[interview] Machine Head Pedals (MHP): Keith Aviles

Here's FXDB's interview with Keith Aviles of Machine Head Pedals (MHP):

How did Machine Head Pedals (MHP) start?

I started tinkering with electronics as a kid. I was infinitely curious about everything, and I didn't come from money. That meant that I had to figure out how everything worked, and then apply it to how I wanted to make things work.

As I got older, the electronics tinkering obviously got applied to audio stuff. Some of it was preamps for home audio, some was for car audio, some was for recording purposes. But obviously a big chunk of it was for electric guitar. There was an obvious need to repair or enhance the effects that I had as a kid, but I would also take existing "junk" and graft it together to create a "complete" piece of gear. It could be as simple as a cassette player preamp or some kind of input buffer.

It didn't take long to see patterns with how most analog audio gear was designed. I also started repairing and scratchbuilding tube amps, and the same things apply there. The "complete" pedal designs began to emerge out of necessity; they were usually an attempt to create some kind of link between the guitar and amp that wasn't appropriate being integrated into either. After I was successful at getting the kind of performance I wanted from tube amp builds, it made sense to try and get similar performance from pedals, particularly those that created overdrive and distortion. The problem with amp distortion is that it typically sounds best at unrealistic volumes. And the problem with most traditional pedal designs is that they typically sound like pedals trying to emulate what an amp does naturally.

But besides just "dirt boxes" to enhance a good tube amp, there are obviously effects that aren't integrated into (orthodox) amps, like fuzz, or anything that is a hybrid effect; I like to design dirt boxes that might be a combination of OD/preamp/fuzz, and getting that with an amp (at any volume) doesn't make much sense.

The actual effects part was just basically a backburner thing for decades, with amps and guitars (building, maintaining, restoring, etc.) taking precedence. I would modify or build effects for friends and family; it was always out of necessity for the gigging guitarist. Aside from that, I had my own projects that went on quietly in the background, until the spring of 2008. I always had a full time day job up until that point, but my field was basically outsourced to far away places. So I finally had an opportunity (with the urging of friends and family) to put my full time attention towards designing and building pedals, and doing it with a production method. I had the website online by the summer of 2008.

Machine Head Pedals has always been almost 99% the efforts of just one person - myself. I certainly had the urgings of others, and some folks were kind enough to donate "host gear", do recordings, test stuff onstage or in the studio, or simply provide a little bit of money for me to get things up and running (or purchase some much needed inventory). But I am basically all of the departments - the R&D, customer service, custom orders, website design, shipping, packaging, graphics, and obviously all production and assembly. And building means starting from scratch; I drill and powdercoat my own enclosures. I design, etch, and drill my own circuit boards. I alter or revise layouts and features as I see fit, at any relevant time; there is no committee to require authorization from, and I don't have to use up hundreds or thousands of existing circuit boards before changing the design.

I've informally received help from the DIY community as a whole, both online and anyone who has published anything that has resulted in some kind of tinkering article (i.e. prior to the internet). It started out of a need for just the technical details with trying to repair something and possibly modify it for more rugged performance, or better consistency. As time went on and parts got obsolete or the DIY community started sharing ways to get consistent (or improved) performance with new techniques, I tried to digest as much as they were willing to share. There are obvious grandfathers to the movement, such as Craig Anderton, but there were "online pioneers" such as Jack Orman (AMZ FX), R.G. Keen, Justin Philpott and countless others who always had a DIY approach, and so much grounded info to share.

Aside from the tech geeks, there were obviously the companies with cool pedals, and I was inspired by Electro-Harmonix, ProCo, MXR, and others. EHX always embodied kind of the rock music ethos with their designs, and a first year triangle Big Muff was one of the first pedals that I owned. MXR always had pedals that were "space friendly" and just plain looked cool to me, right down to the knobs. And pedals like the ProCo Rat have simply not been duplicated with any sort of equivalent creativity, in my opinion.

