‘We Must Be Doing Something Right!’Dale Krevens of Tech 21 Discusses the Company’s First 30 Years

Christian Wissmuller, Dan Daley • November 2019Upfront Q&A • October 29, 2019

From its signature product, the SansAmp, to subsequent effects pedals, DI boxes, rackmount units, and amplifiers, Tech 21 has been breaking new ground and setting industry standards. Vice president Dale Krevens has worked alongside lead designer and company president Andrew Barta since the very beginning. She recently sat down with MMR to discuss the genesis and evolution of the brand that countless musicians depend upon in the studio and on-stage…

For those who aren’t familiar, can you summarize the beginnings of Tech 21?

Sure thing. Andrew was a performing musician who was in a band, but also had a background in electronics and worked on amplifiers as a tech for a living. The idea of coming up with a lighter, more portable solution – what came to be known as “amp modelling” – that still sounded as good as tube amplifiers was the starting-point for what ultimately became the SansAmp, really.

He had the basic idea for the product and over the course of that 10 years, he kept fiddling with this, fiddling with that, and he finally came up with this little prototype and started showing it to people because he liked it and he was wondering what everybody else thought about it and they were all like, “Yeah, this is great.” And Mick Jones (Foreigner) was one of the first artists he showed it to because, again, what he was doing for a living was repairing, and customizing, and modifying amplifiers and he had some pretty big-name clients – Mick Jones being one of them. So he said, “Well, all right. Let me see. Let me try and sell this to one of the established manufacturers out there like a Fender or Marshall, and I’ll take my money and then I’ll sync that into my music career,” but nobody got it. Everybody just said, “Yeah, thanks, but no…” Nobody’s going to give up tube amplifiers. And he just got so frustrated with it so I told him, “You gotta do this yourself. It’s so good!” And that’s what started it, you know?

What was your own background in the industry and your own background with him? What led to your current and evolving role at the company?

Well, my background was advertising and marketing, but prior to that, I was a huge music fan. You know, my brother is a guitar player. I have been listening to music since I could walk, I think, and being that my brother was in a band, I used to go to all the rehearsals. I’d listen to guys talk about gear for hours and hours and hours, so I got a lot of that osmosis.

And you knew Andrew how?

He was just a friend of mine and he was talking about what he was working on and I got all excited about it. When he first told me what the thing was, he said, “Oh, I invented this thing,” and I said, “What is it?” I reacted the exact same way that everyone else in the world did. It was like, “What? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s not possible.” So he brought it to my apartment and he plugged it into my stereo and he played it, and I just sat there and I said, “How did you do that?” I mean, I was used to following my brother around with his Marshall stack, you know, and I’m like, “Oh, my God. It sounds just like a tube amp!”

So this is back in the beginning – mid- late-‘80s. Can you tell me, initially, how many employees were there? What was the original headquarters, so to speak?

Well, I mean, he kinda started out of… Let me think about this for a second. I think he started selling them when he was working at… He had an office or a workshop in the back of Rogue Music on 30th Street, and he kind of sold it out of there. And then he later moved to 49th and Broadway and he had one employee. He decided it was him and an assembler. That was it. And then he hired a guy to help out with sales and office stuff and then I think he hired another assembler. I was working behind the scenes because I had a really good job, but he kept saying, “You’ve got to come work with me,” and I’m like, “Hell, no. You can’t afford me!” you know? But I was always really into the whole thing and, a lot of times, I would be working on his stuff rather than what I should’ve been working on, but that’s another story [laughs]. But getting it off the ground, I said, “First thing we’ve got to do is we gotta name this thing. We’ve come up with a company name.” So we worked together on that, and then I actually came up with the name, “SansAmp.” and I didn’t tell him about it for three days because I had to make sure I really liked it, but…

What was the genesis of the term SansAmp? It was a contraction of, obviously, amp, but did the “sans” part refer to “without?”

Exactly – “sans” in French means “without.” It was hilarious. I’d be sitting on the living room couch and Andrew would be pacing back and forth shouting out names, and then I’d be shouting out names and I just wrote them all down. I don’t know what happened to that list because I saved it for the longest time and it just disappeared but I just kept saying, “No, at least have ‘amp’ in the name. It has to have to that,” because, otherwise, you’re not going to get it. So, I don’t know – “SansAmp” just popped into my head one day.

