There is a giant tucked cozily into the heart of Baltimore City proper. I walked through the front door of Big Crunch Amp Repair & Design only to have all previously conceived notions of an amp shop completely devoured. Greetings came in the form of a gutted blood red Strat-style guitar signed by Megadeth, a surprisingly large Prince poster, comforting orange walls, and a friendly smile at the front desk...yes there was a front desk.
I think we’ve all had the traumatic experience of walking into a repair shop to find it covered in spare parts, dirt, and smelling of cigarettes and leather; it can be intimidating. But not here. This place was extremely inviting, and the franken-stereo made from a 1x15 cab and ratchet-strapped speakers salvaged from an old Casio keyboard told me I was getting ready to meet some interesting folks.
Brooks Harlan, Big Crunch owner and tech, emerged from the back and took me for a quick tour. As we walked through, I noticed these guys had a lot more on their plates than just the typical guitar amp repair...I mean they were definitely repairing amps, but they were also building them from scratch. Brooks told me tales of all the wicked demons they’d seen over the years; everything from sourcing parts and running repairs on an old Wurlitzer with a coffee can speaker design, to fishing through vintage Leslie cabs looking for the problem points. It appeared this team had literally seen it all since Big Crunch opened its doors in 2008.
“We are actually right next to Magpie Cage Studios,” said Brooks.
“Bands come in to record all the time with broken gear, and we end up getting some great work out of it.”
Brooks went on to describe the reward that comes from the work they do with the studio. Bands will come over to Big Crunch with issues they need solved in a hurry, so they won’t miss out on precious studio time and so the finished recorded product will sound the best it possibly can. Brooks and his team diagnose issues on the fly, fix the issues, and then immediately get to hear the result of their work, as the gear is put right back to use in the studio. They also carry out all the tech work for the studio equipment, so they see a lot more than just amplifiers.
One cool custom project they’d done was an amp called, “The One Knob.” Not only is the name incredible, and I’m a sucker for really user-friendly gear, but the amp sounded awesome too. IT was originally made for Kyle from The Sword as a 50-watt all tube powerhouse that goes from glistening cleans all the way to hair-raising distortion as you turn the amp’s one knob. Pretty neat stuff.
I’d been told that Brooks and his manager/tech, Shawna, were in a pretty rippin’ band, so of course I asked about that, because it’s always reassuring to know the people working on your gear are also musicians. War On Women is the name of their band; they’ve toured the USA more than fifteen times, they’ve done three European tours, they have two full length albums and one EP out right now. But here’s where it gets really dang cool...they design and build all of their own gear. Yeah that’s right, guitar amps, bass heads, pedalboards, you name it...they rock the stage with self-built equipment. This allows them to shape their sound however they’d like, get unique tones, and showcase their design capabilities in a live setting.
Brooks notes that being in a working band is extremely helpful because it keeps them in touch with the needs and wants of other working musicians. There is a certain level of reliability that must be present in gear that goes on the road; who better to design and repair this stuff than a bunch of rockers who sling gear all around the world with the best of ‘em?
When I asked Brooks what set his shop apart from everyone else’s, he said, “I think we are just crazy enough to take on the really frustrating projects. We WANT to fix your gear.” He told me of the value in making sure that everyone employed at Big Crunch actually has the true desire to take things that are broken, and fix them. There is a passion for tech work in their shop. Honestly, there are a ton of people out there with the skills and knowledge to do all kinds of repairs, but I really appreciated the way Brooks talked about the drive and ambition in every one of his team members.
So, just to go full circle with this, there is a giant tucked cozily into the heart of Baltimore City proper. It is an absolute beast of a repair and design shop, populated by touring musicians who know the abuse gear takes on a regular basis, build their own gear from scratch, repair gear for studios, and get to hear how their work contributes to professional audio recordings. The amount of well-roundedness in Big Crunch is dumbfounding. They get to see gear and sound from every imaginable angle, and they carry out their work accordingly. These people are full of insight, and it’s quite impressive.
If you find yourself anywhere near Baltimore Maryland and in need of gear touch-ups, Big Crunch Amp Repair & Design is the place to go. Big Crunch, we salute you. Keep up the rock doctoring!