[interview] Dr. Scientist: Ryan Clarke

Here's FXDB's interview with Ryan Clarke of Dr. Scientist:

How did Dr. Scientist start?

I got into building effects back in 2003 when I left the oilfields of British Columbia and went back to school, a tech school called NAIT in Edmonton. I originally thought I'd be interested in learning how to do home audio gear but as a long time guitar player I couldn't help but be most excited to make guitar effects.

I made a simple MOSFET booster (thank you Aron Nelson for his starter project and forum!) and a Big Muff in the fall of 2003 and from there I was hooked, I've lived and breathed guitar effects every day since then. I graduated in 2005, took a year to work on the 7 pedals that would be our initial line-up, and we officially started selling pedals in August of 2006.

I received lots of help from a couple instructors at school, thank you very much to Mr. MacMillan and Mr. Hope. I learned a lot about building from Aron Nelson's DIY forum, thanks very much to him and to Mr. Snowberg for his assistance with the RRR and to Mr. Keen for sharing his wealth of knowledge.

More recently I've been taught some really cool things by my pedal peers like Austin Lightfoot (Lightfoot Labs) and Steve Bragg (Empress Effects). Both have changed the way I make pedals and I deeply respect and thank them both, they've had a big impact on our little business.

I find a lot of my peers really inspiring. The digital work of Lightfoot Labs, Empress Effects, and WMD are really inspiring to me. The builders on the I Love Fuzz forum are very inspirational too, guys that think outside of all boxes plus are really great people that you'd be happy to have crash on your couch.

Dr. ScientistWhere do the name and logo come from?

The name was heavily influenced by my love of Adult Swim cartoons. I think we can thank Dr. Girlfriend from the Venture Bros, what a muse!

We have a cool moon-base fortress logo with the slogan, 'guitar pedals made in space'. They're not really made in space though, just Canada... more of a wide open space than an up there kind of space.

We don't really sweat the logo very much, it's only on our website, not our pedals or boxes or anything. I just like space, I'm gonna get up there some day and check out all the artifacts and pyramids.

What sets Dr. Scientist apart from other builders?

There's things about Dr. Scientist that I think are really important and make us special but they're things that are shared by who I consider to be the best builders in the biz...

Things like our scale, we're a husband and wife team that do everything important ourselves. These pedals are our lives and we put a lot of time and energy into every aspect of them, from the artwork on the outside to the pcb layout on the inside to most importantly, the sounds.

Our commitment to customer service is 24/7, I'm always available. My commitment to the circuits is 24/7 too, I constantly ponder improving them and my builds. Quality control/build standards is super important to me... nobody builds our pedals but me, nobody answers questions about them but me, nobody tests and ships them but me, and we back them all with a nearly unlimited lifetime warranty. Should something happen to one, nobody fixes it but me!

These things aren't unique to Dr. Scientist but they're what I'm proud of and work hard at.Dr. Scientist The Elements

How do you start on a new pedal?

It's a really slow process for me.. it takes me months and months to get a pedal into production as mainly I have to focus on all the other jobs at work, not design work. The last pedal we put into production was the Elements so I'll go through that process.

I had been wanting to have a powerful overdrive/distortion in our line for awhile and when we retired the vinyl finishes in early 2011 I began working on one. I knew I basically wanted to take the circuit from the Cleanness (boost, eq) and develop it into something more powerful with much more gain, so I already knew basically how the circuit was going to go.

I start with a breadboard and set up all my circuits on one, this stage is probably the most fun part of being a pedal builder, for me. Experimenting with the Elements on the breadboard lasted several months and through about 4 or 5 different prototype builds. During these months I experimented as frequently as I can with the breadboard and every month or so would hope to order a new prototype pcb. It always takes me several proto builds before I get the circuit and the layout and the build all sorted out just right.

By May-ish 2011 I had a very nearly ready circuit and pcb layout and I knew how the box was going to work. We ordered the first round of enclosures in the black alchemy finish and that process of sorting out the box drilling and the artwork and finally getting that first round of finished boxes takes about 2 months.

