By Susan Wickersham
ForewardWhat you are about to read is the official history of Alembic. It is written for your enjoyment, to clarify the beginnings of our company, and to correct errors that have appeared in the press.
It is generally not our style as individuals or as a company to stand up and shout our accomplishments. We would rather our accomplishments themselves speak for us.
1968 Ron Wickersham and Susan Frates met at Pacific Recording Studio where Ron was designing the first multi-track mixing console for use with the studios new Ampex MM-1000 16-track recording machine. It was the second one in use. The Grateful Dead was recording "AOXOMOXOA". At this time the recording was a side interest for Ron, whose main gig was working at Ampex as a design engineer. Among the many projects to his credit was the prototype for the first low-speed video tape recorder. I was hired by the studio to do a painting to spark up the room.
1969 Ron left Ampex to devote all of his energies to the new field of multi-track recording. After working at Pacific Recording for 6 more months, he decided to leave Pacific Recording to form Alembic and work with The Grateful Dead who had a larger than average interest in improving the quality of their sound. Together they had plans for improving the quality of the final product, the record.
We moved to Novato where the Dead had their office and rehearsal space in what was affectionately known as "The Pink behind Pinky's". The building was the color of Pepto-Bismol and was located down a long driveway behind Pinky's Pizza Parlor. We shared a fence with Hamilton Air Force Base.
Alembic had its offices in the building with the Dead and separate workshop and living space behind the warehouse. The artist Bob Thomas lived there as well on the mezzanine. He was responsible for many of the Dead Album covers, such as "Live Dead" (painted on the mezzanine) and "Bear's Choice" (painted on the Alembic mezzanine three years later at 60 Brady St. in San Francisco). He also painted Alembic's logo. We all shared the kitchen and lounging areas.
During 1969 we developed the Alembic electronics and pickups. We first installed them in David Crosby's 12-string Guild guitar (which he still uses to this day) and then into Phil Lesh's SG bass that had been hand painted by Bob Thomas in his trademark renaissance/psychedelic style. After several more experimental designs, both Phil Lesh's and Jack Casady's hollow-bodied Guild basses were renovated with new low-impedance pickups and new active electronics. Bobby Weir's and Jerry Garcia's guitars were done as well. Slowly all aspects of the Dead's gear for the road and the studio were becoming "Alembicized!"
During the late summer and fall Ron was invited to participate as an instructor, along with Fred Catero and David Rubinson in the Bill Graham Seminars. We met many interesting people who came to listen and learn from the talks. One of them was Rick Turner whom we later invited to work with us.
Pacific Recording went out of the 16-track business almost as soon as it had entered it and Alembic acquired the MM-1000. We immediately turned to doing live recording as this we felt was the only way to truly capture the essence and electricity of the music as the audience and musicians fed upon the each other's energies and excitement. With Ron's improvements to the Dead's PA system and the new musical instruments, we were ready to pursue the project that consummated into the "Live Dead" album. This is still one of my all-time favorite Dead albums. The energy at those concerts was immense and magical.
Alembic was also hired to provide the sound system and record the sound track for the Altamont concert that was filmed by the Maysles Brothers. It is the film known as "Gimme Shelter". The featured artists were The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane. Yes, it was the concert that someone hired the Hell's Angels as stage security and to say they took their job a little too seriously would have to be an understatement. It was bad enough during the concert, but later that night when most of the crowds had left, the violence and destruction still went on. We lost part of our PA in a bonfire that someone had started. There was one unfortunate stoned individual that knocked over a bike and when it's owner tried to start it and it didn't respond, took out his anger on that individual with a little help from his gang. It was pretty brutal.
1969 was fast coming to an end with the usual all-niter Grateful Dead New Year's Eve Concert. They were joined by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Sons of Chaplain, The Ace of Cups, The Jefferson Airplane and solos by Joe Cocker. It was one of the best concerts I can remember.
