[interview] Smallsound/Bigsound: Brian Hamilton

Here's FXDB's interview with Brian Hamilton of Smallsound/Bigsound:

How did Smallsound/Bigsound start?

I got into building pedals just as I was finishing college, about 7 or 8 years ago. I studied synthesis and performance and had a strong grasp of signal flow, sound design and different ways to manipulate sound. That turned into a short stint with circuit bending to discover new ideas and sounds, but I became frustrated by the lack of understanding about the circuits and decided to build some basic circuits to strengthen my knowledge. Guitar effects can be very simple and coupled with the fact that there is a large DIY scene with some very smart people, it was easy to become wrapped up in that world.

mallsound/Bigsound came about from making a bass fuzz (which became the Team Awesome! Fuzzmachine) for an old bandmate. It's just been me, myself and I the whole time, though i like to refer to the company as "we" on the website just in case anyone comes aboard!

Primarily, I was inspired and influenced by close friends - most of whom are very talented musicians and artists with really great ideas regarding sound and aesthetics. That being said, I learned a great deal of the basics from two great friends - one of whom is a professor of electrical engineering at a university in Boston, the other is a sound engineer who also repairs tube amps, mixing consoles and builds effects pedals. I also received a tremendous amount of help from the online DIY scene - most notably DIY Stompboxes and electro-music.com - both excellent forums.

Where does the name come from?

To be perfectly honest, I'm not really sure! It just sort of happened that I wrote the words down and liked the way they looked together. In my opinion, the name has some strong imagery associated with it and simply captures the aesthetic I'm going for. Oddly, I prefer it to be all lowercase letters for some reason...

There isn't an "official" logo at the moment as I'm pretty fickle about the artwork and prefer to keep things evolving and changing. I use a lot of layered images in photoshop of polaroids I've taken and found photos to create different logo ideas for stickers, avatars, etc.

What sets Smallsound/Bigsound apart from other builders?

I don't think that there is necessarily one particular reason that Smallsound/Bigsound if unique. That is, I believe that a well-balanced combination of positive traits are what truly set me apart; the experimental, yet practical nature of the designs, the overall aesthetic, the high-quality of the builds and an extremely hands-on approach to customer service.

How do you start on a new pedal?

A new Smallsound/Bigsound pedal can come from anywhere! A sonic concept I've had for years, a request from a customer, an idea from another circuit, a sound from a record... It generally takes me some time to research different approaches to a circuit, breadboarding and testing, PCB layout, designing the layout and graphics - it could take a month to a year depending on the complexity of the pedal! I'm pretty loose with my names and I have no idea where they come from usually...

How do you name your pedals?

The Team Awesome! Fuzzmachine came from a girl I used to work with at a health food store in NYC. She just used to say team awesome a lot and I liked it.

The year4545 comes from the 1969 Zager and Evans song "In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)". I've heard that song so many times for some reason and something about the lyrics and the overall recording quality and instrumentation made sense for the name of a very extreme noise-making fuzz box.

Fuck overdrive comes from the fact that I couldn't really find an overdrive that I liked... hence the statement, "fuck overdrive..".

As for some of the one-offs I've done? Guuhgh? Blargg-o-tron-o-tron? Something is just wrong with me...

Can you tell us something about the production process?

All pedals are built and assembled in-house by myself.

The circuits are all built using PCBs that I lay out myself in PCB design software named EagleCAD. I strive to use board-mounted potentiometers when possible, with switches and jacks being wired off board. The enclosures are standard hammond-style enclosures that most builders use and are partially pre-drilled... I do the rest of the drilling myself and hate every moment of it. The finishing and graphic design is something I do revel in, though. My production pedals are silk-screened over bare aluminum - with the designs done by either myself, my girlfriend or a talented designer named Jeremy Withers. At this point, my customers generally leave me to my own devices when doing custom art and the designs incorporate a wide variety of mediums and techniques - collage, photo re-purposing, magazine and periodical cutouts, photoshopped images, leaves, spraypaint, stencils, stamps, marker and pens, etc. etc.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Extremely important. I don't know what else to say!

How important is parts selection?

For most of the parts I use, I've gone through a bit of trial and error with selecting parts that cost-effective, low profile, reliable and consistent. Once I find something I like, I stick with it - I'm not particularly concerned with NOS or mojo.

Most proud? Toughest build? Most popular?

So far, I have to say that I am most proud of the Fuck Overdrive. I just haven't seen or heard another pedal out there that does what it does - simulate, to a certain degree, the sound of a failing amplifier. Others claim to get that sound, but I just haven't heard anything else crackle, distort and compress in the same way like the fuck overdrive does.

The toughest pedal I've built so far must have been my the first one I ever built - a fuzz pedal from the IndyGuitarist DIY book. It was just very frustrating and tedious, but I eventually got it working! The mistakes and mishaps with that one were endless, but I certainly learned quite a bit early on about troubleshooting.

The Team Awesome! Fuzzmachine used to be my most popular pedal, but then I added some more pedals to the line... ;-) The fuck overdrive has been getting a lot of attention lately and for good reason.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I have made some pedals for notable artists (as mentioned earlier) but I don't have any really cool stories or anything.

I build pedals mostly intended for sound designers, experimental musicians and performers looking for something just outside of the mainstream. I arrived there through a mix of my own personal aesthetic and the desire to fill certain market niches that I don't see filled.

What does the future of Smallsound/Bigsound look like?

The current state of Smallsound/Bigsound is one of contentment. Even though I would like to add some more dealers to my list and release a few ideas I've been thinking about and working on, I am really happy where things are at the moment. Things have been moving steadily upward and I'm confident that they will continue in that direction... My main focus is on being unique; making niche pedals that serve a purpose, yet exhibit exploratory qualities and have a strong aesthetic and design sensibility.

Are you working on any new products?

I'm currently working on a handful of different ideas; more than i can handle, actually!

A neat treble booster, named the sparkle motion, which can also do a huge range of clean to dirty, treble-y to bass-y and works well with high output instruments. I've already done a short run of 15, but they will be available by the end of the summer at retailers.

A clean blend circuit with dual active EQs, named the best friend (more info on the ss/bs site), which I may have available by the time this is posted.

Another very unique overdrive, a lo-fi warble pedal, a weird analog delay, a revival of a super-cool discontinued pedal from a well-known brand and possibly a tremolo are all on the not-so-distant horizon...

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