Some boutique stompbox builders pursue endless refinements of classic pedal designs, developing ever-more-suave iterations of the Tube Screamer and Ross Compressor.
And some just want to blow shit up.
Guess which category Portland, Oregon’s Devi Ever falls into? Hint: Her extensive line of guitar and bass pedals includes such anarchy boxes as the Little Shit, the Ruiner, the Heroin Lifestyle, and the Truly Beautiful Disaster.
Here’s what I’m talking about: Check out Devi’s video demo for her Shoe Gazer fuzz…
…or this one of Wilco’s mighty Nels Cline giving Devi’s Soda Meiser a workout:
Devi’s focus is fuzz, but she also ran a successful Kickstarter project for her proposed Console concept, which relies on a clever and cost-effective system of interchangeable effect cartridges that plug into a base unit, using an open-source format she hopes will become standard. And speaking of open-source: Rather than covering her “secret” circuits with epoxy blobs like some builders, Devi publishes her schematics on her website. Brava!
As a player of the blow-shit-up persuasion, I was stoked when Devi agreed to answer a few questions in a recent phone interview. [DISCLOSURE: Devi Ever didn't solicit or pay for this coverage. I just like her circuits and her attitude and thought she'd be an interesting interview. And I was right.]
How did you get into making pedals?
I’ve been into them ever since I stared to understand what they do. My earliest awareness of that was Smashing Pumpkins. There was a Guitar World interview where he talked about phase and octave effects, and the first two pedals I got were an MXR Phase 90 and Blue Box. From there I just became fascinated with what made guitars sound the way they did. Meanwhile, I was trying to develop a business so I wouldn’t have to work at Subway or deliver pizzas. I started a website called the Guitar Pedal Archive, whose goal was to cover every pedal ever made: who used it, the schematics, and every other possible detail. But one day I realized how easy it was to build effects. I bought some parts from Small Bear Electronics and made my first fuzz. I sold about ten of them through the forums at Harmony Central and figured, heck, I’ll make a go of it!
When builders say their pedals are “inspired” by previous designs, that usually means they’re building clones. But when you say, for example, that a pedal was inspired by the Big Muff, it inevitably sounds very different.
Honestly, it took me a while to realize how most fuzzes are really just variations on a few gain stages. And of course, my lack of understanding wound up leading me to some weird fuzz sounds. But I never really wanted to run with the classic designs as they were, because that felt like cheating. I’d just work at the breadboard until I heard sounds I liked. I wanted fuzzes to be louder and have more character. I started getting into Tim Escobedo’s circuits, but even then, I wasn’t trying to replicate what Tim had done. I was going for something different.
Well, boutique builders usually say they want to make vintage effects sound better and be more stable. That’s great from a hardware perspective — better switches, jacks, wiring, and assembly are all good things. But I had no desire to refine the noisier aspects of the circuits. That noisiness was something I wanted to embrace and explore.
You have a fairly large product line.
Which is funny, because I’m very upfront about the fact that a lot of my pedals are just small tweaks on the same designs. Most are really just varying combinations of four or five different gain stages. For fuck’s sake, I use only five different PCBs for all my pedals. In fact, Ken Schurer, an engineer I work with who also has an effects company called Infanem, designed a single SMD board that could accommodate all my designs. He’s helped me with a lot of my PCB design.
Well, a small change in a circuit can equal a big change in sound.
Yeah, it’s amazing how much flavor a little tweak can add. For example, sticking any pedal into a feedback loop is pure joy to me. I use that in the Eye of God. It has a little photo eye that changes the intensity of the feedback as the light changes, like when you pass you hand over it or put it outside on a cloudy day. Another is the Truly Beautiful Disaster, which was my first big, crazy pedal. Not only does it have a feedback loop in the fuzz path itself, but there’s another on the side, so you can put another pedal in it. That was my flagship pedal for the longest time. Then I licensed it to another company called Ooh La La, which failed after two years, and that killed a lot of its momentum.
Do you populate your own SMD boards?
Yeah. We actually do it by hand, because we don’t have a pick-and-place machine. It’s an interesting process: We have these little toothpicks we dab the solder paste on, and then we toss the boards into a normal old toaster oven.
Are you the graphic designer as well?
Yeah. I’ve been doing graphic design longer than I’ve been doing music. I’ve had computers since I was eight years old, and I’m 32 now. As long as I’ve had a paint program I could mess around with, I’ve been doodling. Actually, my first job was doing graphic design for a yearbook company.
It sounds like you have an amazing stompbox community in Portland, with all those cool gonzo builders.
Well, the attitude of the builders is pretty gonzo, but al lot of what they’re making is fairly straight-laced. I’ve always been a fan of Catalinbread. They have a great aesthetic, and they do really interesting things with preamp simulators. My favorite company is probably Subdecay, which is funny, because I’ve hardly ever talked to the guy [founder Brian Marshall]. But he’s a brilliant engineer who’s always trying to stretch ideas, and his Flying Tomato [discontinued] is still one of my favorite boutique fuzzes. And of course Malekko is run by my friend Josh Holley, who I knew when I lived in Austin, Texas. I met him when he pierced my ears, before he was in the pedal business. I brought him a Truly Beautiful Disaster. Two years later, he’s starting his own pedal business, and I’m doing some graphic design for his stuff. Malekko is trying to become an MXR sort of company, doing pretty much straight compressors, delays, filters, and stuff, but with interesting variations and smaller formats. They’re the first of the companies to buy their own pick-and-place machines. Portland also has a lot of freelance guys you may never hear about unless you buy their things from one of our local shops. I met one guy who’s creating little synthesizers inside cigar boxes.
