[interview] Fret-Ware: Don Ault

Here's FXDB's interview with Don Ault of Fret-Ware:

How did Fret-Ware start?

I made my first treble booster aged 13 after starting a night school course to learn about electronics. It was housed in a cassette tape case & played through an Elizabethan stereo reel to reel tape machine which I later modified to give sound on sound. I must have made a dreadful noise with my Antoria semi-acoustic feeding back & squealing & distorting but it seemed good to me at the time.

Where do the name and logo come from?

Goods to do with frets or wearing out frets - very loosely implies things to do with guitars which are played a lot. Couldn't think of a trendy money making brand name.

Fret-Ware pedals were sometimes supplied boxed with the original Don Audio logo on the packing only but no logo was ever used on the pedals themselves. The Don Audio logo is an original cartoon type drawing of a long haired rock star playing a bass guitar (loosely based on Lemmy I believe) where his guitar neck is bent, one ear is bleeding, one boot has been blown off and a can of beer has fallen from the top of a slave amplifier (not a bass amp) which is jumping about on a big PA speaker bass bin....

The logo was drawn for me by a good but sadly deceased friend called Paul Hadwen, who had some of his work published in the comic magazine 2000 AD & also did some artwork for the Motorheadbangers fanzine which he and Helen Taylor published for Motorhead.

What sets Fret-Ware apart from other builders?

Rarity, I have never mass produced & wouldn't want to - I prefer that they suit me and the few people who are prepared to try out a for want of a better expression home - made pedal.

It's not the artwork,  they were once described (I think it was in an interview with Republica in the N.M.E.) as 'shoe boxes'. Some buyers have actually requested no artwork at all on their pedals not even control labeling (including Noel Gallagher and John Squire).

How do you start on a new pedal?

Usually I get some wild inspiration whilst doing something private or by staring at waveforms on my oscilloscope and wondering what if...

The Sound City Fuzz (originally the Dirty Digits) fuzz pedal took 9 months of manic circuit building and testing and coupling together various fuzz circuits to get it how I wanted it to be. Some of my pedals have been in my head for over 15 years and I haven't yet got around to making prototypes of them.

Once a prototype has been made I usually know fairly soon after that whether or not it's worth going any further with it some just won't ever work properly as I had envisaged. If it looks promising, then it's just a matter of sticking at the development until it works the way I want it to.

9 times out of 10 the time and effort involved is never repaid by the production sales which is why I never got serious about making any large quantities.

How do you name your pedals?

I have a dual tone boost pedal (a fixed treble & bass boost with only one control for balance between normal and EQ'd), I never properly labelled it as a Fret-ware pedal (didn't get any screen printed Fascias made for them) but I have made a few for friends and called it the Treble & Bass enhancer and just stuck on a basic plastic covered printed paper label.

One friend insisted that I rename it the 'Expensiviser' because it made every single guitar in his recording studio sound at least a few hundred pounds more expensive. But my label design might have legal/copyright problems as the only design I've done which looks right has sterling currency on it.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Entirely hand made by myself (for a short while a few were built by my son too).

The Fret-Ware pedals were initially started when I had my own business, because as an electronics engineer working as the group gear repair man for a large chain of retail music shops I experienced so many common faults in effects pedals (parts falling off the circuit boards, controls which stopped the effects from operating when put at certain control settings, etc.), that I wanted to make some which were hopefully going to be more robust and reliable.

All units are hand-wired, all the enclosures are bought in unpainted die-cast boxes and most had screen back-printed clear Lexan fascias (so the print never wears out like the screen printing on painted boxes does) and all production models have the electronics designed to fit into a small potting box which after initial testing is carried out.

The result overall is that in our 'test one of each model to destruction by playing football with it for as long as it takes to smash any the pots off and perhaps break the footswitch and the power supply socket', myself & a few friends never managed to damage one the electonics modules and we never managed to stop one from working - except for the odd broken footswitch, input or output socket. In all the time I've made them, I've never had a single pedal back for repair! Which is a testament mainly to how well the resin potting protects the electronic components.

How important is the look of your pedals?

