Stephen O’Malley

Interview: Conrad Sundholm

Posted: Jan 28, 2011


Interview: Conrad Sundholm of Sunn O)) amplification

For those of you who are guitar players, and into underground metal or just into vintage amplifiers, you have probably heard of Sunn amplifiers. I was given the opportunity to interview the man who started the company, Conrad Sundholm. This man is an awesome person who is still, at 72, pushing himself to make new amplifiers. So here's my complete interview with the man himself.

Scott: What made you decide to start building your amplifiers?
Conrad Sundholm: Well I’d always been a hi-fi buff in building my own equipment, you know, for my home use. And then when my brother was a bass player for the Kingsmen, at the time he was working at a music store in Portland, Oregon, and he was using old Bogen 60-watt tube p.a. amplifiers for his bass. And then he brought a, let’s see, a 2x15 cabinet to me and we modified the cabinet so he could get more low end out of it. And that’s kind of what started it. And then, I told him that I would build him a cabinet for him. And he wired up an old dynaco 60 watt mark 3 power amp and we used a dynaco preamp with it, threw it in a box, and I built the cabinet which was a rear loaded folded horn which later became the 200s cabinet. This particular one had extra bracing in it, and it sounded great. And then he got involved with the Kingsmen, and took that system out on the road and you know it was outperforming anything else that was out there so people were asking about it, and he told them to go to their local dealers to ask them to carry the product. I was back at home, building this stuff and he was out there kinda promoting it out on the road playing for the Kingsmen.
SW: Wow, that sounds like it worked out perfectly. Did you have any formal training in electronics or was it just messing around when you were younger?
CS: No I had no formal training, but as the company grew I hired people who had very good electronics backgrounds.
SW: What was the creative process like for creating you amplifiers, like the model T and Solara. Were there any epiphany moments, where you decided that that would be a good sound?
CS: Well, the big epiphany moment for me was the 200S cabinet, I had kind of a…I don’t know…a guidance coming out of sleep, in terms of a design for that. And the next day I got up and built the design which turned out to be the 200S, which norm used on the road, which proved to be a very good bass cabinet. The other stuff like the Model T and the Solarus, was just a matter of me providing inputs from the marketplace and the kind of performance that was needed, and then sitting down with the engineers and discussing it and having them design the product and then doing the sound testing and field testing of the product that was involved with that.
SW: Are you aware of how many bands still use the Model T, and still tout it as being one of the best amplifiers?
CS: Um…yes I, see that model T was developed just as I was leaving the company, so I was not too aware of everybody that used them but I know there were a lot of big groups, a lot of regional groups, which were big back in that day, though it’s not happening today. I know West of Mountain and other big name groups were using that stuff.
SW: Well actually, as of right now you have a band that’s named after your company.
CS: Right, I think they’re a death metal band or something like that.
SW: It’s actually kind of a drone thing, they originally didn’t even use a drummer, and they just use your amplifiers. I always thought that was really interesting because the sound was thick enough that they don’t need other instruments.
CS: Well, on the early units we used really high quality output transformers that could go down to even 10 Hz [sw note: that’s an octave lower than the average human’s hearing…that’s bass folks] and they were very very linear. We used a method of connecting the screens to a screen tap on the output transformer, which is called an ultra-linear output and they were very very clean and deep in their response.
SW: It could get to 10 Hz?
CS: I had a 2000s on my bench a couple of months ago and I measured it and it could go down to 10 Hz.
SW: Wow…that’s low.
CS: You know, a bass guitar, the fundamental low frequency is around 42 Hz, but, you know, if you can go down one octave below the fundamental frequency of the bass guitar then you have a really good performing amplifier. The only question is how you get a speaker cabinet that will go down there.
SW: So in the 90’s Fender bought out your company?
CS: Yes, I sold the company to Hartsel Industries out of Minneapolis, Saint Paul. They wanted to diversify into electronics and then they operated the company for a number of years and then they eventually sold it to fender, and fender operated a factory here in Lake Oswego Oregon, which is a suburb of Portland. And they did a lot of their builds here; in fact I think they might have built some of the Fender product here in that location, I’m not sure about that.
SW: How did you feel about the buyout? Was it ok with you to have that name be used by Fender?
CS: Well, I have no control over that ha-ha. You know, we worked hard at building a quality reputation and a product that would really withstand the rigors of road travel and I’m not so sure that was maintained by Fender. But you know, by that point I’m really totally out of it, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. And I really didn’t pursue what they were doing.
SW: Have you ever considered re-acquiring the title of Sunn, since they have seemingly stopped all production.
CS: You know, I haven’t. You know for me in my life, too many schematics too little time, you know what I mean? I’m 72 years old now, I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing now, building the amps that I’m building. I have given some thought to building a clone of the Model T; I would probably call it a Model C.
SW: That would be amazing. I know for my friends and I, we’ve always wanted to find a good first generation Model T, even a second generation but really we have tried to ignore the post-fender model T’s. But they’re in such short supply that we can’t even find them.
CS: Well, I’ve given some thought to that and maybe as a result of our conversation here I’ll dig in and get it done. Yeah…the second generation Model T had some weird midrange switch in there using an inductor, it was kinda funky, I’ll have to study the schematic on that a little bit. Yeah, the first generation is the best unit. The key will be to find a good output transformer, duplicate what they had back then, and that transformer company is no longer in business.
SW: So you would have to find another company that makes an equal power transformer?
CS: Right, I’d have to find someone to build that transformer.
SW: What is the difference in design and performance of your newer amplifiers with your current company [Conrad Amps] than the amplifiers built with the Sunn Corporation?
CS: Well, I tell you what, we were best known in the era that I was involved in, for our bass amps and we always struggled coming up with a really good guitar amp; probably the first one was the model T. Although, there were others, the Solarus and so forth, but they really weren’t quite there. Because we were so clean oriented, you know what I mean? Linear oriented, we didn’t do anything that was high gain or designed to create distortion. And most of the musician input that we were receiving was more in the jazz orientation and cleaner tones. So anyways, here in the last few years, I’ve had a desire to build a good guitar amp, to see if I could really do that and so that’s kind of what motivated me to build the amps that I’m building now.
SW: Do you mostly focus on getting a clean warm sound out of your newer amps instead of a high gain sound?
CS: Well that’s the direction I’ve been going, and you know, that’s kind of where the model T is as well. The model T is not a high gain amp, you just really have to drive the snot out of that thing to get it to break up. I’ve had an interest here recently of doing some higher gain stuff.
SW: Was it your idea to go into mixers and P.A. systems?
CS: Well, the initial push was bass amplifiers, but when Dick McCloud was hired in the engineering department he kind of took us in that direction with the solid state circuitry and stuff, so that led to those products. Later on I started another company called Bi-amp systems, and we were really big into mixing consoles, equalizers, power amps and stuff for the semi-pro audio market.
SW: Did your brother, Norm, ever help with the design of any models?
CS: Only from the standpoint of marketing input, you know he wasn’t a technically oriented person, he was a musician. He was involved in evaluating cones, and sound testing products.
SW: Well I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with me.
CS: Sure, No problem.

Check out these amplifiers! Let's all pray for the coming of a possible Model C!!!