It was 2021 when I first heard about the Bell & Howell Filmosound. I was scrolling through guitar amps in an IR modeling plug-in. Among the rock icons like the Marshall JTM45, Vox AC30, and Fender Bassman, there was an entry I was unfamiliar with:"Filmosound." Throughout the 1930's-1950's, 16mm sound-on-film projectors were popular in the professional and consumer market. You could record home movies on your color video camera and sound would be encoded alongside the motion picture frames. The audio signal would then be decoded by an optical phototube and passed along to some kind of amplifier. Enter the Bell & Howell Filmosound projector. In the Filmosound's case, B&H developed a 6V6-based tube amp, which went through many revisions. These amps included a high-impedance input and a speaker output, typically a 12" Jensen, which is a coveted speaker on its own. So why had this art-deco home movie amp earned a spot next to guitar amp legends?
I had to pick one up and find out. These projectors, if complete with the speaker cab and amp untouched, go for anywhere from $200-800 on Reverb. In Summer 2023, patience rewarded me and I came across a family in Orange County with a Filmosound Model 179 they were selling as a "old slide projector" for much less. I lugged the projector & speaker in two heavy enclosures onto the bench. The amp was literally part of the projector chassis, but was clearly designed to be removed for service. After some poking around with a screwdriver, I managed to get the amp free. Beneath a rusted power transformer and assortment of Sylvania, RCA, & military tubes was an amp that still seemed in decent shape. When I opened up the amp chassis, I was met with by far the most claustrophobic assortment of components & wires I've ever seen. Another unexpected (and unwelcome) discovery was B&H's decision to include oil can capacitors. These are components insulated using polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) which is a chemical so dangerous and deadly it's now completely banned in the United States. If these were leaking, a hazmat team would have to show up. Things weren't exactly going how I'd planned. Thankfully, the oil capacitors were working fine, and I was advised by Anthony at Mars Amps to leave them be. Next, I undertook the delicate task of converting its power & speaker connections to modern equivalents. The phototube had to be removed, and the grid stopper-style 6J7 input tube needed additional electromagnetic shielding. Eventually, it became time to plug in a guitar and let it rock. The Filmosound then revealed its secret: a harmonically dense overdrive with a high dynamic range. At roughly 12 watts, the Filmosound 179 amp is perfect for recording, and according to my guitar player friend who I later gifted it to, is an absolute joy to play.
In my opinion, the amp itself is more than worthy of its reputation. However, it's uncertain how the Filmosound got its venerable status. The reason for this is that if you contact any of the amp techs online to purchase a "converted" Filmosound amp, what you receive is unlikely to actually be a Filmosound. The reason for this is that all the conversions I've seen involve fully removing the whole amp from its chassis, trashing it, and building a completely different amp inside, usually a Fender Deluxe clone or similar. To me, only using the shell of an amp no longer counts as a "conversion." So this begs the question: when people rave about the "Filmosound" sound, is it a true Filmosound they just listened to? Or just the already-lauded Fender? I'm sure both can be true.
Since I've yet to see anybody who offers true conversions, where the entire amp circuit is left original and unmodified, I'm considering starting a service for paid customers. If you are interested, feel free to reach out using the "Contact" tab on the top of this page.
I took some footage of my good friend and fellow producer, Ryan Jarvis, putting his new 179 through its paces. In my personal studio, I use a Filmosound 302 (pictured on top of this post), a 50's model with a 12AX7-based preamp and more headroom. I do enjoy the rich, powerful overdrive, but I think the 302's sweet spot is right on the edge of breakup.