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September 2014
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5 Boutique Stompbox Builders You Should Know

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5 Boutique Stompbox Builders You Should Know

Red Witch
 
Red Witch founder Ben Fulton’s design approach is heavily influenced by sounds he gleans from recording artists that share a “purity of expression.”
The seeds for New Zealand’s Red Witch pedals were sown when founder Ben Fulton’s girlfriend bought him a Holden 50-watt amp head in need of work. The repairs, as well as the need for some effects to put in front of the amp when it was healthy again, prompted a fascination with preamp, amp-modulation, and pitch-modulation circuits that led to his first effect—the Moon Phaser. The project was originally intended for Fulton’s personal use, but his friends dug the little pedal and the requests started coming in so fast that a business was born.

Today, Red Witch’s line includes the Deluxe Moon Phaser, the Pentavocal Trem, the Empress Chorus, the Fuzz God II, the Famulus Distortion, and the Titan Delay. The motivation behind each of these pedals is the same that guided the design of the first Moon Phaser: “The boutique pedal scene was much smaller eight or nine years ago, and there were a lot of guys building clones of classic, out-of-production pedals,” says Fulton, recalling the early days of Red Witch. “There were a lot less folks doing new or innovative stuff. I’ve never had any interest in copying or cloning other people’s designs. Manufacturing anything— your own idea or someone else’s—is a huge amount of work. So I figured from the outset that I’d prefer to put my time and energy into something that was unique, different, and, most importantly, my own.”

Though he was eager to carve out his own niche, Fulton knew what sounds he liked on record. Not surprisingly, Fulton’s list of sonic influences was broad and varied, ranging from experimental Japanese guitar expressionist Keiji Haino to pioneers like Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson—players that, as Fulton put it, had “a purity of expression.”

“Page’s palate has had an influence,” Fulton says. “The range of tones that he got with guitar, amp, and pedal combinations in the studio is staggering—layer upon layer of guitar parts, each with a slightly different treatment. Beautiful.” Another Brit was also a huge influence on Fulton’s sonic philosophy. “I loved Alvin Lee’s guitar sound, that blistering playing in the late ’60s—very clear and articulate. I guess with our Fuzz God II and Famulus distortion, I really strived to get that clear, punchy sound happening. No additional frequencies, nothing that would allow the guitar to get muddy in the mix.”

Fulton’s interest in not just the specific pedal tones but the overall playing approach of the greats keeps him from obsessing over emulation, which means he can focus on the flavors that make his pedals different. It also means he can refine them to the point of being practical rather than a gimmick. “I’ve designed every device to offer guitar players really useable flavors in the specific effect genre—and then something totally new that’s not available elsewhere, but that’s also totally useable.

“There’s no point offering bells and whistles that you’d never use,” he continues. “For instance, our Moon Phaser offers three different styles of phasing, as well as a gentle tremolo setting. In addition, it offers our unique Tremophase—where the phase shift occurs at the same time as the tremolo’s volume pulse. No one else has done that before, and the Red Witch Moon Phaser remains the only source of this new, useable sound.”

For all his concerns with practicality, Fulton also doesn’t mind tinkering with radical sounds. Though even his pursuit of more “out” sounds are in the name of musical ends. “I’ve always loved contrast within a piece of music,” he says, describing one of his musical guidelines for design. “You want to make a section of song seem really loud? Play really quietly before it. And vice versa. The Fuzz God can do really subtle fuzz sounds—but then you can click one footswitch and enter a world of sonic insanity. It allows you to shift between two extremes very easily.”

In the end, Fulton’s concern with musicality reinforces his own primary directive—staying creative as a pedal maker so that musicians can be creative with his creations. “I think our customers are the players out there who really pay attention to their whole approach—playing, tone, and gear,” Fulton says. “They want the classic sounds but they also want to push the boundaries. They don’t just want to emulate their heroes, they want to develop their own voice.

I try to design stuff to help folks do that. I’ve never considered whether people use them to the full extent of the box’s capabilities. As long as the pedals are helping to open new creative avenues for them, I’m happy. I think that’s part of the appeal of our stuff: you can use as few or as many of the features as you like. Either way, offering something unique opens new avenues of expression for them. I like that idea a lot!”
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