Business Feature

A young Klein was riding down an Oklahoma highway in the back of a 1977 Pontiac station wagon when “Panama” by Van Halen came on the radio. It was the time of big wheels and lawn darts—when neither seatbelts nor helmets were required. He placed his ear against the speaker and listened to the way the frequencies reverberated. For the first of many times, he thought, “Wow, there’s really something going on here!”

Today, that something is Port City Amplification, a boutique amplifier company based in Swannanoa, between Asheville and Black Mountain. While Port City Amplifiers are played by world-class musicians such as country stars Keith Urban and Zac Brown, rockers Jimmy Herring and Dweezil Zappa, jazz virtuosos Tom Guarna and Kurt Rosenwinkel, and many others, Klein takes great pride in keeping his internationally known, locally crafted products affordable for working musicians. His current product line boasts the patented Wave speaker cabinet in several different configurations; amp-head combinations the Pearl, Marino, Twelve, and Orleans; and, more recently, pedals like the Salem Boost and Sahana Drive.

Named after the nickname for Wilmington, North Carolina, where the company was originally founded in 2005, Port City Amplification was recently chosen as part of the third cohort for Mountain BizWorks ScaleUp WNC program. “The best thing I ever did was call Mountain BizWorks, because I heard they did business coaching,” says Klein. “I got together with John Bonham, an amazing business coach. He was able to deconstruct my business and ask me questions that I had never thought about.”

Portrait of the Artist

Daniel Klein is an artist, one who paints with electrons, capacitors, and resistors. An enthusiastic, efficient, and extremely positive man, he is driven by daily to-do lists, and remains undeterred by the inevitable setbacks that creating and building a small business will deliver. “My ultimate goal,” he says, “is to help a person find the sounds that unlock something inside of their head, heart, or anything. It’s like a combination lock.”

Daniel’s father flew jets for the government. His family had “moved 11 times before I was 11 years old. A lot of that was in Oklahoma, but we [also] moved around North Carolina…” Eventually they landed in Winston-Salem. He has now been a resident of North Carolina for 27 years.

As a young man, Daniel would often go bowling with his brother. One night when there was a waiting list at the local alley, they wandered over to a guitar shop. Daniel’s affinity for Van Halen soon led him to start taking lessons. “I just wanted to learn how to make that guitar sound like what I heard on the radio and my cheap cassette player,” he recalls. He quickly became obsessed, and by the time he turned 17 was studying music and taking lessons from three instructors, each focused on different techniques and styles. By the age of 18 he was a teacher himself, and not long after, became a touring musician. In the late ‘90s, his band signed a licensing deal with Sony, later releasing an album and even placing their songs on several hit TV shows of the time, including Dawson’s Creek and Party of Five, but after a few years he decided he’d had enough and left the group.

Even after Daniel stopped touring and returned to giving guitar lessons, he remained interested in amplifiers. “When you’re on the road, and the amp goes down, you have to learn how to fix your own stuff,” he explains, adding that he has always been fascinated by musical equipment. “I didn’t really have money to buy a lot, but the gear I had, I meticulously maintained. When you’re 12 or 13, you have that little twin or single bed. I used to put all of my [equipment] on the bed and just look at it and think, ‘I can’t believe I’ve got all this cool gear!’”

At the time, though, he was recently married and looking for a more stable source of income. Upon being introduced to the mortgage business by an acquaintance, he dove in out of necessity. Success at the job came easily, but compared to being involved with music and the music industry, satisfaction was elusive. One day, he learned that a friend and craftsman who’d previously worked on his amp had acquired Mojo Musical Supply, an amplifier parts company based in California, and was relocating the entire business to Winston-Salem. After work one day, Daniel stopped by to see the new operation; his friend wound up offering him a job on the spot. Recalls Daniel, “I came aboard with the expectation that I would take a reduction in pay, but [they would] teach me circuit design. So I went and poured over Linear Electronics books, how to design power sections, things like that. Between that and the continued experience of dealing with other reputable builders, that’s how I cut my teeth.”

In addition to supplying parts for new and vintage amplifiers, Mojo would contract to ghost-build amplifiers for many reputable brands. Daniel was exposed to the different philosophies of circuit design while talking to the engineers who were building these amps. He apprenticed under one of the Mojo owners, whom Daniel considered to be an electronics genius. This tutelage taught him many of the finer details of custom amplifier design and construction.

