By Marty Paule
Randall’s roots go back to the earliest days of hard rock and heavy metal and its nameplate has become synonymous with plaster-shattering, high gain amp tone. The brand was founded in 1970 by Don Randall, a lifelong audio gear head, who for a time worked with Leo Fender and coined the names for some of Fender’s most illustrious products. Randall carved out its own niche in the 1970s and ‘80s by becoming a mainstay in the backline of rock’s hardest-charging guitarists.
As heavy metal in all its flavors evolved, Randall was there providing the sonic firepower for everything from ultra-tight ‘80s thrash to retro British crunch to the evolving sound of drop-tuned death metal that blew up in the 1990s.
Early on, Gary Sunde designed the Randall FET RG Series that was eagerly snapped up by guitarists thirsting for the intensity only the highest gain circuits could achieve. Later, Bruce Egnater harnessed his talents in creating the modular MTS Series.
In 2011, in a quest to update the line to meet the demands of 21st-century touring pros, Randall engaged Mike Fortin of Fortin Amplification, Inc. The mission: to build a new tube amp using Fortin’s monstrout 6-channel MEATHEAD amp featuring MIDI-programmable tones as a point of departure. Kirk Hammett was one of the early adopters taking four of the prototypes that would become Randall’s 667 flagship head on tour with Metallica. Randall also asked Fortin to adapt his custom-built NATAS head to a production model that would carry the Randall nameplate. That effort resulted in the 120W all-tube Randall Thrasher head.
In 2012, Fortin officially became Randall’s chief engineer. Since then, a succession of Fortin’s designs has fortified Randall’s preeminent position in the heavy metal world. The list of Randall users is stellar. Among the more visible guitarists to plug into a Randall are Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Dimebag Darrell of Pantera, George Lynch, Scott Ian of Anthrax, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Chuck Schuldiner of Death, Ty Tabor of King's X, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and Ola Englund of Six Feet Under and Feared.
We spoke jointly to Mike Fortin and Joe Delaney, Randall’s Brand Director, to get the full story.
The HUB: Can you tell us about MIke Fortin’s background and how he got involved with Randall?
Joe Delaney: When I took over the Randall brand I realized that I needed to reinvent the brand and find an engineer who could take it where it needed to go. Every decade or so there’s a new high-gain guru who comes up and rises to the top. I was asking around and through a mutual friend I was referred to Mike. I looked at his line of hand-wired Fortin amps online and then asked Mike if I could check them out. I was blown away when one his customers who lived an hour and a half away volunteered to drive his amps over to my studio to check them out. I thought that was an amazing dedication to the gear they had gotten from him.
I thought the sonic signature of what Mike was doing was perfect for Randall. Everything he was doing was so tight and articulate—it was spot on. So we opened up discussions and I was able to get Mike to sign on with Randall. We purchased a few of his existing designs, and then dove in together and redid the brand from top to bottom. Am I recalling that right Mike?
Mike Fortin: Perfect. It’ll be three years in March .
The HUB: Mike, what was the transition like—moving from a more boutique-oriented business structure to something that’s obviously a little more production-oriented?
Mike Fortin: It certainly was a learning experience for sure. It’s a completely different ball game. There are so many more things that you have to worry about on a large scale compared to a boutique format.
The HUB: What are some of those worries?
Mike Fortin: There’s just a lot more electrical standards, extra stuff you have to pay for that you don’t deal with in the boutique world.
The HUB: More lawyers?
Mike Fortin: [Laughs] Yeah, more lawyers. It just costs more money to do business on a bigger scale like that with a lot of different markets. Yes, it’s a lot different.
The HUB: Joe, what do you see as Mike’s core contribution to the Randall line right now?
Joe Delaney: Mike’s contribution to the brand is immeasurable, but if I can pinpoint one thing, it’s the sonic signature. It’s the amplifier voicing; the way he arranges tone and gain in the Randall sound. There’s cosmetics, there’s marketing—all these other components—but at the end of the day, it’s what the amp sounds like and that’s why Mike’s so valuable.
The HUB: One note’s worth a thousand words, but I’m going to see if I can extract at least a couple of dozen words out of you to describe what you consider that tonality to be. What is the sound you’re going for?
Joe Delaney: There’s traditional Randall sound, going back to the 1970s when Don Randall started the company. Because he started in the solid-state realm, there’s always been this really tight and focused sound. And Mike works with our solid-state side as well as our tube side. That’s the sonic signature: tight articulation with tons of gain. They’ve got all the overdrive and gain you could ever wish for, but they’re still clear and articulate. Mike, can you jump in?
