That fat analog sound

My Belles A is "absolutely worth repairing”

Mike Rubenhold in front of Audio Design
  • Mike Rubenhold in front of Audio Design

Maybe it’s when a man starts to feel a bit broken down and disposable himself that he starts to look around for things that are worth repairing and saving. Things like this Belles A amplifier that’s been tucked in my closet ever since a friend cleaned out his garage in my direction. Seems it’s the first amp ever designed by David Belles, the man behind Power Modules, Inc. He gets a lot of love in the online audiophile forums.

The fact that the amp weighs half a million pounds is strangely encouraging, even if it does make it harder to haul it to Audio Design in the College Area, there to see Mike Rubenhold, who runs the repair department. The business has grown over 25 years to occupy a fair portion of the Trenfel Block (b. 1940) at the corner of El Cajon and Rolando boulevards. The great majority of its warren-like space is given over to sales stock and rental equipment: stages, lighting, speakers, mixing boards, drum kits, guitar cabinets — everything except the band. But there are still two or three rooms for repairs: speakers that can be re-coned, DJ equipment, old reel-to-reel recording machines… and lots and lots of keyboards, some of them dating back to the ’70s.

“Most of them are analog,” says Rubenhold. “They became trendy again in the last 15 years or so — probably because of the rise of electronic dance music — because they have a really fat, analog sound. A lot of people describe digital sound as very harsh and dry, and analog sound as warm and rich.” (The reel-to-reels remain popular for the same reason.) “But they can be tricky to repair. There are no computer chips or replaceable modular pieces. It’s typically one big rat’s nest that you have to go through” to find the proverbial bad bulb that’s darkening the whole strand. “Often, you’ll have to create mods or fabricate parts that are no longer available.” Sometimes, he’ll search eBay to see if a particular unit is worth the expense. But because of that sweet analog sound, “music is probably one of the few industries that puts value on older equipment. I do a lot of vintage restoration, and my job will probably never be obsolete.”

That’s good news for a man who used to build and sell personal computers, and who turned musical passion (26 years on drums) and an electronics hobby (Mom and Dad bought him kits at Radio Shack) into a job after getting laid off as an engineer. “That was around 2000, when I answered an ad for an electronics tech at Professional Sound and Music on Mission Gorge.” During the economic downturns that followed, “fewer people were buying new gear. In the last few years there, repairs kept the business alive.” He opened the service department here in 2015.

O happy day: my Belles A is an ancient analog beast. “It’s absolutely worth repairing,” opines Rubenhold as he slowly ramps up the power to test for the excessive draw that will indicate a short circuit. (He finds it.) “It will sound very, very good.”

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