[interview] Area 51: Daniel Albrecht

Here's FXDB's interview with Daniel Albrecht of Area 51:

How did Area 51 start?

Well, I'd started out building an add-on tube tremolo unit for tube amps - called the BMT-60 (for bias modulation tremolo, 60s inspired) Not long after that, I was looking for a really good wah wah - and although there were some great ones available at the time, none delivered what I had in mind. So I set about making my own. When I got it to the point where I figured I had something good, I had a few friends try it out. So, two of my co-workers at Kendrick Amplifiers were the first owners of the new "Area 51 Wahs". It blossomed from there. First with eBay sales, then eventually a website, and now they're sold worldwide both through our website and dealers. The product line is slowly growing, and now includes a Fuzz and unity buffer pedal called The Box.

I'd gotten into home brewing tube guitar amps back in the mid 90s after reading Gerald Weber's first book (Desktop Reference of Hip Vintage Guitar Amps). In 2000 we moved to Texas and I started working for him at Kendrick Amplifiers. I had some experience with amps at this point, but only as a hobby really. I figured I was going to start out sweeping the floors or something, but Gerald put me in charge of the service department and setting up new amps. Talk about a trial by fire! I learned more in that first few months than I thought possible. And over the next five years I overhauled and serviced tons of amps of all shapes and sizes by every manufacturer you could think of, plus many obscure ones I'd never heard of. So I'd have to say that Gerald Weber was really a big inspiration and help. I learned much from the other employees there too. Gene Henley was a supreme solder jockey. Man, that guy could wire and amp like nobody's business. He taught me so many tricks with wiring... I could never thank him enough. John Mergili (now of Mergili Innovations) has this great design talent, especially with cabinets. We still bounce ideas off one another to this day. My Model Two cabinet is his design. He also did the Kendrick K-spot.

Where does the name come from?

Not exactly from where you'd think... Back in 2000 we had a house with some acreage in the Texas hill country - Kempner, TX. Our land was listed as "tract 51". At the time, I was working for Kendrick Amplifiers. Gerald, the owner, often referred to our place as "Area 51". So when I started, and was deciding on a name - Area 51 just seemed to fit. It was our little 'top secret tone facility'.

What sets Area 51 apart from other builders?

Not to sound aloof, but I really don't pay that much mind to what others do. I respect 'em, and I know there's lots of good stuff out there, but I try to keep my focus on what I'm doing here, and in doing it the best way I know how. We musicians are living in a great time right now, although in some ways maybe it doesn't seem like it. We have so many choices with gear. And TONS of really good small companies who care about quality. That was missing for many years, but I think it has come back in a big way through word of mouth - forums, facebook, etc.

I do this because I enjoy the work and I enjoy helping players get their tone. In fact, one of the down-sides to being so small is that I'm not able to answer the phone much. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE to talk tone. But most of the time, I'm in my shop with a soldering iron in hand doing what I do best. I don't keep a phone there, because I love to get blabbin' and my end of the production stops. For a long time now, I've recommended that folks email me instead of calling. But lately, more and more people are doing everything on their smartphones. (I still just have a dumbphone....) So I'll finally be jumping on the Facebook/Twitter bandwagon very soon. Talk about being late for the party!

How do you start on a new pedal?

Well, sometimes I see a need for something and try to fill it. And other times it may be repeated customer requests, or maybe a custom job or personal project that just turns out so good that I figure others might dig it.

How do you name your pedals?

No, not really. Again, my pedal names have about as much character as a brick (some bricks may have more, in fact). Maybe that will change someday, but it will probably not be my doing. I suck at naming stuff, really. You'll notice that my products all have highly inventive, catchy names such as "Model One", "Model Two", Area 51 Wah, Area 51 Fuzz, The Box - Ha!! There's a lot of really great and funny pedal names out there, so maybe that's something else that gives Area 51 it's own identity: a complete lack of catchy names! I definitely focus my energies on the quality and sound rather than the name, just because those are my strong points. But I do think a pedal should look nice, and I work with my finishers to make that happen.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

All of our pedals are built in-house. My wife Anita does the majority of stuffing and soldering the boards, and building the Fuzz and Buffer pedals. I wind the wah inductors on my "Fred Flintstone machine" - a sewing machine motor based winder with programmable relay switching. I'm the one who builds all of the wah pedals, sorts and matches critical parts, builds amps, kits, and just about everything else - including the website work and all customer communications. Anita does the books - thankfully! I've learned and even developed some of my own production techniques to make our work as efficient as possible while still keeping quality the main focus. For chassis preparation, I do all of the indexing and drilling using templates that I've made, and I deliver them to our local powder coating and screen print shops for the finish work.

