Builder’s Voice – An Interview With Simon Keats

Owner & designer at Origin Effects, Simon Keats, gave an interview to specialist Japanese magazine, The Effector Book, for their Spring issue. In it he talks about Cali76 & SlideRIG pedals, 1176 racks, and why we’re called “Origin Effects”.

It’s all in Japanese but we’ve translated it for you here:

Please introduce yourself briefly as a musician and product designer.

SK: I was raised in a small traditional English town, to a slightly unconventional soundtrack of American folk and blues. I quickly identified with the natural organic tones found in early Little Feat and the Allman Brothers records. Natural tones using old Fender and Gibson guitars through cranked Fender and Marshall amps. I love blues and jazz, and play in a band jamming Allman Brothers covers. This is no pressure fun and strikes up a good balance against life at Origin Effects. I love Gibson guitars and own a pair of gold-top Les Pauls, and another pair of ’64 SG’s. I’ll have one Les Paul in standard tuning, and one set up for slide, and the same with the SG’s.

My introduction to electronics came in the mid 1990’s, when I met the Audio Brothers who manufactured Hiwatt amps at the time. I was given a crash course in electronics and spent my teenage years modifying amps and effects pedals as part of my own evolving guitar rig. Following a degree in electronics I was lucky enough to get a job with Korg UK, and later Vox R&D Ltd where I designed some of the Cooltron range of pedals. I learnt a lot during this period through working with Marshall amp veteran Steve Grindrod. I left Vox to design noise cancelling headphones solutions for the likes of Audio Technica and Nokia. Starting an audio-electronics consultancy business, I went on to enjoy such clients as Focusrite, Vox and Trident.

Tell us about the story of the Origin Effects.   What is your policy in the name of  “Origin Effects” ?

SK: I’m always trying to capture the tones that define classic albums, the legendary guitar and vocal performances that make your hairs stand up on end. I see these recordings as key moments that define what we now perceive as good tone. I like to call them the “Origins of Tone” (one the company’s strap lines). And so the word “Origin” had resonances within this type of context.

When designing a circuit to produce a certain type of sound, I try to dig past the decades of marketing hype to pursue the greater truths and get back to the origin of a particular tone. That’s one angle on the name….

The other meaning, would be found in the fact that I strive to incorporate original circuitry in all my work. Not content to copy other people’s work, or use off-the-shelf solutions, such as designs strongly based around integrated-circuits (chips), I prefer well crafted, low noise discrete circuitry using transistors or valves. In this respect, my design philosophy is pretty well grounded in 1950s/60’s technology. So in this instance, “Origin” is simply the abbreviated form of the word “Original”. As an example, take the germanium circuitry used in our limited edition Cali76-GP pedal. It would have been easy to bolt-on a fuzz derived circuit using the industry’s favourite Germanium transistors. Instead, we chose to use an unknown NOS medium-power device in an original symmetrical circuit inspired by the valve designs of the 1950’s.

Why do you focus to compressor units?

SK: I’d been obsessing over compressors for several years, and so it was the fruit of this obsession. I was designing a high-end rack compressor for a pro-audio client, at the same time as repairing a bank of Audio & Design FET compressors from a famous Helios recording console from the German studio Hansa (used by David Bowie, Tony Viscanti, Iggy Pop and others). Then there were the Urei compressors. Mainly servicing 1176 and 1178 units. Also, I’d built several LA2A valve compressors and even a monster Fairchild 670 clone, featuring 24 valves and nine transformers.

All these designs were superb sounding on guitar but the 1176 was the best, and I’d never experienced such an honest and true enhancement of my own instruments. The downside was that the units were large, hideously expensive and did not interface directly with guitar pickups.

I selfishly designed a pedal for my own use, capable of delivering this purity of tone. Then I built more. The pedals found instant recognition in the industry with big-name players such as Dave Gilmour, Pino Palladino, Don Felder, to name a few, identifying with the highly polished sounds previously encountered in studio sessions. Proactively responding to customer feedback, our compressors have evolved to meet the needs of our clients.

There are several known revisions for UREI 1176.   Which revision is your best?  Which revision is the most influenced to Origin Pedals?

