A number of years ago, I reviewed Alfonso Hermida’s Zendrive overdrive pedal, at which time I called it: “Robben-in-a-box.” Since then, multitudes seeking Robben Ford’s creamy tone—and lacking the wherewithal for a Dumble amplifier—have sought out this amazing sounding pedal. Ford himself has been spied playing through a standard Fender Twin for a clean sound, while using the Zendrive for his distorted tone. Hermida recently released two new pedals: the Nu-Valve overdrive, using rare miniature tubes, and a super simple but amazing sounding reverb called, uh, Reverb. He is a full-time effects manufacturer, but for him it is more than a job.
“This is a business for me because I have
to make a living, but the way I look at it is
I am trying to make a difference,” he says.
“My approach has been to forget the bottom
line and just design the stuff for the
musician—even if it is at the expense making
a dollar more here or there.”
I called Alfonso in his Florida shop to delve
into the origins of a master effects builder.
What is your musical background?
I am a mostly self-taught guitarist. I have
been playing since I was eight. I played in
bands, but at one point I had to decide
whether to stay in music or engineering.
Guess which one won?
What is your engineering background?
I have two master’s degrees in mechanical
engineering. After graduation I was
teaching, then a few months later NASA
in Maryland called me. I was an aerospace
How did you get into designing pedals?
I read the Craig Anderton book, Projects
for Guitarists, while I was still in high
school. I studied the designs and built
some of the things. I had a neighbor who
was studying how to repair TVs. He helped
me with the soldering and basic stuff. I
couldn’t afford to buy good equipment, so
I built it—mostly overdrives and boosters.
When did you decide to get
into it commercially?
That’s what I wanted to do since I was a
kid. My plan was to go to engineering
school then get hired by Electro-Harmonix,
but by the time I got into school [it was one
of the times] they went out of business. I
didn’t build anything for many years, but
while working at NASA I discovered people
on the internet who were designing and
building pedals. That triggered my interest
again. I began looking at every schematic I
could get my hands on.
I was doing repairs for friends and local
stores in 1998, when I heard a track that
got me seriously working on pedals. I
heard Robben Ford’s version of “Golden
Slumbers” [on an instrumental anthology
called Mike Manieri presents Come
Together]. I thought the tone was amazing.
At the time, I didn’t know who it was or
what he was playing through—I just liked it.
So I spent many years on getting a sound
that was close to it. Eventually people told
me about Robben and Dumble.
In 2003, I had my first pedal, the Mosferatu.
I was able to get it into Robben’s hands,
but it had too much gain for him. I based
the Mosferatu on the track I had heard,
which had more gain than he usually uses.
Also, I responded to other people who
wanted more sustain and more gain. Like
Robben, I am the opposite: I want more
dynamics, more tone. So I went back to a
pedal I designed before the Mosferatu. I
sent it to him and the rest is history—that
became the Zendrive.
He put his stamp of approval on it?
We don’t have any endorsements. Musicians
use whatever works for them. There were
no strings. I was happy to send him one
because it was inspired by his sound.
Did you do any back and forth, with him
saying, “Could you add a little this or that?”
No. The first Zendrive had only three knobs
[Volume, Gain, Tone] because I was in such
a hurry to send it to him before he left for
Japan. I later sent him a four-knob version,
but he never said, “Change this or that.”
Was the fourth knob the Voice knob?
Yes. It adds or subtracts a little of the bottom
end, and at the same time it affects
the gain. It makes the knobs interactive—if
you add more bottom, it will reduce the
gain, but you can turn it back up again with
the Gain knob. It is a way of tuning the
pedal to your amplifier.
What was the next pedal?
A friend asked, “Why haven’t you done a
tube version?” I am not a “me too” guy.
I only do something if it is going to bring
something different to the table. So I came
up with my own approach, and that was the
Zendrive 2 Tube Overdrive/Distortion.
Were you doing your speaker cabinets at
the same time?
It was after I did most of the pedals. I
was trained at NASA to make everything
compact—weight is a very big issue.
That’s why you don’t see a 4x12” in my
house. I wanted a speaker cabinet similar
to the one that Larry Carlton uses with
his Dumble—the 1x12” ported, Thiele
cabinet. I built some cabinets and took
them to local stores. All of a sudden they
were asking for a 2 x12” or a 2x10”, so I
designed whole bunch.
You have a new tube pedal.
The Nu-Valve is an extension of the
Zendrive 2, in a sense. Coming back to
compact design, I looked for tubes that
were very small that would do the job. I
found the Nuvistor tubes. The problem is
that they are single triode tubes, so if I
want two triodes I have to use two tubes.
Yes, they fit where the battery usually
goes. The idea is to bring some tube
response into play with the rest of the circuit.
They don’t manufacture those tubes
any more, so for many years I bought
them and their sockets. I have plenty of
them, for support and maintenance, but
there will be a limited number of pedals.
Is the Nu-Valve’s British sound a function
of those tubes?
People that listened to it said that in certain
settings it sounded British, so that
is where the idea came from. The Voice
knob acts differently with the tubes. It is
not as drastic a change as the Zendrive,
but it can add a British voice into it.
What made you develop a reverb
pedal after exclusively doing
overdrives and distortions?
That came from an amp manufacturer
friend of mine who needed a reverb for
a big customer. I used a Belton reverb
module. It’s a circuit encased in epoxy—
they call it the “brick.” It has pins that
connect to the rest of the circuitry. You
have to design around it—the module
only does reverb, you have to massage
the signal going in and coming out, and
blend it with the original sound.
I notice that the only parameter
adjustment is mix. The decay and
such are not adjustable.
It is all fixed already. It’s a different
approach to what other people are doing.
You can get the module in short, medium,
and long decay. We used the medium. I
wanted to make it as inexpensive as possible.
The person I designed it for and
the customer told me, “This sounds great.
You need to put this in a pedal.” So I
decided to do it.
Is it a digital circuit?
As the signal comes into the pedal, it
branches out. One half will stay analog
from beginning to end. The second half
will go through the module and then will
be blended with the original. With low
settings on the mix you have an analog
signal with some digital mixed in.
What’s next on the design table?
I have been discussing some big ideas.
I usually take a long time to think about
things. I design them in my head, and
once they’re done there I make a prototype.
I have always liked analog sound,
but digital has a lot of potential for
controlling things. Like I said, I am not a
“me-too” guy. If I am going to do something
new, it has to be something that
makes a difference, both for the customer
and for me—I need a challenge. What I’m
working on right now is to try to improve
the performance of digital equipment,
so I can take advantage of what digital
does best and what analog does best and
blend them in good way.
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