Forcing the Issue – Four Force Amps
The struggle to find a solid-state amp that matches a tube amp has been raging from the day solid-state was invented – the technology was cheaper, lighter, and in many ways more versatile, which all seemed like advantages to the early adopters. It didn’t take long for amp designers to start scrambling to replicate the natural break-up and warm tones of classic tubes, though.
The new California-based company, Four Force, recently unveiled what could be the next step in this quest: an ultra-compact amp called the EM-1. It’s a sleek, 13-pound solution to a decades-old problem, and the company says it’s just getting started.
MMR recently spoke with Sales and Marketing manager Justin Rankin and Gibbs Group (who are launching the company) owner Doug Gibbs from their office near Sacramento, California. The company has a solid word of mouth buzz, a healthy backorder, and worldwide distribution in place – well on its way to a successful start. “The product has found a niche that to this point is underserved,” says Gibbs. “That’s a reasonably priced, highly reliable, durable, lightweight practice amp, if you will, that has a sound way beyond what it appears. And so we plan to capitalize on that market as well as developing a brand recognition and following.”
The small EM-1 is initially the sole focus and identity of Four Force. It’s a 5-watt combo amp with a 35-watt 10” speaker and a 3-band EQ, overdrive, and volume controls that can also power an extension cabinet for big-time volumes. The amps work on a circuit technology dubbed “Tube Illusion” that was developed by founder Jim McGillivary, an executive at a tech company. The group began showing off the amps at the 2012 Winter NAMM show and immediately started getting great response.
“This is not the first attempt to make a solid state device that sounds like the big heavy tube amps,” says Gibbs. “But in the words of those who have tried it, it’s the closest thing yet to true tube amp performance.”
“This is a very unique amp,” says Rankin, a guitarist himself. “I’ve never seen an amplifier that looks like this, that sounds as good, or is as lightweight. When you think of something that sounds good, you expect it to be heavy. This thing takes you buy surprise because you can pick it up with your pinky. It puts out a big sound.”
Indeed, at the NAMM show, they took to wearing the amps around their neck to demonstrate how lightweight they were. Rankin says the weight never gets in the way of a need for volume. “I took it home and hooked it up to a Marshall 4×12 cabinet, which is a 100w cabinet, and it was shaking the walls. You’d be surprised with this little 5w amp pushing a 16 ohm cabinet. It will take you by surprise. The 10” speaker is great for practice, but you can turn that up. If you’re using it in more of a live band setting, you can hook it up to an extension cabinet – two 10s, two 12s, four 12s, even a full stack. It will push them.”
“Plug it in blindfolded and start rocking out on the thing,” he says. It definitely distorts like a tube amp and has the characteristics of it. It’s a clean dirty sound – it’s not muddy, but it breaks up nice and smooth at a low volume. And as you crank the volume on the gain channel, it turns very raunchy, which is nice for a lot guitar players who are looking for that high gain with a sweetness to it.”
Once he’d come up with the idea for the amp, McGillivary contacted Gibbs to help develop, patent, produce, and market the product, as well as work toward a long-term plan for the company, which includes a few new products already in the works to expand on the qualities of the EM-1, which is already taking off on its own with very little work done in the way of publicity.
“We’re actually back-ordered on them right now,” says Gibbs. “We’re just trying to make sure we keep up with the demand at this point because it’s apparent that with no advertising and no outreach, people who played it still understood how well it works and it’s become pretty popular.”
Now they’re working to get a plan in place in the midst of what’s turned out to be a lightning fast launch. “This literally went from napkin sketch to pilot run in six months,” he says. “We’ve got our distribution channels set up globally, we’ve got reps internationally, and we’ve got dealers set up. Everything is now in place to start the funnel and now the first production runs will be here very shortly. We want to be sure that as a long-term business, those retailers are happy with the service, they’re happy with the product, and once the general opinion is favorable for us and the amps, that will be the time that we’ll officially announce the other products, which are behind the scenes currently in development.”
What’s in store isn’t official yet, but Rankin hinted that projects could include bass versions, added features like reverb, a partnership with Celestion speakers, and even an effect pedal line. It’s all planned to expand the brand name and create a long-term model that Gibbs is confident will grow into a solid company for the future. “So there will be a continuum of new products,” he says. Now, this is not going to change the face of the industry the way iPhone defined mobile devices. If for no other reason, we’re not buying Super Bowl Halftime ads. But this is a long-term business with a long-term equity profile.”
For now, the spotlight is all on the new company’s star – EM-1.