Pedal Boards and Rack Systems: Pinging the Pros, ft. Bob Bradshaw 

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The Edge with Bob Bradshaw and some tools of the trade.
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Example of a Bradshaw pedalboard in ATA flight case.
Buzz PJ
Session guitarist Bradshaw rack systems, 1981 vs 2013.

Nearly every electric guitarist has a love affair with effects pedals.  Why? Because we’re always in search of more mojo, color and texture for our tone. Plus, as we imagine new sonic horizons with possibilities of soaring majestic delays or greasy fuzzed out dirt, it’s super fun to research the plethora of stomp box effects available today.  The thrill of the hunt and the quest for sonic inspiration are powerfully seductive forces to us.

Roll-your-own pedal boards have been a staple of garage bands and local heroes for decades.  After deciding which combination of effects will enhance or define your sound, your inner “tech” will be determined to wire everything together, plug in, and conquer the Colosseum. Unfortunately, typical DIY pedalboards are plagued by hum, hiss, noise and tone-suck.  Each pedal may sound splendid on its own, but multiple pedals don’t always play nicely together.

Fortunately, the merciful Almighty Lord bestowed upon us Robert “Bob” Bradshaw to save the day.  Bob, founder of Custom Audio Electronics (CAE), is famous for designing and building custom refrigerator-size, remote switching systems and compact pedalboards for touring and recording artists including U2’s The Edge, Police’s Andy Summers, Toto’s Steve Lukather and L.A. session cat Michael Landau.

Bob and I were introduced by mutual friend Gil Griffith, who at the time was VP of Marketing for Eventide. Gil, a talented musician in his own right, had the brilliant idea of getting Steve Vai to create 48 new, unique presets for the H3000 Harmonizer, which catapulted the product straight to the top of every pro guitarist’s wish list. Even more impressive than its meteoric rise to coveted status was the fact that the Harmonizer sold amazingly well, despite its $3000 price tag 25 years ago. Anyway, Gil asked me to demonstrate the H3000 at the 1993 NAMM Show, and he firmly nudged me to connect with Bob to get “Rackzilla” professionally wired by CAE.

Rackzilla, my 16-space “refrigerator” rack, consisted of instrument level amps and pedals, as well as line level “studio” effects that technically do not belong in the same system.  To further complicate matters, some pedals needed to be mounted on the large pedalboard at my toes while others were able to reside on a tray inside the rack behind me. Some effects, like overdrive, were inserted between the guitar and the amp, while other FX, like delays and reverb, entered the signal path at the amp’s Effects Loop, which is located in between the guitar amplifier’s preamp and power section. Plus, there were long cable runs that were ready to dull my tone or to tune in to any one of SoCal’s local Mariachi radio stations. There was plenty of potential for a train wreck.

For the curious folks among us, among Rackzilla’s noteworthy pieces were a Mesa Triaxis MIDI controlled preamp, Mesa Strategy Stereo 2:90 power amp, CAE RS-10 foot controller, two CAE 4×4 audio loop switchers, CAE Black Cat Vibe, CAE Super Tremolo, Eventide Orville Harmonizer, Lexicon PCM80, assorted boutique stompbox pedal effects, wah, volume and expression pedals.

A second compact “fly date” pedalboard-only alternative to Rackzilla was designed to interface with a small combo amp (Matchless DC30 or Mesa Mark 1 Reissue). It contained only what I considered to be essential at the time. Its signal flow in 1996 was Thru > Mesa V-Twin > Black Cat CAE Freddy Fuzz > Demeter Tremulator > Black Cat Vibe > CAE-modifed Vox Wah > Volume pedal > Delay True Bypass Loop (Boss DD-5) > to the Amp. Everything was powered by custom CAE 9V and 12V power supplies, with some strategically isolated taps to keep the tremolo and the digital delay quiet. The only changes I made to the board over the past 20 years are minor: V-Twin is now a Fulltone Full-Drive 2, the Boss digital delay is now an analog Maxon AD-80, there’s now a Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Tuner, and I’ve added a Dunlop CAE MC-401 Boost/Line-Driver to serve as a bypassable buffer. When the effects are bypassed, the guitar tone through the pedalboard virtually identical to the sound of plugging directly into the front of the amplifier.

Depending on your perspective, my pedalboard is either simple or complex. I can assure you that my pre-CAE attempts to wire it were disastrous. The effects boxes looked pretty, but they were noisy when placed in close proximity on the board. Rather than wasting my life force on scaling a steep learning curve, I hired Bob to get it right for me so that I could get back to the business of making music instead of determining which offenders required isolated power taps or a change of scarce real estate. I didn’t mind paying his fee–you can always get more money, but you can never get back your time.

