Alfonso Hermida, Engineer for Hermida Audio, has gained fame in the world of boutique effects pedals since the release of the Mosferatu and Zen Drive overdrive pedals. The Mosferatu, his original signature pedal, is revered by users for it’s thick tone and long sustain. In this interview, Alf gives readers a bit more insight into his life, passion, designs, and how the Mosferatu can save the world.
Get to Know the Mosferatu
SSS: Alf, tell us about your experience with NASA and how that led to designing guitar pedals.
Alf: Actually if you want to know how I started, you definitely have to go back in time further than that. In the 70’s (I was born in 1964) I bought my 1st guitar: a Hondo II Les Paul copy. My front neighbor (a radio repair guy) gave me a Silvertone amplifier….but, some of the tubes had to be replaced. He took me to a local parts store where they had tube testers. After checking all the tubes, we ended up buying a 12XA7 and installing it in the amp. I was never the same after that.
My next door neighbor in those days bought a Fender Stratocaster, a Peavey amp and a Big Muff. He wanted me to teach him how to play and I did. I played with the Big Muff and loved the tone on it. I couldn’t afford to buy one. One day, while teaching a friend from school how to play the guitar, he mentioned that he had a book by Craig Anderton that explained how to build pedals. He bought it because he was thinking of being an engineer some day.
The funny part is that he never used the book because I kept it for many years (eventually returning it to him – the book looked like a deck of cards). He also had a DOD 250 which I liked a lot. He let me borrow it and I ended up cloning it. That was my 1st built pedal. Once the circuit was working I had a dilemma -where to install it? I took a 7Up can, cut out an opening on the side and installed the inputs and outputs at the top and bottom. The battery ended up being taped inside. Since I didn’t have a footswitch nor could I install one (for obvious reasons), the pedal was always ON. I ended up using my guitar volume to clean up the sound.
From that point on, I decided that I wanted to become an engineer so I could work at EH and design all sorts of pedals. During high school I played in various bands and was able to afford an MXR micro-flanger, DOD 250 and an Ibanez Roadstar. My amp at that time was a Malboro (solid state).
During my 1st two years of college I continued playing with my band and we appeared in a music video for a well known singer from Puerto Rico (I was living there at the time). One day while reading one of the music magazines I find out that EH has closed and it basically puts a stop to my dream….this was around the early 80’s. From wanting to be an EE I ended up studying mechanical engineering. Once day, I sat down and made a list of things that I wanted to do since EH wasn’t there anymore. From my long list of things to accomplish, one was to work at NASA.
I started at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland in 1989 and quickly realized that I was in the middle of a lot of smart and very dedicated people. Initially I started working as an aerospace/mechanical engineer, then at some point I was reassigned as an electrical engineer. During my college years I was spending a lot of time with computers, programming and interfacing them to machines (for automated manufacturing purposes). All that know-how was now useful and I immediately started working on control engineering and mechanism development. Eventually a coworker and I proposed a design for a small and powerful computer for space flight use. We were given money and we ended up developing everything ourselves: DSP board, firmware, software etc. Later on the design was used as a starting point for more complex projects such as a magnetically suspended system and others. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun. Analog and digital electronics co-existed and each was given its proper respect. I learned a lot from my peers and admired the fact that most of them were cross-trained in different areas so most of us eventually could work on complete designs if needed.
SSS: How do you think this background affects how you conceptualize your designs?
Alf: It shows up everywhere. Today I was reading some comments written by someone that tested one of my pedals and he indicated that he was expecting a complex design when he looked inside of the box. I try as much as possible to minimize part count without affecting the overall design. I’m also focused on circuits that are easy to build and that use parts that can be found.
When I’m developing a circuit I start with parts that are consistent in quality, i.e., caps and resistors and then I test integrated circuits, diodes and transistors from different manufacturers. From there I select primary and secondary sources (in case the supplier runs out of a specific part). Even then, I do notice that parts from the same manufacturer will not sound identically the same. Luckily I install IC sockets and this lets me replace the component during the test phase.
SSS: During the fall of 2003, the Mosferatu gained enormous popularity among the message board community. Where did you get the name Mosferatu?. Why do you think it gained so much popularity?
Alf: While living in Maryland I started working on two designs, one was the Mosferatu and the other one was the Grinder. I had a busy schedule with a full time job, 2 daughters, teaching at a local college and making/repairing pedals for locals. I wasn’t able to put a lot of time into them and frankly both designs were sounding terrible. Once I moved to Florida, between job searches on the net I would go to my backyard and fish during lunch. In one of those brief moments of insight I realized what I was doing wrong, went to my lab space and modified the Mosferatu. The design hasn’t change since.
