Nik Azam of Ceriatone Amplification is not afraid of ruffling feathers
Britain and the US might traditionally be the homes of overdriven thermionics, but one maker in Malaysia has been satisfying countless guitarists’ quests for high-quality, hand-wired tone for a solid decade and a half. We talk to CeriaTone founder and proprietor Nik Azam to find out how it’s done…
Nik Azam in Ceriatone Amplification’s workshop in Kuala Lumpur, where all Ceriatone amps and pedals are built by hand
Featured in this article
We’re not talking about an offshore manufacturing facility catering to the entry-level models of major makers, or some mass-production clearing house cranking out consumer-grade goods for big-box stores. We’re talking Ceriatone Amplification, and these guys know their stuff. Since 2006, Ceriatone has been producing entirely hand-built amps, backed by cutting-edge design prowess, to compete with just about any of the boutique makers on either side of the pond, while often ruffling quite a few feathers in the process.
A guitarist and tube-amp enthusiast from a young age, Nik Azam gained his formal training in electrical and computer engineering at the highly respected Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s. “Of course, there’s not much about tubes taught these days,” he reflects, “but the basic concepts are the same. Training-wise, though, specifically for amps, you just learn things yourself. The internet is a wealth of knowledge, but actually doing it – initially through repairs to vintage amps – is very important.”
After earning his degree, he returned home to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to work for the company that sponsored his education, but quit after 10 months to form an IT business with some friends, doing custom software and web work and generally making a pretty good success of it. All the while, though, the amp bug was nibbling at him, and Nik found himself spending more and more time dabbling in repairs, hanging out on internet amp forums and generally getting drawn toward that world.
Identifying a need for several components that amp hobbyists were fervently seeking, he began making and acquiring parts to sell himself: first turret boards and other small components, then larger items such as chassis and transformers and, before long, complete amps, short of the cabinets to put them in. Around 2003, Nik hired his first employee for the business and began weaning himself off the IT work. In 2006, he formally registered Ceriatone as a company in order to focus on the business full-time, and his wife, Azlin, quit her job to join him in the venture.
Kit and kaboodle
Since Ceriatone was quickly amassing bins full of just about every part you might need to build your own renditions of a great number of classic amps, it was an entirely logical move to begin offering them bundled together in ready-made packages. Within its first few years of operation, Ceriatone quickly became known as one of the world’s premier suppliers of full amplifier kits, although Nik always offered the option of building the thing for you if you didn’t want to tackle that yourself.
Over the years, the balance has shifted dramatically and Nik and co. now sell far more complete amps than they do kits. Ceriatone has 18 employees, including Nik and Azlin, building between 80 and 120 amps a month and offering more than 50 models, spanning vintage classics to popular modern formats and Ceriatone originals.
Tipping the balance from kits to full builds, however, found some critics levelling the accusation of ‘cloners’ or ‘copiers’ at Ceriatone. It would seem thousands of guitarists were happy to ‘clone’ or ‘copy’ an amp for themselves, but manufacture an amp named Hey What or PrinzeTone or Muchle$$ DZ 30 for the open market and a few feathers get ruffled.
Take a step back, though and two significant factors come into focus: one, Ceriatone really isn’t doing anything different than we’ve seen from the vast majority of boutique amp makers over the past three decades. And two, Nik is just more upfront than most about the inspirations for each of Ceriatone’s amp models.
“There were a lot of boutique-amp companies that started at around the same time as us,” Nik says, “and lots of them were doing the exact same thing as we do. Some of them are even still around. They might call their amps other names, but the circuit remains about the same, or with some minor tweaks, which we also have in all of our amps. But it’s not something I fight against. If this were the phone market, people who want a fancy smartphone would know where to go. If they need a rotary dial phone, they know they can come to me. The difference is, we also offer fancy smartphones as well.”
For readers who haven’t experienced a Ceriatone amplifier first hand, or aren’t at least familiar with some of the specs and features, it’s worth pointing out that Nik’s words about including “minor tweaks” in these amps constitutes understatement in the extreme.
A model such as the lunchbox-sized 2202 might be based broadly on the late-70s and early 80s circuit within Marshall’s 2204 Master Model amps, but in addition to doing it at half the power with 6V6s in place of EL34s, Ceriatone’s 2202 includes an added second gain-stage adjustment control, a post-phase-inverter master volume, a Deep (bass resonance) control, Bright, Boost and Fat switches, a buffered FX loop and external bias check and adjustment points, among other refinements in the internal construction.
In other words, more than enough original thinking for any other maker to have slapped a ‘we designed this!’ tag on the thing. The same sort of exclusivity applies to bigger, more powerful, classically British-voiced, high-gain monsters such as Ceriatone’s Chupacabra and Yeti, which have also been two of its more popular offerings in recent years.
“Some of these are common things that people have asked for as mods,” says Nik, “and honestly, I was tired of drilling chassis and faceplates – our chassis come laser- CNC’d from our vendor now – to put in the requested mods, so we added these features as stock. Although we still do lots of customisation per individual request, actually.
“Other things, like the bias check,” he adds, “are just things that I think are not only convenient for the users, but also for me as a manufacturer. It allows for users to be able to check their bias, as a preventative measure, without having to open up the amp and face the high voltages within.
“Of course, that does not replace the need for a tech and proper periodic maintenance or repair, but in this day and age, if just biasing the amp costs the user £75, then the argument against tube amps versus digital modelling amps becomes stronger. Tube amps will always have higher maintenance costs due to the tubes being wearables, but at least we try to minimise that.”
