Phil Jones (Amps) Interview

Since 1968 working in the world of bass amplification, he has enjoyed an unsurpassed career. AFB spoke with him to tell us about those things that bassists like so much.

 

You started playing the bass at 13. What made you choose this instrument?

I started learning guitar when I was 11 and around the summer of 1967 I first heard the record played on the radio Reach Out by the Four Tops,  in the song there is an eight bar break in the middle where it was just bass and drums. I just loved the feel and groove the instrument was giving to the song. It was many years later I discovered it was James Jamerson. So at the age of 13 I switched to bass. I was still a schoolboy with no money but I worked a paper route from 5.30 am to 7.30 am each day so I could save to buy some wood and parts, and then I made my first bass, even winding the pickups from magnets I stole from the school science class.

My brother had a friend who supplied me the 42-gauge wire and I wound the pickups on my dad’s record player when he was still at work, he never knew about it but he did complain that his player was slowing down and speeding up quite a bit after.  I still have the bass as a reminder of all the pain I had to go through in getting parts back then and also making the neck. There wasn’t anyone around who sold parts or could even teach me to make a bass. I just did it on my own. It is in the style of a Precision Bass except with upright tuners on the headstock and no frets. Not that I was trying to be innovative, I just didn’t know then where to put them.

You were really young when you built your first rig. Where did you find out how to do that?

Both my older brother and I were into music and gear so we would buy wireless world magazine each month they had amplifier circuits in there and all other kinds of stuff. I always had a keen interest in electronics and I built my first super-hetrodyne radio when I was nine. I grew up in a very disciplined family. My stepfather was very harsh on me, never bought me anything, even on birthdays but did encourage me to study hard in school. In fact, the school I went to was useless and I took it upon myself to read as many technical books as possible about engineering and science. I was always tinkering and making stuff. I made distortion and EQ pedals in my dad’s discarded Woodbine Tobacco tins which were a perfect fit for a small circuit board and a 9-volt battery.

You studied the upright bass. Did that influence your understanding of sound for the electric bass?

I did but I wasn’t actually interested in upright bass at the beginning. I went to enroll into the Welsh College of Music in Cardiff Wales. I asked about if I could study electric bass guitar and they told me in no uncertain words that it wasn’t even a “proper” instrument. So I reluctantly took up the double bass. My teacher was Earnest C Haigh and he was four times my age at 82 and he had a lifetime of experience on the instrument and at one time was the principle bassist for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He also played the acoustic nylon string guitar and we often played duets together.

He became my mentor and broadened my outlook on music. After 2 years of hard upright practice, I was playing in a well-known local jazz quintet on upright and electric. I learnt all the old jazz standards and I was very fortunate to learn from really old and experienced musicians. The guitar player who was in his late 70s played guitar like Wes Montgomery. His knowledge of chords and music really helped me a lot. I don’t play loads of notes and fast, to be honest that did not interest me. I just wanted to be a sideman bass player and hoped my playing made the band sound better. I was more into Jamerson even though I listened a lot to Jaco Pastorius but I knew I would ever be able to go down that road as a virtuoso musician. So I just was into laying down the groove. To me it is not only what you play but you had better sound good. There were quite a few local bass players who were excellent including Pino Palladino who I grew up with in the same circle of musicians but I was the “king of tone”, even back in the 1970s.What music were you listening to during that time that inspired you?

from 18 upward I would listen to all the good music, I was really into Led Zeppelin and was influenced a lot from John Paul Jones. I loved Yes and I loved Motown and all the black R&B music because there were some great bass lines in that stuff. My bass heroes were Jamerson and Nathaniel Phillips from Pleasure. To me they couldn’t help but play the right notes.

What made you move to the USA?

WOW this is a long, long story so I will try to keep this as brief as possible. In 1978 I was offered a job in the middle east working as an electronics engineer in marine navigation systems. The job paid extremely well and since I was out of the UK it was tax free. Food and accommodations were included so after 2 years of that I came back to live in London and I started my own concert sound company. I had much experience building speaker cabs and amps too so I was able to extend my money a lot further by making a lot of the gear myself. I was the first one in the UK that had a sound system capable of playing sub bass frequencies. I was using 8  2×18 horn-loaded  JBL k151s on the bottom end from 20hz to 100Hz. They were my own design and were massive but no other PA company could even get close to producing the bass like my system had. So I provided the sound for many of the reggae festivals in London from Brixton to the Notting Hill Carnival.