1970 Alembic moved to 320 Judah Street, San Francisco in February. We were a small but potent company. There was Ron and myself as the owners and design team, then we hired John Curl, another engineer, Jim Furman, a former geometry teacher (later started Furman Sound Co.), as Ron's technician. "Kid" Candelario, "Sparkie" Mark Raizene and Steve Parrish were hired as roadies for the PA and recording equipment. These three later became part of the Grateful Dead road crew. There was a joke at the time that you had to do time at Alembic before you got on the Dead road crew. John Cutler, who currently does the mixing for the Dead, worked for and received much of his training from us. Frank Fuller was the head of our instrument repair section with Rick Turner working with him.
We worked mainly on custom basses and refining the process of our electronics package. Through our instrument repair division combined with Ron's knowledge of physics, we worked on improving the structural integrity of instruments as well as the electronic and sustain characteristics of instruments. David Crosby's 12-string Guild guitar and Phil Lesh's Guild bass were among the first complete renovations we did. Phil's bass featured the first quadrophonic electronics. "Gee Ron, do I really need 20 knobs on my bass?" Ask anyone who heard Phil play it and you'll get an emphatic "yes!"
Live recording and PA work was a large part of our company during this period. We recorded "Workingman's Dead", "ACE" (Bobby Weir), Garcia's "Wheel" and the New Riders of the Purple Sage to name a few. Alembic became a Corporation in the summer of 1970. Ron invited Bob Matthews and Rick Turner to participate in the company and gave them both equal stock to encourage them in this newest endeavor.
In the summer of 1970 Alembic embarked on its largest venture to date. We did the PA and soundtrack for a movie that Warner Bros. was making called "Medicine Ball Caravan". The French documentary film-maker Francois Reinchenbeck was the director and John Grissim was along and wrote the book of the same title. This must have seemed like old home week for Tom since his writing of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". Many of the same people featured in his book were on this "trip" as well.
Some of the preparation for this trip included tie-dying huge canvas teepees, that we were going to be sleeping, showering, eating etc. in, to the outfitting of buses to carry the various crews for filming, recording, cooking, roadies and other interesting personalities.
Wavy Gravy was there in a body cast, I remember it was difficult for him to shower. There were many others from the original Ken Keasey Merry Pranksters and Hog Farmers. All of the buses had names painted on them. Ours was "Pursuit". The slogan, "We have come for your daughters (and sons)", was prominently displayed on the front and back pf the bus. We would pull into our target town/city like Taos, New Mexico say and do a free live concert with BB King, then hit the road to Nebraska and do a campfire recording of Joni Mitchell. By the way, Nebraska didn't cotton to us being there and the day after our concert, the state troopers escorted us out of town. Our last USA concert was outdoors behind the National Archives in Washington, D.C. featuring Alice Cooper, what a crowd pleaser.
After some time off for good behavior we then flew Air India from New York to London. Along with about 60 members of the troupe on the plane, we landed at Heathrow Airport. I can still see the odd look on the faces of the people waiting to get through customs when we came piling into the airport. It was one of mixed emotions of fear, amazement, amusement and of course disapproval. No matter, the last gig for the "Caravan" was Pink Floyd, all night at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This was the same week-end that Dylan did the Isle of Wight concert. It was a cold night in Canterbury with a great deal of fog that only added to the surrealism of the music and the mood that spread through the crowd with the intensity of an electric wire. It was unbelievable.
1971 Alembic moved to 60 Brady Street in San Francisco, taking over the former Pacific High Recording Studio. We did a lot of renovation. The facility was transformed into a state-of-the art sixteen track recording studio.
We also established a music store in which we sold the new Alembic guitars and basses (all Series I/II with our PF-5 electronics) as well as Alembic cabinets, complete with tye-dyed speaker fronts. We also sold McIntosh amps, JBL, EV, Gauss, Shure, B&K, custom cables etc. etc. We offered a PA design and consultation service that was headed by Ron Wickersham.
Alembic had the largest physical studio in San Francisco, large enough to hold a symphony orchestra with room to spare. The walls were movable panels to change the size and acoustics of the room. We did a lot of recordings in that studio. Stephen Stills, The Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Winters, Santana, The Doobie Brothers and the Youngbloods to name just a few.
We wanted the guests to be comfortable and entertained so we had a R & R area with the first ever video game brought in to compliment the pinball machines. Does anyone remember "Pong"? It was addicting to play video games even as simple as that one back then.
