We had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Steve, the founder and architect behind Audio Kitchen. A boutique brand out of the UK, Audio Kitchen has become one of our favorite pedal companies due to the simply great designed and unique sounds they offer.
Give us a brief history on how Audio Kitchen came about.
At a party I was chatting to session guitarist/viola player friend (Alan Simpson) about the difficulty of recording his AC30 in a home setting. He liked how it sounded over-driven, but his wife and neighbours were not so keen. That got my mind working towards a lower powered EL84 amp which could get in the ballpark of the sparkly EL84 tones we all know and love.
I was fascinated by transients and did a ton of blind A/B tests with different components to see what I liked best in different positions. Playing with plastic vs electrolytic caps in the power supply was one aspect of that. I had a lot of time and no money, so I depended on the kindness of reps to give me samples to try. Alan heard the prototype and ordered one on the spot, and while that blew my mind it was when the Young Brothers each ordered one I began to believe that perhaps there might be something substantial to the project. Alan Moulder, Flood and Cenzo Townshend all ordered very early on, and began using their amps with the bands coming through their studios; that helped the word spread slowly but surely.
What do you think is the core motivating factor behind Audio Kitchen?
I was talking about this with a friend last night concluded that the answer changes over time, to be honest, but primarily, I want to make things which provide the shortest path to inspiration. Over the years I have realised my method of getting there is by making amps which feel transparent (even when they are not). Mostly I try to make it feel like there is a super-short distance between a player’s hands and the sound reaching their ears. Alan Moulder said it sounds like clean distortion. That is a nice way of putting it, I think. The other big motivator is the desire to do something novel, but not just for the sake of novelty. I made a 51W 3xKT88 amp for Reeves Gabrels which is single-ended. That became a reality not because it was a novelty but because Reeves said it sounded great in an extraordinary way.
I want to make things which provide the shortest path to inspiration
Who is the team behind Audio Kitchen?
Well, that has also changed over the years with great friends coming and going, but presently it is James Dunbar and me who have been here since the beginning, then we have two superb guys called Matt and Jake who have been learning the ropes since October last year. We also have Paul who makes all the cabinets and Kendra who comes in and does the cool social media stuff and a bit of building.
Can you take us through a day in the life at the company?
Really? In 2021?! Ha ha ha. I might skip that one :)
Audio Kitchen is innovating what amplifiers & pedals are capable of - where do you see that ingenuity heading in the future?
Very kind of you to say. I suppose, following on from what has driven us from the start, the desire to make tools which inspire continues to motivate us. Less bad noise, more connection to the instrument, more efficient work-flow. Currently we have a few designs out there with switching supplies. If I can get the amps to sound right with them, I predict more of that. Obviously, in the near-future we have the Fake Plastic Trees upcoming which has been a pretty long road. Modelling each stage of break-up in The Big Trees including a mumetal output transformer-coupled output stage, loaded with the same dummy load as is in The Big Trees. Along with a friend (Damon McCartney) we even invented a module which replicates the soft-knee clipping of an EL84 grid when it is driven positive. This is going through production-prototyping at the moment and (as is no doubt obvious!) I’m proud of this and can’t wait to get it into the hands of people who will appreciate and use it as inspiration.
The design of your devices is wildly unique. Who's responsible for these designs and what inspires them?
Aurally or aesthetically? Aurally, I suppose the inspiration is all the music I have loved over the years. Guitar was something I got into pretty late in my teens and before that I was all about the drums. The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest made a huge impact on me a year or so before I got into guitar. Post guitar fixation I suppose the craft of The Black Crowes and Dave Bryson of Counting Crows became fairly motive forces for me. Peter Buck and Jerry Cantrell both had a big impact. Grandaddy and Pavement, Silver Jews and of course Sonic Youth, Aphex Twin, Death Cab, Dinosaur Jr etc. paved the route to my eventually making the first amp.
I’m not consciously referencing a certain record or player when I’m working on a design, rather chasing the elusive feeling of inspiration in a sound. If I’m thinking “I want to hear that MORE”, then I know I’m on to something.
