Writing credit: George Dyer of Reverb.com
Pat Quilter was reaching the end of a successful career as an engineer and founder of QSC Audio Products when he decided to rekindle his love affair with guitar amplifiers. Taking longtime QSC employees and fellow guitar nerds Christopher Parks (Quilter CEO) and Robert Becker (Quilter COO) along for the ride, Quilter built what is according to them “the fastest growing guitar amp company in the world today.”
It’s no stretch to say that the guitar world is divided into two camps: those who like Quilter amplifiers and those who have not yet heard of them. For those of you in the second camp, Quilter Labs produces guitar and bass amplifiers that deliver an authentic, stage–worthy vintage sound in a light, compact, and dependable package.
Quilter amps are designed and built in relatively small numbers in Costa Mesa, California, and they’re not exactly cheap. But according to Pat Quilter, they’re the “real deal for people serious about their work.”
Quilters Don’t Use Tubes, But They’re Not Quite Solid–State Either
The guitar amplifier industry has been struggling for years both in terms of sales and innovation, yet Quilter has succeeded in both respects. Even more surprising is the fact that Quilter amps are a variation on the much–reviled solid–state — or transistor — amplifier.
Originally hailed as the successor to the tube amp, the solid–state amplifier never gained supremacy over its clunkier — albeit groovier — predecessor. Many guitarists avoid solid–state amps because of their lack of warmth, tight distortion, and lack of responsiveness.
So why would Quilter gamble his retirement savings on a proven failure?
Maybe it was personal. Pat Quilter was among the earliest adopters of transistor technology in guitar amplification back in the late ‘60s. But by the early ‘70s, his guitar amplifier business had failed to gain a following, and he and his business partners refocused their efforts elsewhere.
It turned out that Quilter’s solid–state amp designs were particularly well–suited for powering large sound systems, hence the success of QSC Audio Products. Upon his retirement from QSC, Quilter set out to prove what he knew decades ago as a tinkering hippie: it’s possible to build an amplifier with desirable overdrive and response without using tubes.
What's Behind the “Quilter Sound?”
Pat Quilter was always inspired by “the smooth controlled clipping of the British ‘EL’ tube family,” which includes the Marshall Super Lead and Vox AC30, but he believes that “all the classic tubes have their particular merits.” That’s the thing with Quilters: although they’re not modeling amps, almost all of them allow the user to select among several amp voices.
As a technical nerd, I relished the challenge of supporting high–energy guitar playing, much like I imagine any good automobile designer secretly wants to do race cars." - Pat Quilter
Quilters — especially the Steelaire series — are well renowned for their warm and rich clean sounds. But as it turns out, their designer’s primary goal was to amplify a guitar signal “to the point of controlled sustain, feedback, and harmonic generation.” In other words, tones we would associate with rock or metal.
Quilter explains further, “As a technical nerd, I relished the challenge of supporting high–energy guitar playing, much like I imagine any good automobile designer secretly wants to do race cars.” That being said, Quilter recognized early on that “all great overdrive amps are built on a foundation of good clean tone.”
Quilters do not contain a specific design element, such as a digital processor that replicates a tube amp’s characteristics. Instead, the Quilter sound is very much the sum of its parts. From the power outlet to the speaker cone, every amp stage contributes to the amplifier’s sonic qualities:
Lightweight switchmode power supply: Fast–switching semiconductors are a lightweight and efficient method of transforming AC wall current into DC current for use in the amp’s circuitry. The switching power supply also allows the amp to function properly and maintain its tone across a wide range of voltages, making Quilters ideal for players who perform internationally, or in grubby watering holes with a shaky power supply.
Analog overdrive shaping circuit: The all–analog preamp circuit replicates the harmonic overdrive, clipping distortion, tube sag, and bias shifting of classic tube amplifiers. Users are able to change the overall character of the tone by switching between “voices” and, on some models, “boost” modes.
Lightweight and efficient class D power amplifier: The power amplifier is light, powerful, and efficient. It uses the same technology that powers speakers in laptops and smartphones: ultra–high frequency switch gates that amplify the signal with minimum energy loss.
