Completing the circuit: Curiosity -- and a desert -- lead to innovation from an engineer with a musician's ear

February 9, 2019 9:56:18 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


For J.C. Long, early tutelage in electronics came as a kid, from his dad. But it was at a military post 6,800 miles away from his Mississippi home years later that he almost stumbled across what he was meant to do in life. It took a while for him to realize it.


"After wandering around the world, going into the Army and exploring every other direction, I ended up following in my dad's footsteps," said the electrical engineer who lives and works in Starkville. "It's absolutely a family tradition, but I chose the hard way. It took a long time."


Today, the 40-year-old works at Camgian, a company building intelligent sensing applications powered by advanced technologies in edge computing and artificial intelligence. Long is also a musician, innovator and co-founding partner in a start-up called Amped Innovations LLC. He has created a special harmonics extender boost pedal for electric guitar players and has in development a tube amp tuner for electric guitars. While these products are for the music industry, Amped Innovations' ultimate mission is designing and producing new products and engineering solutions for a wide range of industries.



It may not have happened if Long hadn't packed along a guitar and amplifier with him to a hot, dusty desert in Iraq in the mid-2000s.



Getting there


Long moved to Columbus from De Queen, Arkansas, in 1989, when his dad began working at Weyerhaeuser's Lowndes County facility. Long's father and grandfather were both in electronics; both got their starts in the Navy.


After graduating from Columbus High School in 1997, Long headed to Pepperdine University in California, about as far from Mississippi as he could get at the time.


"I knew very clearly that if I went to Mississippi State then, I would do engineering; I was good at math and science ... but I also knew that to be well-rounded was important to me," he said. "I wanted to gain some more exposure in other areas."


Time and circumstance eventually brought him back to Columbus, where his mother oversaw the Columbus High Career Center. Through a visiting military recruiter there, Long -- a guitarist and drummer -- heard about the Army Band. He successfully auditioned for the band at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and in 2003, became a member of the armed forces.



You're in the Army now


"I found myself in northern Iraq in 2005," Long said, looking back on a life-shaping period. The soldier/musician experience was, he admitted, "a little like oil and water." One day he'd be patrolling perimeter fence at the large military installation. The next, he would be on rotation to play for troops. That meant loading up cases of instruments -- and rifles and ammunition.


"We were armed to the teeth, musically and militarily," Long said with a wry grin. "We traveled by helicopter to outposts where they didn't really have much of anything in the way of diversion and put on a show that was mostly rock and roll and country."


In Iraq, downtime for some meant writing letters or playing video games, anything to take their minds off of where they were for a while.


"But I didn't bring a video game console," Long said. "I'd lined up a nice amp and nice guitar (to take), and I'd get them out and was learning how to record music. I'd get my little laptop out and hook everything up, and away I would go."


It was while deployed that Long began to wonder about electronics.


"Sometimes a piece of equipment would have a problem, and there was nowhere to send it over there, so I'd just have to take a crack at it," he said. "I didn't have an education in electronics, but I was very curious. How does it work? How do you build it to make it withstand the desert of Iraq?" He'd email manufacturers, ask questions and persevere.


"It was at that time that I really became interested in electronics. I was really carving out what it is that gives me the sound that I want," he said.


One ah-ha moment came when Long had an opportunity to listen to a recreation of an "old amp."


"I heard that thing, and I couldn't believe my ears. I said, 'Whoa -- that's it!" The brand was Trainwreck, the designer Ken Fischer -- names that have developed legendary status across the music industry.


After getting out of the Army in 2010, Long continued to research, experiment and hone his recording skill. Fischer had passed away in 2006, but Long was inspired by his work with amplifiers; they are highly-prized, some of the most sought-after and expensive on the market. Long didn't have the means to acquire one, but he did have the means to build his own amp. And he did -- as faithful a recreation as he could make.


"I did it as a learning experience," he said.



Back to school


With his thirst for electronics knowledge increasing, Long enrolled at Mississippi State in 2013 and finished in 2017. He was curious about avionics, "but once I put a toe in the water, I could see that the field was so broad. My interest, career-wise, led to micro-electronics, but along the way it was no problem to apply what I was learning to guitar amps."


It was at MSU that Long met Derek Schulte, whom he would later join in forming Amped Innovations LLC. Long also developed his boost pedal. Longtime guitar and amp technician Tony Foster of Backstage Music in Starkville has one. Long customized it with emblems of Foster's father's military unit.


"It's a great pedal, a very effective circuit," said Foster, a musician who uses it to enhance the gain on a vintage amplifier. "I like how meticulous J.C. is, and I like his attention to detail; I'm all about attention to detail."


Long considers it an honor to work on his innovations and to restore older equipment, bringing it new life. Among his most valuable tools, he said, are "musical ears."


The life that has unfolded is an intersection of music, electronics, curiosity, education, anxiousness and a drive for making things. And Long knows it traces back to those earliest lessons from his father, who passed away this past May.


"If you had told me when I was in Iraq that I would get to do what I do today, I probably would not have believed you," he said "When I used the skills I inherited from my dad and the knowledge he instilled in me," said Long, "it just worked."


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.