Designing for DIY

At a recent audio swap meet, I had the chance to meet Matt from Toolshed Amps (check out his great looking work here!). We talked quite a bit about tubes and audio design and our different approaches to the same goal (quality sound). It was interesting and relevant enough for me to want to share some thoughts here on the blog as well.

On the surface, the differences between what Matt and I create seem obvious. Matt favors classic triodes like 2A3, 1626, or 45. Supporting components include tube rectifiers, big can caps, and Magnequest (!) iron. His amplifiers are housed in meticulously handmade chassis with intricate etching. In short, Toolshed Amps lives up to its name and the cottage industry tradition of passionate small-batch craftsmanship. I love it.

WTF Amps is a DIY-focused project first and so I try to design with other builders (not just end-users) in mind. In addition to quality audio, this creates some hobby-specific goals that guide many of my design decisions. At times there is even conflict between these goals:

  • Parts availability and flexibility
  • Novel and exploratory circuits
  • Simplicity and intelligibility

I like looking for NOS tube hidden treasures and am always hunting for a deal on second-hand transformers. When I publish a design to be replicated by others though, I have to be cognizant of the availability of the parts I specify and whether alternatives exist. You’ll find more Hammond/Edcor iron in my designs than Tango/Magnequest not just because of costs, but because they’re widely available. Similarly, although I love the 5965 tube, I’ll probably specify a 12AT7 because they’re in current production. Where I favor easy-to-find parts, I still design (and write) for flexibility in upgrades or tube substitution.

I believe that the DIY tube hobby (like most hobbies) is a journey. As we progress in the hobby and our repertoire of concepts and circuits grows, the uncommon and novel designs are what keep us building and learning. Building leads to experience and self-evaluation, which leads to conceptualization and experimentation (side note: andragogy is the method and practice of adult learning). I should note that playing with new circuits and approaches are as much for myself as they are for the readers!

The last guiding principle (simplicity and intelligibility) is often at odds with the need to explore new things. If I publish a DIY design, I would like to be able to explain it in a project write-up as well. Some of this is accomplished when I’m researching topologies but complex projects (even if the component parts are simple) are a daunting task. The urge to push the design envelope is always there, but I’ve learned to take baby steps and rely on conceptual stepping-off points for published projects. This is good general advice for the hobby as well. Don’t rush it; build what you know and iterate.

So in summary, do I want to build an A2 DHT amplifier with Tango iron, 274B rectifiers, regulated everythings, TVC attenuator, and a rosewood enclosure? You bet your butt. Do I respect guys like Matt who do (and do it well)? Darn straight. But this kind of all-out end-game amplifier wouldn’t quite fit with my DIY-friendly design goals. On the other hand, WTF Amps will try to get you as close as possible to building one of these yourself with available parts and easy-to-understand write-ups. The last mile is just up to you.

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