Learning to Listen
Before going into final quality-control and playing tests, four Atomic Overdrives— XAct Tone’s most popular model— go through final assembly, where they receive batteries, lids, knobs, and their second-to-last visual inspection.
Nashville is an ideal place to have players test pedals and offer feedback. “I need to hear great players play,” says O’Neal. “If I’m chunking along on my own, I won’t learn as much. When we first started working on the Atomic, Greg would talk about ‘feel,’ and my eyes would roll internally. My engineer brain would think, ‘What does that even mean?’ But Greg could articulate what he meant—he’d say, ‘When I do this, it should sound like this,’ which is much more helpful. That was a huge revelation to me. I was focused on the sound, but for Greg, it also had to have the right tactile response.”
While trying to improve on a classic pedal, Walton might reject dozens of parts in search of the sound players love in the most popular version of the original. “Barry asks how I can hear that stuff,” Walton says. “After years of me saying, ‘It needs to be chewier,’ or ‘crunchier’—all the words guitar players use—Barry has learned the language.”
O’Neal has also learned he has to hear what the client hears. “Guthrie Trapp brought in a delay pedal,” he recalls. “He thought the repeats sounded like garbage. At first I couldn’t hear it, but as he kept playing, I eventually could. Now I can never listen to that pedal again. It’s like one of those optical-illusion posters—once you see it, you can’t not see it.”Bedroom vs. Big Time
XTS is happy to work with both pros and bedroom players, but recognizes the two groups may have different concerns. “The people who are not getting paid to play are more concerned with finesse and minutiae,” O’Neal explains. “They are a little more obsessive—which is fine, because we are obsessive, too. But pro players are more matter-of-fact. They realize that a lot of detail is lost onstage with a band. If a guy is on in-ear monitors, he’s going through so many systems before the sound gets to him that there’s no point worrying whether the resistors are carbon comp or metal film. For example, we recently did a rig for a big band. We’re usually OCD, but for them it was, ‘Just get it to work.’ They had neither the time nor the inclination to sink a bunch of money into a rig that was going to be redone in six months anyway.”
“It’s great to stand in front of a speaker cabinet and a ’68 plexi Marshall head, playing through your favorite pedals,” says Walton. “But for professionals, it doesn’t mean anything. They know it’s going to be miked and that they’ll hear it through monitors or in-ears. But for guys at home, hearing that stuff is awe inspiring.”
Still, both amateurs and pros are affected by what they hear. “It’s a closed loop,” notes O’Neal. “If a player hears a sound that doesn’t gratify, he doesn’t play as well. And when he isn’t playing well, then it genuinely doesn’t sound good: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Writer Michael Ross’ pedalboard after getting the XTS treatment. XAct Tone’s Barry O’Neal built the board, which includes a small riser to make the Zoom MultiStomp (center) more accessible. Ross’ WMD Geiger Counter was placed atop an XTS patch bay, which also acts as a signal buffer and includes a loop that allows the guitarist to insert another stompbox between the WMD and the rest of the effects.
In addition to designing effects systems and pedals, XAct Tone Solutions does repairs and modifications. Walton says their approach here mirrors their design philosophy: “Guys come in with a pedal and say, ‘It does this, which is great, but I have a problem with this other thing.’ We try to solve as many problems as we can.”
Most repairs and mods are for players with whom XAct Tone has a relationship. “We don’t really advertise that we do repairs,” says O’Neal. “It just worked out as a value-added service for our clientele—like the guy who was in here earlier today: We built a switcher for his old Gibson Scout amps, and now he brings us all his stuff.”
XAct Tone Solutions remains largely a word-of-mouth outfit, but that word is spreading. “We haven’t done a lot of pedal marketing, because we aren’t yet geared-up to build thousands of a particular product. We hope to resolve that in the future. Ultimately, we want to make musical instruments, so if our pedals inspire someone to play something on a track or write a song, that’s the most gratifying feedback we can get.”