Established in 1993 as a guitar amp repair shop in Worms, Germany, the Tube Amp Doctor has grown to be a world-leading company providing electron tubes as well as many other parts for both musical instrument and home hi-fi applications. If nobody else has it, chances are they do. Needless to say, the guitar amp world is close to our hearts here at Celestion. That’s why we’re privileged to be able to spend time speaking about business and music with TAD founder Andreas Hecke.
What is your favourite album of all time and why?
Paul Butterfield Live. I love blues combined with jazz. Paul was the first guy recording and touring with mixed-race band in the mid 1960s. Starting 1967 he added a jazz horn section and in 1970 reached the peak with this live recording.
What is the thing that made you want to be part of the musical equipment industry? How did you get your start in the business? And with this company?
Nobody was able to fix my 1955 Fender Bassman amp properly. So, that caused me to want to learn how to fix amps myself. It turned out that finding the correct parts here in Germany was an issue back in the late 1980s. I sourced them from U.S. companies and imported them. It quickly turned out that there was a certain demand for proper parts, so I started to make a business out of this. The idea was to finance my studying at the University of Mannheim. And the business grew quickly.
How did your background influence the job you do now? The company overall?
My background was multi-faceted. I was always interested in technical stuff — electronics, writing software for PCs — but I was also interested in economics. I became a qualified bank clerk and then started studying business economics with a focus on marketing.
At the same time, I grabbed every bit and piece of information about vacuum tube (valve) guitar amplifiers, schematics, layouts, and how to troubleshoot them. All this time I was playing in several bands. Taken all together, this finally qualified me to connect the areas of finance, I.T., sales and marketing, repair and service, and managing a team of people who are as enthusiastic about tubes and amplifiers as I am.
You and your company are legendary in the industry. In your view, what is the main reason for that?
One point is the fact I did understand and connect the different key people in the company. But this is helpful in general in any kind of business. Specific to TAD, it’s the love and passion for the product. We talk to the R&D engineers of guitar amplifiers and learn about their requirements. Then we use this knowledge to trigger improvements at the production sites for the tubes themselves.
We were running a repair shop for many years and collected the experience of the worst-case scenarios, since we mostly received amps that had an issue. We offered the experience we collected in years of fixing tube amplifiers to R&D engineers at amp manufacturers and we used it to improve quality at our tube production partners as well as our own TAD tube testing. It’s sort of a perfect circle — which seems unique in our business.
This all created an immense knowledge base about electron tubes in guitar and audio amplifiers. Paired with fun in what we do and reliability in business, this seems to have formed a key that has opened many doors.
Which product do you consider your company’s most innovative?
We are working with historic technology — innovations are strictly forbidden! [Laughs.] More seriously, in 2021 we started the TAD REDBASE™ tube series with a new manufacturing partner. Many micro-innovations have been realized to improve tube production processes. Today we have the literally failure-free TAD 6L6GCM, 6L6WGC, 6V6GT, EL34, EL84, KT88 and GZ34 REDBASE™ tubes in ongoing production. More classic tube types including a 6550A, 12BH7, 12AT7/ECC81 and 12AX7/ECC83 are now very close to being ready for volume production.
What do you think has been or is the single most important technological achievement in our industry?
For us, it would be the introduction of the vacuum tube of course! More specifically, its use in audio amplification. That has created a challenge, however, which is finding production partners for vacuum tubes — something mainstream business and government consider a sunset industry. For example, the largest tube factory in China recently closed. They wanted to relocate but were not granted a new license. This is because no official there would want to risk their career on that wager.
What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Setting up a company and a brand known in our business worldwide. And that many of our team have worked with us for a long time — 10, 15, 20, and even 25 years! That shows me we’re doing something right.
Tell us a little about your company culture and your philosophy in leading the team.
We have a very flat structure. All is under one roof and on one floor. Just before Covid made different working conditions necessary, all our sales and marketing were in one office room, including myself. I was in the middle of my team.
We’re flat in more than a physical sense. Of necessity we have a few managers such as for the warehouse. But in terms of sales, marketing, purchasing, and so on, every employee is pretty much on the same level. If someone has a problem, they can put it on the table — they can come directly to me. Everyone is working on their own responsibility, and if someone is unclear about something, we can straighten it out with just a short conversation.
How is your company poised for the future?
We have a new partner starting production for us, a smaller manufacturer in China. They had done some tube products before, but not for guitar amplifiers. They’re now making some extremely good tubes. The biggest player is going to be the 12AX7, which should go into mass production in the next few weeks. We also have a new 6550 power tube for things like Leslie speakers. It looks to be pretty good for sound and reliability.
I feel lucky because many Companies in the music industry that make guitar amps and recording equipment are now postponing production schedules because they cannot get a reliable supply of tubes. If you’re a large diverse company, you’ll be able to pivot to other things and not go bankrupt. But so many companies handcraft high-quality amps exclusively. If they can’t produce anything for a year, they’ll be in trouble
What music do you enjoy listening to these days?
The Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. He is one out of two or three singers I can describe as really affecting me with his voice. Listen to a live recording of “When Your Mind’s Made Up” or “Leave!” and I bet you’ll know what I mean!