A few years later, Mojo decided to relocate further east across North Carolina (the operation is currently based in Burgaw, not far from Wilmington), and as Daniel’s wife’s employer had a branch in Wilmington, the Kleins decided to make the move as well. Eventually he realized that he wanted to go out on his own, and with his electronics skills and the help of two silent partners whom he knew from his time with Mojo, in 2005, Port City Amplification was born.

The Design’s The Thing

Port City’s first ground-breaking innovation, the 1×12 Wave Cabinet, was a complete rethinking of how to design a guitar speaker cabinet, with a focus on the best possible tone. “I had always gone back and forth between open back and closed back cabinets,” he notes, detailing some of the challenges a gear maker faces. “Going from venue to venue, and stage to stage, how high the stage is, how far your cabinet is from the wall—[all] play a huge part in the sound of an open back cabinet. Every night sounding different was awful.” By contrast, he liked what he calls the “meaty” sound of a closed back cabinet, but it had several inherent problems: The notes had a low end frequency tail below 180hz and lacked clarity, while the tone tended to have a “woofy” character to it.

Realizing there had to be a better way, Daniel set out to come up with a new approach to guitar cabinet design. “What I wanted to do was eliminate the right angles in the cabinet going all the way down,” he explains. “We have 45 degree angles inside the cabinet, plus a port that runs the width of the cabinet. The port itself is angled up, so that it gets those frequencies up off the ground and they blend with the frequencies coming from the front of the speaker.”

The result had a lot of players commenting that the Wave cabinet sounded like a PA. For example, after hearing the Wave for the first time, Dave Weiner, longtime guitar player in hard rock virtuoso Steve Vai’s band, remarked, “Going from a traditional, closed back cabinet, to the Wave cabinet was like going from standard television to high-definition television.”

Port City Amplifiers was granted a provisional patent for their pioneering redesign. This patent has proved extremely beneficial in helping Port City fend off IP infringement from some big companies in the music industry. “A lot of times, smaller companies feel like patents are of limited value, because they’ll just get steamrolled in court by companies with deep pockets, but Daniel’s experience is a good example of how they can work for small companies,” says Matt Raker, Director of Community Investments & Impact at Mountain BizWorks.

Overcoming the Obstacles

2007 was a benchmark growth year for Port City Amplifiers. Word was spreading about the amazing tone their gear produced. The popularity of the Wave cabinet, and the addition of the Pearl as their flagship amplifier, continued to push the company’s sales figures upward. Eight months into 2008, Port City was poised to shatter their 2007 sales numbers, when the economic downturn slowed their growth to a near standstill. They lost over half of their business.

“Everything went away,” says Daniel. “[We] lost ridiculous amounts of money in sales. After that, we had just single-digit growth. I didn’t know enough at the time about securing financing, writing a business plan, really growing and scaling a company.”

Meanwhile, Daniel’s son, Owen, was born in 2010 with a rare skull condition called craniosynostosis. This rare birth defect is caused when the bones in the head fuse prematurely in the womb, before the baby’s brain is fully formed. Daniel’s family made six different trips to Texas to see a specialist, and Owen was required to be in an orthotic helmet device for 23 hours a day and needed constant supervision. “Not only was my work extremely hampered, but what I was able to bring to the table when I was working was so reduced,” he recalls. “Sometimes you’ve just got to take the sail down and let the waves go because you’ve got other things to worry about. It just seems like there was just one legitimate reason after another that Port City really never took off. They could have all been failures of mine, but they also could have been circumstances that just happened.”

Care of his son required Daniel to eliminate 45 percent of his work time. His wife also adjusted her schedule so she could work three days a week instead of four. Because he was spending his days caring for Owen, Daniel did the best he could to keep Port City alive by working nights and weekends.

Relocating to Asheville

Daniel’s family knew that they needed to get out of Wilmington. The effects of the economic downturn and Owen’s illness had taken a toll. They rented a house in Winston-Salem for about a year in order to enlist some family help with their son, but were still not satisfied with their environment. One of their relatives suggested they take a look at the Asheville area. Daniel went onto Craigslist, and within 24 hours they had signed a lease for a house in Fairview.

