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Kickstart This: Headache Sound is Making a Super Portable Vinyl Player

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If you’ve always wanted to learn to scratch, but don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on the cumbersome rig that usually entails, Hong Kong company Headache Sound is currently raising funds to solve that problem for you.

Listing as its mission statement “when modern technology meets vintage vibe,” Headache Sound’s whole thing is to deliver the warm tones of analog gear such as tube amps and vinyl players into a small, eco-friendly package. They hit that mark with 2017’s GA1.1, a 200-watt tube amp that can fit in a backpack, and are currently about a quarter of the way towards their fundraising goal for the OMNI, a micro vinyl player aiming to bring “portablism” (portable turntablism) to a wider audience.

As Headache Sound’s nexus between music nerdery and manufacturing innovation is the kind of thing RADII eats up, with caught up with company founder Banny Ng to talk about their latest project and overall mission:

RADII: Can you first give a brief background to Headache Sound? When did you start, and how did you land on your mission of mixing modern technology and vintage vibes?

Headache Sound Electronics (HeadacheSound) is based in Hong Kong. We develop electronic audio equipment and musical instruments. We started in 2013 as a recording studio, and then we started to modify guitar amplifiers, and to repair recording studio gear. We learnt design concepts by repairing vintage microphones and vintage guitar amplifiers. In 2017, we developed our first hybrid guitar amp, GA1.1, which combines vintage vacuum tubes, a modern DSP, and class-d topography. It gives the warm tube tone that all guitar players love, while being versatile and very portable.

Your latest project is the OMNI, an ultra portable vinyl player that might also appeal to analog lovers. This seems like a niche market to me. Who are your customers, and where do they live?

The main markets for OMNI are in Europe and America. We are mainly aiming at DJs looking for true analog turntable experience. They call it “turntablism”, which is actually fading away in the digital age. We want to give anybody an affordable and easy access to turntablism, even if they are not DJs.

You also mention environmental sustainability as a company value. What steps do you take to ensure your products are environmentally friendly?

This is because we mainly use class-d amplification, which is over 90% energy efficient, compared with conventional class A/B tube amplifiers, which only have 50-60% efficiency. For example, GA1.1 has a maximum 200 watt output, but the idle power consumption is 12 watts. A conventional 100-watt tube amplifier would at least consume 50 watts of power, even if there is no audio power reproduction.

Related:

How Hak Hak Manufacture is Cutting Out a Vinyl Record Niche in Guangdong

Can you talk a bit about vinyl culture in Hong Kong? Is this something you have experience with yourself?

To be honest, Hong Kong’s music scene sucks really bad. Most people listen to digital streaming, and most vinyl lovers are on the high fidelity side. Talking about scratching fans and DJs, they are hardly found in Hong Kong. We don’t have much hope in the local market.

What is the ideal customer for OMNI? Presumably people with a lot of experience in vinyl DJing and/or scratching will want a more robust product. What are the use cases you have in mind for OMNI?

“Portablism”, a new wording combining “portable” and “turntablism”, which is getting more and more popular in the DJ scene. A conventional DJ set is expensive, bulky, and can never be portable. We designed OMNI so that anybody can at least try to scratch, and play a turntable as a musical instrument. We hope to bring an easy-to-play turntable to everyone, maybe bring the turntable element to all kinds of music.

More on vinyl culture in China:

B-side China Podcast: Genjing Jukebox w/ Nevin Domer

What are the major technical challenges you’ve faced in developing the OMNI? What about your other products?

The major problem we face is that it’s always hard to pack all the functions and circuits into a small package. Most portable gear lacks functionality — we don’t like that. We love to design small, portable gear with all the functions that conventional gear delivers. Another problem was we had to combine a high-voltage (typically 400V) tube circuit, into a digital circuit (typically 5V). The circuit design is always challenging.

What advantage does your location in Hong Kong yield in the development of your products? What general advantages do you think hardware startups in HK/Shenzhen have over other tech hubs around the world?

The only advantages are cheaper and shorter RnD and prototyping stages. Yes, as Hong Kong is right next to Shenzhen, I think it is also very easy for us to monitor the whole production stage, and provide better quality control.

Anything else you want to add?

As a small and ground-up company, we always lack financial support. The local government does not have any scheme to support companies like us. We are probably the only company that develops electronic musical instruments in Hong Kong. The local market is too small, so it’s always a struggle [to decide] how we should spend our very limited cash. We always hope crowdfunding could be our way to go. But because of more scam campaigns happening, the market is shrinking. And we are actually not happy, and not trusting the crowdfunding scene any longer.

Learn more about Headache Sound’s OMNI vinyl player — and kick them some loot if you’re interested — right here.

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.