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Builder Profile: Klon's Bill Finnegan

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Klon builder Bill Finnegan wanted to include this text—which refers to the dialogue surrounding his famed Centaur design—on the casing of his new KTR pedal. “It’s a wry observation that I can't be held responsible for the overheated emotions that have been introduced into various Klon debates since the earliest days of the Centaur,” he says. “I knew that in using that text I'd be stirring things up some, but I thought it would be interesting and fun to see how, in reacting to it, people would self-select into either the ‘love it’ or the ‘hate it’ group.” Photo by Nolan Yee.

Do you think Centaurs will retain their high value now that the KTR is available?
Yes, in general I think they will. They’re collectible and—with the one small exception I just mentioned—no more will be built, unless I’m very mistaken. For almost everyone, the KTR is a much more sensible option now: It sounds the same, it’s much smaller, it’s way the hell less expensive—$269 retail—and you don’t have to worry about losing something that’s worth $1,000 or $1,500 or $2,000 if it’s stolen. On the other hand, the Centaur has something of its own that people really like and are willing to pay serious money for. The design has achieved a certain status—I would use the analogy of old, custom-colored Marshalls. I have two small-box, 50-watt Marshall Lead heads—model 1987s: One is a black-Tolex, aluminum-panel head from 1970, and the other is a red-Tolex, plexi-panel head from 1969. They have the same circuitry and sound almost identical, but of course the red one is worth way more than the black one. I like cool, distinctive things as much as the next guy, so I’m not in a position to criticize someone for being willing to pay more than I myself would, or more than most people would, if they want it that much.

What are the demographics of the typical Klon user?
It seems to be more or less everyone. Baby-boomer guys who are still only interested in the music they grew up with, but also a lot of younger, indie-rock people, and also a number of musicians whose work is more experimental and can’t be easily categorized.

What can you tell us about the germanium diode you like so much in your circuits?
In 1993 and ’94, when it was clear that Fred and I were getting close to producing what I thought was the full measure of what our circuit was capable of, I started buying quantities of every diode I thought might be at all suitable for the head-to-toe pair that clips the signal, except for when the circuit is in clean-boost mode. This was pre-internet, so I was going to the public library, looking up distributors in the Thomas Register, and then calling those distributors to find out what they had—email was still in the future then! I started out ordering both germanium and silicon diodes, but pretty quickly I began concentrating on the germaniums. Usually, though not always, they sounded more natural to me than the silicon ones did. After months and months of listening, I felt a particular new-old-stock germanium diode sounded best in the circuit, so I thought I should buy as many of those as I could afford. Eventually, I found a distributor that had a significant quantity of them. They were stocking them for a huge OEM, who—without any warning, I gather—stopped using that part. I bought them all at a good price. The distributor was thrilled to be able to sell them and not have to eat them.

Does the KTR have the same diodes?
Yes, the KTR has the exact same NOS diodes as all Centaurs did.

Since I discontinued the Centaur, a lot of people have asked me whether I’d consider building one for them—sometimes offering me pretty substantial amounts of money—but I’m not going to do that.

What is it you like about the sound of that diode when it clips?
It’s a little more complicated than that, because the diode clipping happens on top of some op-amp clipping in the main gain stage. So it’s op-amp clipping, then diode clipping. But to answer your question, this particular diode in the head-to-toe pair in the circuit just produces a very natural-sounding distortion in terms of the harmonic response. It’s not harsh, but it also doesn’t round off the highs excessively. It doesn’t compress the signal as much as many germanium diodes seem to, but on the other hand it provides a little bit of what—to me—is exactly the right kind of compression.

Which other pedal makers are using this particular diode?
To the best of my knowledge, no one. It’s a part that’s been out of production for decades now, so even if someone else could identify it, I seriously doubt they’d be able to find any—I’ve tried a number of times myself.

So what are you working on now?
Lately, I’ve been focused almost entirely on putting together a good long-term arrangement for production of the KTR. This kind of thing has always been more of a challenge for me than it seems to be for anyone else, but I admit that I do have requirements—particular things I insist on—that few, if any of those other people have, so I guess that the increased difficulty is to be expected. I’m not saying that my stuff is necessarily higher quality than anyone else’s, but rather that my criteria are somewhat different and that therefore the process is necessarily also somewhat different.

What is the current availability of the KTR?
The unit should be widely available—through dealers both here in the U.S. and in various other countries—by the time this interview is published. Hopefully by then I will have found time to get some kind of updated Klon website going, which of course will have contact info for the current dealers.

The top of the KTR features some text that’s apparently causing controversy with some buyers: “Kindly remember: The ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.”
Lots of people got the point that I was trying to make and really enjoy the text, while other people find it off-putting or even insulting. It’s a wry observation that I can't be held responsible for the overheated emotions that have been introduced into various Klon debates since the earliest days of the Centaur. I knew that in using that text I'd be stirring things up some, but I thought it would be interesting and fun to see how, in reacting to it, people would self-select into either the “love it” or the “hate it” group.


Photo by West Warren.

What does the future hold for Klon?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Part of me wants to work on design ideas I have—finish those designs to my satisfaction—and then make the resulting products available. The other side of me wants to either refrain from working on those ideas or work on them, finish them to my satisfaction, and then not put the resulting products out. As you may or may not know, many unscrupulous people have expropriated my hard work on the Centaur and KTR circuits and are selling pedals that incorporate my circuit—and in at least some cases, they’re making a lot of money. And apparently there is nothing I can do about this from a legal standpoint.

Quite aside from the money they’re making from my work, there’s the question of what those pedals sound like. My understanding is that a number of those people are claiming their versions sound “identical” to mine, which—for reasons not only pertaining to the clipping diodes you asked me about—I think is very unlikely. Whatever expertise those various people may have, I’m going to go out on a limb and state my belief that it’s not likely to be a good or sufficient substitute for the experience I have with the circuit: I co-designed it, I’ve hand-built and listened to about 8,000 Centaur units, I spent two years working hard to make sure the KTR would sound the same as the Centaur, and I’ve put almost 25 years of my life into it. If those other guys’ pedals don’t sound right, then of course Klon’s reputation—and my reputation as someone who cares deeply about the quality of what goes out under the Klon name—will inevitably take a hit.

So my feeling is this: If any new product I come out with will be ripped off immediately after its release, and if unscrupulous people will again be making money off of my work, and if on top of that Klon’s reputation and my own personal reputation will be at risk every time someone decides to put out his own version of one of my designs, then where is my incentive to release anything new at all? Over the past few years, I’ve talked with a number of other pedal designers about this stuff—good people who design their own circuits, and whose circuits have also been ripped off—and we all agree there is now an enormous disincentive for any of us to create and release new products.

From what I understand, a lot of the people posting on various online forums seem to feel that it’s a wonderful thing for the pedal consumer to have more choices—how could that be bad? Here’s how it could be bad: Maybe talented pedal designers—originators—will simply stop designing pedals and take their talents elsewhere to apply them to the design of other classes of products that can’t be ripped off quite so easily.

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