Sortaflex: D.I.Y. Tube Bass Preamp

Way back in 2013, I built a clone of an Ampeg B15n Portaflex “fliptop” head unit. What I came up with was a sort of average based on several schematics I’d found, all with slight differences. That project was fiddly and expensive, but I’m glad I saw it through because it was my first D.I.Y. tube bass amp. I tried to be as “canonical” as possible, given cost concerns and available resources.

So after emerging from under my rock a few months ago, I decided that I wanted to build a tube bass preamp that would run on AC power. I chose the Portaflex preamp section as a model mostly because I’d had a good experience with it before, but I wasn’t super-strict about sticking to the original. What follows is a brief record that project.

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History of the Ampeg B-15 Portaflex

Note for D.I.Y.ers

If anyone wants to make one of these, I can put up PCB images, a bill of materials, and other resources. Both PCBs are single-sided. Although I chose to have a few manufactured, they can be made with transfer / ferric chloride, or similar. See the end of this post for more information about components and such.

And now, two action-packed videos just for you!


Schematic for the main board
Schematic for the power transformer and RC filtering

The main differences between this gizmo and the venerable Ampeg Portaflex are:

  1. 12AU7/12AX7 nine-pin tube instead of a 6SN7/6SL7 octal tube. Most of the fliptop schematics I’ve seen specify 6SL7 for the preamp tubes; one showed 6SL7s. I used a nine-pin tube here to make it easier to stand the PCB up and stuff everything into a Hammond enclosure.
  2. Different plate resistor values (R3 and R14 in the schematic) and a different biasing voltage. I used whatever DC voltage was present at the end of the RC-filter section, which I’ve measured as about 206VDC (loaded). R3 and R14 could be tweaked for different gain and different impedance, but since the output signal is pretty hot to begin with, I’ve tried to keep the overall gain down.
  3. Addition of capacitor on cathode of V1A. Can be omitted. See schematic.
  4. No phase inverter or power stage (obviously, since it’s a preamp). More about this below.
  5. 68k grid-stop resistor at the grid of V1B. I’m not sure why I thought that should be there, but it’s part of the 2013 project as well. Maybe it’s a holdover from a previous guitar-amp project.
  6. The volume control is after the Baxandall EQ and before the V1B input. In a typical fliptop amp, the volume control would be just before the phase inverter.
  7. Different values for the coupling capacitors. I used mostly big WIMAs and small WIMAs. Most of mine are 1uF, but “canonical” values (22nF) could be used instead.

So, does the Sortaflex sound like a Portaflex? Sort of. Maybe some… or not. Hence the name. Using a different tube probably makes it apples to oranges by default.

And it’s just the preamp section. Although I can’t prove it, I’ve always thought that the phase inverter stage of the Portaflex contributes to a quality in its sound that I can’t describe properly: strech-y? Rubber-band-y? Slightly compressed?

What I like most about the Sortaflex:

  • With a 12AU7, it’s got plenty of clean headroom.
  • The low-end response is huge and for that matter, the EQ is wide and responsive.
  • I’m not hearing any AC hum – it’s quiet as a church mouse.
  • The balanced (XLR) output sounds pretty good from what I can tell.
  • It’s giving me a chance to teach myself how to powdercoat small enclosures. (As you can see from the photos, I’m still learning.)
  • It looks cool in the dark.

What I like least about the Sortaflex:

  • It’s big and heavy, and seems like overkill for a preamp.
  • It’s expensive to make, even without the $80 Jensen transformer.

About the PCBs

They are 0.062″ with a 1-oz. copper thickness, not the thicker kind (0.094 or 0.125 with 2-oz. copper thickness) that one often sees in conjunction with tube amps. I made the traces nice and wide though – most of them are 0.04″, or 0.07″ for the ground traces on the RC-filter board. If power tubes had been involved, I probably wouldn’t have used PCBs at all. But so far I haven’t had anything go wrong with either of them.

The small holes in the boards are for the screws that hold the standoff posts in place. On the back sides, you’ll see clearance in the groundplane so that the standoffs are isolated from any traces. On the main board, the big hole toward the bottom allows the pair of filament wires from the power transformer (the thick green twisted ones in the photos above) to pass through and solder to the heater connections from the back.

About the Balanced Output

The balanced XLR output is achieved by a 12:1 step-down Jensen JT-DB-E transformer, the cost of which (about $80 US) is way the **** out of proportion with a typical D.I.Y. project’s budget. I sprung for a couple of them because I really wanted to see how this would turn out. Although I’m quite pleased with the result, I should probably have a psychological workup for spending that much money on something that’s going to sit in my basement until civilization collapses… which could be any day now I guess.

The transformer, having a 12:1 (primary to secondary) ratio, pretty much does it own isolation. The primary impedance of the JT-DB-E is something like 140kOhms. The first and second versions of this project (see photos below) used an IRF820 MOSFET to buffer the signal to a 1:1 transformer. They worked okay but were fiddly as heck even after I worked the buffer onto the PCB (that version is not pictured).

There might be cheaper audio transformers with high primary impedances, but I settled on the JT-DB-E after I opened up my oft-used Radial DI box and saw that one inside it. However, I left what I think is enough space in the the center-right section (looking at it from the bottom) for chassis-mounted transformer, in case I want to experiment in the future. For a version with no balanced output, the PCB could be populated without the transformer section, by omitting C11, R18, R19, the transformer, R20, C12, and the ground-lift switch. Or, for an offboard (chassis-mount) transformer, a wire can be run from where C11 meets R14 and V1B, or from R19 if R18 and R19 are needed.

