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Practicing the Art of Repair in a Disposable Age: Talking Tube Amps with Patrick Kauffman

by Amy Bezunartea

For over a decade, Patrick Kauffman has been working behind the scenes at Main Drag Music in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  He is the unsung hero behind last minute repairs - resurrecting radios gone silent, breathing new life into old amps, and saving the day for rock stars and hobbyists alike.  He's a niche repairman armed with the knowledge of a technology that might seem outdated, but is indispensible to purists and the growing legions of tube amp devotees.

I visited Patrick this fall, tucked away in his very organized workroom.  A small library of vintage tech manuals and an impressive collection of tube radios line the ledges of his workspace. Hurricane Sandy had just hit NYC and a growing stack of flooded amps was beginning to tower around him.

AB: Were you the kind of kid that took apart radios, TVs and telephones and put them back together again?

PK: The answer is yes - definitely!  I got into electronics really young, specifically tube radios.  It was odd.  In grade school and middle school, that was my hobby.  Collecting all these radios you see all around… I’ve had this one since I was in the 6th grade.  It’s a 1957 Grande and I listen to it everyday.

I worked at a TV repair facility for a good part of high school too.  And once I got into music it was a good marriage to bridge music and tubes.

AB: Do you notice a growing interest/trend in tube amps?

PK: Yes and no.  Definitely in the last decade there’s been a huge explosion, definitely a scene.  At the same time so much music now is recorded digitally on computers, iPhones, and iPads.  And on some level this really supports what I do because people want to warm up the sound and so it definitely has its benefits.

AB: Is the difference justified between a solid state amp and a tube amp?

PK: Definitely - a tube amp just has a vibe, a clarity and a feel that you just can’t get with anything else at the moment. So, definitely I think it’s justified, the price, the weight, the cost of repair.

AB: A couple years ago I did a short tour with your wonderful wife Kelley Vaughn-Kauffman of Winston Troy.  At the time she was very pregnant with your son Everett.  If I recall the two of you met years ago when she worked in a copy shop and you were the copy machine repairman.  Is this true?

PK: Yes, I repaired her copy machine….And made sure it consistently broke like every other day. I’d come in all the time and and act like I was working and just hang out and talk.

AB: Amazing, I love it!  And is it true that Everett is named after the founder of Ampeg?

PK: Yes, he is loosely named after the inventor and founder of Ampeg, Everett Hull.  We both liked the name.  Ampeg was a great company out of New York and New Jersey back in the day.  There’s a really great book about it.  

AB: Was there a defining musical moment for you, a band, a scene?

PK: Not so much a band as it was coming up in NJ (Middletown, NJ) and just coming to NYC.  I knew a lot of people that worked at Rocks in your Head on Prince St. and I would cut high school a lot and I would just come and hang out at the record store and then I’d come into Williamsburg and hang out at Main Drag.

AB: Wow, you go way back!

PK: Yeah, there was nothing here -  there were 4 businesses. Planet Thailand, Main Drag, Ugly Luggage, L Café, there was really nothing going on.

AB: Yes, times have changed.   Where was Main Drag located then?

It was where Northside Car Service is now on Bedford.  There was nothing going on.  It was a tiny space, really crowded with a really cool back yard.  I have very fond memories of that place.

AB: Do you ever find money or notes or anything hidden away in repairs?

PK: No money or notes, but I’ve found way too many dirty photos.

AB: No way!

PK: Yeah, lot’s of naked photos and lots of lighters, underwear, socks, weed.  People put stuff in there and just forget I guess.

AB: You must have some big clients come in here?

PK: It doesn’t always register what I’m working on.  I fixed a Beatles amp once, that was really cool.  We do so much volume and it’s such a busy place.  A lot of times we do a rush repair and they come pick it up and are like “Check us out on Letterman tonight”, so a lot of bands come through here.

AB: Can you give us a layman’s explanation of tube technology?

