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FEATURE: Albion amps

Gary Cooper
FEATURE: Albion amps

British amp-building icon, Steve Grindrod is back, creating his own range of amps with IAG, under the Albion brand-name....

The UK isn’t very good at turning its MI pioneers into cult figures. It’s something they do better in the US, where the likes of Paul Reed Smith, Bill Collings, Randall Smith and Paul Rivera are MI celebrities.

If there were any justice, the same status would be afforded our very own Steve Grindrod. True, Steve has never used his name as the brand. But he was chief engineer and director of research and development at Marshall from 1973-2000, leaving to become managing director and chief designer at Vox – a position he held until 2008. In guitar amplification terms, that just about makes him royalty.

While probably not a ‘name’ to the general muso in the street, there are plenty of professionals who have known Steve down the years and many in the industry must also have wondered where he had gone after his departure from Korg/Vox. The answer, perhaps not unsurprisingly, is China – where he has formed a new amplification company backed by the huge resources of the IAG group – the company which owns so many legendary British audio names including Wharfedale, Leak and Quad.

Grindrod’s decision to move to China was a personal one and the business angle followed, but his alliance with IAG had an immediate impact. He reveals that the moment Korg heard he was working with IAG, the contract to produce Vox amps – all of which were being made in IAG’s factory – was removed.

Nothing daunted, Grindrod went on to design what are, he feels, his best products to date. They are called Albion (the ancient name for Britain, somewhat ironically) and they represent a lifetime’s experience with valve-based guitar amplification.
So, just in case you have seen the brand name and thought ‘Not another amp brand from China!’ you now know that Albion promises to be a lot more than just a cheaply made clone.

“I just wanted to make amps without having to fit into the corporate image of my previous companies. If I wanted a control to do something, I didn’t want to have to explain the costing of it and then have people telling me I couldn’t do it because ‘it costs too much’. I wanted to make value for money amps with a lot of versatility – and almost a boutique feel to them, not just black boxes – amps with a bit of colour to them.”

The amps aren’t radical – that wasn’t Grindrod’s aim – but they are different enough in ways that perhaps only a guitarist would recognise. Just as well, as Albion is being aimed at the grown-up player who knows what he wants from a traditional guitar amp and can appreciate getting a good deal. Steve says he wasn’t tempted to follow-up on the work he did for Vox with Valvetronix (which he remains very proud of), partly because he isn’t a digital/sampling expert, but also because, good as some of the best sampling amps are, you can’t take the obsession with pure tone out of a man who has been creating legendary valve guitar amplifiers since the early 1970s.

To be fair, you also can’t avoid the ‘made in China’ syndrome which, somehow, seems to dog MI products, even if it doesn’t cloud the horizons of Apple or Sony. Perhaps it is more a problem for a new brand, but Grindrod is adamant that, as he puts it: “The way to think of Albion is that it is made in a factory in China. It is not ‘a Chinese factory’.

“The factory is owned by IAG, it makes everything we use – even the transformers and loudspeakers, right down to our own wire and our own screws. I don’t sit in an office a thousand miles away, I live here permanently, in a house halfway up a mountain overlooking the factory. I am here day in, day out. I do the quality control, the marketing, the sales and I do not know any other company that can make that claim.

“What I’m saving by making everything in-house, I can put back into the design,” he says.

“That means I’m not making a cut-price design. I’m simply taking advantage of the savings that can be made by manufacturing as much as possible yourself and doing that in China. It enables me to do interesting things like I have on the TCT range. They are twin channel amps, but they are fully independent channels and I have been able to add another feature, which is to make the two channels mixable together – so two channels becomes three channels.”

Steve Grindrod is realistic about the task he has set himself. “I know it’s a bloody stupid time to start an amplifier company,” he says with a rueful laugh. “Here we are in a world recession and it has been a very tough time, which means it has been slow. But we feel we have got it right now and after a very slow start it’s beginning to build quite nicely.  We had a great reaction at NAMM, with people typically coming onto the booth and saying ‘Wow! They look expensive!’ then finding out they aren’t and saying it’s impossible that they can sound so good – but they do.”

Despite a faltering start (IAG made a mistake by trying the range under the Wharfedale brand initially) the snowball is starting to gather pace, particularly in the US, with major retailers including Guitar Center, Musician’s Friend, Sam Ash and AMS all coming on board.

How well that will be replicated in the UK remains to be seen. IAG is up against big promotional budgets from the likes of Marshall and Orange and even if Blackstar doesn’t exactly scream its name from the rooftops, it is a force to be reckoned with. Then there is Vox, the soon-to-be-reborn Carlsbro – no shortage of competition for a new brand of traditional guitar amps. Whether IAG is up to the challenge of driving consumers into Albion stockists remains to be seen – but there can’t be any serious doubt about the quality of the designs. And there is yet another Albion range up Mr Grindrod’s sleeve for Frankfurt, he revealed, so there is likely to be no shortage of new designs and ideas, either.

CHRIS FEARN - IAG
Chris Fearn, IAG’s national sales manager, is the man charged with turning Steve Grindrod’s latest brainchild into a success in the UK. So what would he say to the retailer, sceptical at being offered yet another amp brand, to persuade him it is worth making room for on the shop floor?

“First of all, Albion is owned by IAG and Steve Grindrod as joint owners, and the benefit of that means that, as a major supplier, we have a 60,000 square feet warehouse here, holding every single spare for the products that we sell. So, from a purchasing perspective, not only are we not asking people to buy a lot of stock, but from a servicing perspective, they’ll be serviced and backed-up properly. The parts are here in the UK, not sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Europe.

“The market’s hard, I know that, and it’s not easy to sell traditional valve products because the market’s squeezed, with cheap modelling amplifiers selling to the kids and a lot of competition for valve amps. But what we have to offer is something that is being made by the man who has designed the top products for the past 30 or more and who is now making what he has always wanted to make – and it’s here as an option.  Because of the way some other manufacturers have decided to operate with franchised areas, there are places where some dealers may not be able to get an alternative products that they’d like to stock. In fact I’ve just come back from Scotland and I could name some specific areas where that’s the case. Albion fits into that market perfectly.”

Did somebody mention Blackstar? Chris Fearn is too discreet to say.

So who does Fearn see as the typical Albion target customer?

“Possibly the more mature person, who wants to buy something of better than average quality and who doesn’t just follow the pack. In a way, it’s quite like the person who buys another IAG brand, Quad.

“There are brands the dealer can choose from where they might need an alternative to the biggest brand and where that obvious alternative might not be available - or just might not be what they want to stock. We see Albion as that alternative.”

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Tags: albion , IAG/WHARFEDALE PRO

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