Red Dog Music Interviews Simon Keats of Origin Effects

An Interview with Simon Keats of Origin Effects

Our premier Scottish dealer, Red Dog Music, have published an interview with our founder and designer, Simon Keats, on their blog.

We’ve re-posted the interview here so you can get an insight behind the scenes at Origin Effects…You’ve worked with quite a lot of pro-audio heavyweights in the past including Vox, Focusrite and Trident, so what made you decide to start Origin Effects?

What can I say!  I didn’t quite fit in with the other electronics nerds, but wasn’t loud and brash enough for the world of sales.  I don’t like being told what to do, or working as part of a team, and ultimately yearned after a solitary existence abusing germanium transistors in a dark corner somewhere in Oxfordshire.  Perhaps it was simply that I would lie awake at night dreaming up pedal concepts that were far too good to entrust to anyone else…

Looking back now, and using “Origin” as a point of reference (pardon the pun) I suspect that many of these glorious old British companies had lost, or were about to lose, their roots.  The product passion was now all too often confined to the marketing and sales departments.  The nerds had lost creative control and weren’t going to be making a come back anytime soon. In short, I wasn’t having as much fun as I suspected I could be!  That said, I have a lot to be thankful for and working with some of the big names in audio was great.  The exposure to the business/marketing side of the industry was pretty illuminating and no doubt priceless.  Being forced to adopt a structured, methodical and organised approach to R&D would also pay off as my career continued.

Being able to pick the brains of respected audio designers right at the start of my career allowed me to progress quickly. I was given a good amount of creative space at Vox and this allowed me to realise many of the ideas I had brewing in my head at the time.  This was a joy!  Yet regardless of my employer, I often felt frustrated with many of the more mundane aspects of the projects I was working on.  Particularly when I felt like my creative growth was being stifled, or at least held up.  I began getting my fix from extracurricular activities.

For a ten year period, I was working full-time, too often designing well-marketed, but ultimately generic, audio products.  I spent my evenings and weekends in Oxford doing repairs, and building exciting vintage-inspired outboard gear, for London-types with unhealthy audio addictions.  In a few years I had amassed 42U of hand-made vintage-inspired tube gear.  Pultec EQ’s, valve mic pres, LA2A’s, classic guitar amps and in pride of place a Fairchild 670 monster of a tube compressor.  I didn’t think much of any of this as it was such a slow and gradual process.  I was just pleased to have reached a period of calm, where many of my long terms projects were complete and I could pause and look at addressing my home-work balance.  I’d probably have chosen the sensible path and given up the fun stuff if it wasn’t for a chance meeting with the MD of an old-school UK amp manufacturer.  A larger-than-life character, whose passion for classic amps ultimately guided his business decisions.  He convinced me that I should go it alone, that there was a clear market for what I did, and that the ethos for quality still had a place in the world.  Others in the industry seemed to agree and I decided to get back into designing pedals, now utilising the knowledge I’d picked up through years of obsessing over pro-audio equipment.  Quality would be top-notch, as if I was building a “no expense spared”, one-off for myself.A lot of guitarists and bass players I’ve spoken have said that they don’t like a compressor “because they can’t hear it”; so what made you choose compressors? Seemingly a type of effect where your players will like it when they can’t hear what it’s doing?!

Many compressors lack subtlety.  It’s as if they’re designed to make as much impact as possible at the point of sale.  So you can walk into a shop, or a stand in a booth at a guitar show, and hear the pedal doing its unsubtle thing in despite of the noise engulfing you from the surrounding environment.

They squish and squash without too much concern for preserving tone or minimising background hiss, and this is what 99% of people hate when it comes to compression.  In many cases you take the pedal to a gig only to find out that it sounds totally different when everything’s turned up.  The pedal removes bass and high treble, kills the “feel” of the guitar and engulfs the band in a wall of hiss.

When it comes to pedals I think there are definitely two categories.  You have “effects” and you have “enhancers”.  I think that in most cases players want to use compression as an enhancer. In the same way that a good pickup, or tube amplifier, enhances the qualities of an already good-sounding guitar. As you engage the compressor the guitar should sound better in some intangible way.  Ideally the untrained ear (for example an audience member) shouldn’t be able to tell you why it sounds better, just that it does!  When you listen to a superbly recorded album where the vocals seem to pop out of the mix straight into the room, you don’t think “great compression”, you just think “great vocals”.  It’s the same when compression is applied correctly to guitar.

