During the early 1990s I worked as a production engineer at BSS Audio, an innovative maker of professional audio signal processing gear for studios and live venues all over the world. Three years later I moved on to work in acoustics advising on reverberation control and sound insulation in theatres, halls, studios and derelict office buildings that were being converted into housing. Much of the work was based in central London and it was an extraordinary opportunity to see the underside of London—the dark and dismal places that had been long forgotten.
After six years I moved on again, this time to work as a research associate at Cardiff University designing the electronics for marine instruments for collecting water samples and precise measurements of temperatures from the deepest parts of the ocean—a ‘proper’ hardcore engineering job. These instruments were deployed on the mid-Atlantic ridge and in the Arctic Ocean—as you can imagine the electronics had to be super-reliable as any failures would be very costly. I feel fortunate to have been involved such fascinating work and met some nice people along the way. I left Cardiff with a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Communication in 2008.
Whilst all this was going on I was still a keen guitar player, always wanting to play and sound better but never being satisfied with my playing or tone. It always seemed my guitar was working against me and I was constantly learning scales, chords and changing gear—strings, cables, effects, you name it, in a quest to become comfortable with the instrument. A turning point came when a friend asked me if I’d have a go at repairing his old Rogers ‘Junior’ EL84 monoblock amplifier—the Junior was a lovely little tube push-pull, hi-fi amp. Being a student of science and engineering, I remember being terribly sceptical about vacuum tubes at the time. How could this little under-powered amp built with such archaic devices possibly sound better than the latest, sleek solid-state transistor and MOSFET technology? But it did—this little amp had a beautifully rich and sweet musical tone full of presence and warmth. Maybe solid-state amps measure well in the lab, but they sounded flat, clinical and even harsh in use.
This difference in the tone quality became even more significant when playing an instrument in a live situation rather than just replaying music from a recorded source like tape or vinyl, that is when the sound source is a living, breathing musician, attempting to express something personal and meaningful in a guitar solo, picking or even just strumming chords. When the sound wasn’t ‘right’ it was having a detrimental effect on my playing because I was getting annoyed and uptight about the sound—a downward spiral. I came to understand that although most of the tone is in the fingers and in the mind of the guitarist that there’s this delicate balance between a musician and instrument. Mess with that and everything falls apart and the magic disappears in a puff of frustration and despair.
I realised that the unique tonal characteristics of tubes, that make such exceptional hi-fi and guitar amps, could also be applied to build some mightily impressive compressors, overdrive boxes and all kinds of other guitar effects pedals. Effects that were never built because the development of the transistor had quickly ushered in a new age of cheap, compact, low-power electronics. Now I had a real mission—to build a new and better kind of guitar effects pedal utilising vacuum tubes. I set about teaching myself everything I could about the physics of these magical glass bottles. At this time, in the pre-internet age, this arcane knowledge was only to be found in dusty 1950s & 60s texts, I uncovered from the darkest recesses of backrooms in small, second-hand bookshops. I read and learned and I began repairing, modifying and ‘hot-rodding’ tube amps—Fender ‘Twin Reverb’ amplifiers were a specialty and a pleasure to work on. Other projects included rebuilding and modifying the original Watkins ‘Copicat’ and Binson ‘Echorec’ echo units, tube based 16mm film projectors and design of tube phono preamp stages. As my fascination and nostalgia with tubes grew, I began to come up with my own original tube effects pedal designs and in 1996 Effectrode became reality!