Where does the name come from?

I've always been a tinkerer, or a gearhead, a wrenchhead, what have you. I've always typically either built some stuff from scratch (it could be a street rod or any "complete" mechanism) because I couldn't find anything mass produced or ready-made that would do the job properly.

The problem with using the word "gear" with tech stuff (or more specifically electric guitar) is that it's gotten kind of vague or generic. It is also a bit "worn out," since you tend to see the word used all over the place. So I needed something similar, but I also needed something specifically relevant to guitars.

I've always been a Deep Purple fan, and Machine Head is just such a definitive album for guitarists who dig what someone like Ritchie Blackmore is capable of. At the same time - I mentioned being a wrenchhead; I'd built hotrods as a younger man, and Highway Star is one of those songs that is sort of an anthem of wrenchheads. To bring it full circle, the whole process of pedal building (for me) is usually hotrodding something that might otherwise be familiar. I always expect more performance out of any given pedal. Most of the MHP pedal mods are classic musclecar names that pay homage to the hotrodding approach.

What sets Machine Head Pedals (MHP) apart from other builders?

My philosophy clearly sets me apart from many builders, if not all of them. I have no desire to build anything remotely like a Tube Screamer or Dynacomp, even though I could make a bunch of money doing it. I also don't care for obsolete components - I want it to be about the pedal, and not the parts it's made of. I don't particularly want any kind of association with any great guitarist, or any "period" in musical history. I just want to make pedals that give guitarists the sounds that they've asked for, or try to introduce them to some that they might not know exist.

My ethics are a bit extreme, but that's who I am. While MHP is not a charity, I don't do it in the hopes of being filthy rich. So I tend to align myself with musicians and friends who see things the same way. I have no problem arguing for or against the merits of X or Y with any other pedal builder who will be a bit logical and composed about it. I think that in the end, it makes for better pedals from anyone who builds them.

I guess the only niche market I'm in is the one where a pedal costs more than something mass produced, because it's hand built. Not everyone will buy a pedal that costs more than X amount. At the same time, I've tried hundreds of pedals over the years, and personally know that oftentimes the bargains come up short, performance-wise. So it can get a little tiring just buying based on low price, only to have to repeat the process again and again. So my "niche market" consists of performing guitarists who either don't have the time for that, or are just tired of the gamble. It's really why anything hand built exists at all, isn't it?

How do you start on a new pedal?

There is no process to formal design of a MHP pedal. It is always in increments, with starts and stops. Most of the time the progress is completely by accident, and some of the designs are totally by accident. Something like the Code Green was more just how I was spending little bits of downtime in between batches of production pedals. It was ongoing experimentation with unorthodox transistor combinations, not really expecting anything specific. I didn't even really refine it much until a guitarist got to try a "prototype," and insisted that I produce it for sale.

There is usually a point where the process starts to form a sort of production-oriented method. If I can get something to a 70% point where I think it might be usable to guitarists, I'll step up the efforts to get as close to the 100% mark as is realistic.

The 72 Degrees OD took 10 years on and off before it was ready for production. But that is because I never had an intention of building an OD pedal for anyone other than a handful of people, and it's also because I didn't want to produce anything until I felt that I really had something that I couldn't find in another pedal. But it is unique to the MHP line in that way.

Something like the Evelyn pedals are probably a good measure - they took about 1 to 2 years to get sorted. The Code Green happened really quickly, but it was an anomaly. I guess that is possibly not uncommon to something like a fuzz pedal, at least in my opinion.

How do you name your pedals?

