Setting the Right Tone

02 August 2016

Nik Shazwan Nik Azam is the founder and maker of Ceriatone’s hand-wired guitar amplifiers. We find out what makes this black box so well loved and sought after by fans from all over the world.

There’s no signboard to be seen. A closer inspection of a row of grimy car repair shops interspersed with quiet hawker stalls and tuition centres reveal a small enclosure leading upstairs. Before that, a metal grille with an 8 x 3 centimeter plastic plaque with a smooth and cursive inscription: Ceriatone.

Nik greets us at the door, gesturing at the tight spaces of his workshop. At one corner, a room dedicated to circuit boards, and another at the far end, a small space where two workers quietly hack at the wooden mould enveloping the intricate amplifier components.

Traces of melting alloy sweep pass the room. Each workstation along the corridor is ornamented with piles of appliances and tools. A sheet depicting a circuit layout is stuck on the walls amid posters of international football stars. Kaka and Ronaldo seem to be a crowd favourite.

Shelves are mounted floor to ceiling, filled with small electrical parts— transistors, wires, capacitors, hoods and plates, and colourful paraphernalia labelled with hand-written stationery stickers. Only the workers and Nik himself would know what they mean.

Fourteen years ago, Nik merely worked out of his bedroom, assembling and replicating circuit boards of vintage amplifiers from renowned brands like Marshall and Fender. There was a demand for it (especially from the United States) because he could build the same thing for less, selling them directly on eBay.

Today, Ceriatone is a full-fledged homegrown business offering more than 40 amplifier models, and housing 15 staff. They ship an average of 100 to 150 parts and amps every month, each with a starting price of USD650. Plus, Nik is exploring a new line of products too— guitar pedals.

“It’s all about the last 10 per cent. We are not talking about the reliability and the cool factor and all that. We are talking strictly about sound. Our circuits might be exactly the same, and they [bigger brands] might sound almost the same, but it is the last 10 per cent that makes us different,” asserts Nik.

At Ceriatone, there’s a lot that goes into an amplifier than just its constituent parts. Sound is sensitive and susceptible to almost anything and everything. A simple misstep renders the product completely useless.

Aware of this, Nik spends sleepless nights thinking of ways to produce the perfect sound. Beyond replicating certain configurations, the challenge comes in identifying the best components— for instance, a change in capacitor directly changes the sound. Nik argues that if you can’t hear the difference, you’re practically deaf— and laying out the board in a way that it is not a rat’s nest.

A simple analogy: building IKEA furniture seems like child's play until you actually assemble them. Plus, an amplifier is no BILLY Bookcase. The process itself requires a painstaking amount of tweaking and testing and tweaking again, until the perfect tone is created.

“Sound can be subjective. But you’ll know a good sound when you hear it. The human psyche is formed in a way that we can recognise it,” Nik says.

He is right. It doesn't take much to know a good product when you hear one. A quick scour through the Internet will lead you to forums and a Facebook page, set up by Ceriatone fans themselves, to discuss and shower praises on the products.

"I don’t have a marketing department, and I’ve not spent a single marketing cent until today," says Azlin, Nik's wife and confidant who left her job in 2006 to help with managing Ceriatone's bread and butter-- accounts, HR, inventories, shipping and administrative work; basically everything else under the sun.

"Seeing your customers post YouTube videos and positive reviews about our amps— all those are really rewarding. We just have to continue putting out a good product," she adds.

In the final moment, Nik and Azlin reflect on their decade-long journey with Ceriatone. They've only just begun, and they are enjoying the ride.

"It's always about the process," Nik says after awhile.

"If there’s something to take away from this [experience], it's about sticking to the process. Without that, you can’t learn about yourself, about your weaknesses. It's all about using your knowledge, even if it's little to begin with, to create art, to create ... something."

 

By Lillian Wee

Photos by Lillian Wee

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