About the Ground Wiring

Since this is a high-voltage project, I tried to use star grounding even though it’s just a glorified pedal. That’s why you see so many thick black wires connected to the RC-filter PCB (see photos above).

About star grounding:

About amp grounding in general:

For the RC filter board, the diode rectifier, the filtering capacitor that follows it (C1), the next RC filter stage (R1 and C2), and the voltage divider for the LED all have their own own ground wires (see schematic and photos above). They run to the terminal strip along with the ground wires for the power transformer’s filament supply and the tube circuit board. The two articles referenced above will explain why such a seemingly fussy approach can be desirable. It’s worked well for me when I build tube amps. Or what I should say is: I always use this approach for tube amp projects –> I usually get very little hum noise in said projects –> I’m superstitious.

By the way, referring to the two photos above, those two wires extending in perpendicular from the PCB are for the bright blue LED. A voltage divider prevents the LED from being fried (see schematic above).

About the Components

The tube in the videos is a JJ ECC82 / 12AU7. I’ve also tried an Electro-Harmonix 12AU7 and a Tung-Sol 12AU7, with similar results, and 12AX7’s from Electro-Harmonix and Tung-Sol, which yielded much higher gain. That could be nice if you want tube bass fuzz.

The power transformer SKU is TR-PW-13. I get them from TubeDepot. Their website has a data sheet for it. It can drive a single tube, with ~= 200VDC/5mA at the secondaries (not center-tapped) and 6.3V/300mA for the filaments (center-tapped).

The RC-filter board uses F&T electrolytic capacitors for smoothing the oscillating AC into a useable DC voltage. They’re pricey but I like them. I get them from TubeDepot or Amplified Parts.

The AC switch assembly came from someone who sells on Amazon. There are many similar listings but not all are appropriate for this project. The fuse is worked into the unit. Separate components for the plug, the switch, and the fuse would also suffice. This sort of mousetrap should always be fused. And there should always be an Earth ground, distinct from any other ground points (see schematic and photos).

Most resistors are Vishay 2-Watt metal-film. I like them better than 1/2-Watt. I get them from Mouser.

Most nonpolar capacitors are WIMA, also from Mouser. The larger ones are in positions where a higher DC tolerance (> 100V) is required.

The tube socket is from TubeDepot, SKU SK-9PINPC2.

The enclosure is a Hammond 1590D.

The PCB standoff posts usually come from Angela Instruments. The RC-filter PCB has 1/4-inch standoffs and the ones for the main board are 1-1/2 inches, to make room for the pots and the 1/4″ jacks.

D.I.Y. One-Knob 5-Watt Tube Guitar Amp

I’ve always wanted to build a one-knob guitar amp, so I did. It’s another Champ/Princeton clone without the tone control. 1 x 12AX7, 1 x 6L6 (not 6V6!), ‘canonical’ 5Y3 tube rectifier. The main lesson I learned was that a one-knob guitar amp is cooler in theory than it is in practice, and that adding minimal tone-shaping (in other words, a ‘High’ or ‘Bright’ rolloff) is worth the (minimal) effort.

On the other hand, it was interesting to try to balance the output for a range of instruments (guitars). I used a Telecaster, an SG, a Strat, and a Les Paul with custom pickups when I was deciding what values to ‘hard-code’ for bypass capacitors and whatnot (see C2 and C5 in the schematic below). The video was done with just a Tele because I was too lazy to include anything else.

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Here is an action-packed video of the ‘Uno Knobbo’:

And here is the schematic:

Uno Knobbo schematic

Note: the schematic shows the feedback resistors connected between the output jacks and the cathode of the second preamp stage. I thought the result was muddy so I disconnected them for the video above.

Also, the schematic specifies a 6V6 as the power tube but I used a 6L6 instead, because I thought it was a little more articulate at high gain levels. As I recall, I used the 5k tap of the output transformer for the 6L6 (brown wire), instead of the 8k tap (red wire).

Please refer to the 5f2 clone I did a few years ago for more.

What I came out with this time was fiddly and awkward because I didn’t think the layout through as well as I could have. A better layout for this sort of 5-Watt clone would be the the previous project referenced above. If I do anything like this again and I use one of those Hammond Enclosures again, I’ll probably use that layout, with separate, smaller turret boards. Here is the layout for good measure:

Uno Knobbo layout: not my best effort

Here is a 5f2 schematic

I tried the Uno Knobbo with several speakers and I like the Eminence Lil’ Texas the best, maybe because they rolled off the piercing high end and the two Jensen speaker I tried didn’t. All the speakers I tried were 12″ because I don’t have any 10’s.

By the way, if the enclosure looks weird, it’s because I tried doing my own powder coating on it, with limited success. That was fun though.

Also, I stuck a TH Audio badge to it because I had a few lying around – I’m not planning to sell these (yet) under my side business.

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More photos:

Before cage:

Spirit of 86: D.I.Y. Tube Guitar Amp Head

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Here are two videos of the Spirit of 86. The first one is done with a Fender Telecaster and the other is with a Gibson SG. Scroll down for photos and an erudite philosophical discussion.


Spirit of 86 schematic

This is the Spirit of 86… or as I like to call it, the Buttrock Express. It’s like a little shrine built around an EF86 tube ( A couple of years ago, I started wondering why I knew of a number of amps that use an EF86 as a first preamp stage, but I’d never heard of any amps that use a preceding tube to drive an EF86 (of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any). I thought it might have been because it would just sound horrible or because resonance and microphonics would get the best of the EF86, but I really wanted to find out. So after dawdling around for several months, I put one together last year, with parts and components I happened to have handy, and I tweaked it every few weeks until a few days ago when I decided to immortalize it in a blog post and stop fiddling around with it.

