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The Tony Iommi/Laney collaboration By Mike Clement

From the time that I started working for Tony in September of 1990 up to mid 1993, Tony had been using a variety of amps and speaker systems for live and recording work. The live rig was a Marshall system, based on the tube 9000 series. Physically there were;

  1. steel cages, each with fixed castors and containing 2 Marshall 4 x 12" speaker cabinets.
  2. 2 amplifier rack cases, each containing 3 Marshall 9005 50 watt stereo tube power amplifiers.
  3. 1 control/effects rack case, containing 2 (1 as a spare) Marshall 9001 tube pre-amplifiers, various effect units and a Pete Cornish relay effects switching unit.

The main advantage that this amplification system offered for live work was the splitting of the pre-amp and power amp sections. It is worth a little side-track to expand on this.

The traditional method of running a number of stacks on stage was basically to split the guitar signal into as many amp heads as there were set up, set the controls on each of these heads to more or less the same settings and hope for the best! Although some purists may argue that this is the rawest and best signal, the method is fraught with dangers. The first of these is whether the splitting is active or passive. This may not be as simple a choice as it first appears. If the guitar lead goes straight to a passive splitter box and then out to the individual amp heads, there is a direct effect on the behaviour of the pick-up within the guitar. The "loading" that a pick-up is working against must be maintained at a constant value for the guitar sound itself to remain consistent.

An active splitter at this point in the system is very likely to colour the sound unless very well designed (I am unaware of any commercially available units for this purpose other than custom designed).

If, however, the player is using effect pedals, and they are placed between the guitar and the amps, then the guitar signal is "buffered" and the signal that is subsequently fed to the various heads is going to maintain its workable integrity (hopefully).

The main problems that occur with this type of set up are that, at best, the guitar signal fed to each amp head is wholly dependent on the sonic quality of the effect pedal circuitry used and, probably more importantly, in order to alter the sound being produced on stage, each amplifier will have to be adjusted individually. When we talk about players of Tony's stature, these variables are unacceptable.

Splitting the pre-amps from the power amps gives a much more consistent control of the sound of the system.

Again, a bit of explanation: the pre-amplifier is the smart bit of the system. It is this that takes the raw stage signal and "shapes" it into the required sound determined by the musician or sound system controller. This control or "shaping" affects the frequency content (tone: treble-high, bass-low), the deliberate distortion of the sound (its drive) and its level. The power amp is there to provide the electrical muscle to drive the loudspeakers themselves, it does what it is told to do, i.e. make sound signals bigger but again, the technology applied has an effect. When valves are pushed enough they start to distort softly and affect even harmonics. Transistor solid state technology though tends to distort on the odd harmonics. Power amps usually have a gain (or, more properly, sensitivity) control and sometimes a simple tone control as in the presence control of the Marshall 9005.

It can now be seen that if the player has one pre-amp to adjust and a satisfactory sound signal produced, this can then be fed out to as many power amps are necessary to drive the required number of speaker cabinets with a uniform signal. By adjusting one pre-amp, all the power amps follow suit.

As alluded to above, effect units are a vital part of the system. It is far better to use "in line" effects e.g. compressors, wah pedals, octave dividers etc. before the pre-amp, and other "side chain" effects such as delays, chorus and reverb are much better placed after the pre-amp.

In the studio, there were a number of amplifiers being used. Among these were the Marshall Jubilee 2554 100 watt tube combo, the Marshall 2558 100 watt tube combo and the Marshall 9001 tube pre-amp d.i.'ed for clean bits.

On the sessions at Rockfield Studios in 1992 for the Dehumaniser album, we had selection of amplifier heads sent down to us by Nunu Whiting, who was then at FX Rentals and has now moved on to set up The Music Bank in London. Among these was an old Marshall JCM800 that stood out head and shoulders above the rest. When I mentioned this to Nunu he told me that it had been modified by Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars fame and that it was a valued item of hire stock and not for sale! Subsequent to this I contacted Paul Reed Smith himself and Tony bought a modified JCM 800 from him. This then became the main rhythm track amplifier.

The usual method of recording was (and still is) to have the amp (head or combo) in the studio control room and drive 4 x 12" cabinets in the sound area via long speaker cables. Different combinations were used for lead and rhythm tracks, the final bit of lead drive usually being delivered by a trusty old Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal. The live gear didn't have the right sound in the studio, so everything seemed a bit hit and miss, as good as all these amps were.

In spring of 1993 Sabbath were in the writing sessions for what was to become the Cross Purposes album in Westfield, a house near Henley in Arden, a little town just south east of Birmingham. During this time, Van Halen played a show at the Birmingham NEC. Eddie Van Halen is a great admirer of Tony and he jumped at the chance to come and jam a little with Sabbath at the house. While there he told Tony about his collaboration with Peavey that had resulted in the 5150 amp head and how happy he was with the result. He also promised to arrange for a couple of 5150 stacks to be sent for Tony to try out.

