher’s waiting list for a Trainwreck way back in the 90s, before I moved to the US even... which was in 1994,” recalls Notzel. “I had been talking to Ken on the phone for a few years and was good friends with him... and it became obvious that I was not going to get an amp from him because his waiting list was a thousand people long and he was only making about three amps a year... plus, he was already sick. So I asked him, to let me build it and he could tweak it. I really wasn’t after the collectible part of it. I just wanted an amp that sounded like that. I expected him to shoot me down, but he was open to the idea.”
— CABS, CABS EVERYWHERE: Komet offers both traditional speaker cabinets as well as its new AmbiKab and AmbiKab Jr. models. —
Fisher and Notzel went back and forth on design drawings and schematics. Not too long after that, Notzel had his amp. He sent it back to Jersey so Fisher could tweak it a bit and make some slight changes and give suggestion. He sent it back to Louisiana complete with a Trainwreck sticker applied.
In 1997, Notzel and Kennedy ran a tiny amp repair shop in the down- town area. The pair had met while attending Louisiana State University (LSU) and immediately took to one another’s taste in vintage guitars... more specifically guitar tone. Notzel’s amp would often sit in the front of the shop, open to anyone coming in to pick up a repair to plug into and give the instrument the once-over.
“Everybody loved it,” says Notzel. “A few asked if I could build them one... and how much it would be. That was not the original idea, ever. It was just going to be for me, but we got so many requests for one that I approached Ken and asked what he thought about letting us produce these amps and us paying him a royalty on the design. I certainly didn’t expect that to happen. He had just finished a deal on a partnered amp that he was bitter about because he didn’t get paid, plus he wasn’t happy with the product. He didn’t want to be associated with it. So it was a particularly bad time to approach him with something like this. But for some reason, he went for it.”
— WIRED UP: Mike Kennedy works the solder gun on a fresh Komet build. —
The result was the birth of the Komet 60... and that’s how Trainwreck’s Ken Fisher got involved in a start-up Louisiana-based amp business. Later that year, Notzel journeyed to Jersey to visit Fisher, to talk amps... and business. “We hung out and I played through some original Trainwrecks he had in the shop,” he recalls.
“I saw some weird stuff. He was such a character, man. The Komet 60 had six screws that held the back panel on, so Ken was across the room playing and he said ‘Change the tubes out.’ So I would change the tubes out and put the panel back on. He said, ‘What did you do? Something's not right.’
I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. ‘You didn’t put all of the screws in the back panel, did you?’ And he was right, I had only put two screws back in. But how did he know that!? What did he hear? I have no idea. It was stuff like that all of the time. He could tell you if you swapped the power tubes side to side he could tell you they were in the other way before. He had this mystical thing about amps. He believed that an amp, after years of playing, would shape itself around a player and their style or their guitar. So after years of playing with a Strat, a Les Paul through it wouldn’t sound as good. He had these ideas. He was an engineer so it was the mix of magical thinking and actual scientific stuff, and you could never really draw the line where one ended and the other began. That was Ken.”
The Komet 60 was the company’s lone product for several years. Fisher really wasn’t interested in adding to the line, and he also didn’t believe in refreshing an existing product under the belief that if that amp was good when it was first built, it would be good 10 years from then, and so on. If a part or component became obsolete, Fisher would have to audition and approve the replacement. The Komet crew had requests for a 20-watt 6V6 version of the Komet 60, but Fisher wasn’t interested. So, dipping into uncharted territory, Notzel designed the amp that would become the Constellation on his own, and Fisher was not happy about it.
In an interesting bit of irony, before Fisher passed away at Christmas time in 2006 he asked the Komet boys to send him a Constellation. They complied and Fisher used that chassis to build the second of only two Trainwreck Songwriters.
“The Constellation was a very complicated model to build,” recalls Kennedy. “It uses a 6SN7 octal pre-amp tube, which are getting very difficult to find new old stock. Back in 2000, not a problem. You can’t ship an amp that expensive with a huge microphonic issue with the tube. So after make about 60-65 amps we put it on the back burner and slowly phased it out.”
The Komet shop today is about to burst at the seams. Situated in a business district on the city’s east side, the shop continues to house guitar and vintage amp repair along with Komet manufacturing. The duo have added amp models throughout the years — the Limited Edition, 19, Aero 33, HD and 29 among others.