SK: People love to read all kinds of magic into the different revisions of guitar, amps and electronics. Sometimes with very good reason, and sometimes simply because there’s a suspicion that changes are for the worse and that old is best. The Rev “D” is the classic in my mind, as it was the unit used on many of my favourite tracks. Ultimately this was the inspiration for the Cali76, as we utilise a take on the Urei “LN” (low noise) FET circuitry.

The “LN” changes saw Urei adopt a scheme to linearise and extend the signal handling capabilities of the gain reduction FET. This meant that the signal-to-noise ratio could be improved whilst also allowing cleaner, more transparent audio reproduction.

To produce the Compact series, what is the most difficult point to make it compact than original series.

SK: It’s really important for people to realise that the circuitry in the compact range is fundamentally identical to that in our large-format pedals. We achieved a reduction in size by switching to SMD technology (surface mount technology) whilst simultaneously adopting a stacked PCB approach.

The real challenge lay in how to battle any negative perceptions that might result from messing with a proven formula. I felt that the best way to do this was to offer an improved product. Namely better quality components and improved circuit performance. Unlike nearly all modern guitar pedals, the OE compact pedals use high quality MELF resistors (the same as conventional through-hole resistors, but without the leads) which are very robust and yield better performance, as well as Tantalum and Film capacitors in the signal path. Signal-to-noise ratio has been pushed to the limit for a FET based compressor by adopting a high-current approach to the original Cali76 circuitry. Many months invested in R&D resulted in improvements in transparency and noise performance.

Tell us the “RATIO Rate(value)” for the Ratio High/Low of the Cali76-C. Which situations is good for High and Low setting?  Any recommendations?

SK: The ratio switch provides 4:1 and 20:1 settings. The ratio knob on the other models spans continuously across this range. We sourced a number of original 1176 units but found that the spec’s of these vintage compressors varied by a large degree. We chose to match our compression curves to the best sounding unit, which displayed compression curves closely matching those shown in the first Urei manual.

4:1 tends to work best on guitars equipped with humbuckers, as well as bass guitars. My favourite setting would see a low ratio setting (4:1), combined with a slow attack and fast release. The slow attack accentuates the initial percussive transient of a picked note, by delaying compression until the main body of the note is reached. The fast release allows the compressor to fully recover before the next note is picked.

With the input set fairly high the guitar becomes super-sensitive, feels more responsive and is easier to play. This is something you have to experience to fully appreciate. Perhaps the word “effect” is misleading in this context, as this is an organic enhancement to your natural guitar tone, and is more akin to playing through a good valve amp, upgrading a loudspeaker, or replacing a worn-out set of strings.

The higher ratio setting on the Cali76-C is great for creating pronounced compression effects, such as a country-style squash. A trick on the Cali76-CD or Cali76-CB, is to dial in a high ratio setting whilst using the dry knob to blend in uncompressed signal. This gives you a natural dynamic guitar tone, with subtle hints of shimmering compression artefacts. In the studio-world less can be more and this would be a subtle “icing on the cake” embellishment to your recorded guitar tone.

Slide RIG:  Do the two compressor circuits (stage1 and stage2) have the exact same sound character?

SK: By way of an introduction, this takes us to another great studio technique employed by many recording engineers in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I don’t know who did this first but it seems that many DI’d guitar tones have benefited from passing through not one, but two, 1176 rack units before going to tape.

My own favourite would be the Lowell George slide tone, heard on Little Feat’s classic album Dixie Chicken. Just listen to the track “Roll Em Easy” to hear a great example of Lowell’s long-sustained slide guitar phrases. However, another example is the Les Zeppelin Black Dog tone, but that’s another story…

The SlideRIG series features dual-compression stages. Each stage is identical in design, and will work to boost the guitar signal, making the instrument highly sensitive, but quickly reducing the level of louder notes to avoid overdrive.

The Stage 1 volume knob delivers signal from a single stage of compression. Just like the Cali76.

The Stage 2 volume knob mixes in signal from the end of the chain, and delivers the SlideRIG dual-compressed tone. You can select either sound by turning up just one of these knobs, or you can blend the two to create a layered effect.