Daniel and his wife had celebrated an anniversary at the Princess Anne hotel on East Chestnut Street in Asheville. Daniel smiles at the memory. “Just driving around it was great. It was our kind of town. People were genuinely nice, laid back, educated, and it wasn’t terribly overcrowded. Asheville is so unique, it’s a little gem.”

By 2015 the Kleins had purchased a home in Swannanoa, and Port City Amplification set up shop in the basement. The current space is small, but extremely well organized. One wall is stacked floor to ceiling with recently constructed Wave cabinets. Across the room, in front of a window overlooking the family’s recently constructed tree house, an electronics workbench is covered with neatly arranged soldering equipment, spare parts, and effects pedals in various states of construction.

Daniel can often be found working alongside his friend and full-time employee, Nathan Culberson, whom he considers invaluable to the growth and success of his business. Nathan, a graduate of UNC Asheville’s music technology program, reached out to Daniel after Port City was mentioned during a concert at the Grey Eagle in Asheville. “My favorite part is being a part of something small that has a real industry impact,” says Nathan.

In addition to wielding exceptional electronics construction skills, Nathan is responsible for managing the appearance and aesthetic of the entire company, and has brought a unified brand identity to Port City Amplification. His signature style is evident in everything from the design of the newest pedal chassis to the look and feel of the the company’s website. “Nathan has really helped me up my game when it comes to design, from an aesthetic view rather than just a performance point of view,” says Daniel.

In order to maximize future scalable growth and quality control, Nathan systemized the construction process by taking detailed pictures of each step of the technique, cataloging them into PDF documents that future employees can reference for proper assembly technique. The attention to detail in both execution and design is evident in the superior level of quality that is Port City’s hallmark.

“No amp goes out of here without my final look-over,” says Daniel. “You talk about care, love, craft, passion, and standards—we do not mess around. We treat every single amplifier as if it is going to be displayed at a museum after I die.”

Upon arrival in Asheville, Port City Amplifiers joined the small but intensely growing local community of music gear manufacturers pioneered by Moog Music, and continued by companies like Blackout Effectors (custom effects pedals) and Axis Guitars. “There’s not a whole lot of industry here; however, the industry that is here will bend over backwards to help you out,” Nathan observes. In addition to job creation, Port City is adding to the local economy by ordering as many of its parts and components from local manufacturers as possible. The Wave cabinets are hand crafted by Joey Hankins of Hankins Wood Woodworking in Black Mountain. Daniel excitedly mentions that “our chassis are being made by T-Fab in Asheville’s River Arts District. Snyder makes our boxes and foam inserts for shipping. Asheville T-Shirts will be making all of our shirts… Everything that we outsourced, we’re slowly one-by-one bringing in. We will literally have everything made right here.”

Daniel is excited to be a part of Asheville’s music scene, whose deep pool of working musicians provides Port City with the perfect petri dish for tonal exploration. Having this playground provides his research and development with a true sounding board for new products and ideas, and genuine feedback from world-class artists.

AMPED FOR AMPS

A number of Port City’s more high-profile clients are listed on on the company’s website (Portcityamps.com). We asked several of them to offer their opinion of the company and its products.

Jimmy Herring
Guitarist, Aquarium Rescue Unit/Widespread Panic
www.jimmyherring.net

I use the Port City Vertical OS 2×12 speaker cabinet. Daniel is extremely enthusiastic and helpful. He brought several cabs for me to try [and] the OS 2×12 knocked me out! His cabs are great. (Herring is pictured above.)

 

Mike Seal
Guitarist, Jeff Sipe Trio
www.jeffsipetrio.com

I first met Daniel Klein in 2007 while playing with Jeff Sipe in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was pretty young and my gear was a mess. My pedalboard was a disaster and my amp was falling apart. Daniel took me into his shop and completely revamped and repaired all my gear, totally saving my butt. The amp was a deluxe reverb and when he was done with it, I was blown away by how good it sounded. He even fixed all the broken knobs and replaced my blown red power light with an orange one. Every time I see that orange light I think of Daniel, and the amp still sounds great by the way! Daniel hooked me up with a couple versions of his Port City Sahana boost pedal. It’s a simple but great tool for adding some power when you need it, and I’ve been using it for years now. It’s great to see a company that started very small grow into a genuine presence in the international music market. Daniel has a passion for music and an ear for tone that shows in all of his work.

