Today the NY Times ran this great story about Mike Matthews, who founded Electro Harmonix in 1968, and now runs New Sensor, who make tubes in a factory in Russia (they pump out all those 12AX7 tubes in Korg gear). The NY Times story is about the endless horror of trying to do business in Russia - gangsters and the KGB conspiring to rob Mike of his factory. It ends with the chilling quote "It would be a catastrophe for the music industry if something happened to that plant."
I asked Eric Barbour from Metasonix what he thought of the piece. Eric knows more about tubes than anyone I've ever encountered. The headlines? Fresh tubes are now a $60m business with only a handful of producers in strange parts of the world, but the cool kids are using old stock. Here's what Eric said in full:
"Mike Matthews sent out a press release about this a few months ago. Such things happen in Russia all the time nowadays. Indeed, the word "bysnesmenyi" has become a cynical slang term for "criminal" among ordinary Russians. The massive corruption tends to explain how a hard-liner like Putin was elected. People figure, at least he's a law-and-order type.
"Mike Matthews does not have a monopoly on vacuum-tube production. The primary reason why guitar-amp companies do business with him: he offers them extra-low prices on bulk tubes. Plus, he's an aggressive self-promoter.
"Don't forget, there is also JJ, Ei, Svetlana (which is no longer allowed to use the name "Svetlana" in the USA, because Mike Matthews bought the trademark and is slapping it on tubes made at his factory), plus at least 2 factories in China that I know of. This doesn't count smaller firms that specialize in tubes for high-end audio, such as Western Electric or Tianjin. So, we have at least 6 factories making typical tubes for guitar amps and audio use (12AX7, 6L6, EL34 etc.).
"Here is a complete list of glass tube factories, as far as I can find out, as of 2003. Bear in mind that some of those firms are just resellers....there are actually only a few real factories making the tubes. Some resellers like to claim they are making the stuff, but they really aren't. A LOT of Chinese tubes enter the US under various brandnames, and are often claimed to be American-made. No, I won't name names.
"Even so, you see how many firms are still doing this? Ten years ago, I estimated that audio tubes (not amps or other audio devices, just the tubes) were at least a $40-million a year business worldwide. Since then it has probably grown by at least 50%, perhaps more.
"Metasonix doesn't use ANY currently-made tubes in any of its products.
I have good sources of NOS tubes, and I'm sticking to them. If I wanted to (and had the coin) I could easily lay my hands on hundreds of thousands of tubes usable in Metasonix products, such as 6AK5s, for which supplies are incredible and the demand is otherwise almost nil. Besides, 12AX7s are of limited use to me. One can do far more intersting things with old TV tubes, or pentodes like the 6AK5.
"I know of one surplus dealer who owns 260,000 military-surplus 6AK5s. He can't seem to sell them as a bulk lot, nobody wants them. They don't plug into guitar amps. One could MAKE an excellent guitar amp using 6AK5s, but people are conservative, so they keep using 12AX7s."
If you're interested in Eric and tubes, this interview from Synthtopia is a good place to start. (Thanks, Sean)