[interview] Fromel Electronics: John Fromel

Here's FXDB's interview with John Fromel of Fromel Electronics:

How did Fromel Electronics start?

A few years ago when the economy started to tank I couldn't afford to pay someone to fix my gear so I had to figure it out for myself. My electronics background is self taught and not leaving well enough alone I started to figure out how to not only fix my gear but make it sound better. Others heard my modded amps and effects and starting bringing their gear to me for some 'fixing'. I have always had a massive pedal board and I wanted more pedals so I started making them. The first pedal I made was a Green Ringer clone which became the Emerald Ring (now discontinued). My second pedal was a clone of the Boss DC-2 which is now called Seraph.

When I started I hung out on quite a few forums; DIY Stompboxes, freestompboxes.org, The Gear Page, etc. JD Sleep and Aaron Nelson have great resources as well. Once I got the basics down I started going through the electrical engineering lectures online from MIT. I had Jack Deville design a bypass system for me and collaborated on projects with BJFE, 3 Leaf Audio and NOC3.

Where do the name and logo come from?

The name is pretty self explanatory I think.

My signature has sort of become my logo.

What sets Fromel Electronics apart from other builders?

  1. I am committed to keeping all manufacturing in the USA, it seems that many builders as they grow take their operations overseas.
  2. For the most part the circuits are not all that complicated, my pedals sound good because I use top shelf components, I never compromise on the quality of components. Still sometimes things break but I have never charged for a repair even if the pedal was bought used or the damage was clearly caused by the user. My pedals have a very distinct look, the acid etching process has some randomness to it and every pedal I make is unique. The early pedals were all hand drawn and now I use a image transfer process that adds a little consistency.

How do you start on a new pedal?

I usually start by designing something I need myself. For example I couldn't find a compressor pedal that I liked, I tried just about every comp out there. When doing research I study circuits that do what I want then make it as absolutely simple as possible. In the case of the compressor I used the old DOD optical comp as a starting point, what I ended up with is the Velvet Vice. There are many circuits out there with great design and poor implementation.

How long it takes depends on the circuit.

How do you name your pedals?

The Seraph has a Kanji poem that says "Finding oneself between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" The Seraph had a different name and I was getting harassed by another manufacturer to change the name because they thought the name was too similar to theirs. I didn't want to change the name but I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place.

Go! and Great Day for Up! are inspired by Dr. Seuss. The first lick I played on the Go! was "Go!" from Tones on Tail and the controls are Thing 1 and Thing 2 (Cat in the Hat) and Great Day for Up! is one of my sons favorite books.

DIG (formerly Death is Gain) is a biblical reference from the Apostle Paul. It's a medium gain overdrive so the name didn't really fit the pedal so I went to the acronym for the pedal instead. It's one of my favorite pedals and perhaps the most under rated in my line.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Mostly, the PCB's are manufactured in Oregon, I am changing to a new company in Colorado for PCB fabrication. I also use a local body shop that specializes in motorcycle refinishing to give the final clear coat and polish.

There are a total of 4 guys in the shop, we all have our specialties (guitar repair, amp repair/mods, shipping/receiving) but we all build pedals.

Most builds are on PCB's with 100% through hole construction. Currently all hardware (pots, jacks, switches) are wired off board but I am considering board mounted pots. I may go to SMD in the future, there is a facility here in Seattle that does excellent SMD work. My main concern is keeping all the manufacturing process in the USA. I also do some builds entirely point to point when I am doing a vintage fuzz circuit.

For the most part I use Hammond enclosures, I have done a few builds with others but I like Hammond. Most of the pedals are acid etched, back and sides painted with hammerite, tops are clear or a transparent color. Some builds such as the Amp Candy use a powder coated box, water slide decal, and clear coat. When I am doing prototypes I usually just spray the entire box with hammerite.

How important is the look of your pedals?

VERY VERY VERY Important, I try to make my pedals look great inside and out, I think of them as pieces of art helping musicians create art.

Is parts selection important?

YES, for some builds like the Seraph and some Fuzz pedals I use NOS parts. There are new production runs of the BBD and compander chips used in the Seraph but they don't sound as good as the originals.

With transistors for fuzz builds I am more concerned with gain, noise, and leakage than what is printed on the can. There is no magic in OC44's or AC128's, every transistor gets tested before a build. If a customer wants Holy Grail transistors that usually adds about $50 to the build because I have to find a transistor with the proper gain, noise and leakage, and have the pedigree to match. One of my favorite transistors is the CV7003, it's a military grade OC44 but people would rather have an OC44 because people on forums say they sound better.

For standard builds I generally use audio grade Nichicon caps for all my electrolytics (values over 1uf), Panasonic for film caps (values between 100pf and 1uf), 1% metal film resistors, double sided plated through holes for PCB's, audio grade op-amps (OPA2134, NE5532, LF353). I try to avoid ceramic caps when I can and have started using MLCC or Silver Mica caps for small values (under 100pf).

There are exceptions, in the Shape I am using some WIMA caps and when building vintage fuzz circuits I use carbon comp resistors and some NOS caps.

All parts of the circuit matter and I only use the best available components.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The Seraph was the most challenging to design. It's based on the Boss DC-2, another example of great design and poor implementation. The first time I did an A/B with the Seraph and DC-2 I took that DC-2 off the board permanently.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

Pi in Your Face was by far the most difficult build. It was a custom shop order for a true point to point build with a combo Triangle Muff and a Fuzz Face. People have asked if I would build another, all requests have been denied.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Shape is by far the most popular pedal I make. It's a very simple EQ with selectable true/buffered bypass. It's a useful tool in just about any rig. There isn't any other pedal currently in production that does what it does. It can be used on the front end to have a EQ set up for switching guitars, after a dirt box to dial in a sweet spot, at the end of a chain as a global eq, in the effects loop of an amp, and the buffer while simple is really high quality.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I make pedals that I would use, I am glad others find them useful as well.

The Fleet Foxes are currently on tour using my pedals. The shop has also worked on over half their amps and guitars as well.

What does the future of Fromel Electronics look like?

I have a couple pedals in the design stage right now that I am pretty excited about and I am re-designing all the PCB's to speed up production times.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes I am, one will be a completely discrete overdrive and I have another EQ in the works. They will be done when they are done, I have no time frame.

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