Enterprise

Little Black Box

Exhibits showcase invention that rocked music world

A little black box born in a “cavernous basement” in Kalamazoo changed the music industry, and almost no one here noticed.

Meet the RAT, a unit about the size of a box of Pop-Tarts that gives electric guitars a distortion sound effect.

That box was and still is ProCo Sound’s crown jewel. The Kalamazoo-born company’s distortion pedal has become legendary, with the company selling tens of thousands of the boxes in more than a dozen versions. The RAT has been used by many well-known musicians, from The Police’s Andy Summers to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.

Born in the basement

When the RAT was created in 1978, ProCo was already a well-regarded company. Started in 1974 by Charlie Wicks, ProCo began out of the ashes of The Sound Factory, a music store founded in 1970 that shared a building at 131 E. Kalamazoo Ave. with a local recording studio known as Uncle Dirty’s Sound Machine Studios.

When The Sound Factory failed, its founder, Wicks, created ProCo to focus on manufacturing speaker cabinets, PA systems and sound cables. According to several sources, those cables would go on to carry sound for Disney World in Florida, Carnegie Hall in New York, and many other venues.

ProCo manufactured some of the less glamorous, more utilitarian parts required for music making, such as audio cables and snakes for microphones and instruments. But in 1978, in what ProCo employee Scott Burnham describes as the “cavernous basement” of the company’s building, Burnham struck gold for the company.

“There was always a need to get a really good, raunchy distortion sound without it being too loud,” Burnham says. “I listened to all of the distortion boxes that were out there and I didn’t like any of them, and for some reason I thought, ‘Maybe I can do something better.’”

It would appear that the world of rock agreed with him. Only 12 of Burnham’s original “Bud Box” RATs were built, but demand for more rose very quickly, and in the following year ProCo began mass-producing the boxes. Wicks died in 2010 at age 65, and ProCo is now part of RHC Holdings, based in Jackson, Missouri. ProCo still has sales and accounting offices at 5278 Lovers Lane, in Portage, but all manufacturing is now done in Missouri and the products are sold to instrument retailers and sound contractors.

Retelling ProCo’s story

Kalamazoo’s part in the history of the RAT and the rise of ProCo may well have faded into obscurity if it weren’t for efforts by Burnham and Craig Vestal, president of Portage Printing. Starting this month, the RAT will be featured in three exhibits at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

Beginning Sept. 1, an exhibit on ProCo, put together by museum staff, with Vestal and Burnham’s input, will be installed in the museum’s Community Case, which offers rotating exhibits. A re-creation of the RAT will be on display in the museum’s interactive Innovation Gallery, a new gallery at the museum focusing on creations and inventions made in the Kalamazoo area, which is expected to open in October. And a traveling exhibit from the National Guitar Museum titled Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World opens Sept. 22 and runs until Jan. 7 and will feature a little bit of ProCo history.

Vestal, who went to Loy Norrix High School with Burnham, says he knew many of the people involved in ProCo. “I was in a band then — half the teenage boys in Kalamazoo were in a band. It was just a thing you’d do,” he says. “There was a big rock ‘n’ roll scene, and these guys (at The Sound Factory) built the first big PA (public address system) you could rent on this side of the state. Otherwise only Chicago and Detroit had stuff like that. Anytime there was a big show, they’d run sound for it.”

Vestal says when he learned that Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World was coming to the museum, he pitched the idea of an accompanying ProCo exhibit to museum Director Bill McElhone.

“When I heard about the traveling guitar exhibit, I started leaning on the museum, because very few people know what was going on in the ProCo building and what an interesting story it is,” Vestal says.

McElhone says he didn’t plan to have three exhibits with ProCo-related stories come together at the same time but is happy the museum is getting the opportunity to tell ProCo's story.

Making memories

Recently Burnham found himself staring at images of the interactive exhibit featuring the RAT, a sight he responded to by laughing, amazed that an accurate representation of his original design is being put in a museum.

According to Burnham, the creativity and purpose that he believes made ProCo so great gave way to production of cables and RATs.

“As time went on, (ProCo) turned more and more into a money-making operation, and to me a lot of the original purpose was sort of lost,” he says. “We wanted to build really good stuff, and slowly that declined into ‘We just want to sell a lot of stuff.’”

Several attempts were made to reach ProCo and RHC officials about the company’s current operations, but no response was received.

Burnham, who started working for The Sound Factory at age 18 and stuck with Wicks when he created ProCo, left the company 22 years ago, but both he and Vestal want the story of the ProCo they knew and loved to be shared with the community.

“A lot of this stuff, it’s just going to go into the obscurity of history, I guess,” Burnham says.

“Not if we can help it,” replies Vestal.

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Birth of the RAT

“I listened to all of the distortion boxes that were out there and I didn’t like any of them, and for some reason I thought, ‘Maybe I can do something better.’”

— Scott Burnham, designer of the first ProCo RAT distortion pedal