After 8 years on the road doing live sound I got really fatigued, I mean it was a very hard and stressful life in that business. I bought a house in South London and built a 24 track recording studio in a separate dedicated building on the land. I used my live sound mixing skills to work as a recording engineer. It was this time in 1985 I designed and built my own studio nearfield that could match my JBL 4333 main speakers and they kicked ass! It wasn’t long before people were asking me to build studio speakers and PA speakers for them. One day someone asked if I had ever thought about going into business doing hi-end audio. Well I did not even know there was a market for expensive hi fi. A high end Audio shop in Watford just north of London had heard about my speakers and asked if they could listen to a pair. I took them up and the owner started comparing them,  first with his lowest cost models and moving up one by one to his most expensive units. He said to me;” I have nothing in my store that even gets close to what you have”.

So the next thing was to find investors to start a company based on my speaker designs. The company was Acoustic Energy and the first speaker we came out with was the AE1, the same speaker I had been making for nearly two years. I won many awards worldwide and it put me on the map in this industry I knew very little about. This was to my detriment as the business people I had partnered with, ripped me off and I was out of a job and fighting them in the courts in UK. I moved to Leeds and was offered the position of Chief Designer for a loudspeaker manufacturer; Wharfedale.

Moving to Leeds where they were based, in North England was a culture shock, it was like a New Yorker moving to Idaho. It rained almost every day and one cold dark night my phone rang. I was just about to go to sleep and didn’t want to bother answering it but I picked up the phone anyway just out of curiosity of who would be calling me at midnight? An American voice told me, “I am vice president of JBL and we would like to talk to you about working for us, Can you come see us in two days in California?” I told him that as soon as he hangs up my cases will be packed and I was in the JBL HQ in Northridge the next couple of days. JBL paid all expenses and business class too, 5-star hotel for a week and even picked me up with a limo at the airport. I have to say that JBL is a class act and they know how to do everything in style.  A week later I got home and the phone rang again this time it was from Boston Acoustics and they flew me out the next few days after my return from JBL.

I came back to the UK and then the phone rang again. It was JBL, I was thinking that they were maybe declining me an offer but instead they ask me to fly to Denmark to meet the president of JBL. I took a round trip in a day to see him and all I will say is that I had a gut feeling that it would not be the best guy to work for, I will leave it at that. So I took a great offer from Boston Acoustics instead of JBL for a few reasons. 1. the houses were affordable and 2. when I first got there I experienced the New England fall and fell in love with the place but no one told me they had brutal winters. The year was 1990 so I have now resided in the USA for 30 years and have dual citizenship.

Out of all your designs, which one are you most proud of and can you tell us why?

This has to be the Platinum Audio Airpulse 3.1. It was a loudspeaker for big homes but was based only on engineering and not on a budget. The speaker won the Golden Sound Award in Japan 1997 and was claimed to be the finest loudspeaker in the 100 years of loudspeaker history. Seeing a photo of it may impress you but to see it in real life is something else. It is truly a massive, fully horn loaded loudspeaker that is omni-directional and stands over 7 and a half feet all. It has a US patent on design. it sold for $275,000 back then and 11 pairs were made in total so they are very rare but you can find it on google images.

In the last few years in the world of bass amplification the trend has been to make everything smaller. What do you think is the next step?

I believe you have to research history to see where things are heading and I have learnt all that I can about the history of amplified sound. It just makes common sense to improve a product that is smaller, hopefully costs less and is more compact. Saying that is the easy part, executing it is not. The speaker is probably the hardest to miniaturize because of the laws of physics cannot be broken but I believe they can be bent just a little!  This is why PJB has put so much research into loudspeaker design. I am confident that it is going to be a while before any of our competitors can equal a PJB Double Four and I know a few that tried and failed dismally and I am not about to embarrass them.

