Valve Vernacular: A Chinwag with Martin Kidd of Victory Amps

When I moved to the UK just over five years ago there was very little to write home about in the way of British boutique pedals and amps. If I’m honest, I was a bit gutted after poking around shops, only finding the bog-standard-fare guitar monkey products. Oh well, the beer is great and the chocolate is superior (I remember thinking). Although I wasn’t aware of it yet, this would have been around the time Martin Kidd was wrapping up his role as chief designer for Cornford Amplification, one of the UK’s only true boutique amp companies at the time.

Martin’s amps were so well voiced, robust and toneful that when Victory Amps launched, one of their biggest initial sales points was having The Kidd as chief designer. His reputation indeed preceded him and since they debuted, Victory Amps has become the leading boutique British amp builder. Victory Amps gives us gearheads everything that we expect from a boutique amp company: robust construction, killer tone, top-shelf components and some of the swiftest customer service in the industry. However, I chalk up its success rate to one attribute above all: originality. Martin isn’t content to copy vintage classics and merely make them prettier and sturdier. He is also unafraid to keep tweaking or even change something on a circuit after it is released to the public. He designs amps with his knowledge, but also with his ears, listening to his customers as well as his gain structures. This is a man who knows the chase is as good (or better) than the catch. I had a delightful time chasing him up and catching his rare insight into the world of valve (or tube for those stateside) amps.

Hi Martin—long-time fan and current abuser of your gear here. Let’s kick things off with your first amp offerings: the Handwired Series. They all seem to share a smoothness and ever-so-sweet high-end rolloff in the preamp gain. Does this represent your own personal player preference as opposed to other releases that seem to have a more target audience?

Martin Kidd

Hi Fletch, and well-spotted! High end (both treble and upper mid-range), as far as an audience is concerned, always concerns me. Of course, on a big stage with a mic on your speaker and a good sound engineer, any excess in your particular guitar spectrum, is fairly easily and quickly dealt with. However, if your guitar tone is solely your own responsibility, you need to walk out to the front row and listen. In a pub or club, it’s always a compromise, as you need to find a balance between what you’re happy to use and what your audience has to tolerate! With a bit of luck and a prevailing wind, they’re one and the same thing but I always try to set my EQ by standing back a bit; having a sound that’s not too harsh with all the EQ at 12 o’clock seems a good place to start (regardless of volume levels) and that’s the general idea behind how I try to voice my designs.

One of my favorites of the range is your V10 The Baron. I love the separate, yet blendable power sections. As far as I know there isn’t an amp out there that is capable of smearing 6l6 and EL84 tone colors together like that. How did this idea come about? I think this is the sleeper of Victory Amps by the way.

The blendable output valve type was an evolution from having two switchable types in the Cornford Carrera design. It was something I had up my sleeve for the future that seemed an obvious idea to use when Victory started. The variations in sound are as much to do with tone as with the feel and overdrive characteristics associated with the different valve types.

I saw a video in which you revealed that your personal favorite design for Victory is The V50 Earl. Is this still the case? Why is it your fave?

I’ve been gigging a V100, over the last couple of years and, for reasons I shall divulge shortly, I’ve done a few mods to it. Bear with me, it’s all relevant! My favorite was the V50 but my involvement with Rabea Massaad, when working on the VX, and also discussing tone with fellow guitarist and band-mate: Alex Savage (himself a sound engineer with a great ear), has opened my ears to a different tonal palette and way of thinking, as it were. Around this time, I also had a request from Dave Murray’s guitar tech, Colin Price, asking to have Dave’s V100s modified to sound and feel a little more like the amp setup that Dave had been using for the past 20 years or so and doing this brought other possibilities to my attention, some that I wanted to try on the V100 that I use for my own gigs.

Although it’s nice to have a fat low end to your sound, which benefits a guitar player in certain playing environments, it can make the response of an amp somewhat unforgiving for certain playing styles and also rob an amp of headroom, if too much bass comes from the preamp. Of course, treading on the toes of other instruments, such as the bass guitar, which need to have some areas of the audio spectrum free from interference by the guitar player, is also a good reason to tame an amp’s low end! Detailing the mods and reasons therefore is beyond the scope of this interview but tightening the low end of the V100 was the main thing I did.

 A short while ago, I managed to sneak a prototype VX off to use on one of my gigs and I think that and my modified V100 are my favorites . . . for now at least!