To me it's absolutely irrelevant it's how the thing sounds and how reliable and easy to use it is on stage or in the studio that ought to matter above all else.

To be able to sell them to the wider public though, appearance, expensive packaging and hyped up big money product advertising seem to be far more important than if it works well or not.

Is parts selection important?

The only stipulations I have are:

  • If it needs a 5 volt supply it will not sound right, so don't make it.
  • If it has a built in high frequency clock it will not sound right, so don't make it.
  • If it can't operate for more than a few hours on a good alkaline PP3 battery, don't make it.

Essentially, just say no to digital.

I do not favour surface mount components. I use electronic components which are more than adequate for the job - proper old fashioned 1/4 watt resistors when microscopic ones would actually work. I choose transistors fairly carefully for audio path and I am especially careful and selective with germanium transistors, ironically the oldest type but I have not yet released a Fret-Ware Vintage Fuzz (though I have several hundred selected and tested NOS transistors just waiting to be put to work).

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The Vintage Tremolo because it's such a simple and old fashioned effect but as Brendan Crocker said "it does exactly what it says on the box" and it is nowadays a very much under-rated effect. There was a time when just about every amplifier sold had as many controls for the tremolo effect with speed and depth as they had for the basics - volume & tone! And some of those little 1950s & 60s valve amps sound so good that I collect them whenever I find one that I don't already have and that I can afford to buy.

The Machine Gun Repeat because I designed it to have a momentary footswitch and to give the effect only for the briefest of bursts to perhaps end a song with but then John Squire got one with a latching on/off switch and used the effect a lot. Again it's a fairly simple effect in theory - very similar to a tremolo on steroids but it has a different timing regime & gives some very strange effects when connected after a very high gain fuzz pedal.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The one I haven't started on yet because I still do not know exactly how I can do what I want it to do without going digital, which is a dark and soul-less path that I will never venture onto!

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

Let's face facts, I have sold less than 50 of each model other than the tremolo since I started the Fret-Ware brand years ago, so it's fairly irrelevant as to which sold most as all the numbers are so low. But in terms of actual sales, then the Tremolo was tops, as I'm out of stock of the labels and I bought 100 of them so there are a few more than 100 knocking around.

If the order which I got from a Japanese wholesaler many years ago had not been cancelled at the last moment due to his business collapsing (blame the USA banks for calling in loans to Japan), then the fuzz pedal would definitely have overtaken the tremolo.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

Our pedals have been bought by or bought as gifts for and used by: Clive Langer of West Side Recording Studios, Will Sergeant, Republica, Chris 'Snake' Davis, John Squire, Barry 'Snail's-pace Slim' Martin, Frankie Felix, Miles 'Grommit' Gilderdale, Noel Gallagher, Steve Hacket, Brendan Croker, Charlie Speed and several others. Brendan Croker also bought pedals for Mark Knopfler, Roland Van Campenhout, Paul Kennerley and 5 or 6 more of his friends.

So no particular market has been targeted for these pedals, as despite being initially intended for electric guitar use, they have found use with classical guitar, bass, double bass, cello, keyboards and saxophone too!

All my pedals were originally made because I wanted one.

The tremolo pedal was a circuit design I'd had for years and one day decided to make as a Fret-Ware pedal. At the time, there was a huge gap in the market - the tremolo effect had been forgotten for years with all the manufacturers concentrating on fancy effects like flange and chorus. It became popular with one or two of my regular shop customers and a small number were sold to the trade too. All of a sudden, within a month or two of my pedal receiving a very nice review by Robbie Gladwell in Guitarist magazine, tremolo effects were appearing everywhere: Guyatone had one, Dunlop released more than one version. Tremolo was back.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes but they are not for general release. I am contracted to build a load of effects for two customers, both to go into permanent studio use, effects ranging from very controllable and multi-variation Germanium fuzz pedals to more complicated valve vocal pre-amplifiers and valve compressors.

All of which are far too expensive and massively time consuming to make to warrant trying to do them as a retail venture. I do these more for the pleasure I gain from the work than as a source of income.

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