Somewhere in the forests outside of Berlin, Frank Deimel and his small team are making incredible guitars. With decades of experience and a flair for the experimental, Frank has built himself a worldwide reputation as an innovative and unique guitar builder. This week, I had the pleasure of asking for his thoughts on the world of high-end, custom and handmade guitars and where it might be heading in the future.
M: You use a lot of really interesting pickup configurations and technological innovations, like your LesLee built-in rotary pickup, piezo discs, and the conversion necks (to change a guitar from standard scale to baritone and back again quickly). I was wondering, does that come about through your own experimentation or through looking at the needs of guitarists?
F: Well, The Firestar was meant as an offset, experimental guitar, and the idea was to include certain ingredients from all sorts of historic examples like the non-reverse Firebird, the Jazzmaster, and the Jaguar. The goal was to make a guitar that inspires you to make new kinds of music, a guitar for the young, modern, avant-garde or experimental musician who’s looking to explore their own music. In my personal experience, each guitar I play gives me a certain feeling: some guitars give me new ideas, some inspire me to make noise or ambient music, and with some I just play AC/DC.
I have a pretty wide taste in music; I listen to contemporary classical music, I listen to jazz, rock, blues, reggae – as long as it gives me some goose pimples or good feeling. Anything that’s interesting to my ears, I want to be part of it. So the guitar was planned to be a platform for exploration. And the offset guitar is well-established with alternative musicians, like Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca and so on. They’re using different tunings, they’re using the string area behind the bridge, they’re using the string area behind the nut, and so they try to expand the possibilities of the guitar. So that brought me to all these kinds of ideas over the years; they weren’t there from the beginning.
If I start with the LesLee for instance, it was actually an idea from a friend of mine in Berlin over twenty years ago. It was the beginning of the 90s, the wall was down and it was a very interesting time from east to west. Parts of the city met and there were a lot of creative people and creative things in the air, a lot of music and performances, and my friend got that idea suddenly out of the blue: let the pickups rotate. He used a real electrical motor, attached a disc to it, soldered the pickups to the disc and while the motor was turning it made that sound. So from then on, whenever we met, he asked if I could build a guitar or if we could build one together with this included, and so we started on these offset guitars.
At the beginning they were quite close to the original Jazzmaster, but we had already started putting in everything we could think of: first the LesLee, and then four pickups, then all these switches, and then I came up with the piezo disc. It’s basically just a contact mic – actually it’s a cheap electronic thing you buy for a few cents. It’s often been used in those cigar box guitars. I glue it to the body and solder it to the magnetic pickups, and you can mix it in a lot of different ways. I’ve experimented with it in different parts of the guitar and asked customers where they would like them, and now we’re doing piezos on the headstock, behind the bridge and under the pickup.
Of course I’m also open to any kind of pickup manufacturer, as long as it makes sense. When I talk to a customer I always ask them what kind of music they want to make with the guitar, and then I start thinking about what kind of pickup would suit that sound. And either I make them myself or I buy them from Lollar, Kloppmann, Curtis Novak, Seymour Duncan or others. I also always have an eye towards them looking good, so that it all comes together.
I love to have a creative relationship with the customers, and often they come up with great ideas and ask if I can do it. I’m totally open and try to figure out if it’s possible.
M: You mentioned that you always have one eye on how things look. You do ‘Artist Edition’ guitars that feature incredible artwork and you also experiment with some very interesting finishes. Are the visual and artistic elements very important for high-end or custom instruments?
F: Yes, and especially since my wife Kora is a Pop artist. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and all of our Artist Editions feature her artwork. But for our other guitars too we both sit together and decide on what kind of colours to use, what kinds of pickguards to use, consider the electronics and the pickups, and it’s like a creative session all the time. On the Artist Editions, after she has applied the basic artwork, we decide on the pickguard and the knobs and everything, and I join in with that. It’s a really fun process.
M: Well it works! Every time I see one of your guitars it stops me straightaway and grabs my attention. It doesn’t look like anything else out there but at the same time it retains that classic and recognisable vibe.
F: We need that if we want to get in touch with where the customer comes from. I mean, I know people who play only classic guitars, and if I presented them with something totally triangular or square or whatever they would probably just say, “Okay, great, that’s a nice idea but I don’t want to play it.”
And I myself love vintage guitars. I had a shop in Berlin where I was doing repairs and building guitars for over twenty years and there were a lot of customers who brought us their vintage guitars. That’s basically the Golden Era of electric guitars, the 50s and 60s, and when we are building guitars by hand we want to start at that quality and higher. That’s our goal – we don’t want to compete with the industrially made guitars or mass produced guitars. When you start doing your guitars by hand it’s always different.
M: That’s come up in all of the interviews so far in this series: the balance between innovation and traditionalism. For better or worse, we’re all a little stuck in the 50s and 60s. In terms of high-end or custom guitars finding their place in the market, do you think there always needs to be a bit more focus on experimentation and the unique?
F: In a way you need a unique selling point. Everyone who is making these sorts of things needs to look for their own expertise, what they’re best at, and from a marketing standpoint you should go deeper in that direction and establish yourself in that niche. Because the market is very full and there are millions of Telecaster copies and Strat copies out there, and we don’t need to repeat that. In terms of floor effects too the field is huge, and to continue with that stuff you need to make it really interesting and useful for a longer time, not just a flashy idea that catches attention in a quick way and then disappears.
M: That’s a big difference. The rest of the market seems to work in a very present-bias way, whereas the focus needs to be more long term for smaller builders. That ties in with YouTube, which has become such a centre for the community and is really popular with brands of all sizes. But high-end guitars have not really found much of a place on that platform so far. Why do you think that might be?
F: I don’t really know. We are also working on the quality of our own videos, that’s one of our projects this year because, yes, if you want to present the quality of the instrument, you need to present it with a certain quality. If you just use your iPhone and put that in front of your guitar, that quality doesn’t come through. But if I use my Canon camera and take a high-quality picture, people have told me on social media that the quality really jumps out of the image.
