[interview] Rothwell Audio Products: Andrew Rothwell

Here's FXDB's interview with Andrew Rothwell of Rothwell Audio Products.

Rothwell Audio Products is run by Andrew Rothwell and located in Lancashire, England.

How did Rothwell Audio Products start?

I built my first pedal when I was still at school back in the 1970s. It was a design for a fuzz box which appeared in one of the hobbyist electronics magazines popular at the time. It was actually a copy of a fuzz face, though I didn't know that then. I thought it sounded great, but I was only young and I probably wouldn't think much of it now.

We all have to get help from somewhere - no-one is born with this knowledge. I built circuits from magazines to start with. Later, when I became more knowledgeable, I modified circuits and then designed them from scratch. I studied electronics text books and read all the magazine articles on audio electronics I could find. I studied physics at university and later worked at British Aerospace. British Aerospace had a huge technical library on microfilm and I spent quite a long time studying everything I thought was relevant. My interest went beyond guitar effects and I designed and built hi-fi power amps, microphone pre-amps, mixers... all kinds of things. I started learning about valves by pulling apart a Marshall and copying the circuit. It was a rare Marshall Mercury (look it up) that a friend had found on a tip! There was no internet back then and information about valves was hard to come by. I ended up designing hi-fi equipment for a well-known British hi-fi company in the 1990s.

Rothwell Audio ProductsWhere do the name and logo come from?

The business is named after me, but it's called Rothwell Audio Products rather than Rothwell Pedals or Rothwell Effects because we make hi-fi products as well as guitar effects.

I wanted a logo that was reminiscent of classic engineering from the 1950s and 1960s when rock and roll was in its formative years, something to conjure up an impression of the old-fashioned values of quality and longevity, not something transient and disposable.

What sets Rothwell Audio Products apart from other builders?

None of our pedals are copies of anyone else's. The overdrives use filters before and after the distortion circuits so that the top end doesn't go horribly brittle and the bottom end doesn't turn to mush. Our pedals feature cascaded gain stages which build the distortion gradually rather than using one brutal stage of distortion. In that respect they behave more like an amp does than most pedals do.

How do you start on a new pedal?

It starts with me having an idea for something a bit different. Sometimes it can go from the drawing board to production in about six months but it can take a lot longer. I think the Love Squeeze took something nearer two years. Rothwell Hellbender

How do you name your pedals?

Not really, except the Hellbender is actually a type of salamander found in North America. I just came across the word somewhere and thought it sounded cool.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

All the pedals are designed in-house and they're all assembled in-house but we use sub-contractors to produce metalwork to our designs and to do things like powder coating. Coordinating the production process is quite a challenge when various sub-contractors are involved.

All the circuits are designed by me from scratch, and I design the circuit boards and the internal layout. The circuit boards are made for us by a specialist circuit board maker in the UK. Some of our enclosures are die-cast and some are laser cut and folded sheet steel, again made by a UK sub-contractor. The enclosures are powder coated with tough polyester finishes by another UK specialist to our requirements. Some enclosures we have screen printed, some have a polyester overlay, and the Heartbreaker has a panel produced by a process called anodic printing which is a hi-tech way of anodizing aluminium to give a high quality and tough printed finish.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I like them to look good and look professional but crazy paint-jobs and wacky graphics don't really interest me.

Is parts selection important?

I'm a big believer in circuit design. Taking a poor design and then making it with expensive components won't give you a good pedal, it will just give you an expensive pedal that sounds poor. There are too many pedal makers out there that copy a very basic circuit like a Tubescreamer or a Fuzz Face and then try to convince people it's good because it uses "premium components". Bullshit. If you use, for example, a 100nF capacitor where a 10nF capacitor would sound ten times better, it doesn't matter how much you paid for it, you would still be better off with a 10nF capacitor - even a cheap one. Get the circuit right first.

Of course, we don't use rubbish in our pedals, but we don't use transistors that became obsolete in the 1960s either.

Rothwell Love SqueezeWhich of your pedals makes you most proud?

The Hellbender is something I'm proud of because it was the first commercial pedal we produced and it does a great vintage Marshall sound and is very touch sensitive, but I think the Love Squeeze is the pedal I'm most proud of. That one took a long time to get just right. I hate the sound, or rather the feel, of most of the compressors available. I always felt like I was fighting the pedal when I was playing. With most compressors I feel like the harder I dig in with the pick, the less I get out. They ruin the feel of the guitar and screw up any attempt at expression because when you want to shape a phrase with an accent, the compressor makes the accented note actually quieter than the rest of the phrase.
So I started working on ideas for my own compressor and worked from first principles. I came up with an optical compressor which I was happy with but the European Union introduced new regulations in 2009 which banned certain substances and cadmium was on the list. Light dependent resistors (LDRs) are made from cadmium sulphide and don't comply with the new regulations, so I had to start working on a compressor design which didn't use LDRs. Strictly speaking, optical compressors are illegal in Europe, though quite a few manufacturers seem to get away with flouting the rules - probably because the market for guitar compressors is so small compared to computers and mobile phones and they come in under the radar. Anyway, eventually I came up with a circuit using a FET as a voltage controlled resistance, and that became the basis of the compression mechanism used in the Love Squeeze. It took a long time to fine tune it to my satisfaction but I think it was worth it.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The Love Squeeze was the toughest for all the reasons mentioned above.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Love Squeeze is the most popular, probably because it doesn't sound like all the other compressors on the market.

Rothwell HeartbreakerWho uses your pedals and for which genres?

The requirements of a metal guitarist aren't really the same as for a blues guitarist and we have to take that into consideration, but a player's sound isn't really created by just his or her overdrive pedal. The guitar, the amp and the way they play obviously has as much impact on the overall sound as the pedal, so I don't like to promote pedals as having too specific a sound. I wouldn't try to tell people that a certain pedal will make you sound like David Gilmour, for example. I think too many people are on an endless quest for a pedal which will give them a certain sound, whereas in reality they could probably get that sound from the gear they already have if they learned to use it differently or play differently.

The late Gary Moore used a Heartbreaker. Dave Murray from Iron Maiden also uses a Heartbreaker. Rothwell gets a mention in the "thank you" list on the back of Iron Maiden's 2010 album The Final Frontier.

What does the future of Rothwell Audio Products look like?

I'm always thinking about new stuff and trying out ideas. It's a continuous learning process. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't. Sometimes an idea doesn't appear to have an obvious use but it comes in useful at a later date in a different context.
The goal is just to keep selling pedals and growing the business slowly but surely. Creating a huge empire isn't a burning ambition for me.
The only thing we stopped making was the Stompjuice, a pedal power supply. It was just too expensive to make and ended up not being viable. We couldn't compete with Far Eastern switch mode power supplies which were being sold as dedicated pedal power supplies - which they weren't.

Are you working on any new products?

That's all top secret, sorry.

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