[interview] Heavy Electronics: Sayer Payne

Here's FXDB's interview with Sayer Payne of Heavy Electronics.

Heavy Electronics is run by Sayer Payne. The company is located in Minneapolis, MN, USA.

How did Heavy Electronics start?

I really started building pedals for myself and the bands I was in. The first pedal I ever built was a mute pedal for my bandmate. He had jaguar pickups and we were using really loud amps, like 300 watts. The guitar would just scream if he faced the amp with it. He wasn't using a pedal tuner so I just built a footswitch to mute the signal altogether between songs. I was always fascinated by electronics as a child and as I got older I was really into microphones and other studio gear, but that world seemed too daunting in a way and I had better luck with creating simple circuits and being expressive with them. So I just continued with pedals. I built a couple of Harmonic Percolator style pedals and made few of those for other people, simple stuff for friends. In 2006 I hit the retail ceiling. I was managing a vintage guitar store and it just wasn't satiating my desires to push at something on a career basis. I bounced around a bit for a month or two and then I just started really digging into electronics and pedals. I put myself through the applicable portions of NEETS, the naval electronics training modules. I started researching parts and suppliers and I designed 5 prototypes. A few draining months later, I was filling my first orders to dealers.

Heavy Electronics Hwy-77I got a lot of help along the way. Having been to some of the vintage guitar shows with the shop I was working with, I had a great base of dealers that I had done a deal or shared a beer with. They gave me a lot of great ideas about getting into the pedal market, and taught me the norms of what to expect dealing with other music shops. It was a big influence in why I went exclusively wholesale.
There was ample inspiration in Minneapolis with friends that worked at Z. Vex and having had several pleasant run ins with Lauren Stafford from the formerly known Blackbox Electronics. I looked at what was working for them and why, and then I made sure that I did something different, but I focused on how they conveyed a concept through their products. Beyond that, when I started my girlfriend was helping me paint a lot of the enclosures on the front porch. We had old vinyl covers that we would just lay down and she would spray them with a can for me. She doesn't have to do any of that now because she's my wife. If you want to accomplish something extraordinary, you need to have a partner that will let you take big risks and wait with you for the rewards to come. She's done very well with that.

Heavy ElectronicsWhere do the name and logo come from?

I thought of "Heavy Electronics" while I was working pedal repairs at a guitar shop circa 2004. I was looking down at this box of broken effects pedals, about 50% of which had cheap, and broken parts. Cheesy battery straps with one wire free-as-a-bird. Plastic (broken) jacks, pots, switches. I thought to myself, "hey, someone could just make really durable effects, with all metal parts and flying leads, and name it Heavy Electronics." Two years later, I did that.

The logo originally came from a sketch a friend did on a napkin. I liked the idea of the H of Heavy with wings lifting the letter against the weight. I guess it's an art school cliché of juxtaposition. *laughs

What sets Heavy Electronics apart from other builders?

We work on the principle of a triangle. A lifetime transferable warranty, unique circuit design, unparalleled customer service. These three core basics dictate the rest of our policy. We use the parts and methods in production that will lead to the ability to issue a lifetime warranty. I test and hand-sign every pedal that ships from Heavy Electronics. We take our time to design a unique, never before heard sound to offer to musicians. These sounds become literally etched onto handmade printed circuit boards that we then drill, populate with components, and solder, all by hand. We make investments in our customers by offering follow up service like free re-voicing for pedals if the user is looking for a particular sound. We work with privately owned brick and mortar guitar shops and we make sure they do well when they sell Heavy Electronics pedals by paying fair margins. It's very important to me that we maintain the viability of these local stores that often serve as clubhouses for musicians.

How do you start on a new pedal?

