I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Filippo Olivieri the man behind all the stuff coming out of SoloDallas. Fil is a fun guy to talk to and one heck of a guitarist! He’s also extremely busy! Hope you enjoy this Builder’s Profile!
How did SoloDallas start?
Oh thank you for asking that. The premise must be that, I have been told several times (already) that ‘SoloDallas’ sounds pretty much like a porn actor name. A star of that system, so to say. Boy I certainly didn’t expect that! But it is what it is, and it’s done. So, how and why did it start and why even with that funny name? Well. I have been told so many times, over the years, that I did look a bit like Han Solo (see?). Like a younger version of him. I am definitely shorter than Harrison Ford, but I must admit, there are similarities in the face, overall. So, after years and years (not even mentioning that Han Solo was one of my heroes as a child, as I was a geeky fan of Star Wars since watching it with my father in 1977, in Italy) I just gave in and online, I started being called ‘Solo’. With that, someone in Rome added ‘Dallas’. I think it was a sports game of some sort I was playing (I doubt it was soccer as I could never stand Italian soccer); can’t remember what type of game it was. But this roman guy said, in a typical roman accent ‘… Dallas c’mon’ (he knew I was born in Dallas, TX, as I’d tell almost everyone about my American citizenship, me being so proud of it). So that’s how; it just stuck with me (must have been at least 15 years ago) and that was that. I think I made my first Youtube channel just with the sum of those two words together (could have been DallasSolo and I must have given it some thinking, but with two ’s’ one next to the other I must have discarded it immediately). That Youtube channel became so quickly successful (and that was 2006) that the name just stuck with me. To give the reader an indication, that (first) Youtube channel racked some 21 thousand subscribers and made it as number 4 on the Italian Youtube top national charts of the most popular youtubers. I was well ahead of some of the most popular national Italian artists.
What’s your background?
My background is varied. Typical (probably) of the contemporary international citizen that I am; you MUST know a bit of several things in order to do what people like me do. I grew up at British school in Rome, studying the roman classics (Latin, Greek). Then went on to Information & Technology university (computing) and that was that. I grew up – literally, I am not kidding – with a computer in one hand and a guitar in the other. I remember thinking clearly that if I could do something that incorporated both in my future, I would have been happy. I was 12 years old at that time (i.e., when that thought arose), and I remember messing around with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (which I used to program in assembly code, Z80 CPU) and – again – a guitar in my hands. I would play the guitar while waiting for files to load from the cumbersome ZX files drive. Again, I truly was (I think) 12 years old at the time. Maybe 13. It must have been – hence – around 1981. I kept on doing for years and years just this: studying both (computing and rock guitar). So I would definitely consider this my background. I added to this some Marketing in later years, because I was so fascinated by the aesthetics of presenting great stuff to the public.
What made you want to recreate the Schaffer Replica?
Sound. Its sound. See, when (around the same time, 1980) I started listening to Back in Black (and before it, Highway To Hell by AC/DC) I just fell immediately in love with it. Naturally, it wasn’t just for the sound of it; the sound is so intimately interconnected with a musician’s performance (the timing of it, the touch of the strings, if stringed instrument is what it is) that it was a number of factors, really. However, we can definitely say that Angus Young’s performance in those days was heavily affected by the sound and capabilities of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS); i.e., the system that we cloned to make our Schaffer Replica. In fact (and in short) I am stating (as has he) that Angus Young simply couldn’t – wouldn’t have played the way he has if he didn’t have the freedom of movement the SVDS gave him AND the sound improvement and features that the SVDS enabled; in fact, thanks to a couple key features of that system, Angus could overload his current tube amplifiers and create a far better saturated sound for his guitar(s) than without the SVDS. A key element that made him use the SVDS for at least 7 years (1977-1984) with no interruption, live and in the studio. Not a small feat from a single piece of technology, especially consider today’s standard technology-life-cycle for most of the stuff we use daily. Along all of these good reasons, I just loved the looks of it, too. It just looked (and if you take a glimpse at one of the pictures floating around the new, including the ones I provided of it, you will realize) like the typical 1970s piece of technology that in fact, also reminded me of my favorite 1970s Sci-FI movies! The Receiver, specifically, looks like it came out one of such movies (could have been Star Wars or 2001 A Space Odyssey or a similarly themed TV show of the era). These are exactly and precisely the key factors that made me willing to approach such endeavor (of recreating almost fully the sound and looks of that system, minus its wireless function which in this millennium is of no use with those technical characteristics anymore, to us guitar players and musicians – there are far better wireless systems now).
