The SansAmp, the catalyst for modern amp modeling
In 1989 Andrew Barta started a revolution, that today is a major part of producing the studio and live tones of guitarists and bassist from the pubs to the stadiums, that being direct signal amplifier emulation. Like most ideas that change the world, the major players rejected Andrews sales pitch, so he soldiered on and manufactured the SansAmp himself. Acceptance amongst artists and producers was quick and has been and is still used by a huge array of major acts around the world. These days the innovation of amp simulation is everywhere, even emulation of emulations with SansAmp plug ins.
Firstly I am a huge fan of the SansAmp. I have run PA systems for most of my life and whenever someone turns up with a SansAmp direct unit I know it’s going to be an easy night. In the store I sell a lot of BassDrivers. They are one of those rare products that the customer will continually thank you for the recommendation after finally finding that tone they were looking for.
I was lucky enough to be able to send some questions through to the brains behind this innovation.
As a performing musician, what type of bands were you playing in before and during the development of the SansAmp?
Mostly rock bands --cover as well as several original bands. They were mainstream, melodic and hard rock, and some early AC/DC, which was one of my inspirations for guitar tone. I also played with a country band for a short time when I first came to the US.
What was the inspiration to start the development of the SansAmp?
I wanted to find a simple way to record in the studio, get consistent sound and portability. When I was living in Hungary, I couldn't afford a Marshall, so I developed a distortion circuit I could use with the amp I had. Later on I decided to try and build a pedal with the whole signal chain that included all stages of amplification.
How did you go about presenting the SansAmp to the major companies and what were the reasons you were given for rejection? How did you react/respond?
I contacted sales people, heads of companies, and tried to meet manufacturers at NAMM Shows. Many didn't respond at all or outright refused to see me without even knowing what I wanted to present. A couple of companies offered to buy the technology at a ridiculously low price. Others had a preset notion of what a pedal should be, but the SansAmp didn't really fit into a pedal line or an amp line. It was a totally new concept and they didn't understand it. Having the door shut so many times, I was pretty disappointed and unsure what to do. Luckily, I had a lot of friends and musicians who were very supportive and encouraged me to go out on my own. All that rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Was there a point that a certain musician used a SansAmp that blew you away?
No singular point because it was almost a weekly event. I used to deliver the pedals to Sam Ash myself and would get updates from the salespeople who came in and bought one, such as Def Leppard, KISS, and AC/DC. One of the biggest surprises was Kurt Cobain. We had no idea he was into the SansAmp and turned out he had 5 of them. Some artists would call us directly, like Joe Walsh, Billy Gibbons and Les Paul. We used to think we were being punked, but it was really them. Les Paul, in particular, was a major rush because I was a big fan of not only his playing, but especially his ingenuity. Having the opportunity of working with him was just indescribable. I'm so very proud that he used our Trademark amp every Monday night at The Iridium in New York City for about the last 10 years he was performing. Les also insisted his bass players use the SansAmp Bass Driver. It was an exciting and humbling experience at the same time to have a kinship and relationship with one of my biggest idols and one of the biggest icons ever.
Andrew and Les Paul
Kurt Cobain and his SansAmp
Was there a moment of realization when you knew that what you had created has been a huge success?
Not really. It was a very gradual process because we were breaking new ground. The internet didn't exist, so it was hard to market because we had to do a lot of explaining and educating the first few years. It was easy when we could just demo it. Once people heard it, they jumped on it. That's what happened at our first NAMM Show in 1991. We took the smallest-sized booth and had very little equipment. Just a guitar, power amp and speakers. People were gathered in front of the table, 3-deep. We weren't supposed to, but we brought a bunch of SansAmps and sold every one of them.
Do you still have the original completed SansAmp? [a photo would be awesome]
There were quite a few, but it was a process to get to its final form. I'm not sure what happened to the final prototype. All I could find was one of the the original prototype chassis.
Are all lines still manufactured in New York?
We actually moved to New Jersey in 2002. We needed more space and having a loading dock was crucial. So we basically had no choice but to head west. We're only 13 miles outside the city, so it's fairly easy and convenient to pop in when an artist is in town or go see dealers.
What has the evolution of the company been since starting? How many staff work at Tech21 and how many people are on the product manufacturing?
I went from having one employee up to about 25. I never wanted to have a huge corporation and take over the world. I've seen too many companies grow too much and then degrade. Keeping it small allows us to be more flexible, have better quality control, and be able to turn on a dime. We're like a large family, so it's a very pleasant environment. There's no need to have endless meetings or answer to any bean counters. I'm able to spend my time designing products I truly believe in and would use myself, rather than reinventing the wheel or regurgitating other products. If I can't bring originality to the table, I won't do it just to grab market share.
Early 90s production
Early 90s testing
Do you have a family and are they involved or will be involved in the future of the company?
Yes, I have a daughter who's a professional model in New York City. She doesn't have any interest in electronics or being involved with the company, which is fine. It's so important to enjoy doing what you do, so she needs to follow her own path and I support that.
Do you have any goals or dreams you are yet to achieve?
Company-wise, I want to just keep doing what I'm doing. Dreams are typically unreachable, but I think goals are important. I'm constantly setting small goals because it makes life more exciting. It gives me something to work for and to fight for. I've been able to accomplish most of my bigger goals, so I don't feel like I have something to prove. I'm very content where I'm at.