May 2019 Issue #445
“This issue, we venture to the leafy outreaches of Buckinghamshire to discover more about an effects manufacturer whose pedals are turning up on the ‘boards of top players all around the world.”
Words: David Mead. Photography: Olly Curtis
When guitarists as diverse as Joe Walsh, Josh Smith, Ed O’Brien and David Gilmour start clearing space on their pedalboards for the effects output of a particular company, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Such is the case with Origin Effects. Its compressors – the Cali76 and SlideRIG – and the RevivalDRIVE have quite literally been getting under the feet of a whole host of players, the common denominator between them being superlative tone. So, what exactly is the lure? We thought the best way to find out was to pay the company a visit and talk to its designer-in-chief, Simon Keats. Simon began his fascination with effects pedals in his teens, the intention being to attend music college and turn professional. “I decided I was probably never going to get a job being a session player or whatever,” he tells us as we’d settled in a room lined with some jaw- droppingly awesome vintage amps and guitars. “So I ended up doing a degree in electronics.” After leaving university Simon began working in Vox’s R&D department, where he designed some of the Cooltron effects range and assisted with the company’s Brian May signature AC30. He went on to work for companies such as Nokia and Audio-Technica as an analogue designer before deciding it was time to strike out on his own.
As a fan of slide guitar – and Little Feat legend Lowell George, in particular – a plan began to form while he was maintaining some 1176 studio compressors. “I’d read about how Lowell George, in the studio, chained two 1176s together,” he says. “I had two. I had my Strat and put the right strings on it – flatwounds – and got the same slide that he used and I chained them together. I was just blown away by how good it sounded. “Running the two 1176s in this configuration, it just made my guitar feel more tactile to play and it really enhanced the qualities of the instrument. It was then that I really understood what compression could do for guitar. If I could take the sound and transfer it into a pedal, that would be something that I would enjoy, just from a selfish perspective. I wasn’t really thinking about selling them at that point. It was just something I wanted to do for myself?’ Dubbing his creation the SlideRIG, Simon began making prototypes and taking them out to local jam sessions. “I plugged it into a clean Valvestate that no-one ever wanted to use,” he says. “But with the SlideRIG, the sustain was better and it was loud and clear and clean, and everybody just turned round and looked. At that point, I realised I was onto something, and I thought, I’ll have to start selling these!
We suggest to Simon that compression is a much-misunderstood effect among guitarists, mainly because compression doesn’t appear to do anything as spectacular as, say, chorus or distortion. “I think it is misunderstood because it’s not as easy to explain like, ‘You switch this on and everything gets really distorted and sounds cool? It’s a tougher thing to convey, particularly with a decent compressor, where it can enhance everything you already liked about the instrument and suddenly you like it four times as much because it’s more tactile and sensitive.” If the whole idea of chaining two compressors together started in recording studios, we wondered how this might have come about in the first place. “For people plugging straight into a desk in the days before SansAmps and things like that, applying a lot of compression made it feel like playing through a guitar amp, because a note would sustain. It would make the guitar more sensitive so you could do things like pull-offs and hammer-ons and stuff and it would be easy, rather than the guitar just feeling dead under your fingers. You could also hit the front end of the compressor quite hard and get it to break up a little bit; I think Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog guitar tone was two 1176s.”
The other side of the Origin Effects coin is its overdrive pedal range, the RevivalDRIVE in particular – so, in a way, we’ve gone from enhancing a clean tone and producing transparency with the Cali series to raising some good old-fashioned dirt. “Even before I worked at Vox, I was building my own amps;’ says Simon, “so the challenge has always been there, in the back of my mind, to make a non-valve device sound like a valve device. It’s something that people have been trying to do for a long time. It’s a challenge that appealed – and I’d identified the ghosting aspect of a valve amplifier’s breakup as being something that my ear particularly latched onto.”