The Alembic R & D department was busy, introducing the first parametric equalizer which Ron designed for Bobby Weir. We embarked on a new project for the Dead, one that later would have world-wide fame and acclaim. It would be dubbed, "The Wall of Sound", and it was.
1972 Preparations were being made for a big European Tour with the Dead. The album would be simply named, "Europe '72". Ron was entrenched in redesigning the Ampex MM-1000 from the existing transport that accommodated 10" reels as it was not adequate to capture as much of the live performance without interruption as possible. Since you could never plan on how long the Dead would play once they got started on a jamming session, a trademark of theirs to say the least, it was better to be prepared and plan ahead. After all, you might miss the most exotic combination of notes right when it was necessary to change the reels of tape, bummer city.
Ron was additionally transforming the MM-1000 from its unwieldy flat transport with eight tracks on top and eight tracks below into a video transport that would accommodate the 14" reels as well as redesign it to 30ips to improve the sound quality and reduce the drop-out rate. The engineers at Ampex thought this was a pretty cool idea and dropped on by to take notes.
We started writing a monthly column for Guitar Player Magazine called the ALEMBIC REPORT in which we critiqued products from other companies.
During this high time, even with recording and PA development, we were not neglecting the need for superior instruments. We took all that we had learned and experimented with and completed the now famous Jack Casady bass that appeared in Guitar Player as "Jack's $4,000.00 Custom". The bass was made of Zebrawood with lots of purpleheart wood that Rick carved over the entire back and some of the front. The fingerboard had a "Tree of Life" style of inlay. The pickups were movable, traveling on brass tubing installed in the front of the bass. The active electronics were later enhanced by the addition of a superfiltering system.
Stanley Clarke got his first Alembic bass in 1972. This was the beginning of what was and continues to be a life long relationship with one of the quintessential bassist in the world.
This was the year that Rolling Stone did a special insert on Pro Audio Gear in one of the issues. There was quite a spread, over two pages on Alembic alone. There's a group photo in the article that shows Mica as a two year old and Ron and I still have dark hair (and lots of it, too)! The article dealt with the high tech aspects of our entire company from recordings and sound system specialists to the custom instrument aspect of what we were trying to accomplish, which was to improve the quality of recorded music. It was also at this time that we took on another stockholder, a good friend Sam Field.
1973 A small music distribution company in Beaverton, Oregon called L. D. Heater Music Company, read the article in Rolling Stone and it interested them enough to take a little trip to San Francisco. They wanted to discuss the possibility of Alembic making a more standardized form of instrument that they could distribute to their dealers. L. D. Heater Music was owned by Norlin Inc. Norlin was based in Illinois and owned Gibson, Ampeg, Epiphone and other music related companies. We negotiated an exclusive distribution agreement for a limited time. They gave me the purchase order I required, and this was the beginning of the manufacturing of a standard high end instrument for Alembic and the entire music industry.
Many people thought that no one would be interested in an instrument so dedicated to excellence that the price was unheard of for production instruments. I guess they were wrong, weren't they? It was the advent of an entirely new genre in instrument building. All one has to do is look around to see how many companies producing high end basses and guitars that have a similar look to that of an Alembic, to know that Alembic mothered a new era in instrument design. Don't forget that Ron Wickersham designed the first active electronics to customize instruments back in 1969! We actually made pickups and active electronics to sell before we designed the complete Alembic instrument.
1974 In order to concentrate our efforts on the manufacture of a standard high end instrument. I decided we should sell off the assets of the recording studio in San Francisco which were bought by Elliot Mazer, a producer who specialized in live recordings under the name, "His Master's Wheels". We then sold the assets of the Music Store we had at 60 Brady Street to Stars Guitars. It was at this time that we decided to buy the Alembic stock back from Bob Matthews and return it to the Alembic treasury.
We all moved to Sonoma County. Ron and I established the office, electronics manufacturing, and purchasing in the renovated barn at their home in Sebastopol. This is where we handled the electronics and pickup procudtion, sales, bookkeeping and customer service. Rick Turner's barn in Cotati was the wood working facility. His renovated chicken coop served as the spray booth. Sam worked in the office.