I say “applied correctly” because understanding the compression parameters is key to getting the desired result.  Set the controls incorrectly and things can be enormously subtle, or just bad sounding.  Many won’t have come across the concepts of “Attack”, “Release”, “Ratio” etc, and so there’s a learning curve involved.  Having worked with compressors for a while it’s easy for me to twiddle some knobs, plug someone into one of our compressor pedals and perform an A/B comparison that will make their jaw hit the floor.  All without resorting to over-cooking the compression effect, and passing into “chicken picking” territory, although this setting is certainly there when you want it.

Funnily enough, I didn’t design compressors with “most people” in mind.  I designed the Cali76 because I loved the sound of the old Urei 1176, Urei 1178, and Audio & Design FET compressors I’d recently been servicing.  These classic units sound great and really enhance the guitar’s tone, translating it into something polished and alive.  More akin to the guitar tones heard on countless classic albums.

The SlideRIG was chosen because I love the slide tone of Lowell George and just had to have it at my disposal to the point of perfection.  It’s such a niche product and I thought I might never sell a single one, but in actual fact this was the unit that got things moving, and quickly.  I suppose if you’re a well seasoned slide player, it’s pretty much a safe bet that you’ll know of, and love, the playing of Lowell George.  His tone is highly elusive, and so why not give this new pedal a chance!  As a first concept to market it was a pretty safe bet that some big names would give it a go, and I think this opened the door to the Cali76, with its slightly more mainstream appeal.  Due to the Cali76’s mainstream competition, it took a little more time for word to spread but now it’s our biggest seller.That previous question may have been a bit flippant! What do you think are the attributes that make a guitar/bass compressor a good one?

Vibe, transparency, noise performance, control, and all importantly, simplicity.

A compressor should exhibit some musical “vibe” in my opinion.  The compression response should be organic and complex in its nature, to complement our instruments which are in themselves organic in their nature due to being made from lumps of wood and metal.  Modern compressors can sound a bit too brutal with their sharp knee responses, meaning that they make direct, abrupt changes to signal levels in an overly precise, and ultimately sterile, way.  These are often based on the “Feed-forward” mode of operation, where the system monitors the input signal and produce a highly predictable output based on simple linear maths.  Entirely logical and therefore fairly digital in terms of sonics.

“Feedback” compression (typically that used in vintage designs) involves the output signal being monitored in order to reduce the system gain.  Reducing the system gain attenuates/reduces the output signal, which in turn acts to reduce compression/attenuation.  This topology relies on system balance and is therefore highly organic and can be far more subtle in its nature.  Compression curves display softer knees, as well as interesting deviations from linearity due to the non-linear characteristics of individual components.  Our ears tend to enjoy this imperfection as it fits in with the natural environment we live in, where acoustic systems all exhibit high levels of non-linearity.

Secondly, the compression circuitry must exhibit low noise, i.e. low levels of hiss, and/or be preceded by a high quality preamp stage.  The signal from a passive guitar pickup is very low compared to line level signals.  Every electronic circuit will impart some sort of noise signature at some fixed level, and so it pays off to boost the guitar signal before introducing this noise source, in order to maximise the quality of the final signal.  Discrete circuitry (utilising individual transistors rather than chips) allow the designer to carefully minimise noise at all stages of a design.  Also, a high current design helps, which is one reason why we’ve dispensed with the option of installing a battery in our compact pedals.

Last of all comes the issue of control/flexibility vs. simplicity.  The various knobs and switches on any pedal should provide the user with all the sounds they’ll conceivably need.  A compressor is no different, and requires a great deal of thoughtful tweaking to correctly satisfy all potential applications.  However, the higher the knob count, the higher the number of iterations and combinations of settings, and for many this can lead to confusion and issues in finding the handful of settings that work for them.  Many new-comers will fail to fully appreciate the nuances of compression and won’t necessarily know what aspects of the sound envelope are being modified as each knob is turned.  Clearly, there is a tradeoff to be made to adequately satisfy the needs of each player.  So the best, compressor isn’t necessarily the one with the most knobs.  It’s the one that delivers quality in a format that allows the user to quickly access the sound they have in their head.

