[interview] Skreddy Pedals: Marc Ahlfs

Here's FXDB's interview with Marc Ahlfs of Skreddy Pedals:

How did you get into building pedals?

As soon as I picked up the guitar, I was always into "tone," and all my friends knew of my obsession. My very first electric guitar rig was an old Mongomery Wards tube amp and a few stompboxes, in the early 80's. It was hit or miss with the stompboxes, but the amp delivered great tones at gig volumes.

Then I played bass for a long time, and in the early 90's I wanted to put together what I thought would be my first "professional quality" guitar rig. I got a Roland JC 120 amp and a Rocktron Pro Gap rackmount preamp. Struggled with that setup for probably a good couple of years before ditching both and seeking out a decent tube amp and oldschool stompboxes. Then the long journey of figuring out which stompboxes worked to get the tones I wanted and why many (most) did not.

This led me, naturally, into discussions of vintage pedals and mods to get modern ones to sound like the old ones, and of course "boutique" pedals. I forced myself to learn how to read schematics and how electronics work (even though I had taken an electronics course in high school--it didn't take; plus I learn better on my own. I taught myself computer programming and made a successful career out of that, and I studied economics both on my own and in college, etc.).

My first DIY build was a Fuzz Face circuit. I drew the PCB layout directly on a piece of copper clad, just using the schematic as a reference, and using an 8-pin chip socket for mounting the transistors, allowing for easy swapping, and etched it at the kitchen stove. 

The thing that got me into making pedals for sale was an original, first-edition "triangle knob" Big Muff Pi that I repaired for a friend of a friend. After I got it fixed, I was so in love with it that I inquired about buying it from the owner. He declined, saying it was a family heirloom; so I decided to clone it. That was my first product, the Skreddy Mayonaise. I didn't know it at first, but I really struck gold with my very first purchase of transistors, which were THE perfect specimens to recreate that smooth, creamy fuzz tone from the original.

Who inspired you?

I was inspired, firstly, by Analog Man (Mike Piera), with his Tube Screamer mods. Then as I got into creating circuits from scratch, I found R.G. Keen and Jack Orman and whoever created the "Plate to Plate" website very helpful. I was on the old Ampage forums for a long time; and there I think the single most helpful person was Mark Hammer, who really has a great mind and creates and shares a lot of his own highly under-rated and seldom-credited circuit ideas. My first "boutique" pedal purchase was a Fulltone Fulldrive II. Loved it for a long time, and Mike Fuller was regarded by me as sort of the godfather of the boutique industry at the time -- he certainly seemed like the leading figure there for a number of years.

I was inspired quite a bit, during a formative period in my DIY period, by Joe Gagan and his work with fuzzes and adjustable input capacitors (which he credits Jack Orman for the idea). I got early help from Stuart Castledine when I had used the wrong layer in my first CAD layout of the Mayonaise and of course then made it work by reversing the transistor leads (and I mirrored the image of the layout for the production unit).

It was a super awesome and fortuitous experience to meet Bjorn Juhl (BJF) at a gear fest in Chicago. Not only did he advise me to choose a different amp to demo my pedals there (saved me from a horrible experience of sounding like shit), but he took a personal interest in me and has given me lots of great advice over the phone since them. I've also gotten some useful email advice from Ed Rembold (ToneCzar) that was really relevant to what I was doing at the time.

Brad Fee at ToneFactor has been an incredible help to my business and is one of the coolest people in the world to deal with and chat with. I love all my dealers, but Brad was just a great boost early on in my business and continues to be to this day.

Don Rusk is the guy who got me to redesign my BMP clone into a small MXR-sized box, and I did a few custom paint designs with him. Devi Ever and I started at roughly the same time I think, and I think she turned a few of my best customers onto me. Adam Fifield used to help me source potentiometers and always likes to order one of everything I make to this day. I have a lot of amazing customers, and most of my earliest ones keep coming back for more throughout the years.

Of course, none of this would have happened without Mike Matthews, the original godfather of stompboxes.

Where do the Skreddy Pedals name and logo come from?

In the 80's, I had the nickname "Skredd," which was taken from the Muppet "Scred," who was featured in the first season of Saturday Night Live, just before the Muppet Show was created. Here's Scred in his most touching moment onscreen.

I liked the Echoplex logo, which is kind of like the stereophonic logos that were on album covers in the 60's; squeezed in the middle and fat at both ends. The font I use is a Led Zeppelin-inspired font like from the Houses of the Holy album.

What sets Skreddy Pedals apart from other builders?