The pro tip here is to build a functional team of talented specialists. This practice allows you to focus on your strengths. Other specialists will fill in the gaps in your skill set, aptitude or temperament. Super producer Quincy Jones is a prime example of someone who utilizes the skills of all-star writers, engineers, musicians, arrangers, et al., to ensure that his joints are the best they can possibly be. If you’re not convinced, listen again to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Off The Wall. Then read the list of credits. It’s akin to the Hall Of Fame. The workload is handled by a team, yet Quincy’s credit is undiluted. Next to Michael, Q is the star.

Applying this principle to a pedalboard, it makes sense to hire a specialist like CAE/Bob right away, before wasting your time, money and psychic energy. Cry over the money once instead of spending it twice! If you choose to take the DIY route, you may get lucky, but think about this: you should be playing your instrument and writing hit songs, not toiling with physics considerations like line vs instrument level, routing of audio vs power lines, sequence of pedals, buffer vs true bypass, switching logic, FX loops, power isolation, finicky germanium transistors, and much more. Wear leather pants, not a lab coat!

Long story short, Bob and his crew designed noise-free plug-and-play systems for me that were bombproof and idiot-proof. Both Rackzilla and my compact pedalboard traveled internationally without incident. A forklift punched a hole through Rackzilla before pushing it off the edge of an elevated loading dock, but the system functioned perfectly.

If I were to elaborate on why I continue to rely on Bob’s services and products in only two words, those words would be: confidence inspiring.

Bob was kind enough to answer a few questions. Good info for any guitarist who uses effects in the signal path…

MJ: What are your thoughts about the shift from rack systems to traditional pedalboards? Is there still a compelling reason to consider a rack system?

BB: Basically, we are at the mercy of the manufacturers that provide us with the tools we use to make music. When I started out around 1980, there were really only pedals to work with. I started implementing “rack mount” gear into guitar rigs because I was working with studio players here in Los Angeles who saw engineers using rack mounted outboard gear on the recordings they were working on, and wanted the same sounds in their rigs for themselves. I had to learn how to deal with level and impedances in order to get pedals and studio gear to play nice with each other. Manufacturers saw this trend, and started producing “rack mounted” gear specifically for guitar players and the “rack mount” boom was born.

Of course now, it’s back to pedals.You can’t really find decent rack mounted single purpose effects for guitar players being manufactured anymore. That stuff is all on the used market. What happened was, the manufacturers started squeezing too many effects into one chassis and quality went way down, and soon “rack” stuff got a bad rap. It is the same with everything: too much of a good thing, so the trend started tilting back to pedals. Also there is a size/weight difference here, as players started scaling back the size of their rigs. If you travel with your gear, you know what I mean. With rack mounted stuff, you are dealing with a standard size based on increments of 1.75” x 19” (no matter what is in the chassis) vs. a pedal chassis which could be any size. Then there is instant gratification and we all want that! It is much more fun to grab a knob and turn it, than it is to scroll through menus, etc. And a pedal for the most part represents a much smaller investment too. You can buy a pedal for $200 or so, where a rack mounted piece may cost you $800 or more.

Today there are many pedals that rival their “rack mounted” counterparts in terms of sound quality and flexibility. But don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of bad pedals out there now as well. To me, there is no difference in building a rack vs a pedalboard. The signal still has to get from point A to point B relatively unmolested (unless you want to screw it up!). Signal doesn’t care if it goes through a rack or a pedalboard.

MJ: Who needs a loop switcher (programmable or not) on a pedalboard, and who can get by with an inline true-bypass rig? 

BB: Anybody that cares about the quality of their un-affected sound. I maintain that a well designed loop system stands a better chance of retaining your original guitar signal than daisy chaining your pedals together.Even if all your pedals have “true bypass”. This is because a loop system bypasses not only your pedals,but the cables connecting them too!  And proper buffering at select points in the signal chain is important too, loop system or not. If you just have a few pedals, you can probably get away without a loop system, as they do add to the size/weight of your board.

But generally speaking in any case, buffers somewhere in the signal path are essential.

MJ: Are you concerned about digital clock noise in a primarily analog signal path?

BB: That has never been a big concern for me. I am more concerned with 60hz. hum!

MJ: Anything newsworthy you’d like to share?

BB: Trends come and go. While I may be best known for large elaborate systems (many of which are “rack mounted”) I have also pioneered smaller programmable pedal based systems that are easily as powerful as any rack . And they come in a wide variety of sizes and are not as expensive as you might think. The latest is called the RST-LS which contains 10 mono bypass loops, 4x switchable outputs and 2x Control Functions. It contains mono and stereo audio inserts for patching in devices that don’t require bypass loops, and is a full function midi controller. I also have coming in the fall an expression control pedal which automates your existing expression pedal with separate rate and depth controls and tap tempo. It is called AutoSweep.

