[interview] FEA Labs: Frank Appleton

Here's FXDB's interview with Frank Appleton of FEA Labs:

How did FEA Labs start?

Back in the 80’s I was in college finishing my degree in electronics while working a full time job as an electronic technician. During that time, I started repairing and modifying pedals and amplifiers for my guitar playing friends. It was a fun hobby and they paid me with beers…life was good!

Around the year 2000 I started playing bass guitar for several bands. I quickly found that I needed a compressor to save my speakers from my abusive playing technique. I tried several stomp box compressors, but none of them were exactly what I was looking for. It seemed that all of the compressors that I really liked were only in rack form. That is what led me to build my first Dual-Band Compressor pedal. When I was using that compressor my band mates were always complimenting my sound and I eventually thought that other bass players might like this compressor. So in 2007, I made a small batch of compressors and put them up for sale.

From 2007 to mid 2009 FEA Labs was a part time project with this one compressor pedal. In mid 2009 when the economy started killing businesses, the company that I worked for offered a buyout. I decided to take the buyout and take a chance with a pedal business. My brother Glen was intrigued with what I was planning to do and volunteered his software engineering experience for the FEA Labs website. He also keeps me somewhat organized and focused when things start to become overwhelming and helps out with customer service.

My father was a big influence for my interest in electronics. When I was young he started repairing TV’s for his friends and he built a couple stereo tube amplifiers from kits that were available in the 70’s. The stereo amplifiers that he built sounded amazing and I was always looking over his shoulders and pestering him with questions. When I was 11 years old he gave me a simple tube amplifier training kit to build. After he fixed my bad solder joints, I had a working 1 watt mono tube amplifier. We played some sine waves through it and looked at the input and output signals with his oscilloscope. Although I didn’t have much of a grasp of the electronics of that amplifier, I was hooked.

Throughout my 30 year professional career, I have been employed in various electronic technology and engineering fields for the aerospace, medical, imaging and industrial automation industries. Each of these areas of electronics has given me a vast array of knowledge and experience that spawned new ideas for me to apply to my audio electronics hobby. The best part of my career is that I had the privilege to work and be friends with some of the most brilliant scientists and PhD’s from all over the world that were developing emerging technologies.

I think it was in 2005 that I read a magazine interview with Robert Keeley about how he ventured into the pedal building business. Parts of that interview were some of the inspiration for me to try it for myself.

Where do the name and logo come from?

FEA are the initials of my name. Before I turned this into a business I would put my initials on every pedal I made for myself or for my friends. So, when I started this business I simply kept FEA as a brand name. The Labs was added because I am obsessed with research and analysis which compels me to turn projects into laboratory experiments.

FEA Labs does not have a logo, but I use a really cool font.

What sets FEA Labs apart from other builders?

I see that a lot of the other builders have fantastic marketing skills. That is one area where I fall short and really sets me apart from other builders. My ad copy and descriptions of the pedals lean more towards the technical side… you know, very dry and boring.

Another thing that sets FEA apart from many of the other builders is that I don’t clone pedals. There is a large demand for these clones and new builders are showing up weekly to fill that part of the market. Some of these builders are making very impressive improvements to their clones with new features and high quality circuits. But I like to make unique designs and that is the core of what FEA Labs is about.

How do you start on a new pedal?

New pedal ideas have come out of previous circuits that I have built, suggestions from musicians or just simply a need to expand upon the product line.

When a pedal concept has been determined, I will break it down to basic circuit building blocks. Then I build each circuit block in computer simulation software and optimize its performance. After I am satisfied with the computer simulations I design the prototype circuit boards and build the pedal. The use of computer simulations has greatly decreased the time required for prototyping circuits. But in my experience, it only gets me to 90-95% of what I am looking for. The final circuit tweaks are determined by hours of bench testing, signal analysis and listening to the pedal.

Lately, the time for a pedal idea to make it to production is between 6 months to a year and that’s only because most of my time is devoted to current pedal production.

How do you name your pedals?

Like I said before, my marketing skills are pretty weak and I think that creative naming falls in that category. So, most of the pedals have generic names.

My first pedal to actually get a name that isn’t generic was the Growler bass pedal. It actually got that name by a friend of mine. When I was jamming with him with the prototype he said “Wow! Listen to that growl… you should call it the Growler”.

The Opti-FET name came from the combination of the optical compression with a “class A” FET output. The combination of optical-FET was shortened to Opti-FET.