Spirit of 86 layoutTo the right are a schematic (above) and a diagram for a possible layout which is close to the one I used for the amp. Of course it’s not the only possible layout, and the positioning of the elevated heater supply (upper right) is arbitrary – I wound up kludging it onto the end of the turret board.

In the layout, the ground connections (thick blue lines) are an approximation, but most of the points that connect to a specific location such as the from the Gain control to the turret board are drawn that way for a reason – to reduce noise – because this project was probably the most noise-prone one project I’ve done to date. The biggest problem was AC hum. Randall Aiken has a good article about grounding in tube amps and why it’s not always good to perceive the ground as a sort of uniform field:

… and I try to do whatever the voices in Randall Aiken’s head tell me to because it almost always pays off. Side note: I tried grounding the EF86 tube to a couple of different points on the turret board instead of running the ground back to the star. I really thought it would make a difference in noise level but didn’t, to my ears anyway.


This project has been interesting and educational for me, but I still can’t decide if I like the way it sounds or not. The overdrive is aggressive and “gnarly” for lack of a better term (which makes sense because the EF86 is a pentode), but it doesn’t have a lot of sustain or the “squishiness” of cascaded triode stages. I suppose that might be a good thing for articulation and clarity if this amp were being played by someone with better guitar skills than I possess.

The Buttrock Express might serve as a template for an overdrive channel at a future date. Getting a nice loud clear clean tone out of it is an exercise in futility.

The Thomas the Tank Engine sticker on the front face is there to cover a drill hole that I would up not using. The TH Audio badge is there because I had some extras – this is just an experiment, not something I’ll be offering through TH Audio (my side business for effect pedals and, eventually, amplifiers).


Controls are, from left: Bass, Mid, Treble, Gain, Bright, and Master Volume. The Bass/Mid/Treble controls are a fairly standard Marshall-style 3-band EQ positioned after a cathode follower. The EQ stage uses a couple of unusual values: 68k for R7 (see schematic) and 250k log for the Bass pot (instead of 500k or 1M, to counteract the mounds of low frequencies that pile up). The Bright and Master controls are connected near the input to the power tubes, like one might see in a Vox AC15.

The amp dishes about 20 Watts, with a 6.6 kOhm output transformer and a 6L6 push-pull pair. At 20 Watts, the 6L6’s aren’t doing much, but I keep them there because a) the OT I’m using is a nice match for them (better than the 4k OT I was using previously, b) a 6V6 pair sounded glassy and midrange-y, and c) I wanted to hear the EF86 overdrive without an extra layer of power-tube breakup.

I used a tube rectifier instead of some diodes because… well, because I could, I guess… although the tube rectifier might be introducing a little ‘sag’ that mellows the general gnarliness of the pentode overdrive. To be honest, I don’t know if it does or not.

For this project, I used Tung-Sol tubes because… well, because I already had some. I’ve swapped out the Tung-Sol set with an Electro-Harmonix set, and I don’t hear much difference at all. In either case, it wasn’t difficult to get something close to 90V at the plate of the EF86, once I figured out the voltage drops. Normally, I like JJ tubes and have used them in a number of projects, but to my ears, the JJ EF86 sounds weak in this particular project (I tried two different ones).

One last thing: this amp is *not* a clone of the Dr. Z Route 66. The Route 66 uses a single EF86 into a passive EQ section, to a phase inverter and a fixed-biased KT66 push-pull pair. The Spirit of 86 uses 12AX7 -> passive EQ section -> EF86, into a phase inverter and a cathode-biased 6L6 pair (which is hardly doing any work).

-T. Hallenbeck, Oct. 2014


D.I.Y. Ampeg B15n Fliptop Clone (2013)

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Originally uploaded September 2013

This is more or less a clone of the head section of the Ampeg B15n, known as the Portaflex or “fliptop.” I’ve been wanting to try building a tube bass amp for a while and I’ve been curious to find out why fliptops sound the way they do.

B15n Clone - back view, complete   B15n Clone - schematic

B15n Clone - partial layout







Below is an exciting video documenting the tail end of this build. Please keep in mind that I’m not exactly Tony Levin.

B15n Clone - interior #1   B15n Clone - action shot

My fliptop interpretation preserves most of the “canonical” aspects of the original(s), like the extremely high input impedance (5.6M Ohms), the Baxandall tonestack, -50V fixed-bias (*not* cathode-bias!) and the unusual phase-inverter configuration. But this one sports a few departures from the original:

1. The instrument input uses a decoupling capacitor (22nF) before the biasing resistor of the first preamp grid input.

B15n Clone - interior #22. The resistor and capacitor values for the DC filtering stages aren’t anywhere close to the original(s) – I used 50uF can caps because I had some available. The difference in the filtering stages probably changes the whole sound but I don’t have a way to find out because I don’t have access to a real fliptop. I’ve seen some B15n schematics specifying diodes for rectification and others specifying tube rectification. Mine uses diodes. I wound up with about 465V at the plates of the power tubes, which might be a little too high, but I haven’t done a round of tweaking lately.

B15n Clone - top, no cabinet #13. My version has one channel instead of two like most others do, because I wanted to keep the interior as uncluttered as possible for the inevitable 5 million little adjustments I made.

4. I used a great big filter choke rated for 500 Volts, because I could. I found that a choke helped reduce noise and hum.

