Continuing with our Year of Bass Amplification, we are honored to bring you Trickfish Amplification, including an in-depth interview with Richard Ruse…
Top Photo, Winter NAMM 2017 – Ryan, David, Richard and Mike
How did you get your start in music?
I started at age 11 playing popular songs and the blues with friends. We gravitated to the Blues as was the norm in the 60’s but also because the Blues records were pretty prevalent in the “dollar bins” at the record store. We could afford them and we could sort of play the Blues. By my freshman year in high school I was playing in bands at the local dances and, when I got my driver’s license, I was off doing all kinds of gigs – basically freelancing with other musicians playing for dance studio shows, playing with older (much older) guys at functions, typical hired gun stuff. The local music store owner, Don Hemminger (who was a phenomenal jazz guitarist), kept recommending me for these gigs. “It’ll make you a better musician, don’t argue with me just go do it and take the money!”
By my senior year in High School I was gigging 5-6 nights a week with a horn band playing any kind of rock/funk music that had horns: Chicago, Steely Dan, TOP, Cold Blood, and Aerosmith… I hit the road with this band right after I graduated High School and gigged 5-6 nights a week with them for years. At one point I met a person who had a deep impact on me musically and that was the guitarist Scott Henderson. We formed a band in Toledo that started out playing Gentle Giant, Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra – all of the fusion stuff that was out in the 70’s. Eventually we ended up playing Bad Company and Foghat, Stones – nobody fired us for that! Scott instilled in us the nobleness of being a musician and the shared his genius of discipline and hard work. I spent the next 25 years gigging as my sole source of income, moving from Ohio, where I grew up, to Boston where I studied music and then to Chicago. I eventually ended up in LA where I played live in clubs, did a ton of recording work on commercials, movie scores, songs with singer/songwriters and major artists. I lost count at 4000 live dates…
In LA I met Rocco Prestia, who became the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor on bass.
He asked me to sub for him with his band, the Tower Rhythm Section. His blessing opened doors for me and that’s when things began to happen. At one point I was doing some very serious, AAA level sessions for producers like Jimmy Iovine and Rick Rubin working on stuff by Robin Zander, Tom Petty, Jon Bon Jovi and was fortunate enough to play/audition with Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger among others. The gigs were awesome and the money was good. I was also working at Nadine’s Music in Hollywood and they were very cool with me taking off to do the sessions.
One day a fax came into Nadine’s announcing an opening at Alesis, at that time the fastest growing, most technologically advanced company in the business. My wife was pregnant and we had two kids to feed so I had to give it a shot. I ended up getting the gig and that was my first real legitimate day job. I realized that I could be creative, intelligent and have an impact on musician’s lives in an important way working in that environment. Music is a very spiritual thing for me and I could, vicariously, honor the music through my good work in that environment. I worked there for 5 years, went to SWR Engineering eventually becoming the VP Sales and Marketing and when that company was sold to Fender, went over to Line 6 briefly and a couple of years later took a job as VP Sales and Marketing for KRK Systems. I left KRK after 4 years to start a consulting business, which became quite successful until the economic crisis of 2008. People in business were circling the wagons and the consultant wasn’t a wagon! I saw the writing on the wall, made a few calls and ended up at JBL Professional where I eventually had oversight of about half of the company’s product development/ marketing endeavors. In my last year there I was appointed VP Global Sales but was lured back into the consulting sector by an improving economy. That was in late 2012 and by 2014 the genesis of Trickfish was on the horizon. We incorporated in late 2014 and had our first NAMM Show in the winter of 2015.
Do you play bass? If so, are you still an active player?
I haven’t made myself available for gigs in a long time but I have a small recording studio and still practice when I can…
What does your company build? Do you limit your efforts to bass amplification exclusively? If so why?
Trickfish is a new company with the singular focus of building bass amplification. The people involved with the company are all bassists but our professional experience extends well beyond the borders of the low end. Anything could happen but we’ve got few more things to do in the bass space!
Why did you decide to start the company and what drives you to push forward?
I started this company because I felt, based on my experiences working for several other companies, that I was ready to not only manage a business on my own, but that as a bassist I had yet to hear or experience an amp that was “the shit”. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful products out there, but I wanted to hear and feel something that I felt was missing. Are we there yet – nobody is! That’s the beauty of this; with every revelation comes new questions and the horizon gets pushed out a little farther. You keep striving.