I had an experience at The Holy Grail Guitar Show where a guitar channel filmed an interview with me. They do it in a very quick way and suddenly you have that mic in front of you and you have to talk in a language that isn’t your native language. And I made the mistake of using the wrong word to describe the mastery bridge, and suddenly the focus was not on my guitars anymore but only on that mistake. And so I stepped back from YouTube videos a bit. But I know there is a need and it seems like YouTube is the thing today, so we somehow need to get into it.
M: As a space it’s been entirely built around the mass manufactured stuff, and so the cycle of it is very advantageous for less expensive products. With some things you can get across their quality quite easily, but you need something more special for a special product.
F: That’s exactly right. You want to have something equal quality wise.
M: Do you think then it even makes sense to have high-end, custom, boutique guitars occupying the same space as these mass manufactured products?
F: Maybe not. When someone looks at a guitar, they see 6 or 7 or 8 strings, they see a certain number of frets, the body, the pickups and the colour. But what they don’t see is how this thing was made. And I think we as craftspeople who are on our own or in small teams have to tell the story of how this thing comes to life. Because we are always getting compared to mass produced guitars, and people don’t see the value of the guitar just by looking at it. Okay, they recognise its uniqueness, its choice of woods and so on, and as we talked about the quality can jump out of the picture, but I think we also have to make the lifestyle of the craftsperson clear.
People also buy me. Not only the guitar, but also my entire passion and love that I put into that guitar. Maybe that’s a good point: to create this sort of video more personally.
M: We’re all very focused on the internet, but is the future of high-end and custom guitars perhaps more in the real world? We’re seeing more and more shows – you mentioned The Holy Grail Guitar Show – and a lot of interest in them. Do you think that the focus for big companies and mass produced products could be on YouTube, but that the place of such guitars could be in these real-world spaces?
F: For some yes and for some no. For us, shows are not as interesting anymore. It always involves a lot of travel costs, you have to make a lot of guitars for these shows, you don’t know if you’ll sell them, and so on. We’ve noticed in the last four or five years that our direct sales are increasing through the internet, especially as we are being heavily active on social media.
We are very selective now about what kinds of shows we’re participating in. I love to go; it’s a social event and it’s great to meet with the colleagues and meet people in-person, but on the other hand for the customer…online they are able to just push the button that says ‘Buy’. Ten years ago if somebody was to buy a musical instrument, they had to go to the shop or go to the builder and touch the guitar and play it, but that’s not the case anymore. They trust us as a manufacturer, they see the quality and they buy it by pushing a button.
But we are noticing more and more individual shows, such as the Madrid Guitar Show, which is the second one that is entirely luthier organised. What we started with the European Guitar Builders (EGB) and The Holy Grail Guitar Show has now spread over the world. So overall, I think it’s going in two ways.
M: Over the last few years there have been a number of things – CITES regulations, a very crowded guitar market, a new generation of players – leading to more brands and builders experimenting with different materials, including different woods, composite materials, and resins. Could that continue to unfold into an interesting future of experimental guitar building?
F: I’m pretty sure that this will happen, because it’s now easier to convince people of the benefits of another material and it’s easier for a builder to be in a niche this way, to have a unique quality in their own designs and guitars. Also, if I’m listening to a concert in the seventh row and I don’t hear the difference between a Brazilian Rosewood fretboard and an Indian Rosewood fretboard, then this is just something in the mind of the player. It’s a luxury thing. It’s also a traditional thing, like how in the violin world you have to have an ebony fretboard. Really, you can make music with all kinds of materials.
We’re now using thermal treatment for a couple of our woods and we have a collaboration running with the university nearby. What we want to do is use a lot of local woods from our area where there’s a lot of poplar and acacia. So we treat this wood and suddenly it entirely changes how it sounds and how it feels to work with. We treat some woods that we import as well as local woods: so far we've treated willow, poplar and basswood with great results, and to reduce the weight also on American red alder and swamp ash. We have dark fretboards that don’t look any different to Indian Rosewood but are actually treated Robinia. It sounds great, it works well with our fret slotting, cutting, sanding, gluing – it’s all easy. For body woods we’re using treated poplar and spruce, and you get a very resonant, vintage sound – it’s an improvement. I don’t need to buy mahogany to get a great sounding instrument, and we don’t want to be importing everything from other places to make a good guitar.
I’d like to thank Frank for the fascinating interview. It’s excellent to get the perspective of a fantastic smaller builder in the industry, something that we sometimes miss out on a little in our diet of social media guitar stuff. If it’s something you’re interested to hear more about then stick around, as I’m happy to say that the next issue of Gear Trends is bringing more insight from the minds of high-end builders.
Thank you for reading and know your gear.
Check out Deimel Guitarworks here: deimelguitarworks.com
Contributed by Matt Blades
Welcome back to another edition of Gear Trends. Continuing my interviews with some of the biggest innovators in the pedal world, I had the chance to pick the brains of Roger Smith, CEO of Source Audio. Pedal nerds out there will know Source Audio effects units for their massive range of sounds, deep-editing options and Neuro, their platform for users to share created presets. Given this forward-thinking approach to new audio technology, I was certain Roger would have some strong insights into the future of gear.
M: I recently spoke to some analogue-focused builders, and there was a real sense of a split between analogue and digital, and that they are on different paths into the future. I wondered if you feel the same, and if you feel that different technological innovations always lead to a different path into the future.
Roger Smith: It’s probably worth backing up for a quick second to give a sense of my background, because that’s certainly shaped my views and Source Audio’s position in the market. Prior to starting Source Audio in 2005, I had spent the previous 20 years at Analogue Devices, one of the largest semiconductor companies in the US, and they are experts in real world signal processing. Audio is a very big piece of their business, and they have both a unique collection of chips that do analogue audio processing and a big collection that do digital audio processing.
So the reason I got excited starting Source Audio is because I noticed there was a particular chip we were working on that was a digital audio processor, and I thought this would be the ultimate brains to go inside an effects pedal. If this were inside a pedal, you could create a reasonably priced unit that would be really powerful, really flexible and give users the ability to go in and create sounds in ways that only experts could have done historically. So you would be putting a lot of the power of sound creation into the hands of artists who are probably not electrical engineers. You can’t give a soldering iron and kits of components to guitar players and say ‘go make a new sound for yourself’. Whereas if you give them something that looks like a mixing board and they’re working on a computer or phone – with recognizable knobs and controls that have names they are familiar with – then all of a sudden you start dramatically changing the number of people with the ability to create new sounds and combinations. You’re really empowering all sorts of people. That was the vision that I had.
