When XTS receives pedal casings from its powder-coating and silk-screening vendor, each unit is inspected by hand for errors in paint, printing, or machining. They’re then prepped for the next phase of assembly, a process that includes removing paint flashing from the machined holes and installing enclosure-mounted components. When this process is complete, these enclosures will receive serial numbers and enter the build stream.
Refining the Classics
Many of Walton’s pedal designs are derived from vintage models. “We try to improve pedals that guys like, but which have characteristics they don’t like,” he explains. “Our Imperial Pedal is sort of based on the Nobels overdrive, but we engineered out the things that guys didn’t like. Most players keep the spectrum [tone] control nailed at 1 o’clock, so we took ‘1 o’clock’ and spread it out to afford more control. We also made it bulletproof, using the best resistors and caps, while keeping the overall vibe players like.”
Other examples of XTS attempts to better other companies’ designs include the Tejas Boost, which is based on the old Colorsound Boost. “The original Colorsound had volume as a trim pot on the circuit board, and the gain control was on the outside of the pedal. We moved the volume to the outside as well,” says Walton, adding, “Our Iridium Fuzz is not your classic fuzz—it uses an IC chip for the fuzz sound instead of discrete transistors. That makes it stable and able to stack well with overdrives.” Meanwhile, the XTS Pegasus Boost is a single-pot boost with up to 20 dB of extra gain. “It’s similar to the old Alembic Stratoblaster in a pedal form,” Walton explains. “[Little Feat’s] Lowell George used the Stratoblaster, and I believe when you plug into the FET section of a Dumble overdrive, it’s the Alembic circuit.”
All these pedals and more are assembled and tested at XTS’s Nashville shop, with some sub-assembly handled offsite. Circuit boards, jacks, and footswitches are separated from the main board to reduce stress.
XAct Tone’s commitment to quality control reveals an interesting fact about pedals: It’s not just (in)famous vintage fuzz effects that can vary greatly from unit to unit. “You can get a hundred pedals of the same type from the same manufacturer, but because of parts drifting you might get a hundred variations in the sound,” says Walton. “We rectify that by testing each pedal to make sure it doesn’t sound too bright or too tubby. We change the values of a resistor or a cap if we need to.”
Here O’Neal chimes in. “Some of it is design, as well. For example, we designed the Atomic Overdrive so it could be more consistent and less sensitive to component tolerances.”
Walton and O’Neal test every unit for sound and feel. “We run them through Naylor and Fender amps,” says Walton. “If one’s too bright and we can’t fix it, we scrap the board and move on. One of the core qualities of this company is that we won’t sell anything we wouldn’t go out and play ourselves.”
Design This System, Smart Guy!
Having seen some XTS systems in action, I thought it would be fun to put their team to the test. I brought in some offbeat effects and challenged them to create a pedalboard that would help me use them all live. My test pedals:
- WMD Geiger Counter (waveshaping, bit crushing distortion)
- Zoom MS-100BT MultiStomp (slicers, choppy trigger delay, etc.)
- Electro-Harmonix Superego Synth Engine (sampling)
- Alesis Bitrman (ring modulation and frequency shifting)
- Source Audio Hot Hand Wah Filter
- Source Audio Soundblox 2 Dimension Reverb
- DigiTech JamMan stereo looper
To make it even more interesting, I planned to use a Pigtronix Keymaster loop box to run the right channel of the stereo Zoom and Alesis units in the Superego effects loop, with their left channels running directly through the chain.
“This will be different,” admitted XTS design-meister Barry O’Neal.
He sent me home to lay the pedals out and plug them in to make sure the concept worked the way I envisioned. When I brought them back, he said, “The next step is to arrange it so it makes functional and aesthetic sense. Which things are you going to need to stomp on the most?” The most frequently used pedal usually go in the front row, he explained, with the most important nearest your right foot (assuming you’re right-footed).
The Superego needed to be in front so I could grab short samples, and the JamMan had to be handy for creating loops. The Source Audio and Alesis pedals were raised on a platform with the power supplies beneath them. O’Neal built a small riser for the Zoom, and the WMD ended up on top of an interface/buffer. O’Neal built the interface so I could insert an additional pedal as needed, after the WMD but before the other effects.
Powering these oddball effects proved to be the main design challenge. But two Voodoo Lab power supplies—a Mondo and a Pedal Power AC—met the varied power requirements. O’Neal built a custom cable to power one supply off the other. “Power is the least romantic part of building the board,” he says. “Many DIYers lay out their pedals and then say, ‘Uh-oh—where is the power going to go?’ Also, wall-warts and digital devices can throw sonic trash into the mix. Gain pedals can amp that up, or mess up the grounding. Voodoo Lab power supplies isolate the power, though, so we didn’t have that problem here.”
When I picked up the board, it fired up perfectly the first time, was dead quiet, and worked exactly the way I dreamt it would. Every pedal was accessible, and the wiring was elegantly arranged. Further, working with XAct Tone was a joy. O’Neal listened patiently as I thought aloud, and he ran through options as fast as I could come up with ideas, however crazy they might be. Experience, attention to detail, and an ability to intuit what the player wants and needs—which aren’t always the same thing—allow O’Neal and Walton to say, “No problem!” even when confronted with a board as unusual as mine. That’s what keeps top players coming to XTS for their system design needs.—Michael Ross