ToadWorks’ founder Ryan Dunn takes a moment to update us on a few new products — the Barracuda Flanger and Texas Flood Overdrive — discuss instrumental people in the design of some of his line of effects, and share some thoughts on the boutique guitar effects industry, where it might go in the future and how got involved in the business in the first place. The ToadWorks line of effects includes the Death Rattle (dual overdrive + boost), Phantasm (dynamic phaser), Redux (asynchronous delay), Enveloope (dynamic effect loop), Mr. Squishy (compressor), Texas Flood (classic tube screamer-ish overdrive), Lil’ Leo (American overdrive), John Bull (British overdrive), Mr. Ed (distortion), and the Roundabout (signal looper) to name a few.
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SSS: You opened doors in 2001, right around the time the boutique guitar pedal market was really starting to boom. How has it changed since then?
R.Dunn: I’m not sure it has. Certainly more players are aware of the boutique industry, and there are a lot more small manufacturers springing up – there goes another one – but the market itself hasn’t really changed all that much. However, I think the relative success of a few smaller manufacturers has influenced a lot of the products the larger companies are offering now. It reminds me of the ‘American Beer Renaissance’ that occurred in the early 90’s – all these small brewers started popping up around the US, and the response of the Big Three was to release a succession of new beers with boutique branding. The same thing started happening a few years ago in the effects industry. Another interesting development has been the amount of space given to boutique effects in the major publications. I saw a recent issue of Guitar Player where they did something like a 30-pedal shootout, and more than half of those effects were ’boutique’. I think that means they are taking that segment of the industry seriously. But I don’t believe the boutique market has really changed much at all.
SSS: How has your approach to building pedals, and your lineup of pedals, evolved with the market changes?
R.Dunn: Dramatically, on both counts. We started out in my garage in Mountain View, CA in late 2000. I had been working for a French tech company in San Francisco, splitting my time between SF and Paris, when I was laid off (along with half the company – the other half was laid off 6 months later). At the time I had a basic knowledge of electronics, not much practical experience beyond building a few amplifiers & fuzz boxes, but rather than just wait for the tech bubble to reappear, I figured I could make a few pedals and sell them online. After making a couple prototypes of the Mr. Ed pedal, I threw a picture online, with a couple sound clips, and I had about 100 orders in a day or two. At that point I had to make a decision – am I just screwing around, or was I actually going to start a business. Obviously I went for the business, and I don’t believe that anything I’ve ever done – in my entire life – more clearly demonstrated that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting in to. None at all. Luckily (or not, depending on your perspective), what I did know was good enough… which really isn’t saying much. And as little as I knew about electronics, I knew far, far less about manufacturing. In the beginning, the pedals were all point-to-point wiring, hand-painted pieces, and the limitations of that were clear about 6 months into it. We didn’t make any money, we were always behind, and there were some serious quality control issues. Over the years we’ve systematically refined every aspect of our operation, to the point that I firmly believe we are making some of the best built pedals available. But it wasn’t really market changes that drove those refinements – it was the nature of our business, and our place in the market that changed, and the improvements we made were a reflection of the changing expectations from dealers and customers as the perception of our company changed. The first major change was a transition to PCB. Then it was refining our component layout, improving our finish quality (we took a lot of heat for that, and deservedly so), and improving the function. Eventually we went back and re-worked nearly all our products – at least half our products have been updated with improved circuits & layouts since they were first released – some even received multiple improvements. This has been viewed by some as proof that we were deliberately releasing inferior products, but I don’t see it that way. We LISTEN to the feedback we get, and when enough people say the same thing, we respond. The more profound change has been in the products we offer, and, more specifically, the features we offer. If you only read the online guitar and effect forums, you might get the impression that guitarists want a lot of configurable options on their pedals… well, that’s what they say, but that’s not what they buy. The truth is that in the stomp box world, simple is good, and complex is… well, complex – and no one ever spent 10 seconds with a complex pedal and said “wow, I love that I can’t figure it out in 10 seconds!”
SSS: You know I have to ask you this. You have a new pedal that just came out, the Texas Flood Classic Overdrive. What on earth possessed you to make another damn Tube Screamer clone? The market already has plenty, but you have our attention, so let’s hear about it.