We started shipping Elements pedals in July 2011 with a small pcb revision in August and then the circuit has remained basically the same since then. So it took about 6 months from starting the bread board to being in production.

It's a little tougher to get the new Cosmichorus into production as the pcb layout and build are way more complicated and it all just takes longer to do. Also, the new Cosmi will have its PCB populated by a machine in Ontario rather than me and it takes us several months to be able to do a production run with them. So while the design process has been the same with the Cosmi as the Elements, the new Cosmi has taken much longer to get into production and is still a ways away.

Dr. Scientist Sunny Day DelayHow do you name your pedals?

All my pedal names are just things I think are cool sounding, there isn't too deep of a story behind any of them.

I guess the Elements is called that in reference to the elements of the universe, as in all the building blocks that everything is made of... the pedal lets you control all the 'elements' of a guitar tone, so that's what I'm driving at there.

With the Radical Red Reverberator, back in 2005 I wanted them all to be red with a laser grid finish. Radical and red and reverb.. I just though that would look and sound cool... but we didn't really do that. The pedal still gets called that but they're barely ever red.

Sunny Day Delay... warm sounding delay, warm sunny day, I don't know, that just works.

I don't know where the name Frazz Dazzler comes from... I was in college at the time. *shrug*

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Every Dr. Scientist pedal is built by me, tested by me, and packed up by me. I hope to be able to say that for years and years as I think that's important. I don't really like the idea of other people putting our pedals together so even though it limits our production, I prefer to make them all.

We do a mix of production styles, basically in a quest to do things in the best way for us and our pedals. It's really important to Tanya and I that Dr. Scientist stays a small company that we're completely involved with, so a lot of the changes we make to the pedals and the business are done to let us still do all the important things ourselves, where appropriate.

We do a mix of hand-wired and SMD assembly, depending on what's reasonable or appropriate. First off, I think it's a waste of any human's time to populate and solder a pcb, so I don't consider that an important aspect of builds, but for some builds it just makes sense for me to do here by hand while other builds have to be done by the machines. We have to be choosy since a run of manufactured pcbs is really expensive, we can't do every pedal like that.

The Frazz Dazzler and the Elements both have pcbs that are populated and soldered by hand. The Tremolessence, mini-RRR, and the new Cosmichorus will have pcbs that are SMD and assembled for us by a company in Ontario.Dr. Scientist Frazz Dazzler

We get all of our enclosures from 4Site Electronics in Oklahoma and they do the drilling too. I used to do it all here by hand but they do a way better/straighter job than me! We use the 125B and 1590B and 1590BB boxes for everything so far. They also powder coat and screen print them for us. This has been probably the biggest change with our pedals, since we were so well known for the vinyl finishes, but that's an unreasonable finishing style to do for very long or in very big numbers. The powder coated and screen printed boxes are so clean and perfect looking, we really love them. Plus we still change the looks of our finishes regularly which was our favourite aspect of the vinyl finishes.

How important is the look of your pedals?

It's super important, it really matters to us a lot and always has. The whole plan of the business and reason I thought I could even get to do this for a living was thanks to Tanya and her amazing vinyl finishes, they really made this all possible for us. When we launched the business in 2006 I think our unique finishes were a big part of our appeal at first.

When we realized that the vinyl finishes weren't a reasonable way for us to continue through the years, we still have kept up the importance of the finishes.

We change the look of all our pedals every 125 builds, that's the arrangement we have with our pedal finishers in Oklahoma. We do 125 and then we submit new art. It's expensive and time consuming but it's one of our favorite aspects of our builds. We consider any color and any look fair game, we love it all.

Dr. Scientist CosmichorusIs parts selection important?

I do pay special attention to all the things our pedals are made from and there's several criteria that I use to make my choices. I like name brand parts, no knock-offs for pots, switches, ICs, jacks. For resistors and capacitors I only use Panasonic, Yageo, and Kemet and that's based on performance, quality, cost, and size. Those are factors that are always part of sourcing components, they all go hand in hand and it's always a balance of all of them. Size and performance/quality are generally most important to me, size probably being first as my builds are always really tight-fitting.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I guess I'm the most proud of the new Cosmichorus just because it's such a complicated build. I've worked on the circuit for hundreds of hours over months and months and months, spent many full days working on the SMD prototype boards, and battled the circuit's eccentricities and compromises all over the countryside like Gandalf and that Balrog.

The Cosmichorus has been a big journey going all the way back to 2005 and this new version is basically the culmination of my analog abilities, it's the biggest and best thing I've made.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

My toughest build right now is the Tremolessence and it's purely because of the hand-rolled opto-couplers I make for it. To get the best performance I make my own optos using a certain light dependent resistor and a certain light emitting diode that I heat-shrink together. I have to measure each opto to make sure it's in the right resistance range but then I have to match a pair of them so the left and right audio channels are equal. A third opto is needed for the rate control and it has to be measured as well.

That whole process plus the rest of the build make it a bit of a haul to whip up Trems but I think it makes them sound and perform just right so it's worth it.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?Dr. Scientist Reverberator

The Reverberator is our most popular pedal, both in the big box form and the mini form, it's always been our best seller. I think it's because people love reverb and the Reverberator is small and easy and clean and it just sounds good and works well. It's not like a fuzz or chorus or something that can be really polarizing in regards to people liking it, it just sounds good and works well with pretty much every instrument and amp, easy breezy.

I also think it doesn't hurt that Reverberators always look different and cool, that definitely twists some arms.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I make pedals that are my favorite sounds and I won't make a pedal that isn't a sound effect that I really like using. I love distortion, reverb, tremolo, chorus, and delay. Those are my big faves and I make them sound the way I like the most. I don't worry about them making everybody happy and I don't worry about making gear that sounds like other gear. I have particular tastes for fuzz and distortion and chorus etc and I focus on making my pedals sound just how I want and hopefully others dig it too.

My latest effects are all about being simple and intuitive but powerful.. the Elements, the Tremolessence, and the new Cosmichorus are all straight forward and, in my opinion, easy to use, but can cover a lot of ground. I like that a lot and find those circuits to be the most fun and challenging to make.

We've worked with some notable artists over the years for sure but I don't really make that a part of our website or anything. We've met some cool guys and traded pedals for seats and backstage passes several times and it's really fun for us but I don't ever try to get celebrity endorsements or use them as hype-leverage.

Dr. Scientist TremolessenceI'd probably give a shout out in general to the working musicians of Nashville... these guys are some of the coolest, most humble and gracious guys we've met and they tour with some really big name acts.

We've also had the opportunity to work with a lot of really awesome Canadian musicians and bands and producers and we're really happy and proud to be a part of their work.

My favorite artists to work with are the guys that just love playing guitar, whether at home alone or in a stadium, hobbyist or pro, I just like working with people that are passionate about guitars and amps and pedals.

What does the future of Dr. Scientist look like?

Right now, April 2012, the goal is to finish the ultimate Cosmichorus. I've been working on it for probably almost a year now and I hope to have it ready in the next few months, summer 2012. I always say it'll be ready in a few months but it's very close now, one final prototype away from perfect. We're currently making 4 pedals and keeping up with store orders pretty well, so I'd like to keep on keeping on and finish the new Cosmi.

Basically since we launched in 2006 I've been tweaking and refining my original line of pedals to their ultimate forms. It takes me awhile since mostly I have to build and ship pedals and do emails so design and development time is rare for me. The Tremolessence was ultimate-ized, the Elements is basically an ultimate-ized Cleanness, the ultimate Cosmichorus will be ready soon and then I think I'll focus on ultimate-izing a delay pedal.

Also this summer I plan on making a little control voltage box with different waveforms and tap tempo that can be used to drive the new Cosmichorus, the Tremolessence, and whatever delay I end up making.

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