There's a story behind the names of all of them. My wife actually names them all at this point, because I'm just not good at it. She came up with 72 Degrees as being the perfect weather, or the perfect temperature. I couldn't imagine a more fitting name. I named the Evelyn, based on two things. I wanted a smooth, sensual name, because so much guitar gear (especially pedals) tends to have either an overly utilitarian or mega-masculine type of name. But the first Evelyn pedal was also something that left the tone shaping up to the user. There's a musician (percussionist) who is deaf, named Evelyn Glennie, who can produce incredible sounds despite "only being able to feel them". She has inspired countless others to do the same. I see the Evelyn as the same sort of thing, just in the form of a pedal - it is only limited by what you limit it to.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I personally build each and every pedal in-house. I am a staff of one. I do my own circuit layouts and revisions, etch and drill my own boards, and hand wire it all up.

For the enclosures I start with a raw Hammond style box, and drill it to my specs in-house. I powdercoat them all in my shop, I do all the electronics graphics myself, and create "panels" that are printed, clearcoated, hand cut, and hand adhered (with permanent adhesive).

I worked in a production oriented career for decades prior to building pedals, so while I hand build everything, there is a system to what I do to ensure good consistency, durability, and practical design, among other important facets. So that means no rat's nest of wiring, no pedal goop, and no board mounted components that can cause circuitboard failures.

How important is the look of your pedals?

It is only important in that I don't want them to look factory produced, like machines did the drilling, silkscreening. I don't want them to look like someone other than myself did the graphics. I didn't want them to look hand painted, either. Some people ask me if a different color signifies circuit/sound differences, and I tell them it doesn't, so it's obviously more important that the finish be durable.

Is parts selection important?

No. I don't use cheap stuff, but the circuit design dictates the components. Most NOS stuff had nothing special to offer performance-wise; it was chosen for cost reasons (i.e. cheap) back before those parts were obsolete. And I refuse to be chained to certain components just to make a pedal sound good.

For me, parts are chosen based on performance, durability, and consistency. Sometimes, the cheap stuff gives better performance, like with a fuzz pedal. But there still isn't any sort of formula that I apply.

I also pick components that allow for what I hope is better construction. Using stuff that was optimized for high power amps or high voltage circuits but doesn't fit well in a small box have no value to me. I do like metalized film box caps simply because they fit so well in a good circuit layout.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I'm obviously proud of the 72 Degrees OD. It does everything that I set out for it to do. It has the approval of the overwhelming majority of guitarists who've tried it, which makes me happier than I can describe in words. It is also thrilling (sometimes chilling) to hear guitarists using it, because it's personally reinforced that the design is successful.

I'm equally as proud of the Evelyn MkII, because I was able to accomplish building a distortion pedal that does things that I didn't think were possible. It is really hard (to me) to make something with higher clipping levels that doesn't sound like your typical distortion pedal, or even some higher gain amps. I didn't want it to be an amp emulation, and I didn't want it to be a (modern) metal pedal, either. But I did want a more modern voicing, because the Marshall/Mesa/etc.-in-a-box pedals are now so common. It had to have the harmonic nature of a tube amp, and it had to have incredible cleanup with the guitar's volume knob. And - it had to essentially not be based on anything that's already out there, because that is just kind of boring to me, believe it or not.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The Lightning was the toughest build, because it used a chip that wasn't really designed for audio purposes. So designing it was hard, and building it wasn't much easier. Since I wasn't sure if I'd be building a lot of them, I didn't revise the circuit board layout to a point that made production really fast, and the hand wiring was more than what I wanted. It required a slightly bigger box as a result, and I like using the small boxes because I know that the average guitarist has a tough time getting everything to fit on a pedalboard. The chip in the Lightning was also unlike its equivalents, which don't have the same performance. So when Fairchild Semiconductor discontinued it, I discontinued the Lightning. I could spend my time tracking down remain stock of the chip, but I don't want to do that. Instead, I will redesign the pedal, and release it as the Lightning MkII.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The 72 Degrees OD and the Galaxie Mod for the Boss Blues Driver are the two most popular, by far. The reason is simple - OD pedals are the most popular of the bunch. If you have an OD design that most guitarists can identify with, it will be popular. When the Nashville crowd starting ordering the Galaxie Mod in numbers that surprised me, I knew it had something that they were quasi-universally looking for. When I had customers from all around the globe direct ordering the 72 Degrees, I knew it was the same quasi-universal thing happening.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

No true specific genres. The only specific nature is that they are primarily for guitarists who play gigs, so their needs are a bit more performance-based. The designs are also primarily Old School in nature - not a lot of switches, knobs, "modes," or similar design facets that seem to currently trend well.