It was a good thing that it did, obviously – now it’s an iconic name and iconic product! When did you come on board officially and when did the company become Tech 21?

The company became Tech 21 in May of 1989. He spent two years trying to sell the technology to others. I had been working behind the scenes for a year before that. I wrote the original owner’s manual. I did all of the copies, ads, and the layouts, although I used to work with an artist at the agency where I was, but nobody cares about that. And I

physically went to work with him in October of ‘91, but I was involved the whole time, you know – before day one, obviously.

So it was initially the little workshop with one other guy in addition to himself working as an assembler. Cue to the present day, how many employees are there?

Well, we’ve always managed to remain a small company. There’s about 20 of us now.

Still, 20 compared to two…

Well, the thing is, Andrew doesn’t want to take over the world, you know what I mean? He doesn’t have a really huge ego and his whole thing is he wants to design really good products, really useful products. Andrew doesn’t want to copy anybody and he doesn’t want design a product if there’s already a million of them already out there. If Andrew can’t bring something new to the table, he doesn’t want to do it, you know?

Sure. He’s coming at it from an artist’s standpoint as opposed to a pure commerce standpoint.

Absolutely, absolutely. That’s why we didn’t grow into this big, giant mega-corporation with shareholders and all of that other stuff. That’s not how he’s programmed, you know what I mean? He likes to have control over things – the quality is really important. He’s very hands-on and he really cares about what he’s designing and how people are going to use it. He’s very aware of that.

Speaking to that, most brands have partnerships with the endorsing artists and they leverage that to varying degrees. How important has it been to be embraced by such a wide swath of really high-profile, accomplished, technically proficient artists?

You know, that’s it – we must be doing something right. I think, actually, it’s more on a personal level, because we don’t chase after artists. We don’t knock on their doors just to say, “Hey, we want you to endorse the product. We want to make a signature piece for you.” Every instance has all been very organic. As an example, we happen to be fans of King’s X – both Andrew and I, and several other people that work here. We were at a NAMM Show one day and this guy comes over and he starts talking to me and he mentions something about the band being here and I was like, “Dude, you gotta bring them over here.” I was dying. And so he did and that’s how we met Doug [Pinnick]. And Andrew was… you know, he was totally like a giddy little girl, you know what I mean? I mean, I knew he was inside. He wasn’t exhibiting that time, but, you know, it was just really funny. So he’s like, “Oh, I’d love to make an amp head for you,” and Doug was like, “Cool. I’m into it.” And that’s how it kinda snowballed, you know, and then I don’t… I mean, Geddy Lee has been using our stuff for a really long time.

Yeah. Talk about the biggest name in the rock bass – my goodness, Geddy Lee.

I know, I know! And, you know, he’s not one of these… He doesn’t endorse a whole lot of products. He just wants to have a really good sound and he doesn’t want to make a big deal about it. We had been working with him and we talked to the tech one thing led to another. It’s like, “Hey, how about we do this?” Because he had a whole lot of gear and that was the thing: Rush was winding down and they were going to basically retire. But Geddy still wanted to be able to do projects and float around and not have to carry all of the Rush gear with him, so we realized, “Hey, how about we make a signature rack-mount?” He said, “Yeah. Let’s do it.” And even Les Paul… I don’t even remember how that got started but, Les Paul had been using our amp for a really long time.

Well, obviously, Les is such a gear guy in the first place.

Yeah, but you never know who is going to be impressed. Sometimes, I’ll meet somebody and say, “Oh, this is right up your alley,” and they don’t like it and you kind of scratch your head and go, “I don’t understand.” So you never take for granted that people are going love your stuff. You can’t. So with Les, I mean, he and Andrew were very similar. They were similar souls, shall we say, and because they’re both tinkerers, they like to take things apart and make other things. They would see things differently which is what sets those kinds of people apart from everybody else. And, in fact, Les invited Andrew over to show him all of his goodies and everything. He was just the coolest and it was great.

But going back to the personal aspect of it all, we don’t want to just make a signature piece for the sake of making a signature piece. In terms of marketing, obviously, people really sit up and pay attention. When you put Geddy Lee, Richie Kotzen, and Les Paul on the product, people say, “Whoa, what’s this?” So it’s a no-brainer that, you know, that’s going to help you.

Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of the product line?