Any thoughts about where the boutique and DIY pedal scenes may be heading?
One thing that worries me about the DIY pedal scene is the fact that Chinese manufacturers are getting pedal prices down ridiculously low, to the point where you can get really nice pedals for $50 or less. On one hand, I’m glad there’s access to this stuff for people who can’t afford to spend more, but I miss the resurgence of DIY that happened when higher pedal prices were pushing people into DIY. Now I worry more that DIY is going to become a sort of niche — and not necessarily a good niche.
How does the Console figure into that?
Well, the idea is to help the boutique community by offering a way to make their stuff more reasonably priced without having to resort to overseas manufacturing, and help musicians by giving them access to less expensive effects. The most expensive parts of any pedal are the switches, jacks, knobs, and enclosure. That’s often two-thirds of the cost. The least expensive part is the PCB and its components, but that’s where the magic happens. So the Console keeps all the hardware in a single package, but puts the PCB on the cartridge. You only have to buy the hardware once. I did it as a Kickstarter project and raised $40,000 dollars, which is plenty to get it going. The most expensive part is the injection molds for the plastic cartridges. They have to be inexpensive to make, but they can’t fail after a few years like old Nintendo cartridges. We’re shooting to get all the Kickstarter units out by spring, but they probably won’t be available to the general public till around Christmas 2013.
On some of the stompbox forums, especially freestompboxes.org. there’s something of a divide between engineers and musicians. You’ve probably seen some of the negative comments about your designs from engineering types who look at your schematics and say, “She has no idea what she’s doing!”
Yeah, and they say that about Death By Audio too. It’s funny, because ever since I’ve been hanging out with Ken Schurer, I’ve been learning a lot, because he’s an engineer who can explain things in a way I can understand. And he said he thought that Death by Audio used the same evolutionary approach I did, which is basically to sit at a breadboard and combine things until they sound good. Anyway, I completely understand those criticisms, but they don’t make the sound of the pedals any less valid. Sure, I take a different approach, but it’s not like my pedals are setting people’s amps on fire or endangering anyone, and they create unique sounds that some people find usable. I think some of the people who sound off that way are just insecure, and they need to find validity by hanging out on a forum with other insecure people. It can turn into a big circle jerk. Truly knowledgable engineers are few and far between in the boutique pedal business, but there are plenty of armchair quarterbacks.
Some boutique builders pour epoxy on the PCBs to conceal their “secrets,” but you publish all your schematics right on your site. Why?
Well, I was joking with Josh from Malekko that the only way to truly “protect” a circuit would be to have the parts actually touching each other, all sealed with epoxy, so that if you tried to remove the epoxy, the whole thing would fall apart — a self-destruct device! But seriously, I decided to come clean with everything after hanging out at freestompboxes.org and seeing how many people were interested in how my stuff worked. It wasn’t from a desire to copy me without buying anything. They just loved DIY and wanted to learn. And I realized that’s exactly what I wanted when I was first starting out. So why should I make it harder for people to get access to that information? Especially if they’re eventually going to anyway. So it’s better to be a hero than a villain in that regard. I also sell DIY kits and PCBs for some of my pedals, and I’ve been expanding the part of my website about where to get parts and equipment. There’s also a web forum called ilovefuzz.com, where lots of small and not-so-small builders have sub-forums. It actually started out as the Devi Ever message board, but when it got too big for me, I gave it to my friend Tom Dalton, who runs FuzzHugger.
Why is fuzz the overwhelming emphasis of your designs?
Because it’s what I can do! [Laughs.] It doesn’t take much know-how to create a fuzz circuit. It’s even easier to create than a boost pedal, because a boost requires you to actually balance the bias of a transistor.
Plus, it’s the one of the few effects that’s really hard to mimic digitally.
It’s funny, because I had an opportunity at one point to get my Soda Meiser, my best-selling pedal at the time, replicated by a really good VST company. They even went as far as making a great 3D interface that looked just like the pedal. But they got back to me after a few months and said, “We just can’t emulate this.” I don’t know why. I don’t know anything about software modeling. It must be because it’s a multi-gain-stage design, and there’s so much interactivity between the components.
So what will we be talking about in five years?
The future is definitely software. Cheaper and higher quality software-based interfaces, so people can download guitar pedals and other emulated effects. Line 6 made a niche for high-quality modeled effects, but what they had in hardware, they lacked in interfaces. But as full-color touch screens get cheaper and better, the future will probably be an iPad-like device, but with a solid guitar pedal interface. The boutique pedal business will always be here, in the same way the vinyl industry is still here, because people like the feeling of something of quality they can hold. But as technology gets cheaper and better, the future is really all about software and better digital interfaces.
Much more info at deviever.com.