[interview] Psionic Audio: Lyle Caldwell

Here's FXDB's interview with Lyle Caldwell of Psionic Audio:

How did Psionic Audio start?

I was an English major and a guitarist playing in local bands (translation – I was broke and couldn't always afford the shiniest new thing or even to get my amp fixed). So I rolled up my sleeves and started figuring out how stuff worked. Then as I went farther into music I began working as an engineer and producer in studios while still playing out in rough clubs with crappy PAs and bad power and punks moshing on my pedals. So I was learning how to make things ideal in terms of gain staging and impedance and grounding while also learning how important it was for things to be rugged as hell. No matter how refined the circuit, these things get stepped on. They get dropped. Things are spilled.

Then as I got more into audio I began to do a lot of custom rig building so I dealt with a lot of other companies' effects pedals. I spent a lot of time just making them quieter and more reliable - fixing things that should have been done right to begin with. So, armed with knowing the "way circuits should be" from my studio experiences and knowing what other pedal makers were doing wrong, and knowing what the real-world stresses on pedals would be from my days in punk clubs, I started to make my own designs.

I'd like to thank Dan Kennedy (Great River Electronics), Scott Dorsey, Mike Rivers, Claus Jensen, and John Suhr (Suhr Guitars) for helping me on my way over the years.

Where does the name come from?

"Psionic" loosely means "mental energy" (putting aside the psychic/telekinetic meanings) and it sounds kind of like "sonic" so I went with it. Names are hard - I assume most people reading this have had to choose band names and know how difficult that can be. Anyway, it looked good in print, so here we are.

What sets Psionic Audio apart from other builders?

Oh, good, the hyperbole/self-promotion section! I'm actually kind of terrible at that, so I'll just lay out some objective facts about my products.

  1. All current production Psionic Audio pedals as of late 2010 use high quality buffered bypass systems. This buffer easily rivals or betters many expensive stand alone buffers sold for guitar – this isn't a few transistors in a green box. The quality buffer ensures the most natural sound for your instrument, lowering background noise and retaining all the nuances coming from the strings and your fingers. Even when the Psionic Audio effect is not engaged you have the sound of your guitar plugged straight into your amp, no matter how long the cable from the pedalboard to the amp is. The buffer also allows much quieter switching than True Bypass pedals which often have DC offset level issues, leading to “pops” when switching.

  2. Intelligent separation of shielding, signal ground, and power ground. This lowers the noise floor and keeps the Spinal Tap moments on the DVD where they belong.

  3. Stainless steel locking nut connects all these ground points to the chassis at just one point by the input jack. The jacks can come loose - you can even remove the nuts entirely - and the pedal still passes audio just fine. Seems like a minor detail, but so many players have noisy and defective gear that ruins gigs and it just turns out to be a loose jack. Sound familiar to anyone? Yeah, I hate that, too. So that problem's gone with Psionic Audio pedals.
  4. All switching is done by opto-isolators. The foot switches trigger transistor gates that control the opto-islolators. No audio runs through the foot switches themselves. Foot switches are the most prone-to-failure component in any pedal, so if a foot switch fails on a gig you do not lose sound (and all Psionic Audio pedals have a lifetime warranty to the original owner so we would fix that foot switch for you pronto). The opto-isolators we use have a series resistance of about 25ohms and a capacitance of about 15pf. So they are “real world transparent”.

  5. All our pedals have external Control jacks so they may be switched remotely, including most MIDI controllers. So for those who put their pedals on a rack shelf, you can still access all functions of the Triad and Telos and forthcoming multifunction Psionic Audio pedals without having to step on them.

  6. When there is a loop option with a Psionic Audio pedal the return ground is lifted to prevent ground loops and RFI filtering is present to keep your amp from becoming a 100W radio.

  7. Heavy duty custom aluminum enclosures that serve as an effective shield without being part of the ground path for signals. This further reduces noise and shields against radio or electrostatic interference (cell phone, anyone?).

  8. No electrolytic caps in the audio path, no shortcuts, no substandard parts to please accounting, no cheap “good enough” op-amps.

