Dr. Z Weighs in on Modeling Tech and the Future of Amp Design

Mike Zaite’s middle name is Dominic. As such, when signing important documents—things like checks and his driver’s license—he’s been scribbling "MD Zaite" for as long as he can remember. So when it came time to name his eponymous amp operation, a subtle spin on that moniker rolled nicely off the tongue: Dr. Z.

The son of a Cleveland TV repairman, Zaite is the nostalgic type, waxing poetic about days-gone-by with a heavy dose of midwestern geniality.

Mike Zaite

There’s the one about him, as a young boy, watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and that being the moment he first fell in love with the sound of the guitar.

Or the time when he was 15 years old and took the bus to the Higbee’s department store in downtown Cleveland so that he could ogle the Vox amplifiers on the 14th floor. "Those Vox amps," he says, "there was something about that diamond grille cloth that just, boy, caught my eye. I was amazed at the way they looked and how great they were and how that was the sound and the look that I wanted."

Or the one from a few years later—sometime in the late-‘60s—when his musical aspirations led to him being in a band that practiced at his house and how the guitar players would leave their amps there in the basement and how he would open them up to take a look and tinker around inside.

"If they only knew some of the things that I did," he reminisces, through his trademark chortle.

A selection of Dr. Z amps

Today, Dr. Z is 67. "Ain’t no kid," he’ll remind you. And yet, as he sits in a shop that’s eerily reminiscent of the basement where his father worked all those years ago, complete with tubes and electronic schematics scattered about, he’s as open-minded as ever.

Which brings us to the one about how someone brought him a Kemper Profiler amp not too long ago. Spoiler alert: he liked it.

The Good Doctor

"It’s a funny story," Z tells me, about how he first started building amps. "The thing that kind of got me going was Guitar Player Magazine."

After completing an electrical engineering degree at Cleveland State and going to work for General Electric—a career lucrative enough to span nearly fifteen years—the November 1988 issue of Guitar Player changed everything.

"They had an amps issue that they came out with, and I can’t tell you how many times I read that from cover to cover," he says. "It was a great issue. I still have it and look at it from time to time. It had all this information on Marshall and Fender and Vox and all of these hot-dog guitar amp techs were in the stories. I don’t know, it was kind of an epiphany for me—a moment that changed my direction. I just said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So I started doing that and have been doing it ever since."

"Situations just occurred, and I was fortunate. I’m not trying to sit here and say ‘I’m the best, most dynamic, influential, and ingenious amp builder.’ No, I’ve never said that. I’ve really been kinda lucky."

Nearly three decades later, Zaite considers himself fortunate to be able to combine the two things he loves: music and electronics. And though many titans of the original boutique amp craze have come and gone—Howard Dumble, Ken Fischer and Mark Sampson among them—Dr. Z remains. Why? Pure luck, he says.

"Situations just occurred, and I was fortunate. I’m not trying to sit here and say ‘I’m the best, most dynamic, influential, and ingenious amp builder.’ No, I’ve never said that. I’ve really been kinda lucky."

Lucky, indeed. Mike and Dr. Z Amps got a fortuitous start, thanks to Ohio’s "adopted son" Joe Walsh. (Yes—that Joe Walsh.)

"I knew Joe’s manager and got an amp I had built to him. And, of course, I didn’t hear a word. But then, all of a sudden, I got a call that said ‘Joe wants another one of those amps and a couple of cabinets because he’s going to be using your amp on the upcoming Hell Freezes Over tour.’"

Looking back, if there was a moment when Z realized he’d made it, it was sitting in the front row of the Eagles show in Cleveland Stadium during the summer of ‘94, listening to one of his guitar heroes play through an amp with his name on it.

Joe Walsh Performs with a Dr. Z amp on CONAN, 2016

"That moment still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. They opened up that show with ‘Hotel California,’ and I can still remember just being pushed back into my seat listening to what I still believe is one of the best guitar solos ever recorded being played through my amp. It’s a moment that I’ll never forget."

With Joe’s endorsement came instant credibility. The Eagles had one of the ten biggest US tours of the ‘90s, and Joe Walsh could’ve played any amp he wanted—but he chose a Dr. Z. His choice helped spark a 30-year career.

To date, Zaite has designed and released 43 unique Dr. Z amps, selling more than 20,000 of them around the world. But he’s always looking ahead.

Brave New World

Someone brought Mike Zaite a Kemper last year.