R.Dunn: I didn’t want to do it. I take pride in the fact that we have never made, or been involved in any way with making a clone of an existing product. Ethics aside, there’s nothing really wrong with it… but I don’t consider it much of a challenge. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there is definitely a place in this world for copies of vintage pedals – Fulltone is living proof of that. But I’m not interested in copying others; I’d rather make an attempt at originality. It really started as a joke around the office – we would make an effort to design something original, only to go online and see some anonymous know-nothing denounce our creation as nothing more than a Tube Screamer clone… seriously, every dirt box we make – including Mr. Ed – has been accused of this. So either we’ve been making Tube Screamers all along, or a lot of the forum geeks have tin ears… I’m leaning toward the latter explanation. Anyway, we would read these comments and say “gee, maybe we should just make a TS clone – it will be hailed as totally original, and we’ll sell 10 million of them.” Then we would have a laugh, and go back to work. For all their bitching about the lack of original effects, people really just seem to want Tube Screamers. Even people who don’t know what they sound like want Tube Screamers. Stevie Ray Vaughn used one, so everyone wants one. I simply got tired of having people call us asking “which one of your pedals sounds like a tube screamer?” (The answer, of course is ‘why don’t you just buy a Tube Screamer???’) So we went ahead and built a TS-808 circuit, and started tweaking it. Immediately there were a couple key issues: Utter lack of bass response, a terrible tone control, and a lack of gain control range – we wanted both more and less available gain. Increasing the low end response was easy, but then the distortion sounded weird. Once we smoothed it out, we dealt with the tone control. The entire TS series has an appallingly bad implementation of tone control – just terrible, but it was part of the design. We hard-wired the tone control, and built the new tone control in a different part of the circuit. The last thing to do was increase the gain range at both ends – at the lowest gain setting, most people probably can’t tell that it’s on. At the highest gain setting, it sounds like a Tube Screamer on steroids… but with a big fat ass, and a lot more clarity. We call it ‘lifting the blanket’, because every Tube Screamer I’ve ever heard sounded like a tweed champ with a blanket over the speaker – no low end and a muffled presence. The last thing was getting it into our smallest size box, which required SMD. As of 2008, all our effects will have been transitioned to surface mount – only two units are still built with thru-hole components.
SSS: If it were up to you, which pedal would you have rather have had Stevie Ray made famous?
R.Dunn: Something. Anything. Anything besides a Tube Screamer. Somehow, the combination of the TS sound (poor presence, huge mid hump, no bottom end) combined with the widespread use of relatively low-fidelity computer speakers has created a situation where there seem to be an awful lot of people out there that think everything sounds like a Tube Screamer – because through shitty speakers, everything DOES sound like a tube screamer. And they think that’s all there is. The they buy a pedal online and bitch about how it doesn’t sound like the sound samples. Amazing.
SSS: Now to more exciting stuff, like your Enveloope dynamic effect loop pedal. We can all go read the description of this pedal on your website (www.toadworksusa.com). What you should share with us, however, are some of your own experiences with using this pedal. What are some of the cool quirks and ways of playing this pedal that you’ve found make it so unique?
R.Dunn: The interesting thing about Enveloope is that it’s not an effect. It’s a new way of using other effects. You can’t just plug it in and make cool sounds, you have to learn how to use it. It’s a hard sell – at the NAMM show, people listen to the explanation, and then they ask to hear the explanation again. Then when they hear its all “woah! wow!” But guitarists don’t really get it. Synth guys get it right away – it’s just a modular envelope follower that happens to be controlling a wet/dry mix function. It’s an incredibly simple concept, but because it’s not an “effect”, guitarists just don’t get it. I’ve found that it’s great with modulation effects, really good for textural effects. The key thing is that it’s all controlled dynamically, and I’ve watched people try to use it who really didn’t have good dynamic control of their picking, and they just couldn’t make it sing. It’s something that needs to be experimented with and practiced – but mastering it will also make you a better player.
SSS: Your Death Rattle looks like a very useful “independent boost + low gain overdrive + high gain” approach to a guitar rig, for using with a clean-ish amp I assume. As you know, there’s many pedals out there that already emulate the classic “plexi” and “tweed” tones (although certainly not as many as there are ts9 clones!). But really, how close are the tones in this pedal to the real thing…the amps themselves? Do they require the amp to be fully clean, or just on the edge of breakup, or does it matter?
R.Dunn: That depends. How close to those tones is the tone stack on your amp? How many of the tubes in your amp match the tubes in those original amps? If you play the DR through a Vox, it’s going to sound different than if you play it through a Marshall, or a Fender, or a Boogie. I would say that the cleaner your amp is, the closer you’ll get to those tones with the Death Rattle. We designed it with the working musician in mind – the guy who goes to the gig with one or two pedals, but needs a lot of different tones. Ultimately, how close they come in any given situation doesn’t really matter. It sounds great, and when you get it in the mix most guitarists simply don’t have the ear to detect any meaningful differences. The guitar you use will make a more noticeable difference. I don’t think it’s tone & frequency response (which varies quite a bit between ‘identical’ vintage units) that defines the sound of those particular vintage amps, it’s the character of the overdrive, in which case the DR v3 will definitely get you in the ballpark. In my experience, 90% of the people who make comparisons between pedal overdrives and the amps the are meant to emulate haven’t even heard these amps in person, much less listened to two or three of those amps side by side – tone-wise, identical vintage amps are all over the place.
