Seth - Nightowl Industries
Night Owl Industries was started at the end of 2016, and was based on my fascination with tube amplifiers, metal fabrication, and early to mid century design. I'd been playing guitar for about 20 years by then, and having always been a fan of the boutique pedal industry, thought something similar could be possible for small amplifiers. The idea was to have a good looking design that could accommodate the large transformers that single ended tube amplifiers require without looking industrial or overly practical. Looking a the size disparity between preamp tubes and power amp tubes, then between output and power transformers, the idea of having a transformer cover that made use of that as a design feature emerged. All other design decisions came from and after that, and were more the result of the process and what certain tools can do repeatably.
The process started with cardboard cutouts for the enclosure and with a very old and very simple pentode based circuit I knew was magic, but needed tweaking. To get the visual perspective right, I would make a design, cut it out of cardboard, fold and tape it into shape, stare at it for a while, then make changes. Once the basic design seemed right it was time to start metal prototyping. In the first drafts, my method was using large black and white stickers printed cheaply with the cutout lines on them. Those would be stuck on to sheets of aluminum then cut with a guillotine shear for the long lines and a throatless shear for the tighter stuff. After cutting, the drill press, then deburring everything, then sanding it down to where the lines were good enough for folding on a manual brake. This was a lot of fun, but is only practical for prototyping, so when the basic design was finalized I created a file for it and sent it to Big Blue Saw, who cuts my aluminum. When I was done it looked too boxy, so I bought a bead roller, learned to use it, and created the step beads on the wings and the wells behind the tubes. One of the most difficult parts of designing the enclosure was factoring in the effect of how each machine changes the metal, which has to be calculated and accounted for.
When done prototyping and designing a new grille, it was time to order materials and start building. After beading and folding the chassis into shape, I sanded them with an orbital sander, polished sections to enhance the contrast, then had them anodized. I used a dremel to remove the anodize from the spots where the circuit would be grounded. For finishes, everything was tried from spray paint, to hydro-dip, to vinyl stencils. I debuted the amp at the 2017 Fear The Riff Expo in Brooklyn, sold some units, and came back with some important sales and a new friend who is a truly gifted electrical engineer, Nick Williams of Dunwich Amps. We both liked the band Sleep and Matamp amps so we worked out a deal to help me get away from hand wiring every little component, which not only limited production drastically, but made things harder to work on or service in general. He was also responsible for some significant improvements to the design.
When the PCB was finished, I asked around and the financials pointed to China, but making things here is important to me. My transformers are American, so is my aluminum. so are my knobs, etc.. I decided to go with Sunstone because the price was competitive among all the US suppliers, and because they reached out to me as soon as the first order was placed to introduce themselves, like good normal people... The importance of personal contact with those who are responsible for your parts can't be overstated. Sunstone took an interest in what I was doing, asked me what they could do to help, and came through with a deal I know I couldn't beat.
So the Winter 2017/2018 batch is done, amps are moving, I cut a couple of studio tracks with it recently, and am working towards getting enough orders to build a larger run so I can order parts in quantity, build more, charge less, and stay competitive. Building, manufacturing, it's all still possible in the US, it's just hard work. You gotta want it.