How did you come up with the genius idea to put in in a pedal?
It was instant. I wanted to ‘steal’ the sound from that system and ‘shove it’ into something that we, as guitar players (or musicians, in general: the Schaffer Replica sounds amazing on bass, keyboards and mostly any audio source available as well) could use promptly. You know, at the time of this discovery (i.e., that the SVDS had been used extensively in the studio as well as live) I was running my blog ‘solodallas.com’ where I was in fact researching these types of amazing sounds of the 1970s. The amplifiers, instruments and accessories that made it that great. I still remember clearly when I made the link in my brain that what made that particular sound I loved must have been something else that wasn’t a particular amplifier or guitar or recording technique; after having studied in depth ALL of these in fact (and after having amassed the same vintage guitars, amplifiers and even microphones that had been used on those albums) I realized that it wasn’t these elements that were hiding THE secret. It HAD to be something else. So I started re-reading ALL the interviews of those years. And finally, I found it. Angus replied to a question that was strictly guitar-effects related saying ‘ …. I only use a Schaffer-Vega… for me, it’s probably the best’. THAT line right there gave it away for me. It was at that exact moment (and I blogged it, it’s still there, I think it was 2011) that I connected all the dots and I just knew that it was THAT device that helped Angus (and others) get that sound. So my quest became, immediately, to find one of such systems. It was more difficult than anticipated (too me months) but eventually it produced my long friendship with inventor Ken Schaffer in person.
How and why did you start making also a guitar amplifier? What is it?
That’s another good question, thanks for noticing. Now, this is no usual amplifier. This is a precise, exact replica of Angus Young’s favorite amplifier that was used on Highway To Hell, Back in Black, For Those About To Rock and Flick of The Switch; plus, either this specific amplifier or one similar to it was used for many, many years during AC/DC’s career both in the studio and live.
It’s a particular model of JTM50. It’s not just any JTM50, this is one of the at least 4 different variations that existed at one time or another over the years as a Marshall offering. It has some specific characteristics that all make sense listening to its sound (to make you an example, the song ‘Shoot To Thrill’ was entirely recorded with it, both rhythm parts and solos with the SVDS – so you get to understand what it sounds like in both situations). They had started using it likely in 1978 and kept on using it even live as Angus’ main source of tone (the live movie ‘Let There Be Rock’ was in fact played with such amplifier, despite all other theories floating around; Angus was using it as its tone source with the SVDS and then it would get amplified by the main PA).
It took me a long, long time to figure out and only thanks to the connections made discovering the SVDS I could uncover this other goodie. So this is and will be our sole offering, amplifiers-wise. The reason being that, it contributes to creating a perfect offering for ‘that’ sound that had eluded me (and stole my guts) for so many years. It’s such a classic and it works amazingly well with the rest of our offering; it just makes sense to have it. Our own resident Engineer Dries Pottevijn makes it by hand; it’s a PtP (point to point) handwired guitar amplifier that sounds just amazingly well and that sports many NOS parts.
What can you tell us about the new Storm pedal? I’ve seen some of the demo videos with various guitars and it sounds great!