Now here is a testament to your tones: Dave Murray of Iron Maiden used your flagship V100 on the Book of Souls album and supporting tour in 2015. That is a gargantuan achievement to pry him off the Marshalls after all those decades. Did you see him rock your stacks live on that tour?

Sadly not this time. As we know, when playing gigs at any level, a guitarist needs to have as little to worry about as possible. Dave Murray’s faithful setup that he uses for live performance has a bespoke switching system, which unfortunately, needed an extra interface, in order for the V100 to be incorporated. Time, on this occasion, was against us, though I believe the V100 will still be used as one of his recording amps, going forward (perhaps even for live use too, fingers crossed)!

Let’s move on to another victorious success story: The compact series. It is known that Guthrie Govan kind off kicked things off when he requested an amp that could stow in the overhead compartment of a cheap airliner, yet bring the thunder of his 50-watt heads. Do you find that working within challenging or limiting parameters leads you down tonal paths you haven’t trodden before?

I do enjoy a challenge and fitting, what has turned out to be a 50-watt amp, into a lunchbox enclosure did concern me at the outset. High gain circuits, if not laid out properly, can become unstable and, with the limited space available, I was concerned that even after my best efforts, this might still be the case. Fortunately, it turned out to be very stable have a fairly respectable noise floor, which, as you know, is another problem associated with high gain sounds. 

A strange thing about valve amp circuits (in my experience at least) is that they can be designed on paper and it can be predicted that they’re quite likely to behave a certain way; or not, as I shall explain! It’s not until you switch them on and plug a guitar in that you actually find out what they do and what you need to change, in order to get them to do what you want. In all my time doing this, I’ve only had a couple of designs that have done exactly (or close enough for rock ‘n’ roll, at least) what I hoped they would, after plugging in for the first time. That’s one of the things I find most enjoyable and rewarding: I still learn things from these experiences and nearly always come away, having tried something that will be very useful for future designs.

This being the world’s premier pedal publication, we must tell my fellow pedal-obsessed Americans about The Duchess V40. It might be the best pedal platform ever conceived and I am not the only one saying this. Though it is transparent enough to morph to the whims of a board, it still has a bit of Vox, Fender and Marshall DNA. How did this cream-colored dream machine come to be true?

The idea behind the V40’s design was to make something more straight forward, with a bit less gain than my usual offerings and a character of its own. Some tonal flexibility was important but it needed to be a design that would take overdrive and boost pedals well. There are a vast number of guitar players out there that do a wide range of gigs; having to play all kinds of musical styles and have a fairly hectic schedule to add to their stress levels! For reasons of cost or convenience, having one amp that will sound good on its own but be just transparent enough to bring out the best in an overdrive or boost pedal, is something that people had been suggesting to me for quite a few years. It’s an approach to getting a sound that a huge number of players really enjoy and, indeed, much prefer so being able to cater for them and the positive feedback we’ve received from them, having launched the V40, is really encouraging!

When a design such as the V40 comes to life and we at Victory get to listen to some great players put it through its paces, it’s often hard not to have a big grin on one’s face! As I mentioned earlier, there’s always a sound in my head that I’m trying to achieve with a given circuit design. When, for instance though, you hear a player like Bernie Marsden make that sound happen, equipped only with a guitar, it’s a very nice feeling!

Now, I don’t use pedals for dirt often, so I find The Kraken to be perfect for getting shades of gain and different levels live and in the studio. It is so much more than a djent machine—many classic rock tones live in the range of Gain 1. This might be the most full-featured and high-powered “lunchbox” head on the market. It must have been a real challenge to design.

I think the main challenge with the Kraken was for me to get a good understanding of the high gain sounds that the amp would be expected to produce. I’d tried to do some research by listening to various sounds on the internet and thought I had an idea of what was required! Our first listen to the prototype Kraken, however, proved I didn’t yet have it quite right: it had too much gain and the low end still needed to be tightened even further. It’s a balance of definition with a tight low end for low tunings, fairly high gain but without too much of the harshness that can be brought about from the harmonics generated by a high gain circuit. It was, as you say, a challenge but, of my recent projects, one from which I think I’ve taken away the most and that will benefit other projects down the line.

As you’ve pointed out, the amp is quite versatile on the Gain 1 side alone: it cleans up quite nicely from your guitar’s volume control but, with the added versatility of having a second master volume to boost your volume level and push the output stage a bit harder, there is a lead guitar sound to be had there, too.