With regard to the aesthetic, I always wanted them to look like a human had poured love and thought into designing/making them. I got my kids involved in The Big Trees onwards because I loved the non-self-censoring, unguarded abandon that was captured in their writing and drawing at certain ages. Some people don’t like the look and that is completely fine. I’ll settle for pleasing some of the people some of the time.
Also, an honourable mention to a couple of friends of mine, Nicky Doyle and Igs who created the original logo and have helped with the words on the amps and all the tee designs over the years. Thanks so much guys!
You deliberately don't pay homage to other "classic" tones, can you talk about why this is important to you?
Well, you’re in ‘beat the demo’ territory at that point, aren’t you? That’s a not a happy place for me creatively.
About 10 years before I made my first amp I had a magical interaction with a Matchless Lightning 15. The rose-tinted sound I remembered from that day was what I was working towards when I designed the Little Chopper. Which sounds not very much like a Matchless Lightning. At that point I decided it was better/ easier/ more fulfilling just to make something which sounded cool to me rather than attempt to match/ improve on something which has already been done by someone else.
Tell us something that isn’t widely known about Audio Kitchen.
The name was a joke, initially. Perhaps it still is..?! I had a band called Swedish Chef which also doubled as my pro audio DIY forum name, and when we began to make and sell pcbs for DIY projects, we needed a name. Took all of 10 seconds. Who knows how much better it could have been if I’d spent a whole minute?
Audio Kitchen has tons of amazing partnered artists - talk about why artists are drawn to your devices and how they use them in their work.
Musicians are all looking for inspiration in their tools, and I think the ‘quickness’ or 'transparency’ of my amps can provide that in specific ways. They are certainly not a panacea but they are pretty flexible and I think that makes them attractive to producers and those who spend a lot of time in the studio (sadly, who doesn’t at the moment, right?!).
Perhaps the studio functionality should not come as a surprise as I was a studio engineer for a while. What I think of as a ‘good’ sound is judged possibly from more an engineer's ears than a guitarist’s. ‘Where’s that going to fit in a mix’ is the question bubbling around in my subconscious when I’m listening to a sound. Heroes like Alan Moulder and Flood have used my amps day in, day out for most of 15 years simply because they make their lives simpler. I think they have become like a go-to piece of outboard gear they always turn to.
When Reeves came to me and we spoke about making some amps for his position in The Cure, the brief was “Beat the Hiwatt 100s”. Obviously he meant in terms of fun to play rather than volume, so that threw down the gauntlet in no uncertain terms, but what can you do it that situation? You’re not going to beat the demo unless you step away from trying to replicate it, so I made a single-ended 51W head (two actually) with 3x KT88s and they sound superb. But they’re not Hiwatts. Which is good for all concerned.
With Ed O’Brien it was actually the need for a high quality, enjoyable sound at a lower volume than the amps he had been using up to that point. Seeing him play those in Manchester was pretty bonkers.
One last (as it’s feeling ever-more self-indulgent) is Justin Vernon. He contacted me about 5 years after I had got a The Big Trees to him and said his whole live rig had evolved around it, then promptly ordered another 5 or so. His situation was similar to Ed’s in that he was looking for a fun, responsive, interactive stage sound which was still controllable. To this day I cannot believe all these people have put their hard-earned money down on things I have designed, and sincerely thank both those named here and all those who I haven’t been able to mention, from the bottom of my heart.
Can you tell us what you enjoy most about the pedal building process?
The reaction of someone experiencing it for the first time. That’s what it’s all about!
What do you enjoy most about the design process?
Getting it into the hands of those who’ll give it a life outside the workshop. That’s where designs actually begin their life, proper.
What’s the most important tool in your shop. The one you won’t let the new guy borrow?
Ha ha, there’s not much off-limits to new guys, but it does mean you need to be careful who you get to work for you.
Pressed to give an actual item, I’d say my 70s Fender Mustang with a Lace Sensor in the bridge. That’s the reference guitar for every amp or pedal I’ve ever made.
What does 2021 look like for Audio Kitchen?
Mercifully, very busy. Work is tricky for me at the moment as I’m juggling home-schooling my three kids, then working at night, but it’s working mostly because of the guys/ girl back in Acton grafting away getting it all done. I can’t wait for you all to hear the Fake Plastic Trees. Hopefully you’ll dig it.