Thumbing a lift

Get off a plane at Nuremberg airport, ignore the reams of tourist junk on sale everywhere and drive a couple of hours east. You’ll end up at the Germany/Czech Republic border, and if you stop at a town called Markneukirchen you may find yourself somewhat stunned by a futuristic grey building that is in stark contrast to its agricultural landscape. This is the HQ of Warwick and Framus instruments, a company founded in 1982 by engineer Hans-Peter Wilfer, son of Framus founder Fred Wilfer. Enter the lavish lobby, dust the snow off your boots and get stuck into the array of top-spec instruments, which line the walls. It’s a gobsmacking experience for any musician, guitarist or bassist.

Marcus Spangler, head of production, gave us the full tour when we visited Warwick back in November, from the wood stores via the factory and through every stage of a guitar’s production. Given the thick layer of snow that had fallen on the night of our arrival, the place had the slight air of Santa’s workshop, albeit on a massive scale – especially when Marcus showed us the bespoke fretting/neck finishing machine. This amazing bit of kit costs somewhere between £1-2m, according to Wilfer, and is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. Spangler also showed us a revolutionary finish-drying process, during which the varnish or paint applied to an instrument is surrounded by a nitrogen atmosphere and zapped with ultraviolet light, as well as the machine that burns each instrument’s serial number into the back of the headstock – by laser. All this place needed now was a DeLorean that travels through time when it hits 88mph.

Panorama2

Wilfer has built a serious empire out here, as well as running the company’s budget lines from Asia. Over dinner and the odd cold beverage, he told us about the company’s history, his plans for the future and the new 1000W Class D bass amplifier that he’s about to launch with his longtime associate and bass legend Jonas Hellborg, who also joined in the chat. “Our goal is very simple: we try to make good products,” says Wilfer. “It’s a very small manufacturing situation here in Germany. You won’t see 500 examples of a single body style stored here, which is a big difference between now and years ago. Back then we used to do serial production of 50 basses here and 100 basses there. Today it’s two basses, five basses, one bass and so on. We have a lot of dealers and distributors who come and visit us, and they’ll take one bass from here and another one from there, from special selected woods and so on. That is what we do here, at the really high end.”

Asked how he plans Warwick’s progression, Wilfer explains: “If you’re already at a high standard, then the steps you take to improve aren’t milestones any more: if you’ve already got a product that is, say, 92 per cent perfect by today’s standards, then the upward steps for a guitar or bass or amp are minor.” Hellborg adds that improvement can only come through expertise. “If you turn on an amp it normally sounds like the Niagara Falls. They distort and they clip. I refuse to make any compromises, though: I want them to be as great as anything that you’d pay a million bucks for, but still be in the same price range as all the other amps. It is done by doing it correctly, just like recording. Recording engineering used to be an art form where people knew how to put things to tape, because tape had limitations. You didn’t have endless amounts of tracks and an endless signal-to-noise ratio.  You had to get the signal and the sound right, because you didn’t have the space to manipulate afterwards. You had to get it right, and it’s the same with electronics. I have some old tube radio equipment dating back to the 1940s, and that stuff measures on a technical level better than any modern-day recording equipment in terms of distortion levels.”

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He adds: “The technology is there if you just take the time to learn about it. When a signal passes through a resistor, it creates heat, and the higher the value of the resistor, the more noise it creates. If you design really high resistor values, over time this adds up to a lot of noise. The values matter, in a long chain of events, so by keeping the impedance very low, you achieve lower noise. It doesn’t cost more to buy a 1k resistor than to buy a 1 megaohm resistor, it’s the same price – you just design it differently and you get a better result.”

Hellborg’s signature amp series is the result of this approach, says Wilfer. “Half the industry laughed at us when we launched the Hellborg series, because they thought the prices were unaffordable for most consumers, but we didn’t do it in the conventional way. We didn’t ask ourselves what the retail price, the dealer price and the distributor price would be and how much money would go to the vendor. We said, ‘What do we need to do to make the best possible preamp?’ The goal was to gain experience, and through that, plus all the investment we made in the high-end Hellborgs, we’re now in a position where we have a 20W combo for something like £120 street price in the UK. Yes, you can get cheaper combos, but our £120 combo is incomparable to everything else on the market, from the quality of the sound. This is the difference in what we do.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs for bass guitars, says Hellborg: “Over the last few years we’ve got some of the people who play Warwick involved on a very personal level. We’re like a family, and people gravitate towards us. We’ve had people like Verdine White call us up, and Lee Sklar, and Adam Clayton of U2.”

Asked about the philosophy that underpins Warwick, Wilfer explains: “We deeply believe that the product has to have long-term value for the consumer. This will pay off over a couple of years, as more and more followers will come to us. In 10 years we’d like to have a sustainable company which takes great care of resources. The ecological issue is important to us. Only a few major companies in Germany pay as much attention to energy management as we do. We are one of the few companies in the world that are certified to use Brazilian rosewood. We even use FSC approved wood for the amplifier cabinets.”

He goes on, “We’re the first company in the entire MI industry whose products are carbon neutral from the first step in production until they land at the stores. It took us nine months to get this certification and to get every step of the way approved.”

New developments from Warwick this year, many of which will be on display at the London Bass Guitar Show, include new woods, says Wilfer. “We have white ebony being used in the Rockbass line for the first time, and we’re moving back to wenge in a lot of basses because FSC-certified wenge is now available. We’re also about to launch a 1000W lightweight amp.”

UV and water soluble lacquering

Hellborg, the amp guru, explains: “Most Class D amps are basically powered by two companies. One is Italian and the other is Danish. They all use the same power amp, and we have developed a much better sounding Class D amp that is the same size. We’ve evolved the feedback circuitry to get better bass and a tighter response. It will go to market in the summer and, as far as I know, it will be the only 1000W amp of this size.”

Looking back on Warwick’s history, Wilfer concludes: “We are very blessed here, which I know is an American cliché, but it’s true. I’ve been doing this job since I was 18, and I’m 54 now. Being self-employed and having your own company in the MI industry for over 30 years is an achievement in itself. We never had money from investors or anything like that, and in 1982 it was extremely hard. I worked from one day to the next and I had no money. We’re in a comfortable situation now: if the business fell apart, we’d survive, which I’m very grateful for. I work every morning from before 5am and I go on until 8pm, seven days a week,” he says. “The employees think I’m crazy, but I love my job!”

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