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“After hearing the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ on the radio, I just had to make a fuzz box,” Crowther recalls. “I built the first one from a magazine project, using four germanium transistors. It had a volume control but no gain control. That was the first time I ever made a circuit with solid-state parts. It had quite a long sustain, but cut off abruptly, because it used a ‘Schmitt trigger’ circuit—definitely a one-note-at-a-time unit!”
But even then, Crowther was looking for ways to address musical needs beyond what a fuzz or wah could do. “I was playing drums in a covers band, and we were learning the Hollies’ ‘On a Carousel.’ I made a box to give a guitar that resonant, banjo-like sound in the intro. It had a six-position switch for different resonant frequencies, and it used a big radio-choke inductor. It also had a control for adding the low frequencies back in. It distorted just a little bit, too, and our lead guitarist used it for all sorts of things. I called it a Herbert Box for some obscure reason.”
When Crowther finally got around to building the Hot Cake, he’d worked on tone circuits for everything from wah pedals to organs. But Crowther ultimately relied on his ears to perceive the needs that the Hot Cake addressed—essentially how to make a guitar signal hotter and more distorted without sacrificing the best and most essential parts of the guitar-amplifier tone equation.
“The initial idea was to make a preamplifier circuit where the undistorted component of the sound has a flat response, but where the distorted component has reduced high frequencies. The overall effect of this is to make the sound spectrum of the distortion similar to the guitar sound. I think it has always been popular because guitarists find that their tone doesn’t radically change when they switch in the Hot Cake. It also handles chords quite well and has low self-generated noise.”
As the slow expansion of Crowther’s product line illustrates, he pursues a new design only when he’s interested or perceives an opportunity to fill a hole that other stompbox makers haven’t. Such are the origins of the Prunes & Custard, a harmonic generator-intermodulator (many mistake it for an envelope filer) that has found many fans among bass players and adventurous guitarists like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
“I wanted to make something that didn’t just clip the waveform, but was more interesting,” says Crowther. “With the P&C, which I first made in 1994, the waveform doubles back on itself, amplitude-wise, a few times. I have since heard about a synthesizer module called a wave multiplier, which does something similar—although I did come up with the P&C circuit quite independently.”
More recently, Crowther introduced the Double Hot Cake to address the needs of players that use multiple overdrives to expand their tone palette onstage—particularly those using two Hot Cakes. In typical Crowther fashion, however, the Double Hot Cake adds dimension that a simple two-overdrive setup could not. “I finally came up with the idea of an arrangement where, when both Hot Cakes were switched on, Hot Cake A would drive Hot Cake B, but Hot Cake A’s controls would have no effect, and A’s Drive would be controlled by an extra Drive pot. I also added an extra clipping stage in between A and B, so that it goes a little bit into fuzz world and adds an extra mid boost. Hotcake A is the slightly less edgy ‘bluesberry’ version, while B is the normal old circuit.”
Like any good engineer (or drummer, for that matter), Crowther doesn’t come off as sentimental about a so-called Golden Age of stompboxes. He likes what works, what’s useful, and what makes more interesting music. He does, however, see good analog circuits as a ticket to achieving a more musical signal chain. “There is something rather appealing about a fuzz circuit that uses germanium transistors. And there is also something quite subtle in the nonlinearity of a tube that makes for a less clinical sound.
I believe it produces a very subtle intermodulation distortion that can help bring the sound of an electronic instrument to life.”
One also gets the feeling that Crowther may have a few surprises up is sleeve yet. “I did try to make an electronic Leslie in 1973. It was not too successful, but it sure made for an interesting tremolo. There could be something there. And there are a few other ideas spinning around in my head.”