I am very much into science, physics and engineering and I am always looking at materials technology for any use in bass amplification. I have greatest respect for people like John B Goodenough who invented the lithium ion battery. Yes, that really is his name, not Johnny B Good but Goodenough! LOL Tesla is taking battery technology to another level and I can see in the future we may be able to have a super powerful battery amp that is so good and small, it could fit inside the instrument. In fact, anyone who is willing to work with us as the instrument maker, maybe we can make this happen sooner than you think.

 

What advantages do you see in 5″ cabinets?

It is to do with the fact that a compound loudspeaker I.E. multiple units working together is clearly superior.  When things are small they can respond far quicker  and in multiples you can get the power way beyond a single large loudspeaker. Don’t look at the front where you just see a cone. You need to really look at what’s going on behind that cone.  The limiting factor is heat. All loudspeakers are remarkably inefficient and most of the amplifier watts is converted into heat. The power from the amp goes to the voice coil and that pushes the cone. There is a thermal limit this coil can get to then it’s gone into smoke or catches on fire, The thermal limit of modern speaker coils is around 250 degrees C (482 F). At this temperature, the wire insulation breaks down and the wires will short out. The voice coil getting hot also has a negative effect on the sound at its top working limit the speaker impedance can increase to double of what it is rated at. For technically minded it is the temperature resistance co-efficient of the conductor material, typically copper which happens to have 0.49% increase in resistance per degree rise in centigrade.

So when you take a look at a PJB cabinet say like a C8 there are 8 small voice coils but when summed up give a huge surface area voice coil way bigger than any big speaker. Like they say there is no substitute for cubic inches when it comes to automobiles, In speakers, there is no substitute for square inches in voice coils. It is that law of thermal dynamics.

I don’t want to get in this too deep as this is only one aspect of loudspeaker design. If you don’t have the technical interest, you could easily die from boredom if I gave you the whole story!

Are you mindful of opinions of bass players when it comes to designing your products?

Absolutely, only a fool what not be.  However, there is a famous quotation from Henry Ford. He said” if I ask people want they wanted, it would have been a faster horse!”. So listening to customers is one thing but they are not the innovators. Who would have ever believed that a cell phone of today could outdo an IBM mainframe computer 30 years ago. I would have not thought that in a million years. The bottom line is that it takes a disruptor to change the game and that is where we are heading. We were the very first company to make small high-performance amplifiers and I would also say that I was the first in the world to create small high-performance loudspeakers (Acoustic Energy), starting 35 years ago.

Where is Phil Jones Bass right now and where do you see it going?

I am happy to say that in the current pandemic we are holding on. We still have good sales but not like we had anticipated before Covid 19. I am just happy that we are still doing well and all healthy and safe. I lost a very dear friend to this virus a great bass player too and an extremely loyal customer. It hit me hard and realized that this virus is No JOKE. I haven’t been traveling, especially back to my factory in China but we have solid communications each day with my staff and we have been furiously developing new products. I won’t give it away but we have some really cool stuff going on and almost ready to launch. I don’t know of any bass company that has or is willing to put the incredible amount of Research and Development in to new products and also existing products. If there is a way of making things better, we follow that path. I know for a fact that not one of my competitors has the technical- muscle to do what we do, unless they have access to a quarter million-dollar laser inter-ferrometer and a massive anechoic chamber that is probably one of the largest in the world.

As for manufacturing, we have the very best and even have our own robotics assembly for circuit boards. We have now over 2 million square feet facility and accommodation for 4000 employees, a supermarket, a gym an ATM and even 3 bars to drink at and a cinema too, when things ever get back to normal we would love to show people our facility which is like a village in size. We don’t manufacture bass amps only,  we also design and manufacture a huge variety of other audio products.

Many musicians are searching for a sound which they have in their head but they struggle to achieve it. Does the same happen to your when you imagine a sound for your amps?

When I was a full time musician I always had that on my mind. I always searched for great bass sound and even back in 1975 was using JBL Horns and 075 bullets on top of my rigs for bass guitar. No one was doing that back then.

What importance does the roll of an instrument have in the design of an amp?