  9. Each Psionic Audio pedal is extremely versatile and flexible, offering a wide range of useful musical tonal options.

  10. They sound awesome (OK, OK, not so objective there, but if I didn't think so, I wouldn't be making them).

How do you start on a new pedal?

A man in a flaming pie came to me...

One of the best things about doing this for a living is being able to day dream, to say “what if?” And then turn those “what if”s into actual working circuits. Mind you, some of them end up sucking, so I don't tell anyone about those.

Some ideas come out of my asking “Why isn't there anything that does this” or “Why are all the pedals that do X kind of sound so noisy?” or “Wouldn't it be cool to do this – wait, I'd need a MIDI controller. Wait, why should I need MIDI? If I do it like this...”.

Other ideas come from listening to customers, both professional clients and guys who just love playing, and comparing what they want to what's out there on the market.

And a lot of ideas come from my being frugal. I see pedals raved about online that cost a considerable amount but are really one trick ponies. They do that trick really well, but that's all they do. My “what if” mindset makes me squeeze as much versatility out of the available space as possible.

There are a lot of pictures on the web of guys with pedalboards larger than my desk. They have dozens of pedals on there, and a lot of them are great for one particular thing. And, you know, that's cool, but that's not what most players can use, and it certainly isn't what most of my professional clients use. These guys are dealing with shrinking stage sizes, no cartage, airline baggage fees, etc. They want small lightweight boards that do a maximum of tonal options with a minimum of square footage and weight.

So in every design I work hard to make the pedal very flexible, with a lot of options, and to make these options useful.

Chris Nix in Nashville had a lot of input into the final design of the Telos boost/overdrive pedal. While he can use any pedal and any amp he wants in the studio, in the real world he's on tour a lot using whatever backline amp the promoter provides. He wanted a pedal he could take on the road and get “his sound” regardless of the amp. Deluxe Reverb RI, AC30RI, Hot Rod Deville, whatever. These are what pros find in backline – not the high end amps that people worship online. So the Telos had to perform under less than ideal circumstances.

And with Chris' input, we knocked it out of the ballpark.

Like Chris Nix testing and advising the Telos, when I'm happy with a prototype I send it to select professional clients for their feedback. These guys know what's good and they already have just about every other good pedal out there. A thumbs up from them is hard to get. By the time a pedal is available for sale to the public it has been tested in LA, New York, and Nashville.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I do all the work myself, from design to assembly to testing to shipping. And I stand behind my work with a lifetime warranty to the original owner.

I use heavy duty double sided plated through PCBs and custom aluminum enclosures with stainless steel screw inserts (before 2011 the enclosures were steel). The enclosures are powder coated and silk screened for a tough industrial finish. Everything has to be “over built”. I don't like cheap, I don't like flimsy, I don't like “good enough”.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Very important, but perhaps not in the sense most people mean. There are a lot of cool looking swirly paint jobs, sunbursts, brushed metals, chromes, neon paints, clear knobs, spiked knobs, skull knobs, bright blue LED's that light up the sky, etc, out there, and they command a lot of high prices on the net.

But from a performance perspective those things aren't very practical. My enclosures are deliberately finished in satin black (no glare from stage lights) using a heavy duty industrial powder coat that holds up to just about any abuse. I use Fresnel lenses (both to increase the visible angle of the LEDs and, well, because they look cool) and ultra bright LED's - while they are visible in daylight they won't blind you in the dark. My graphics are done in industrial strength white, for good visibility and legibility against the black.

So, in our case, function is form.

Is parts selection important?

Oh, of course. I approached the whole concept of design with an open mind. Resistors - carbon composite, carbon film, metal film? I'll build prototypes using each and listen (as a result for pedals I use metal films but for amps, where the voltage is much higher, I use carbon films). Caps - do paper in oil sound different from polyester? Op-amps - can I hear the difference between a TL4072 and a 4558? Can I hear a difference between different brands of 4558? Just about every tonal legend and myth you read about on the internet, I've tested (and about 50 different op-amps).

Not to digress, but some myths hold up, others don't, and for some it depends on other factors in the circuit. We've got more on this on our website if anyone is interested.

