[interview] Farndurk: Brian Cale

Here's FXDB's interview with Brian Cale of Farndurk.

Farndurk Custom Modular is run by Brian Cale, assisted by his wife Missi. They are located in Yuma, Arizona (USA) in what is known as the Great Sonoran Desert.

How did Farndurk start?

It actually started due to a very frustrating transaction with a crooked vendor regarding a hand made phase shifter. In my frustration, I began looking over the unit carefully, and decided that I could teach myself to construct something like it, that way I wouldn't have to deal with folks like him any longer. After some sniffing around on the internet I discovered a number of effects kit manufacturers. We selected one, and purchased a simple booster kit, and it was so easy for me to learn the basics and construct it that I was encouraged by my success, and we ordered another one which I heavily modified.

Inspired by what seemed to be the idea that I had a "knack" for electronics, we decided to try a few more kits, which again I heavily modified into creating nice successful builds. I've been a fabricator and metalworker most of my life, so I combined those skills and experiences with my self taught computer skills and my newfound ability for electronic circuit design. The combination proved to be noteworthy and fruitful, so we went out on a limb and spent our entire savings on a dozen pedal kits and a bunch of parts.

With those kits and parts I began to design very unique looking enclosures, as well as increased my understanding of audio electronics. After exhausting those twelve kits, using them to further refine some of my ideas, we sold them on Ebay with relative ease. The basic form and aesthetics of those pedals was beginning to form an ethos, it was obvious to me that a brand was emerging from these efforts. We spent the money we made from those ebay sales on purchasing our first lot of components to construct uniquely designed guitar pedals. Soon the form and aesthetics were solidified, and the construction methods were beginning to take solid shape as well.

I then began to ween myself from kit pcbs and started to design my own highly unique audio processing circuits using a CAD program that I taught myself to use. Things were beginning to really take shape at that point, and in 2008 we were building and selling guitar pedals in earnest. A parallel situation at the time was I had injured my spine at some point along the way in the early 2000s causing an inoperable spinal injury that heavily affected my professional life. We had owned and operated an industrial equipment warranty and repair business since 1994 and it was becoming clear that I was unable to continue working in that field. I knew I would have to figure out some other method of creating means to feed my family and pay my mounting medical bills. Missi and I are not the type of people that wish to sit back and allow our Government to support us, especially when we can still figure out a way to feed ourselves. The idea of using Farndurk as our means started to take shape. It was actually a terrifying notion, with theeconomy having just tipped upside down nearly everything was an uncertainty. But I had to do something, because the repair shop gig was not working out with my increasing physical limitations.

As Farndurk began to grow even further, we converted our driveway into a fully enclosed electronics and metalworking shop. We enclosed our driveway creating a very capable workspace, doing all of the construction ourselves. I took it upon myself to learn how to design and construct a website, and in August of 2008 Farndurk was officially on-line. It had solidified as a brand.

By 2009 two paths crossed. In spite of a crappy economy Farndurk had become very solid, and at the same time my spinal injury was making my duties at our brick and mortar repair shop impossible to perform. The message was becoming clear, very clear. Missi and I talked it over a number of times, and finally decided to have confidence in our ability to adapt. We decided to make some very big changes in our lives. We elected to take the leap and sell our industrial equipment repair business and make Farndurk our sole form of income. I was able to build audio processing gear at a shop we built at our home, I could work when my physical limits allowed it, and the work was of such a nature that I was able to do it, unlike the type of work the repair shop demanded of me. So we sold our repair business to a long time employee, and put 100% of our time and efforts into Farndurk and its development. We had to make a lot of hard core sacrifices, as well as accept a lifestyle that was a lesser thing than we were used to. We used the money made from selling our repair business to help carry us until Farndurk grew to the point it could stand on its own, and we also invested heavily into component inventory. After a time and a lot of very hard work, Farndurk was at last a full fledged here-to-stay custom audio processing module builder.

My most important inspiration came from the owner of General Guitar Gadgets, J.D. Sleep. We had purchased most of those first several kits from him, and over time he and I developed a nice friendly relationship. During a few telephone conversations he advised me of certain aspects of the pedal building industry, giving me certain insights that I would never have learned otherwise. I like to say that J.D. "taught me to fish". That notion borrows from the old adage of "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime". J.D. taught me to fish.

