The Milkman Cometh- The Tale of Milkman Sound
By Team HC |
The Milkman Cometh - The Tale of Milkman Sound
Steel players are sold ... can he win the six-string crowd?
by Gearphoria's Blake Wright (adapted by Team HC)
TIM MARCUS knew what he was doing, and that might make the tale of Milkman Sound that much more perplexing. A touring pedal steel player and audio/video tech, he decided in 2010, after years of tinkering with guitar amplifiers, that he would attempt a kit build. After assembling a MojoTone Tweed Princeton, figuring out what worked and what didn’t… what he liked and didn’t like, there was still little hint of things to come.
Pedal steel players have historically not been spendy types when it comes to amplification. It would not be unusual to spot an aging Peavey nearby. Undeterred, Marcus decided that a boutique amp voiced specifically for pedal steel was something he wanted to pursue, if only for himself. Working for BBI Engineering in San Francisco, Marcus cut his teeth on large-scale audio/video builds for museums, conference centers… even churches. It was with BBI he learned the importance of building things to last. If you’re going to build an A/V system for a museum exhibit that could see tens of thousands of children pawing, scratching, and pulling at it, you’d better make it solid, and up to the challenge.
“I started building amps for steel guitar,” recalls Marcus. “There was no boutique option for pedal steel at the time. Now there is a lot (Quilter, Dr. Z, etc…). I got laughed out of the room several times because when there is no boutique market, there are no boutique prices. So when you come in at that price point, people are like ‘What?! My Peavey was $500! I’ve had it since 1978!’ Then those guys buy one of my amps and they’re like ‘Ohmigod! I had no idea this guitar sounded like that.’” Milkman really began while Marcus was still at BBI, running it out of his bedroom, having stuff shipped to the office, and also shipping from there. He sold an early prototype to steel veteran Greg Leisz. It was the company’s first true sale and what really kicked off the business. Leisz heard about Marcus’ amps when he was on tour with Ray LaMontagne in support of the Pariah Dogs album through a guitar-playing friend. Leisz did send the amp back four or five times before it was "perfect," then subsequently, took it out on the road with Eric Clapton and Jackson Browne. Sticker shock aside, the steel community started paying more attention to Milkman, and by the end of 2013, Marcus had left BBI and prepared to go full time with his fledgling amp brand.
He kept busy that first year, 2014, but Milkman was still somewhat of a mystery in conventional electric guitar player circles. That all changed in November 2014.
The JM Bump.
Guitarist John Mayer got hold of an 85-watt Milkman and reached out to Marcus. Mayer said it was one of the best new guitar amps he had heard in a long time. That has to mean something coming from a guy who has an arsenal of amps, Dumbles included, at his disposal. So impressed was Mayer, than he decided to help Marcus spread the word about Milkman.
In November 2014, Mayer posted a ‘selfie’ on social media platform Instagram (inset) singing the praises of the small amp builder and his product. Mayer has roughly 1.4 million "followers" on Instagram. “He warned me,” recalls Marcus. “He called to tell me he was going to do that. They call it the ‘JM bump’... ‘Just so you know… you’re going to get busy… but I love the stuff so I’m going to give you guys a bump.'” No one knew who I was. People knew in the steel guitar community, but guitar players didn’t know what Milkman was.”
Marcus’ inbox was flooded. Some were just tire-kickers, and several dealers from across the globe tested interest. “I kicked a lot of cans down the road, but then the orders did start coming,” says Marcus. “That’s around the same time I got picked up by my first dealer. I don’t know if he was part of the Mayer thing or if it was just a coincidence.” Today, Milkman, still a one-man operation, has about a half-dozen dealers. A shared booth at the 2016 Winter NAMM show netted a few new ones. Dealer orders have started to overtake direct orders now. “It used to be about 30% to dealers, but now… I went to NAMM with less than a dozen orders and I came back with over 70,” says Marcus.
But it’s just s Princeton, right? Before you hear a Milkman for yourself, you'll probably assume that it's a high-end clone of Fender’s Princeton. The aesthetics, size, and overall appearance are strikingly similar, but that does some injustice to what Marcus is producing. Amps favoring the Fender look are nothing new. Most people, including gear heads, gravitate towards the familiar, so it can have its benefits. Milkman isn’t alone; Headstrong, Tyler and others have also adopted Fender’s cosmetic vibe, but there are other reasons for it as well.
For Milkman, one chief factor was the abundant availability of parts. “It was easy to get parts to start out… and I’m used to Fender stuff,” confesses Marcus. “I like when you’re playing, sitting at your steel or playing your guitar, you can reach back and the knobs are there. I don’t like it when they're in the back or on top. Some Fender stuff was top-loaded like that, but I never used it. It looks classy and nice… and if you ask a six year old to draw a guitar amp, that is probably what they are going to draw. I’ve noticed also, after five or six years, if you go too crazy and make things look out there, nobody wants it. It doesn’t really make sense but it has to look familiar. You don’t want it to look like the Homer Simpson car.”