The Limited Edition was another amp done with Fisher. It was announced it in early 2005 as a 30-piece run. The head would be all handcrafted African bubinga with a flame maple front. However, during the project, Komet hit a snag. In September 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm, made landfall near New Orleans and brought a ton of rain and wind inland to the state capital.
— UNDER LICENSE: The Songwriter 30 was one of the last Trainwreck models Ken Fisher worked on before he passed away in 2016. —
“We built 30 for customers and an extra 10 for us and any reviews or artist interest,” says Kennedy. “Right in the middle of the project, Katrina came through. It was as our head boxes were just finishing up, so we didn’t know if they survived. That was a stressful week. We couldn’t get in touch with the contractor — a furniture builder here in town — that did the boxes for us. There was major damage everywhere. Then Ken couldn’t get in touch with us. Finally after 10 days we talked with Ken and he was forming a search-and-rescue party in New Jersey to come down and look for us! He thought we had washed out to sea. They were genuinely worried. Everything made it through. We did lose our company that was powder coating everything for us. They were in Waveland, Mississippi, and all that was left was the slab of the building. We finished the production and started shipping right after that Thanksgiving. After that, we started producing the Concorde, which internally was a twin to the Limited Edition, just in a black tolex box.”
Keeping it local is important to Komet. As much as possible, the company sources and retains specialists in the region to contribute to their products. All of the company’s chassis are from Lafayette, Louisiana, about 60 miles to the west. Their custom hardwood fronts are done by a local wood shop in Baton Rouge. Where they can’t stay local, they stay loyal. The company’s transformers are made in California at Pacific, the same folks that built the transformers for the Mars rover. They have been building Komet’s transformers since 1999.
That original splash at NAMM gave way to another, where in 2017 the company showcased its new AmbiKab design. This past year, the first Komet pedal was unveiled — the KODA.
“It is not satisfying to do it half-assed anymore,” admits Notzel. “We make really good amps, and to see that so many people haven’t heard about them, never seen them, they’re not available anywhere. It was a point of frustration. So it became either we shut it down and move forward with the guitar repair business (and they become collectible) or we get serious and get them out there. We talked about it (shutting down), but we like this too much.”
Kennedy adds: “We’re so small and still unheard of. In close to 20 years we’ve made 1,000 amps of various models. There’s a point where we have to decide to stay small or play ball with the majors. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
The motivation lead the duo to expand their horizons and introduce new Komet products. The main motivation of the KODA was to get into the pedal business, but with something different and not the same old recycled designs. For that, the Komet crew turned to ProAnalog Devices’ circuit guru Scotty Smith.
“I’ve known Scotty for 20 years,” says Notzel. “He is a really good designer. I have a bunch of his pedals already. It has an identifiable personality. All of Scotty’s pedals sound like Scotty...a certain frequency response and feel to them. It doesn’t matter if its a fuzz or overdrive, you can tell the personality of the guy behind it. That’s what attracted me to his stuff and I thought he would be a good match. I’m not a solid state guy. That’s not my forte. Letting Scotty do the design and then let me do the voicing so it will sound the way I hear stuff was a viable option. It turned out just the way I had hoped.”
While the company’s pedal future does hinge a bit on sales of the just now available KODA, there are already plans to continue beyond this initial offering.
“It is not going to be a one and done, but I don’t think it will become a line with digital reverbs and stuff — that’s not our game,” admits Notzel. “I’m sure there might be an analog boost pedal, maybe a tube overdrive, a wah... maybe a delay. That would be in the future. One a year or year and a half. It would have to be something unique. If we can’t differentiated it with what’s already out there then what’s the point? I have some ideas already about a KODA Mk II, some things I’ve thought about after living with it for a while.”
Another Komet product that is ready from prime time is the AmbiKab. AmbiKab is an amplified speaker cabinet designed as a solution to the problem of applying ambient, time-based effects into an amplifier’s sound without degrading the original sound in any way. It allows the amplifier to directly drive a set of guitar speakers (dry signal) without any effects added directly to it. A portion of this dry signal is then split off by the AmbiKab’s internal circuitry and sent out to an effects unit. From there, a 100% wet signal is fed back into the AmbiKab where a separate, internal stereo power amplifier sends the signal to a dedicated stereo set of speakers.