5. I always try to use elevated heater supplies (see schematic), even for push-pull amps. In this case, the filament divider resistors are tied to the -50V bias (see schematic). That’s one way to deal with 60Hz/120Hz hum from 6SL7/6SN7 tubes. I guess this doesn’t qualify as a “departure from the original” but it’s how I got rid of most of the AC hum, along with isolating the ground lines for the filter capacitors from the other grounds and busses, like I should have in the first place.

B15n Clone - top, no cabinet #26. I found that I could coax more clean headroom out of the unit by using 6SN7 tubes for the preamp stages instead of 6SL7 (think: 12AU7 vs. 12AX7, sort of). For bass, I like clean headroom. I looked at the signal from input to output with an oscilloscope and found that clipping was most likely to happen first in the preamp stage. That can sound nice, but for this unit, it sounded awkward and nasty, to me anyway. Swapping 6SL7′s (higher gain) for 6SN7′s (lower gain) reduced the strength of the preamp signal but gave more headroom before the nastiness kicked in. The drawback for 6SN7′s is that they demand twice as much filament current as 6SL’s (~=600mA instead of ~=300mA) but the power transformer is quite capable of handling that increase (see schematic).

My version puts out somewhere around 30 Watts at the most, from what I can tell. I used a Classictone 40-Watt output transformer, so I don’t want to try to push the output higher than it already is. To be honest, I’m guessing at the Wattage, assuming about 20% or 25% power loss for the push-pull output transformer.

The tubes are all Tung-Sol. I tried a pair of Tung-Sol 7581′s for the power tubes, and a pair of JJ 6L6GC’s, but I liked the Tung-Sol 6L6GC-STR’s for their relatively wide frequency response.

B15n Clone - interior, no board #1

B15n Clone - interior, no board #2

B15n Clone - front, completed

B15n Clone - top, no cabinet #2

B15n Clone - back with cabinet

D.I.Y. 5f2 Champ/Princeton Clone (2013)

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Originally uploaded April 2013

5f2 Clone

5f2 Clone - action shot

This is my first single-ended amp build. It puts out about 5 Watts, which is plenty loud, but not bonecrushing. It’s based on the Fender 5f2 “Princeton” circuit, which is quite similar to the 5f1 “Champ,” the main difference being that the 5f2 has a tone control. This is not a kit – the chassis, cage, and filter choke are from Hammond and I kind of winged it with the drilling. The transformers are from Classictone and the tubes are JJ.

Princeton/Champ DIY builds have been done many times, but now that I’ve built my own, I can see, and hear why so many people like having at least one of these around.

If you see anything I’ve said here that might be inaccurate or wrong, please let me know so I can correct it.

5f2 schematic

Below are the schematic diagram for this build (left) and a possible build layout (right), and a video to prove that my latest squid launcher actually works. The layout diagram is close to what I actually built but not exact, and it’s not to scale – it just shows where things can go for minimal wire-crossing and halfway-decent ground distribution.

5f2 Clone schematic   5f2 Clone - layout

Take the layout diagram with a grain of salt – the resistors that connect directly to the grid inputs of the tubes (R2, R5, and R10) really should be soldered directly to the socket pins, with as little exposed lead as possible. Also, the cathode resistor for the power tube (R11) probably should be rated > 3W.

Since I’ve never gotten my grubby hands on an original 5f2 or 5e2, everything I’ve learned has come from schematics, sound samples, video clips, other people’s blog posts, and discussion boards. But from what I do know, the main differences between this build and a ‘canonical’ 5f2/5e2 are:

1. Different location for the ‘tone’ control. I put ‘tone’ in quotes because it’s just a low-pass filter. For this build, ‘tone’ is situated after the second triode just before the power stage, as a 10n capacitor to ground and a 250k pot.

2. Larger values for the B+ filter capacitors. The 5f2 used ~= 8uF whereas this build uses a 10uF after the rectifier, and 47uF for B+2 and B+3.

3. 6L6 power tube instead of a 6V6. I like 6L6 in general.

4. The 5f2 had a feedback resistor between the secondary side of the output transformer and the cathode of the second triode stage. This build doesn’t. Originally I had one but I thought it made single-coil pickups sound too harsh so I got rid of it.

5. This build has a (relatively) large bypass capacitor in parallel with the plate resistor of the first triode stage. It rolls off high frequencies and helps to alleviate the ‘icepick’ effect at high volumes.

6. This build has a 220k grid-stop resistor at the input to the second triode stage of the preamp. Like the cap mentioned in #5, it helps to roll off high frequencies.

7. This build uses an elevated heater supply (see schematic) with a DC offset of about 45 Volts for the filaments, to reduce AC hum.

8. This build has separate outputs for 16, 8, and 4 Ohms. The 5f2 usually had a single output.

5F2 Clone - complete   5f2 Clone - back view

I’m sure there are other differences I’ve forgotten to list. There is a little AC hum but it’s quickly overpowered as the volume knob goes up. Overall, the build is a little messy – I didn’t really know how it would go together when I started it, and I made a zillion little tweaks to it. I left the transformer leads a little bit long in case I reuse the transformers for other projects. Next time, I’ll use a chassis that’s higher than 2 inches, and a little wider for better component spacing – the choke just barely fits. Near as I can tell, I’m getting about 5 Watts at the output (assuming 50% loss for a single-eneded output transformer). That’s plenty of cowbell for just sitting around playing.

Like the original Champ, this build does not use a master volume control. That means the power stage is always running near full boil. As the Gain knob goes clockwise, the volume increases, but so does the clipping.

The Classictone output transformer I used (40-18031) has two different leads for 5k and 8k primary impedances. I’m using 5k here for a 6L6. 5k would also work for an EL84. 8k would be good for a 6V6.

