[interview] Shoe Pedals: Christopher Venter

Here's FXDB's interview with Christopher Venter of Shoe Pedals.

Shoe Pedals is a one person operation created and run by composer CJM Venter. It is located in Meriden, Connecticut, USA.

How did Shoe Pedals start?

I started many years ago by building a ESV Fuzz kit from Build Your Own Clone. It took me all day to figure out what I was doing and I said to myself, how the hell do people do this for a living? I sort of gave up on doing pedals for a while after that but I kept wanting pedals to do things they didn't really do. I started commissioning custom work from a few single person builders like Mellowtone and Young Pedals and I realized I really liked the design process, so after a lot of practice and research, I eventually was able to start doing all of the design and building myself.

My father and amp builder/tech Cono Fusco (Queens, NY) have probably been the biggest help in teaching me electronics. I am, by education, a Master in English and also in Interdisciplinary Humanities, so electronics is not something I went to school for. My dad, who is now a photographer, went to school for computer science and was a programmer for many years. He was trained in analog electronics as well and taught me a lot about the basic concepts growing up. When I started seeing how I could use them to make pedals these ideas made a lot more sense to me and I was finally able to ask the right questions to really understand how to use them to manipulate audio.

My friend and amp builder Cono Fusco has also been a great help. He's an excellent amp designer and, of course, works with tube-based technology and high voltage designs while I work in solid state and low voltage so the strategies are a bit different.

Besides that, my friend Derek Warwas is a great guitarist who knows a lot about different gear and is a very harsh and honest critic. He is often looking for a pedal to do something totally different from what I want it to do (and he has a much lower tolerance for noise/experimental sounds than I do) so his input is a big help in expanding my perspectives beyond the circle of sort of audio perverts I'm used to hanging out with.

Shoe PedalsWhere do the name and logo come from?

The first Shoe pedal (an early Silver Apple) had no labels whatsoever on it when it was first shown to friends and customers at a small music shop in Brooklyn, NY. It was an exciting moment and I hadn't thought to prepare for really showing off the pedal so, at the store, I borrowed a sharpie used for writing price tags at the shop and labeled all the controls. When I got to the footswitch, I wrote the word SHOE with an arrow pointing to the switch. I did the same thing on the next few pedals before switching to paint for the markings. People started calling them those SHOE pedals and started calling me the SHOE guy so it became the name of the brand.

The logo is a reproduction of the original hand-written SHOE and arrows footswitch labels.

What sets Shoe Pedals apart from other builders?

The Shoe pedals design philosophy is pretty much as follows:

  1. I try to make pedals that cause you to treat your guitar as a different instrument and get you to play differently.

  2. I do not release pedals that I would not use.

  3. I will not release a clone of another pedal and I try to only release pedals that have a texture, feature set, or sound that is sufficiently different from the other pedals I've played.

  4. a. Weird pedals should also sound "good." That is, a pedal can do crazy things, sound strange, and mangle your guitar signal to an incredible degree, but they should do so and still sound pleasing and musical.

    b. "Normal" pedals should sound or perform better than any other similar pedals I've tried before they are released. That's not to say that someone else doesn't have an equally good or nicer-sounding design somewhere, but I won't release anything that doesn't improve on or differentiate itself from something else I've played.

  5. Pedals should be easy to repair if something goes wrong and as robust as possible, so I always use the nicest hardware I can find and keep it mounted off-board, so my boards do not get damaged irreparably if you drop a guitar onto the pedal or something. All wiring is done with military-grade wire and all soldering is done by hand in the USA. All pedals are 100% human tested and, if necessary, tuned so they sound as good as possible.

  6. Pedals can be modified in a lot of ways if you place a direct order. Do you want the pedal to be darker or brighter have an extra control or whatnot? Why not?

How do you start on a new pedal?Shoe Pedals Spitvalve

There are a few different starting points for me. I typically have a conceptual idea in my head (either for a circuit or for a sound) and then I either draw a circuit that I think will achieve that sound or draw the interesting circuit. Sometimes, maybe this is silly, I will also have an idea for a pedal name and challenge myself to figure out how something with that name should sound and behave.

I then play with the circuit on paper and come up with values that I think will be a good starting point. From there, I build the circuit on breadboard or a PCB that can be adapted to hold that circuit (which is rarely the case) and I refine the starting point values until the pedal sounds its best up to that point.

Then I build a prototype board on perf-board in most cases and install it into a generic enclosure so I can test out control ranges and values and refine them from what I guess will be a good starting point. I then play the pedal for a while and see if I still find it satisfying the next day and the next. I also try it out with different amps and guitars to see if any additional controls need to be added or ranges expanded in order to get it to work with a variety of rigs.