“When you have an amp like a Komet, the output stage is a big part of the sound,” explains Notzel. “In other words, when you crank that amp up, it doesn’t have a master volume, you turn up the volume it is going to start clipping the output tubes. It is not like a Master Volume amp where your distortion and your tone shaping comes just out of the pre-amp and then goes into a clean output stage like a Dumble or something like that. So with an amp like that, where are you going to put your reverb? If you put it up front it’ll get all washed out because you’re going to overdrive the reverb. An effects loop really doesn’t make any sense either, because whatever you put in the effects loop would go between the pre-amp and the power stage and then your power stage overdrives and you’re back to that same problem. Really, the only way to it do this right with time- based effects like delay and chorus and reverb is to put it after the amp all together. That’s not a new idea necessarily. It has been done with wet/dry rigs forever. The famous Larry Carlton set-up all the way back into the ‘80s where he had his Dumble in the middle on top of a 2x12 he would mic, then send into his effects then to a little mixer then out to a pair of PA speakers on either side of the amps for his wet sound. So the notion of the wet/ dry/wet rig isn’t new, but you’ll be hauling a lot of stuff — two extra amps, two extra cabs... a mixer. That’s when the idea came to put it all in one box. Have a one-step solution for this kind of rig.”
— AMBIKAB: Kennedy examines a full-sized AmbiKab being prepped for delivery. The AmbiKab is Komet’s unique wet/dry/wet solution. —
The AmbiKab features a send level control to accommodate a variety of effects — from floor pedals to studio quality rack units. On the return side, a volume control for the internal stereo amp governs
the proportion of effects signal that is being added to the guitar sound. AmbiKab can be used with mono effects (both stereo channels bridged) or in full stereo mode.
“It seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done,” recalls Notzel. “There must be a reason... so it was probably not going to work. So I built it and I couldn’t believed how well it worked. The single source blended very well. When we determined that it hadn’t been done yet and it worked as well as it did we applied for a patent on it. That’s in process right now. We have the provisional. The beauty of the AmbiKab is that it is not Komet-specific. So I gigged around with it and came to the conclusion that the dry speakers in the AmbiKab really are not needed if you’re using a combo already, so that gave me the idea for the AmbiKab Jr., which is just the wet part and the size of like a Fender Vibrolux. It’s two-tens and light... about 27 lbs. Now you have something doing exactly what the AmbiKab does, but you can put it under your Fender Twin or Blues Deluxe, hook it up to the second Speaker Out and you’ve got a wet/dry/wet stereo rig that’s easy to carry. Easier than the AmbiKab itself, which is a big, 70lb. cabinet. A lot of guys have their favorite old cabinet they want to play through, so with the AmbiKab Jr. you can do that. The other cool thing about the Jr. is you can move it away. Set it up across stage so when the reverb is on or something it sounds like it is coming from somewhere else, bouncing off a wall. It is very easy to use.”
Komet contracts North Carolina-based MojoTone to build its AmbiKabs, head boxes and cabs. These have been built with Russian birch from day one — a great-sounding tonal wood, but very heavy. Now, Komet is experimenting with Italian poplar ply, which is lighter. The weight difference is significant.
“It has a really nice midrange that is chewy and bouncy sounding,” says Notzel. “The very first Komet cabs I built myself back in 1998 were poplar. I think it was Ken that turned me on to it. The problem with solid pine is that it dents easily. The poplar ply gets a thin veneer of birch on the outside so it doesn’t dent as easily. It has only been less than a year that Mojo has found a good source for it. We’re probably going to switch everything over to it. It is a little more expensive, but in the grand scheme it is not a deal breaker.”
— KOMET Quality Control: Every Amp is thoroughly checked before shipping. —
As to the longer term future for Komet, both Notzel and Kennedy see a two-tier offering system emerging, with the high-end amplifiers being built by the pair as they always have been, but other items like AmbiKab, could be easier made off-site.
“There is no reason for us to build that here in Baton Rouge,” says Notzel. “The shipping alone would be ridiculous. If we can get it to where we can sell the Jr. for $1000 and the Sr. for say $1200, it could do numbers for us. There might be another line of amps in the future that are not has high gain or as sensitive to build that we might could outsource so our product line doesn’t start at $3000. Have something at $1,800 that still sounds like a Komet. We’re not out to cheapen the brand, we would just like to make it available to regular guys that can buy a Dr. Z, but can’t buy a Concorde or something.” -HC-
photo credits: Blake Wright
Who Are Gearphoria?
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25-foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.