All of my years in music and audio have been dedicated (in part) to the pursuit of truly musical tone; natural, organic… whatever you want to call it, but believable tone that inspires a player or sound engineer to reach inside and reveal their artistic dream. Here’s the thing – when the music sounds good people listen and when people listen, music can change their lives. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in product development is that there’s a delicate marriage between science and art if you want to take something from simply being “good enough” to that goose bump giving, sublime tone that inspires a musician to step it up and really touch people with their playing. Based on the feedback from our customers I’m positive the ship is pointed in the right direction.
How did you get started building bass amps/cabs? Tell us about your first amp/cab build… what prompted you to do it? What were the challenges or lessons learned?
Well the first amp I built was a Heathkit power amp I built with my Dad. We also built a speaker cabinet but had no idea what we were doing and needless to say it was horrible. I actually cut my teeth at SWR working closely with Steve Rabe and Bryan Bellar on a few products most notably a Rocco Prestia signature model Workingman’s amp and cab, the Megoliath 8 x 10, the MoBass, a little on the Bass 750 and some LA Series prototypes. I also oversaw the modernization of the manufacturing process and was part of increasing the output capacity of the factory. When I started at SWR there was a 6-week wait on new orders and by the time I left we had tripled the size of the business and could ship most items the next day. Failure rates fell and the artist roster grew. It was a great time for bass amps to be sure.
How did you learn electronics/acoustics? Did you have a mentor?
I was always a bit of a wing nut. I just like taking things apart and putting them back together. My Dad and I did a lot of things around the house and I learned how to analyze and solve a problem from him. When I was in more professional bands I always hung out with the technical people. I loved sound systems and recording studios and was fascinated by the components and how they worked together. With help from the guys that really knew what they were doing, I learned quite a bit about the important elements that make audio technology work. While working at all of these different companies I’ve picked up quite a bit of technological information about circuits, electro-acoustics, cabinet design, crossover design and most importantly how to tune systems. I’ve been hired to do sound design or cabinet tuning by some pretty high level people in the pro audio business based upon the changes we made to the sonic characteristics of the JBL Pro products and the work I’ve done with KRK. My experience as a professional musician had a direct impact on my ability to hear audio not just from a scientific viewpoint, but also from an artistic viewpoint. I know what a cymbal is supposed to sound like when it’s hit hard or played softly, or a trumpet or violin or orchestra bells. I’ve heard most common instruments first hand and can identify, from a frequency range viewpoint, what is missing or over exaggerated in a cab or system. Pure engineers simply don’t have that background.
How do you select the materials you choose to build with? Do you prefer an old-school approach or a modern, high-tech incorporation?
When designing a product you have to have a goal. There can be multiple goals for a product but understanding the hierarchy of the goals is paramount to developing something that’s meaningful to the customer. Once you’ve defined the goal (s) then they define the materials, the process and the outcome. Since Trickfish’s engineering capabilities are not exclusive to the scope of just one person’s knowledge, skill or vision, we can choose whatever objectives get us to the goal. Old Skool, Uber Modern – it doesn’t matter. Having a fully realized vision, knowing who the customer is and understanding what they want, embracing a realistic expectation of the price/performance ratio and understanding the metrics of the demographic before you embark on a product is pretty paramount. On a few rare occasions you can effectively throw caution to the wind and make something “because you can”. Nobody was screaming for a smartphone before they were invented. Nobody was demanding an 8 track digital tape recorder before Alesis invented the ADAT. Nobody was yelling for MIDI… That’s true innovation and it happens pretty rarely. In general Product Development is an iterative process and it addresses the solutions to common problems – basically building a better mousetrap. People who are in product development have a saying: “Better, Faster or Cheaper – pick two because you can’t have all three”.
What do you feel are the most important characteristics in a bass amp/cab?
As a player what I want in a bass amp first and foremost is headroom. I don’t care how good something sounds if I can’t get into 6th gear without the amp clipping or triggering a nasty limiter circuit. If the amp is in a compromised condition you’re also compromising the speakers. A bass rig is a system and each component is co-dependent on the other so, if the system is to function to its fullest capacity, both components (head and cabs) have to be symbiotically paired.
Secondly I want a colorless sound. I want to be able to have the EQ out of the circuit and have the amplifier NOT add any color – I want to hear the sound of my fingers, the sound of the strings, the wood, the pre-amp and pick-ups.
I also want an EQ that is powerful enough to carve out a sound without actually destroying a sound.
In the course of a live performance I want it to be easy to get a good sound. This means sonically or ergonomically. I also want the necessary routing options that allow flexibility.