After that I transcribe the final circuit electronically and design a PCB (I used to have someone do this step for me before I had the right software to do it).

After the PCBs are fabricated by a board house I build the final product. The time this takes ranges from a little over a month from concept to board fabrication to several months or even years, but to be fair that's usually because I got busy with something else and forgot I was working on the other design (Spitvalve, I'm looking at you).

How do you name your pedals?

The inspirations for my pedal names are kind of various. My background is in creative writing and literary theory so I am not the kind of person who tends to give pedals a name that's not thought through.

It has to sound good and roll off the tongue, preferably it also leaves you with a strong mental image. Sometimes I will go simple and name a pedal after someone who, in my impressionistic interpretation, I think it sounds like. The Robert is named after Robert Fripp because it feels like Robert Fripp to me, but I also think it's sort of nice to be able to refer to your pedal by its first name. It feels kind of personal and that's probably why people like Paul C's Timmy a lot, too, besides its performance.

Shoe Pedals Savior MachineSometimes I will combine this "sounds like my mental impression of x" theme and connect it to a song or band but typically it has to be a song that evokes a strong mental image or interesting concept. This is how the Savior Machine (David Bowie song and great image of robot Jesus) and Plume (Smashing Pumpkins song and mental image, to me, of a fountain of sound) got their names. Silver Apple is so named because it's an oscillating fuzz and the great psychedelic band Silver Apples had a song called oscillations (also it's just a wonderful mental image).

I also sometimes name things for terrible horror and grindhouse movies. The Frog kind of sounds like a frog but it's named after the film Frogs. Black Samurai was an early one as well. Kung Fuzz had a footswitch at one point named Jim Kelly and was meant for that nasty old kung fu movie fuzz sound, etc.

In the future you'll see more pedals that reference literary theory, social thinkers, authors, and philosophers. It will all be very fun and postmodern and pretentious at once.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

All pedals are built and designed in house by me.

Shoe pedals are made using fabricated PCB construction, high quality through-hole components, and do not use board-mounted hardware in order to provide the greatest consistency, durability, and repair-ability.

Enclosures are typically purchased powder coated and drilled but graphics are applied by hand using high quality Japanese ink and rubber stamping. Because of this no two Shoe Pedals look exactly alike. The Silver Apple's brushed aluminum finish, however, is done by hand in house.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I think it's very important. It took me a while to come upon the right look for the pedals, actually. I wanted them to definitely feel hand-made since they are, so I wasn't all that excited about having them screen printed outside but hand painting the boxes wasn't really something I was happy with for a few reasons. I'm decent at design but not so much at painting so the pedals didn't look anywhere near as good as they sound. So, I started experimenting with ink and stamp graphics and I really liked the results. The pedals still all come out slightly different from one another and the texture of the stamping adds a nice contrast to the typically glossy enclosures, but it also looks much cleaner and minimalistic. Plus, let's face it. If you have the choice of a pretty product and an ugly product who is really going to gravitate towards the ugly one unless they're being ironic (ok, to be fait, I'm guilty of that sometimes).

Is parts selection important?

Yes and no. I do not like to use many NOS components. That's fine if you're looking to recreate a vintage pedal but I feel it's important for me to try not to do that. The great classic pedals were made with components that were new at the time and the best available (or sometimes just available), and I think the same should apply to new pedal designs. So, I prefer to work with current production or plentiful components as much as possible. Now, I also don't want to use "crappy" components, so I do test components to make sure they're within what I consider my tolerance for that kind of part in that location. I also use only metal film resistors as they do not add a lot of noise and I prefer the sound of them. Hardware maybe gets the most scrutiny by brand. Shoe Pedals PixelI only use very tough Neutrik Jacks, the switches I have found to feel most solid and operate nicely, and the same thing for power jacks. I also use fused stranded milspec wire to connect the board to all the hardware which is maybe a bit less pretty than solid core wiring or regular stranded in some cases, but I find it's very resistant to failure.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

That's a tough question. I'll give two answers:

  1. The Savior Machine because it's my subtlest and possibly "nicest" sounding pedal. Every time I step on it I am very satisfied with how my guitar sounds and I just want to play.