In early summer of 1993 the band moved into Monnow Valley Studios near Monmouth in South Wales (a place that has featured regularly in the history of Black Sabbath, from the very earliest to the most recent) to record Cross Purposes. The 5150 stacks arrived and Tony tried them but although good and obviously excellent for Eddie, they just were not right for Tony. The seed was sown though. While discussing the situation one beautiful sunny morning, we decided that the best course would be to try to find a manufacturer that could translate Tony's needs into hardware and produce an amp that could work on stage, in the studio, fit into the existing system architecture (i.e. a pre and power amp split), carry Tony's signature, be available to the market and above all sound great!! It didn't take long to think of Laney. So it was one June afternoon that I made a phone call to Bob Thomas at Laney's Cradley Heath headquarters that changed the course of amplification history!!

Tony had started off in Sabbath using Laney and had known Bob Thomas and the young Lyndon Laney from their beginnings. Bob had been a promoter in the Birmingham area and apart from fining his acts for playing too loud was a tireless champion of "our amp". In the early eighties however, they had hit a bad patch where their quality control had been knocked sideways by a series of bad suppliers and Tony had started to look elsewhere.

After listening to the basic outline of the proposal, Bob suggested that he, Lyndon Laney and Dave Hirons (the main design engineer) should drive down to Monnow Valley and start talking and listening. This they duly did and a listening room was set up with the all the existing gear. Tony played through all the combinations and we explained and pointed out the good and bad points of this and that amp and speaker etc. We outlined the features that Tony wanted (e.g. pre & power amp split capability) and they said that they would love to have a crack at it.

It was decided that the best way to address the project would be very much a "hands on" approach, which would benefit both parties. Dave Hirons would start designing and building prototypes and that at any stage that he felt he needed guidance as to which way to go, Tony and I would go to the factory with a guitar and do some A/B tests.

The main design criteria of the Tony Iommi signature model were:-

  1. The amp was to be a traditional style self contained 'amp head'.
  2. The amps that Tony himself would use would be no different from those distributed for saleon the open market.
  3. It would have the necessary inputs and outputs to enable the placement of effects after the pre-amp and before the power amp.
  4. It would have the necessary inputs and outputs to enable a system to be built for live usage whereby one head could be used as a master pre-amp controller and additional heads could be used as slaves to drive extra speakers.

In the years in between Tony's original involvement with Laney and the project in hand, the company had settled into a niche market with the bulk of its product centred on solid state technology. This was manifested in its Linebacker guitar combo ranges and having acquired HH Electronics, a well respected share of the middle ground p.a. market. Although the company may not have had a particularly high profile during this period,

  1. They had an amplifier production line, set up for solid state and tube technology.
  2. They had a wood workshop that could make any sized cabinets (amp or speaker) as required.
  3. They had complete control over every aspect of loudspeaker driver design and construction through the acquisition of HH (just around the corner in Cradley Heath).

Throughout the summer and fall of 1993 Tony and I were called upon to go along to the Laney factory in Cradley Heath to test out the options that were coming out of the design workshops of Lyndon Laney and Dave Hirons. There were many aspects to consider:

One of the first items for design consideration was the pre-amp. This was made with a large amount of extra gain. The Iommi signature model was not to be an item of compromise. It was not just a question of plonking in an extra pre-amp tube, the extra gain was shaped and controlled in a unique way that suited the 'Tony sound'.

The next was the power amp section. The first decision was the type of output tube to use. The traditional British tube for the 50 watt and above amp head has always been the EL34. In the golden days of Mullard, this was the absolute classic tube. However, Mullard and the other top quality western European manufacturers had ceased production as the tidal wave of transistor technology swept the world in the sixties and seventies. By the early years of the 1990s, there was at one stage only one factory in the world making tubes, and this was in China. Quality was variable and at one stage the factory was reported to have dropped the EL34 from its production schedules due the demand for the 6L6 and other American style output tubes from the large US manufacturers.

Although there were large stocks of EL34s around and some Russian and eastern European factories starting up again, the British amp manufacturers were nervous and they started to look for alternatives. The closest of these was a tube called the 5881 which is heavy duty version of the 6L6. Marshall Amplification actually started using this tube as its standard issue in all new tube amps. I am informed by Pete Cornish that this tube is a Soviet design, very close to the 6L6 and could be used in combat jet aircraft, it being capable of performing at huge g forces! The EL34 is in fact notoriously delicate and very sensitive to mechanical shock. The 5881 however is extremely robust and electrically consistent.

This was the first test we had to make regarding the power amp section. As above, Tony and I would go along to the factory with a guitar and do A/B tests. Nice as the idea was though, the 5881 just didn't sound quite as good as the EL34. The 5881 has a harder, more brittle sound which would definitely suit some players, but not Tony. It was decided therefore to go with the EL 34 for Tony, but to include a bias switch on the back panel of the amp that would allow the user to choose either the EL 34 or the 5881 as the output tube.