Once I decided what kinds of components to use I had to find the best sounding ones in the sizes and voltages needed for the pedal circuits. In the audio path there are no electrolytic caps (the only electrolytic in any current production Psionic Audio pedal is a filter cap for the incoming 9VDC power). All audio that goes through a cap goes through metal film or multi-layered ceramic caps. In parts of the circuit where the audio needs to go through a cap with a value greater than 1uf I use film caps in parallel to achieve the needed capacitance without using an electrolytic. This retains the natural character of the guitar and playing dynamics without artificial transients and strange note decay envelopes.

And to be honest, using the high quality film caps is relatively expensive. As is using a 30VDC rail to rail bipolar power circuit. As is using opto-isolators for all audio switching functions. Tonally it's all worth it, but, and this is cards on the table time, just the cost of the opto-isolators, the bipolar power circuit, and the op-amp for the buffer in the Telos comes to about $40 per pedal. And that's buying in bulk quantities. So just those aspects of my design philosophy cost more than the entire list of components needed to build most pedals on the market. But again, the sound justifies it.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

That's like asking “which kid do you love the most?” I'm proud of them all.

The Telos, because it is completely mine, in the sense that it isn't derived from any pre-existing circuits. The Telos has a lot going on inside, but for the user it's a very simple pedal to use, and the only negative feedback I've received is people saying it's so versatile they can't find just one setting to use (so can they please have another?).

The Triad because it's a really great implementation (if I can say that) of an existing circuit (Korg SDD-3000) that I improved and expanded upon without losing what made it's inspiration great.

The 3.14 because it does the great fuzz and distortion sounds l love from Hendrix and Gilmour without the noise floor, unreliability, and variation from unit to unit, and it does a much wider range of tones with more control than any other “classic fuzz” pedal out there.
That said, the Triad remains my most popular offering, and it is, if I may say so, a great sounding pedal. As more people use and hear the Telos, I hope it rivals its older brother.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The first version of the Triad was a beast because it had so many wires, many of which had to be insulated, and the assembly was difficult. Learning how to be a pedal designer also means learning how to design something which is easy to assemble. That was a hard learning curve, but I think I got it now.

Of my current offerings, the Telos is the most time consuming because it has the most components and the most pots/wires. I looked into PCB-mounted pots with long leads but in testing they were too prone to vibration noise/bad solder joints. As much of a PITA as wires are, they are the best approach for a reliable stage worthy pedal. Pots are secured to the chassis and connected to the board with Teflon-coated silver stranded wire with just enough slack so as not to strain the connections.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Triad. This is both because it's been out for five years now (though I really updated the design in late 2010) and because the Korg SDD-3000 (from which the Triad preamp circuit is derived) is so closely associated with The Edge from U2. He's very influential for a lot of players, myself included, so many of them take a close look at the Triad. And the Triad does that sound perfectly (unless you like the background noise from "the real thing").

But it does more than "just" the U2 sound. It's wonderful with just about any good quality tube amp that has some headroom without massive saturation. Get a Strat on the neck pickup, a Triad, and a good Bassman or Plexi (or, yes, AC30) and life is good.

What does the future of Psionic Audio look like?

Our focus is on innovative products that either offer creative possibilities no other products do or do things much better and with more flexibility than competing products. We won't be doing a chorus or a heavy metal distortion pedal or a TS clone just to have "our version". But we do have some cool new things coming in the next few months and are looking at ways to expand our product line and produce larger quantities while keeping the quality level insanely high.

That's really the balancing act – making a really high quality pedal while keeping the price realistic and scaling the business up. In every aspect of the business there are compromises I won't make, from using cheaper components to keep the price down to marking up the price to attract dealers – it costs X amount to make high quality pedals by hand, and the dealer markup would add another 40%. And there are definitely things I could do to get the price lower – PCB mounted cheap pots, not separating DC ground, signal ground, and shield ground, etc, but you'd hear those compromises, believe me.

Are you working on any new products?

I have three very cool new pedal designs up my sleeve right now, with a few more in mind. Too soon to spill the beans on them, but to get sneak peeks, updates, and other inside scoop stuff, join our mailing list or Facebook page.

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