An Interview with Shinos, Japan's Premier Boutique Amp Builder

Masaru Shinohara is the master builder behind Shinos, one of the best—and one of very few—boutique tube amp makers in Japan. We talked to him about how he got his start, where he finds inspiration, and the passion that lies behind his meticulous handbuilt amps and pedals.

How did you get started in amp building?

There were two factors that made me decide I should build amps.

This came about when I was working as a guitar tech for professional musicians at concerts. I thought, to be a top-class tech for top-class musicians, it was important for me to learn about the techniques for fixing tube amplifiers when they were broken or had trouble on site. So by myself I learned about the qualities of tubes and the principles behind tube amplifiers.

While learning about tubes and tube-powered guitar amplifiers through reference manuals and such, I naturally became interested in making my own. And as a guitar technician working in the frontline, I wanted to build a tube amp from that point of view and needs.

Photos by Itsuka

The other reason [for making amps] was spiritual. I wanted to work at something that makes an impression on people.

At first it might not seem that that element is related to making amps, but I think there is a connection. When I am working as a guitar tech, from the wings of the stages I watch the musicians perform. And so many times I witnessed a synergistic effect, where the audience is being moved by the musicians' performance and the musicians perform even better by the cheers they receive from the fans.

And there is a little bit of me wanting to help and contribute to all of that. The amp that I made passes sound forward through the PA system, and to where the audience is—and you can hear the audience cheering. Indirectly, my work is making an impression on people. I’m a human being who is moved by various things everyday, and the way I have an effect on other people is by making amps. I can’t make songs, or poems, or be a filmmaker. [Laughs.]

What’s the most important element or aspect of an amp for you? What do you strive for when building your amps?

I think soldering is extremely important, because it’s a point-to-point operation. At first glance it would seem to be an easy task, but the more you get into it, you start to find it’s a deep and difficult task. The more I did it, the more I came to appreciate the importance and difficulty of it.

The soldering temperature is very important. I fix the temperature at 360 degrees for soldering. Higher temperatures can easily melt the solder, but result in poor conductivity later. Also, even if you have the right temperature, but apply the solder poorly, this can result in a bad solder joint. Especially in places where you have many leads and wires, it’s necessary to flow the solder accurately and well.

Since your were (and sometimes are) a technician for touring musicians, did ideas about durability and reliability become very important for your amp design?

Equipment troubles on site can affect many things. They can delay opening times, they can cause chain reactions that affect staff in each section. Having worked in such situations, I came to realize that durability and dependability were extremely important.

And because the tours I work on are using guitar amps that I made, I really cannot afford to have troubles with those amps when I’m watching from the side of the stage. For that reason I made the idea with ideas from working guitar techs. One of the most ingenious ideas is that there is a digital bias meter and adjustment on the back panel of the amp. This allows players, or guitar techs in the field to quickly adjust the bias by themselves. Even when working on site, if a vacuum tube goes and you have a spare vacuum tube, if you don't have the correct instrumentation handy, you can't set the bias. So I thought why not just put the meter on the amp itself? This way anyone can set the bias, and you don't have to take it into a shop for changing the tubes. For me, it’s quite a psychologically tempering experience to be on tour with amps that you made yourself, and it’s something that I’m still continuing.

Historically, were there ever some “Eureka” moments for you, ideas that surprised you or you appreciated, when you were repairing other amps? What are some of the amps you personally like the best, outside of your own?

Vox AC30and Matchless both use rectifier tubes, and I was very fascinated by amps with rectifiers, but the rectifier itself might break down. To avoid that, I decided to use two GZ34 tubes in parallel in my Shinos Amp Luck6V. With this design, the LUCK6V will never have an issue with the rectifier tubes. On a personal level, I like the Fender Deluxe Reverb and the Matchless DC30and others.

Personally, what kind of music do you like? What kind of sounds have impressed or inspired you over the years?

Rock music made quite an impression on me. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, the music from the start of the '60s to the '70s—Led Zeppelin—and in the '80s bands like U2, The Police, Red Hot Chili Peppers... all really made an impact. Though I didn’t always focus on the raw sound of all these bands, I was certainly impressed by the guitars.

Tell us how the Silent-Amp came about.

It’s really an amp perfectly suited for home recording and for also using live for in-ear monitoring. Often in home recording, people rely on plugins for guitars, but the silent amplifier allows you to get the sound of a real tube amplifier. The cabinet is 18mm birch with a 0.3mm lead sheet and soundproofing material, and inside a 10-inch Jensen speaker and a Shure SM57 mount. The amp is powered by two 6V6s and has 20 watts of power. The preamp uses three ECC83s. There’s a wide range of possibilities from clean sound to an overdriven tube, and when the boost switch is on you can get natural tube overdrive.

How do you approach pedal design? You have the Blue Tongue series and the Vacuum Tube Drive. Do you also do custom builds for artists?

The VTD is exactly the same build as a tube amp, but without a power amplifier. It will give you an authentic overdriven tube sound. The Blue Tongue Series are IC-driven overdrive pedals. These were designed with guitarists and are made separately from the regular Shinos products. As they are of general pedal size, they’re easy to set. While we haven’t made custom pedals for artists, we have arranged the VTD before for customized usage.

Shinos has now been in business for almost 15 years. Have you found it difficult being a boutique amp maker (just about the only one) in Japan?

In comparison with domestic boutique guitar makers, there are very, very few boutique amp makers here in Japan, so it’s not a very competitive field. We’re just a small stream compared to the flood of boutique makers from overseas, so it’s probably very hard for someone to notice a Japanese-made brand like Shinos. At first, even the clerks at musical instrument stores had never heard of us.

Do you have any thoughts about current trends in the amp industry? Things like the Nu-Tube, or the ultra-compact amps, or modeling amplifiers?

I have a great interest in the Nu-Tube. I’d like to try and use one in a Shinos pedal. The ultra-compact amps are also a good idea. The ultra-compact size means they can be used just about anywhere, in any scene, and the quality recently has become very high. Modeling amps have made great strides recently. PAs and lighting systems have all entered the digital age, and so it’s natural that guitar amps also follow. I think it’s really an individual preference whether or not you prefer that to the sound of an analog vacuum tube.

What does the future hold for Shinos?

I’m hoping to get more recognition for the Shinos brand in Japan, and to that end I want to make an amp that is practical and in a price range that many people can afford to purchase. I’m making progress on that end. I also want to join the larger stage of the world abroad, and hope that Shinos can play an active part beyond just the island of Japan.

Compared to the past, the Japanese big hitters have gotten even bigger, and I can’t afford to lose even a single instrument. So we’ve joined the NAMM show. We’ll be at NAMM 2020, which is our third time exhibiting. We’d love for people to come and have a practical experience with the amps, and so we started setting up a soundproof booth from last year. My dream for the future is to be a boutique amp maker who is active on the world stage.

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