They’re a little crazy. They’re a little obsessive. And they relentlessly pursue both the tones you crave and those no one’s heard yet. That’s why they’re among the most impressive pedal builders in the world today.
Though they’ve been part of the electric guitar
scene for nearly half a century,
stompbox builders have always had
something of a reputation for being odd outsiders,
maybe even a little romantic—in that
garage-entrepreneur kind of way. Luthiers? It’s
easy to imagine them as crabby old cobblers
and cabinetmakers, clad in overalls, bifocals,
and tweed. But pedal makers—they’re a cross
between some Manhattan Project dropout and
a greaser chopping a ’49 Mercury on the front
lawn. A little bit weird, an affront to the status
quo, and most certainly up to no good.
Like any legend, it’s partly true (just have a look at some of the oddities among the 30 pedal reviews elsewhere in this issue). But for all its fringe tendencies, the world of independent and boutique stompbox builders is fast transforming into a brave new world of refined craft, high technology, creatively applied engineering, and soundscapes yet unexplored. And, ultimately, the transformation is a boon to us, the players. Because whether a pedal is designed to capture the unholy fuzz of some all-germanium obscurity made for three days in 1967 or help us make wholly original sounds, boutique builders are helping guitarists be more expressive and creative than ever.
The five stompbox builders profiled here are among the most inventive and respected in the trade. They are certainly not the only innovators in the pedal industry, but they represent a cross section of the traditionalists and the tweakers who continue to make our artistic and tonal pursuits an adventure.
Strymon’s DSP pedals—the Blue Sky Reverberator, the Orbit Flanger, the Ola Chorus & Vibrato, and the Brigadier Delay (all reviewed in the July 2010 issue of PG)— have drawn raves for their approximations of analog sounds. And the company’s latest pedal, the El Capistan (see the review on p. 182), may be the most refined realization of Strymon’s aspirations—a processing powerhouse in a pedal that can simulate the fuzzy warmth, irregularities, and imperfections of tape delay and transport the user to truly bizarre sonic realms that only complex digital processing makes possible.
Strymon’s Dave Fruehling holds the title of Firmware Architect Genius.
Strymon’s analog engineer, Gregg Stock, explores old-school ways with a
heavily modified, Floyd Rose-equipped Gibson Explorer.
Strymon founder Terry Burton with an SG and a Brigadier delay (foreground).
“My uncle let me borrow his A/DA Flanger, Crybaby, and a Yamaha SPX90, and I abused the privilege by taking everything apart and reassembling it at least 20 times in an attempt to find out how things worked,” explains Burton. “I’m currently still ‘borrowing’ the A/DA and the Crybaby after many years.”
Burton’s abuse of the Yamaha SPX90 may have opened his mind to the potential of digital circuits as he was falling in love with analog sounds, but he was also inspired by some distinctly contemporary sounds overlooked by many pedal hounds: Andy Summers’ modulation and delay on Police records, the modulation sounds achieved by the Pretenders and the Cure, and the aggressive guitar-straight- into-amp tones of Fugazi. That wide perspective on musical history—and the open-mindedness about what defines a great tone or great record—is a big part of the Strymon design mindset. “Obviously, delay, reverb and modulation all existed before we started making our own. Sometimes we try to take existing effects into uncharted territory and sometimes we are trying to solve a specific set of problems that existed in analog circuits,” says Burton.
“When we developed the Brigadier Delay, we knew that the nicer, high-voltage analog bucket-brigade chips were nearly impossible to get and that all analog delays suffered from certain problems like poor signal-to-noise ratios, distortion, and limited headroom. Of course, these ‘problems’ are part of what make analog delays cool,” Burton admits. “So we implemented discrete bucket brigade stages in DSP and added a control for ‘bucket loss.’ That single control lets you have a cleaner analog delay than has ever existed before or a very dirty and noisy one. With El Capistan, the goal was to capture all of the electrical and mechanical nuances that make classic tape delays sound the way they do—and put that technology in a small form factor without the maintenance nightmares that plague traditional tape delays.”
Burton and his team understand why players treasure analog sounds. But unlike many players who have chosen sides along the digital-analog divide, Burton sees digital as a way to look backward and forward simultaneously. “I think the analog fixation that many players have is not unfounded,” Burton says. “And there certainly have been many digital products released over the years that have failed to deliver the goods. We are keenly aware of this when undertaking our DSP designs. But if we’re successful in achieving our design goals, the technology becomes irrelevant. What we know and love is making hardware, and we want our hardware to be not only great sounding, but also fun and satisfying to use. Traditionalist or not, if someone sits down in front of a pedal and that pedal inspires them musically, then it’s a successful design. My hope is that we’re always using the authentic sounds as a foundation and building from there. In addition to making things that conjure the days of old, we also want to create sounds that haven’t even existed before. And, we’ve got lots of projects cooking in our labs.”
