UPDATE: My Dunlop Fuzz Face Mini review is live at Premier Guitar. Audio clips included!
How and when did it get so frickin’ easy to procure great-sounding germanium transistors?
I’ve been building stompboxes for four years or so. I used to consume article after article detailing the sheer horror of dealing with germanium. Sure, those old-school transistors sound great, I’d read, and they’re necessary for vintage distortion circuits. But they’re unstable. They’re expensive. They’re hard to find. You have to sort through dozens to find the few good ones. And once you do, you must spend countless hours matching and biasing them for optimal sound.
I believed everything I read — until I finally admitted to myself that I seldom encountered any of those problems.
(If you don’t know much about germanium transistors and why they’re cool, here’s my manifesto.)
I used to buy germanium transistors from Small Bear and other parts sites, and was always happy with the results, even though I had to pay eight or ten bucks per transistor. (Small Bear even does the matching for you, offering sets of transistors suitable for various vintage fuzz circuits.) However, it was a little tough finding NPN (negative-ground) germanium transistors. In fact, Small Bear once rejected my order of a dozen or so NPNs because they were so scarce. (To his credit, Small Bear’s Steve Daniels explained that he restricted sales so that everyone who wanted to build a couple of great DIY fuzzes would have the opportunity.)
The workaround is to build pesky positive-ground pedals, or jigger with the schematic in order to use PNP (positive-ground) transistors in negative-ground circuits. (This site’s Fiendmaster project is an example of the latter workaround.)
Then some odd things happened:
First, they’ve started making germanium transistors again, though I haven’t managed to figure out exactly who “they” are. BYOC has been selling fuzz kits with new transistors from New Jersey Semiconductor, who have an exceedingly uninformative website. The guys from Mammoth told me their germanium transistors are new-production, though they wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me more than that. Dunlop is reportedly making new germanium transistors for their Fuzz Faces. (I just wrote a review of the $99 Dunlop Germanium Fuzz Face Mini for Premier Guitar. It sounds fabulous, and I’ll link to my review when it goes live.) In each case, these transistors work great, and NPNs seem as plentiful as PNPs. [UPDATE: Nope, I was misinformed. Dunlop says they are using strictly NOS transistors.]
Meanwhile, a friend shared a couple of online sources for cheap germanium transistors, but only after extracting a promise not to share the info. (Sorry! I know how obnoxious that is.) But with a little snooping, you can find them too. As with most electronic parts, they’re cheaper in bulk. I was buying PNP AC-128s for two bucks a pop, and used those for all the pedals in Fuzz Detective, my mondo germanium fuzz comparison video. After that, I ordered 100 NPN AC-187s for a buck each. It was such a good deal that, on a lark, I asked how much 500 would cost. Answer: a little over $200. That’s not much more than the price of four Boss DS-1s! And that’s how I acquired the 500 transistors pictured above.
But get this: They’re not new, but NOS (new-old stock). So how the hell can once company sell me seemingly unlimited NPN transistors for forty cents each, while Small Bear declined my offer to buy the equivalent for ten bucks each?
All those articles I’d read all stressed how essential it is to measure transistors, using only the ones whose gain levels fall within specific ranges. I bought a relatively expensive digital multimeter with an hFE function (hFE is the measurement unit for transistor gain) and dutifully test every transistor. But over time, I’ve found that a) the vast majority of transistors I test are just fine, and b) the “rules” about optimal hFE levels for classic fuzz circuits often aren’t true. Or rather, transistors whose gain levels fall outside the specified ranges can sound great.
Take my mountain of AC-187s, for example. The AC-187 is a loud NPN transistor whose hFE values check in between 300 and 500, a gain level widely considered too hot for Rangemasters, Fuzz Faces, Tone Benders, and their derivatives. I don’t know enough to challenge that statement on technical grounds, but I will on musical grounds: The stuff I’m building sounds frickin’ awesome. Germanium transistors are so dynamic that rolling back the input level (either from the guitar’s volume, or via a pre-gain pot) produces sounds equivalent to transistors with lower hFE values. I find I can get great vintage tones with the more gain on tap if needed. So I call b.s. on the conventional wisdom here.
(I suspect those “optimal” values came about from measuring the transistors in particularly great-sounding vintage pedals. The pedals in question probably do sound great — but they’d also sound great with many other values.)
So where do these new-production germanium transistors come from? And why is it suddenly so easy to find good, cheap old ones? Can anyone give me a clue? If you do, I’ll mail you an envelope full of enough
cheap-ass rare, expensive germanium transistors to build a couple of bitchin’ fuzz pedals.