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“We lost Sunn for 20 years. We’re not going to repeat that mistake” – Sunn CEO James Lebihan on giving the brand a “path forward”

From legacy reissues to downloadable IRs – what does the new Sunn look like in 2023?

21 years ago, Fender shuttered legendary amplifier brand Sunn. At the time it closed down, it wasn’t the brand it used to be, reduced to making just a Model T reissue and nothing else. Long gone were the days of a full product lineup of cabs, solid-state heads, bass heads. But, as of August 2023: it’s back. And its new team isn’t going to let history repeat itself.

Sunn has returned not as a sub-brand of Fender, but as a separate company, helmed by Mission Engineering CEO James Lebihan. The first round of Sunn products is set to hit shelves in autumn 2023 – and while it’s not quite the same massive lineup the brand offered six decades ago, things are importantly not just pinned on one legacy reissue. More on that later.

We spoke to new CEO James Lebihan, who shed a lot of light on how the new Sunn came to be, and what its plans for the future are, which, yes, for the doom players reading this, do include the all-important Model T. But Sunn is more than just one famously loud tube head – so let’s dive into how the brand has made its big return, and what the plans are for the future.

What was the origin of the relaunch of Sunn, and how did you and Mission get involved?

“One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that Mission doesn’t just produce Mission products. Mission Engineering is an OEM, we design and manufacture products for lots of other people. Sometimes those are co-branded, but sometimes those are not.

“We’ve developed a lot of amplifier and speaker products for other customers. And the team that was working on those projects thought, what a cool idea it would be to do one of a project like this for ourselves. So, we were looking for an amp brand that’s not around any more, one that deserved to be brought back to life. And really, in our opinion, the only one was Sunn.

“Of course, the challenge there was Sunn was owned by Fender. That kicked off a long process between us and Fender to get Sunn back on the rails. We spent a couple of years in negotiations to figure out what was the best deal for Sunn. What was the best way that, between us, we could bring Sunn back and make it successful.

“It ended up being a kind of synergy between the two companies. Sunn is, now, a much smaller organisation. We can move much faster, develop products much quicker – but we also have the reach and the might of Fender behind us in terms of supporting that effort.

“The actual terms of the agreement are confidential, but essentially the intellectual property is owned by Fender – they still own the brand, but they have licenced it to us in an exclusive deal. We are able to use the same brand to manufacture Sunn amplifiers, speakers, audio products, software, and merchandise and a lot of exciting things that are coming down the bend.”

When the new site launched, there was a lot of talk about the investment page. Why go with Regulation Crowdfunding for Sunn?

“Some legal changes in the last few years mean that ordinary people can invest in private companies. That never existed before. If you think about most of the guitar amp companies that we know and love, they’ve been around for a long time – certainly more than 10 years, and in many cases, more than 50 years. And those sorts of funding opportunities just didn’t exist back then.

“My colleague Steve always says, imagine if you were a friend of a friend of Leo Fender, or you were the buddy of Jim Marshall back in the day and had the opportunity to invest in their future. Just think how cool that would have been. And that’s something that we do we have available to us now. So this is a really good time to allow people to take part in the project where they couldn’t do that before. But I’m not our investment specialist – the best way for people to find out about that is to go to the investment page and sign up for the newsletter.”

So, apologies in advance – but I’ve got to ask. Where’s the model T?

“There’s a couple ways you can relaunch a company. One is, you get a few guys in a shed with a soldering iron making a museum-quality copy of an original Model T, and it sells for seven grand to the few people that can afford it. But another way is to recreate the entire brand, with all of the products, historic and modern, and give it a path forward. So instead of just being a tiny maker of boutique amps with Sunn logos on them, we can become a real viable next-generation Sunn, and push it 10 or 20 years into the future.

“We had to think very carefully about what were the best products to do that with, and also make sure that we do support the community of amp fans. We’ll definitely be doing a Model T. In fact – there’s going to be more than one Model T. You have to look at how many people out there that really want one – but they’re really expensive amplifiers to build. By the time you’ve gone through all the supply chain, paid licensing fees and recreated all those components that no longer exist – you end up with a very expensive product that not many people can afford. But that’s a valid market, and it’s a market we’re going to support.

“However, we want everybody to be able to enjoy the sound, and access a Model T at some level or another. However, it’s a lot of development and a lot of resources to get to that point. We need to get the company going in order to be able to support that development.

“The good news is that we’ve got a lot of the original design team from some on our advisory board. We were fortunate enough to be able to meet the Sundholm family, and a lot of people who used to work in the Sunn factory in Tualatin. They’re helping us with the development of that product. That includes the original developers of the Coliseum, of the Beta, the Alpha, the Enforcer, and the Model T. So we’re going to have very legitimate Model T products – several of them, at different price points that everybody can access.”

Right now, there are a few smaller companies who will make you a Model T replica, but they’re not priced at the average guitar player.

“Right. We really want to support those efforts, too. If you really want a unique Model T right now, there are builders out there who will make you one. We can’t add all that much to those efforts other than a Sunn badge. But what we can add, as the real Sunn corporation, is access to that sort of product at different price points.”