  2. The Pixel because it's such a weird pedal and forces you to approach your instrument as if it's a different instrument. Also, I just love what people are doing with it. Deerhoof, especially.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

I did this crazy pedal called the Party Time which took me forever to make. It was a custom build I did in trade to another builder and it had basically a modified Kung Fuzz on one half and a crazy souped up version of the Frog in it as well AND it had the ability to be used as kind of a standalone monosynth because you could feedback different parts of the circuit into each other and they would oscillate really nicely and be controlled by your guitar's pickup selector/volume knob/tone knob. Crazy crazy pedal.

Actually, though, I think my stereo strat was maybe the most challenging thing to do when I first did it. It had two sets of two pickups that were routed through two four way tele switches, had two separate outputs, AND, you could combine any of those settings on either set of pickups in series or parallel or use them by themselves in mono AND it had an input so you could run another guitar THROUGH the pickups.

Making that thing actually sort of got me into building pedals and led to my penchant for doing a lot of weird routing and toggling inside of pedals.

Shoe Pedals RobertWhich of your pedals is the most popular?

The Pixel and Silver Apple are the two most popular but the Robert is coming up on them pretty fast. I haven't done the tally lately to see if Pixel or Silver Apple is the most made ever as they seem to go back and forth in waves.

I think the Pixel and SA are popular for very different reasons than the Robert. Those two are sort of related and are in some ways familiar to people because they can get sounds somewhat like a Fuzz Factory but they also offer a ton of other kinds of sounds and interesting features. So in a way they are the weirdest and most unique of my pedals but also not so far out that people don't get what to do with them. Also, the Pixel is popular on bass because of Deerhoof and other bands that use it that way while the SA is more of a wild screaming sustaining guitar solo pedal.

The Robert is popular for a completely different reason. It just sounds really good and is super simple so you can basically just set it and forget it. I'm very happy that these guys are all up in the top of the popularity for very different reasons. That makes me feel like I am doing something right.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I wouldn't say Shoe pedals are typically geared towards one particular genre but they seem to be used most often by Indie Rock, Shoegaze, Alt. Rock, Experimental, Psychedelic, and Blues players. I also tend to try and make the pedals useful for bass as well as guitar, although a few of them (like the Spitvalve) don't work too well on bass.

Really, though, I just design pedals I would and do use myself. I am interested in a very broad range of musical styles and guitar tones myself. I do soundtracks, art rock, free jazz, and shoegaze so there a lot of experimental sounds have a place. However, I also play blues and psychedelic music so the more traditional sounds are something I use a lot more often when doing that. To start, I made very weird fuzz pedals mostly because I didn't know of any pedals who were doing quite the sounds I wanted.

Most of my artists are notable in Indie music circles as that's kind of who I tend to be most excited to work with and most proactive about forming relationships with (although people in a lot of genres use Shoe Pedals).

  • Deerhoof is one such band. They use Shoe Pedals extensively on the album Breakup Songs and the supporting tours.

  • The Dodos are also Shoe users and you'll hear the Pixel on some upcoming recordings I'm told.

  • The Low Anthem have Shoe Pedals as well. Shoe Pedals Plume

  • There's an absolutely fantastic local band called Florida = Death that uses my pedals too.

I'm working on some pedals at the moment, also, for Nicole Fiorentino of Smashing Pumpkins and the Cold and Lovely as well as the Flaming Lips.

I'm probably not even aware of a lot of the people who use the pedals since various studios also use them.

What does the future of Shoe Pedals look like?

I am working on a number of prototypes at the moment. Dropout (a very weird microswell/fuzz hybrid) is undergoing final revisions and aesthetic design. A very nice-sounding optical/negative feedback/FET tremolo called Dr. Hegel's Dialectic Tremulizer is also awaiting final tweaks and aesthetic design. I am in the process of expanding into more LFO-based effects and possibly adding LFO/CV capabilities to existing designs since I have a modular system in place that allows me to do this. I have also been experimenting with digital delay lines and digital control systems and would like to expand in that area.

I would eventually like to offer a lot more different types of effects but also other guitar products such as pickups and switching systems.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes. I am ALWAYS working on new pedals. The next one will probably be the Dropout which is partly a weird op amp/mosfet hybrid fuzz distortion thing but which has the rather strange feature of letting you dial in a "dropout" effect which causes your note attacks to disappear into silence for a split second. It sort of gives the impression your amp is going to explode or you're listening to something much louder than it actually is (or just sounds really broken). I am also releasing a tremolo in the near future which I am excited about because it just sounds really warm and nice. I have a kind of weird modulation pedal idea I'd like to pursue soon as well and I am also refining a delay. The Dropout and Tremolo will be out within a couple months but I am still at earlier stages on the other guys.

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