Well, I mean, after we came out with the original SansAmp, part of the evolution was we went to the GT2 because people had some issues with the dip switches. They didn’t like that. And it is a very sophisticated piece and it’s fairly easy to not get a good sound out of it if you don’t know what you’re doing, so that’s how we developed the GT2. I mean, you cannot get a bad sound out of that no matter how you twist the knobs. And then, of course, people were like, “Oh, I want it for bass,” so we went to bass and went to acoustic. So we went through the whole thing and then rackmount, programmable. It’s just the natural evolution of all of that.

People kept saying they would love to have a SansAmp in an amp and we were like, “Okay… Well, that’s kind of ironic, but okay. Let’s do it.” So that’s how we came out with the Trademark series. And then the other thing was a lot of people were asking, “What amp should I use the SansAmp with?” because you needed a clean, flat amp, and that’s how we developed the Power Engine. That was the inspiration behind that and that was very successful and now we’ve reissued that with the Power Engine Deuce Deluxe, so that it’s just one that you can use for both guitar and bass, which is fantastic.

And then Andrew wanted to do some effects and we did the Roto Choir, and delays, and reverbs, and stuff. That was more fun stuff for us because, again, he always tries to bring something unique into whatever it is that we’re doing rather than just regurgitating something that someone else has done. And we had the Comp Tortion where we put compression and distortion together. There’s always, like, some little extra functionality or bonus with any of those products. And then, of course, the Fly Rig series, that’s doing really, really well and it’s the perfect timing for it, I gotta say, because everybody wants to downsize. Even though pedals are all the rage, you know, the pedalboards have gotten really, really big. You can’t travel with those things, you know? So we were able to shrink everything down and put it in one unit, all of those different varieties.

Absolutely. You can put that in your overhead and off you go. Do you have any events, or special anniversary products lined up? What have you done and/or are you planning to do to sort of mark this milestone?

Well, unfortunately, I was trying to plan this huge party for this past NAMM Show, but it just got out of control and we had so many things that we were introducing. There was so much going on, we couldn’t do it. And then I got an award from the She Rocks people, yeah, so that was really exciting. All right, this is good timing. All right, that’s going to be the party, you know, for us. We’ll just celebrate it on our own. We do have something coming out. We were hoping to have it out by now but, of course, things never go on time. So we do have something we’re going to be releasing to commemorate our 30th anniversary. It’s not the classic. It’s not going to be like, “Oh, the 30th-anniversary version of the classic…” It’s something completely different and we’re very excited that it’s close and, hopefully, it will be out before the end of this year. We’re pushing for it, and we think we’re on track but you never know.

Can you talk about Tech 21’s distribution model and how interested dealers would go about partnering with you guys?

They can contact us directly because we do work directly. We don’t sell online ourselves, you know? We don’t want to compete with our dealers. We’re very supportive of our dealers. We don’t make them buy products that are slow-movers. If anything, we actually do the opposite. If they say, “Well, we want to order this, this, and that,” we’d say, “No, don’t get that because…” I mean, unless you know you have a customer for it, right? We want the product to move, so we will guide them and tell them which ones are the ones that they absolutely must have just in terms of, “This is what you need to have because it’s going to move and this is what people want.” We know what moves and which ones are the slower ones.

That’s great because there are those brands that have prohibitive minimum orders which sort of hogtie the smaller independent retailers: “Oh, if you want to order this popular product, you also have to get ten of these,” and then those ten “others” end up sitting on the shelf for a year.

Nope. We don’t do that. I mean, we do have a minimum order, but it’s really not a lot of money, especially for the mom-and-pops because we support them. We still believe in mom-and-pops and online stuff is great, but we understand from a musician’s point of view that they want to touch it, they want to feel it, they want to hear it, they want to try it out. And that’s an important thing and it keeps going by the wayside. It’s like clothes shopping, you know? I want to go into a store, I want to feel the fabric, I want to try it on. I don’t want it to show up and then realize, “Oh, it’s terrible. I’ve got to return it.”

Absolutely. Is there anything else that we haven’t yet broached that you want to share with our readers?

Yes. Now that you mentioned it, it just hit me. The thing is that there’s so much digital out there, but we stay analog. That’s our thing and that’s what sets us apart from everybody else. And that’s why we think people think our stuff sounds better. I mean, we think it sounds better, but it doesn’t matter what we think – it matters what people who buy it think. And Andrew’s a real stickler with that. We only use digital if it’s absolutely necessary or if it’s for programming purposes, but the single pass and the sound, it’s all analog.

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