5f2 Clone - top view

Above, from left: 12AX7 preamp tube, 6L6 power tube, 5Y3 rectifier. All the tubes are JJ. I’ve been  getting good results with JJ tubes lately, especially the JJ 6L6. The ‘sag’ from the 5Y3 rectifier is really obvious in the sound of the amp: to me, it’s like the signal is hitting a rubber wall when I lay into the strings. The knobs, from left, are volume and tone. There is no ‘master’ level control. The volume pot controls the strength of the signal from the plate of the first tridoe stage in the preamp to the grid of the second triode stage.

5f2 Clone - another top view

Below are photos of the interior. It’s pretty obvious that I had some issues with the layout.

For this build, I tried ‘floating’ the filament wiring (green twisted wires) instead of having them hug the chassis.

5f2 clone - interior #1

5f2 Clone - interior #2

5f2 Clone - interior #3

5f2 Clone - interior #4

Tube Guitar Amp #1 (2012)

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Videos are at the bottom of this page.

As of April 18 2012, my first D.I.Y. tube guitar amp appears to be functioning normally. I made a huge mess and a lot of mistakes with it but it came out fairly well for a first try, and was definitely worth the time and expense because I learned quite a bit.

hta1_roughHere is a schematic that’s more or less like what I made, which is based on the AX84 designs (see, a website for tube-amp enthusiasts). This schematic is incomplete and has some mistakes in it – the tonestack is not represented and the filament supply of the Hammond 270FX power transformer should marked 5 Amps, not 3 Amps. The transformer, a Hammond 1650F in this case, is matched better to a pair of 6L6’s than to EL34’s, and the poweramp section isn’t right for a pair of 6V6’s, which start red-plating right away.

See below for why the tonestack is left out. If you want to see tonestack schematics you can probably bring up 500 of them in Google in about 20 seconds.

ta1_interior3   ta1_interior2

The vertically-mounted perfboard is for the the power tubes’ negative bias voltage, which I wound up not using because I opted to cathode-bias them instead.

One of the dumbest things I did was to cram most of the DC filter capacitors onto the turret board. I should have used dual can caps for all the filter-cap stages instead of just the first two, so all the ground lines could be run straight back to the star ground.

ta1_underside   ta1_interior1

Since the poweramp is cathode-biased, I don’t have to adjust a negative supply voltage every time I change tubes. I’ve been able to load EL34’s, 6L6’s, and 6V6’s, all with very distinctive results, although I can’t keep using 6V6’s because they overheat in this circuit.

The EQ is not a standard 3-band stack. The bass control is just a high-pass filter, the mid is a twin-T notch, the treble is a low-pass filter. And they’re wired in series, respectively. I’m not thrilled with the EQ but a standard 3-band Fender-style EQ sounded awful with the overdrive stage, probably because of impedance mismatches and certain sections I didn’t wire up all that well.

The tubes in the photos are 6V6’s but I stopped using them because they red-plate (overheat). I used EL34’s for the videos but I’ve been using a 6L6 pair lately because they give me a better low-end response than the EL34’s. That isn’t surprising since the impedance of the output transormer (about 7.7kOhms) is way out of whack with an EL34 pair would expect (3-4kOhms would be better). I’ve got the amp wired for a single 16-Ohm output because at this point all I’ve got is a single 16-Ohm speaker.

ta1_top1   ta1_top2

ta1_back1   ta1_back2

Crunchity-crunch, with a Gibson SG:

Medium/high gain, with a Gibson SG:

Sort of clean, with a Fender Strat:

Medium/high gain, with a Fender Strat:

Electric Viola #1 (1999)

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Before it was a viola, it was a plain maple board. Maple is a preferred wood for solidbody instruments because it’s dense, close-grained, and carves well, it holds up to changes in air pressure and humidity, it’s strong and doesn’t warp, scratch, or split easily, and it transfers sound well, which is good for instruments that require electronic pickups or transducers.

m_viola_frontI carved the body from the maple board pictured above and attached it to a separate curved piece at the bottom to support a chinrest and the transducer jack. The fingerboard is made of ebony and was purchased at Ifshin Violins in Berkeley, CA. I bought the fingerboard in a semi-finished state – it was already shaped, but I smoothed it out with two steps of fine sandpaper and polished it with #0000 steel wool.

The bridge is a standard viola bridge (the kind with adjustable feet, good for a flat surface), also obtained at Ifshin.

To reduce the weight on the top end, I mounted the tuners – in this case Schaller Rotomatics – on the bottom end rather than where the peghead should be. The strings are threaded through small holes at the top of the neck and anchored to the underside with rubber washers.

I got the dimensions for this instrument from a 16-inch viola.

m_viola_closeThe black wire from the transducer jack to the bridge ends in a folded copper tab that slides into the bridge slot; the tab transfers vibration in the bridge to a piece of piezoelectric material that converts this vibration into electricity, which is in turn converted into sound by an amplifier. The transducer is a Fishman violin pickup.

The chinrest came from Ifshin. I splurged for a nice wooden one instead of a plastic one.

The tuners are mounted on the underside of the body because that’s how you’d mount them on a guitar – notice the absence of a standard tailpiece. Fine-tuning pegs are not an issue here, because guitar tuners provide more precision that standard tuning pegs do.

The tonguelike thing underneath the instrument is a shoulder rest shaped from maple and attached to the underside of the body.


Electric Cello #4 (2008)

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This is a copy of records I kept during 2008. Last update was 4/19/08. Note: a couple of the photos show drawings with measurements. I do not have those anymore. I don’t know what happened to them.

