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5 Boutique Stompbox Builders You Should Know

5 Boutique Stompbox Builders You Should Know

The Strymon Blue Sky Reverberator features multi-function knobs and the ability to toggle between two sounds with the Favorite switch.
Strymon effects is the brainchild of founder Terry Burton, but the Westlake Village, California, company runs on the collective power of an engineering brain trust—a gang of self-declared “left-brain artists”— that, in some ways, represents a shift toward acceptance of digital in the boutique marketplace. Because, unlike many boutique pedal houses, Strymon enthusiastically embraces digital signal processing (DSP) technology. While scorned by some analog purists, DSP enables Strymon to create some of the most authentic vintage sounds available to guitarists.

Strymon’s DSP pedals—the Blue Sky Reverberator, the Orbit Flanger, the Ola Chorus & Vibrato, and the Brigadier Delay (all reviewed in the July 2010 issue of PG)— have drawn raves for their approximations of analog sounds. And the company’s latest pedal, the El Capistan (see the review on p. 182), may be the most refined realization of Strymon’s aspirations—a processing powerhouse in a pedal that can simulate the fuzzy warmth, irregularities, and imperfections of tape delay and transport the user to truly bizarre sonic realms that only complex digital processing makes possible.

Strymon’s Dave Fruehling holds the title of Firmware Architect Genius.

Strymon’s analog engineer, Gregg Stock, explores old-school ways with a
heavily modified, Floyd Rose-equipped Gibson Explorer.

Strymon founder Terry Burton with an SG and a Brigadier delay (foreground).

Pete Celi brainstorms DSP algorithms that generate analog sounds.
Burton was just a teenager when he caught the pedal bug. And like most builders, he was blown away by the sound of the analog classics—in his case, a Thomas Organ-built Crybaby wah and an A/DA flanger that would ultimately inspire the Strymon Orbit.

“My uncle let me borrow his A/DA Flanger, Crybaby, and a Yamaha SPX90, and I abused the privilege by taking everything apart and reassembling it at least 20 times in an attempt to find out how things worked,” explains Burton. “I’m currently still ‘borrowing’ the A/DA and the Crybaby after many years.”

Burton’s abuse of the Yamaha SPX90 may have opened his mind to the potential of digital circuits as he was falling in love with analog sounds, but he was also inspired by some distinctly contemporary sounds overlooked by many pedal hounds: Andy Summers’ modulation and delay on Police records, the modulation sounds achieved by the Pretenders and the Cure, and the aggressive guitar-straight- into-amp tones of Fugazi. That wide perspective on musical history—and the open-mindedness about what defines a great tone or great record—is a big part of the Strymon design mindset. “Obviously, delay, reverb and modulation all existed before we started making our own. Sometimes we try to take existing effects into uncharted territory and sometimes we are trying to solve a specific set of problems that existed in analog circuits,” says Burton.

“When we developed the Brigadier Delay, we knew that the nicer, high-voltage analog bucket-brigade chips were nearly impossible to get and that all analog delays suffered from certain problems like poor signal-to-noise ratios, distortion, and limited headroom. Of course, these ‘problems’ are part of what make analog delays cool,” Burton admits. “So we implemented discrete bucket brigade stages in DSP and added a control for ‘bucket loss.’ That single control lets you have a cleaner analog delay than has ever existed before or a very dirty and noisy one. With El Capistan, the goal was to capture all of the electrical and mechanical nuances that make classic tape delays sound the way they do—and put that technology in a small form factor without the maintenance nightmares that plague traditional tape delays.”

Burton and his team understand why players treasure analog sounds. But unlike many players who have chosen sides along the digital-analog divide, Burton sees digital as a way to look backward and forward simultaneously. “I think the analog fixation that many players have is not unfounded,” Burton says. “And there certainly have been many digital products released over the years that have failed to deliver the goods. We are keenly aware of this when undertaking our DSP designs. But if we’re successful in achieving our design goals, the technology becomes irrelevant. What we know and love is making hardware, and we want our hardware to be not only great sounding, but also fun and satisfying to use. Traditionalist or not, if someone sits down in front of a pedal and that pedal inspires them musically, then it’s a successful design. My hope is that we’re always using the authentic sounds as a foundation and building from there. In addition to making things that conjure the days of old, we also want to create sounds that haven’t even existed before. And, we’ve got lots of projects cooking in our labs.”
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