[interview] MI Audio: Michael Ibrahim

Here's FXDB's interview with Michael Ibrahim of MI Audio:

How did MI Audio start?

That's a very long and interesting story (IMO), and goes back to my parents.

My father was born in rural Egypt in the 1940's, and at the age of 5 his father passed away. He had two younger brothers. In Egyptian culture, there is a lot of pressure on the eldest son to 'look after' the family in such a scenario. At the age of 9 he started building crystal radios and selling them in his village to earn an income for his family. By the age of 12 he was building vacuum tube amps. He did quite well at school, and got into electrical engineering in Assiut University where he topped the course, met my mother (who's also an electrical engineer), went on to get his Masters from Cairo university and then a PhD from Cranfield University in the UK.

So I grew up surrounded by electronics and gadgets. I have early memories of dad etching PCBs in the bathroom, and teaching me how to draw a rainbow by following the resistor color codes.

By the time I reached my teenage years, I was hooked on rock 'n' roll. My parents bought me an electric guitar, but refused to buy me an amplifier. Instead, dad insisted that I build my own, which he designed and I assembled. It was a 50W solid state amplifier. From that point I was hooked. I built quite a few amplifiers, distortion pedals, and resurrected an old Marshall which I found in someone's trash!

By the time I got to university (having maintained a family tradition by enrolling in electrical engineering), I started to seriously look at putting together a pedal board to use in various uni bands I was in. From those early days came the inception of my first 'commercial' pedal, the Tube Zone.

I then went on to work as an engineer in a various telecommunications companies, but thought I'd have a go at doing MI Audio on the side. Things took off and now I do MI Audio full time.

I work fairly independently during the design phase. For the pedals, I usually enlist the help of various local musicians to Beta test new designs and tweak from there. For the amplifiers, I'm lucky to have the support of a wonderful group of Australian amplifier builders, with whom I meet regularly, and who provide wonderful perspectives on things over a quiet ale. They are Peter Reynolds from Reynolds Valveart, Duane Ledford from Ledford amplification and the legendary Darryl Hoy from Scion Amps and Valvetone amplification. We all do very different things, so a fresh perspective is always appreciated!

Where do the name and logo come from?

My initials! I chose to go with "Audio" because I've always wanted to do more than just effects. We're doing guitar amplifiers at the moment, and hope to do a few more interesting things in the future. But for the sake of not being confused with M Audio, we've 'rebranded' as MI Effects and MI Amplification.

The logo came about because I wanted something simple that I could print on my monochrome printer when I first started the business. It's stuck, and though not particularly creative, is very easily recognizable.

What sets MI Audio apart from other builders?

The guiding philosophy with all our products is that they must be well designed, reliable, have their own character, offer great flexibility, value for money, readily available and hopefully sound good! If any of these is lacking, then it just doesn't cut it. 

I was never a big fan of products that, though they may sound exceptional, are disproportionately priced or have artificially inflated wait times to create a sense of 'exclusivity'. By the same token, I don't like the other end of the spectrum either, with products made with no soul or integrity,... just a bean-counters exercise in economics!

How do you start on a new pedal?

There are various ways that an idea comes about. Something I want, or a customer, perhaps something from my amp designs which feeds into the pedals, or even sometimes finding a cool component and playing with it! The process can take quite some time to become a product. The quickest was the Crunch Box, which took about 6 months, and the longest so far has been the Revelation amplifier, which took nearly 4 years of fairly solid work.

How do you name your pedals?

Nothing too fancy with our names.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We do a mixture of in-house PCB assembly for some items, but are moving more towards outsourced PCB assembly done in Sydney. The main reason for this is actually quality. Wave-soldered PCBs are frankly better than hand-soldered, particularly when they're done using a fluxless nitrogen process our partner uses.

Currently, we are 4 staff.

All of our pedals use PCB construction, but we hope we do it well! Our current production pedals are done on 4 layer PCBs, through hole with metal film resistors, German made WIMA caps (the best current production caps IMO), sealed potentiometers etc.

Our enclosures are a fixed design, so we've contracted these out.

How important is the look of your pedals?

The look of the pedals isn't that important. I'm more interested in function.

Is parts selection important?

Yes, absolutely. Tolerances are vital for reproducibility. Also the quality of components, especially capacitors and potentiometers are vital for audio quality, which is why we settled on WIMA caps for all our pedals, with no electrolytics in the signal path, and our pots are custom made for us. We've also had a marked improvement in sound going to 4 layer PCBs, which are more expensive, but well worth it.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

In terms of overdrive, my favorite is still the Tube Zone. It tends to get pigeon-holed as a 'modern' pedal, but it's actually a very flexible pedal, and does most things pretty darn well.

For the amplifiers, I'm very proud of the Megalith and Iron Duke amps. Both are amps I enjoy when I plug into them, and I don't feel the need to change or tweak, which is rare for me!

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The most technically demanding pedal we make is the Compressor. There's actually quite a lot going on under the hood. But by the time I started making these, I'd learned quite a bit about assembly, so had figured out how to make the assembly process relatively pain free!

Of course, the most technically demanding product we make at the moment is the Revelation amplifier, which is a 4 independant channel, 12 mode, 4 programmable FX loops, MIDI switching amp which can take any kind of octal power tube and produce anything from 1W to 120W output power. That thing was a monster to design, and takes quite some time to build!

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

Our most popular pedal has to be the Crunch Box, as evident by both the volume of pedals we make, and the number of clones that have come out! 

Its popularity is due to a few things, like its simplicity, sound (it does what it claims to do), price and reliability.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I started off building pedals that I personally wanted, and was lucky that others liked them too. But now, I'm a lot more interested in listening to what players want and to try to create that for them.

Since we've been in the industry for quite some time, our pedals have been on the boards of some of the biggest names in the business. However, we've moved away from 'endorsements', and no longer even maintain a users list on our website, because I want people to buy our products because they like them, not because they have the mistaken idea that if they buy them they will sound like player X.

What does the future of MI Audio look like?

Our amplifiers have been extremely well received in Australia (e.g. all our amplifiers have been rated 5/5 for all categories by Australian guitar publications, which is the only time in their history that Australian made products have been awarded the accolade). However, they are virtually unknown outside of Australia. In the coming few years, I'd love to get our amplifiers into the hand of people outside of Australia.

Are you working on any new products?

In terms of design work, we're working on a few more amplifiers, as well as (literally) 20 or so new pedal designs. If all goes to plan, I'd love to do some things which fuse pure analog signal paths with digital controls and flexibility.

On the pedal front, we'll be coming out with a new super high gain pedal based on our award winning Megalith amplifier. We're also working on a bunch of FET based drive pedals, a super Crunch Box, a delay pedal, a phaser, autowah and a few more boosters. We're also looking at doing some pedal solutions, like power supplies, switchers etc.

On the amp front, I'm currently working on a stripped down Megalith, an updated Revelation, a 30W class A amp, and a more vintage voiced 2 channel super-smooth amplifier.

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