Today, Red Witch’s line includes the Deluxe Moon Phaser, the Pentavocal Trem, the Empress Chorus, the Fuzz God II, the Famulus Distortion, and the Titan Delay. The motivation behind each of these pedals is the same that guided the design of the first Moon Phaser: “The boutique pedal scene was much smaller eight or nine years ago, and there were a lot of guys building clones of classic, out-of-production pedals,” says Fulton, recalling the early days of Red Witch. “There were a lot less folks doing new or innovative stuff. I’ve never had any interest in copying or cloning other people’s designs. Manufacturing anything— your own idea or someone else’s—is a huge amount of work. So I figured from the outset that I’d prefer to put my time and energy into something that was unique, different, and, most importantly, my own.”
Though he was eager to carve out his own niche, Fulton knew what sounds he liked on record. Not surprisingly, Fulton’s list of sonic influences was broad and varied, ranging from experimental Japanese guitar expressionist Keiji Haino to pioneers like Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson—players that, as Fulton put it, had “a purity of expression.”
“Page’s palate has had an influence,” Fulton says. “The range of tones that he got with guitar, amp, and pedal combinations in the studio is staggering—layer upon layer of guitar parts, each with a slightly different treatment. Beautiful.” Another Brit was also a huge influence on Fulton’s sonic philosophy. “I loved Alvin Lee’s guitar sound, that blistering playing in the late ’60s—very clear and articulate. I guess with our Fuzz God II and Famulus distortion, I really strived to get that clear, punchy sound happening. No additional frequencies, nothing that would allow the guitar to get muddy in the mix.”
Fulton’s interest in not just the specific pedal tones but the overall playing approach of the greats keeps him from obsessing over emulation, which means he can focus on the flavors that make his pedals different. It also means he can refine them to the point of being practical rather than a gimmick. “I’ve designed every device to offer guitar players really useable flavors in the specific effect genre—and then something totally new that’s not available elsewhere, but that’s also totally useable.
“There’s no point offering bells and whistles that you’d never use,” he continues. “For instance, our Moon Phaser offers three different styles of phasing, as well as a gentle tremolo setting. In addition, it offers our unique Tremophase—where the phase shift occurs at the same time as the tremolo’s volume pulse. No one else has done that before, and the Red Witch Moon Phaser remains the only source of this new, useable sound.”
For all his concerns with practicality, Fulton also doesn’t mind tinkering with radical sounds. Though even his pursuit of more “out” sounds are in the name of musical ends. “I’ve always loved contrast within a piece of music,” he says, describing one of his musical guidelines for design. “You want to make a section of song seem really loud? Play really quietly before it. And vice versa. The Fuzz God can do really subtle fuzz sounds—but then you can click one footswitch and enter a world of sonic insanity. It allows you to shift between two extremes very easily.”
In the end, Fulton’s concern with musicality reinforces his own primary directive—staying creative as a pedal maker so that musicians can be creative with his creations. “I think our customers are the players out there who really pay attention to their whole approach—playing, tone, and gear,” Fulton says. “They want the classic sounds but they also want to push the boundaries. They don’t just want to emulate their heroes, they want to develop their own voice.
I try to design stuff to help folks do that. I’ve never considered whether people use them to the full extent of the box’s capabilities. As long as the pedals are helping to open new creative avenues for them, I’m happy. I think that’s part of the appeal of our stuff: you can use as few or as many of the features as you like. Either way, offering something unique opens new avenues of expression for them. I like that idea a lot!”
Koski started Mad Professor after his experience operating Custom-Sounds, a company he founded in 1996 to distribute highend guitar gear in Finland. Custom-Sounds was also one of the first online boutique dealers in Europe, and had a web shop up and running by 1996. But for all his love of boutique and vintage gear, Koski was still frustrated with the limitations of much of the gear he was hearing. Meeting fellow tone obsessive Juhl led to creating the Mad Professor CS-40, the amplifier that put the Mad Professor brand on many guitarists’ radar. Since then, Mad Professor has built a roster of 12 stompboxes that includes three flavors of overdrive, a phaser, a fuzz, an analog delay, a tremolo, and even auto wahs for guitar and bass.
Juhl still masterminds most of the pedal designs. He’s self-taught in the ways of effects building but has worked with musical instruments since the age of 16 and studied electronics for 30 years—ultimately drifting away from his electronic service shop and into design of his own effects pedals and products for Mad Professor.
Bjorn Juhl is an electronics autodidact and the principal designer behind Mad Professor’s pedal line.
