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Our interview with Steve Bragg of Empress was made possible because Bragg had just blown up a converter for a new analog delay. Such is the life of a stompbox builder pushing the envelope. Empress Effects—which manufactures the Superdelay (which won a Premier Gear award in our November 2009 review), the Vintage Modified Superdelay, and the Tap Tremolo in Ottawa, Canada—is another company that’s carving out new territory in the high-end stompbox realm by wholeheartedly embracing digital technology while maintaining an appreciation for what made early analog circuits sound so good.
Like scientists amalgamating the best of old and new technologies, the Empress gang—(left to right) Mike Stack, Jason Fee, Steve Bragg, and Dan Junkins—embrace digital processing to extend an effect’s potential in ways analog circuitry alone cannot.
Unlike some builders, Bragg didn’t fall in love with any particular pedal in his formative years. He was more interested in pedals as a means for learning the way electronic circuits work, and he gravitated toward making effects for keyboard players. He did, however, love the way certain songs and records sounded. And his first pedal—a sort of syncopated tremolo that ultimately found its way into the Empress Tremolo—was inspired by the song “Vow” by Garbage.
“I love the idea of combining electronic and acoustic components, using drum triggers, having one instrument affect another, or having effects sync to tempo,” Bragg says. “There’s a bunch of bands I listened to growing up—like Archive, Radiohead, Björk, My Bloody Valentine, and Garbage— that do that kind of stuff really well. Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead continues to be a big inspiration.”
That contemporary frame of reference may have released Bragg from the baggage that keeps many analog devotees unwaveringly in the anti-digital camp. He readily embraced the possibilities afforded by having analog circuits and digital processing working in concert to enhance a guitarist’s potential. “I really like the idea of having an analog circuit controlled by a microprocessor. This makes a bunch of interesting stuff possible: tap tempo, presets, programmable triggering, arbitrary waveforms, and completely new effects that would be impossible or really difficult with a purely analog design.”
Apparently, many forward-thinking guitarists agreed with Bragg. “After releasing the Superdelay, I got a lot of requests to add mods so it could work with other gear,” he explains. “Some people wanted to use CV [control voltage] to control it. Some people wanted to use relays to control the tempo instead of the tap stomp switch. Some wanted MIDI controllability. Unfortunately, there’s not enough room on a pedal for a lot of jacks. So we’ve been working for the past two years on a control port that will accept a bunch of different inputs: mechanical switches for remote tapping, expression and CV inputs, MIDI, and audio input. It’s been a pain in the ass, but it’s finally all working. Our first pedal with this control port will be the Empress Phaser, which we’ll be releasing sometime soon.”
Bragg and Empress’ open-minded stance extends to the components that go into their pedals, as well. They refuse to be constrained by the emphasis on older components and instead go with parts that last and sound best. “We designed our pedals to be as clean as possible,” Bragg says. “That means using op-amps, for the most part, and staying away from transistors that can create headroom, noise, and impedance issues in the audio path. I see a lot of funny hype in effects marketing material, where Teflon wires, expensive capacitors, gold-plated PCBs [printed circuit boards], and carbon-composite resistors or 1 percent resistors are touted as audiophile. I have serious doubts as to whether these kinds of things affect the sound in an appreciable way.”
The same emphasis on clarity and quality makes Empress less concerned with emulating revered stompboxes, even though they regard many classic pedals as benchmarks. “We’ve never been too concerned with recreating what another pedal can do. But if we make a pedal with a lot of features, we want to make sure its basic sound is as good as the standard go-to pedal. For instance, when designing the phaser, we set out to make a pedal that could do stuff no other phaser could. But if it didn’t sound as good as an MXR Phase 90, then we’d have a problem.” Even so, Bragg says, “I think it’s dangerous to design with someone else in mind. Instead, I just pretend that I’m a really creative musician—I know, it’s a stretch!— and I ask myself what kind of stuff I would need to make interesting sounds. So far, I think we’ve only scratched the surface.”