FarndurkWhere do the name and logo come from?

When I was about 12 (1972) I had a small transistor radio that was made somewhere in the Netherlands, it was called something like "Faerndirk". It was no larger than a pack of cigarettes. They were sold in a promotional effort by the then well known convenience stores known as "7-11" on the same promo rack as Deep Purple's album "Machine Head". I saved two weeks of lunch money to pay the $5.95 for that little radio at a local 7-11 store. They came in several colors, I selected black. Of course being a smart-ass kid that hung around with other dirtbike racers, that radio's name was the subject of a lot of fun and goofing around by us. I just ended up pronouncing it "farnderk" It had the word "Transistorized" proudly emblazoned in chrome across it's black face just above it's chromed perforated speaker grille.

For the next few years the music of the age was constantly streaming through that little radio, I took it everywhere with me (to school, riding my bicycle, in my bedroom, hanging out with my friends). Most times during cooler weather it rode around stuffed in the brim of my ever present beanie, it's telescopic antenna sticking up above my head making me the brunt of a lot teenaged goofery, "You look like a Martian! Antenna head! Man, you're from outer space!". One of my high school teachers once commented to me "You're gonna transistorize your brain with that thing so close to your head like that. Don't you ever turn that thing off?". Late at night I'd tune it in to the local FM album rock station in the city we lived in (Tucson Arizona) called KWFM. I listened to the likes of Robin Trower, Tommy Bolin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Kansas, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and so on.

30 years later, when I created my custom audio module company I could think of a no more appropriate name for it than of course ... Farndurk.

Yea, we have a logo alright, we call him "Farny". When I began to design my first pc boards I created a small face on the boards using a few glyphs from the CAD software I use to design my board layouts with. I adorn each circuit board with that little rocker's face, which is actually made from solder traces (not simply silk screened on the pcb's surface). He's a sortof angry little fellow with a crooked little smirk and a bad attitude. We named that little face "Farny". We now use Farny as our logo, the main logo being Farny shooting across a desert pcb landscape, lightning bolts of electricity streaming from his spherical head as he flies across the scene at the speed of sound.

What sets Farndurk apart from other builders?

  1. Our Company. We are always reaching for that better product. We try to treat our customers the same way we would want to be treated ourselves.

  2. Products. Nearly everything we make is unique due to our unique design ethos. Our "green" attitude, our willingness to provide what the customer wants rather than making them conform to what we make. We also use nothing but absolute top notch componentry.

  3. CLIENTS: The typical Farndurk customer is discrete, knows precisely what they want, and wants nothing but the best honest tone possible.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Usually designing a new circuit takes me a solid month. From the time that the idea lands in my mind, until I am holding PCBs ready to populate takes a full month. I do what I can to create the most efficient pathways possible and keep crosstalk and interference to absolute minimums.

However, to create a new module design can take anywhere from ten minutes to three years. I worked on my new bass guitar compressor (the BGC) for over three years. On the other hand the X modal overdrive came into my mind one morning as my head began to clear when I woke up.

Farndurk JoeHow do you name your pedals?

The JOE series boostercomps were named after my late father Joe. The reason being is that the original JOE was made to be very inexpensive, and my dad was .. shall we say .. "thrifty" (my mom just called him "cheap") .. haahaa!

It was designed around simple ideas, and came in our polished finish "because real aircraft were made from polished aluminum" (as my dad would have said). The JOE module's circuit is also named JOE, and on the PCB it says in solder trace "under the endless sky" in tribute to my dad.

Most of my other module names are miltary-esque .. such as X2 and X5 or MEGA9 and so on. Obviously following our paramilitary ethos. I also have a penchant for creating "en" names, such as Valven, Boosten, Octen, and Fuzzen. I haven't a clue where that comes from or why I like that so much! :)

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We build everything ourselves. I do 100% of the construction, my wife Missi pulls all of the components and hand tests each resistor, capacitor, and semiconductor individually. On certain models we actually select only certain parts that meet our own written specs, and the values are written down and recorded in the customer's work order and record of sale. We keep ridiculously detailed records.

