1. Jekyll & Hyde Overdrive/Distortion 2. Tap Delay 3. Route 66 Overdrive/Compression 4. Time Bandit 5. Dual Tap Delay

Visual Sound hovers in a rarified space between a boutique builder and mass manufacturer. Though the pedals are constructed in China, the company’s design guru, R. G. Keen, also operates geofex.com—a site that has educated untold scores of DIY builders. Visual Sound’s effects are affordable, solidly constructed, and sound great, yet sometimes they seem mysteriously underappreciated. We had a candid chat with founder Bob Weil about the company’s “boutique” beginnings, its miraculous rescue, and the footswitch of 10,000,000 hits.

Touch and Go
As you might suspect, Weil is an avid guitarist. “I started playing when I was about 17,” he recalls. “I would go to a friend’s house in Connecticut and play one-finger versions of ‘Smoke on the Water’ on his acoustic.” Years later, married and living in California, Weil found a particular pedal in his arsenal wanting. “I had bought a popular volume pedal and very quickly grew frustrated with it because the taper went very suddenly from zero to 10, and the pot got scratchy after a few months. I also thought it should have some sort of zero-to-10 [visual] reference on it,” Weil says. “I went shopping and was shocked to find that nobody made a volume pedal with that feature. I thought, ‘How hard could it be to make one?’ Unfortunately I had no electronics background.”

Weil’s initial design efforts to rectify the situation incorporated a zero-to-10 visual scale and pointers that were mechanically pulled along the base of the pedal as the treadle moved. Weil also used a mixing-board-style fader rather than a round potentiometer. “I tried some goofy ideas in that direction, and then I realized I would prefer an LED display,” he relates. “This was before the internet, so I started going to the library and reading books on electronics that were way over my head. If you stare at them long enough, it starts to sink in. I started experimenting and eventually learned enough to start building one of these things. I began experimenting around 1990 and by 1995 had built some prototypes that actually worked.”

These new prototypes were Weil’s secret weapon when we went to the NAMM Show in January of 1995. “I handed them out to artists that looked either famous or really good [laughs],” he remembers. “I didn’t even necessarily know who they were. Guys like Victor Wooten and John Patitucci looked at it and said, ‘Why hasn’t somebody done this before?’”

Weil soon moved back to Connecticut, where he and his wife, Julie, began building the units at home. “You couldn’t just call up Hammond [organ company] and order pre-punched and painted housings like you can now,” he says. “Only five years, later things had changed a lot—but when I started it was very Stone Age.” In 1996, Weil began experimenting with putting effects—like overdrive or distortion—in the volume pedal housing, with the treadle controlling the amount of drive. What knowledge of effects design and construction he accrued was a product of reverse-engineering and modifying existing pedals, as well as more library research. “I’d figured out how to trace circuit boards and what connected to what—and why,” he explains. “It was a lot of late nights, tearing things apart and figuring them out. There were no schematics floating around the web in those days.”

Bob and Julie Weil started building pedals on this kitchen table back in the mid-’90s. Photo by Michael Ross

By 1997, Weil had moved to Florida and expanded the line to include the 2-channel Jekyll & Hyde pedal. The more mild-mannered Jekyll overdrive channel was a variation on the Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer, while the Hyde transformed your tone with more monstrous distortion. But the road from ideas to manufacturing and distribution proved a bit bumpy. “I tried using independent reps for a while, which worked, but not that well,” he recalls. “We tried using manufacturing subcontractors in the United States for the volume pedal and some other experimental things. That didn’t go that well. It was lots of trial and error—mostly error. So Julie and I hand-soldered and hand-assembled the first 100 Jekyll & Hyde pedals on our kitchen table—not fun. After that, we looked at each other and said, ‘We are never doing that again.’” [Laughs.]

Back from the Abyss
Besides kitchen-table fatigue, one of the other difficulties with the early Visual Sound business model was that Weil was not charging the boutique prices required to make handbuilding cost effective. “We were just trying to make stuff that working musicians could afford,” he says. “It was a very difficult first few years. I dove right in by quitting my day job—I don’t recommend that [laughs]. The volume pedal sold pretty well for a volume pedal, but lesson number two was, ‘Don’t start a business with a volume pedal’—not that many people use one. I should have started with an overdrive, but I had started with what I needed. The volume pedal did well enough that Musician’s Friend was mad at me when I stopped making them in 1998.”