Building a “Brown Sound” Amplifier Inspired by Eddie Van Halen

Maker News
Building a  “Brown Sound” Amplifier Inspired by Eddie Van Halen

Electric guitarists can spend lifetimes in search of the perfect tone that allows their instrument to sing like the rock gods they worship. The golden balance is typically achieved through the right combination of axe, amplifier, and effect pedals, requiring years of experimentation through never-ending gear purchases and trade-ins.

For Shian Storm, the bassist, sound engineer and producer of Los Angeles hard rock outfit Gabrielle Graves, sonic perfection was first modeled by late guitar hero Eddie Van Halen, who lost his battle with cancer this past October. “I’m not alone in this,” she says. “There are millions of people, the first time they heard Van Halen, it just turned their head around.”

The energetic virtuoso once said of his unmistakable guitar tone that he wanted it to sound like his brother Alex Van Halen’s snare drum — “warm, big and majestic.” He famously compared the resonance of the percussion instrument to the color and density of a log, leading to Eddie’s high-gain, organically harmonic and symphonic overdrive to be described as the “Brown Sound.” Recreating his sound quickly became a Holy Grail for rock musicians after the band’s eponymous debut record charted on Billboard in 1978. The textured, punchy, sustained distortion was easy to fall in love with, but very hard to come by.

In 2014, Storm gave up searching through pricey vintage amps to re-create the rock icon’s mythic tone, and embarked on a journey to make one herself, despite knowing “absolutely nothing” about building electronics.

Years of hard work later, the result is the Stormhenge Superthump 50, a carefully crafted copy of EVH’s 1967 100-watt Marshall Super-Lead “Plexi” amp head, which he used to record Van Halen albums through 1986’s 5150. “I really wanted an amplifier that I could just plug my guitar in and turn on a Van Halen record and play along with it, and not sound like I was playing through something inferior next to the greatest guitar player in the world,” Storm says, in a video (embedded below) she made to showcase the amp.

In the video, her bandmate Bryan Evans Gill IV plugs in his Gibson Les Paul to play four of Van Halen’s greatest hits — Unchained, Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love, Runnin’ with the Devil, Hot for Teacher — to demonstrate the hair-raising power of the custom creation. Indeed, it appears Storm has managed to successfully conjure the supernatural sound that has been the subject of discussion and debate among gear heads and guitar aficionados for decades.

Storm tells Make: that the genesis of the Superthump began with a theory: “A well-built Marshall doesn’t sound as good as one that was built wrong. Eddie’s was built wrong.” A friendship with another world-class guitarist, George Lynch, who played lead for ’80s metal band Dokken, allowed Storm to confirm the theory. He happened to have one of these rare defective models, coined “Magic Marshalls,” and took the amp to the company for an inspection, revealing it was, in fact, out of spec.

“There are a few mystic rattles and clangs that actually sound like something has broken loose inside the amp and is rattling around,” Storm says while describing the characteristics of the sound she was chasing. “But it’s not anything physically rattling, which is where the mystery comes from. And that rattling is a key component to the magic.”

Storm refers to her amp as a “Frankenstein,” marrying two basic ideas: the circuit from a 1967 50-watt Marshall “Plexi” — the 50-watt version of EVH’s Marshall — and the circuit from a Marshall Super Bass, which Jimi Hendrix sometimes played through. “And then it was about a year of studying circuit design, and learning what the differences were, learning what each part of the circuit did to the sound,” she says. “Rob Robinette’s page on tube amplifiers was extremely useful in helping me understand the circuit. I had to figure out the voltage regulator myself, but finding his stuff was the Rosetta Stone for me, with regards to basic layout and signal flow.”

Marshall 50 watt power amp circuit schematics (via Rob Robinette)
Marshall 1959 and 1987 Plexi preamp circuit schematics (via Rob Robinette)

One of the most useful resources for Shian was a YouTube channel, Uncle Doug, who takes apart old vintage amps to fix them, and narrates the process.

“He’d walk you through the circuit,” she says. “And I learned a ton from that.” But even with expert tutorials, she was initially too intimidated by the complexity of an amp to start fiddling with the wiring, so she bought a simple breadboard to practice. “It’s a device that you can stick components on and wire it up, build and test and experiment with your own circuits, add a little voltage,” she explains. “From that point, you’re basically learning the fundamentals of electricity and electronics.”

Shian also used an app called iCircuit, an advanced simulation engine that can handle both analog and digital circuits and features realtime, always-on analysis. The most useful forums she turned to for advice and troubleshooting include the Marshall Amp Forum and the Metropoulos Forum, an online community dedicated to vintage amp discussion. These digital tools helped her with early practice projects: modifying guitar pedals, a guitar, and another amp before attempting to build the Superthump.