CIRCUITS: Everything is hand done, one at a time. I spend hours wiring our modules to my own specifications. I attempt to keep crosstalk and interference to absolute minimums by paying very close attention to lead dressing (which is only one part of the attention paid to that end). All of our circuits are through-hole PCboards and we populate them all ourselves. We use a bare board however the circuit traces are solder plated so the all copper traces are not exposed to the atmosphere like other bare boards are. This prevents the traces from corroding over the decades. We also use nothing but MilSpec pre-tinned 24 gauge wire, and many of the components we use are from military surplus auctions that I am invited to. We even make our own stainless steel flat washers and inside star lockwashers from sheets of MilSpec surplus stainless steel. No kidding.

ENCLOSURES: We buy standard size cast aluminum enclosures, typically using just three sizes. We go to great lengths to produce the finish that our modules are known for, requiring hours of actually milling the control plates by hand until they are as flat and straight as possible without using any machinery at all. The lettering process I use is based on using individual metalstamps and a hammer, doing one character at time. I use 60+ year old metalstamps left to me by my late father (Joe). He used them when he worked in the aircraft engine repair shop for Lockheed in the 1950s and 1960s (he retired from Lockheed in the 1990s after decades of loyal service). The holes for all of the control plate components (such as pots and switches) are hand drilled and are held to a .5mm tolerance (that's one half of one millimeter). I take great pride in building my designs.

FINISHES: We do not paint any of our modules. We offer two "green" finishes (one being polished the other being a very natural cast finish). Since I hand stamp each character into the enclosure we do not use any stickers, decals, silk screening, or paints to letter our enclosures. That is something I worked hard at coming up with. I didn't want to have to use a printer or inks/paints to produce our module's graphics. Printer's use power and resources to construct them, as well as produce fumes and use electricity when using them. All in all they are pretty "un-green" (or as I like to put it, they are quite "brown"). So I came up with the hand stamped lettering process which is 100% forever permanent, and very green to produce since it is all done by hand involving no machines of any type. We do offer an epoxy fill of the letters to produce a contrast to the hand polished surface, but that process requires very little of the special epoxy fill, and still requires no machines to apply it. And it is optional as well.

We also offer powdercoated finish in two flat colors that I designed and formulated myself. Even though we have a local powdercoating shop apply it, we stock our own powders and keep them on hand for the powdershop to use. This assures a constant appearance and we know precisely what is going on our modules.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Immensly. I feel that paying highly focused attention to the outward look of our modules reflects the highly focused attention paid to the inside of our modules. We get more comments and compliments about how "different" and "cool" our pedals look. Many times the comments address the over-engineered look of them. I've gone to great lengths to make Farndurk modules look like nothing else availalble. I wanted them to resemble nuclear missile silo launch control panels, and classic modular synthesizers. Where the individual module panels were removeable, and the mounting screws were visible. I wanted a super functional look while still giving them a unique elegance, both inside and out.

Farndurk Model 9Is parts selection important?

We go way out of our way to locate and purchase the best parts we can find. We use unusual sources as well.

Our footswitches have gold plated solder terminals as well as gold plated switch contacts (and we post internal pictures of our footswitches to prove it!).

IC sockets with gold plated pin contacts ... nothing but Switchcraft jacks ... capacitors that have two thousand hour load life ratings with 105c operating temp tolerances (which calculates out to thirty THOUSAND-plus hours of load life time) ... Mountain mini toggle switches rated at sixty thousand full load cycles ... and large toggle switches with full-on MilSpec ratings purchased surplus from the military that are used in severe weather radar gear.

As well as nothing but metal film resistors with one percent tolerance ratings. IC chips by Burr Brown out of Tucson Arizona, and Texas Instruments, as well as Harris and Intersil. LEDs, Jfets, and Transistors by Fairchild and Motorola.

As I mentioned previously, we go through very precise testing and selection processes to pick out only components that meet our written specifications. While a part may be rated at a given spec, we may need a capacitor that is actually at the upper end of the spec to suit our needs. So if a capacitor is rated at 4.7uf, certain circuits of ours require 4.9uf, so we select only those caps that meet that exact spec for a given circuit (as a for instance).