I think a lot of people were surprised to see you launch without it, as they saw Model T as the face of the brand.

“Let’s look at what happened to Sunn last time around, its last iteration in the late 1990s, early 2000s. There, its key product – its only product – was a reissue of the Model T. It was a fantastic amp, and it killed the company. We lost Sunn for 20 years. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.

“We have to grow the business over a period of time. And the Model T has to be done right – it’s a complex job, but we’re going to do it, and do it in a way that is accessible to everybody.”

So what led to the 100S and 200S being the new Sunn’s flagship tube amps?

“If you think of where Sunn came from, that was an environment where amps just weren’t loud enough – the Kingsmen had the same issues with being heard as the Beatles and Stones. They just needed a louder amp, and that’s what the Sundholm brothers put together – a loud amp, using completely different technology

Sunn 100S and 200S
Sunn’s new 100S and 200S Images: Sunn

“The ultra-linear circuits were used to get really wide frequency response in hi-fi amps. And it was genius to turn that into a really, really loud bass amp, which is what became the 200S. That was the first Sunn product.

“So we wanted to reflect that history. We also wanted something that people could actually use. I know it’s an expensive amplifier, but you can take it out and play it – it’s not something you have to store away in a private room and can only look at. You can take this thing on the road and get that real Sunn sound.

“So that’s why we launched with the 100S and the 200s. It was a statement that this is who we are, and we’re making the original Sunn amps and we’re starting the same way that they did back in the 60s.”

What about the Beta amplifiers?

“There’s a huge community of people out there who really love those amps. Some people say that it’s one of the only ever good sounding solid state amps, alongside the Roland JC120. Aside from the modelling world. So we’re really excited to bring that one back. Everybody on the team really loves them, too – some of our engineers have ditched their other amps and are using prototype Beta Leads to play shows.

“And I can’t say too much about unannounced products, but one of the things you’ll notice about the original Beta Lead is it’s a fairly big box. With modern technology and manufacturing techniques, and certainly with the market in the way that it is right now with fly-rigs and those kinds of things, I think there’s a good chance that smaller versions of the Beta Lead might be on the horizon…”

Sunn Beta Lead and Beta Bass
Sunn’s new Beta Lead and Beta Bass. Images: Sunn

When people think of what a modern amp company is, there’s often a digital modelling and plugin aspect to it – will that be the case with Sunn?

“So if you’re not in the tube amp community, you’re in the modelling amp community, but you still want to access the Sunn sound in some way or another – one way to do that would be to use some kind of cabinet simulator in software. That’s something that will be available later on. But also, that’s where the first Sunn modern products come in, the full-frequency response cabinets.

“There’s a mantra that I use with the team all the time, which is, what would Sunn do now? If we hadn’t had that 20 year rest, there is no doubt at all that Sunn wouldn’t just be doing tube amps – when you talk to these guys, they were working on a lot of stuff that never came to fruition because Sunn was shut down.”

“They were starting to do Class D power amps, they were starting to do flat response speakers, they were starting to do things like cabinet simulation and reactive models and all these kinds of things. They were already starting to look at how there would be the next generations of product, which never came to fruition. So it’s our job to bring those products to life now.”

“We’re not just thinking that this is what they would have done, we know it is, as we’re in contact with the guys who were working there. Back then, these were the sorts of things they were planning – it was the really early days of MIDI, there were some of the early Class D amps, and reactive loads were in the very early stages. So that’s what we wanted to do with the Sunn modern line: reflect that lineage.”

“Right now, downloadable IRs, those are relatively new. So we certainly want to offer that sort of capability in the modern line, for the people who want access to that sound but don’t want a 150-watt tube head and a 2×15 cabinet.”

“So IRs are definitely in the plan. Our chief research officer, Fess, this is his group’s responsibility. Fess is a PhD, and an expert in artificial intelligence. So the third wave of products is going to include many more of these types of things, taking advantage of the very latest software and technology.”

“I mean, I don’t want to take away from the drama of playing a Sunn tube amp. When you stand in front of a 2×15 and play through a cranked 100S, it’s an amazing experience. I think people are going to enjoy playing those things for a long time to come. But they’re not practical or affordable for a lot of people.”

“When you’re looking at a worldwide market, where you’re shipping these products all over the world, or for bands where travelling costs are expensive, everyone’s really trying to condense the systems down and take advantage of modern modern modelling technology. So Sunn has got to do both. And there’s value in both.”

Are there any plans to outsource production overseas?

“No. Not at the moment, there’s no plan to do that. That really isn’t part of Sunn’s DNA. When you look at its history, the amps were mostly developed in one place in one factory up here in the Pacific Northwest. During the Hartzell days, there was another factory in Kentucky, which didn’t really work out. So even doing it in another state didn’t work out, they were just so tied to the factory.

“I’ve got to know the people that were there, and learn a lot about how it worked – it’s like a family. I mean, all these people hang out together, they were all best friends, people met their spouses and got married through Sunn. And it was very tied to that area, everybody loved working there. We want to make sure that we respect that, and really, do the same thing. You really never know what’s going to happen. But right now, I can tell you there are no plans to do any product overseas.”

You can find out more about the revamped sunn here.

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