Contact Bob Bradshaw:

bob@customaudioelectronics.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CustomAudioElectronics

Instagram: #customaudioelectronics

Twitter: @THEcustomaudio

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Bradshaw designed pedalboard switching system.
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Pinging the Pros: Gil Griffith

From Harmonizers to Distressors and Beyond

Latest version of the legendary classic

I cold called Eventide in the early ’90s because I wanted my own Harmonizer in my portable producer rack, but its hefty price tag of $3000 was beyond my humble means. I was hoping that the company would grant me an artist accommodation price because I had recently recorded some hip Sub Pop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, all of whom were buzzing.

My call was directed to Gil Griffith, VP of Marketing (or something similar). Gil was somewhat of a legend: he came up with the idea for Steve Vai to create 48 presets for the H3000, which as a result became a required staple in every session guitarist’s refrigerator rack of doom and remorse. The presets were both twisted and beautiful, and they made a guitar sound like an otherworldly instrument that Shiva and Vishnu might play while destroying or creating life.

Gil was impressed that I had the balls to request a discount, given that my marquee credits were Seattle-centric as opposed to international. He was further impressed by the fact that I was prepared to actually purchase the H3000 when other cats from the Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Michael Bolton camps shamelessly begged for freebies even though they could afford to pay.

Long story short, Gil asked me enough questions to determine that my profile was more street, less corporate, than that of a “typical” Harmonizer user. He saw a fresh marketing angle that could attract a different demographic to the product.  Gil planned to fly into Los Angeles the next week, and suggested that we meet in person to discuss various possibilities.

My wife Irina and I rode our mountain bikes 20-ish miles to Gil’s hotel, arriving in a glorious stew of Lycra and sweat. Fortunately we asked him in advance if he’d mind, and he was cool with the idea. He was getting into cycling back home in New Jersey, so he was curious to check out our machines.

Irina and I had state of the art race bikes, and we were wicked fit: she was an actress of renown and I was still ripped from racing at the UCI Pro MTB World Championships. For better or worse, there we were, flying our freak flags with only a thin veneer of spandex separating our flesh from the elements, taking a meeting with a tall charismatic VP in a well tailored suit. Talk about an indelible first impression!

Fortunately Gil bet on my character and enthusiasm. He singlehandedly positioned me, along with my colleague and mentor Keith Wechsler, to become perhaps the most in-demand preset developers (at the time) for not only Eventide, but also competitors Lexicon and TC Electronic.

As an aside, Keith and I took these preset gigs quite seriously, and our fees skyrocketed to $10,000 plus the product (times two) per project. Along the way, we became friends with the folks who hired us, so we eventually decided to completely forego our cash fees. Believe it or not, it was the right thing to do.  Even though we could have continued charging top dollar, we believed that our karma (or dharma?) was to be of service in a pure way. With hindsight it’s clear that we wanted to do the preset work for the good of humanity, not as a career path that might interfere with our true passion of making records in the studio.

Anyway, back to the story of Gil, and how he enriched my life and my business…

Gil arranged for Don Teolis and me to write 91 new and unique presets for the H3000 D/SE and D/SX units. The former was geared toward studio applications while the latter was all about crazy guitar effects, including some trippy “backwards” Hendrix/Beatles stuff. By that time, Gil, Don and I were genuine friends, so we did the job for love, not money. Help a brother out, right?  Don and I were on fire, and created all those presets in a single day! I distinctly recall writing a wish list of every cool idea we could fantasize, and then rolling up our sleeves and executing the plan. It was a helluva day, but not really a surprise because that’s the way it was when working with Gil. He attracts excitement and inspiration.

Eventually Gil exited Eventide to found his own company, Wave Distribution. The company launched coveted brands like Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Empirical Labs, Focal Professional, Kush Audio, Burl, SoundToys, Tonelux, Purple Audio, and others. Because of Gil’s high standard of excellence, I’ve relied on him to spec and supply much of the equipment in my mix room. He knows what I need, before I do. With that in mind, let’s get on with asking Gil a few questions in our first Pinging the Pros segment!

Ken Bogdanowicz (Harmonizer designer), Gil Griffith, Dave Derr (Distressor designer)
MJ: You always know what I need. How is that?
 
GG: I feel that the products I choose to represent tend to be designed by folks within the very market we sell to – they own or work or worked in recording studios as musicians, producers and/or engineers – and as such, came up with their product ideas from inside the studio – necessity being the mother of invention and all – so if they needed the very product they designed, you, as a recording engineer and producer, most likely need that product too. I’m not clairvoyant, it’s just easy for me to recognize symbiosis.
 