Tom Guarna
Jazz guitarist/composer
www.tomguarnamusic.com

My Port City Pearl 50-watt combo has been my go to amp for the past several years. The amp has a beautiful tone across the whole register of my instrument. The Pearl has so much air in the sound and still retains clarity. Dan Klein really took the time to work with me making some modifications to my amp to get it exactly how I need it to be. I can’t imagine using another amp. Dan and the folks at Port City have done a great job designing a quality product that is built well and sounds great!

Jamie King
Producer/studio owner, The Basement Recording NC
www.thebasementrecordingnc.com

I honestly love pretty much all the Port City Products. I use the Port City 2×12 OS guitar cab with Warehouse 30 speakers on almost every record now. I had been using an industry standard Mesa 4×12 guitar cab for years, as I previously found it to be the best sounding cab on the market. [But] I have found that the Port City cab sounds even better—with more definition and clarity as well as bigness—with most guitars amps. I also often use the Port City Salem Boost pedal. It’s like a little magic box that just make guitars sound more full—not sure what it does, but whatever it is, it rocks. I often use the Port City Bass cabs for bass recording, and the Port City Pearl head for clean and driven guitar tones. Port City makes some of the most elegant and best sounding stuff on the market in my opinion, and I’ve tried almost everything at this point. If a user can’t get good tones with Port City’s stuff, it’s the user’s fault. (haha)

Billy Cardine
Dobro player
www.billycardine.com

Not only does my Port City Wave cabinet help to focus what I felt was a rampant bottom end in my rig, but Daniel also helped me learn how to use the gear that I already own more efficiently.

 

Kurt Rosenwinkel
Jazz guitarist, Kurt Rosenwinkel Group
www.kurtrosenwinkel.com

I am a happy owner of a Port City amp. Daniel came up to New York City with a couple different amps and cabs to try, and we rented a rehearsal space and tried them out for a day. Daniel was very determined to get it just right for my sound, which he did. I was very impressed by the personal attention he gives to his clients. I recorded my album Star of Jupiter with that amp and I love the sound- strong, clean, responsive, big lows, silky highs, punchy mids. I would highly recommend!

ScaleUp

Port City Amplification has worked extensively with Mountain BizWorks coach John Bonham through their individualized business coaching program, an opportunity for which Daniel is incredibly grateful. The program has helped Port City tackle issues from financial management to marketing, and was able to help Daniel craft a business plan that secured the initial funding to buy out his original silent partners and restructure the company as a sole proprietorship. “It’s amazing what happens when you formulate a business plan and think about contingencies. I feel like a totally different person than who I was when I started the company,” says Daniel.

Also, as noted above, in 2016 Port City Amplification was selected to take part in BizWorks’ ScaleUp WNC program, which provides intensive growth strategy and helps develop the skills required to grow a business beyond the initial startup phase. Each selected company is provided management training, access to capital assistance, and peer networking opportunities. BizWorks’ Raker calls Daniel “a perfect fit. ScaleUp WNC works with entrepreneurs at companies that have demonstrated early market success and are poised for significant growth. He’d impressively founded the company, created their core products, and clearly had a good understanding of the customer from his musician days.”

The ScaleUp program has provided Daniel with the framework and tools to refine his growth plan, equipping Port City with knowledge about how to structure inventory, handle purchasing, negotiate contracts, and generally stop problems before they start so they don’t require resolution. It’s had the additional benefit of connecting him with a group of peer entrepreneurs and mentors. As he puts it, “The camaraderie among other small business owners is nice—we’re able to have a discussion in a judgment-free zone.”

As a result of the ScaleUp program, Port City is currently in underwriting to secure a loan for research and development, advertising, marketing, hiring new employees, and expanding his production facility and capacity. “When this goes through, Port City will be experiencing a level of growth that it has never seen before and we’re really excited about that. We’re going to be known for our amps as much as we are known for our cabinets. We’ve projected workflow and what we’re going to need. I’ve already got the people in place.”

Port City Amplifiers can be purchased through a highly selective network of national and international boutique amplifier dealers, including Area 22 Guitars in nearby Brevard. A customer with discerning taste won’t be able to find a Port City Amplifier in a regular music store. As Daniel put it, “It’s hard to sell a Mercedes in a Kia parking lot. You’ve got to be in the right place.” As part of the company’s growth strategy, Daniel expects the dealer network to flourish through exposure at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) conference, which takes place in Anaheim, California, during January (there’s also a smaller summer iteration in the summer). “That’s a way to immediately grow that dealer base. Even if, on the low end, we add three dealers a year just through NAAM, we’ll still be able to control our growth.”