This is why we offer three Cali76 Compact pedals, with a unique combination of controls.  Each delivers the same quality of tone, but offers an alternate way to navigate through the various settings.  Some people shy away from buying the most cost effective model in any range of products.  The assumption is often that the fundamental quality will have been sacrificed in some way.  However, with our units this is certainly not the case.  Dave Gilmour is currently using the Cali76 Compact having tried every model we make, as well as limited edition models etc…  He knows that the 76-C will deliver his trademark tone and so, at least for him, the extra controls are surplus to requirement… Which is surely testament to the success of this design approach.Would you say there was a different design philosophy when it comes to guitar/bass compressor pedals versus studio designs?

Yes, the basic sonic quality and control will ultimately vary between the two applications.

We can be certain that the earliest guitar compressors were like toys compared to the studio devices of the day.  Today things are a little more complicated.  Guitar effects have without doubt improved to slightly close the gap in quality, but at the same time terms such as “studio-quality” have become watered down and far more general in their definitions.

There are many economical 19” rack “studio” compressors out there, marketed at the home-studio market that simply wouldn’t cut it a professional working studio environment, so in many ways the bar has been lowered… Notably, I see an emerging trend for expensive guitar compressors utilising home-studio-grade circuitry yet claiming to offer professional results.  They’re great devices but have to be seen within the right context.  They’re all too often, home-studio grade devices.  As in all aspects of modern life, you have to see past the many layers of marketing hype, and we’re at the stage of hype-on-hype.

Let’s consider price as a gauge (though there are of course some exceptions to the rule)… Imagine a spectrum running from low to high, with the guitar compressors on the left, studio compressors of the right, and then a large area in the middle where the two overlap.

Starting at the left, with the cheapest, the technology used inside something like a Dynacomp would never be used in a studio compressor.  No matter how legendary the name, the level of sonic quality would simply not be tolerated in the studio for everyday dynamic processing.  The limited frequency response, the background noise and the abruptness of the compression all render the unit unusable as an everyday tool for carefully sculpting dynamics.  The scope of the controls is also highly restrictive when it comes to a device for use on a broad range of instruments.  This unit enjoys an elevated status as a staple of guitar effects, but ultimately is no more than that.

At the highest end of the spectrum we find fully discrete-engineered studio compressors, utilising numerous expensive audio transformers to remove ground hums each utilising rare metals in order to be capable of handling the highest signal levels across a wide bandwidth.  The controls offer maximum flexibility employing large numbers of high quality rotary switches, each costing in the region of £30-£60, to allow the engineer to reliably recall the exact settings from a particular mixing session.  High quality LED or VU metering is a must in the studio.  These parts alone will add up to an eye watering amount.

Now let’s look at the middle of our distribution, where we could afford to buy either type of product… First you have the budget end of the project-studio market.  Offering fully featured IC-based solutions, representing fantastic flexibility for the money, but perhaps offering little in the way of charm or flare.  Slightly more expensive, you have the so-called studio-quality guitar pedals, based on the same IC solutions found in the project studio market.  Generic in their nature and most probably based on the chip manufacturer’s application circuits provided in the pages of their datasheets. Baseline quality in a fancy painted enclosure perhaps, but importantly now in a handy format that will fit easily on your pedalboard.

Next come ourselves, more expensive again (no apologies there I’m afraid) offering cut-down versions of high-end studio designs.  Fundamentally we deliver discrete circuit solutions in the same vein as the original designs.  Of course we have to make some compromises, but I can assure you that they’re very carefully considered.  For example we dispense with the expensive switches, in favour of the potentiometers found in most effects pedals, as instant setting recall is less of an issue.  In addition where used, our transformers are simply not required to handle vast amounts of signal as we’re operating in the guitar world, so there’s another distinct saving to be made which makes our products commercially viable (though we do offer premium upgrades in certain products).  I see a few others adopting this philosophy, and personally I would always try to do my homework in order to seek out the builders who take this approach to design.The number of boutique pedal manufacturers seems to have exploded recently, between this and the popularity of modular synths, it seems more and more people are searching for ‘their’ sound. Do you think that’s the case or are there other factors at play?