While the classic Princeton and Milkman’s signature Creamer amp do look similar, once you get them side-by-side there are differences. The angles are different on the Creamer, and it’s more rounded. However, besides the appearance, folks also believe that the guts of the two amps are similar. “Ninety-nine percent of the people think I’m just building Princeton clones and they have no idea that it couldn’t be more different,” explains Marcus. “The bias of the amplifier is cathode bias on mine, which completely changes the sound and the feel…and the tremolo circuit won’t work because on a Princeton the tremolo modulates the bias, but when you don’t have a bias to modulate you have to do it a different way. It’s not a Princeton copy. It’s got way more compression than a Princeton has. It feels a lot more like a tweed amp, but it’s got the mid range dip like the later Fenders had. I’ve been fighting that Princeton thing from the beginning. Six knobs and a 12-inch speaker. It’s got to be a Princeton. Well, the Princeton had a 10-inch speaker. And it’s 12 watts versus 20. Princeton plates are getting maybe 300 to 350 volts. This, they’re running much, much higher than that. You can’t put a 6L6 in a Princeton. You can put one in this. They start to diverge after the ‘they both have six knobs’.”
Out of his bedroom, today Marcus’ Milkman Sound is located in a cozy 200-plus square foot shop that is part of a studio/rehearsal space about 15 minutes north of the San Francisco airport. The day of our visit, the space was filling up fast with amps, pieces of amps and miscellaneous amp parts as Marcus continued working his way through the NAMM-driven backlog of builds. Marcus’s father-in-law was on hand assembling additional shelving units to hold completed and partially completed builds. The new rack was along the main wall across from the entrance and joined others filled with miscellaneous parts, transformers, etc.
Along the shop’s far wall sat the "office," meaning a desk with a computer; directly to the right upon entry is Marcus’ workspace, which if you looked carefully revealed space for a potential hired hand to join the ranks in the future, which could be in the cards. However, another thing that could happen is an exodus from the Bay Area. As Milkman grows, it's not difficult to see a time (and possibly soon) when Marcus is squeezed for space. Given the real estate market in San Francisco, and the fact that it's fast becoming the most expensive city in the country, these could be an issue when attempting to upgrade locally. “San Francisco is done,” says Marcus. “It is the butt of the cigarette here. It’s been chewed up and spit out. There is nothing for creative people here. A lot of the venues have closed. There was a trend where they would build these expensive condos near the clubs. Residents would complain about the noise and [the city]would shut down the clubs, even though they had been there for 20+ years. It’s a mess. There are just not a lot of places to play. No musicians can afford to live here.”
So what does that mean for Milkman? Relocation to the midwest has not been ruled out, and at least one prominent gear house has been courting them to head east. “I was talking with Josh Scott (JHS Pedals) recently and he’s trying to entice me to come to Kansas City,” reveals Marcus. “That’s where my wife is from. I’ve been very stubborn, but they are starting to wear me down. I have friends there. That’s where my father-in-law is. I’ve talked to my wife and a few more years and she’s probably done (here). I’ve been in the same place since 2009; it’s rent controlled so it’s not crazy, but it’s not cheap. I’d like to have a bigger shop with a roll-up door like Salvage (Custom near San Diego), but you’re not getting that here.”
The Menu’s Expanding
Since the beginning, Marcus has let his clientele dictate the research and development direction for Milkman. It is how the flagship Creamer came to be. It is also how the Half Pint sprang to life. (Trivia side note: It was the same customer.) So when clients bring their ideas to the table, if the concept has legs, Marcus will integrate it into the line. “I like to let my customers do my development,” explains Marcus. “Can you do this? Sure! So I build it and…there’s a new model. My whole business…my friend Max has been 'you should try this…do this.' I have a lot of models now… eight or nine.” Marcus is dabbling with a 10-watt version of the Half Pint, which would give him 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 85, and 300-watt amps on offer. He also is working on a 700-watter. The line diversity is one thing, but Marcus also has a variety of off-menu items, such as a bass amplifier. “It’s like In-And-Out Burger,” he says. “If you want a two-channel Creamer, I can do that. I’ve built a bunch of those. I’m open to ideas. I need the custom stuff for my sanity. How many Creamers in blonde can I build? I like doing the custom stuff.
"I just did a custom two-channel version of my 300-watt amp for a guy in Portland. Definitely off-menu, but it’s pretty great. I’m thinking about doing something in the future that is kind of like a version of my 300-watt amp that's more for guitar players. I bought a head to NAMM, and we had it on a 2x12 cabinet and everybody that plugged into it loved it. I just brought it so steel players could check it out, but guitar players were loving it. So maybe I need to do a version with tremolo that’s voiced for guitar?” There are under 500 Milkman amps in the wild as of this writing. Marcus built just over 200 of those during 2015, with 60 of those shipping in the first quarter. The year before that he’d built 75. “I’m way behind that this year,” he confesses. “I was like ‘What the hell was going on last year?!’ And I’m like… oh yeah, John Mayer. I also had a new model out and all of the steel players were buying them."
It takes Marcus anywhere from four to five hours to build out a Creamer. The number lands on the low side if he’s building more than one. For a single amp, it takes longer. “With dealers now, it’s much easier,” he says. “Someone orders six Creamers and four Half Pints, I just line them up and do them all at once.” As for the immediate future, beyond the possibility of a relocation further out, Marcus says he has no interest in joining the raft of amp makers that have started building and selling effects pedals. The only pedal he has in his line up is the channel switcher, and while he used to make those himself, those have since been farmed out to JHS. He also has no real plans to grow Milkman to dizzying heights, and he’s comfortable with that. “I’m not going to be building a thousand of these things a day,” he says. “I don’t think that will ever happen.”
Republished with the expressed permission - www.gearphoria.com
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.