We build our pedals on professionally produced double-sided pcb's with full size thru hole components. I used to etch my own boards in house, but it became too much as the pedals gained popularity. I had to drill each one by hand, and that was the worst! 100 wah boards, times about 50 holes each - that's 5000 holes! It was the express train to carpal-tunnel-ville! I'm much happier with the boards we now have - they are far better quality than what I could produce on my own. I use the best components I can get my hands on for tone and to reduce the need for repair. It's cheap insurance. I love my little babies, but once they're outta here, I don't want them back here again! When I do an amp, it's point to point.

The enclosures are for the most part sourced from suppliers. I've had boxes custom made in the past by local sheet metal shops, and still do whenever the need arises. The enclosures are powder coated at a local shop. Same story on the screen printing work.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I think a quality pedal should look like it's a quality pedal. But I've seen some real junkers with flashy paint jobs, so you can't put too much stock in that sort of thing.

How important is parts selection?

Oh yeah, definitely. Good parts mean a lot. They affect the tone and noise performance, as well as the longevity of a unit. Build em with junk, and they'll pay you back by misbehaving. I'm a stickler for keeping things super-consistent. That's something that many larger companies just don't have the luxury of doing, and I'm glad I can do it. In the case of wah wah inductors, I actually got a LOT better end result by making my own. I had a transformer/coil company making them to my specs for a time, but they just couldn't make them consistent enough. I generally avoid NOS parts. Instead, I try to find the way to achieve the same or better results with currently made parts. I just don't like the idea of being at the mercy of such a limited supply. Plus, in my experience, most old NOS parts have pretty sloppy tolerance, and that doesn't fit with my desire to make the pedals consistent from unit to unit. A great example of this is the Fuzz. Most people have heard the stories of how Hendrix used to pick through big groups of fuzzes looking for the good ones. They were pretty inconsistent back then. The part tolerances were all over the place, and those guys didn't sit there with meters checking every part before it went into the boards. If you line up 100 of the Area 51 Fuzzes, each one is going to sound like the one before. I compare each one to a reference pedal in final testing just to be absolutely sure there are no weak sisters.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I'm proud of the Wahs because they continue to get better. I'm really proud of the Fuzz too, in that it's a silicon transistor based fuzz that sounds really smooth and nice and has low noise. Also - I had some fun designing the look of that pedal. I was poking some fun at my lack of graphic design ability, by going for the look of the old "Generic" products that I grew up seeing in the 70s and early 80s. Remember going to the store and seeing those black and white cans of "BEER"???

The Wah is also our most popular product. I think because it performs as advertised, they hold up over the years, and I custom build each one to order with 6 options to choose from. I offer a left handed option too, so lefties don't have their cable crossing over in front of the wah.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

Basically, I just design what I like to use myself. I'm a guitar player first. If it doesn't flip my switch, it goes back on the bench or into the circular file. They're aimed at players of all levels who appreciate quality and great tone.

A few recent ones have been a custom wah for Steve Miller for his summer 2011 tour, and Mitch Mills from Sugarwall got a wah also for their new album and tour.

What does the future of Area 51 look like?

The business continues to grow and I'm happy to have the opportunity to serve guitar players (from bedroom pickers to major touring acts) worldwide.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes indeed. Although progress has been very slow going. Lately I've been working on some tube pedal designs, and I'm really exited about that. The power supply is common to all of them, so that's what I've been focused on so far. I did build up protos for a possible tube boost pedal, and a tube tremolo. I've got some others too, but I'm keeping those under my hat for the moment. Right now I'm doing some extended testing on the high voltage supply so I can make damn sure they're going to hold up under hard use.

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