This is the fourth electric cello I’ve made. I did the others several years ago and it’s been a while since I’ve broken out the hand tools. I’m making this one to 1) try to address issues that I never quite resolved with the others, and 2) save myself some money.

After scrawling out a few semi-coherent sketeches, I got a board of rock maple at MacBeath Hardwoods in Berkeley CA and made some rough measurements.

ecello4_001_board_01   ecello4_002_board_02


After rough carving. I cut the basic shape with a circular saw and a handheld jigsaw, trimmed up the sides with a ryoba saw and a hand shaver, and shaped the neck, headstock, and body with bench chisels, some rasps, and more hand shaver action. The body as measured was way too heavy, so I narrowed it considerably.




The back of the body. At this point, the whole thing is sanded up to 220 grit, after 80 and 150 grit.





The neck heel and thumb heel. They’re not entirely symmetrical and neither is the headstock but I’m not going to worry about it too much because it should be playable as is.


Below: fingerboard clamped to body after gluing. The fingerboard is made of graphite. I got it from Moses Grapite in Eugene OR. I haven’t decided if I like graphite or not. At least I think it’s graphite – maybe it’s carbon fiber. Maybe they’re the same thing. Whatever it is, it carves well and behaves much like ebony, but when sanded, it leaves gray gunk all over everything that’s tough to remove, especially from wood. I don’t know if graphite is toxic or not, so when I carve or sand it, I wear a respirator, goggles, and gloves.


I prefer Titebond for wood glue, and fortuitously, Moses recommends it for gluing their graphite (carbon fiber?) products. I like Titebond II for fingerboards, because it has a shorter set time than the original flavor.

I drilled the tuner holes in the headstock with a 1/2-inch bit and reamed them out a little to acommodate Gotoh bass tuning machines. The holes are on a diagonal so that the strings can reach the tuning posts from the nut (which will sit at the top end of the fingerboard) without bumping in to anything inbetween.



I should have clamped every two inches or so but that’s all the clamps I have.





“Bass” side after filing and sanding the neck flush with the fingerboard.





“Treble” side before filing and sanding. I deliberately cut the neck a little too wide so that it would trim up flush with the fingerboard.




“Treble” side after filing and sanding.





ecello4_012_pegheadveneerclamped_01Headstock veneer, glued and clamped. The veneer is Macassar ebony, which is easier to get than Madagascar ebony, which has a more uniform dark-brown color. I got the veneer wood from Luthiers Mercantile International in Windsor CA.





I trimmed the veneer with a dozuki saw and then filed and sanded it flush. Since I don’t own a router, I cut the hole in the middle by drilling at the top and the bottom, cutting between the holes with a jewelers saw, and then cutting and filing until the sides were reasonably straight and the top and bottom curves matched. Ebony is good for that sort of thing.

ecello4_014_pvtrebleside_01   ecello4_013_pvbassside_01

A lot skipped here: installation of Gotoh bass tuners, finishing of the body (see below). I sanded the body from 200 grit to 400 and then 600 grit. Then: three thin coats of shellac with an amber stain, sand at 600 grit between and after the final coat. Then: two thin coats of tung oil, rub the first coat down with a cloth. Final coat of tung oil -> dry -> sand with 1200 and then 1880-grit micromesh. The camera doesn’t really pick this up, but the body now has a very light amber/honey color.




March 14, 2008: rough fit. Last night, I strung up the cello with the tailpiece, a bridge borrowed from one of my previous instruments, a makeshift piezo transducer pickup, and the rough-carved nut. Shown below are the tailpiece, bridge, and pickup.

ecello4_021_rough_tailpiecebridge_01  ecello4_022_rough_tailpiece_01

The tailpiece is TIG-welded plain steel. Originally, I had the strings mounted through the holes in the bottom piece, but I didn’t like the angle of the strings from the bridge, so I welded the brackets on and bent them with pliers so that the angle of the mounting holes wouldn’t strain the strings too much. I might replace the 7mm hex bolt with something more elegant, and I’ll probably either paint the taipiece or use some sort of blackener on it. The 1/4″ jack is attached to the extension at the bottom to provide some grounding for the transducer pickup.


The copper-wrapped tab under the bridge is a thin film of piezoelectric material wrapped in copper tape, which can be found in most gardening sections of hardware stores, because snails and slugs don’t like copper.

The piezoelectric material responds to the vibration of the bridge with small changes in the electrical field it’s part of. An amplifier can convert these small fluctuations into sound.

One big problem with piezo pickups is noise. Some people say that shielding the circuit doesn’t help much, but I’ve found that it does somewhat, although piezo noise tends to be more from lack of a proper ground than from lighting fixtures and such. The noise is akin to a low-frequency hum that sounds to me like it’s DC current that has no way to leave the circuit. Isolating the piezo side of the circuit with a transformer unit usually helps. A DI (direct box) can be used for that purpose. So can a preamp unit. Some preamps seem to act as buffers that eliminate piezo hum noise even if you run a 1/4-inch unbalanced output instead of an XLR (balanced a.k.a. properly-grounded) output. But not all do, so you have try different things. A DI, however, is probably a better bet for ground loop suppression.

Grounding the piezo to piece of metal, like I did here, helps a tiny bit, but that’s still a floating ground, not an “earth” ground, and is effective really only when the player is touching the strings, which in turn touch the tailpiece, which in turn touches the piezo circuit. In other words, the player is the ground. Update 4-19-2008: Contrary to previous: shielding does seem to make a big difference, at least with the MSI piezo tab I used for this project. Grounding through the instrument to the player doesn’t make much difference. DI ground loop isolation is more effective. Doesn’t mean it’s applicable to all piezos, though – Fishman pickups are different.

