[interview] Empress Effects: Steve Bragg

Here's FXDB's interview with Steve Bragg of Empress Effects:

How did Empress Effects start?

I got into hobby electronics in high school. I got together with a bunch of friends, of the coolest calibre obviously, and we started trying to build a robot. One that would rival Data from ST:TNG. Unfortunately, I don't think we ever got past the the power supply. But we did have fun blowing up capacitors. 

I also started building effects in high school too. They are easier than robots. My first pedal was a Tycobache Octavia.

In university I took electrical engineering and got into programming PICs. I actually started to get stuff to work. I thought it would be sweet to be able to control guitar effects with processors. So I started working on the Empress Tremolo.

There were lots of resources online for DIY electronics. Jack Orman runs a great site at muzique.com. There's another great site at geofex.com. Distributors like Mouser and Digikey were starting to make it easy to source parts.

Where do the name and logo come from?

I was at a wedding and preoccupied with coming up for a name. The company supplying the chairs for the ceremony was called Empress Rentals. I thought "Empress" sounded kinda classy.

So when you think of Empress, try to think of guitar effects and not folding chairs.

Not much of a story behind the logo. I wanted something that wouldn't be dated in a month, so I worked with a graphic designer to come up with text in a rectangle with smoothed corners. Genius!

What sets Empress Effects apart from other builders?

I think we're known for innovative products and great customer service. Our tremolo was one of the first pedals to enable digital control of an analog circuit. The reverse mode C in our Superdelay is now being copied in other effects. The control port on the Empress Phaser allows you to control the pedal with whatever you want. Hopefully the pedals that we put out in the next couple years continue to build on these innovations.

How do you start on a new pedal?

When deciding what pedal to build next, we usually look at two things. Is there a hole in the market, and can we fill that hole in an interesting way?

We start off breadboarding ideas and move onto prototypes. We tend to go through a lot of prototypes. With the phaser, we scraped 5 completely different designs before we were happy.

Some pedals come pretty quickly. I think the Multidrive was about half a year. Some pedals take much longer, the Superdelay and Phaser were both about 2 years. Putting a microprocessor in a pedal really adds to the time it takes to get a pedal to production.

How do you name your pedals?

I think I got the idea for boring pedal names from Zachary Vex at the DIY Stompboxes forum. Someone was asking for a crazy name for their new pedal, and I think he chimed in and said "How about you just go with something simple, like tremolo." I thought that was a pretty good idea. 

One day I hope to put out an effect with a really offensive name. It will put Metasonix to shame.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We have two builders (Mike and Cody) on staff which do final assembly and testing.

We have a local electronics manufacturer that builds the boards and assembles the components onto them. We also have local companies that drill, powdercoat, and screenprint our enclosures. We take the assembled PCBs, enclosures, and all the hardware and do final assembly. Then we test the pedals before they go out.

How important is the look of your pedals?

If by look you mean the user interface, I'd say very important. We're trying to pack a lot of features into a small package. Making the user interface work is a top priority.

How important is parts selection?

We're not really into the hype that surrounds NOS, carbon resistors, etc. Just sprinkling 1% resistors all over the place isn't going to magically make things sound better. Different specs matter at different points in a circuit. For some op amps, current noise is a huge deal, at other points not so much. At some points, it wouldn't matter if we used 20% resistors, at other points we have to use 1%.

Which pedal makes you most proud or was your toughest build?

Probably the Superdelay so far. For most of the two years of designing it, I didn't think it was going to happen. It was pretty draining. Kept me up many nights. Also at the time, the company wasn't financial stable, it was still in debt. So the Superdelay was kind of make or break.

I really wanted the sound quality to be top notch. By that time, Jay was working with me on it. Our first prototype of the Superdelay had a horrible signal-to-noise ratio. We went through 9 revisions of the board, each time making the signal-to-noise ratio a little better. I was really happy when we finally got it up to 105dB. It was something I honestly thought we wouldn't be able to do.

It's also our most popular pedal. Especially the Vintage Modified version. We get a lot of good feedback from customers about it. I think people love it because it has tons of features but is pretty easy to use.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

We're not really out to get big names to use our stuff. However, I do love it when a band I listen to calls us up. I got a call a couple years ago from Dave in Sam Roberts Band. His delay had broken and needed a replacement in the next couple hours. I made my way their trailer at Bluesfest (in Ottawa), and gave him a run down of the pedal. It's not a good pedal to try to learn in 5 minutes before you go on stage infront of 30,000 people. After the show Dave gave the pedal back to me, saying it wasn't really his thing. I was kind of sad. Then a couple months ago he called me up and bought a Superdelay. His friend had lent him one and he really got into it. That made me happy! 

We don't really make pedals for specific genres. Our Superdelay is used by a musicians playing everything from death metal to classical guitar. I guess when you really start getting into distortions and overdrives, that's when you start gearing stuff for specific genres. We've only started getting into that area with the Empress Multidrive.

What does the future of Empress Effects look like?

With the Superdelay, we pushed the dsPIC microprocessor to it's max. We're now working with a more powerful chip that will allow us to make pedals that go beyond what the Superdelay will be capable of. I'm pretty excited about that.

Are you working on any new products?

It's so top secret! We've been working with a new super powerful microprocessor that will allows us to do some crazy stuff. I think we'll be able to put out an effect using that technology sometime early next year.

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