It was tough going and sometimes the wood shop did not complete any instruments in a month's time. Production numbers were low and customers were backing up like cars at the Golden Gate Bridge at commute times. We all stuck it out and pretty soon we started getting 5, then 7, then 9, then 12 instruments out in a month. Small numbers compared to our current production of instruments (about 1500 per year), but one must learn to walk before one can run.
1975 Ron was developing new ideas in electronics. He was working on the "Sound Vendor" concept. The basic idea was to promote a group of products made by several companies in a vertical module design. They would then fit a standardized Sound Vendor rack. It was a great idea but to get different companies to co-operate in this fashion was a little ahead of its time.
Ron continued on with his electronic advancements by designing and building the"Time Align Generator" for E.M. Long Associates. This is what enabled E.M. Long to develop the "Time Align Loudspeaker"
1976 We developed with Geoff Gould, founder of Modulous Graphite Instruments, the first graphite neck through body necks. The first two basses made in this fashion were sold to Stanley Clarke and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac in June of 1976. This is the same year that we made a custom bass for John McVie that had a stainless steel fingerboard with no frets. Rather than call it a fretless bass, I preferred the term "continuously fretted " bass.
We decided to change our distribution from Norlin Inc. to a new company based in San Francisco, Rothchild Musical Instruments.
1977 We finally found a facility to house all of Alembic in Cotati, CA. The logistics of physically directing a business like ours in two different cities was causing a lot of communication errors. Production was improving every week with this new facility. We started the "Kit Guitar" and the " Repairman's Pipeline Service", this is where we sold our pickups , electronics, hardware etc. to other luthiers, repairman or anyone who wanted to tinker with his own instrument.
1978 This was an extremely tumultuous year to say the least!! Due to differences germane to the general direction of the company and differences relating to the design of the instruments, we terminated Rick Turner's employment with Alembic and bought back the stock that we had originally given to him back in 1970.
Alembic also terminated its distribution agreement with Rothchild Musical Instruments. Alembic became its own distributor and has remained so to the present.
1979 We moved Alembic to 45 Foley Street in Santa Rosa, CA. It was home to the company for 12 years. We developed the Distillate Bass and Guitar. Yamaha was our distributor for the Pacific Rim countries. They wanted to promote us in a very big way and so we signed a $990,000.00 contract with them, all based on the purchase of the Distillate bass and guitar. They were pretty fond of the F2B preamp as well and ordered hundreds of them.
1980 Increased interest in tube based rack mount gear pushed us to higher production rates for the F2B preamp. We also decided that, by popular demand, we would revive the manufacture of Alembic pickups and active electronics that we had originated in 1969. This time it would be very modular and able to be retrofitted into existing models of basses and guitars. This new line of pickups and modular active elctronics is called "Activators". As I said everything is modular in these units thus requiring no soldering. Just like all Alembic instruments, the contacts are gold plated to insure a long life of non-corrosion. This was a big hit, there are many Alembic bass owners for example who still have their first instrument, maybe it's a Fender P bass or a Rickenbacher 4001. They still liked the looks but had gotten used to that Alembic Sound and you just don't get rid of old friends like that easily. Enter the Activator, you can change it to sound like an Alembic without physically altering the instrument in most cases.
1981 This is the year we brought out the Spoiler bass. It was the challenge to bring all of our knowkedge and skill to an instrument that was still 100% handmade in the USA, but at a more affordable price than ever before. I have to thank Dave DeMartino of Guitar Center, who pushed and encouraged me to design this type of instrument. Thanks Dave!
We learned a lot about ourselves and our market and what it expects from us at Alembic. We found that people held us to a higher standard than any other company and expected us to deliver the goods. They weren't shy about expressing themselves either! We discovered that although people were used to name decals on most other instruments, they didn't want that, not even on an inexpensive Alembic! So we changed that to the cast Alembic logo. The logos depending on the model are all jewelers castings of bronze, sterling silver, vermeil or the occasional solid 14K gold.
You know many of the improvements we do come from really listening to our dealers and customers. Mica and I are ususlly always accessable by phone or fax, lately this is becoming more difficult as we have grown considerably since 1981. We may take a little longer to reply, but we are still listening.
More history to come soon!
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