“If I could have gotten the sounds I wanted to get at the time, I wouldn’t have bothered trying to build stompboxes,” says Juhl, recalling his earliest investigations of effects. “Back in the late ’70s, I could look at Electro-Harmonix, MXR, and Boss pedals, which are all still very good today. And I also read the excellent book Electronic Projects for Musicians by Craig Anderton. But I learned by process of elimination, too. I built little models of amplifiers to investigate exactly why certain things sounded bad and removed everything that sounded bad until just the good stuff remained.”
Like many of the builders profiled here, Juhl rejects the notion that the best pedals have been made—that the stompbox frontier was conquered decades ago. Tones that inspired him include Pete Townshend’s Live at Leeds sounds, Billy Gibbons’ vast palate, and the aggressive, monster grind of the Sex Pistols. But he’s always on the lookout for the ways in which existing pedals come up short, and listening for sounds he can imagine but doesn’t hear in the collective soundscape. “I’d actually say that the biggest inspirations for me are the most uninspiring sounds,” Juhl says. “I’m always trying to figure out why certain combinations of guitar and amplifier work, why some really don’t work, and some work just fine. Because you can change those things when you’re in the know.”
So far, Juhl, Koski, and the rest of the Mad Professor team have been successful in uncovering the little differences that pique the interest of a sizable number of tonehounds. Pete Anderson, Jerry Donahue, Marc Ford, and Jim McCarty are just a few of the players who have stocked their quiver with Mad Professor pedals. And the company remains committed to adding new tools to their line, including a forthcoming EQ pedal that found Juhl considering, among other things, the impressive bandwidth of Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin’s tape echoes.
But just as Juhl and Mad Professor look for inspiration in odd places, they look to make their products inspirational so that players will unlock their imagination when they plug in a Mad Professor box. And Juhl hopes that commitment will help players push themselves instead of relying on gear to solve problems. “Back in the ’70s, stores had one fuzz pedal and they’d tell you ‘Take this, son—this is just what you need.’ Then you’d go home and read Tom Wheeler’s book where he says there may be a little more between you and Jimmy Page than a fuzztone pedal.”
“After hearing the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ on the radio, I just had to make a fuzz box,” Crowther recalls. “I built the first one from a magazine project, using four germanium transistors. It had a volume control but no gain control. That was the first time I ever made a circuit with solid-state parts. It had quite a long sustain, but cut off abruptly, because it used a ‘Schmitt trigger’ circuit—definitely a one-note-at-a-time unit!”
But even then, Crowther was looking for ways to address musical needs beyond what a fuzz or wah could do. “I was playing drums in a covers band, and we were learning the Hollies’ ‘On a Carousel.’ I made a box to give a guitar that resonant, banjo-like sound in the intro. It had a six-position switch for different resonant frequencies, and it used a big radio-choke inductor. It also had a control for adding the low frequencies back in. It distorted just a little bit, too, and our lead guitarist used it for all sorts of things. I called it a Herbert Box for some obscure reason.”
When Crowther finally got around to building the Hot Cake, he’d worked on tone circuits for everything from wah pedals to organs. But Crowther ultimately relied on his ears to perceive the needs that the Hot Cake addressed—essentially how to make a guitar signal hotter and more distorted without sacrificing the best and most essential parts of the guitar-amplifier tone equation.
“The initial idea was to make a preamplifier circuit where the undistorted component of the sound has a flat response, but where the distorted component has reduced high frequencies. The overall effect of this is to make the sound spectrum of the distortion similar to the guitar sound. I think it has always been popular because guitarists find that their tone doesn’t radically change when they switch in the Hot Cake. It also handles chords quite well and has low self-generated noise.”
As the slow expansion of Crowther’s product line illustrates, he pursues a new design only when he’s interested or perceives an opportunity to fill a hole that other stompbox makers haven’t. Such are the origins of the Prunes & Custard, a harmonic generator-intermodulator (many mistake it for an envelope filer) that has found many fans among bass players and adventurous guitarists like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
“I wanted to make something that didn’t just clip the waveform, but was more interesting,” says Crowther. “With the P&C, which I first made in 1994, the waveform doubles back on itself, amplitude-wise, a few times. I have since heard about a synthesizer module called a wave multiplier, which does something similar—although I did come up with the P&C circuit quite independently.”
More recently, Crowther introduced the Double Hot Cake to address the needs of players that use multiple overdrives to expand their tone palette onstage—particularly those using two Hot Cakes. In typical Crowther fashion, however, the Double Hot Cake adds dimension that a simple two-overdrive setup could not. “I finally came up with the idea of an arrangement where, when both Hot Cakes were switched on, Hot Cake A would drive Hot Cake B, but Hot Cake A’s controls would have no effect, and A’s Drive would be controlled by an extra Drive pot. I also added an extra clipping stage in between A and B, so that it goes a little bit into fuzz world and adds an extra mid boost. Hotcake A is the slightly less edgy ‘bluesberry’ version, while B is the normal old circuit.”
