[interview] Mission Engineering: James Lebihan

Here's FXDB's interview with James Lebihan of Mission Engineering:

Mission Engineering SP-2How did Mission Engineering start?

I was playing guitar in church with my friend JR Taylor in Austin, Texas. JR was one of the early adopters of the Fractal Audio Axe-FX digital guitar amp and he needed something to control the wah. Surprisingly, there were very few options for a decent quality switchable expression pedal to use with it. JR said something like 'you are an engineer, surely you can make one?'. So the next day we went for coffee and came up with an idea. When I got back to California, I put one together.

I was amazed how much encouragement and support we got from the community. Lots of people called, emailed, wrote on forums etc with information, suggestions, and positive comments. It really helped us make a better product. The commercial world is so full of people obsessed with secrecy and patents etc, it's great when a bunch of enthusiasts come together and everyone gets a better product as a result. Even established companies like Line 6, Avid, TC electronic and Eventide have provided a huge amount of support. We are very grateful.

Mission EngineeringWhere do the name and logo come from?

I was trying out a bunch of different names. Petaluma and Sonoma county where we are based, are well known for their history of Franciscan Missions. So that's where 'Mission' first came from. I plain stole the idea of the 'Engineering' part from Mesa Boogie who are also based in Petaluma and whose products I really respect. After a while I realized that 'Mission' could also refer to a space mission and that we could have a space age theme to the company, so that's what we went with.

Once I decided on the space theme, we put together the space font and a couple of different star field backgrounds that we use on our materials, product labels etc. When we were due to attend our first NAMM, I had to get some T-Shirts made and wanted a logo for them. At this point we were still largely a two man operation with a shoestring budget and I was too cheap to pay a professional logo designer. I made up the 'M' logo myself in a few minutes on a Powerpoint slide and that was it.

What sets Mission Engineering apart from other builders?

As far as we know, no one else builds products like Mission. Our switching expression pedals are unique in the market. Designing and building the type of components that we use from scratch is a very expensive business. Most people just don't want to make this type of investment to build an expression pedal. We have a unique niche.

How do you start on a new pedal?Pigtronix Dual Expression Pedal

We usually start building a new design based on customer requests, or a manufacturer or channel partner comes to us and ask if we can build something to work with their equipment. Much of the time we use the basic pedal mechanics as a 'platform' and we can reuse previous work to speed things along. Sometimes we can get a new product going in a few months. If it's a more complex design with new molds to be made for branding, etc it may take up to a year.

How do you name your pedals?

Our pedals have fairly boring letter/number combinations to designate models. There's just so many of them. Internally we use themes from ancient Egypt as code names for new products. I'm currently working on Osiris, Pyramid, Kronos and Sphinx.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We use a contract manufacturer to cast the pedal chassis and build the ancillary components. The finishing and coating is done at a specialist facility that also does auto parts. The standard of paint finish on automobiles is very high, and we use the same procedure on Mission pedals. The electronics, machining, and final assembly are all done at Mission. We typically have 3-5 engineers working each assembly shift. Wherever possible we work with US component manufacturers and suppliers. In many cases our services come from local companies in northern California which helps keep quality up and shipping costs down.

Some people think we just use a wah pedal chassis but that's not true. Mission pedal chassis were designed by us specifically as expression pedals. They have a longer throw than a standard wah so that they can be used for volume swells and other expression effects. They also have multiple outputs for our dual channel pedals and adjustable tension capabilities. We use a mixture of hand wiring and PCB's depending on the exact product. We also have potentiometers, which are critical to to expression pedals, built to our own specs by a specialist pot manufacturer.

I think Mission is one of the very few companies offering customers a choice of colors for their pedals. We currently have six different colors and some more in the works. We use very high end materials and finishing process. It's expensive, but the end result makes a very unique product.

How important is the look of your pedals?

It's very important. I think the quality of the finish is something that makes us stand out.

Is parts selection important?

Most of the components we use are custom built to our design. Working closely with our component vendors is critical to the correct function of our products.

Mission Engineering SP-1Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I like the SP-1 because it's our first and still a work horse for hundreds of working musicians. I also like the EP1-L6 because it was our first co-branded product. To have a company like Line 6 put their brand on our product was a big boost.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

Generally our biggest challenges are legal, marketing, taxation, accounting etc. Especially being in California, the lawyer state. Building the pedals is easy in comparison.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

There are so many variations, it's hard to pick a single model. That's part of the benefit of our system: Customers can choose from lots of different options to meet their own needs without have to have something completely custom designed.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

Mission pedals are used by many touring bands and artists with complex switching and control systems. Our products are very much designed to meet the requirements of the professional end of the market. That said we also do what we can to keep costs reasonable and offer support for more mainstream products so that anyone can use and afford a Mission pedal.

We have a pretty good list of Mission Artists on our website, and it's expanding all the time. In the last few weeks we've sent expression pedals to The Edge, John Petrucci, and the guys from Between the Buried and Me. I went backstage with Coheed and Cambria when they played in San Fran. Claudio really jumped up and down on those pedals. They still worked fine after ;-)

What does the future of Mission Engineering look like?

We are working hard with the distribution channel so that customers can buy Mission products from their favorite stores. Several are now available from Sweetwater and we have some projects with Guitar Center in the works. We are also working on expanding our international partners. We have signed up about 5 new resellers just in the last few weeks.

Are you working on any new products?

On the product side we've got two very cool new Mission products that will be announced in the next few weeks and we are working with some very well known effects companies on some more co-branded expression pedals for their gear. Some have been on many peoples want list for a long time.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Also check out Effects Database's social media accounts: