[interview] Catalinbread: Nicholas Harris

Here's FXDB's interview with Nicholas Harris of Catalinbread:

How did Catalinbread start?

I got into building/designing pedals to sate my appetite for tones. I got started by taking courses, reading as many electronics books as I could get my hands on (in the process annoying the librarians at the public library to hunt for old edition books), setting to rote thousands of circuits, doing my own amplifier repairs and modifications eventually the first pedal I made was a clean boost, Super Chili Picoso. When dealers asked to sell them, I then had to play business man. Following that came the Teaser Stallion, Supercharged OD, and Semaphore. Currently, Catalinbread's chief designer is the talented Howard Gee. Howard brings to the table his unparalleled gifts as a guitar player and audio engineer and combines these with his analytical and technical mindset, not to mention his insatiable curiosity and desire to make pedals sound perfect.

Craig Anderton, RG Keen, Jack Orman and Mark Hammer were my early DIY inspirations. In short order I discovered the work of folks like Don Lancaster and Walter Jung. Not that I consider myself peers with them, but Z. Vex, Electro-Harmonix and Roger Mayer helped me realize that I could make these little boxes for a living. Brian Marshall of Subdecay is also a good friend of mine. Sometimes I run circuit ideas by him, he has also been a great help for me when I get myself into technical and parts procurement binds.

Where do the name and logo come from?

Salvador Dali's "Catalan Bread". Misspelled intensionally. :)

We've had a number of logos. Our current logo was designed by artist David Medel (known for his band t-shirt, poster and album covers for example Fu Manchu) to be crisp, clean, and sophisticated without being dated. Nothing worse than a logo that within a few short years looks as dated as a hairstyle in old photographs.

What sets Catalinbread apart from other builders?

Once I tallied up the crew's combined experience playing music. It comes to something mindboggling, over 130 years of combined experience! We have a wide range of musical history in our minds and as a result vast repertoire of tones to pool from.

Ethically, we strive toward WIN/WIN within our company as well as with our vendors and retail partners. Internally, we try to develop and reward our individual talents, I don't want human robots who only builds pedals. For example, Sharlet's hand painted work, she keeps 100% of the difference between the cost of these over the standard pedals.

We're a motley bunch of creative individuals, Howard refers to us as the "Haus of Catalinbread". Sometimes this leads to tension, but overall it results in achieving incredible things and most certainly a steady stream of new pedals. I am convinced that Catalinbread has the most talented staff in the business. I consider myself honored to have the chance to work with them!

I really enjoy doing business as locally as possible. There are very few things as rewarding than to know we can run a business in this day and age that doesn't rely on offshoring production, yet produce fast enough to keep retailers happy. This is a bit of a niche but the customers who value this, very much appreciate our efforts.

As far as sound and feel... We won't compromise. We will spend months choosing not only the correct value of components, but also the perfect TYPE for the sounds and feel we wish to achieve. If we can't obtain the parts, we won't ship. This makes a huge difference to us and most definitely to discerning players.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Howard and I have a white board of ideas written down. Right now there are 40 ideas up there. So we choose from that list based on our own personal interest in the undertaking. We also choose based off of how much overlap there may be with our current line and how much time it will take to develop it. Sometimes a whim will hit us and we develop something not on the white board.

Howard and I have a giant catalog of circuit building blocks, techniques and component attributes that we reference while sketching the first drafts. This catalog has come from our endless experimentation over the years, happy accidents and mistakes in the lab. We try them out, if certain things don't work well we try a different approach. The entire time we are working on a new circuit, we are playing through it. This helps us know which changes bring us closer to the goal or further from it.

The above mentioned catalog helps us reduce our development time. But it always depends on the complexity of the circuit and requirements we have of a design. The more complex the longer it takes. So the range is from 2 months to 12 months.

How do you name your pedals?

Names come to us after the project gets legs and "tells" us more about its character. Sometimes names come from documentaries or books we have been reading on subjects we are interested in. Sometimes they come from being silly and blurting out words. A lot of times the names have multiple meanings. Sometimes the names come from songs.

Our boosts are all named after peppers. Our modulation pedals seem to be named after visual communication techniques or visual anomalies. Synesthesia much?

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Keeping with our desire to do business as locally as possible, our raw unpopulated PCB's are manufactured in Colorado. Our silk screen and powdercoating work is provided to us by two Portland based companies. We build all of our pedals and sub-assemblies in-house. Including myself, there are 9 people working here currently, though not our primary roles we all pitch in to build when necessary.

Circuit boards are populated by hand at our shop in Portland, OR. We use a mixture of thruhole and SMD. Careful consideration goes into component choices. Sometimes these supplies are short, for example the Japan earthquake has limited our capacitor supplies. Without these parts we will not ship and won't make an exception.

Enclosures are cast aluminum. These are powder coated and silk screened by two separate companies based in Portland OR.

I LOVE doing business locally as much as possible.

How important is the look of your pedals?

VERY! We've been making a shift to two color silk screen and machined aluminum knobs because we wanted to go from a busier colorful appearance that we trailblazed with the Semaphore to a crisp, clean more refined look. As our company matures and our staff grows we will make every attempt to have the look of the pedals reflect us.

How important is parts selection?

Yes we do! It is not uncommon for us to spend weeks deciding between a ceramic capacitor and a polystyrene of the same value in one position. We hear a difference where many folks refuse to believe it. But if they were in the lab with us, participated in a double-blind, they'd hear/feel it too.

We work with NOS parts sometimes... Only if we can find a supply big enough to fulfill a run. All brands and types have their place for us. Lelon to Sozo to russian PIO to Nichicon to Panasonic. To us all parts matter in every position. We take careful consideration to the choice for every position without bias to brand, only to characteristic. Same thing applies to resistors and semiconductors.

At the end of the day folks playing Catalinbread pedals experience this, even when they are unaware of the minutiae that goes into the pedal!

Which of your products was your toughest build and which one is the most popular?

We made a custom shop DLS and germanium treble booster called the "Usual Suspects". It was expensive to build due to component types. It was extraordinarily time consuming to build, due to construction method. I am so happy we only made something like 9 of them!

The Semaphore tremolo is popular. It sounds great, has a useful easy to use feature set and is at an affordable pricepoint.

Our "ampbox" (DLS, FN5, WIIO, SFT) pedals are equally popular. I think this is because they sound & feel great to play, and don't cost as much as a down payment on the real amp.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

We make pedals to satisfy ourselves first. If we aren't happy with what we make, we can't make anybody else happy. I don't think we are genre specific. Our pedals are used by artists ranging from Mark Karan, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Sonic Youth, Nels Cline, Radiohead, J Mascis, Henry Kaiser, Built To Spill, and Dead Meadow to name a few. Our pedals are on stages ranging from Americana altcountry, blues, jam bands, experimental, stoner rock, jazz and country.

I've already name dropped too much! I keep specific communication between us and artists private. I will say it is really a neato experience to meet well known artists... Of course we're thrilled, honored and nervous to meet them... But what is shocking is being backstage with other fans who wanna mob the artist, for the artist to drop everything to give us a hug and a handshake! These artists seem to reciprocate our feelings, of course we make fun toys for them to make music with!

What does the future of Catalinbread look like?

Naga Viper will be out in the next month or so. It comes from no longer wanting to use other makers treble boosters in our rigs and in R&D stacking tests. Howard did a killer job on it and I am excited to get it out there.

More pedals will make the shift to silk screened graphics. A new tap tempo Semaphore will hit the market... Howard has a number of circuits in the works. We've been working on a vibe pedal for the past year, a couple of months ago J. Mascis asked me to get this one out there! It won't be ready to ship until it is REMARKABLE!

I've been working a lot with tubes, maybe something will come of this aside from the tube echo object that I already built for myself. Hedonic Treadmill? A few months ago I had a dream that Bootsy Collins and his tech asked me to make a wah/filter object that juxtaposes formants (sounded cool in my dream). In addition to this there are others I cannot mention. :)

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