The past two years have shown a tremendous increase in the sales of Port City Amplification’s products. Their current sales numbers are far exceeding the pre-2008 levels. The road to recovery has been rocky, but with Daniel’s enthusiasm and the help of Mountain BizWorks, the current growth patterns are healthy and sustainable. “What we’re on par to do in the next three years is really cool. We’re not talking about 300 percent growth or anything wild like that. [But] for a company our size, given our history, what we’ve got planned are very reasonable numbers. We’ve got the numbers for high growth, but even the medium numbers are looking really good. I was able to hire Nathan. I’ve got another part-time guy, and I’ve got two other guys that are waiting in the wings. I see our work staff in the next two to five years easily getting to be between five and eight. I see us being in double digits somewhere after five years.”

Never Stop Learning

When it comes to entrepreneurship, Daniel Klein has learned from his experiences. “Entrepreneurship will kick you in the ass, and you either get up or you go away,” he says. “Business and finance has always been my Achilles heel. Now, I am strengthening [these skills] and getting them on par with my ability to design an amp, handle workflow, and manage a team. I will have a skill set so that I can really say, ‘I can handle that’—or if I can’t handle it, I know how to delegate and who to delegate to.”

Daniel holds himself and his company to a higher set of standards. His number one rule? Never stop learning. This philosophy is apparent throughout the culture of Port City Amplification. Daniel encourages his employees to maximize their potential by reading at least one book per month. “Anything you want… personal growth, circuit design, whittling, it doesn’t matter. Anything that makes you happy and stimulates you as a person, I’ll buy it.”

He also maintains his level of quality and production by never allowing for an easy out. “Never say that’s good enough. You’ve got to realize that you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. That may be the last amp you build, the last paper you write, the last presentation that you give. We have no idea. You have to hold your standards higher than anyone else that you’ve ever met would hold you to.”

Port City’s history has taught Daniel to brace for the storm and prepare for the unexpected when it comes to his strategy and finances. Regardless of a business plan, the worst can happen, and preparedness is key: “Study the contingencies, have auxiliary plans ready to put in place. Know that when the tough gets going you’ve just gotta decide—you’re either in this, or you’re not. You’ve got to find solutions, and you’ve got to do it quick. Keep your head on, don’t get overwhelmed. Stay focused, realize there’s always a solution, and just brace yourself.”

A Man of Tone & Taste

There is a lot of power in something as simple as a paper cone, a magnet, and a box. The kind of potency that can change the world. If it were not for electric instrument amplifiers, would there have been a Woodstock? Would Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia continue to influence audiences long after they’re gone? Would Bob Dylan have rocked the Newport Folk Festival in 1965? Would Eddie Van Halen have perfected the guitar technique that inspired millions of dreaming young musicians to pick up an instrument and rock out?

Daniel Klein and Port City Amplification are purveyors of great tone. Their products, manufactured in Western North Carolina, are used all over the globe to create the kind of art that can inspire world changing events. According to Klein, “[Great tone] lifts you up and everyone else is lifted up. It’s fantastic and you get goose bumps. But if you don’t have that—if you’ve got everything else, but that one key component is lacking, that tone, that musical voice that you want to identify with and you want it to speak for you—then the entire musical process is gonna suffer.”

He has achieved this feat with an unmatched intensity and focus on what makes great amplifiers. By remaining true to his intention, and building products that are desired by some of the world’s greatest musicians, Klein has built Port City Amplification into an international brand of distinction that takes great pride in uplifting the local economy. The future is as bright as a glowing tube that gives the Pearl Combo Amp its characteristic sound. Klein: “I wanted to be able to do something ridiculously well. One thing: nail it. We’re very Occam’s Razor. By keeping it as simple as possible, it’s going to yield the best result. If you can’t dial in one of our amps in less than 30 seconds, there’s something wrong with your ears. Period.”

***

Jay Sanders plays bass for veteran rock/folk/bluegrass band Acoustic Syndicate and is an international technology entrepreneur.

You can read the article and see the photos here.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *