What does it take to bring century-old technology back to US soil? Georgia-based Western Electric certainly plans to give it a good go. The company currently makes just one type of tube, used in audiophile-grade hifi amplifiers. However, given recent world events, it’s planning on expanding out into others, including – most excitingly for us – those used in guitar amplifiers.
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If you’ve been keeping an eye on any guitar news sources recently, it’s likely you’ll have seen some worrying headlines about tube amps. For a short while, export bans from Russia looked to completely block the majority of the world’s supply of the tubes used in guitar amps. Aside from the Slovakia-based JJ Electronic, most come from Electro-Harmonix’s Russian factory, branded under the EHX name, or its various sub-brands: Tung-Sol, EH Gold, Genalex Gold Lion, Mullard, Svetlana and Sovtek. EHX has, for now, opened up tube orders again, however, tariffs will impact prices.
It’s a strangely bottle-necked supply chain that even before the war in Ukraine was showing signs of stress: Electro-Harmonix’s Mike Matthews claimed last summer that the closure of a factory in Shuguang, China was putting massive strain on both the EHX and JJ Electronic factories.
Enter Western Electric. Earlier this month, the Rossville, Georgia-based company outlined its plan to leverage its current tube-manufacturing plant – and its well-established expertise – to expand into manufacturing a massive range of tubes, rather than just the 300B. It also asked musicians and designers to share their thoughts on what they would want from a US-based tube factory. Safe to say, it piqued the interest of the guitar community, spreading like wildfire amongst tube-evangelists.
The planned expansion isn’t without its challenges. 80 years ago, tubes were a necessary part of the vast majority of electronics. In 2022, outside of the world of enthusiast tech like hifi and guitar amplifiers, they’re now obsolete, far surpassed in practicality by solid-state transistors. In short, the tools and parts for their manufacture just aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were.
Luckily, Western Electric is well-placed to execute such an expansion – it’s spent years modernising and refining the process of tube manufacturing for its 300B. We got in touch to know more about the company’s plans, and what hurdles it might face. Here’s what a spokesperson had to say.
What has the initial response been like to the prospect of Western Electric expanding beyond the 300B?
“We announced our intentions to expand tube operations on 16 March. Since then we’ve heard from thousands of guitarists, amp builders, hifi enthusiasts, and concerned tube fans around the world. The reactions have been incredibly supportive.
“But what really surprised us was the speed of the responses. We simply published the page and sent it to a few industry contacts and it blew up over one weekend. The requests are still pouring in.”
The Western Electric 300B sits at a much higher price point than its equivalents made in Russia or China. With a potential move into guitar amplifier tubes, would you aim to cater to the premium end of the market, or compete with the more affordable offerings that are (for now) available?
“Labour rates in the United States are much higher than in Russia or China. Additionally, the materials we use are of a higher quality. So, the price will be higher.
“For those wondering, however, our plan is not to take advantage and charge an absurd premium for new tubes.
“Regarding the WE 300B, it has no real equivalent(s). The Russian, Chinese, and other 300B replicas are different creatures all together with price points that often reflect their level of quality. We guarantee the quality of our 300B with a five-year warranty. The last time we checked, the so-called competitor manufacturers only offered 90-day to one-year warranties.”
Is it fair to say that the guitar amplifier market is less ‘niche’ than the premium hifi market? Would an expansion into even the high end of guitar amplifier tubes require a significant increase in production numbers?
“After the overwhelming response from our little announcement, we know for a fact that the guitar amp crowd is massive. People are ready for higher quality, American-made tubes. We’re ready to meet that demand and increase production capacity accordingly. We have the infrastructure in place to do so.”
Much more harmonic distortion is acceptable in guitar amp tubes than in hifi tubes – is this lower-fidelity sound reflected in the ease of the manufacturing process?
“There is a need for better quality. This is yet another major reason we would even consider breaking into the guitar amp tube market. People have grown accustomed to cherry-picking from any given batch of tubes to get the best sound. Along with better reliability, we hope to offer a super low-noise, low-distortion, and consistent product people can trust. Our goal has always been to make the best electron tubes in the world.
“That being said, yes, manufacturing a miniature dual triode like the 12AX7 is significantly easier and less labour-intensive than a 300B, for example.”
Looking beyond the current uncertainty, do you think that musicians and amp makers would be better off having access to a wider range of American-made tubes?
“Yes. American-made tubes would bring life and diversity to what’s been available for so long.”
Would you hope to lead the way for others in the hifi industry to make a similar move?
“In the long run, we hope others do step up. Look at what’s happening with the record pressing business, with Jack White’s plea to the major music labels. It’s a big reminder that there will always be demand for analogue technology like vacuum tubes.
“Because the financial and technological barriers are so high for the size of the market, we doubt major competition will arise anytime soon. At least by a manufacturer that is willing to take time and get it right.”
If Western Electric’s initial expansion is successful, would you consider opening plants outside of the US in order to remain competitive?
“Western Electric products have been and always will be made in the USA.”
With a process that’s over a century old, have there been any significant advances that have made tube manufacturing easier?
“Our line operators are working safer and smarter than ever before. There’s a long list of things we’ve been able to modernise across our current 300B operation. Robotics, automation, and laser-welding, to name a few. We also take advantage of higher purity materials previously unavailable in the heyday of tube manufacturing.
“We’re equipped to do the same with other tubes, all while honouring the old, practised art of Western Electric manufacturing. Our customers will enjoy longer life and higher performance as a result.”
Would you need to source or create new parts for the production of guitar amplifier tubes?
“At the same time we resumed 300B production at our new facility, the Rossville Works, we planned for expansion. The equipment is here today and ready to go online. As for sourcing materials and parts, problems will naturally arise – even with our existing reliable suppliers. We’re prepared to meet the challenge.”
Similarly, how transferable is the process of making different fittings? Each guitar amplifier tube type has a different pin formation – would this be a hurdle for the expansion?
“We are in the throes of tooling up for various tubes, starting with the most urgently-needed, popular types.
“Guitar tube amps use two primary pin configurations, the octal (eight-pin) socket and the noval (nine-pin) socket. On rare occasions, the seven-pin configuration is utilised. We already stock these components. Setting up for the most popular tube types does not present as big a hurdle as one might think.”
Does the process present any environmental challenges that weren’t a concern in the 1930s? You mention that you’ve made “key updates to machinery to ensure clean, green, and safe assembly” – would these updates present challenges when tooling up for a wider range of tubes?
“No. Every material we use is considered safe and green. Western Electric strives to meet all OSHA and EPA standards and does not use any banned substances. We sell and ship vacuum tubes every day. We hope this is enough to demystify any old wives’ tales about tube manufacturing hazards.”
Find out more and have your own say over at westernelectric.com/expand.