IF your neighbor has been practicing the mournful bawl of a Jimi Hendrix guitar lick lately, the Russians might deserve some credit - or blame.
Low-tech, Russian-made vacuum tube-powered amplifiers are selling well in the West. A growing number of electric guitarists and audiophiles are eschewing high-tech, solid-state circuitry for the ``warmer'' sounds of old-fashioned tubes.
The origins of this phenomena date back to 1953, when the Soviet government built the Reflektor electronics factory to produce vacuum tubes for its military. The glass-domed parts were used in everything from missile guidance systems to field radios. By the early 1960s, the well-guarded factory on the Volga River pumped out 50 million tubes a year, making it one of Europe's largest producers.
During this same era, the rest of the world was modernizing its electronics with solid-state transistors, considered more reliable than tubes. Soon, tubes in Western TVs, radios, and other consumer electronics products became as rare as a warm winter's day in Moscow.
Nevertheless, as solid-state technology marched forward, American audiophiles and rock-and-roll guitarists began longing for the warmer, more ``soulful'' sounds of vacuum tubes. Rock guitar legends Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and others who pioneered the rock sounds of sustained feedback and distortion in the 1960s used huge stacks of tube amplifiers. Many budding guitarists felt that they, too, needed tube amplifiers. Stereo buffs began to chime in as well, claiming a hi-fi sounds better powered with tubes.
``Everyone started realizing that these are better, especially for musical use,'' says Vladimir Tupitsin, Reflektor's deputy director for marketing. In the late 1980s and early '90s, demand for tubes began to grow.
In 1988, Mike Matthews, a New York guitar sound-effects designer, decided to seize on this nostalgia and gamble $1,000 to start a business importing Reflektor's tubes. Today he says his company, New Sensor, enjoys $5 million in annual sales to leading amplifier manufactures such as Fender Musical Instruments and Marshall Amplifiers, making Russian tubes the engine for many top rock bands.
The sudden demand from the West took Reflektor by surprise. Only one top official, factory director Nikolai Kuzmin, even plays the guitar. But Reflektor adjusted and, at Mr. Matthews's urging, started making not just tubes but the entire guitar amplifiers for export to the United States. The factory's Sovtek amps won high praise in the West. ``A toast to our Russian amp-building comrades.'' Guitar Player magazine wrote in a gushing review of the Sovtek MiG 50 amp last year.
If the story ended here, Reflektor would be a successful model of conversion from defense to civilian manufacturing in a period marked by Russian economic turmoil. But Matthews warns that Reflektor's old-style Soviet management could endanger its tube export business, which accounts for about one-quarter of the 2 million to 2.5 million tubes the company produces annually.
The problem lies with the partially privatized company's unwillingness to fire any of its 7,000 workers, 95 percent of whom do not build tubes. Instead, they work on transistor electronics that typically can't compete with Asian manufacturers. Padded payrolls are common across Russia, and at Reflektor the policy means that assembly workers toiling with 40-year-old assemblyline machines earn only about $50 a month, and the paycheck is often late to boot.
``The problem is they have so much dead-weight overhead that they are keeping on the payroll,'' Matthews says in a telephone interview from New York. ``Since our products are the only things working, they try to fill overhead of the whole nonproductive plant onto us.'' Factory officials see things differently. ``When we started, it was profitable for us,'' Mr. Tupitsin says. ``Now we must either raise prices or cut production.''
Matthews warns that if Reflektor can't control costs, the companies' partnership could fold. ``If costs go up, the competitive edge is lost, and they'll lose the market unless they can improve the quality, but they're too slow to react,'' he says.