That said, what I design is obviously shaped by the guitarists that I know, the music that I like, the music I grew up with, and the other gear that I personally use. I'm a big fan of Fender guitars (primarily the Telecaster) and clean amps (like Fender blackface or silverface models), so it's not unusual for some of the MHP designs to start around that gear. But I've got an ESP "Superstrat," a few LP'ish things, some guitars by Ibanez, and things I've scratchbuilt.

I really had little intention of ever building an overdrive pedal for production, since there are so many of them to choose from. If the 72 Degrees hadn't turned out "as good" as it did, I wouldn't have bothered to build it for production. But I mentioned the Fender guitar into Fender amp thing. Despite there being so many great overdrive pedals available, I couldn't find one that "just filled in the right blanks" with that guitar and amp combo, that sounded like mild amp overdrive, and nothing more or less. And if I didn't have the majority of guitarists who have tried one to tell me the same thing, I wouldn't have personally believed it, completely. So a pedal like the 72 Degrees is a really good example of a "gap in the market," at least how a certain percentage of guitarists see it.

What does the future of Machine Head Pedals (MHP) look like?

Short term goals are to keep the current overdrive/distortion/fuzz/etc. pedals offered, and keeping up with the demand for them. This includes the pedal mods that are currently popular, along with a few new ones that will be unveiled in the next few months.

There are also a few prototypes that need to be completed (the R&D) before they can go into production.

The longer run vision is to add some non-OD/distortion/fuzz pedals, mainly a compressor and a delay. But neither will be even remotely based on anything like current popular standards such as the Dynacomp or the really popular analog delays, or even comprehensive digital delays. Unlike some manufacturers, I don't really have a desire to offer an effect of every type (OD/chorus/flange/wah/etc.), because I think it's important to specialize a bit.

I'm also trying to finish some ideas that alter the clipping characteristics of any OD/distortion that use certain design standards, with a remote box that interfaces with it. It will be something that can be added to any favorite dirt box such as a Rat or TS, and can be unplugged (leaving the pedal stock) and plugged into another (that has an input jack added to it). A similar remote device will have comprehensive tone control options that can remotely alter your favorite pedal.

There is also a small possibility that I might combine electronic control with an all analog signal path. I'm currently getting another degree in software development. While I have no desire to ever create a DSP effect, I'm not against writing programs to give a nice interface that will allow the "pedal power user" to tweak it all from a small screen. But that is just trying to forecast a possibility.

But the core vision is and will remain the same. My goal is to build pedals that either solve known performance issues for primarily the gigging guitarist, or to come up with something that is somewhat unique or different (or both, if possible). That means no clones, and it also means that the "circuit DNA" will always be an odd grafting of things, and never "a Tube Screamer with LED clipping diodes," or a pedal with just a lot of toggles and knobs on it. They are more like recipes that make for something that you'd prefer over another one, like your favorite restaurant might have. The other part is to keep the human element in the things that I build, because I don't care for widgets that look like they're pumped out of a factory 24/7. I like actually BUILDING what I design, and don't like things like silkscreening and any sort of factory pre-assembly.

I tend to puzzle some of the powers-that-be in the guitar gear world, as well. When they pitch me an offer (to increase my sales) for a fee and I turn them down, they don't seem to understand that I'm really not primarily doing this as a form of total industry domination, or netting X amount of profits a year. It's all about building something great, and if that is embraced well enough to give me profits to keep doing this, then that is enough. In my opinion, it is what separates the great hand crafted products apart from the mass produced ones. There's enough pedal companies that are only concerned with max profits that I don't think any more are needed.

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