By Alvin Ung
On the eve of Merdeka day, I held in my lap a half-completed guitar tube amplifier called the Ceriatone OTS Lunchbox. The amp’s body, brains and nerves were there. But the lungs, heart and head were missing. In less than one week, the amp was due to be delivered to the home of Dato’ Sri Idris Jala.
“It’s going to be really tight for us to make it by next Friday evening,” said Shazwan Nik Azam, the managing director of Ceriatone Amplification, as he looked worriedly at his wife, Azlin Ariff, the general manager of Ceriatone. Azlin paced the cramped corridor of their double-story workshop with an iPhone pressed against her ear.
“When can you deliver the box?” Azlin asked the KL-based vendor who made the power- and output-transformer for the Lunchbox. She paused to listen. Then she continued: “Friday? Friday is too late. Can you do it before?”
Idris was not a usual customer. Besides being a senator and a Cabinet minister, the CEO of PEMANDU is an avid blues guitarist. (He has made a resonator from an acoustic guitar, complete with aluminium cone, which he converted from a kitchen pot. With help from Julian Mokhtar of the Blues Gang, Idris fitted it with piezo pickups and F holes to emit clear sounds.) Even more unusual, Idris constitutes the one percent of Malaysians who buy Nik’s tube amps. The other 99% of buyers come from 75 countries.
“The Lunchbox is a good amp,” said Nik, downplaying an amp that has generated rave reviews since it was launched in June 2013. “We made it small, portable, and affordable. The amp uses many of the same components used by boutique amp makers in the United States. We kept costs low because we bought some of the components in bulk,” Nik said.
The hand-wired 20-watt Lunchbox model sells on the Ceriatone website for US$675. Idris ordered one on August 20. He was No. 28 on the wait list. That same day, a worker glued on a polycarbonate face plate at the back of the amp: “Made in Kelantan.”
The making of the 15-kilogramme amplifier is complicated. Many of Nik’s customers are themselves amateur amp builders and they are awed by the workmanship. “One of the best values in amps, bar none. Point-to-point wiring, premium components, reasonable prices. Great service,” wrote Zingaroo on thegearpage.net.
Another buyer, Jackbart1960, wrote: “I was certified to solder electronics in the Navy’s most advanced aircraft and have built and repaired electronics for 30 years. Nik’s work slays most of the [boutique amps] out there.”
I knew nothing about amp building but I could see that Nik and Azlin were getting crunched with just four days to go. The zinc-plated steel chassis (the body), the board bristling with capacitors and resistors (the brain), and the gorgeous Teflon wires (the nerves) had already been assembled in Rantau Panjang by Rohadi Ibrahim, 30, Ceriatone’s only staff in Kelantan, and shipped back to Kuala Lumpur.
But the amp was still missing its lungs – the five amp tubes made in Germany and Slovakia that breathes life into every Lunchbox. The 20-watt transformer, made by a vendor in Subang, was not attached. And the wooden frame for the “amp head” and speakers was still being built.
“Call Schenker Logistics and try to get customs clearance ASAP. Urgent,” Nik emailed his wife at 4.31am.
Two days later, on Wednesday, Azlin wrote: “Yes! My big box of shipment will be arriving tomorrow at noon. So all the parts can be here on time.”
The amp was done by Friday afternoon. Nik tested it by cranking the volume all the way up to 10. It sounded glorious to his ears.
The Lunchbox was now ready for delivery to “Muddy Delta,” Idris’ home, where he has built a wooden stage with eight guitars lined up on a rack.
“For something so small, it’s really loud,” exclaimed Idris, as he strummed his Variax electric guitar. Idris sat on a low bench and sang a dozen songs, in a dozen styles, switching guitars periodically. “Fantastic sound,” he murmured in between songs.
“I’m just a jungle boy, I’m looking for my home,” sang Idris, a native Kelabit, as dusk fell. After ninety minutes, Idris was still singing, while Nik and Azlin sat cross-legged in silence near the amp.
Idris the one-man band would have played on but his wife said the pizza was growing cold. So we all headed for dinner leaving behind the Ceriatone Lunchbox with its tubes still glowing red and hot in the dark.