At the time I was developing the Mosferatu I was using a Fender Telecaster, Nashville Deluxe model with 3 pickups. I wanted a tone similar to Robben Ford’s “Golden Slumbers” version from a Beatles tribute album. In order to get that tone I ended up using Mosfets in a section of the circuit. I wanted to integrate the “Mosfet” name in the name of the pedal. Since I’m a horror film fan, I recalled “Nosferatu” (vampire from the silent movie days). So it ended up being Mosferatu.
My 1st three Mosferatu users Adam Baker, Tony Cole and Will Ellis are responsible for the popularity. Each one has different tastes and they were very good describing how the pedal worked in their particular setup. I’m amazed how different each one describes the pedal and the tones they get from it. If you ask me what it sounds like, I can’t answer that. Its better just to play it in your setup and find out.
SSS: If you don’t mind, describe to us some of the unique aspects of the Mosferatu’s tone. There are always some things that we hear, but cannot exactly put our finger on or may not even realize. How about a little insight from the designer?
Alf: Since the inspiration for the tone came from Robben Ford’s tone, I decided to create an overdrive/distortion unit that had that smooth sound. Another feature is the sustain that you can get even at low settings. Users comment that the pedal tends to find many sweet spots in the neck.
If you’re using single coils you will get a different effect than with humbuckers. Now I also use a Hamer Special FM with a JB in the bridge and a 59 in the neck when testing the pedal since many players use humbucking pickups.
SSS: How much of an impact does the 3 band EQ make on the tone of the basic Mosferatu design in the M3?
Alf: I’ve noticed that the 3 band EQ can show a grittier side of the Mosferatu for those that are interested in that type of tone. You can always dial it out by minimizing the Treble and then tweaking the Mid control.
SSS: Your effects are primarily “dirt boxes.” Why? Did you feel it was better to focus on one type of effect?
SSS: I always compare musicians to golfers: we always have a bag full of clubs and we’re always looking for that magic driver or putter that will give us the edge…in the same fashion there’s not one box that can satisfy all tone requirements and we’re always looking for the box that 1) inspires us to play and compose 2) that will make us sound unique.
People initially knew about me because of my Fuzz Face modifications or for the chorus pedals when I worked with Analog Man (Mike Piera). During that time I would design one of kind distortion pedals for local musicians but never formalize them into a product that I would build more than once. I guess I wanted to complete that part of my work before getting into other boxes.
SSS: What are some of your other designs?
Alf: The Mosferatu M1 is my blues/rock box with M2 being the dual version. The Mosferatu M3 is the same M1 but with the 3 band EQ. The Grinder is my old school heavy metal pedal. The Dr. Fatkins is a parametric EQ pedal to enhance the low end. Also, a headphone amp.
I always liked Glen Tipton’s sound on the Judas Priest’s “Unleashed in the East” album. The clipping section of the Grinder is very unique – besides the treble control, the pedal includes a parametric EQ-like bass knob. This lets the user tune the bass response to a desired frequency. The end result is a nice and fat sound. For people that are not into the metal sound, the parametric EQ section of the circuit was made into a pedal: Dr. Fatkins.
Dr. Fatkins was designed to be used after your favorite overdrive/distortion pedal. I’ve always knew that overdrive/distortion pedals have to sacrifice bottom end in order to get a nice clipping section response. So in order to compensate for that Dr. Fatkins is connected after the pedal. Since the frequency to be enhanced is tunable you can find the sweet spot and then use the gain knob to decide how much at that frequency to add. The pedal is transparent for all other frequencies but will boost the one selected by the knob.
SSS: Do you incorporate any vintage tricks in your designs?
Alf: I always use new technology and when possible I’ll use stuff that is old school but that can still be found, i.e., germanium diodes. Having said that there’s nothing new under the sun. I always review old electrical circuit books and study how they worked around problems and look at any schematic I can get my hands on.
SSS: Moving on now, what is some of your favorite vintage and modern gear? Is there anything in your private collection that you’d care to tell us about?
Alf: In one of my conversations with César Diaz he indicated that he was spending large amounts of money buying medication. He was concerned that he could end up selling all his vintage and one of a kind gear and decided to promise some of his stuff to his son. That way he had a moral obligation to not sell the gear. That got me thinking about my two daughters (1 and 3 years old at the time) and what would I leave them. I started a small collection of old Danelectro guitars, Airline amps etc. My favorite is a Standard dual cut – looks like the Jimmy Page model but instead of a seal shaped pickguard it has a kidney bean shape pickguard. It has tones for days and the action is excellent. I also gave them a Danelectro Pro-1 which some people call the “bow-tie” shape guitar. Also I have set aside for them Rockman boxes: sustainor, distortion generator, EQ etc. and old pedals from A/DA, Ibanez and others. In addition, every time I build something I make a unit for them. They also have 2 drum sets: child size and a full size Tama Rockstar.