I think players are spoilt for choice these days, and buying gear has become a leisure activity in its own right.  When I was stuck in an office behind a computer screen I’d often spent my lunch hour lusting after my next acquisition as a poor substitution for playing my guitar.  What the hell… I still do!  There’s always that glimmering promise of a slightly better tone.  Yet, the market is now entirely open to smaller builders, whose passion will allow them to seek out and satisfy the needs of niche markets that don’t satisfy the financial needs of the large corporations.

I think the internet has been an enabling factor for a lot of people.  Schematics and parts are now easily accessible and literally just a few clicks away.  For example, anyone with some enthusiasm and a fairly reasonable technical ability can now download a schematic, buy a kit of parts, a ready-drilled enclosure and ultimately build something like a Tube Screamer for the cost of a few pints of beer (plus some immeasurable amount of time that they should have spent doing something more fun – I speak from experience!).  Without too much technical knowledge they can then start tweaking some capacitors and adapt the tone to their liking.  Before you know it there’s another pedal on the market.

I did this myself during my late teens, back in the late 90’s, and built myself a number of classic Germanium fuzzes.  Honestly, at that stage I’d have been lost without the various online resources.  Firstly, I’d have to have known someone with an exotic selection of pedals, in order to simply to work out what I liked, then I’d have to have been able to talk them into letting me reverse engineer their prized possession.  I just wasn’t that well connected, or persuasive enough.

We take this for granted now, and it’s hard to imagine the days before Google.  Previously just trying to establish what your favourite player used on your favourite album could have been close to impossible.  Now you can probably just Ask Jeeves, or Siri – they’re tone gurus!  So you can research and identify a product and literally learn how to build it in minutes.

Of course, I should clearly point out that all this is a far cry from how I design now.  These days I’ll draw up a comprehensive schematic based on my instincts, and unless I’m trying to recreate a particular tone, I’ll try to avoid replicating anything else currently available for purchase.  In my opinion, copied designs do not offer a safe platform on which to build a business.  If I’m investing time and money in a project I need more assurance of success.  That said, it’s still a great way to learn the craft, and the results do offer buyers an ever increasing pallet of useful tones.  Many may find that some new flavour of a pre-existing design will work better with their guitar and amp setup, as each builder will fine tune a product using their own guitar and amp of choice.  From the buyer’s perspective the issue is how to wade through the vast array of products in order to find the one that happens to work for you.  Again the internet has the answer, with forums offering countless opinions on what pedals work with what amps, etc…

One word of warning for any musician who thinks they might save their beer money and invest in a bag of resistors, capacitors and other goodies…  It is a distraction, and an addiction, and ultimately may take you away from concentrating on the creative side of guitar playing.  These are my own findings!  I have a friend who spends many evenings fiddling with modular synth designs.  He loves it, but I suspect he’d have to admit the same.I believe I read that Origin has plans for moving beyond the world of dynamics control? Can you let us in on what might be coming, and when that might be?

Plans, yes.  So many plans!!!  Origin Effects has grown organically, and at quite a pace.  I’ve always been at, or close to, the helm in terms of decisions and the day to day running of the business.  Finding the time to immerse myself in design work is always tough and so we’re backed up with concepts.  It’s very frustrating at times.  Now with a team of seven in place, I’m finally finding time to get back to what I love and things are looking very positive.

Clearly I can’t give too much away, but I will say that I’m currently working on our first overdrive pedal.  The prototype is sounding absolutely thrilling and delivers a feature, and ultimately a tone, that no other pedal has incorporated to date.  It’s very exciting.  Hopefully this will be out by the end of the year.

Next, we have some more studio designs with some concepts that I expect will blow people away.  One particular project should justify a trip to Canada to do some R&D around some unique vintage studio pieces.  Perks of the job!

Anyway, as I tell people here, I’m fed up with talking about ideas…. Time to get back to designing!