So to answer your question, I think that is different. In the analogue domain, it’s limiting in terms of what you can do to give customers tools to create the sounds. And I think that the space for exploration and innovation is more limited, and to a certain degree it is a lot more explored already. There’s a lot less flexibility and you most certainly can’t do something like reverb in the analogue domain unless you use a physical spring or plate or a physical room like a cathedral.
So, you have companies falling into three buckets. One group is focused on analogue and trying to create various things with analogue circuits. I think there’s quite a bit of limitation there, just because it’s a well-explored space at this point. Then one focuses on analogue signal paths with digital control. There’s certainly some room to explore there but, ultimately, there is a glass ceiling on what you can do. Then there’s the whole digital approach, which I think is still open for lots of innovation, particularly when you start thinking about a pedal that allows anybody to create and share their work with others. That’s really an exciting area and we’re just scratching the surface of the possibilities.
M: Let’s dive more into what that space could be like. Something that strikes me about Source Audio stuff is it fits a large amount of high-end features and sounds into units that are a lot smaller than you might expect. I was wondering if that’s going to be seen more and more as digital tech progresses and we’re able to create smaller units that can do more.
R: We’re working on a product right now that fits this kind of model to quite an extreme. It’s a very interesting example. We’re working on a new synth pedal. This product comes in a small box with four knobs and a toggle switch. The average guitar player is not going to want to dedicate a huge amount of pedalboard space to a synth because it’s something they’re probably not using as much as other pedals. But what’s interesting is, doing one synth sound or a small collection of sounds just scratches the surface of the diversity of sounds people are interested in, and you never quite know over time how tastes change in sounds. And so wouldn’t it be better to find a way to put a complete modular synth into a small, simple pedal? And that’s an example of being able to create something extremely powerful, and be able to reduce that to a small pedal, and be able to have the same quality of sound as you might expect from a real modular synth.
The only way to do it is to set up the infrastructure of editing tools. Something with a really intuitive and easy-to-use layout that anybody who knows anything about modular synth sounds could sit down with and recognise, and get up and running quickly. Then there are those that say: ‘I’m not great at inventing these sounds, but I would love to have a dynamic library of sounds I could browse through’. What we have found is that we create our own library of sounds, we put them out, and they have a certain level of popularity. But it has been far more interesting to tap into the world of hobbyists who have been creating sounds. They publish them into a communal sharing space where others can use and further edit them. Creating this kind of collaborative world – that is ultimately the kind of direction we’re heading. Creating tools, hardware, but also editors and cloud-based storage and sharing vehicles so that collaborative sound creation can work.
So I’ve used the synth pedal as an extreme example because I looked at the current swath of synth pedals to come out, and none were putting a modular synth into the hands of the community. I think that’s what the community is looking for. You can’t give someone a pedal with 100 knobs – that doesn’t work either. So I see this as an exciting space.
Enabling a community of sound creators with tools; that’s something analogue people can’t touch, that digitally-controlled analogue can’t touch. It’s not just high quality effects, it’s taking digital and really innovating with it into new spaces. It just seems like the natural next thing to do.
M: It seems to be not just about tech, but about finding ways to reconceptualise the tech. For many, using apps, cloud storage, and so on is just an extra feature and not part of the main concept, whereas for you guys that usability is built into the concept from the ground up.
R: Yes. You can think about layering stuff on a product afterwards, but it doesn’t go well. But if we start from day one thinking that we are creating a user editor, which is the same thing we use to create sounds internally, and that we will hand this off to the community so they can create sounds – that’s what we’ve done on at least the last ten products. We do that from day one, and I think we’re unique in doing that.
M: It’s mind boggling: soon we’ll have to stop thinking about the pedal as just the thing on the floor. So much of it will be stored somewhere else, separate from the physical object. Do you find that some people are averse to getting their minds around that? Do you ever find it difficult to balance the traditionalist element of guitarists when branching out into these new spaces?
R: Sure, I think there’s all kinds of mindsets that we encounter. A number of years ago, somebody on a forum did a blind test with five phasers. There were four analogue, expensive, boutique pedals and our digital phaser. The general consensus was that the most expensive one was the one that sounded rich, warm, and analogue, and the Source Audio pedal was the one that sounded thin, harsh, metallic and digital. So, on the last day the guy finally did the unveiling, and, as you might guess as I’m the one telling this story, the Source Audio one was actually the winner by a mile.
There’s this guy who has a line of handmade basses and an incredible collection of handmade effects, and he’s very well known in the bass effects community for his knowledge. He was very involved in this blind test and was shocked by the result. For him, it was a transitional moment. He said to himself that he’d overlooked digital effects for years, and he thought now it was time to get on board with them.
I use this as an example because since then he has become a big fan. He still uses analogue, but he realizes that he can do amazing things with digital, and there’s room for both. So you’re right, everybody has varying levels of thresholds of where they’re willing to be open to seeing possibility, and those thresholds are very different. Over time, there are always people who will be purists and not open, but every year that goes by the number of people that get on board with these digital effects increases. And every year the modelling of things gets better.
M: Thinking about people changing their minds, I want to ask about how you guys approach interacting with the community. A lot of pedal companies lean heavily on social media, particularly YouTube. Do you see events and trade shows as equally important to social media going forward, in terms of introducing people to your innovations and informing them?
R: That’s an interesting question. I think 30 years ago the way that education and marketing happened… those channels were a lot narrower. Rolling out new a product, you had to figure out ways to get into those channels in order to be recognized and noticed. These days, it’s a huge array of potential points of contact and influence, and what’s tough is that these things are dynamic.
We can use YouTube as an example. In the early days, it was kind of enough to create a demo and have it up on your website. We were very early in using YouTube to market products, and it was interesting: you put something out there, and there was so much interest in YouTube material that it made the rounds very quickly. It’s very interesting to watch these days. In addition to creating your own YouTube material, you also need to be sure you advise this big group of YouTubers who are doing pedal reviews.
