[interview] Red Panda: Curt Malouin

Here's FXDB's interview with Curt Malouin of Red Panda:

How did Red Panda start?

I built a few guitar pedals in college, but have mostly focused on DSP. Eric Iverson and I released a software synthesizer for BeOS called ObjektSynth back in the 1990's. It had extremely low latency and the BeBox was a very cool machine. I built some other software synths that I didn't release, but was really missing hardware. Software is great for flexibility and total recall, but it also decays as new OSes and plugin APIs come out. I find that I don't get as attached to software - maybe because I'm not sure if I will be able to use it 10 years from now. On the other hand, my TR-909 is 27 years old and I'll be using it until it falls apart.

Back in 2009, Eric sent me a YouTube video of an organ playing through a cheap guitar pedal. We started kicking around ideas, and ended up collaborating on the Bitcrusher. The Line 6 ToneCore DSP Development Kit was a great way for me to transition back into hardware.

Where do the name and logo come from?

In the middle of trying to figure out a name for the company, we took a trip to New York. My daughter and I were in the Central Park Zoo looking at the red pandas, and it struck me as a cool name. We went through Washington, DC on the same trips, saw more red pandas, and the name stuck. For the URL, I wanted something with "lab" in the name, to indicate the experimental, yet disciplined, nature of my work.

Mary Iverson designed the Red Panda logo and Eric Iverson created the logotype.

What sets Red Panda apart from other builders?

Red Panda is a 'boutique' pedal company focused on DSP. I also come from a synthesizer background, so I tend to think of the guitar, pedal board, and amp as a big modular synth. With each pedal, I try to cover standard territory as a launching point to explore new sound.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Pushing the hardware to its limit is a key part of my design process. I start with a sound or algorithm I want to explore. I enjoy programming in assembly language on fixed-point DSPs, because it forces you to come up with novel solutions, and ultimately that adds character. Trying to achieve something within constraints leads to new sounds.

Once the basic effect is sketched out and I have a working pedal, I send a few prototypes out to get feedback and iterate on the features and sound. The whole process can take anywhere from 6-18 months.

How do you name your pedals?

I try to find names that convey what the pedal is intended to do, without being too literal.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

The PCBs are partially assembled in a factory, mainly the DSP chips and supporting components. The controls, jacks, and other through hole components are hand soldered in-house. Enclosures are drilled and powder coated by a local machine shop.

Red Panda pedals use a mix of surface mount (SMT) and through-hole components, to balance all of the benefits of SMT with the flexibility of building pedals in small batches. The labels are 10 mil Lexan, which are very durable and allow high resolution, multi-color graphics.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Looks are important as part of the overall design, but shouldn't distract from function or sound. I prefer a minimalist design that communicates the purpose of each control.

Is parts selection important?

DSP chips are expensive in small quantities, and most are not friendly to hand soldering. So the first step is to select a DSP that has the right combination of price, performance, features, and is available in packages that I can work with (not BGA - for now!). Sometimes I do prototypes on two or three DSPs before deciding which one to use for a pedal.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

In terms of engineering feats, the Particle squeezes realtime granular delay and pitch shifting into 128 assembly language instructions, including an audio-triggered hold/freeze mode.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Bitcrusher has been out the longest, and people are familiar with the basic concept of bitcrushers from AudioUnit/VST plugins.

What does the future of Red Panda look like?

In 2012, I will be ramping up production and bringing out more products. My goal is to switch from part time to full time work on Red Panda.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes. I try to avoid preannouncing because I don't release a new pedal until I am totally happy with it. With the Particle, adding audio-triggered freeze and a few other features delayed the release by several months.

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