Ghosts in the machine? We might need a quick explanation here, Simon… “In the 50s, guitar amplifiers used parts that were available and they consisted of a preamp, a power amp that would drive the speaker, and a power supply. The power supply takes the AC mains signal, which is like a sine wave, and converts that to something that can drive the power amp and preamp stages. You have to get rid of that cyclic aspect of the mains and turn into a nice, clean DC voltage source, which is, in basic terms, what could be compared to something we get off a battery.” Okay, we’re with you so far, but we have the feeling that some serious science is not too far off .. “In the 50s, compared with the way it’s done today, it was done quite crudely, using the cheap components that they could get to make guitar amps affordable. So it was done imperfectly and you would get DC with an element of AC still there. Most guitar amplifiers use what’s called an AB output stage where you’ve got two complementary electronic active devices: one mainly handling the positive peaks of signal, one doing the negative. And when the amp’s not producing any audio signal, the valves are just conducting a bit of current, which is called bias – everyone knows you’ve got to bias your valves. If they’re biased the same, which they ought to be, then it cancels out the AC component on the mains, so you don’t hear it. If you don’t have them matched, then you hear some hum, and that’s an indicator that your valves aren’t matched.
“But when you overdrive an amplifier -and, again, this is more to do with 50s and 60s amps – you’ll push it to the point where these devices clip, and they can’t turn on any more. You get a square waveform; if you looked at the waveform of an overdriven guitar sound, it’s a square wave. So when one device is switched on and the other one’s not, what it means is that cancelling this AC component on the power supply is no longer happening, so the AC component is, in effect, reintroduced into the output stage and combines with the guitar signal, and the two modulate each other.” Where would we have to go to hear this ghosting in action? “If you play something like an ACI5, that does it a lot; that’s probably quite an easy way to hear it. If you wanted to punish your ears, a Twin Reverb – if you turn that all the way up, that does it a lot. With vintage guitar tones, it’s just a cool thing that is niche, but, for me, I just thought, ‘I don’t know whether anybody’s done this before..?” And so Simon set out to build this particular vintage amp phenomenon into his RevivalDRIVE unit. “That’s right. And it wasn’t easy – it took me two years! The other thing that pedal does is replicate the output stage of the amplifier, the AC mains stuff going on, and also the reactive load, so that it replicates all what I consider to be the key parts of any non-master volume valve amplifier.”
Once the pedals were on the market, word spread rapidly, with Simon employing a tactical social media campaign, as well as the usual word of mouth between players. “I didn’t have to try that hard. I would receive phone calls from the guitar techs of people like David Gilmour, or from Gary Lucas, who worked with Jeff Buckley; he just phoned up from New York, and these things started to happen more frequently. “We don’t have the largest range of pedals, but everything we produce is as good as we could have possibly made it and so we take a lot of time to get stuff right. We haven’t paid anybody to use them, we haven’t given the product away; people have come to us and used it, and that’s a real honour. But it works, and I’m really happy with it. It took two years because I was being ridiculously fussy, which is why we’ve got a room full of vintage amplifiers. I opened them up, took measurements of gains, looked at waveforms, looked at how the power supplies sagged and how the ripple – the AC component on the power supply – changed as the amplifier was driving a load. Then did audio tests where I had an A/B switcher and could switch between the pedal drive and the speaker through a power amp, and then the real amplifier. I kind of got a bit carried away.”
IN THE PIPELINE
Existing users and converts to the brand alike, will be glad to know there are some exciting products coming soon. “The Cali76 Stacked Edition allows you to apply different attack and release parameters to each compressor: how much you drive the input of the first compressor and how hard the first compressor drives the second. We’re doing a RevivalDRIVE LE, which is the size of one of our smaller compact pedals. It removes the ghosting; a lot of the cost of that unit is making that ghosting feature work. So for people where that sound doesn’t appeal to them or they’ve never picked up on it, the compact one is probably more suited. It also generally cleans up the panel so there’s not so many switches and dials and stuff. It’s more of a kind of, ‘Right, I’m going to tweak a few things and get the sound more quickly; so that’ll be out in the summer. “Meanwhile, we are currently working on some tremolo pedals, too – a more earthy, harmonic-rich tremolo.”