I haven’t done so recently, but I bet if you search on YouTube, there’s probably 100 different people doing pedal reviews, maybe even 500! Each reviewer has their own audience, and it may be a big or a small audience, but ideally if you really want to reach out to the world of pedal users, it’s become a very complicated task these days. You have to get a lot of people to create video content; it’s no longer one person or even five people.
That gives a sense of how dynamic the marketing channel is. So to answer the question: I think pedal companies need to be covering all kinds of bases between YouTube, Instagram, and picking trade shows where you want to have a physical presence.
M: What gets you excited when thinking about the future of music gear and music technology?
R: Well, I really get excited when I see that these tools we’ve created get embraced and are living up to this vision that we have.
With the Neuro community, I think we’re at 1040 presets and I think almost at 20,000 users. And that’s starting to tap into an explosive thing. You think: ‘wow, this is something that we planted the seed of, and it took so long to do’. And then to see that it’s growing and that it’s becoming active… to think that we’re making the tools to make this all happen – that’s a pretty exciting thing to be involved in.
We’ve uncovered people in this process who were completely unknown, who have incredible talent for creating effects but don’t work for Source Audio or any other company. They have a day job doing something else, and this is something they do as a hobby. We have unlocked their creative skills in making effects, and it’s been in many cases extremely rewarding for them. So again, I think to be a part of that process is really cool.
It’s exciting to hear how pedal builders and companies get constantly inspired by the players using their products. At the end of the day, all of this is about making music, so it’s no wonder that the builders and companies seeing success are those who keep music making at their core. And if Source Audio and others continue reimagining the tools of the trade, the music making process itself may change in the years to come.
Thank you very much to Roger Smith for his time, thank you all for reading, and know your gear.
Check out Source Audio at sourceaudio.net
Contributed by Matt Blades
Welcome to another edition of Gear Trends! So far in the series, we’ve been given some fascinating insights into the world of analogue pedals. Continuing on, I thought it would be worth getting the perspective of those designing in the digital world – or across both worlds – to see what differences in perspective we might find.
To that end, there are few people better suited to this series than Ilja Krumins from Gamechanger Audio. As a company firmly focused on looking to the future and doing something unique, I was curious to find out how Gamechanger view the split between analogue and digital, the direction of innovation, and the future of alternative business models in the pedal world.
I spoke with analogue pedal builders about the restrictions of analogue and how the future might be different for different technologies. When you’re experimenting with various tech, are you looking at what opens up completely new and alternate paths for the future?
IK: Before I say anything, I want us to keep in mind that our company is quite young. We only have two released products or concepts, so that is a bit of a disadvantage. Our opinions or ideas would probably be more trustworthy if we had 15 or 20 products under our belts. Having said that, we believe that those two products and the third that we’ve announced are special and unique; we put a lot of thought into them.
One of our products, the Plus Pedal, is entirely digital, and the second, the Plasma Pedal, is fully analogue. It utilises technology that has been around since the 30s; obviously we have small modern components to provide the electronics, but there are no computer chips or digital conversion in there. So half of our products are fully digital, the other half are fully analogue. My answer would be we don’t have a policy: we don’t really care whether it’s digital or analogue. It doesn’t matter to us. The only thing that’s important is that it’s an interesting product.
The way we try to design something new is to make sure it ticks a few boxes. It has to provide a new function. For example, the Plasma is an extremely heavy distortion that’s completely silent in front of an amp – there’s no feedback. So it solves a utilitarian problem. Secondly, it has to have an interesting, almost psychological effect. Both the Plus and Plasma feature a new form factor. With the Plus Pedal, it’s a piano sustain pedal, so it draws your attention immediately and has the effect of making you wonder: ‘I could approach playing the guitar like a pianist and work on the arrangements’. And with Plasma, it’s the whole idea of electrical discharge.
So products need to solve some problem and be legitimately useful, and secondly they have to spark your imagination and be interesting, as something to think about, look at, and experience when playing it. Those two things are the most important to us. And then how you get there – analogue or digital – doesn’t really matter to us. That’s not important.
So there’s ground to explore in both. Having worked in both fully analogue and fully digital, did you feel that digital had a bigger range of possibilities?
IK: Well…I mean no. I actually don’t see them in these categories, I don’t prefer one to another. But personally, I tend to choose really stupidly complicated guitar setups with amps that need servicing and so on. I would rather have something break down during the show but, at least for the time that it worked, it sounded great. I’m all into electro mechanical stuff and guitars that don’t stay in tune and old crackly amps and guitar pedals from the 80s – I really like that kind of stuff.
That’s interesting to hear, because people might not guess that just from looking at the Plus Pedal.
IK: Yeh, the Plus Pedal is very digital. When we started weighing up the job list and the necessary knowledge base, we realised all of us would need to read a lot of books and get educated about digital and programming. We needed to learn a lot of stuff to make that happen. But the point is we don’t have a preference between digital or analogue or whatever. It’s just: here’s what we need to do, this is the best way to do it. If it involves a computer or writing a program or a piece of software, then let’s go, let’s do it.
Our new concept is called the Motor Synth, and that is a perfect combination of both worlds. It has an electro mechanical sound source – the rotation of the motors – and we harness that in different ways with optical sensors and also with specially designed little pickups that pick up the movement of the coils and motor. So the sound source is fully analogue and completely old school, but the super precise way we control it, to play music with it, is achieved by rather sophisticated software. The chips that make these motors spin in very controlled frequencies – the foundation of that lies more in the world of drones or aircraft. So we have no problem combining those two worlds in this product.
That’s fascinating, because in previous interviews in this series we kept coming to the traditionalism of guitarists, and how we all like some element of old gear, whether that be from the 80s or 60s or whatever. We talked about how to combine that with innovation, which we also love. Do you guys find it quite easy to strike a balance between those things?