In order to accommodate the use of effects, an effects loop was put in. This came in the 'gap' between pre and power amps. A 3 way switch was included that added another dimension to the loop. All the effects that we wished to include at this point are 'side chain' in nature. That is, a portion of the guitar signal is split off, then it is 'effected' and mixed back in varying degrees with the straight dry guitar signal. The 3 positions of the switch are by-pass, side chain and insert. The by-pass position is obvious, it closes the loop. For the average player who may want an echo or chorus at this point, the switch is set to side chain, the effects units can be set to maximum 'wet' and minimum 'dry' output. The mix back with the unaffected guitar signal within the amp is then made with an effects return control on the back of the amp.

The heart of Tony's live rig is a Pete Cornish relay control effects switching system. It is this unit that performs the 'side chain' configurations within itself. This is why we needed the 3rd switch 'insert' position, in which whatever goes between the effects send and the effects returns sockets is totally self contained.

In order for the amp to perform its function as a master/slave unit, there are another two sockets on the back, a slave out and a slave in. A line is taken from the slave out socket of the master head then fed to the slave in sockets of all the slave heads in the rig. In Tony's rig there are 4 stacks of 2 (4 x 12") cabinets. Each stack is driven by one head. The architecture of Tony's rig has changed recently with the arrival of a new Pete Cornish control system, but the amp is still used in essentially the same way. More of this elsewhere in the site.

By the late fall of 93 the first prototypes in their new casings were ready. Their first use was for studio overdubs at the mixing sessions for the 'Cross Purposes' album at the Wool Hall studio near Bath in England. Straight away they proved their worth, giving all the drive and tone needed without external boosters and the like. To this day, in the studio we set up a couple of heads in the control room and a couple of cabs out in the sound room and away we go!

In preparation for the touring in support of Cross Purposes in early 94, Laneys put 8 of their 4 x 12 cabs (more on the speakers elsewhere on site) into the steel frames used to house the touring speaker stacks and new amp head flight cases were built. Up to this point the amps had not been given the final 'real' testing, i.e. on stage, on tour. Tony did the US leg of the tour in Jan/Feb with the old Marshall 9000s driving the Laney cabs. When we got back to the UK the first batch of production heads, now named the GH 100 S, were ready and cased up. Then, on the European leg of the tour, in spring 94, Tony took the plunge and the new amps were fired up in a 'combat situation'! The guitar sound developed a lot more punch and power and straight away triggered much critical acclaim.

After the touring finished in late summer, the band started the writing sessions for what was to become the 'Forbidden' album. Again the amp proved its worth being able to maintain the quality of its sound in writing, rehearsing and recording situations.
In February of 95, Laneys invited Tony to the Musik Messe exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, to help in the promotion of the new amp. This annual trade show is a staggeringly large event (and, to our American friends, yes it is much bigger than NAMM!!). Although the appearances by Tony at the Laney stand to sign posters were very hectic (unlike the US NAMM show, there are public general admission days at the end of the trade only session), we had a great time seeing many old friends at the show and then after hours sampling the beer and local cuisine of a small satellite town south of Frankfurt where Laneys set up camp.

Tony was out on the road for most of the latter part of 95. It was during the European leg of this tour that the Laney support network showed its mettle. As part of the ongoing process of testing the amps under road conditions, we took on a new set of amps in between the US and European legs of the tour, so that Dave Hirons could examine the amps that had just completed the US tour to test for any signs of road fatigue. As it happened, the amps we took on board had been fitted (unknowingly of course) with a batch of bad output transformers that had been supplied to Laney from an outside contractor. This is something that happens to all manufacturers at some time or another. As they started popping though, we had instant support from AA Meinl, the German distributor, and also a flying visit from El Maestro himself, Dave Hirons. It is experiences like this that show the way forward (they do not, however, help this writer's blood pressure).

In February 96 Tony again went to the Frankfurt Musik Messe to help out in the Laney promotion, enjoying more of the fun mentioned above re. the 95 visit. By this time Bob Thomas had retired, leaving Lyndon Laney himself holding the reins. (As an aside, it was in the closing stages of this show that we had the meeting at the Gibson stand with JT Riboloff, Rick Gembar, Mike Maguire and Scott Johnson that has led to the whole new Gibson link-up.)

Throughout the remaining period to date, the amp (now re-named the GH 100 TI to reflect its lineage), has been used constantly in recording sessions and as the long awaited re-union of the original Black Sabbath line-up has become a reality. During the Ozzfest tour in the summer of 97 and the NEC dates in Birmingham, England, in December of the same year, the guitar sound that Tony was producing continued to draw universally favourable comment from audience, sound engineers and musicians alike.

It is worth noting that during this whole period described, from 93 to date, the company has designed and put into production a whole new range of tube amplifiers and combos. These cover all the classic types of tube amps, especially the British range covering high power heads and the class A combos. The company has, under Lyndon's control, taken hold of a sizeable chunk of the tube amp market which reflects Lyndon's love of the tube and its associated technology. It also reflects the genuine abilities and dedication of ALL the Laney staff, big thanks to all at the brand new headquarters, especially Lyndon (curry soon?), Dave Hirons, James Laney and Simon Fraser-Clarke.

All of this from one phone call on a beautiful sunny morning in Monmouth in June 93..............well, that's what we like to think!!!