SSS: What’s the one pedal in your lineup that a guitarist, who is looking at your effects, just “has to have” if they were to use only one of your pedals. I guess that’s a roundabout way of asking which pedal is your signature pedal?
R.Dunn: There’s only one pedal we make that nobody has ever had a negative comment about – MEAT Jr. It’s just a boost with a Fat switch to kick up the low end. I wouldn’t call it our signature pedal… that’s probably the Death Rattle, which is possibly the most versatile analog OD on the market. But the MEAT Jr. is universally loved, so I’d pick it as the one everyone should have. Brent Mason told me he loves his – that’s about as stellar an endorsement as we could ask for.
SSS: Your Phantasm phaser pedal is a very versatile phaser pedal, but so are a lot of others. ModMax, Moogerfooger 12 Stage Phaser, Red Witch Phaser, Infiniphase all come to mind. How does the Phantasm differ from some of the other complex phaser pedals on the market?
R.Dunn: Phantasm is a miracle of design – I really mean that. Unfortunately, I can’t take any of the credit. It was designed by a guy named Buck Buchanan, who is quite possibly one of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. We hooked up with Buck back in 2002 (when we were based in San Diego), and he helped us through a few rough patches with some early designs. We got the idea for Phantasm around 2004 – Doug wanted to build a phaser, and I started having grand ideas about dynamic control, and we eventually came up with an entirely unreasonable set of parameters for Buck to work within. We wanted it to have full dynamic control over the depth and sweep in both directions, using the same knob. We also wanted it to be super quiet, and to run at 9V. We also wanted the ability to shift the offset on the fly. We didn’t know enough to realize we had entirely unreasonable expectations. But, somehow, he pulled it off… simply one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever encountered, and he’s a guitar player, so he spoke our language. He would politely decline to take credit for anything other than Phantasm, but Buck Buchanan is as much a part of our success as any other factor… maybe more so. I’ve never heard a Phaser – analog OR digital – that has the same amount of control as Phantasm, while being as quiet, and having dynamics, while running at 9V. I defy anyone, anywhere to demonstrate a production phaser effect that surpasses it in these areas, or that even has the same feature set. Sure, there are a few phasers that have 20 knobs, but the ability to tweak some minor parameter doesn’t necessarily qualify as a feature in my book.
R.Dunn: In 2003 I met Stuart Smith, who in turn introduced me to Howard Leese. Of course, one of the first questions we asked him was “what flanger did you use on Barracuda?” Turns out it was a custom made flanger, which explained why it didn’t really sound like any of the other flangers that were on the market at the time. As I recall, it was Roger Fisher who commissioned the unit to be built by Heart’s amp/electronic tech. Originally he made one each for Roger, Howard, Nancy and one for himself. Howard asked if I wanted to play with it, and I said YES PLEASE and drove to his house in Seattle to pick it up. I talked to Howard a few weeks later, and he said “so, do you want to do a version of it in pedal form?” Needless to say, the though had crossed our minds 🙂 It took a while to reverse-engineer the original, just to see how it was put together. Once we had done that, we had to decide how to approach it – was it just the sound we were after, or were we out to actually duplicate the original in every way? The latter was impossible – a few of the components were obsolete. We considered doing it digitally, but we decided the best approach was analog BBD, like the original. What we ended up with doesn’t really resemble the original circuit at all – there a lot of technical obstacles to a) getting the same sound and operation with currently manufactured components and b) getting it work right and sound right using only 9V DC. Once again we had to turn to Buck, and it’s only thanks to his Herculean efforts that we will be demoing this unit at the NAMM show this January. We added a Depth control, and an output Level control, and we decided that the Manual control was more useful if it was controlled by an expression pedal. There’s still some work being done on it – we had to push back the release date until after the NAMM show, but in this case it’s more important that it’s right the first time.
SSS: How do you think guitar effects could evolve in the future? Is there any new technology that’s hot on the building scene? Any buzz?
R.Dunn: The multi effects are going to get better. Digital reproduction and signal processing is going to get better. The technological gap between the old analog gear and the new digital stuff will widen, while the gap in audio quality narrows. Someone is going to come up with a set of individual effect modelers that have a smart & fast interface and sound great…. which would put all us analog manufacturers out of business, except for superstition and talk of mojo – as long as that sort of talk is alive, so are we.
SSS: Just for shits and giggles before you go, if you had to change type of
animal in your name, ToadWorks, what other animal would you choose?
R.Dunn: Beats me. Maybe a Nematode.
SSS: What would be the first pedal in that business’s lineup?
R.Dunn: “Parasite” – it will suck your tone dry. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
SSS: Ryan, it’s been a pleasure. Six String Soul headquarters is in Colorado. Won’t you please send us more snow from up your way in the jet stream? We haven’t had enough powder days yet.