We had an interesting conversation about circuits vs. components. I think we agreed that NOS tubes and other “holy grail” components have less tonal impact than a well-designed circuit. Do you care to shed some light on this sometimes-dark detour?

Indeed. When valves were the more readily available technology, in terms of audio amplification; whether for radio, hi fi or for musical instruments, they were merely (and still are) electronic components, which had been designed to perform a task as efficiently as possible. As will always be the case when more than one company manufactures anything, the secret recipe for the ideal specimen of whatever it is will be based on the practicality of manufacture; cost of manufacture; scientific theory, where applicable etc. In general, the list of factors affecting the end result of any given product will always be a long one. To cut a long story short, however, valves, whether they are from a recent batch or NOS, will be different, though not necessarily better or worse. While one person might prefer the sound of a particular valve, another person may think a different valve is “better” and, as will often be the case, their respective reasons for choosing one over another will be entirely valid: this area of discussion is, to quite a large extent, subjective and is probably why this business can be so enjoyable, even after decades of discussing the same things! 

I think our first experience of cranking up a well-loved valve amp, with all its components just the right side of their given tolerance; be it Vox, Marshall, Fender et al and experiencing what we’d previously only read or heard about, is quite magical and is certainly what, once I’d gathered an understanding of valve amp circuitry, has kept me involved in building modifying and designing for the past 25 years.

The main reason, however, that one amp will sound “just right” while another may be less appealing, for a given situation or genre of music is almost entirely down to the circuit design and much less to do with whether EL34s or 6L6s have been chosen for an output stage. How many stages of gain are in the pre amp circuit? Where the tone circuit is positioned in the signal chain? What type of tone circuit is in use? Even the acoustic properties of a given venue. All have a greater effect on the response and tone of an amp than whether you have some genuine Mullard ECC83s in the preamp.

I’ve waffled on just a bit here, but only in order to point out that NOS valves are not necessarily better, unless they actually give exactly the tone and response a particular individual is looking for. It’s very easy to be relieved of some serious cash, if you have a “bee in your bonnet” about buying what you remember, often via rose tinted specs, as “the best valves you’ve ever heard.” I’ve listened, on more than one occasion, to tales of disappointment after such purchases and only because of the expectation that an amp will be transformed into something quite different (transported back in time, almost) by what are essentially components that so often behave in very much the same way as those currently installed in their amp!

It has been great talking with you Martin. Your gear inspires me every time I plug in. Let’s wrap it up with some details on your very exciting new Heritage Series—I am eagerly awaiting the Sherriff 44 and 22. You mentioned that these are not mere Plexi-style vintage clones and of course, we wouldn’t expect them to be…

The term “Plexi,” it seems to me at least, has come to mean something rather different than what it conjured up to me a few years ago. To me, a “Plexi” was a Marshall built between 1962 and 1968 that had a front panel made from Perspex (Plexiglas). It had four inputs: high and low sensitivity for the High Treble Channel and the same for the Normal Channel. No master volume control or effects loop and the overdrive sounds were generated by turning the volume controls up so the all of the stages in the amp would distort just a small amount. These days, I get the impression that “Plexi” refers to anything built by Marshall from 1962 to the JCM800 Master Volume amps (2203 and 2204) made in the early 1980s, including the hot-rodded and modified versions thereof, made by other companies.

Going back to my comments re my early experiences of cranking up an old valve amp and actually producing the sounds that I’d only heard on record, at that stage in my development: there were certain elements of that type of sound that I wanted to capture with the Sheriff amps’ circuitry so they have been designed to do that, rather than the more modern take on the Plexi sound that a number of companies are currently offering. (I might add that they’re doing a nice job in my opinion, judging by what I’ve heard on YouTube!)

The “old-school” sound that I remember from those amps of yesteryear, had an overdrive characteristic that, when heard on its own, was a bit unrefined; perhaps bordering on harsh. However, it would sit in a mix very well and all of the harshness seemed to serve a purpose and help the sound cut through, when required yet be covered up by cymbals and other things. I’ve added a couple of modern “necessities:” a post phase-splitter master volume control, which includes part of the power amp (the phase-splitter valve) before the master volume so that you hear some of the power amp overdrive, and an effects loop. Some care must be taken with effects levels, however, as they are being returned into a junction in the signal path that provides part of the overdrive sound.

The presence control has also been configured a little differently, in order to tame some of the harshness so that, when used for low volume practice sessions, the tone of the Sheriff can be made a little easier on the ear and a little easier to use.

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