"It was amazing. My jaw hit the floor, I gotta tell ya. I was very, very impressed. But I also have to admit that the technology was way over my head. I’m like ‘Holy shit! What these guys are doing—this is amazing.’"

Zaite says that his Dr. Z amps have been modeled for a variety of digital platforms over the years, but he refers to those early efforts as "immature" and "not really that satisfying" to play. The Kemper technology however, he feels, is something entirely different—and something demonstrably better.

Even still, he wasn’t particularly blown away with the Dr. Z-specific sounds that were available—so he did something about it.

Kemper and Dr. Z Amps

"I listened to a few of them and I’m going, ‘You know, my amp really doesn’t sound like that. That’s really kind of a generic sound.’ So I thought to myself, ’I’m going to do my own amps. I’m going to tweak them up and sell the packs to, [in] what I believe is the correct way, present Dr. Z to the Kemper community.’"

Two packs and some 60-plus Kemper profiles later spanning 21 different amp designs, Dr. Z has taken the Kemper community in full force (much to the delight of Kemper users everywhere).

And for those who fear a loss in sales as a result? Think again, he says.

"People are saying, ‘Oh—if you do that on Kemper, people aren’t going to buy your amps.’ That’s not true. I’ve actually sold more amps because of Kemper. Guys have heard stuff of mine that they’ve never heard before, and they go, ‘Man that really sounds good.’ And they’ll buy one. It motivates them to buy."

However, despite the fact that people are buying more of his amps than ever before, Z believes that someday, Kemper and technologies like it will dominate the musical landscape.

"From day one, I’ve always worried about what’s going to happen when I can’t buy tubes anymore—when they’re not available. The same with transformers and all of the other parts that make up the antiquated technology of tube amps. Fortunately, those things aren’t a problem today, but someday they’re going to be. And things like Kemper, these profilers and samplers are going to be the next wave."

He says that future generations aren’t going to know classic amplifiers sounds the way we know them today. Instead, they’ll know them digitally, via samples, models, and profiles. "It wouldn’t surprise me, really, to see the day when Kempers—and new technology that hasn’t even been released yet—will be used to make music. Because I do believe that there’s still room for new technology."

That said, Z recognizes the dichotomy that exists for today’s musicians between classic tube technology and digital emulations, particularly when it comes to the feel of technologies like the Kemper.

"A musician will always want that piece of gear—that Stratocaster, that ‘59 Les Paul, that Marshall. That will always be coveted and that will always be of great value, but to survive, you’ve gotta go with the technology."

"There’s something about a tube power supply that just gives you that sag and that lean," he says. "That feel under your fingers and on your strings that’s pretty hard to simulate. Sonically, [modern digital designers] do an excellent job of reproducing the sound, but the feel is not quite there yet—either in your brain or in what you really are experiencing."

Zaite talks about classic amps like they’re old girlfriends, like they’re all "the one that got away." There’s a romantic quality in the way he describes the "achy-breaky tone" of a cranked tube amp.

"I mean, whatever the wall voltage is, you’re going to get a slightly different response out of the amp each time, and that’s what makes it an instrument to me. The variable nature of the amplifier—the power it’s getting, the tube life, etc.—isn’t always good, but neither is the consistency."

It’s the sum of all those inconsistencies, he believes, that makes the experience so wonderful.

"There are so many things that motivate us as musicians and some of those simple things, the problem is, are very personal. You feel it, you hear it. That doesn’t mean the audience hears it or feels it or even that the guy next to you hears it or feels it—but you do. And that’s the inspiration. That’s what comes out of your heart. That’s what motivates us to be musicians."

Kemper and Dr. Z Amps

Even still, Zaite believes that as technology evolves, so too will the future of the amplifier.

"There’s no way around that, I think. I believe there will always be that sanctimonious Tweed Bassman in the corner over there that people are going to bow to and want and covet. But, long term, we do have to see that tubes aren’t going to be around forever. Instead, there’s going to be digital circuitry and how that evolves and how that changes, I believe, is going to be the future of amps."

And if he can be part of that evolution, sealing the "real" sound of a Dr. Z amp inside a Kemper profiling amp? Well, he’s all for it.

"You can’t fight it," he says. "A musician will always want that piece of gear—that Stratocaster, that ‘59 Les Paul, that Marshall. That will always be coveted and that will always be of great value, but to survive, you’ve gotta go with the technology. And I’m not one to battle technology. Now, I can’t say that I’m such a mystic by saying that, but let’s face it—it’s got to do something if it’s going to survive. It’s got to evolve."


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