The SlideRIG-CD also features a dry knob, to allow the use to blend in dry signal for a best-of-both-world approach, where you benefit from full dynamic integrity morphing into endless sustain.

By chaining the stages together you get the same dynamic feel as you would from an overdrive pedal, but without the distortion. So, rather than picking every note you can simply hammer-on and pull-off to create legato phrasing with equal amplitude between all notes. Endless sustain can be enjoyed simply by applying a strong vibrato to keep the note ringing indefinitely. It’s great fun.

I’ll never forget taking my first prototype to a local jam. I used a solid state amp that all the guitarists there generally avoided. The clean nature of the amp just couldn’t compete with a fully dimed JCM800. I plugged in the pedal and engaged it for my solo. My clean, natural guitar tone just soared above the rest of the band and sustained for what seemed like an eternity. This pedal never fails to stop people in their tracks and make them turn around and listen. It’s a little unworldly. I even considered calling-off production to keep the secret magic to myself… but that wouldn’t have been fair on all the other guitarists out there!

Cali76 CB:  Is HPF setting affect to sensitivity of the compression circuit?  If HPF (low cut filter) is high, is compression got weak?

SK: The HPF is in the side-chain of the compressor, rather than the signal path.

The side-chain manipulates a copy of the guitar signal into a form that can control the gain reduction FET. As you turn the HPF knob clockwise low frequencies are removed from the side-chain, and so the scale of compression is reduced at these frequencies. This results in a fattened tone. This is very important for bassists who need to retain the power in the their lower strings. With the HPF fully engaged, the low bass strings sound big and powerful, but the compressor can still catch loud percussive pops and slaps on higher strings.

In the studio world, people like the sound “Ratio all button mode”. Do you have a plan to add this function to the Origin Pedals?

SK: This certainly features on some people’s wish list. Though, I’ve never had a customer tell me that they miss this setting when switching from 1176 to the Cali76. I’m sure this will make it onto one of our products one of these days.

Why do you omit “True Bypass” from the new models?

SK: Our compressors feature a lot of clean gain to boost pickup sensitivity, and as such any noise sources in a player’s rig can be highlighted. We felt that a mechanical switch placed in the signal path compromised signal integrity by producing an audible click. Even the slightest of clicks could become audible. This is especially relevant in the case of the SlideRIG, where two stages of compression boost sensitivity to unprecedented levels.

Our chosen buffered bypass system allows switch-on characteristics to be carefully managed, and we actually employ a soft-start system to avoid unwanted clocks and pops. The switch we use is also acoustically silent to minimise pick-up from microphones in a recording scenario.

Our design choices may not suit everyone, so for those who must have true-bypass an external looper placed around the Cali76/SlideRIG would be the preferred option.

Do you have any plan to make another effect pedals except compressors?

SK: I most certainly do. Work has begun, and we have quite a collection of prototypes, and exciting concepts, representing a broad range of new products. The company has grown gradually and cautiously from humble beginnings and in the presence of strong sales I haven’t always had the luxury of time to push forward with R&D. Having recently grown the team, we’re now in a position to sit down and plan a detailed time-frame for future releases. There are more exciting pro-audio inspired designs, ground-breaking overdrives, clean boosts and compact amps. We might even wonder into conventional studio territory with a range of 500-series modules. Rest assured that anything we do will be fresh, original and engineered to the highest level. The OE team would like to send shock-waves through the industry with every new design we produce.

Please send a message to the players in Japan who interested in the Origin Effects.

SK: At Origin Effects, we’re very happy to be building on a great British tradition for audio design and manufacture. Staying true to the old values of the industry, in a time before global-scale digital mass-marketing, when product strength was the only key to success. Ultimately we feel that we deliver products of the very highest quality, designed by an obsessive designer, and carefully crafted by people with passion for their work and conviction in what they do. All these elements are important but sadly are too often missing these days!

We wish to support players in their tone-quest, and ultimately deliver tools to aid people’s creativity & craft. We’re musicians, one and all, and understand the complex heartfelt passion people feel in their personal search for tone. If you suspect that one of our designs could be right for you please don’t hesitate to get in touch for honest advice and guidance. We’re here to help!