RANTOUL — Music is what brought them together.
Ben Juday’s goal was to become a college professor in geography, but he stopped after he had earned his master’s degree from the University of Illinois.
Brian Perry came to this area to help build a recording studio, Earth Analog, in Tolono.
They merged their creative talents with an entrepreneurial bent to become owners of a company that transforms old organs into analog musical amplifiers and other equipment.
Whether it’s at a concert for thousands of music-loving folks or at a backyard gig, Analog Outfitters amplifiers are getting noticed. And now they are made in a former Air Force building in Rantoul.
Mark Rubel of Blackbird Studios, Nashville, thinks a lot of Analog Outfitters amps. To that end, he said he left one in Vance Powell’s studio at Blackbird, subtly hoping that guitarist Jack White would use it. He did on his latest album.
They have also been used on some recent Bob Dylan material by guitarist Charlie Sexton as well as by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Wilco’s Nels Cline.
"I think music is one of the most important things that humans do," Rubel said.
It’s life and a livelihood for Perry, Juday and their six employees.
"That’s what we love to do," Perry said. "It’s not the most lucrative business in the world. We’re steady. We’re not ever dead (in terms of business orders). But there are peaks and valleys."
Marketing director Dana Flinn said Gibbons "just randomly came across our amps at a dealer and said, ‘I’m going to play this’" and liked it. Sexton has two Sarge amps and two road amps — one for the U.S. and one for Europe, which have different voltage levels.
Perry said the analog "sounds like an amp’s supposed to sound. It’s analog tone. The reason it’s so unique is that we use transformers from Hammond organs. They’re proven parts that have been around for 50-60 years. They’re beautiful and not going to break down. We’re stuck in the old ways for sure.
"It’s all hand-wired, one piece at a time. We don’t do much circuit board work. It’s a different world, for sure."
Juday calls it a "warm, pleasing tone that’s (especially) desirable for guitar players, particularly the distortion characteristic. That’s something vacuum tubes do very well."
Perry isn’t a fan of today’s digital technology.
"They try to condense everything down to nothing," he said.
And as studio technician Rubel said, many people end up listening to music on their headsets hooked up to laptops or smart phones. They don’t get the full musical range. There’s not much bass, for instance.
If rock artist Joe Walsh is an analog man in a digital world, he’s not alone. Juday said most bands continue to use analog equipment in the studio and on the stage.
"If you go to see a concert of any band, you would be hard pressed to find any guitar player using any other type of amplifier than a vacuum-tube amplifier," Juday said.
He said Fender and Marshall, two well-known makers, continue to make vacuum-tube amps.
Many of the organs they use are donated (they also rent warehouse space in town with about 100 old organs in stock). Some they purchase. Their biggest shipment: a truckload of 60 organs from a repair business.
Flinn said one day last week she received four calls from people wanting to donate organs.
Said Perry: "We will decide if we want to pick (an organ) up. Most of them are little old ladies who have long stories to tell us, which we’re happy to listen to, or they’re kids who have inherited them. Most of them want them to be recycled and not thrown away."
Analog Outfitters makes a range of products, including amp heads, effects and pedals, midi controllers as well as custom builds. The company also makes scanners — using part of old Hammond organs to create a device that produces the vibrato and reverb sound.
For a midi device, the shop takes the keys from the organs made in the 1940s and ‘50s and turn it into a device that emulates the sound of a Hammond B3 organ — the most sought-after organ produced. But while B3s weigh about 450 pounds, the midis weigh only about 100 pounds — much easier for roadies to transport to gigs.
Even much of the wood from the donated organs is repurposed. Perry is the woodmaster and is in charge of all the aesthetics for the equipment created by Analog Outfitters. The shop has its own woodworking shop.
"(Old organs) have beautiful woods like redwood," Perry said.
Flinn said the company works with dealers around the world that stock Analog Outfitters equipment, from Japan to Indonesia, from Sweden to Seattle.
"First we’ll market to the world," Flinn said. "Even though we’re not marketing to the end user, we try to help our dealer find the customer. We do a little customer marketing and then also business-to-business so we can reach more people."
The company also has an eBay business — buying electronic, medical and general equipment, repurposing it and reselling it.
Starting in 2001 in a two-story building near downtown Champaign, Analog Outfitters began as an electronics repair business for audio equipment. The company expanded to include a live-sound division in which it would provide speakers and microphones for concerts and festivals.
"We also worked on Hammond organs," Juday said. "We would fix those at churches and things like that."
In 2011, they decided to begin manufacturing their own line of amplifiers and eventually sold off the repair-live sound business.
Their shop is even set up with several pieces of equipment, including a guitar, drums and Hammond B3, and employees hold jam sessions. Everyone on staff plays an instrument — everyone except Jens Klingenberg, who said he "plays the radio."
Recently a member of Dustin Lynch’s band came by to play.
Juday said they "love it in Rantoul."
"I would love to buy more buildings," he said. "For now this is perfect for us. We have had nothing but a great experience dealing with the village. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t move up here. It’s awesome. It’s affordable. It’s quiet. I hope to buy more buildings in the future."