Like any good engineer (or drummer, for that matter), Crowther doesn’t come off as sentimental about a so-called Golden Age of stompboxes. He likes what works, what’s useful, and what makes more interesting music. He does, however, see good analog circuits as a ticket to achieving a more musical signal chain. “There is something rather appealing about a fuzz circuit that uses germanium transistors. And there is also something quite subtle in the nonlinearity of a tube that makes for a less clinical sound.
I believe it produces a very subtle intermodulation distortion that can help bring the sound of an electronic instrument to life.”
One also gets the feeling that Crowther may have a few surprises up is sleeve yet. “I did try to make an electronic Leslie in 1973. It was not too successful, but it sure made for an interesting tremolo. There could be something there. And there are a few other ideas spinning around in my head.”
Our interview with Steve Bragg of Empress was made possible because Bragg had just blown up a converter for a new analog delay. Such is the life of a stompbox builder pushing the envelope. Empress Effects—which manufactures the Superdelay (which won a Premier Gear award in our November 2009 review), the Vintage Modified Superdelay, and the Tap Tremolo in Ottawa, Canada—is another company that’s carving out new territory in the high-end stompbox realm by wholeheartedly embracing digital technology while maintaining an appreciation for what made early analog circuits sound so good.
Like scientists amalgamating the best of old and new technologies, the Empress gang—(left to right) Mike Stack, Jason Fee, Steve Bragg, and Dan Junkins—embrace digital processing to extend an effect’s potential in ways analog circuitry alone cannot.
Unlike some builders, Bragg didn’t fall in love with any particular pedal in his formative years. He was more interested in pedals as a means for learning the way electronic circuits work, and he gravitated toward making effects for keyboard players. He did, however, love the way certain songs and records sounded. And his first pedal—a sort of syncopated tremolo that ultimately found its way into the Empress Tremolo—was inspired by the song “Vow” by Garbage.
“I love the idea of combining electronic and acoustic components, using drum triggers, having one instrument affect another, or having effects sync to tempo,” Bragg says. “There’s a bunch of bands I listened to growing up—like Archive, Radiohead, Björk, My Bloody Valentine, and Garbage— that do that kind of stuff really well. Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead continues to be a big inspiration.”
That contemporary frame of reference may have released Bragg from the baggage that keeps many analog devotees unwaveringly in the anti-digital camp. He readily embraced the possibilities afforded by having analog circuits and digital processing working in concert to enhance a guitarist’s potential. “I really like the idea of having an analog circuit controlled by a microprocessor. This makes a bunch of interesting stuff possible: tap tempo, presets, programmable triggering, arbitrary waveforms, and completely new effects that would be impossible or really difficult with a purely analog design.”
Apparently, many forward-thinking guitarists agreed with Bragg. “After releasing the Superdelay, I got a lot of requests to add mods so it could work with other gear,” he explains. “Some people wanted to use CV [control voltage] to control it. Some people wanted to use relays to control the tempo instead of the tap stomp switch. Some wanted MIDI controllability. Unfortunately, there’s not enough room on a pedal for a lot of jacks. So we’ve been working for the past two years on a control port that will accept a bunch of different inputs: mechanical switches for remote tapping, expression and CV inputs, MIDI, and audio input. It’s been a pain in the ass, but it’s finally all working. Our first pedal with this control port will be the Empress Phaser, which we’ll be releasing sometime soon.”
Bragg and Empress’ open-minded stance extends to the components that go into their pedals, as well. They refuse to be constrained by the emphasis on older components and instead go with parts that last and sound best. “We designed our pedals to be as clean as possible,” Bragg says. “That means using op-amps, for the most part, and staying away from transistors that can create headroom, noise, and impedance issues in the audio path. I see a lot of funny hype in effects marketing material, where Teflon wires, expensive capacitors, gold-plated PCBs [printed circuit boards], and carbon-composite resistors or 1 percent resistors are touted as audiophile. I have serious doubts as to whether these kinds of things affect the sound in an appreciable way.”
The same emphasis on clarity and quality makes Empress less concerned with emulating revered stompboxes, even though they regard many classic pedals as benchmarks. “We’ve never been too concerned with recreating what another pedal can do. But if we make a pedal with a lot of features, we want to make sure its basic sound is as good as the standard go-to pedal. For instance, when designing the phaser, we set out to make a pedal that could do stuff no other phaser could. But if it didn’t sound as good as an MXR Phase 90, then we’d have a problem.” Even so, Bragg says, “I think it’s dangerous to design with someone else in mind. Instead, I just pretend that I’m a really creative musician—I know, it’s a stretch!— and I ask myself what kind of stuff I would need to make interesting sounds. So far, I think we’ve only scratched the surface.”