IK: Yeh, it’s actually something that we’ve talked about. It’s a little bit of a frustration. I think that one of the reasons things are going in a digital, computer, plugin kind of direction, and also why old gear gets over-glorified a little bit, is that at some point in the 2000s people decided we had exhausted all the possibilities of analogue, and if we want to go forward, the only new, unexplored territories are in the digital world. So as a community of builders and manufacturers, everyone collectively decided: that’s it, we’ve done everything we can do with analogue electronics and mechanical things, if you want to innovate you have to use some kind of computer.
I think that’s kind of the reason some people stopped making analogue gear. This is clearly visible in the synth world: before the Korg Monologue and Minilogue series, for a while, nobody actually made commercial, affordable analogue synths, because people thought if you need to innovate, it has to be with digital.
I just don’t really agree with that. We found a way to do a fully analogue thing that’s totally innovative. The Plasma Pedal uses a coil transformer at its heart. It’s out as a pedal, as a eurorack module and now also as a studio rack module, and it’s doing really well. We were met with scepticism at first online, but now it’s been out and in people’s hands for 6 months, and I think that scepticism has slowly but very surely faded away, and more and more serious people are accepting it as a legit piece of analogue gear that’s good, not a gimmick.
It’s the same thing with the motors. It’s not true that the only choices in terms of synths are digital or old-school 70s/80s synths based on VCOs that run on crystals. We think there is a lot of untapped territory in the analogue, electromechanical kind of realms, and that you can also still innovate in those areas. The more we put our minds to it, the clearer it becomes to us that there is still more that could have been done even in the 60s and 70s that simply nobody thought of. Innovation does not always have to be in the direction of going more and more digital.
Having said that, a lot of times digitally controlled elements make the product better. So you can combine electro mechanical and analogue elements with the digitally controlled, like a little computer that helps you switch functionality.
I think that’s telling: people deciding in advance what different technologies can do and reacting hastily to obvious innovations. I remember with both Plus and Plasma there was one twenty-second sound clip out and people already made these assumptions. Yet when people actually try the product, they realise it’s not a gimmick at all.
IK: We take it as a sign that we’re probably doing something right. But I will say that when announcing the Motors I was convinced we were going to be destroyed online. If they thought Plasma was a gimmick, they’re going to bury us alive for doing something with electro motors! I was convinced everybody would be amused and just write it off. But I was really surprised. The synth community and keyboard community are apparently much more progressive than guitarists. They’re showing us a lot of respect and love, and there are almost no hateful comments about the Motors. That was a shock!
It’s unfortunately not that surprising that the keyboard and synth guys are more open when it comes to technology than us guitarists.
IK: Yeh, who knew? It looks like I’ve been playing the wrong instrument…
Maybe so! In terms of another aspect of Gamechanger, you also do things differently with your approach to business, such as utilising a lot of new online tools. Do you think going forward we will see a lot more new companies using these approaches?
IK: Yes, absolutely. We live in a really, really good time for this. The indie movement started maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, and most of the new generation of effects companies started off in a very Mom-and-Pop way. Like, soldering in the basement, then there are too many orders so you get a buddy to come over and solder with you, then two buddies, then you move to your own space, then you get an assistant. Then organically, slowly, it becomes a real business.
That’s a very long and labour-intensive way to do this. Our background is actually a bit different. I don’t really believe in handmade electronics. I don’t like hand-wired and hand-soldered stuff – I think it’s ridiculous. I want my food and my beer handcrafted, I don’t want my electronics to be handcrafted. Electronics should be made by a robot. Because it’s precise. It’s the same thing every time. So we knew from the start we didn’t want to be involved in any hand soldering of pedals.
Also, we realised that if we’re going to develop new tech – in the case of the Plus Pedal it took us over a year in terms of research and building the prototype – if we’re going to spend so much time developing pieces of software and everything like that, we want large-batch manufacturing. So from the very beginning, starting organically and slowly was not an option, and we didn’t consider it.
We were collecting information from the electronics manufacturers about what the investments would be. Then, basically, when we opened it up for the pre-orders on our website, we knew we could only manufacture something when we reached a particular amount of orders. If we had had 77 on order, we would have just sat there until we reached 700, then at 700 we would have the money and would launch a one-off manufacturing run. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for that number, so we’ve been manufacturing in an industrial way since the very beginning.
We were very aware of available pre-order systems built through our own website and systems like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and they allow you to do exactly that. We were all about twenty-six or so when we started, and we didn’t look for investment or sell our cars or anything like that. We just realised that with the right marketing message and the right product, we could turn the initial fans and supporters into the first investment round, and be self-sufficient. Maybe we didn’t make any money off the first manufacturing batch, but it got the ball rolling.
I think that is the future. Getting the initial investment if you’ve got a good product is not going to be a problem for future business owners. Just make sure first of all that the product is good, that the prototype’s good, come up with something people resonate with, then use the hype online to convert that into your first investment.
Following my interview with analogue builders, it was surprising to hear Ilja’s thoughts on the potential of analogue and digital technologies. Across the three interviews so far, it’s certainly building a picture of the pedal world in which everyone can find totally unique ways to innovate and keep things fresh. The versatility of all this tech might help explain why there are so many new pedals and brands coming onto the market: there’s room for everyone to create something unique, even with the same (old) components.
To fill in this picture even more, next time I’ll be talking to someone with vast experience in both the analogue and digital worlds, and whose company has brought out some of the most ingenious pedals on the market today. Until then, I'd like to thank Ilja again for his time, and say thank you for reading, and know your gear.
Contributed by Matt Blades
After my fascinating interview with Lawrence Petross of LPD Pedals in part 1, I had the chance to pose these questions on the future of pedals to Paul Flattley of Flattley Guitar Pedals. Based in the UK and with a background in aviation, Paul brings another perspective in thinking about what the future may bring for the industry as a whole and for himself as a British builder of custom, boutique, analogue pedals.
I wanted to consider where we are with pedals in 2019 and where things might go from here. The market produces a lot of variations on the same theme, as well as out and out copies. Is this something unique to pedals, or is it related to the more general characteristics of many guitarists as traditionalist and nostalgic?
PF: There’s a little bit of both there really. There are only so many ways to do effect functions. You can make stuff that sounds really different, but what do you really use it for in a band? Over the years people have made outlandish stuff that sounds great but just isn’t practical in a mix. So they tend to make few of them and that’s it.