Another big problem with piezo pickups is that they can sound tinny and weak. That’s often because of impedance mismatches. Piezo pickups have extremely high impedance (AC resistance, denoted by Z) in Megohms, and when they’re plugged into an ordinary guitar or bass amplifier, they can sound screechy, because most guitar/bass amps aren’t designed to handle inputs with impedances that high. Z matching can be done with a direct box in many cases. I’ve been using a passive DI in tandem with a preamp unit – more about that below.

A piezo transducer pretty much begs for a preamp of some sort, especially if you’re going to be using a cable more than a meter long. A number of preamp units offer very high input Z (4 to 10 MOhms), and output Z matched more to an amp or a board. In addition, many preamp units have both an instrument-level 1/4″ output (Z ~= 100k to 220k Ohms, sometimes balanced, sometimes not), and an XLR output (Z ~= 600 Ohms) for direct connection to a mixing board.

This is the signal chain I’ve been using lately:

1. Cello into SansAmp Para DI preamp (Z ~= 4.7 MOhms, seems to be perfect for this pickup).

2. XLR out from Para DI into the XLR output of a Radial passive DI box (600 Ohms to 600 Ohms).

3. 1/4″ input from DI into a Roland DB-700 bass combo amplifier (100kOhms to amp).

***Note that the DI box is wired “backwards.” This is known as reamping the input signal.

Although I could just run the Sansamp’s 1/4″ output straight to the amplifier, I’ve found that I get a cleaner and much stronger signal through the backwards DI box. The DI also deals with the ground-loop problem mentioned above.

There are quite a few DIY folks out there who have done a lot of interesting things with instrument amplification. Just type something like “piezo impedance circuit” into Google and you’ll be swamped with information. Although I tend to use amps with high-impedance inputs designed for acoustic instruments, I may build an impedance-matching buffer preamp in the near future anyway – perhaps something like the Mint Box Buffer.

ecello4_023_rough_headstock_01This photo shows the nut with rough-carved grooves that hold the strings in place. I need to do some more filing and shaping here, but it does do what it’s supposed to. By the way, a cello is tuned C-G-D-A. The C string (thick one, leftmost), is sitting a little high and needs a less extreme angle on its way to the tuner post, so I’ll have to break out a wider file.

ecello4_024_rough_headstock_02Another view of the nut. The tuners, by the way, are positioned so that each string can make its way from the nut to the tuning post without running into anything else.




Pending: finishing on tailpiece, the real piezo pickup, end pin brace.

March 30, 2008: brace pieces

The instrument is shaped like a cricket bat with strings. It’s playable, but without some sort of bracing system to hold it at the proper position and angle, the player would be a hunchback in a week.

The bracing system has to:

  1. Hold the the instrument at a position and angle that will imitate the dimensions of a real cello.
  2. Provide the three contact points where a real cello touches the player’s body: upper chest, and insides of both knees.
  3. Have an end pin of adjustable length that touches the floor.
  4. Be detachable and modular so that it will fit into a carrying case along with the instrument.
  5. Be relatively strong and rigid.
  6. Be relatively light.

I used to have a link here to the late, great Mstislav Rostropovich playing cello at Checkpoint Charlie when the Berlin Wall came down, but I don’t know what happened to it. It shows the endpin I modeled this one on.

Most cello endpins extend parallel to the plane of the instrument. Note the angle of the endpin in the photo. It’s decidedly not parallel to the plane of the instrument. Rostropovich was notorious for this construction tweak, which was considered unusual. Here at Hallenbeck Labs, we consider it good and will emulate it, for reasons discussed below.

ecello4_025_brace_all_01From the front, the brace is cross-shaped. The vertical section (middle in photo) aligns with the body of the instrument. The crosspiece (bottom in photo) bolts to the vertical section at a 90-degree angle. The end pin (top in the photo) slots into the bottom of the vertical section.

ecello4_027_brace_endpin_01The vertical section is angled back at the top and the bottom to provide contact points in the proper positions. The piece that looks like a cane handle at top of the vertical section is shaped roughly to the dimensions of the back of a real cello at the neck heel, where the instrument rests against the player’s upper chest. The bottom of the vertical section is angled back to simulate the way a real cello balances on its end pin.

When I built a wooden model of this, I had the end pin extending straight out, and it didn’t feel right that way – the end pin of a real cello touches the floor closer to the player’s feet. To me anyway, the overall arc shape of the vertical section seems to mimic the dimensions of a real cello. Thus the emulation of the ‘Rostropovich angle.’

Below left: the part that sits against the player’s chest, behind the instrument. Below right: one of the pieces that sits near the inside of the player’s knee.

ecello4_026_brace_upper_01   ecello4_028_brace_side_01

The brace section bolts to the back of the instrument and is of course removable. The sleeve on the bottom side of the instrument is for the tailpiece.

ecello4_029_brace_mounts_01   ecello4_030_brace_on_01

Above right: this award-winning shot shows the instrument mounted on the brace. The vertical section is bolted to the back – note the curved piece peeking out behind the top section of the body and upper left. The crosspiece section is bolted to the vertical section. The endpin slides inside the lower end of the vertical section and is held in place by the set pin. Better photos of the brace later… after I clean up the huge mess I’ve made in the basement.

The final tweak to the brace will be rubber or foam of some sort over the parts that make contact with the player’s body.

