DIY 101 An encounter with Miller Ampwerks

Matthew Miller greeted me with a smile on a quiet street corner in Northeast Portland.  A short walk down the sidewalk and up a steep set of moss-covered steps led us to the front door of his home and production headquarters for Miller Ampwerks.

I was greeted by a happy and wiggly dog in a very cozy home.

There was what appeared to be wine fermenting on his kitchen counter and a french press full of freshly brewed coffee.  Portland’s finest, I’m certain.

“want some coffee and then we can get started?”

I graciously accepted and Matthew pressed the coffee frenchly into a strong white mug.  A man’s mug.  “Good vibes now,” I thought.  We made our way down a narrow set of stairs and into the lower level of his house.  Matthew had laid out a beautiful set of amps for us to photograph.

As he walked me around the shop he told me he actually had a number of repairs in at the moment.  Not for his own products, of course, but for all kinds of different gems.  On his workbench currently was the chassis of an early Vox AC50. No one knew what was going on with this circuit but it was Matthews job to dig deep and figure it out.  On a shelf to the side there was an old Roland Space Echo RE-201 that Matthew had been commissioned to fix.  This is not something that just any old tech can get to the bottom of, I assure you.

As our conversation went on i learned…

…that Matthew did not have a formal background in the science of electronics wizardry…or even warlockery for that matter.  Matthew’s background began at an early age when he felt a strong urge to begin deconstructing all of the useful things lying around his parents’ house.  And while, at the time, I’m sure his parents SUPER enjoyed that…it led to something truly incredible.

It started with his father’s expensive Minolta SLR camera.  And then it moved to Mustang transmissions, vacuums, blenders and eventually tube HiFi gear.  At this point Matthew was a self-made engineer.  And when it finally came time to begin constructing and deconstructing guitar amps, he had become familiar with hundreds of schematics for countless different types of electronic products. He was now ready to take on amplifiers, pedals and whatever else was thrown his way.

And then matthew explained something to me…

…in regards to his “process.”  Rituals and such.  He told me…

“I spend a fair amount of time visualizing the sound and design in my head beforehand.  Often times, I have it all thought out pretty complete, then I just have to make it.”

You see, while Matthew does have his own standard production models under Miller Ampwerks (such as The Columbia, The Freemont, The Vortex, and The Pine Street) he also does quite a few custom builds.  And when a customer comes to him with an idea of the sound and features they are looking for in their new custom-built amp…Matthew begins the design process not on paper, but in his head.  He sees the circuit, component by component.  And then once the mental circuit is complete, it is time to begin building.

what an incredible skill

Beyond that, the organization in his shop is outstanding.  Everything has its own home.  Resistors, capacitors, nuts and screws are all labelled and stowed for easy access.  GOOD MOVES MATTHEW.

I’m going to wrap this up real soon…

…but first, I want to clarify a few things.  The title of this article is “DIY 101,” for a very specific reason.  And that reason is not because what Matthew has done is simple or basic by any means.  Matthew Miller is a man who has been constructing, deconstructing, understanding, modifying, designing and manufacturing various electronic products throughout his entire life.  Instead of going to school for electronics, the guy made his own school of electronics.  He has spent years learning everything he possibly can about how this stuff works, because he was born with a passion.

I’ve worked in the industry for a long time now…

…and the people who have inspired me the most are the ones who HAD to just figure it out!  I’ve had the pleasure of working with countless guys who have had no formal training in electronics and they are almost ALWAYS the best at what they do.  The authorities, so to speak.

Matthew Miller is an authority

He makes a classy product with extreme attention to detail.  He builds everything by hand in his workshop and takes extreme pride in his work.  Apart from that he is, to put it simply, an extremely rad dude.

Shameless plug time.  Ready?  Yeah, you’re ready.  Matthew gets a number of his faceplates custom engraved by the almighty John Manning in the Mojotone Custom Faceplate department.  He also uses a number of our Mojotone Dijon Capacitors.

To Conclude…

If you don’t know about Matthew Miller and Miller Ampwerks, please go get educated.  An incredible human with an incredible gift.  So, let’s all raise a glass and knock one back for ol’ Matthew Miller, a true tone hero.

Logan Tabor

Logan Tabor

7 comments

  • Matt… what is the Trainwreck style amp there…. do youbuild those types?

    • Hey James. Well the hardwood head is a proto type and riff on a design I normally build called the Votex, which is a TW Rocket inspired circuit that runs on 6V6’s. The hardwood version is basically the same circuit, but using big iron and large octal bottles. It normally runs EL34’s and will take KT66 or KT88 or , or….. it’s cathode biased and the power transformer will supply enough heater and B+ current to run any of the afore mentioned tubes. It also has a master volume, as it can get quite loud. I have some clips of that on my Facebook page from the last LA Amp Show. Thanks for the question.

  • What a treat to find this article in my inbox this morning. I am a fairly new client of Miller Ampwerks, but I can attest to the great care and eye for detail that Miller puts into his work. My guitar playing buddies that have taken my advice and gone to Miller all say the same. As evidence of the kind of care he puts into his work…. Mathew will find out how and what you play, then pick appropriate music to burn in your tubes, speakers, etc. One example of the passion of a craftsman. Highly recommended.

  • I agree with you totally Tony. I don’t think there’s any harm in bumping up the screen resistors, both in value and wattage. The infinitesimal tonal change you might notice, is more than compensated for by a stable amp. That the modern Vox’s continue that tradition, just because that’s how they used to do it is kind of silly. A++ on Kevin Conners books as well as Merlin. I read a lot and have gleaned a lot of information by talking to old timers who were gracious enough to allow me to hang out in their shops asking LOTS of questions and looking over their shoulders. I’m much more an apprentice learner and it’s sad to see that style of teaching going by the wayside in a lot of work places.

  • Huge Matt Miller fan here, own a few of his amps and honeatly can’t wait for the next! He’s also one of the nicest guys around.

    It is rare nowadays to find, but his bulletproof amps come out of Matt’s place needing absolutely nothing more to them. He constantly tweaks and tunes his designs until they are where they want them, but it is also fun to hear how he can adapt them to your needs and likes.

    Plus, he’s the only guy I know that can keep the old univox amps I’m obsessed with up and running!

  • Very commendable if I read that right the Problem with just about any Vox AC anything is the lack of Screen resistors or too low a value, during high energy guitar passes the screens go higher voltage than the plates in the power tubes, the 470 ohm 2 watts are too small and to low a value to protect the power tube, I might add fuses blowing all the time, the OT may have opened up as well from such flagrant disregard in the design for those old VOX amps to have been built like that. Also weak bias voltage source and bias design network causing bias voltage to collapse during loud uses and only using 1 bias pot for all instead of 1 pot for each power tube, the lack of of no grid stoppers that causes the grids to rectify causing bad tone while over driving are what i have seen in VOX amps. It’s a miracle those amps worked as well as they did but fixing those issues i mentioned should extend the life of tubes in those amplifiers. A long time ago tubes were very cheap so companies of those days made short cuts or just didn’t know that copying Other Companies was not a good Idea. I don’t manufacturer amps, I too old for that, I just fix a few when i get them or an occasional kit amp, I make the corrections if needed as I go, I’m a student of Kevin O’Connor out of Canada, buy his books and swear by his advice.

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