The guitarist now has such a massive selection, which is why we got into doing bass pedals as well. We’ve got 14 pedals in our current bass range, to try to give bassists a choice of really good sounds at their feet and the range that guitarists have.
So do you think there’s maybe a bit more freedom and ground to explore in the bass pedal world?
PF: Yes, most definitely. I think Darkglass have seen that. They’ve shot to a meteoric rise doing a large and really nice range of bass pedals. They saw the market there and have obviously gone for it, and good luck to them.
For guitar and bass pedals, just how much of the potential pedal universe is there still to be discovered?
PF: Well, that’s very difficult! Like I say, I think we’re getting close to sort of what the end is in terms of your overdrive, fuzz, and that sort of stuff. Modulation seems to have a bit of scope. We all have to have our own unique selling points because it’s very hard to break into the market and get the retailers to have confidence in the brand. One thing that’s more exciting now is that people are able to tailor products to specific types of amps and guitars, so I could produce something I know sounds amazing with a Tele and a certain kind of amp for example.
There was a mad rush to digital when it came in and now it’s going back other way, and there’s a big divide now between digital and analogue. If you’re making analogue, that’s an audience that you’re targeting, and if you’re doing that you have to make sure it’s toneful and reactive. There’s probably not a lot more we can do in terms of variety, but there’s a lot in terms of fine-tuning to certain kinds of applications.
Nostalgia or traditionalism comes up again and again as something prominent. When you’re looking to the future, is there a bit of a balancing act between innovation and good, old-fashioned tone?
PF: There is a balancing act, because you’ve got to come up with an idea and then figure out: ‘is this idea required? What would be the application of it?’ If you’re spending time and investment, you need to be sure it will sell because there’s a need for it. What we do is look at functionality and flexibility, particularly for working musicians. It’s like with a guitar. If I made a guitar so heavy 50% of people couldn’t or wouldn’t carry it, that’s for a very narrow audience. So there’s a balance in terms of working out if there’s enough room in the market for another distortion or fuzz or similar pedal. There’s so much information and so many people doing such a good job, it’s actually hard to have a really bad sounding pedal these days.
There has been a kind of pedal boom in recent times. What’s the role of social media in this? Particularly YouTube, which has become a centre of the community dominated by pedals.
PF: I’m going to be outspoken, but I mean no offence to anybody selling on YouTube, by which I mean retailers. The social media market has exploded. Some guys have done very well at it. And a lot of people buy with their eyes, or at least that takes them 50% of the way to purchasing.
I’ll mention a couple of names: Andertons and That Pedal Show have done exceptionally well at building a network and another mode of getting product to people all over the world. People will search the product on their phone, find that Andertons have done an excellent quality video, and then they search for the cheapest price. It’s now just done through Google search. It is very good for pedals because they’re in the cheaper price points; with a drum kit or a guitar, people really need to check out the feel as well as the sound. Technology has made the reproduction of sound so good these days that if you hear something on video and like it, you’ll probably think it’s amazing in the room. So that’s done a world of magic for products that can be marketed and sold to the far corners of the earth on their sound.
There’s another thing. On That Pedal Show, for example, they go into lots of depth and do good stuff. But the power of that is that people see they have a certain product on the pedalboard and then go and buy it, even though the video wasn’t about that product.
I’m not from that generation of social media, so I’m having to adapt myself to it. It has effects that are great, but in some ways it is destroying high street retailers in terms of the smaller guys. That is disappointing, because a lot of people may do research online but they really want to go to a shop and try something out before they part with hard-earned money. I’ve picked out Andertons and That Pedal Show just as examples of two of the most subscribed to, and I have to say fair play to them, they’ve done very well in this day and age.
You say you have to adapt to this approach. Is that absolutely necessary if you want to be a pedal builder going into the future, to embrace social media?
PF: There are two options. There are people who build pedals but also have a day job. Then there are people who give up their day job and build pedals for a living. I’m of the second group, I have no day job other than pedals, so I have to make a living. Music retail has gone down this track; it’s not that pedal builders have. If that’s the track, then you have to go down it if you want to make a living.
And there’s nothing to stop you utilising the old-fashioned approach of going to stores. I have people who come to my custom workshop, bringing their own amp and guitar if they want to, so they know that if they purchase a pedal it’s exactly what they want. But the mechanisms of how you put a brand out on the market have changed. I could spend £50 on an Instagram ad and reach more people than spending £500 on a top guitar magazine ad. It depends on the individual and what they want the business to do for them.
The economics seem in favour of pedal builders using social media in the ways they have. At the same time though, we’re hearing about the pedal market being very up and down lately. Does that expose a flaw in the way pedal builders are using these platforms, such as spamming with as much content as possible?
PF: The thing is, I’m not so sure. 2018 was a poor year for retail full stop. At the end of the day, we have to understand these things are, for most people, luxury items. So if the country has been in a recession, disposable income is short and people don’t have the money for guitar pedals. Also, we’ve got a bigger market now to buy second hand gear with the likes of Reverb, and it’s well controlled now – 9/10 times if you buy something second hand you get the product as described.
During the summer of 2018, with all the hot weather, I spoke to retailers who didn’t sell a pedal of any brand for three months. I spoke to one chap in Northern England who between June and August didn’t sell a guitar in his shop. So it’s not just pedals that go up and down, and there are actually places in the world where pedal sales are good, such as across Western Europe and Japan. I think the UK itself had a very, very tough year for pedal sales and for music retail in general.
Going forward, what could be a more positive way to create a presence and connect with people as a pedal builder?
PF: We did 25 trade shows last year. I like to speak to people because then they can tell me what they would like. I prefer that approach, but it’s not always practical because of costs and time, and there are only so many exhibitions. Social media is a necessary evil for maintaining things, putting out new products and so on, but I still prefer meeting people at trade shows and finding out what they’re looking for.
And there’s also going into retail shops. I was in one shop in the Southwest and because I was there with three pedalboards a customer asked if he could try something, and he ended up buying three pedals from the retailer. So being there, being a face for people to actually talk to, people still feel they can talk to the company and there’s still a personal link there.