Just like many companies and marketing men have expressed themselves before (changes voice into a classic, deep and professional tone) “The Storm is the pinnacle of our production”. But in realistic, simple terms, the Storm is everything we always wanted out of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity circuitry-technology. And I put there myself in the first place (as I have always done), since I have been its first user from the very first prototype, six months ago (as it is practice among us at SoloDallas Labs, we develop a number of prototypes and then ‘play’ with them for a while, making sure they not only sound great but work reliably – we ‘burn them in’). The Storm is what I consider our definitive pedal. I couldn’t have said the same of the TSR (The Schaffer Replica) Pedal; while we still make the latter, it was our first attempt at designing a pedal for the international market and there was certainly room for improvement. An improvement – we believe – that came along with the Storm. So we listened. We listened to our ‘customers’ (we kind of dislike profoundly the term, and have always preferred ‘users’ among our team including, first and foremost, Mr. Ken Schaffer himself). We kept on listening. Right from the start people told us about the TSR having the knobs too close to the foot-switch; hiss was too loud (a characteristic also common to the original SVDS for several reasons); inputs and outputs were unlabeled and non-market-standard reversed; the knob labels were not fully understandable. The power was 12v center positive (quite a strange animal in the standard pedal market) and it wasn’t battery operated. While I speak of this as if it lies in the past, we still (proudly) make the TSR (Pedal) because we think of it a bit of a classic of our current offering; it’s got its own sound signature and it has been already used in a number of albums including AC/DC’s “Rock Or Bust” (its Tower counterpart was used there, but the Pedal truly sounds just like the older Tower), Keith Urban’s “Ripcord” (interesting note: the great Nile Rogers himself played on Ripcord, much likely using one of our Schaffer Replicas wile playing with Mr. Urban – Keith Urban has four Schaffer Replicas; Nile Rodgers, while playing with Chic, was one of the original users as well of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System – full circle, all over again?), Muse’s “Drones” (produced by legendary producer “Mutt” Lange who had also originally produced Back in Black using the SVDS, the album where we started all of this from), Green Day’s Reel to Real, Airbourne’s fourth album (still being recorded by legendary sound engineer and producer Mike Fraser) and a few more among minor and major artists are using it, currently. Something that went beyond our wildest plans (but along with our fundamental dreams and beliefs). So, understandably, we will keep it in production.
The Storm is going to gather all of this and it’s going to take it to the next level, by providing the artist with a more practical device made in 9V market standard, battery operated, lower noise floor, labelled indications and a new, unique sonic feature that had been overlooked in the first reverse-engineering process: a super cool sounding vintage optical limiter. That also accounted for a good part of the original sound of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (it was contained in the X10 transmitter). We realized recently, during our second and definitive reverse-engineering process that this limiter had to be at all costs included in both the New Tower and the Storm. And so we did. We developed the (New) Tower for first and then, from it, the Storm. The Storm is nothing but a miniaturized format of the New Tower (which in turn, is the true 1:1 clone of the original Schaffer-Vega Diversity System). We delivered two of the New Towers to Angus Young right before the start of their 2016 tour leg and he fell in love with it all over again; he had been using successfully the first iteration of the Tower until then but gladly swapped for the New Version that had several upgrades, including such optical limiter. We called this limiter ‘Snap’ on the Storm and we think it will give the user one more control over sustain, compression and tone shaping/filtering. All in all, now more than ever we are ready to take the world by Storm!
In closing, what’s happening now?
Now the challenge is to make this small company of mine reliable and profitable. A lot of money went in fact into research and development as it was far more difficult to replicate the nuances (in sound and looks) of the original system than anticipated. We started humbly, from nothing and we made it internationally. Now that challenge is to make it a recognized classic. That is our final objective now. It’s such a great device, so naturally musical, you know. It truly can be used on anything that has a sound and artistically improve it, not only by overdriving it further. Let’s not forget that many of the users back then were playing clean sounding guitars (for example) such as Nile Rodgers (Chic) or the Earth Wind & Fire. So this is what we’re working on; definitive versions of the various formats of product we have and their establishment as a classic product in the international music market.
The funny thing is that – as I suspected – being one core component of AC/DC’s
sound (The Replica gives you those sounds of the past and then, some brand new
AC/DC sound of today’s) brought a lot of interest from the big guys and at the same time, from niches made of AC/DC fans and tone connoisseurs.
So this in turn has brought interest in our sound (we call it the Schaffer Sound) from the likes of Keith Urban – who we know for sure loves it – to Sting (both Keith Urban and Sting have recorded their albums with some parts played on the Schaffer Replica) to a number of other albums and artists including Foo Fighters, Airbourne, Guns & Roses, Muse and several more. Huge names that would make anyone pale – and so it is for me as well. Every time we hear some of these guys are into our Replicas we celebrate big time. It’s a renewed demonstration for us that this kind of product just works very well and we couldn’t be happier, naturally. So we will keep on making our products until demand for them exists. I have a faint feeling that one of them might become what we call a ‘classic’, so you may see me stay around for a while. Will see to that but I can guarantee you, T-Bone, so far it’s been an amazing ride I and I got far more than what I had anticipated in my wildest dreams!
Find SoloDallas online: http://solodallas.com/