[interview] RTZ Audio: Bob Starr

Here's FXDB's interview with Bob Starr of RTZ Audio:

How did RTZ Audio start?

I've been playing guitar some 35 years since age 14. I was always interested in effects and pedals during that time after hearing my first Hendrix songs and then Robin Trower. My fascination with the Uni-Vibe began during this era and continues till this day - it's one of the best analog effects ever invented in my opinion.

Many, many folks have inspired and mentored me during my lifetime and still do today. Rick Chinn, formerly of Mackie Systems and Symetrix, has served as my mentor and friend since I first began building upgrade repro electronics for the Ampex machines. I met Rick and many other super talented and inspirational people on the Ampex Users Mailing list maintained by David Josephson. Rick has helped me all along the way and we've been building, designing and playing with our own gear ever since. These guys understand analog audio like few people can began to comprehend, I've been very lucky to learn from these guys and have great friends over the years.

Where do the name and logo come from?

Return To Zero

RTZ began building replacement audio electronics for Ampex 440, 1100 and 1200 studio recorders back in the 90's. The three rings in our logo symbolize the flux of a magnetic tape recorder at the head gap.

What sets RTZ Audio apart from other builders?

The Internet is full of endless schematics and copied designs, but there's still no substitute for knowledge, learning and making every effort you can to understand the details. If we reproduce a classic design, then we try to make real improvements or a truly different variation or implementation. But, we endeavor to create the very best PCB layout and analog design we can because we truly love audio and what we do. Rick and other friends bring various electronic and analog engineering skills that I lack, while I bring many years of PCB design, electronics, software and commercial product design skills. Basically we complement each other and make a great team. I also have many other engineering friends I've come to know and work with via my PCB contracting work. Currently I'm working with Eric Ingram at Ingram Engineering; he's another good friend I met recently at the AES meetings.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Basically it's something I've seen, listened to or used that I can't get out of my head because it was really cool or just sounded great in one way or another. The Uni-Vibe, Fuzz Face and Octavia truly inspired me as a kid and I still love these today. I've always held a deep appreciation for vintage gear and designs by some of the best designers and companies of bygone eras - this is what generally inspires me.

Once we begin tinkering with a design, it's generally on a perf board or prototype circuit board. We may spend months or years going back and forth over schematics, layouts and enclosure designs considerations. If we get a winner or something that truly shows promise, then we may move to a prototype PCB and enclosure design. Once we have a prototype that shows promise, we then look at possibility of building a small quantity of units for evaluation by various users, friends and customers that have worked with us over the years.

How do you name your pedals?

Vibezilla is fairly obvious. My friend Richard Hall and John Spears at Monster Effects decided we should go with this name first time they heard this monster.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We hire out CNC machine and metal work as needed. We design and specify all mechanicals and artwork to have our enclosures contracted out. All the prototype units are built and designed by hand in house. We do our own silk screening and artwork for all prototypes in house. All of our PCB's are hand stuffed, tested and burned in right here in the home shop.

Rick and I do all the design work. My specialty is PCB design, layout and CAD. I do 3D modeling and mechanical design as well for our products. Currently we use cast aluminum type enclosures for our pedals, but can move to custom metal if volume ever dictates. Our circuit boards typically see many weeks or months of meticulous design to suit our personal tastes rather than what marketing hype dictates. All of our designs are truly engineered designs, from the circuit design to the enclosure design.

We also maintain relationships with local machine and metal shops to have our enclosures CNC milled and powder coated with epoxy ink silkscreen art. Since we actually use the gear we design and build, our designs reflect the type of components and built quality we expect for our use - it's a labor of love mainly.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Look is very important! We focus on building gear that looks and feels professionally designed and built; like something you'd put in an airplane or piece of test equipment because you know it will work and work good while being heavy duty at the same time. I've always loved the look and feel of military and test equipment gear (eg old Tek Scope stuff).

Is parts selection important?

Parts are of supreme importance to us, but some tradeoffs have to be made depending on availability and cost given the world today. While we'd generally like to have heavy duty parts and components that are made here in the US, it's just not practical (or even possible) these days. For better or worse, we truly live in a global market and economy today. Still, we always gravitate to the best components and design approaches we can offer; unfortunately this doesn't always make good business sense.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

About 18 years or so ago, I designed what came to be known on the net as the "Bobtavia". It was loosely based on the Octavia circuit, but reimplemented using the common LM386 amp chip and very few other components. The Bobtavia is amazingly simple but gives a really good Octavia effect, I like it better than the original Tychobrahe.

We are also particularly proud of our Vibezilla UniVibe type pedal, it has a very deep and hypnotic throb, much deeper than original type vibes. We spent the course of two years tweaking and refining this design. And while Vibezilla may not be for the classic sounding UniVibe user, it's got a sound that is unique and a really powerful throb - I love it!

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The Vibezilla was the most difficult effect we produced. The cost of parts alone nearly wiped us out before we sold the first one. I suppose we should have built a smaller production run initially, but it's hard to get parts in small quantities without paying much higher prices. Most products are only viable if they can be sold in large quantities these days unfortunately. It's hard to source and find parts for nearly everything unless you're a cell phone or personal computing type device manufacturer selling units by the millions.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

Our Vibezilla is the most popular product, but it's only sold in limited quantities as we can only build these in small quantities. Another problem is the end of life issues facing many of the parts we use. Unfortunately, through-hole and other rugged type components used in small production type applications are disappearing very quickly.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

We don't care who uses our gear, long as the end result produces soul! Maybe I'm getting old, but, there seems to be a real lack of soul and true soulfulness in life, music and gear these days. Thanks god we're members of the local AES (Audio Engineering Society) chapters - it gives us the chance to get together with folks in the area with similar interest and passion for audio gear & design.

Hard to say if there are any famous users, we just work with whoever likes our stuff; it doesn't matter if it's the kid in the basement next door or somebody out on a world tour. The main thing is that our customers really like our gear and want to use it because of the way it sounds - not what the latest pedal pusher on the internet is spouting about.

What does the future of RTZ Audio look like?

We hope to offer more pro-audio type gear but the pedal market remains uncertain. The margins and unending sea of competitors offering similar products of every flavor makes it very difficult to stand out or introduce new products in saturated markets. We simply don't have the resources to mass market products or center our business around marketing campaigns and hype. Our gear will remain boutique small production type products that are sold mainly by word of mouth and recommendations from friends.

Are you working on any new products?

We have a couple designs in the queue, like our Saturn Overdrive pedal. It's showing great promise, but it's not at point we want it to be yet.

Our newest King-Vibe sounds fantastic with the true classic Uni-Vibe sounds. This features our lamp flasher design used in the Vibezilla. We hope to produce these on a custom order basis, but the chip we use for the flasher (the venerable XR2206) has been discontinued. We may still produce a few of these though if enough customer interest exists and we have sourced some extra parts inventory.

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