In a way pedals are in the middle of the instrument, being affected on one side by guitars and on the other by the amps and speakers. We’re seeing those sides (the rest of the instrument) change a lot with modellers, floor units, plugins, new approaches to pickups, electric/acoustic hybrid guitars, etc. How does this affect designing pedals for the future? Do you have to keep all of this in mind?
PF: Not necessarily. The new Headrush (Gigboard) is currently doing the rounds of retailers for training, and that’s on a pedalboard with three of my pedals. It’s done that way to show the interaction between digital and analogue. Digital is quite cheap in terms of the cost of a multi effects unit compared to what it would take to make an analogue multi effects unit, for example, so there might be financial considerations along the line. But I’m keen on analogue and that’s the way I go, and if other people are more interested in only digital then good luck to them going that way.
Considering everything we’ve talked about, what thoughts about the future get you up and excited to build pedals every day?
PF: Money! (Laughs). No, no, not really. Because I don’t have to do it. Because it’s a passion. Getting up, making a very complex analogue pedal, wiring it all up, plugging it in and it working first time – that does give me a bit of adrenaline. Trust me, it doesn’t happen that way every time, and anybody who says it does is lying! (Laughs). It gives me ideas, to always look for continuous improvement, for developing new ideas and getting new stuff out there. Even if it’s just a variation on a theme like a new graphic, that still gets me up in the morning. Compared to other boutique builders, we don’t necessarily make 1000s of one particular pedal because of the way that our graphics are done, so I’m not always building the same thing. So I still have the chance of a little bit of variety as well.
Thank you very much Paul for giving up your time and sharing your insights. It was fascinating to note the similarities and differences between Paul and Lawrence, with it being clear that building communities and connections is the way of the future for small builders. Considering the stark contrast that both drew between analogue and digital, it will be interesting to hear about this from digital designers later in this series.
I hope you all found this as interesting as I did. Catch you again soon, and Know Your Gear. Check out Flattley Guitar Pedals here: http://www.flattleyguitarpedals.co.uk/
(Available in the US through https://www.capitalmusicgear.com/)
Catch you all soon, and know your gear!
Contributed by Matt Blades
Hey guys and gals, Sawyer here, just wanting to take a sec to officially welcome Matt Blades to the Know Your Gear Crew.
Matt is a fantastic writer and you probably already know him from the Gear Wars articles. Well, I’m super proud to introduce Matt’s new series articles called: Gear Trends.
So sit back and enjoy a great read!
Also, please take time to check out Matt’s website where you will discover lots of fantastic gear related articles. Just go to: mattblades.com.
Welcome to the latest Know Your Gear article series: Gear Trends. Sawyer is doing such a fantastic job with The History of Gear, we thought it would make sense to also try looking into the future. Rather than just throw out our own predictions and opinions though, it seemed much more valuable to get the informed ideas of those working in various parts of the industry.
So, over the coming months, I’ll be bringing you interviews with experts and professionals from every corner of the world of gear. They’ll be sharing their thoughts on changes we can expect to see in the industry, the direction of innovation, the growing role of social media, and more.
As boutique and small pedal companies have come to such prominence recently, we thought it would be fitting to sit down with some analogue wizards and pick their brains about the years ahead for pedal builders. First up, I was very fortunate to get to talk with Lawrence Petross of LPD pedals, a one-man, handcrafted, analogue pedal operation based in Mesa, AZ.
I wanted to consider where we are with pedals in 2019 and where things might go from here. The market produces a lot of variations on the same theme, as well as out-and-out copies. Is this something unique to pedals, or is it related to the more general characteristics of many guitarists as traditionalist and nostalgic?
LP: I think it’s probably a little bit of all of those things. Guitar players – being one myself I can vouch for this – like to talk cutting edge and new things, but when it comes to putting it into practice we always go back to the old things. We’re quite a superstitious lot in that way, and it’s a nostalgia thing. A lot of the crowd likes to say ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could have all those old amps, but just better’. Then somebody makes it better, but better also means different, and so nobody likes it. They say, ‘wouldn’t it be great if it was exactly the same?’
And in any industry, once the field gets really crowded, even to the point of being oversaturated, it kind of starts to eat its own. It devolves from innovation into duplication, and that’s when you see hundreds of clones of certain things, which is where we’re at now I think. There are still people out there doing innovative things, but for the most part mass produced pedals – excluding the big pillars such as Boss – are not necessarily being innovative.
Just how much of the potential pedal universe is there still to be discovered?
LP: There’s still plenty of growth, though not necessarily in analogue. You have to be pretty creative not just to duplicate when it comes to analogue. It’s older technology, and as with all technology most of the innovation happens at its beginning, and as it goes on innovations become few and far between and people reimagine ways to do what’s been done before.
The new frontier is digital, DSP. The digital domain can be very creative and have mind- boggling sounds and processing, but guitar players don’t necessarily want that. Take Axe-Fx. I know it is capable of doing sounds never heard before due to its processing power and the main engineer’s mind behind it. We could hear really crazy stuff come out of that unit. Butwe won’t because, like I said, guitar players like to talk that game, but in the end they go back to the traditional sounds that were on all the records they listened to growing up.
This nostalgia comes up again and again as something prominent. When you’re looking to the future, is there a bit of a balancing act there? Between the traditional and adventurous? Innovation vs. good old-fashioned tone?
LP: I’ve kind of got an out there because I don’t design in digital, only analogue. So for lack of better phrase I don’t have to worry about it. (Laughs). If I were working with digital, I would have to. That’s a different kind of worms. For a digital designer you’re spot on, you have to push the envelope of new sounds and still have one hand on the base, the things we’ve been listening to for the last 50 years. That’s just how the musicians market is.
We still love to cling to tubes. Tubes are wonderful, beautiful things, but they’re 80 years old, they have plenty of problems, and are ancient tech compared to the stuff people are working with in the digital domain. It has to be frustrating for digital designers who know what their product is capable of doing but are shackled to having to emulate vacuum tube technology.
There has been kind of a pedal boom in recent times. What’s the role of social media in this? Particularly YouTube, which has become a centre of the community dominated by pedals.