PK: The idea is that it’s repairable. Most modern stuff isn’t made to be fixed. When it breaks, its trash. Whether you’re talking about a little practice amp or a giant stack of crazy loud amps. The idea is that it’s using amplification technology, but it’s also repairable. I love what I do. I’m holding onto that old school way of life of like a sewing machine repairman. 

AB: People can have these forever - they can give them to their grandchildren.

PK: Absolutely.  I’ve gotten a lot of customers coming in bringing me equipment that their parents bought in the 60’s that’s been sitting for 40 years. They’re young and have never had anything repaired and they’re almost suspicious.  They come in curious if it’s even possible to fix these old things. And I’m like yeah, I’ll call you tomorrow and you can use it!  And it’s nice to be able to do that - to offer that service.  I just restored this giant radio from 1941 for a man who came in recently – it was his Grandfather’s. It was a ton of work and took a lot of time, but it works now.  It’s really amazing.  I mean this is really old.  I added an ipod adaptor to it too.

AB: Wow, so you tricked it out for modern times!

PK: Oh, yeah, you can listen to anything through there. 

AB: You also build amps?

PK: Yes, and If I had more time I would be doing that a lot more.  In fact it’s easier now than it was 10 years ago because there’s more people who are actually making parts. In the 80s and 90s it was hard to get parts.  There was no internet and it was hard to research.  Now if I need something weird and rare I usually just go on ebay and find it.  In the past you just couldn’t fix things if you couldn’t find parts.

 AB: How does one build an amp?  What do you start with?

PK: Just a blank chassis, just a blank piece of metal and you cut the holes, you put everything together.  It’s really fun and really slow moving.  It’s hard to pull off in New York.  There’s not a lot of space here and if you’re going to build amps you need space.  And if you want space in New York, you’re going to pay a lot of money for it.

AB: Do you have a dream project that you want to work on?

PK: I’ve been trying to launch a product.  A home stereo tube amp, for home listening, not for guitar.  I’ve been working on that for years and years., I just don’t have the capital or the time to do it the way I want to.  Yes, so a home stereo, 50’s style, it can adapt to an ipod or any other players.  I built this one, I can fire it up for you.

AB: This is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous!

PK: Again, with tubes you get this really warm sound.   It’s just the best way to listen to music.  It’s painted with 1953 Buick Mandarin Red car paint.

AB: Amazing!  Everyone should have one of these.  How much would something like this cost a consumer?

PK: $3,000-$4,000.  The parts and labor are expensive.

AB: Do you have a favorite guitar amp?

PK: I tend to like a lot of the 50s Fender tweed amps, but they are so expensive!  The pricing is really crazy and gets driven up by collectors and even investors.  There was a period where investors, instead of buying property or stocks, they were just buying cool pieces of gear and really treating it like an investment.  It just drives up the price.  But I do like the early Fender stuff a lot.

AB: Do you have any advice for people on how to take care of their tube amps?

PK: People are too rough and tubes crack. Half the problems that people face could be avoided if they weren’t so rough with their amps.  For touring that can be difficult, but it makes a difference. Most importantly, I think people should not be afraid of getting things repaired.  Sometimes people are suspicious and they think they’re going to get taken for a ride.  There are people out there that do take musicians for a ride.  But if you find a trustworthy tech and develop a good relationship with them you always save money and sound better. 

AB: Like going to the dentist.

PK: Yes, exactly, if you wait for a couple years you’re screwed.  Oh, and listen to local officials about evacuations, and move your gear.

Since I visited with Pat this fall he and Kelly and Everett have welcomed another baby boy into their family.  Congratulations to them! Thank you Pat for sharing all your great knowledge and insights with us.

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If you have questions for Pat about repairs or are interested in owning your own home stereo tube amp, contact Patrick Kaufman at pat@maindragmusic.com. And don't forget to visit Main Drag Music in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for all your gear and repair needs.