In a speaker cabinet I look for spectral balance (properly tuned), power handling capability and rugged construction. The drivers have to be appropriate for the job and the cabinet has to have been properly designed as to diminish standing waves, it needs to be ported properly so the drivers can function to their best ability and that the box is solid enough to mitigate unwanted resonance. The crossover tuning is critical to achieving an even spectral balance as you don’t want gaps or bumps in the frequency response. The damping material has a lot to do with the sound so choosing the correct material in very important. The quality of the wood is also important – harder woods can be cut to more exacting dimensions. All of these factors make the difference between a good sounding cab and a great sounding cab.
What are a few things you would consider that make your company and the products so unique?
First and foremost are the people. Without this team of highly trained, experienced professionals there is nothing.
No one is guessing. We practice real science to create the designs and our experienced ears to polish the product. Mike Pope’s pre-amp design is a thing of brilliance that was born out of his incredible experience as a bassist. David Yates is our electrical guru. He is a world-class Electrical Engineer who holds close to 80 US Patents – that’s like having 10 albums of hit records! And while both of the Trickfish Bullhead amplifiers benefit greatly from the pre-amp, it’s a pretty amazing amplifier before you even engage the EQ circuit. That’s a testament to having a gain structure that is properly managed, a super clean signal path, a well-managed power module and power supply, real world ergonomics and the use of high quality components. It takes serious design and engineering skills. The application engineering, the industrial design, the electrical engineering and mechanical engineering all come together in the BH1K and BH.5K and that’s a testament to the design team’s ability to work together. Me, Michael, David and Anthony all contributed to the finished product and to be truthful, it would have never happened if just one person had taken this on their own.
We take the same approach to the cabinets – lot’s-o-science, critical listening, more science, more listening and we keep refining the design until it is right. The good news is that Anthony and I worked together at JBL Pro where we developed about 30 products together and we have a 6th sense with each other. He knows what I’m looking for and usually we don’t have to do more that 2 or three passes to get something we love. Anthony also works closely with the driver manufacturers on the development of higher performance drivers so that the basic food groups are as healthy as possible!
In the final analysis it is about the sound and the performance. I love watching people plug in, set the amp at flat, tweak the gain structure and hear themselves and their bass. So many times I’ve heard really serious players say “that’s awesome right there! I don’t even need EQ.”
We’ve brought on a new member of the family, Ryan Owens, who brings years of playing and touring experience to the table in addition to solid business skills that will help us as we grow. These five concentric circles of skill and experience form a core of prowess that no one individual could possess. It’s like a great band where everyone could be a band leader. And what makes it even sweeter is that we’re all friends and really enjoy each other’s company.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing through your amps/cabs?
Hussein Jiffry, Tim Landers, Jimmy Haslip, Rene Camacho, Jeff Andrews, Jerry Jemmott, Ernest Tibbs, Ric Fierabracci, to name the early adopters. I can’t stress enough how important their feedback was and is in the development of new product. We listen carefully and act on the real world concerns they have about the gear.
How do you develop a signature or custom amp/cab for an artist?
The first question is why? I get it with instruments but amps are a little like a PA system. They should be relatively benign. They should reveal the sound of the person playing through them and if you accept that premise, it is counterintuitive to develop an amp that has just one sound that is affiliated with one artist. Unless of course it is specifically for marketing related purposes and that person’s draw is such that you’ll sell more amps… Having seen this firsthand I can tell you that a paint job or an on-board effect really isn’t anything special or unique.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find their perfect amp/cab?
Let’s remove the age barrier and open that up to anyone who is still looking for their perfect rig. The first thing is to formulate an idea of your sound. Then ask yourself if the instrument you play is the axe that best suits your style or voice. If that’s under control then you can go looking for an amp. Define your price range first – no point in looking at $3000.00 rig when you have no intention of buying it. Can you transport it? When you’re playing through the amp does it reveal the sound of your instrument and playing? Does it get loud enough for your basic gigs? Do you understand how the head works? Pragmatism goes a long way…
Can you give us a word of advice to young electronics fans who are considering designing their own amp/cab?
Get out your wallet! Seriously, they should ask themselves “why”. What can they bring to the table that is innovative, creative or different? If they can answer that question then they should ask themselves “why not?” Plan on being in the red for years and don’t expect lightning in a bottle. This is hard work so surround yourself with talented, hardworking people who share your vision. And lastly, keep the faith, believe in your vision and take no prisoners… This is starting to sound familiar..
What is the biggest success for you and for your company?
I feel successful when reading all of the positive emails and texts from our customers. When truly demanding players tell us that the gear has become vital to their musical experience. The team is awesome and I respect and value their friendship. I feel successful when sharing the company with them and our extended family. It’s humbling and exciting all at the same time.