The only other FEA pedal with a kind of interesting name is the Photon Fuzz pedal. This one gets is named from the operation of a component in the circuit. It has an additional fuzz stage that uses a FET opto-isolator as an aggressive clipping component. The FET opto-isolator uses an internal light source for control. Since light is made of photon particles, the name Photon seemed to fit.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I design, build and test all pedals in-house. At this time I am the only builder, but Ryan is helping out with some of the PCB assembly. I have a local machine shop CNC mill the enclosures and a local powder coating shop paint the enclosures.

The circuits are double-sided PCB’s with TH parts and some SMT parts, hand soldered. The enclosures are Hammond 1590BB boxes professionally CNC machined and professionally powder coated with aluminum faceplates.

How important is the look of your pedals?

The other thing that matches my weak marketing skills is my artistic skills. So, all of the FEA pedals just have a basic functional look to them. But, I do try to make the pedals look attractive with the use of solid aluminum knobs and faceplates. I’m in the process of having custom knobs manufactured for a more stylish appearance.

Is parts selection important?

The pots that are used for the crossovers in the Dual-Band Compressor and Dual-Band Distortion are custom made. I do use specific high performance op-amps and transistors in a couple of the circuits, but that is only because that part of the circuit was designed to feature these parts.

Component manufacturers of today are making parts with quality and performance that are light years ahead of the parts of yesteryear. So in my opinion, the selection of resistors and capacitors becomes less critical from one manufacturer to the next as long as the part specifications match (values, tolerances, noise and temperature ratings).

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I would have to say that it is the Dual-Band Compressor/Limiter for two reasons.

The first reason is that it received a very good review by a site that specializes in compressor reviews (Ovni Labs). Being that this was my first commercial pedal I was very surprised and honored by the review.

The second reason is that a dbx engineer purchased one for his studio. This engineer builds his own audiophile grade equipment for his studio and he gave me very nice complements on my design. It is always a great feeling when you get positive feedback from customers. To have an audio engineer that has been involved with some of the most widely used signal processors in the industry complement your design, takes that great feeling up to another level.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

My toughest challenge was for the redesign of the Opti-FET compressor. The first version of this pedal used discrete FET transistors for a 100% “class A” signal path. A few of my customers were finding that this pedal became very noisy in some situations. After I was finally able to identify what the issue was, I had to redesign the circuit. Instead of making the necessary changes to the original circuit, I decided to use a new amplifier design that I had recently developed. This new amplifier was designed to be very transparent and quiet whereas the original Opti-FET audio path had a warmer tone. Because I wanted to keep the original tone of the Opti-FET, I was determined to reproduce it within this new amplifier design.

The challenge was to implement several character functions within this amplifier to reproduce the original tone. This new amplifier also has a much larger circuit footprint, which restricted me to try and keep its size down. I spent so much time adjusting the transfer functions of this amplifier that I actually gave it a name. In my all of my years designing circuits this is the only one to get a name. I call it the “3S amplifier”, yeah I know, it’s not an impressive name… but it represents the differential triple servo (3S) loops in this hybrid “class A” output amplifier. Was it worth all of the effort? Absolutely, I love the subtle warmth of this circuit and it has very low background noise.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Opti-FET compressor is our most popular pedal. I think why it is so popular is because it has features that are uncommon in most other pedal compressors. Another reason is that it has received good reviews from customers and from a compressor review site.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

Originally when this was a part time project my target customers were going to be bass players. Partly because I played bass, but mostly because just a couple of years ago there were only a few companies making bass specific pedals. Today, more and more companies are making pedals for the bass playing community, so that gap is filling in nicely. Now that this is a full time business, I’m focusing on building professional grade pedals that can serve both bass and guitar players equally well.

We do have a few stage and studio artist that are customers. But, I haven’t designed a pedal specifically for any particular artist.

What does the future of FEA Labs look like?

A few months ago we were caught off guard with a sudden surge of sales that wiped out most of the pedal inventory. So, my son Ryan recently started working with me assembling circuit boards to help catch up with demand. Glen has added links on the website for people to sign-up to receive a notification when a particular pedal is back in stock.

Plans for the future? Keep up with the orders without compromising quality and keep growing.

Are you working on any new products?

I am working on my fourth compressor pedal and a new overdrive/distortion pedal. I hope to release the compressor in the first quarter of 2012 and the overdrive/distortion in the second quarter of 2012.

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