In the old days, I knew I had to come up with a certain number of products at once to make the product line viable. I designed them in tandem sometimes working on more than one prototype in a day to avoid burning out on it. These days, I can release pedals more carefully and spend time building up the release. Many times I will try 4 or 5 different circuits to solve a problem. So I don't really look at them as models until after they're completed.Heavy Electronics Grind Fuzz

With the Grind Fuzz, I was trying to create a fuzz with better note clarity that wouldn't wash with the cymbals as much. With the Red Eyes, I wanted to create on overdrive that was super dynamic and totally all about pick control with a sweet Americana sound. It's always about a goal for utility. Most of the pedals have been adapted to suit my live playing, I'm very selfish to make a pedal that's exactly what I want. When I come up with a goal, it eats at me for a month or two and then I start drawing something up. I'll spend a week laying out the prototype pcb with components and shape to taste, and I'll be working on the graphic at the same time while I'm listening to the sound of the finished product forming. Then you wait around for a couple weeks for the enclosures to finish, make a couple dozen and start selling. Usually the whole process is 2-3 months all told with daydreaming time included. If I look at the circuit later or I want to make a change to the circuit to get something more out of it, I never hesitate. I go straight away and change the layout and there's never even a gap in production. There are many different circuit varieties to the H.E. pedals that are out there. Each revision has its fans, I always like the current version because that's what I'm making for my ears. The evolution of the circuits has been very minor but it's been constant very subtle changes.

How do you name your pedals?

Mostly, the pedals are named thematically based on their function. In the case of the Ascend and the Descend, there's a story there. When I started the Ascend was named Push, and the Descend was to be named Pull. I was contacted in the first year of business by Rob Keeler who unbeknownst to me was making pedals for some time with those names. Once he explained the situation I immediately agreed to change the name of the pedals and asked him not to mess with me for the Pushes I had already sold. He was very cool about the whole thing, nice guy. I remember him asking me how many I had sold, and I said, "Around 50." He was pretty bummed and he said, "I thought you said you just started" and I said "Yep". I was happy to change the names for him, he had clearly earned it.

Heavy Electronics AscendCan you tell us something about the production process?

All pedals are assembled here in Minneapolis. By myself or two other assemblers. All the painting and silkscreening is done elsewhere in the U.S.

We make our own PCBs here in Minneapolis, I am very adamant about this. My current pet peeve is pedals that claim to be made in the US and then PCBs (virtually everything you hear) are made in Asia, what's the point? We design them and print them here using photosensitive resist methods. We can constantly adapt the circuits to make the pedals better and more unique all the time. Our PCBs have only one circuit mounted part which is the 3pdt. This way the circuit is just floating with flying leads to every other contact.

We use 4Site enclosures. I like the bigger screws on them and they seem to be smoother than some of the other competitors. We do all the drilling ourselves on drill presses. It can make for a noisy work-place but I think it's a big hands-on part of making a pedal.

The enclosures are powder-coated and the graphics are silkscreened over the top. Simple as that.

Heavy Electronics Radio HavanaHow important is the look of your pedals?

I think the pedals looks are becoming a bigger deal to the consumer in general for better or worse. The graphics have become so busy and complicated in pedals. Most of the pedal makers trying to do the "We save you money by not painting our enclosures" thing, have had a real hard time of it. You have to present the consumers with something that is an image that they can identify with and they feel represents the way they feel about the sound in some way. That's why I focus on a single main graphic for each pedal. I tend not to worry about filling the face of the pedal with art. I leave that for the custom shop. If you're going to cover the face of the pedal with art I think it should be unique to each piece in some way.

Is parts selection important?