MJ: How do you decide which gear to represent?
 
GG: I actually look at the person behind the gear first. Dave Derr and I were friends and colleagues from the eight years we spent together at Eventide. I worked at his studio (Studio E in Garfield, NJ) after he left Eventide, recording demos for bands I was friendly with and trying to help promote. When he showed me the Distressor he had developed, and asked me to help him sell “a hundred or two”, it was a no-brainer. 
 
When I met Wade Goeke from Chandler Limited, he had one product (the LTD-1 EQ) and two dealers. He had recently left Brent Averill, and had all these ideas for a range of products based on Beatles-era EMI gear from Abbey Road. His enthusiasm for the pro audio market and his exuberant personality were contagious. I liked him right away and wanted to work with him to bring his vision and passion for classic analog signal processing to the market.
 
All the best stuff that we love in life typically comes from the mind of a creative individual, who bends the forces of business nature to his/her will and makes something cool and useful (and typically disruptive) against all odds. Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs. In our industry – Georg Neumann, Rupert Neve, Les Paul, Saul Walker, Colin Sanders, David Griesinger – were the forward-thinking pioneers who bucked trends and produced new products and markets with a determined singleness of vision. I have been blessed with woking with a few modern audio pioneers over the years, including Richard Factor, Ron Noonan, Ken Bogdanowicz and Dave Derr. From that experience, it became easier for me to recognize the people who possessed the right combination of creativity, passion and design chops to bring the next “gotta have” brand to the pro audio market.
 
Now, my very good friend Bobby DeNiro told me that it’s not cool to drop names ;-), but my story is not about me, it’s about the people I choose to work with because of what I saw in them and their potential. And here I’m speaking of not only Dave Derr, Ken Bogdanowicz and Wade Goeke, but all the brands I helped launch or promote – Greg St. Regis (Studio Electronics), Andrew Roberts (Purple Audio), Peter Frampton (Framptone), Paul Wolff (Tonelux), John Arbiter (Carillon), Jaques Mahul (Focal Pro), Chris Pelonis (Pelonis Speakers), Ruben Tilgner (Elysia GmbH) and Gregory Scott (Kush Audio).

 
MJYou do business in an enlightened manner. Every deal is a win-win, and you spread the wealth rather than hoarding it. When you were with Eventide, why did introduce me to Lexicon?

 
GG: I believe in healthy competition. If we didn’t have competitors, innovation might crawl to a snail’s pace. Good competitors keep designers and manufacturers on their toes. The best win-win for me is a friendly competitor, like Lexicon was to Eventide. A competitor whose products and design strategy you admire. I have owned Lexicon gear, have used it in the studio, and have been wowed by artists like Steve Morse who could do amazing things through a PCM 42. How do you not respect and admire a company like Lexicon? Plus, the man who ran it during my time at Eventide was Ron Noonan, who I had great respect for and almost went to work for in 1994. I got friendly with Lexicon’s Director of Sales Joel Silverman from seeing him at AES, NAB and NAMM shows – in Anaheim, Joel and his then-wife Kathy used to host a really nice Sushi dinner party every year during NAMM, and he invited me one year. I thought that was very big of him (and I *love* good Sushi!), and we kind of hit it off and started hanging out at trade shows, to the point that we even switched name badges as a joke at NAB and AES one year. Confused the hell out of people, but it was out little inside joke.
 
So since I knew the gear and liked the people, I was more than happy to share the love and introduce you to them, figuring if I liked and admired them and their products, you would too.
 

We all benefit when creative, clever, and passionate people bring cool products and brands to the market place – and there’s room for all of them – and it’s in all of our best interests that the pro audio industry be healthy and vital and alive and prosperous. 

MJ: What’s new for 2015? What’s on the horizon?
 
GG: I’ve set up a web portal for our dealers and distributors (store.wavedistribution.com) to bring the efficiency and ease of use of retail on-line shopping to wholesale distribution. I’m launching two new brands this year, and there’s a plug-in coming that is a real game changer. With the Euro weakening against the Dollar, I’ve opened distributors in India and China to expand our market reach and take advantage of those opportunities. I’m as optimistic as ever about the future of Pro Audio, and am looking forward to bringing the next Wave (pardon the pun) of cool, cutting edge products to market… and of course, as always – having Michael James be one of the early adopters!
 
I appreciate all the insight, advice and feedback you’ve shared with me, it’s certainly helped to further fine-tune the course and development of more than a few products over the years.
 

-Gil