Soldier of fortune
Less obvious to the player than the bevy of bonus features on the outside of many Ceriatone amps is the care with which Nik and his team approach everything on the inside. I’ve played and reviewed several different models in the course of my own work, and have no qualms attesting to the quality applied to circuit wiring, assembly and so on, to the extent that it’s no stretch to say that the insides of these things are easily on a par with the vast majority of hand-built amps from Europe and North America.
In developing this level of craftsmanship and quality control, Nik has formed some very firm opinions on what really matters inside the box, to the extent that he demurs when prodded to name a few things that might be less consequential to the overall results than many players might think.
“A lot of things do matter,” he tells us. “Something as simple as soldering, the technique matters a lot and it’s actually one of the most important things. And there are, of course, certain components that might not affect sonics, as they perform tasks [outside of the signal chain], like components in the bias circuit. But then, you have other factors like tolerance or reliability to think about. Personally, I think it is just easier to look at each seriously, and try to get at-least-decent parts for every function. Most often, the cost difference isn’t that much.”
To that end, Ceriatone came to its hand-wiring and hand-building of circuit boards simply because Nik feels such amps are both more reliable in the long term, and easier to service when they do need repair. “The thing about a PCB [printed circuit board] is,” he says, “it might be harder to repair; copper traces get lifted and there’s a penchant to use smaller components, or to fit things too tightly.
“On the other hand, there are some things that are just easier done on a PCB, like the common relay [for channel-switching]. In a lot of our amps, we have multiple boards, with the main being [hand-wired] turrets or eyelets, with smaller PCB daughter boards for certain functions.”
In some of its more affordable amps of recent years – the compact 2202 being one case in point – Ceriatone has even used high-quality PCBs for the main boards with the intention of offering a good product at an extremely affordable price to players shopping in that end of the market. However, Nik’s assemblers still use the same quality components and hand-loading and assembly techniques, the results of which bring the model to the UK at around £479 direct, plus shipping and VAT.
Tip of the cap
As for those components themselves, Nik is adamant that quality and careful selection contribute to superior results at just about every turn in this department, too.
“Honestly,” he says, “I’m surprised when people say they cannot hear the difference, as long as all the ‘values’ are the same. Take the common coupling capacitor: yes, there is the capacitance value, which you can measure. But is that the only measurement people take, to claim that they are the same? There are many parameters in any capacitor and some of these are dynamic, depending on frequency and sometimes signal levels.
“It’s a neverending debate. In the end, people should just use whatever makes them happy. And this doesn’t mean the priciest capacitors are always the best. I use what works for me and I’d be foolish if I tried to get something that I could not assure the supply of, as a manufacturer.
“For example, we use several different brands and types of coupling caps. I use the TAD Mustard capacitors, which I like, in some of the amps. In some other amps, we use 6PS or 418P Orange Drops. If I didn’t think they differed, it would have been smarter for me to just use one type of coupling caps. And we do have capacitor manufacturers in Malaysia; it would be cheaper and easier to get them here, but we don’t. And China’s are even cheaper, but I still use what I like to use.”
Otherwise, Nik does turn to Malaysian suppliers when possible, but is strictly driven by a balance of quality and price, rather than just going the easier – and cheaper – road by buying local.
“As for workforce,” he tells us, “we train our staff in-house. They do start with the very basics, like making the boards – drilling, staking turrets – before moving onto wiring the boards, and some of them graduate to building the amps. It is not just skills, but it’s also about discipline and mentality. Building amps day in and day out might not be for everybody. So, the above progression can weed out those who can’t do it. Most of our staff have been with us for more than five years and the amp builders have been with us for more than 10 years.”
Nik’s thoughts were keenly focused on the veracity of both signal and electrolytic capacitors when planning the company’s first pedal release recently and the results appear to have further proved his point about how much everything matters. The original Klon Centaur has arguably been cloned more than any other effects pedal in existence, and yet we might assume there’s something behind the fact that originals still fetch upwards of £1,500 or more on the vintage market. So when Nik began his R&D for last year’s Centura pedal, he figured he’d better go the extra mile.
“The Centura started with a post I saw on the internet,” says Nik. “The guy was commenting on ‘cloning’ in a negative light, about us, but he was using a pedal that is based on the same pedal our Centura is based on, although not one with the same components, some of which are critical for the sound. He probably didn’t even know, but the irony of it stayed with me.
“So, I set out to do the Centura with the same exact components as the original. Most of them are obsolete, so it was a global hunt, pretty much. I scoured surplus places, eBay, and called warehouses. That was definitely painful and took some months. And, for the enclosure, we went to a metal-casting company and had a mould made. That cost quite a lot, but there was no other way to get the shape and the looks right.”
The fallout: Ceriatone has thus far shipped 3,000 units of the Centura pedal and has orders standing for many more.
“And people tout the Centura as the most accurate clone there is. Because it is. Most of the components are exactly the same as the original. Sound-wise, people have made comparisons to the originals, with very favourable results. Those Panasonic M series electrolytics and the ECQ film caps, they were nothing special. They were all you could find, in some places, back in the 90s and early 2000s.
“But here’s a case where the type of caps used worked favourably, because how else does one argue against the original fetching $2,500? It is not even about the sound, sometimes. It would be very sad, and incomplete, if music is just about sound. It’s rock ’n’ roll, baby!”
What’s in store for Ceriatone’s future? More originality, to a great extent, yet always with a firm foundation in the classics that guitarists still crave. “We’re working on an amp catering to the heavy-metal crowd, but also some new releases of vintage-style amps. And we’re releasing a double pedal – a two-in-one – which will combine the Centura with another classic pedal, with some extra features to improve and expand its functions. I’ll probably call it the Centura+.”