We focus pretty heavily on getting the right parts. We really like to use the same parts over and over so we can buy bigger quantities. I generally use Dale/Vishay resistors, mostly 1% tolerance. Of course there are new challenges because we very much believe in through hole circuitry rather than SMD and many of the transistors are simply becoming obsolete. We've had plenty of luck sourcing them so far. We use really thick jacketed wire that supports itself much better and has a higher temperature rating. We've learned to be very careful with our 3PDT source. Currently we are using one single-source supplier who is making 3PDTS with gold solder lugs for us. We make a balance between parts that will hold up to our lifetime warranty and what makes sense. Sure you can use a really great component but is it the right component? A lot of times a part with really low tolerance doesn't improve anything. In the Radio Havana we use cheap ceramic capacitors because we want it to sound gritty. Why use hi-fi products in a lo-fi pedal? Distortions and Fuzz pedals need to be thought of in similar terms too. You want a shape to the clipping envelope, not a rigidity, and sometimes components can get in the way of that whether they're cheap or expensive, so I focus on the sound.

Heavy Electronics Red EyesWhich of your pedals makes you most proud?

Proud of, I don't know... I feel like I've earned my way with each of them. I have a pretty equal view of the success of each of them. I like certain aspects of each of them. I feel like the Red Eyes graphics as well as the El Oso kind of stand out in the quality of the graphics. I like that there is really no competition for the Descend pedal. It's kind of in its own world as a pre-set volume pedal. When customers look at it they are choosing to buy the concept of the effect where someone looks for a new overdrive, where to begin? It's a very simple idea, I strive for that as well. I always feel proud of whatever pedal is on at a great show. That's the bottom line. I love hearing them.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

I had a lot of trouble with 3 pedals:

  • On the Descend, I spent forever, working on the exact calibration of the resistance network to get it to be evenly tapered in the switch sections.
  • On the Grind Fuzz, there was a initial design issue that was creating an oscillation that I spent many a moon solving.
  • On the Saturn, the portion of the circuit that bleeds the carrier frequency off during bypass gave me ample stress and literally sleepless nights thinking about it. I did eventually come up with the solution while in bed, this is common for me, I really don't know why.Heavy Electronics Saturn

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

So far the running tally puts the Radio Havana on top of the sales. Again, this pedal is giving you a pretty unique sound so I think it strips the competition down. When I released it initially, I felt the market was very ready for more lo-fi sounds and I think I was right. People seemed to have opened up to much more tonally destructive pedals in recent years and I think used tastefully it's to the benefit of the art that's out there.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I have worked very hard to leave the genre for Heavy Electronics open to interpretation. I think I have made the effects controllable, and open ended so that it's more a question of the pedal fits the situation and the desires of the player versus the genre. It's one of the reasons that I have resisted releasing H.E. demo videos. I really don't want people to feel like they belong somewhere specific. I have a lot of respect for people's ears, and I feel OK about the idea that these pedals aren't right for every situation and every player, so I just let fate decide where they end up.

One of the most challenging things about selling wholesale has been that when the big players buy the pedals we never necessarily know. Sometimes it's a result of us reaching out to them. I have pedals in the hands of some of my favorite artists. Agostino Tilotta of Bellini and Uzeda is my personal favorite of the artists we work with. Artists we've sent stuff to lately include, Andrew Bird, Wilco, and Mark Hoppus. I focus on working with smaller (not superstar) bands that I like that tour a lot. A lot of times people will be able to see more of the pedals at a smaller stage than at the stadium show. Beyond that, I just prefer the culture and the feel of the smaller indie rock scene. Less personality, more talent, more dreams, cheaper beer.

Heavy Electronics El OsoWhat does the future of Heavy Electronics look like?

Heavy Electronics is in full swing right now. Our goals are to just keep production steady and fill orders. We've seen 30% output growth every year and we try to limit ourselves somewhat at that pace. We have recently began distributing some other well known pedal lines but we like to keep all that very behind the scenes.

Are you working on any new products?

Upcoming models include a compressor, tremolo, reverb, octave and a phaser. We hope to at least release two of these models in 2012.

Right now, I'm really bearing down on a compressor that I've been fiddling with for too long. I hope to release that and an octave pedal this summer. Summer really slows down in the music retail world, especially up north so I always try to zazz things up with some custom colors and new releases.

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