In one word EVERYTHING! First we take extensive acoustic and electrical measurements on circuits, speaker units and systems but it is only when we put a bass through something that we evaluate for real. But more importantly it is the human ear that does to judging. I want super clean, powerful rich and deep (low sub bass ) and dynamic sound but it has to be musical and organic.

 

 

What effect do you think Phil Jones have had on the world of bass amplification?

I think that we no longer need to prove that our small amps can cut it. The very first time we showed PJB at Summer NAMM in 2002, some competitors even laughed at what they saw. I don’t see anyone laughing now. We came on the scene and nobody knew anything about me because although I was an experienced bass player and well regarded designer it was not in the MI industry. In the beginning people would think we made this stuff in my garage and bought clock radio speakers. It is because we were different and it took a decade or more just to prove we were the real deal. People don’t like change and we were changing the scene with small multiple drivers in our cabinets, I was guilty once of not knowing about sound. When I was 15 I didn’t know shit, and all I had was extreme passion and willingness to learn from people who were willing to teach me. I was lucky along the way to have learnt from so many great engineers and musicians. Whether you like it or not change is coming and it’s a good thing sometimes. We are in an age of great technological discovery. I still consider myself a student and there is always something to learn and my goal is to keep on innovating.

What would you say to me to convince me to go out and buy a Phil Jones amp?

I would say that PJB isn’t for everyone, if you are looking something cheap and you don’t care about build quality or performance go to Craig’s list. If you are dedicated to being the best you can be then you are a potential PJB customer because we share the same passion. We could easily save money on using lesser materials such as eliminating Baltic birch plywood for our enclosures and substituting particle board. After all you can’t see this when you add Tolex or carpet covering. We could also take out the substantial internal bracing inside too; It won’t change the look. This is how many bass cabs are on the market.; looking good but have no substance inside. However, if you have the desire to sound the best you can be, then you need to look at speaker cabinets that don’t color the sound.

It is not just about small diameter speakers, I happen to be very experienced in designing much bigger units, right up to 24 inch subwoofers and I could write books on the parameters of loudspeakers and what they all mean.
Our amplifiers are built the same way, with the finest materials. Take our BP 800 amplifier. the case is all CNC machined metal including the knobs. The difference is that our amps are built to last. I know for a fact that the amps we made in 2002 are still going strong today.

PJB is a vertically integrated company.

1. We build our own cabinets.

2. We design and build all of our loudspeaker units.

3. We make our electronics in house and even have robotic lines to eliminate manufacturing errors. As someone said, never buy a car or truck that was built on a Friday. We don’t have that problem, they are always consistent.

4. If a component is not available to the required quality to meet our standards, then we make it ourselves. For example, take a look at all of our screws or even the chrome cabinet corners. We make all these in our factory.

We have extensive quality control tests that are beyond any other bass amp maker. How many others have a vibration table or humidity chambers to test out the longevity of their products? I can honestly say that we spend a lot more effort into building the best quality amps than just about any other manufacturer.

I have been involved in making sound equipment since 1987 and I have applied all what I have learnt to make the best bass amps on the planet. This can only be achieved if every part of manufacturing is overseen. A lot of bass amps are made by one supplier in USA and all they have is a marketing office.

The truth is when you do a comparison head on with another brand to hear the difference.

I would strongly recommend that you have a reference amp you know and like and then use an A/B switcher pedal so you can have similar size PJB amp next to it and play you bass and switch back and forth between the two.

Acoustic memory is very short only a couple of second so by the time would have unplugged one to the other your reference frame is gone. Only a pedal can that instantaneously switched between the two will give you the truest evaluation.

I could say that we have done the most research in bass amps, we own the best machines to build them and with highly skilled workers and the best materials but I would prefer my amps to tell you that.

Ping pong (In one word)

A city: London (where I was born!)

A book: Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism

A film: Alien.

Favourite food: Thai

Favourite drink: Beer or milkshakes! Because I still haven’t grown up!

A bass: Fender Precision

An album: That’s the Way of the World

A concert: Earth Wind and Fire/ Santana  Cardiff, UK 1975

A hobby:  Astronomy

A hero: Bob Babbitt

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