The second leg of the journey was scouring used gear sites, like Reverb, specialty dealers, Craigslist, and eBay for parts — tubes, capacitors, power and output transformers, Allen-Bradley resistors, and a custom-built circuit board. She turned to a company in the Czech Republic to buy various tubes to test, one set at a time, but considers any specifics about the company or tubes as proprietary information. “You’re spending $100–$200 a pop, which you can’t do on a regular basis, so it was a very slow process,” she adds. “It took me about a year.”

By the end of 2016, after three weeks of hard work in the garage, Storm had successfully assembled, wired, and soldered the prototype for the Superthump 50.

Superthump 50 circuitry and chassis

The power switch turned on, and her Frankenstein was alive. But she quickly discovered another problem: “It was out of control,” recalls her bandmate Gill. “It was balls to the wall, just hair and distortion. It only really did one thing. It was just a fire-breathing dragon.”

The Holy Grail of rock music, Storm discovered, also requires the divine technique of EVH. “I was going for Eddie Van Halen’s sound and I got there, but then I realized it only works in Van Halen. You have to have Eddie’s hands. You have to have that music and that composition,” Storm says. “I needed to figure out how to make the Superthump be capable of both Van Halen and Gabrielle Graves.”

Storm knew she was on the right path, though, from reading interviews with her hero. “I remember Eddie Van Halen saying that his amplifier, when he first got it, it scared the shit out of him, because it was completely out of control,” she says.

The secret ingredient turned out to be a Variac, a popular type of variable voltage transformer, which EVH used to reduce his Marshall’s operating voltage to lower headroom and increase overdrive saturation, without doing any internal modifications. “But what he didn’t tell anybody, and what I learned,” Storm explains, “is if you do that to the amplifier, it gets really spongey. It gets really warm and really musical, but you lose a lot of the punch and fire you get from a tube amp. So, you have to go into the bias and bias the power tubes back up. So you’re browning out the preamp, but you’re blasting the power amp.”


Another key component that Shian discovered through her long process of trial and error was the right transformer. “I had a ceramic transformer in there originally, and it didn’t sound right,” she says. A friend suggested trying a paper wound transformer, instead, and once installed, she immediately recognized that “mystic rattling,” a unique aspect of EVH’s sound.

“It sounded like something was broken inside the amplifier,” she remembers. “It literally sounded like if you took a big 50 gallon oil drum, put a little bit of water, and then dangled a spoon on a string, and let it clang against the edges.”

Amplifier diagram vs finished unit

And finally, what good is an amp without the right speakers? Shian explains that she paired the Superthump with an Avatar 412 cabinet, loaded it with EVH’s favorite speaker, Heritage Greenbacks. Still, something was off. “And then an interesting thing happened. I saw this article in this magazine from Japan, from way back in the ‘80s,” she explains. “And they showed a picture of Eddie’s speaker cabinet.”

She assumed the bottom half of his cabinet were the Greenbacks, but did not recognize the two speakers with the silver aluminum dust caps. Once again, she scoured the internet to figure out what type of speakers they were, and landed on JBL D120Fs. She couldn’t find an affordable used pair online, so instead she bought a clone from WJS. Once in her cabinet, they led her ears to another “Brown Sound” revelation.

“Eddie never used a chorus pedal on the first record, but everyone hears chorus. And they’re like, what’s causing the chorus? What is he using? It turns out, it was those speakers,” she says. “If you talk to engineers, you know that if you get a really short delay — about a 30 millisecond delay — you’ll get chorus. I’m not exactly sure if this is what is happening, but I believe it’s some sort of a delay between the different speakers … there’s some sort of variance between the sound coming out of the Greenbacks and the sound coming out of those JBL’s.”

To hear all of these components in action, watch the video Shian made to showcase the Superthump 50 and share her story of chasing down Eddie Van Halen’s iconic “Brown Sound.” To see more of her custom gear, follow Stormhenge Custom Toneworks.

She tells Make that this build took “years and years of studying, going on message boards, and asking stupid questions,” but ultimately, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“The amount of work you need to put into learning this stuff, it’s like going to college. You’re giving yourself an education, and you’re spending tens of thousands of hours doing research and experimenting,” she says. “It was the journey of all the experimentation that led me to what became a unique sound.”

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Greg Gilman

Greg Gilman is a writer and musician based in Los Angeles, California, where he began his career as a reporter and editor for TheWrap. After forming rock band Greg in Good Company, he pivoted to freelance journalism, with his work appearing in publications including MovieMaker Magazine, Syfy Wire, and Make: magazine.

View more articles by Greg Gilman


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