Mike Fortin: One of the main things we have to pay attention to today are the extended-range guitars—being sure that range can fully translate through the amplifier. The earlier amps weren’t really designed for that kind of application.
The HUB: You’re talking about 7- and 8-string guitars, that kind of thing?
Mike Fortin:Yes, even 9-string guitars are becoming a kind of in thing. So trying to translate that extended range through the amplifier so it doesn’t sound like bunch of mush is the challenging part.
The HUB: A lot of your high-gain designs these days involve the use of tube circuits. But back in the day, Randall was largely associated with Dimebag Darrell, and of course he was playing through all solid-state amps. I know it’s endlessly discussed in the guitar forums, but what do you see as the contribution of tubes in the Randall line? What are qualities that a tube preamp stage or power stage bring to the table?
Mike Fortin: It’s not specifically the tube—it’s the circuit design. We can go for the same outcome and use solid state. A lot of FET stuff that’s part of the Randall legacy translates just as well into high-gain distortion. If someone prefers tubes, there’s a little extra magic there, but you can get the solid-state stuff to sound pretty spot-on as well.
The HUB: Can you talk about how you went about voicing the Ola Englund Satan and what Ola’s involvement was in the process?
Mike Fortin: Just before I joined Randall, Ola had ordered a custom amplifier from me that was based on the NATAS—one of the designs Randall had purchased from me. Starting with that design, he had some very specific requirements. He wanted to be able to change the tone stack to work with other speaker types. He wanted some tweaks done to the preamp and the voicing of it. After doing the negotiations with Randall and talking to Joe, it just made sense to bring Ola onboard and release his signature amp through Randall. We tweaked it some more in person with Ola after I started with Randall—more voicing tweaks.
The HUB: Similarly with Scott Ian’s Nullifier head, what was the design process?
Joe Delaney: The cool aspect with Scott is that he’s been with Randall for a while and he’s really particular about tone. When we were working with the Thrasher and getting close to launching it, Scott was our beta tester. Scott took our first prototypes on the road in the U.S. and Europe and was blown away by them. It was a great kind of hammer test for the amps by thrusting the them into real-world situations.
So after doing that, we talked to Scott about doing a new signature amp. He really liked the Thrasher and worked with Mike on changes to the high- and low-frequency gain knobs. Basically Mike did a different voicing with a different kind of balance of the gain to match Scott’s really intense right-hand staccato technique.
The HUB: So those are the main differences between the Thrasher and Nullifier heads?
Joe Delaney: They’re electronically very similar, the voicing changes are right there in the first stages. Those changes you make in the first preamp stages really affect the way the whole amp sounds. Scott’s also very creative and we implemented some cool cosmetics of his into it.
The HUB: With the extreme high gain of your six-channel 667 head and all its elaborate MIDI implementation, it seems like you’re going after the touring pro who needs to be able to reproduce a lot of different sounds seamlessly.
Mike Fortin: That’s exactly what it’s for.
Joe Delaney: You look at a lot of pros and they’re bringing in two, three, four amps. What Mike did with was make a switchable amp with a wide enough range of tones between the six channels. Even though it’s really MIDI-intensive, it’s a really simple amp. The channels are laid out like console strips, if you will. All the MIDI implementation is simple push-a-button stuff. MIDI can be scary sometimes, but this is guitar-player MIDI—you know, set up the scene and press store.
The HUB: No diving through menus or laborious mapping?
Joe Delaney: When Mike and I first discussed the design, I said all this MIDI implementation is cool, but I never wanted to hear the word ‘SysEX message’ ever. [Laughs].
Mike Fortin: Even the RF8 footswitch is very simple and straightforward. It was all done with the intention of making it very simple.
The HUB: What are the implications of designing a monster like the 667 with all those separate gain stages? How do you get discrete circuits to play nice with each other, or is that even an issue?
Joe Delaney: How many 12AX7s are in their Mike? [Laughs]
Mike Fortin: There are nine. Each row of channel strips has its own tube path inside; they don’t share bottles. They all just meet at the effects loop and out to the power amp. It’s a matter of making sure you’re using proper lead dressing and a proper PCB [printed circuit board] layout. It’s not easy.
Joe Delaney: We worked with a partner—Ron Menelli of RJM Music Technology—who Mike had worked with before for a lot of the MIDI coding. Those guys make really great MIDI products—all kinds of guitar-rig solutions from effects loopers to everything else. Ron did the 667 and the RS8 MIDI and its flawless.
The HUB: It seems to me that unlike someone working on an amp production line, with Mike’s tech background he brings a certain approach that leads to things like voltmeter test points and biasing controls that are easy to use. Has your being on the front lines in live sound played a role in your design philosophy so users can actually work on your gear?
