Name: Jack Weber
Type of Project: Creative Endeavor
My STEP Signature Project was a creative endeavor that lead to me building a Marshall JTM45 (guitar amplifier). This included doing hours of background research on the operations of vacuum tube amplifiers as well as historical information such as schematic changes or part suppliers. I then constructed my own head cabinet for the amplifier I built for aesthetic and transportation purposes.
The area of understanding that mostly changed over the course of my project was the process of learning and sharing information. I reinforced for myself that I am a very tactile learner but I can draw ideas and conclusions based on previous experiences and readings. I can read books, watch videos, listen to podcasts or whatever until I’m blue in the face but none of that is doing me any good until I can get my hands on what I’m working with. I had an idea of doing something like this for a project for a while now and I had some background experience in related fields so I wasn’t going in totally blind. Once the idea was firmly planted into my head what I was going to do for my project I go to work doing research. Eventually I came across two books of a small series on the design process and working of vacuum tube amplifiers specifically geared for guitar. I have to admit, they were a struggle to read at times. They were very heavy information wise, written for electrical engineers and full of upper level math but were worth their weight in gold. Explanations to almost any question or situation was provided as well as reasoning from an engineer’s standpoint and as a guitar player. Even though my project involved a lot of research and learning, it was very enjoyable. I got to combine history, physics, engineering, woodworking, and guitar playing all in one vast multidisciplinary project.
However what really opened my eyes was learning how information travels and how people learn, especially in small niche communities. Vacuum tube amps are not new technology and are antiquated outside of a few niches. In the heyday of tube guitar amps (1950s-1970s) information didn’t travel as well or as quickly as it does today and people had to learn in different ways. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Bruce Egnater, who has made a name for himself in the guitar amp industry after 40+ years of experience, about how he had learned. His answers didn’t surprise me but, the thoughts I had did. He said he learned primarily by reading books and going to the library, writing letters, and just plain experimenting and getting zapped on occasion. Now this didn’t surprise me like I said, but the thought of the actions behind it did. If he wanted to learn something he had to trek down to the local library, look for the book and then get the relevant information. Or in the case of more specialized information writing a letter and hoping for a response, let a lone a helpful one at that. His notion of opening up the amplifiers and learning by doing was echoed by other professionals that it was the best thing to just experiment and ultimately see what sounds best as there is something that can only be learned by hands on experience.
My STEP project was mainly three components of what lead to my revelation of learning. The three components were pre-completion (of amplifier), post-completion, and communication, each having their own sort of theme to the experience. The pre-completion part of the project was where the most actual theory and application of the experience was. A large part of this was my communication with a friend named Jelle Welagen who runs his own business building high-end guitar amplifiers for particular customers. The most important thing I learned from him was how to create my own explanations for how things work and how to use inductive/deductive reasoning to problem solve. This helped me rationalize some of the confusions I had with the theory and operation of the amplifiers, which would in turn help with troubleshooting down the line. This phase was mostly learning about how the amplifier worked, assembling and installing hardware, planning and plotting, and keeping track of safe working habits. This was by far the longest, but least frustrating part of the project and probably the most enjoyable for me. This reinforced my idea that I learned complex matter best by exposure to several different (accurate) sources and by doing things with my own hands.
The second component was the post-completion of the build. This is where trouble for me started. Most people who do these types of problem struggle their first time with build errors and a general lack of understanding or experience. I was lucky and did enough research and had enough background experience in other fields that I was comfortable taking something on like this project. Everything up to the first test went smoothly for me as I was very careful to make sure I didn’t make common mistakes and to label all of my parts. However as soon as I got to the point where I was going to play the amp at volume, I heard one of the worst sounds I ever heard in my life. An extremely loud high pitch squeal jumped from the speakers startling my friend and I. This “issue” would take me on a wild goose chase for the next week trying to hunt down this squealing demon as by my standards and the schematic I had I did everything right. This is when I met Brendan Tarbox. Brendan is a machinist who builds amplifiers for his local music scene specializing in Tweed Fenders. I had posted on a Facebook group where several prominent techs and designers communicate and he had taken and eye to my problem. This eventually led to him spending the next 6 hours on the phone with me one day trying to troubleshoot the problem. After digging out my oscilloscope and signal generator we figured out the problem. In actuality this was a problem I created for myself by ignoring one of the few changes on a modern schematic compared to the vintage style I used and in an attempt to solve the issue I bandaided the problem and created a new one. While in theory, I knew the theory behind what was happening, I didn’t know how to troubleshoot those issues that I knew the theory of. This experience reinforced that some things must be learned first hand, and to not judge a book by it’s cover. When I first called Brendan, I was greeted by the voice of a 45yr old blue collar guy but the kicker is that he’s actually a year younger than myself, which really threw me for a loop.
The third component of my learning experience was a lesson in communication. Specifically the communication of technical knowledge and ideas of a dying art. The most extreme example of this was working with my father and a friend in our woodshop and trying to communicate the head cabinet plans along with other ideas and potential adaptations or modifications. There was a couple of more than frustrating moments in that situation which is why communication is super important when dealing with materials like fine hardwood, or in my case figured black walnut. Fun fact, black walnut is so hard that it can cause non-commercial planers to trip the circuit breaker when trying to remove as little as a 1/64 of an inch per pass. Over the course of the woodworking portion of the project I learned that fact 26 times, which was a waste of 5 minutes and quickly began to add up. What I learned here is that when plans for a detailed project are communicated verbally, small interruptions of communication over time will cause a breakdown in the accuracy of the communication and therefore the information being passed to one another. It is also important that this information is preserved, or any information that has value and therefore should be shared. When people such as Ken Fischer die, their knowledge and experience is lost. The only things preserved were those written down or retained by others, and he had helped many people who recorded this information.. This is important because this type of sharing of information and communication allowed me to successfully troubleshoot my amplifier. The conclusion of in the shortest possible manner is that information should be free.
This change of view on experiencing and learning is important to me as it allows me to understand how I learn in situations that call upon multiple disciplines and how that information and experience is shared through a community. It’s given me more empathy when interacting people in learning environments which is important as a student. In terms of growing as a professional, I was able to prove to myself that I can document and learn about complex ideas and thoughts, and then create something using that knowledge. In addition I became more detail oriented which is useful when trying to communicate ideas or designs. Just as important I learned that writing down personal experiences is great way to share information with others as I used this sort of journal to explain ideas to my friend who was very interested in the project. I’m including a link for it. I am a bit disappointed as I fell behind in trying to deal with formatting issues, hosting pictures and working in the garage without wifi to document what and why, for a good part of the woodworking portion. I really enjoyed this project overall and I am attempting to continue pursuing this form of creative endeavor by applying for an OSU academic enrichment grant as a follow up project which will hopefully lead to a lifelong passion of making things I enjoy.