Loose speaker coupling: Much of the responsiveness and warmth of a tube amplifier is the result of how it reacts to its speaker. Quilters are designed to replicate the voltage spikes that occur in tube amps, giving them a low speaker damping factor. This means that the speaker cone is allowed to maintain its own inertia and “sing.”
As Pat Quilter notes, “a great part of an amp’s tone emerges from the speaker and cabinet design.” So his combos are offered with a wide array of speaker and cabinet choices.
Aviators are available in open and closed back setups and — like MicroPros — are available with a variety of speaker sizes and types. But most Quilters are simply delivered as heads that you can plug into your favorite speaker cabinet.
Do Quilters Really Live Up To Their Reputation?
I use a Quilter Micropro Mach 2 combo with an eight inch speaker for club gigs and most recording sessions. The amp performs admirably, and I have found a set of tones that help me do what I like doing on the guitar. It took some time, however.
Quilter MicroPro Mach 2
The MicroPro has many, many knobs and offers no less than 36 permutations of its tone–shaping controls. Most of these permutations I do not like, but I know other players who get the tones they need out of the very settings that I avoid.
Having played my Quilter side–by–side with a variety of boutique tube amps and workhorses, such as the Fender Blues Junior and Peavey Classic 30, I’ve concluded that Quilters do not sound quite as good as tube amplifiers.
In isolation and with an optimal electrical supply, quality tube amps deliver more warmth, character, and tonal predictability than my MicroPro, which sounds ever so slightly artificial in comparison. For low volume, solo electric guitar performances, I still use tube amps over the Quilter. That is, when I am willing to lug one around.
The electric guitar, however, is primarily an accompaniment instrument, meant to shine in the context of a band. In this respect, my MicroPro supersedes all but the very, very best tube amplifiers I’ve played.
The Quilter has the uncanny ability to cut through even the muddiest and loudest of mixes. The frequencies that cut through sound brilliant and aggressive, accurately translating the subtleties of my playing. Tone purists can (and will) argue about the quality of Quilter tone, but the truth is, the amp’s strength is making playing the guitar feel really, really good.
What Can We Expect From Quilter Amps in the Future?
According to Chris Parks, “We named the company Quilter Labs because it really represents a place [where] we can prototype and make many cool things.”
And what might Quilter’s engineers be cooking up in their laboratory? “Pat has a battery–powered bass ukulele prototype made from an aluminum spaghetti cooker. Robert Becker is brewing away in his scant spare moments on reimagining a long lost keyboard known as an ‘Optigan.’”
It’s safe to say that the company’s focus is on research and development as opposed to growth and market dominance. As Pat Quilter puts it, “We don’t foresee becoming a volume leader, but we would like to be a reasonably affordable step–up brand for those serious about their art.”
In 2018, Quilter released some interesting new products, such as the MicroBlock 45 — a guitar amplifier the size of an effects pedal. They also introduced the Frontliner, which is a modular speaker cabinet solution for guitar players who own the 101 head or one of the Block family amplifiers — the Tone Block 201, Pro Block 200, and the newly released Overdrive 200. Similarly, the Bassliner serves a modular cabinet system for bass guitarists who use the Bass Block 800.
All Quilter amps — whether heads or combos — can be plugged into most speaker cabinets, making them super adaptable. Yet Quilter’s team wants to push further and “are thinking of ways to support more flexibility in this area.” It’s hard to imagine how.
Perhaps Quilter is developing even more cabinet options, or maybe they’ll make the Steelaire, Aviator, and MicroPro compatible with 16 ohm speakers (for now, they’re optimized for 4 and 8 ohms).
As music continues to evolve and diverge, we have a lot of other instruments to support, and I see a need to provide equally good and convenient amplifier tools for those players." - Pat Quilter
Finally, we may begin to see Quilter products destined for more than just bassists and guitarists — “an amp for the rest of the band,” as Quilter describes it. “As music continues to evolve and diverge, we have a lot of other instruments to support, and I see a need to provide equally good and convenient amplifier tools for those players.”
Building off of its experience placing a vocal and acoustic guitar channel in the MicroPro series, perhaps Quilter is considering a small, portable, and affordable sound system that could accommodate vocalists, keyboardists, and even laptop players.
Personally, though, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a bass ukulele that doubles as a spaghetti cooker.