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

Pfft .. all of them. I'm most proud of Farndurk as a whole. The way I designed the basic foundation of the modules has lent itself to the production processes, the modification and ability to customize, the format of the way they look, the "upside down" enclosure design, the Cold War look and feel. Heck, even the website (which I really work hard at making into something super informative that is simply loaded with hundreds and hundreds of great pictures, which I photograph myself).

If I had to pick one model, I think it would have to be the MODEL9. If I had to pick one circuit it would defintely be the JOE boostercomp. It is a compressor that sounds like no other. I have lost count of how many of our customers simply rave about our compressors' sound.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

A couple of them come to mind. One named the M900X which was a custom made for someone that used two distortion circuits. The wiring was so complex that it looked like an aerial photo of a freeway interchange.

Another custom unit named the RAVENXX which was another wiring nightmare. There are a LOT of lettering characters on that one. My spinal injury can only deal with so many characters of metalstamping per day before it gets inflamed and intolerable. I think I was bed ridden for two days after that one! Haahaa! :)

Most of the way-out-there customs are difficult to build. I have no pre-exisiting wiring layouts to use to guide the build so everything must be done on the fly. With my wiring methods being as neat and organized as they are it is very difficult to sort out the most efficient wiring layout and lead dressing on the very first swing, and on custom/one-offs you only get one swing at it. So many customs have become production units, that anymore when I build another custom unit I take the time to completely draw out the circuit, layer by layer, until it is done. That way when I decide to make it a production unit the wiring layout has been at least started. So customs typically take me 4x to 5x longer than modules we have on our production lists. It isn't unusual for me to spend three to five days to build a unique custom module.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

It's a pretty even tie between the MODEL9, the JOE, and the CARMA2. The Model9 for it's unique look and its tone, the JOE for its tone, and the CARMA2 for its tone, ease of use, and unique and fun look.

People really like our unique paramilitary look and feel. We use aircraft switch safety covers (what we call "Nuke Switches") on a number of our designs, as well as our hand machined knobs and stainless steel hardware. All of that fits in well with the powdercoating colors we use (one of which is named "MilSpec" that is a olive-drab green color). When you combine the cool look with the killer nearly noise free sound, people just like the whole package. (I say "nearly noise free" because there is no such thing as a "noiseless" circuit. Our compressors are one of .. if not the .. most quiet and clean compressors on the market. They easily compete with studio quality rack mount units that cost every bit of 5 to 10 times more.)

Farndurk ValvenWho uses your pedals and for which genres?

I try to stay away from designs that are already very well done by other makers. I mean, there are some EXCELLENT digital and analog delays out there, why should I build one myself? Just so I can say "Hey! Me too!" .. ?

Most of my designs address what I call "foundation tone". That is to say tone that is the basis and foundation of the guitar player's basic sound. I try to make what they have, better. If a guitar sounds it's best, responds it's best, and plays it's best, everything after that can only be that much better. I strive to design very transparent sounding circuits that preserve the genuine sound of the guitar (bass, vintage Hammond, and so on).

That said there really isn't a genre that cannot benefit from that.

We have a number of notable artists using our gear. But out of respect for their hard-created personal tones we elect to not play the "name game" and exploit their names simply to sell products. Some artists have even asked us to not mention their names so that they may keep their sound private and discrete.

What does the future of Farndurk look like?

We plan on being around for at least another twenty years, we've even made efforts to increase certain inventory items with twenty year production projections in mind. Since we offer a lifetime warranty on all of our gear we are also preparing to have parts on hand for a very long time. We really love what we do and intend on doing it until we simply cannot do it any longer.

Are you working on any new products?

We're constantly designing new circuits and new modules, improving on current offerings simply to provide our customers with the very best that we are able to make and create for them. We have expanded into producing modules for bass players, vintage Hammond organ players, and even synthesizer players. We try to build things that cannot be obtained anywhere else, and we will always follow that lead.

Ahead of us lies the melding of digital control with analog signal processing, developing fully analog sound with MIDI preset and control capability. We're already pretty far along with those ideas. We're also moving into rack mounted gear as well, we've already received evaluation rack units from the manufacturer we've selected for us to approve before they produce more for us, as they have been built to my design specs.

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