Mike Fortin: Mainly it’s about giving you some tonal options to play around with. Having those controls on the back and the way the range is set up on those bias pots and the way the transformers are designed lets you use any octal-based output tubes to play around with to get different signature sounds in these amps. Of course, for techs it’s a great thing and easy to do. But also for the end user whose a little tech-savvy it can save them some time and money by replacing output tubes themselves. In today’s world there’s not a service tech on every corner; its kind of a dying thing.
The HUB: What kind of speaker cabs do you like to hear your amps being driven through?
Joe Delaney: We use a lot of different stuff, but Mike is pretty much a Celestion vintage 30 guy. So the cabinets he voices through are top-of-the-line Randall RC412S-V30 USA-made straight 4 x 12 cabinets made from void-free Baltic birch loaded with vintage UK V30s in them. When we began the projects with Mike, we sent him the best cabs we make.
Mike Fortin: They work with many other speaker types. That’s why we put the tone stack shift switch on some of these amplifiers so you can get the tone stack to work better with different types of speakers. Eminence speakers have a different kind of midrange response compared to Celestion. Sometimes in a backline you don’t get much of a choice so it’s always nice to be able to change things on your tone stack.
The HUB: That’s a huge asset being able to dial in your tone when you don’t have control over the backline cabs being supplied on tour. Earlier, you talked about the challenge of extended-range guitars and their tendency to turn to mush. Apart the amps you design for Randall, what other advice do you have for the 7-, 8- or 9-string player to help get that articulation you put so much emphasis on?
Mike Fortin: Do you mean with other amps?
The HUB: With any amp—are there any other strategies for keeping your signal tight?
Mike Fortin: Certainly some sort of a boost pedal that can selectively dump some of the low end frequencies. Too much low end into the front of the amp is usually why it sounds muddy. The [Furman] PQ3 parametric EQ is something that’s been used extensively by many guitar players or Tube Screamer type of a pedal can help. We have this cool pedal called the Facepunch which you can use to dial in your low end content on the front end. That way you can take an amp that sounds a little muddy and tighten it up. Or if it’s too bright, you can always add more bottom end to the front.
The HUB: Something we get asked a lot by newer guitar players is how to allocate their budget between their guitar and their amp. Of course, it’s a difficult question to answer given all the variables, but nonetheless, I thought I’d pose it to you.
Mike Fortin: That’s an interesting one. It always seems like guys spend a ton of money on their guitars then not want to spend anything on their amps.
Joe Delaney: Spend really good money on your amp, then whatever guitar you’ve got, make sure you’ve got really great pickups and tuners.
The HUB: What else is on the agenda in terms of new gear and R&D at Randall?
Joe Delaney: We’ve gone through our first phase of development since Mike came on, which was redoing the product lines and putting out the Thrasher, the Satan, the 667—our flagship range. We’re both really into pedals and have come up with some cool stuff that are mainly solutions for metal players. That’s who we’re focusing on; we’re not making flangers. There’s the Facepunch Overdrive that Mike mentioned, and we also have a clean boost overdrive called the MOR. There’s also the RGOD, which gives you that classic, old-school Randall solid-state way-overdriven sound in a pedal. So basically we’ve been having a lot of fun with pedals.
The HUB: Getting back to that hypothetical newer guitar player for a moment, for someone starting out on a tight budget and looking for an extreme gain kind of sound, where would you recommend they get started with on those pedals you mentioned?
Joe Delaney: I’d say the RGOD, and for the beginner I would go toward the RG13. It’s basically a 3-channel pedal with an effects loop plus it’ll power other pedals. It has a one-watt speaker out and XLR out, so it’s an all-in-one pedal/amplifier that can be the center of a pro pedalboard or your learning/practice amp station at home.
Mike Fortin: You can use it with a little speaker cab at home then take it to the rehearsal space and use it as a front end with whatever’s provided.
Joe Delaney: We make the little RG8 1 x 8 speaker you can use with it, but what we find is the most fun is, though it’s only one watt, if you have a 4 x 12 just plug it into that.
Mike Fortin: It’s great. It’s loud enough and you can record with it and it’s great for practice.
The HUB: Can you talk about anything currently on the drawing boards?
Joe Delaney: There are things that have ones and zeroes embedded in them that we’ve recently found interesting.
The HUB: It sounds like you might be going down the digital road…
Joe Delaney: Yeah, we’re dancing with digital, but we’re not sure if we’re going to take her home…yet.
The HUB: Just a dalliance so far huh? [Laughter all round]. Well, we’ll definitely stay tuned to see what you guys come up with. Clearly you’re at the front of the pack where high-gain amplification is concerned.
Check out the full range of Randall gear at Musician’s Friend.