Small Bear Electronics Tremulous Bear
Based On: Original design boutique-style tremolo
Time to Build: 2–3 days, depending on experience
Tools Needed: Soldering iron and accessories, various screwdrivers, scissors, needlenose and diagonal pliers, tweezers, alligator clips, adjustable wrench, Xacto knife, Gel epoxy, Dremel tool with drillbits (a Unibit would be helpful) and cutting and grinding attachments (at least), digital multimeter.
Complexity: 4 (out of 5)
Not simply a kit provider, Small Bear Electronics is a parts supplier, importer/exporter, general store and DIY resource run by Steve Daniels. This kit is based on a pedal that originally appeared in Poptronics in 2001, which has been redesigned for an easier build. The aim was to offer a boutique-quality tremolo that could be built from readily available components, would provide plenty of flexibility and modern functions, and left room for hacks and mods. In addition to interactive Speed controls for a near-infinite variety of modulations, the pedal also features Depth, Level and Bias (which varies the amount of unmodulated signal in the space between beats). It doesn’t stop there, though: the LFO offers you the choice of triangle or square wave, and the Var. switch gives you control over the evenness of the duty cycle of the controlling signal. All in all, it’s a fairly sophisticated and somewhat idiosyncratic design, which promises plenty of fun—building and playing. I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners, or those who just want pedals for less money and are willing to do the work. If you’ve built a few easy PCB kits and you want something more challenging, though, I’d say go for it. It’s not a very high price tag for the learning you can gain.
The parts and materials are covered clearly and listed on the schematic, which is easy enough to follow for anybody with at least some experience at this. It did turn out that a few parts were missing from the shipped kit (a toggle and a resistor), but that’s not very unusual for a project of this nature, and Steve took care of it right away. I should say right off the bat, though, that people who have relatively little experience with following schematics or building on perfboard—or those whose skills may be a little rusty (like me)—should be prepared for this to go somewhat slowly, at least to begin with. The instructions provide a good deal of explanation about the design of the circuit, reasons for choosing particular components, and the how the different functions of the pedal operate, so a basic understanding of electronics is going to come in handy. The instructions also include some notes and technical info on potential variations for the more experienced who are interested in going further afield.
The first part of the build is tooling the unfinished case, using the drilling template (downloaded from the website) and making holes for the pots, toggles, 1/4" jacks, power jack, bypass switch and LED bezel. Though this isn’t the most crowded enclosure, marking the centers of the holes accurately is important. Small Bear recommends using a Unibit to drill the holes to the proper sizes; not having one, I drilled pilot holes using markings from the template and then widened them with a Dremel tool—this method requires care, so it takes time and makes a bigger mess (wear gloves and safety glasses!). Next up was cutting the appropriate holes in the perfboard for the jack flanges and switches. Tooling an epoxy-glass board creates lots of fiberglass dust and small pieces, so I added a facemask to the gloves and glasses. Small Bear has lots of good suggestions for tooling the housing and the board, installing switches and for making sure you get everything right the first time.
From there, the majority of the work involved is creating the circuit on the perfboard, which can be a challenge. Mounting components is simple enough, but there’s no etching here, and making connections from scratch is a precision business. If you’re new to it, go slowly, double check your work and do plenty of continuity testing. You should also make a spare copy of the layout diagram and track your completed connections with a highlighter, especially if you’re spreading the build out over many days, so you’ll know where you are at any given point. This kit uses a large pad-per-hole perfboard, but you’ll still need respectable soldering skills to keep things clean. Once the board was complete, it was just a matter of wiring up the jacks, pots and switches. Keep in mind that the pedal will work if you do everything correctly, but may not if you do only one thing wrong.
I discovered I had done a few things wrong myself, despite my cautious approach, when I plugged it in for the first time. Steve Daniels has a good deal of experience helping kit builders at this stage, and he offered some solid advice. After some troubleshooting and a few “D’oh!” moments, we were up and running. It’s a very cool trem, very versatile and capable of a lot, from choppy, percussive beats to subtle textures and even some weird but musical noises. One thing I learned for sure was that it’s less fun to build a pedal on a publishing deadline, but I did learn some other things too, and I did enjoy myself. —CB