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So if the volume pedals did so well, why did Weil stopped making them? Because despite the fact that production had moved to Taiwan and become more affordable, Visual Sound’s debt had piled up to an untenable level. “About halfway through 1998, we had to call it a day,” he reveals. “I planned to go out of business at that point, but a very curious thing happened two weeks later. I got a faxed order from a distributor in Germany who’d picked up a few of our new Jekyll & Hyde pedals earlier in the year. He called the next day to ask if I had his order. I said I did and thanks a lot, but unfortunately we are out of business. He replied, ‘That’s terrible. I have given them to two guitar magazines in Germany and the reviews come out next month saying it is the best overdrive pedal they’ve ever tested. We already have back orders.’ I told him I was sorry I couldn’t make them because I didn’t have any money.”
Pedal guru and Visual Sound designer R.G. Keen.
In order to have his overseas vendors fill the day-saving orders, Weil had to prepay. To his astonishment, the German distributor offered to pay for the pedals in advance. “I got off the phone with him and called our English distributor, who had Jekyll & Hydes on a back order I could no longer fulfill,” Weil continues. “I said, ‘This crazy guy in Germany offered to prepay his order. Forgive me for asking, but would you be willing to prepay your order?’ He said, ‘No problem—in fact, double our order. We need that many.’ Bear in mind, normally nobody pays for an order before you have even made the pedals! The funny thing was, those two orders were the exact amount of money I needed to buy another production run from Taiwan—to the penny! I looked up to God and laughed. I said, ‘I don’t know why you have me in this stupid business, but okay, let’s try this again.’”
From that low point, things began to take off. The Jekyll & Hyde became a huge success. The equally acclaimed Route 66 overdrive/compressor, H2O chorus/echo pedals, and the 1 Spot power supply soon followed. Weil moved his company and family to Tennessee, where he bought a home that also served as an office and shipping facility. The company soon outgrew his house and, in 2005, he purchased two units in an industrial park in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
(Front to back) Dana Weaver, Bob Weil, and Zac Childs doing quality control testing of the Visual Sound Time Bandit.
As industrial-park offices go, the Visual Sound location is quite homey, with a peaked roof, columned entrance, and a beamed interior that Weil built into the raw space. Offices are arranged around a comfortable lounge with Memphis-style chairs and a sofa abutting an equally warm demo room with Dr. Z and 3rd Power amplifiers. “I’d been coming up to Nashville for summer NAMM for years,” Weil says. “It made sense for the business to be here. It’s a much more central location for shipping and for visiting other states. The music industry here is huge—and it is not just country music. Going to studios and hanging out with artists is easy, and with the facility we have here, we have musicians visiting a couple of times a week.”
So far, other than the volume pedal, all Visual Sound stompboxes have been dual-effect pedals—a fact that Weil and his team could boast of well ahead of the current trend. The V2 series debuted in 2007 and essentially offered single-effect version of effects previously available only in dual-effect stomps. “People said if only we came out with the compressor or overdrive in a single pedal, they would buy it,” says Weil. “I expected the singles to explode off the shelves. They’ve done okay, but the funny thing is the duals were still more successful. Those who’d been asking bought them, but others figured it’s not that much more to get the dual, so why don’t I just get that?”
Bringing in the Big Dog
Although Weil oversees conceptualization of all Visual Design pedals, he is wise enough to work with another bona fide guitar-effects guru by the name of R.G. Keen. Keen, who’s been designing hardware, software, and systems since the early ’70s, has worked full time with Visual Sound since 2005. “Pretty much since the beginning of the web, R.G. has been this brilliant engineer who has helped people out behind the scenes,” says Weil. “He started this website, geofex.com, as a hobby, and has taught so many of the boutique pedal builders how to build effects. We met over the early internet in 1996.—I had only been in business about a year. I posted a question, and he came back with this amazing educated answer. We got to know each other better and I found out he had taken early retirement from IBM—he is a true rocket scientist. I am just a hacker—I cobbled these things together more through determination than knowledge.”
Keen has been helping informally with board designs since the late ’90s, but now he and Weil design the line together. “Some of the technology is, frankly, over my head,” Weil admits. “Like the Dual Tap Delay, which is hybrid digital with some analog, and custom programmed chips. I just call up R.G. and say, ‘Do you think you could make something that can do this?’ He thinks about it and a day or so later comes up with something. With the Time Bandit, I called him up and said, ‘I think there are a lot of guys who would like to stop tapping tempo and just plug in the click track to drive the tempo of their effect—not MIDI, just an audio click track.’ No one had done it before, so that one took him a little while.”