Founder Tim Marcus talks about how his search for a hi-fidelity pedal-steel amp led to one of the most sought-after names in modern guitar amplification.
Founded in 2011, Milkman Sound was the outcome of one man’s frustrating search for an optimal pedal steel guitar amp. As Tim Marcus recalls, “At the time there weren’t a lot of options for boutique steel guitar. I was missing that with my pedal steel.” With a lengthy resumé in audio work and music, he decided to try building an amp for himself.
The pedal steel’s wide frequency range and the ultraclean sound gave Marcus a big challenge in building his first amp. “Pedal steel players like a very loud, clean amplifier with a lot of headroom and a lot of bandwidth,” he notes. “And that was what I was having a hard time finding — that high-fidelity sound.”
Explore the Milkman Sound lineup of guitar, pedal steel, and bass guitar amps at Musician's Friend with full specs and features.
As with many other guitar amp designers, Marcus came to amp building a little sideways. After years doing band sound, building studios, and installing AV gear he had an overview of audio circuits and sound shaping. But where building an amp from the ground up was concerned — the circuits, the cabinet design — he laughs, “I didn’t know anything.”
Marcus' first prototype was a failure. But a solution presented itself in a dream during a restless night’s sleep. Upon awakening, he found the fix actually worked; Marcus had a workable prototype with which to tinker.
Tim had barely turned the prototype on before heading out with his band to South By Southwest, the first stop on a six-week tour. Tim calls that move, “jumping into the deep end.” Getting fellow steel players’ input was invaluable in improving the design. Reflecting on the prototype’s cabinet with its pasted-on faceplate (made from a computer-created facsimile) elicits a self-deprecating laugh out of Tim. But playing venues large and small allowed Marcus to hone in on precisely the pedal steel amp he had imagined upon entering this R&D rabbit hole in the first place.
Returning from the tour, Marcus made substantial cosmetic and performance tweaks. It wasn’t long before renowned steel player Greg Leisz got in touch with Marcus. Initially Greg wanted to borrow the amp for upcoming sessions with guitarist Bill Frisell. Instead, Marcus ended up building a second amp with input from Leisz.
Following that build, a post on a steel guitar web forum led to a handful of amp orders. Tim built these at night in his San Francisco apartment, while holding down his day job installing elaborate AV systems. It was only then that he began to seriously consider building amps as a full-time gig.
Also a six-string guitarist, by 2012 Marcus was working on guitar amps. This followed the success he’d enjoyed with the 85-watt Milkman Sound 85-Watt Pedal Steel Combo.
Coincidentally, as Marcus was taking a deep dive into guitar-amp design, a friend of his was doing graphic work for Jupiter Condenser. A boutique maker of audiophile and tone-specific capacitors, it was a great connection. Jupiter provided Marcus with various vintage-style capacitors for his evaluation. He quickly honed in on those that matched up with the sounds he was going for.
Milkman Sound continues to use Jupiter speakers and capacitors throughout its range today. Built in Ohio, they’re part of Tim’s quest to include as many US-made components as possible. He also uses Mercury Magnetics transformers, custom built in Southern California, using American steel. Milkman’s gear isn’t cheap, but Tim’s obsession with sourcing the most reliable and consistent parts helps explain that.
By 2014, Marcus was fully engaged in guitar amp building and Milkman was earning interest from artists like John Mayer. Recording, live sound and guitar techs were paying attention too. In addition to the original 85-watt pedal steel combo, he was now hand-building the 40-watt Pedal Steel Mini. The Creamer and Half Pint guitar combos also joined the lineup.
The Creamer 20W Guitar Combo is capable of generating some breathtakingly sweet breakup as well as shimmering, glassy clean sounds.
Around that time Marcus began developing his Half and Half concept. These are hybrid designs with the preamp from his pedal steel amp wedded to a Class D Power amp. They’re designed for guitar and steel players who need to get loud while keeping their sound pristine. Milkman offers the 300-watt Half and Half Amp Head and the Half and Half 1x12 Combo. As an accomplished guitarist, Marcus searched long and hard to find the Class D power circuits that deliver Class A feel in performance.
We asked how Tim goes about tweaking designs for pedal steel versus six-string guitars. Marcus maintains that an amp that sounds very good on pedal steel will sound great with an electric guitar, too. The glassy top end and midrange of his preamp circuit sounds sweet with six strings, especially Telecasters.
Over time that essential sound, coupled with a minimalist approach has continued to win Milkman big props. With lots of personal touring miles under his belt, Marcus undertook his latest foray into hybrid guitar amp design. Using the Half and Half hybrid approach he’s come up with The Amp. It’s a 100-watt guitar floor amp that has rewritten the book on what you can expect from an “amp in a box.” His aim was to create an alternative to backbreaking, finicky vintage tube gear. The Amp calls for little-to-no sonic compromise and rock-solid, reliable performance in a totally portable package.
Tim puts the hybrid 100-Watt Milkman Sound The Amp through its paces on both guitar and pedal steel.
Similarly, Marcus developed a Milkman Sound bass amplification rig for portability and reliability. Class D amplification proved to be key. An initial, all-tube design built for a bassist friend proved unreliable; the vacuum tubes kept failing. In collaboration with his friend, Tim continued creating new hybrid-amp iterations, always seeking less weight and more reliability under fire. With these prototypes out there on the festival circuit, Marcus began getting calls from other bass players and eventually did a short run of a dozen heads to meet this interest.
Not long after, Marcus yielded to growing demand by putting the Milkman Sound Half and Half 700-watt Bass Head into production. It has rapidly gained new converts among the low-frequency set. The Milkman Sound 1x12 Bass Cabinet is loaded with a weight-saving Celestion Neo speaker. Between the two units you’re looking at less than 40 pounds. You get a very transportable rig with sonic heft and musicality, without the backache.
Asked if he considers himself an electrical engineer, Tim chuckles and says, “I was an English major.” But he readily acknowledges how his progression from a hobbyist to a major player in the boutique amp world has been on the shoulders of the designers who came before. As Tim puts it, “Approaching things with an artistic mind works for me.”
We asked Tim to describe the essence of the Milkman sound. His response: it’s both a hi-fi sound and a quintessentially wide-bandwidth American guitar sound. It has an uncluttered quality. Sort of like driving on that lonely stretch of Nevada highway known as US 50. That sounds about right to us. Hand-built in San Francisco, Milkman gear evokes the wide open sounds of the West.