Colorless writings, part 4 – The Builder

Let’s take a look at me as a builder with a slightly longer article…

So you build pedals? How did it start?

Yes. I’ve built quite a few by now. It started out by accident. A happy accident. Back when i though myself as very average pedal user, still relying on my two channel amp for drive and clean. I wanted to try out up octaves, so i bought a cheap Joyo Ultimate Octave which is basically 1:1 clone of Fulltone’s unit of the same name. Just with cheaper build mentality. Wasn’t too happy with it, so i searched around the web for DIY build kits for upper ocatave. Found the General guitar gadgets and their Dan Armstrong Green Ringer replica kit and ordered it. Put the kit together and blam. Worked right of the bat. I just had the status indicator LED in reverse. But otherwise, success. The feeling you get from building something sucecssfully is unimaginable. Of course i started to look for that natural high again and found german Musikding store. Bought and built couple more kits for Si Fuzz Face, Super Hard-On booster and Red Llama. Success again. Only kit i couldn’t get to work was GGG’s LPB1. I still have that board somewhere in the back of my closet. I bet i could now debug and bring it back to life quite easily. But somehow i think i need to have it as a reminder that mistakes will always happen.

After couple of kits, i found couple of excellent websites that published stripboard layouts. Sabrotone.com by norwegian enthusiast Harald Sabro and the greatest of them all, tagboardeffects.blogspot.com, by british gentleman with screen name |v|ark (later on i got affiliated with the latter, but that’s a different story). The stripboard locked my interest after trying it out for the first time. The strips on basic boards are thicker than most traces on cheap commercial PCBs, making the connections more solid and durable. Well drawn stripboard layout will always beat the crap out of mediocre PCB designs in size and durability. I’ve built some boards on point-to-point tagboards and turretboards as well. Those are really good board materials, but they do limit the design complexity to very small circuits, or the final circuit won’t fit to any box that’s reasonably sized. Issue in this is that i rather use as small enclosure as possible. I’ve build more printed boards later on too, but i still tend to prefer stripboard for its solid connections and reasonable space requirements for small and medium sized circuits.

Sounds easy. Is there more to building than just reading ready instructions and basic soldering skills?

Yes and no. Like Indyguitarist once said, the electronics theory is not necesserily needed to build a great pedal. That is true. Simply following instructions will give basic knowledge of what the components are and what they do. Resistors and capacitors? What do they do in a circuit? Oh, and the switch. Do you know how 3PDT switch works? It should have this thing called on-on configuration, but it has 9 pins. How about the pot. Do you know how the pots work? These should be variable resistors, but they have 3 lugs. Knowing how these things work will make your life a whole lot easier. In addition to knowing the components, the debugging is another crucial skill. Soldering and reading instructions should be walk in a park for almost anyone – but getting your non-functional circuit to run is quite a different thing. On some debugging occasions when i can hear where the problem is just by listening to the circuit. Makes me smile. For a first timer, there just simply isn’t a chance of that happening. Novice debugger should know how to use a multimeter and how to construct an audio probe. With those two things at hand, one should be able to tell where the problem is. Quite often the problem is in the build and not the documentation. Almost always. If not always. All the documentation is created by people, which means that there is always a possibility of an error in there. All components are created by people. Same thing applies here. One should also remember that a faulty component is way more rare occasion than a error in build itself.

First time builders may have difficulty in separating the different parts of the pedal. The standard true bypass switching is usually completely different thing from the circuit itself. One should never solder the switching and ultimately the box to the circuit if one isn’t sure about if the circuit is working right. Debugging a sort-of completed build is a lot more painful than debugging the circuit board without switching and the box.

In general, debugging is a crucial skill that one can only learn by doing it. A lot. At the moment i can safely say that i can repair almost any broken analog pedal with through hole components – even without a schematic.

Do you build just clones or original circuits too?

Both. Building “clones” ia a way to start out. We could talk for a few hours about these “clones” and whether they are really clones. The computer you’re reading this is probably a clone of someone else’s work. Most of the pedals you will ever play are just “clones”. As the transistor can be hooked up in just couple of different ways, there isn’t a lot opportunities to do something completely profound that hasn’t been done before. Saddest examples i can think of are the Big Name builders that rip off tubescreamer and threaten to sue anyone trying to reverse engineer their “work”. There have been so many examples that i don’t want to dig into that. Reminds me of a quote on Dan Armstrong dot org. (Whole site is something that i’d recommend everyone interested in pedals should read…) “At one point, according to Dan “an MXR® rep tried out the Blue Clipper at a NAMM show and was amazed, not only of the sound we got out of it, but also how we managed to fit everything into such a small package”. Dan continues stating ” not too long after that they more/less copied the Clipper and went on to produce the ‘Distortion Plus’®, which was their version of the Clipper, but it wasn’t as smooth as ours”.

 When I asked Dan about all the copying that was going on he replied “well, it’s true that many copied our work or our ideas, but it’s also true that we borrowed ideas from others as well. The Green Ringer & Red Ranger, for instance are built on the ideas of others. We just made it so that the effects work the way they should have. That was our goal all along – to make effects that work right. There was a lot of copying going on, I know. The effects market was really nothing more than a bunch of beggers and thieves, all building off one anothers work. The trick was to get the effects working and sounding right – then they sold”.

No matter how hard someone tries to tell you anything different – all the circuits ever made are copies of another circuits. The real value comes from usability, quality and truly, from the effect working and sounding right. Dan’s words tell us that the classic MXR Dist+ is nothing more but MXR’s attempt to recreate Blue Clipper. It surely doesn’t sound like the Clipper, but it is good…

I’ve drawn quite a few sketches of different circuit ideas and some of those have made it to the “production”. How original are those? Others more and others less. All of them still use semiconductors as buffers and/or amplifiers, diodes for hard or soft clipping, etc. The basic stuff.

None of this is a rocket science. Anyone could learn how to build a pedal. I’m definitely not saying that everyone should. Dickehead pedal builder is probably a dickhead in all the other aspects of life too.  Who i think should be a pedal builder? Number of attributes may apply here. Anyone with humility and stamina to understand what he/she is doing and why. Is it only to make money or is it for the greater good? Can’t say. I’m doing this for personal gain, which translates to growth of my own knowledge of how the universe works. In this case the universe being the best possible sound i can strum off from my guitar. If you think you can be a respected builder without being a dick about it, you are more than welcome to try it out. The best practices will shape up along the way, so don’t expect to become new Mr. Mathews overnight.

Are going to be release more new models?

Definitely. My sketchbooks are filling up and every now and then i do find the time to try out some things that are interesting to me. Can’t say anything certain about the future, but i think there is a chance of me turning to professional builder some day. If everything works out perfectly, that may be true in a few years. I don’t think i’ll be able to make a million with guitar effect circuits – but then again, that’s not what i’m aiming for. My ultimate goal would be to create such pedals, that the users want to use stage and on recordings they make. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not here to create incorporeal or intellectual property or to make a quick buck. Right now i’m here to try out new things and share what i’ve learned. Can’t really say what the world will look like in five years. I’m not even interested in that.

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