By JIMMY BELLAMY, Duluth News Tribune
DULUTH, Minn. (AP) -- His work has been seen and heard at music festivals, clubs and arenas around the world, but you won't find posters of him lining the bedroom walls of teenagers.
Nic Patullo started New Vintage Amplifiers in 2008. And with an ever-expanding client list that includes the bands blink-182, 3 Doors Down, Motion City Soundtrack and Low, and musicians for artists Kenny Chesney, Sara Bareilles, Mat Kearney and Matt Nathanson, the 32-year-old Duluth man is quietly -- yet loudly, too -- leaving his mark on the music industry, the Duluth News Tribune reported.
Patullo took an interest in music that began as a guitar-playing kid in Hermantown and combined it with his obsession for tinkering, tearing apart and reassembling household items.
"I drove my parents crazy," Patullo said. "It wasn't until my teens that I was able to put it back together again."
His direction took more focus in 2000 when he met then-owner Walt Gorgoschlitz of Flatstone Amplification, a small business in Poplar that serviced and designed amps, and worked as an apprentice in his shop for six years.
Patullo and a business partner bought Flatstone in 2007 after Gorgoschlitz moved to Texas. A year later, Patullo left the company and started New Vintage.
The purpose of an amplifier is to make things -- a guitar, for instance -- louder. The voicing or tonality of an amp lends itself to the instrument it amplifies.
A New Vintage amp does it in a distinct, old-fashioned way by using vacuum tubes, which are uncommon in today's hyper-digital world.
"It's an older technology," Patullo said. "But newer devices, solid-state devices and digital re-creations just can't mimic what vacuum tubes do, because the way vacuum tubes operate is very imperfect. But the imperfections of vacuum-tube audio are what everyone loves about it.
"There's harmonics. There's a warmth and a frequency response that you just don't get with newer technology. They've tried and tried for years to recreate it, and they just don't have the sound."
Music makers agree.
"These are the first amps that I've ever tried where you say, 'Yes. Oh, that's how a guitar should sound,'" said producer-songwriter Jordan Schmidt, a Duluth native living in Nashville, Tenn. "That's an incredible thing because it makes my job way easier. Instead of figuring out what makes it sound bad, I can figure out how to make a good sound great."
Schmidt, 25, was working in his Minneapolis recording studio in 2010 when he stumbled onto Patullo while searching online for amps. Schmidt said he was surprised to find a reference to amps in Duluth while reading something about Flatstone, which no longer was in business. That led him to New Vintage. He said any skepticism he had about a Duluth-based amp company quickly faded after his initial conversation with Patullo.
"He just schooled me on amps," Schmidt said. "You could tell him any record, any famous guitar tone, and he'd know what was used."
Schmidt bought a studio in Nashville and has turned a number of musicians on to New Vintage amps. But it was his California connection with blink-182 singer-bassist Mark Hoppus that gave the company a boost. Schmidt was second engineer during the 2009 recording of the Hoppus-produced Motion City Soundtrack album "My Dinosaur Life."
Before a newly reunited blink-182 hit the studio in 2011 to record their first album in eight years, "Neighborhoods," Schmidt put in a call to his rock-star pal. Hoppus was impressed with what he heard from the amps during recording and wanted one of his own, so Patullo spent months building a Retribution 30 guitar amp and shipped it to Hoppus.
Two or three excruciating months passed without a word from the rock star.
At a retail price of roughly $1,400 to $3,200, a small start-up couldn't afford to lose an amp, Schmidt said. "I've made him give away more amps than he probably should have."
Then, out of the blue, Hoppus e-mailed Schmidt.
"He said, `Hey, man, this amp is unreal. Can you get in touch with the guy who made it? I really want a bass amp,'" Schmidt said.
The rest is music history.
"Up until then, (Patullo) had just done guitar amps. He already had something in the works -- but it lit a fire in him to get it done," Schmidt said. "Hoppus loved it. Now his bass amps are flying off the shelves."
Patullo, a former construction equipment salesman, said business has doubled every year since starting New Vintage Amps. In addition to moving 60 to 70 units annually, he produces high-end accessories, including microphone and speaker cables, to complement his amp arsenal. This year he took on his first full-time employee.
"I own plenty of pieces myself, and I just really enjoy the product and play it," said musician Nate Adelson, 23, of Hermantown, who has worked at New Vintage since February. "It's cool to see it from the inside for a change."
Patullo will be on the inside in July -- onstage as a guitar tech during the Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown Band concert at Target Field in Minneapolis. While he enjoys life in the music business, he prefers spending his nights at home with his wife, Angie, and 16-month-old daughter, Clara, to a tour bus and stadiums.
"A part of me is onstage with those people," Patullo said. "Whatever rock star dreams I had, I live through my clients."