I think every builder probably has their own niche and their own emphasis and their own business model and their own marketing plan. I can't speak for them, and I don't feel right directly comparing my pedals with those of other builders; I like the pedals to speak for themselves and find those players who will love them the most for what they are. There are plenty of great products that I don't make and never will.

How do you start on a new pedal?

A pedal's genesis always starts as a desire to do something musically. This might take the form of modifying the design of a classic circuit to make it do something I want it to do, or it might take the form of just finding a way to make a new circuit from scratch to do something I want. Now, the word "scratch" might be a little misleading. We have over a century of established electronics development and libraries full of books on theory as well as practical examples. So any circuit anybody designs will always be composed of recognizable blocks of existing, historical designs, however highly modified they end up being in the end.

How do you name your pedals?

Choosing a name is fun and can tap into some very creative circuits in the brain and thus is a mysterious process. But sometimes I've just chosen names based on songs that the pedal reminds me of.

I think my biggest guitar influences are David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Robin Trower, and Billy Corgan. I sometimes include references to their work in my pedal names, but not always.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Cynthia does the majority of building right now, and I do R&D, repairs, occasional building, shipping, and lots of customer-related stuff; plus I sit and talk on effects forums a lot, which is a point of friction here at the house. I consider that part of my business model, but of course I do spend way too much time online for my own good.

We have a couple of friends, one is an avionics technician, and the other is a hydraulics mechanic, who do some contract work with us in small batches, either stuffing boards or final wiring them into enclosures. 

My two teenaged boys help from time to time with transistor testing and box drilling.

For the first couple of years, we etched all our own circuitboards. We've found it much more efficient to order them instead. That frees up our time for more important things plus the quality is much higher (you get through-hole plating, double-sided designs, solder mask, and silkscreen).

We've always used Hammond or equivalent-sized enclosures. We're trying to completely eliminate our in-house painting and get them all powdercoated and silkscreened eventually, but there are still a few things we do in house with painting and labeling. Our in-house labeling would either be waterslide decals under several coats of lacquer or sticky-back paper labels under several coats of lacquer.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I was an artist long before I ever got into music or electronics. So I think there's always been a lot of importance attached to my graphics both by myself and my customers. Early on, I would do custom graphics and colors all the time, but that's kind of painted myself into a corner now that I'm trying to grow the company larger than my garage and get into more efficient means of production.

How important is parts selection?

Everything matters. It just depends on the needs of the individual effect what kind of parts I choose for it. If there's a certain effect I can only do with a certain NOS transistor, I'll discontinue that line completely when the parts run out. If I come out with a variant that works with a different transistor (and is tuned and optimized for that new part), I'll give it a different name. I've always used a lot of carbon composition resistors. I'm employing a much more judicious use of those now wherever noise is a factor.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

Every time I turn on the Echo, I'm very satisfied. Currently (just because it's the latest thing) I'm most proud of the Paradigm Shift. It's just getting started as far as production, and there are none in people's hands just yet; but I have high hopes for its long and fruitful life cycle. But that and my Echo each both spent a good year in gestation and underwent a good 10 or more iterations and revisions and refinements and tweaks here at home before ever seeing the light of day or having a sound clip recorded.

It seems like the Mayo is the most requested one; and of course that's been discontinued for years now.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

The biggest artists are kind of hard to get ahold of. A few of them have my pedals, but I don't get feedback about them. I think there's a pattern here of the most successful musicians being too busy touring or creating (or whatever they love to do) and not so much being obsessed with any particular pedal.

My pedal-building philosophy has always been from the beginning and continues to be that I make things that I really want to play with. If I make something, that means either there is something lacking in the market, or its availability is limited, or it doesn't exist exactly the way I would prefer it to be. What I'm ending up with is a line of pedals that so suits my own taste that I rarely find a need to break out anybody else's products for my own playing enjoyment. 

This is the same with my guitars (I can never just leave anything stock); my number one is a Warmoth that I custom built back in the late 90's (Bill Lawrence L-280 pickups and a neck/bridge blender in place of the middle tone control), and my number 2 is sort of a Telecaster/Les Paul hybrid that is a modified Ibanez SZ520QM with Fender SCN tele pickups, a Gibson switch, a G&L-style bass control, and custom pickguard/pickup rings (to fill up the space of the HB routs).

What does the future of Skreddy Pedals look like?

Working on continually improving our products and processes with a goal of increased productivity, lower wait times, and greater market penetration, while maintaining our current uncompromising quality standards.

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