In my collection I have a Les Paul Std, a PRS EG model, Ibanez Roadstar (similar to the one I had when I was growing up – these have the sweetest pickups), Charvel Spectrum and a model 375, Hamer Special FM, Telecaster Nashville Deluxe and a Fender Stratocaster (MIJ) with Floyd Rose. For amps I have a Boogie SOB and a Marshall 8040 Valvestate.
SSS: What kind of musician would take interest in your products? What genre of guitarist do you feel the Mosferatu, for example, would suit most?
Alf: The Mosferatu is easy – Blues and Rock players. To get a different feel, simply select a single coil based guitar or a humbucker based guitar.
The Grinder pedal has found open arms in the metal and nu-metal scene. There are some pedals out there that are either digital based or that are analog but lack the bottom end. That’s where the Grinder comes in.
SSS: Who are you favorite musicians, guitarists in particular? What do you like about their playing? How about their rigs? Anything about their lifestyle?
Alf: In no particular order:
- Robben Ford – minimalist approach and sound
- Jeff Beck – uses his palms, fingers, slide and harmonics to create very complex tones. I like the fact that he uses the whammy bar often.
- Allan Holdsworth – very complex guitar player
- Jamie-West Oram (from The Fixx) – has a very different approach to playing in a song. The shimmering tones out of his guitar are impressive.
- Foghat – need I say more?
- Ronnie Montrose (solo work and in Gamma) – just pure rock, killer guitar sound and great showmanship.
- Steve Vai – master of the processed sound and guitar noises
SSS: How does your lifestyle enhance your engineering and musicianship? In other words, what do you do to enhance your creative work?
Alf: I constantly listen to music, I read Vintage Guitar magazine, I paint, teach engineering, interact with other musicians and ask lots of questions about their gear, ask them to describe certain sounds. For me all these things hit the brain from different areas…eventually an idea has to come out.
SSS: Having absorbed such a wealth of knowledge about physics, have you ever taken a step back and stood in awe of the amazing possibilities that you have as a designer?
Alf: When I started working at NASA I asked that same question and I was amazed at the answer. Most people create only when there is an external incentive to do so, i.e., job responsibility. Very few create things “just because”….just because I’m curious about something, just because I can take some time to “play” with electronics. Those moments of internal motivation, free of pressure become the starting point for some interesting designs.
SSS: What is your relationship with other gear designers?
Alf: I’ve worked with Mike Piera (Analog Man) and known him now for a few years. We stay in contact and I always offer my help. Dave Barber (Barber Electronics) is another cool guy. I met him in Maryland when I lived there. I actually have a few of his pedals in my daughter’s collection.
I also visit Aron Nelson’s DIY forum where a lot of awesome designers hang out. People like R.G. Keen, Doug Hammond, Jack Orman and many others keep that place alive and up to date.
I also stay in contact with Sean from Lovepedal. I think his pedals are unique in terms of tone and his painting technique.
I also know George Blekas from Pedalworx. We talk every once in a while and discuss design approaches and what not….a very interesting fellow from New York (I’m from there also).
SSS: Many pedal manufacturers are also players that regularly tour. Are you a touring player also, or do you primarily just design pedals?
Alf: A this point I just build. I used to play a lot but had to make a decision of either going to college or gigging. The rest is history.
SSS: Ok, let’s get serious. The world is under an alien attack, and you are called back by NASA. How will the Mosferatu help to save the world? The clock is ticking Alf!
Alf: A case of beer says that I can throw one hard enough to at least knock down one of those dudes.
SSS: Your website features a DIY section. What kind of projects will be available?
Alf: I plan to add some schematic of FAQ circuits: true bypass, buffers, tone controls, simple preamps etc.
SSS: What have you discovered to be the secret to good tone?
Alf: That’s a tough one. When musicians visit me and play through my equipment I can’t believe the tones some people get out of it. I think more musicians have to work on developing a good tone just using a guitar and a clean amp – in other words, learning what can your picking style/technique and fingers can do first. After that, then you can complement the sounds with other boxes.
SSS: What lies in the future? For you, and anything else. Don’t worry, NASA isn’t reading this…
Alf: I’m moving forward and hoping fellow builders do the same. I’m always looking for the next cool pedal just as much as the next guy.
For more information, please visit the website for Hermida Audio Guitar Effects.