[interview] 3Leaf Audio: Spencer Doren

Here's FXDB's interview with Spencer Doren of 3Leaf Audio:

How did 3Leaf Audio start?

When I was in high school, I bought my first stompbox - a Lovetone Meatball - because I saw Mike Gordon of Phish using one. It sounded great but it was huge and had too many knobs. I always thought about how I would have improved upon it. My dad, a computer engineer who designed synthesizers back in the 70's, showed me that it's not that hard to actually build effects yourself. He taught me how to solder and basic circuit flow, and a few months later I had a simplified version of the Meatball called the Groove Regulator. I built one for myself but I thought other people would dig it too, so I built about 30 of them and sold them through my local bass shop. Through word of mouth and forums like TalkBass, it eventually became a real business.

Lovetone's quirky effects got me interested in pedals, John Fromel showed me the value of pedal aesthetics , and Brian from smallsound/bigsound is the reason I don't make a fuzz.

Where do the name and logo come from?

I like clovers!

What sets 3Leaf Audio apart from other builders?

If there's anything that sets me apart in the world of stompboxes, it's that my pedals make sounds that people can't get elsewhere.

How do you start on a new pedal?

I'm a bass player first and a stompbox designer second, so ideas for new pedals usually come during a gig. If there's something I need on my pedalboard that I don't have or doesn't exist, I start the design process. Most of my pedals are familiar concepts that are well-executed.

Designing a pedal for production takes a pretty long time because I spend most of the year in New York, but I do all of the building in Seattle. My last couple pedals have been about 6 months from design to production.

How do you name your pedals?

I usually name a pedal a few minutes before sending the artwork proofs off to the silk screener. For the Proton, I wanted something that sounded kind of like "Mutron" without entering copyright infringement territory. Some guys I went to high school with had a band called PWNZOR, and I loved the name so I used it for my compressor. I have an overdrive pedal in a perpetual state of development called the Dirty Mind, after the Prince album.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Most of the PCB assembly is done by a local shop. When I get the circuit boards, I just have to install the pots and switches and solder everything into the enclosure. Then I do a play test, number it, and box it up. I don't have any employees; design, testing, customer service, etc. is all done by me.

My circuit boards are designed in Altium, and most of the soldering is done by a local assembly shop. I do the final assembly and testing of each one. I get my enclosures painted, CNC machined and silk screened from Hammond, although recently I've been working with John Fromel on custom-etched pedals.

All of my designs currently use through-hole components, but I'm switching to surface-mount for new designs.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I've always been a fan of clean, utilitarian styling. This makes my pedals easy to use, but a bit boring in the looks department. I pick a font that represents the vibe of each pedal. Recently I've been having some pedals etched by John Fromel, which is a look I really dig.

Is parts selection important?

I use quality parts, but I don't buy into most of the hype surrounding NOS and super high-end components. Circuit design and PCB layout are more important than component choice. Any part that gets stressed, like pots, jacks, switches, etc. should be durable and high-quality. I spent a ton of time sourcing the best toggle switches and stomp switches I could find - those are the two most common points of failure on a pedal. On my optical pedals, I spend a lot of time finding photocells with the right characteristics. John Fromel recently turned me onto the Nichicon MUSE caps, which I really dig.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I'm most proud of the Proton because it really nails that classic Mutron vibe in a way that no other envelope filter does. It's my most popular pedal.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The PWNZOR has been my toughest build so far, because it was my first pedal to use a charge pump and my relay bypass system, so there were many revisions of the circuit board to get rid of noise and iron out bugs.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I don't design pedals with a specific genre in mind, but the deadheads really seem to dig the Proton!

Larry LaLonde of Primus is using a Proton, and recently I've been talking to Boosty Collins about making him a custom envelope filter. Victor Wooten has the first prototype of the GR2.

What does the future of 3Leaf Audio look like?

Recently I've been working on a new relay bypass system that is quieter and more reliable than the traditional mechanical bypass switch. My PWNZOR compressor is the first pedal to implement it. I've also been starting to make the transition to surface mount (SMT) components, which let me fit way more onto a circuit board.

My main project lately has been an EQ/direct box/headphone amp for bass. It's a Swiss army knife pedal that I'm designing for a friend of mine who runs an effects pedal shop called Bass EFX. I'm really excited about it - it's the kind of product that bass players will stick in their gig bag and bring everywhere.

I'm also working on an octave pedal that will be ready whenever I get around to designing a circuit board for it.

Are you working on any new products?

I'll hopefully have my bass EQ/direct box/headphone amp ready the end of 2011. After that, my octave pedal is my next priority. I'll release an overdrive if I ever have a design I'm satisfied with.

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