LP: It’s an interesting question. From a sound standpoint it shouldn’t make any difference, right? Product is product, and whether it’s a pedal or an amp shouldn’t matter. Pedals are demoed through amps anyway, so why should people be attracted to the pedal rather than the amp? I would have to say it’s probably price point. Maybe it’s a situation where people don’t feel they can afford the amp so they don’t even look at it, but pedals are more affordable and small, so they’re just consuming more of those videos. But that’s really just my guess.
The economics seem in favour of pedal builders using social media in the ways they have. At the same time though, we’re hearing about the pedal market being very up and down lately. Does that expose a flaw in the way pedal builders are using these platforms, such as spamming with as much content as possible?
LP: I think it does. I don’t myself prescribe to that being something that’s useful for the future. Sure, when it first started, ten or fifteen people reviewing the pedal at the same time, people thought ‘oh, cool’. But it only takes three or four of those before it sets a trend, and then it’s not long for the average consumer to see that trend and be saturated by it and not want to see another pedal review. Companies that have done that are going to start seeing vastly diminishing returns on their marketing, if they haven’t already.
If I take a look at the thought that goes into that marketing from just my perspective: it’s banking on a large wave of purchases just after the product is put out, and then expecting a sharp drop off. They’re not playing the long game, they’re playing the short game. They hope they make enough to cover everything in the first two or three months, make a little profit, then move on to something new. They’re not really keeping that product as a mainstay. They just move on.
So going forward, what could be a more positive way to create a presence and connect with people as a pedal builder?
LP: Building a community, I think. Top notch customer service. Being accessible to customers. From a customer standpoint, if you’re paying a premium for a product there should be other things that come along with it, rather than just the product. You should be able to have communication with the maker of the product, for example. So I would say building a community that way – a good community of players who enjoy the product.
When I send product out to have it demoed, I talk a lot with the person doing the demo. I try to get a feel for the kind of player they are and match them with a product of mine they are really going to enjoy. For me – and this is something that larger companies who do blast marketing fail to see on YouTube – if the person presenting the product doesn’t have a connection to it, the viewer almost automatically picks up on it. It’s pretty easy to see shilling: there’s no connection or it seems fake. When I talk to people, it’s not interviewing them, just trying to make a connection and to give them a product they enjoy and hopefully want to keep. And then when they present it to an audience, it’s authentic and real.
I think that’s how small entrepreneurs survive in the market. This is a niche market anyway, but guitar players who are into pedals and willing to pay for something handmade is an even smaller slither of that market. So you have to find ways to interact on their level so they feel appreciated as a customer and a player, and will get product they will appreciate and enjoy and be inspired by.
So that’s a lot more long-term personal and less short-term transactional?
Interesting to think how long it will take that kind of thinking to catch on with the bigger players.
LP: If it ever does. From my limited experience, the mass manufactured Chinese products – I don’t see them achieving that. It’s just not part of their business plan. They don’t think that way.
In a way pedals are in the middle of the instrument, being affected on one side by guitars and on the other by the amp and speakers. We’re seeing those sides (the rest of the instrument) change a lot with modelers, floor units, plugins, new approaches to pickups, electric/acoustic hybrid guitars, etc. How much does this affect designing pedals for the future? Do you have to keep all of this in mind going forward?
LP: I’m first and foremost a musician. I spend as much time, maybe even more, on the consuming side than I do on the design side, which is good because I can talk to lots of players and find out what shortcomings there are for their particular rig. Yet the digital domain, with things like Helix, Axe-Fx or Kemper, pushes towards not having a traditional guitar amp. They are either going direct to a PA or using in-ears, so there are plenty of pro setups now with almost no stage volume. There’s been a societal move away from volume: guys in churches almost always run in-ears and go direct, there’s rarely any stage volume.
These new products excel in these environments because they sound and feel so good going direct; they don’t need a lot of air moving for you to have a decent experience as a player. I
believe most clubs and small venues still have some stage volume, but it’s going away a bit. It’s the natural evolution of things.
I do keep all that in mind in some instances. I do design pedals that are specifically to go in front of guitar amps, because that’s part of the market. I don’t know the percentage and won’t even hazard a guess, but I’d still say that’s probably a majority, though maybe getting closer to fifty-fifty. I also have several designs that are fully functioning preamps that can go direct into an audio interface and be used with cab IRs to get the interaction you would get with a full amp, and you can record that way. But I try to envision how products are going to be used by the majority of players and try to accommodate them.
Considering everything we’ve talked about, what thoughts about the future get you up and excited to build pedals every day?
LP: Talking with customers. Most of the time that’s what does it because they’re excited about the sounds they hear. They’re inspired and want to be inspired, and that’s very motivational.
It’s my first NAMM this year, and I’m preparing to be completely overwhelmed. Because it’s terrifying! It’s like looking into the void because there’s just this sea of product. I try not to let that cloud my vision or bring me down. I keep one eye on that only as much as I have to, to be able to see what’s out there, what’s coming out, and make sure I’m doing something different because I don’t like just reinventing the wheel.
I definitely get inspired by customers and potential customers. Social media is a wonderful thing for that, you can come up with an idea and float it out there and get an immediate response, so you can determine whether it’s valuable enough to put time and energy into designing.
But I would say for inspiration it’s all about talking with current customers and potential customers. Their excitement is just about enough to keep anybody going.
I’d like to thank Lawrence for his time and such a fascinating interview. It’s always exciting to hear the connection that the smaller guys can have with passionate musicians, and hearing Lawrence’s thoughts on social media blast marketing made me wonder if that sort of thing doesn’t do more harm than good for a brand in the long run. In the future, those who get the most value out of the online community may be those who don’t treat it like part of a business plan.
If you’re interested in hearing a further pedal-building perspective, check out Part 2 next week with Paul Flattley of Flattley Guitar Pedals, who took the time to give his thoughts on the future of pedals. We’ve also got more articles on Gear Trends coming very soon, featuring interviews with guitar builders, digital pedal designers, and many more.
Check out LPD Pedals here: https://www.lawrencepetrossdesign.com/
Catch you all soon, and Know Your Gear.
Contributed by Matt Blades