Next: Final assembly and tweaks

ecello4_031_bridge_01This is the tailpiece after I applied a blackener solution. I use a room-temperature gel called Tool-Black made by somebody named Precision Brand. The stuff is kind of expensive so I have to be judicious about how I use it. I figured this was worth it. After applying the blackener, I wiped the tailpiece down with a rust sealant.


ecello4_032_bridge_pickup_01   ecello4_033_assembled_01

Above: tailpiece, brand-spankin’-new transducer, and brand-spankin’-new bridge. This transducer uses a Neutrik 1/4-inch phono jack and also has a ground wire because the Neutrik jack has a plastic (not metal) casing. I shielded the jack with copper foil tape just like the piezo end. Since the jack’s shielding makes contact with both the jack’s ground terminal and the tailpiece, the ground wire isn’t really necessary, but I thought it would be good to have in case the shielding gets munched. Eventually, I’ll replace the alligator clip on the end of the ground wire with something less unsightly.

I had to move the piezo tab of the transducer around for about an hour to find the best position for it. Placement is very important for a piezo pickup – moving it a couple of millimeters can radically alter the signal it sends to an amplifier. Between the ebony piece and the body, under the D and A strings, the response is strong and even all across all four strings. Beats me why that’s the sweet spot, but anything piezo-related is funny that way.


Above: another view of the bridge. It’s probably too thick and I may swap it out with something better in the future… but it seems to work and I’ll keep it for now to see how it goes.

I made the bridge a two-piece assembly (maple upper, ebony lower) to maxmize the number of possible positions for the piezo film tab, which can be positioned between the ebony piece and the body, or somewhere between the upper and lower pieces, which are not glued together. The ebony piece has feet to reduce interaction with the body, and is notched on the top of both short sides to allow the piezo tab to be inserted parallel to the bridge, if necessary, without damage to the contact plugs at the end of the tab.

The bridge assembly is not glued or fastened to the body in any way – it’s held in place only by the tension of the strings. For bowed strings and mandolin-style instruments, that’s how you want it. Fixing the bridge in place would be bad because it would prevent any adjustments for intonation (unless the bridge were to have moveable string mounts, like a Gibson Les Paul bridge).

Since I wound up placing the piezo tab under the foot of the lower piece, I didn’t really need to make the bridge a two-piece mousetrap. But I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot about how (not) to do it next time.

April 18, 2008: Done for now

ecello4_035_f_full_01   ecello4_036_f_full_02   ecello4_037_f_back_01   ecello4_040_f_fingerboard

Actually, it’s been done for now for a couple of weeks. The only real change is that I put shrink tubing around the pickup jack.


Above: tailpiece and transducer jack. As it turns out, the ground wire isn’t really necessary, because 1) the copper foil is making contact with the tailpiece, and 2) the shielding seems to have been a lot more effective than I thought it would be.

ecello4_038_f_back_02   ecello4_041_f_brace_01

ecello4_042_f_brace_02   ecello4_043_f_bridge

Quick-‘n-dirty sound samples

Recorded April 19, 2008, Oakland CA, in ProTools 7.3.1 on a G5 iMac. I ran the cello pickup through a Fishman Pro-EQ II preamp directly into an MBox, to see how clear a signal I could conjure. It fared pretty well in my humble opinion.

C-major scales/arpeggios. Demonstrates the full pitch range of the instrument (except for extreme highs on the A string).
Bass line that fits “King of the Road.” Demonstrates the pizzicato (plucked) tone.
“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” more or less, with two tracks panned left and right.

Piezo transducers aren’t really meant for direct console input – they’re more for playing live, for bowed instruments, anyway. Consequently, these sound clips have a weird, cheesy, old-synthesizer tone one might hear at, say, the public hanging of Bubbles the Clown.

Lately, I’ve had the cello chompin’ happily through a standard bass amplifier and it sounds a whole lot better than the clips above, with much less of the “Clown Must Die” tone.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. I hope this build report has informed and/or inspired you. -TH


Electric Cello #3 (2000)

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I made this back in 2000. The photos here are the only ones I still have.

Electric Cello #3 (2000)With my third solidbody electric cello, I decided to try a more compact design and concentrate more on function than on form. So I went back to the ‘baseball bat’ concept of cello #1, and came out with something like the Village Idiot version of the electric cellos made by Jensen or Ned Steinberger. Instead of mounting the tuning pegs on the headstock like my previous two cellos, I put them at the bottom like on viola #1. I don’t know if that was a good idea or not, but it certainly looks futuristic, doesn’t it?

The scooping of the body, to allow for a more-or-less normal-height bridge, was an interesting but irrelevant experiment. Since the cello is suspended and the player doesn’t have to rest it against his/her body, there is no need to shape the instrument to match the physical layout of a standard cello. I probably should have done the whole thing flat, used a lower bridge, and mounted the tuning pegs at the top. Live and learn.

Electric cello #3 (2000): bridge and tunersThe cello is mounted on an assortment of drum hardware I got at Univibe Music in Berkeley, CA (long live Univibe). I had to mix and match pieces to put together something that would serve up the proper angles, but the assembly is reasonably stable and seems to adsorb most extraneous vibration.

Instead of dropping big bucks on another transducer, I made my own this time. Actually, I pulled the plastic casing off a Radio Shack piezo transducer (available for about three dollars), and soldered the leads to an audio jack (inside the black box on the back of the instrument). After putting the strings on, I moved the tranducer around to test the tones, and concluded that placing it under the treble-side foot of the bridge (near the A and D strings) gave the most even sound. See viola #1 for more on transducers).

Electric cello #3 (2000): sideThe bridge is a standard cello bridge that I filed down to fit the dimensions of this instrument. It’s a 3/4 bridge, because I couldn’t find a cheap full-size one.

The tuners are bass guitar tuners, like on cello #2.

The fingerboard is premade, from ebony.