Here's FXDB's interview with Brad Sarno of Sarno Music Solutions.
Sarno Music Solutions is run by Brad Sarno and his wife. They are located in St. Louis, Missouri - USA.
I was actually building distortion pedals in high school and my guitar teacher would sell them to his students for me. This was about 30 years ago in the early '80s. My dad was an electronics guy, ham radio stuff. He taught me to solder at a young age. I've been playing guitar since I was 15 and have always had a habit of collecting and tweaking guitar pedals. Now at 45, I'm still as into guitar pedals as I ever was. The Earth Drive pedal was actually created by my wife and musical partner Auset. She needed a pedal to help her get an amp-like tone when playing her '62 Strat thru her '68 Deluxe Reverb. Many of our gigs are very quiet and she simply can't crank the Deluxe. So we lined up about 12 boutique, mild-overdrive pedals, the usual suspects, and made a big list of what we liked and didn't like about the various sounds. That sent me to the shop to start creating, and after just a few tweaks, the Earth Drive was born.
I'm fairly independent in my creative process, but I do have my list of gurus that I will tap now and then when I get hung up on a design or circuit issue. I would say that I've been inspired by pretty much everything I've enjoyed in the past, the many designers and audio engineers. In my mind I go way back to guys like Leo Fender and Les Paul when it comes to inspiration. I'm not sure who developed the Fuzz Face, the MXR Distortion+, or the Tubescreamer, but I do tip my had to those people. I am a fan of Mike Matthews and his engineers at Electro-Harmonix. They've made some pretty inspiring pedals over the years. Obeid Khan from Ampeg has also been an inspiration and a source of knowledge for me for decades.
Sarno Music Solutions comes both from our last name and also from our inception as a "solutions" company offering custom electronic devices for specific needs or solutions. SMS was also my grandfather's initials.
We typically have a symbol of a vacuum tube (single triode) as our logo associated with the "SMS". We began this company with our vacuum tube Steel Guitar Black Box. And most of what we do is built on the use of vacuum tubes, especially high voltage and very, very cleanly run tubes.
What sets Sarno Music Solutions apart from other builders?
Philosophy - trying to find special uses and needs that haven't been well addressed by other makers, trying not to be redundant in a saturated market. USA build - chassis and boards all domestically made.
Process - all entirely hand assembled/built by me. Artwork by my wife. We're very obsessed with component selection, carbon comp where appropriate, more exotic film/foil cap's where called for, non-magnetic metal film resistors where needed, etc.
Clientele is fairly small yet very high end professionals.
How do you start on a new pedal?
As mentioned before, our most recent Earth Drive was developed for my wife's personal rig situation actually. She plays a '62 Strat into a '68 Deluxe Reverb and for some of our very quiet gigs, she simply can't crank and drive that amp to get it singing. So we were after something that would help achieve that symmetrical, push-pull amp type of clipping with a harmonic content that resembled that style of amp and also with an EQ voicing that was very neutral and did NOT color the natural tone of the guitar. The result was something much more flexible and multi-dimensional than we expected. It's been a pretty big hit. Works great for ultra-subtle drive to fairly dirty and sustaining, tubey overdrive.
Once I get a prototype working, I team up with a CAD engineer friend and we get it all in the computer. Then I do my part to refine the layout to best serve the circuit. My wife develops the graphics and color choices and even names the things. Then we send our metal files to a local St. Louis fabricator
How do you name your pedals?
The Earth Drive is named as such basically because it's got such a natural, earthy tone. And it's a drive pedal. Nothing too clever in our product names, not yet. Our Steel Guitar Black Box is so UN-clever in its naming that it's almost clever.
Can you tell us something about the production process?
We build everything at our home shop. My wife does all graphic design and shares on the audio design. I do all of the circuit design, layout, wiring, assembly, testing, etc. Just the two of us, no contractors.
Our circuits are mostly thick-trace PCB designs, but we do have our share of hand wiring as well.
Enclosures are all USA made both of steel and aluminum.
Our finishes are mostly powdercoat but we do have a preamp with a brushed/anodized aluminum faceplate.
How important is the look of your pedals?
We think the look is really important. It should be pleasing to look at over and over and over again. Also my wife Auset designs the products to look best from the most likely distance they'll be viewed. For instance, the Earth Drive is designed to read nicely from about 6' away. The Revelation is meant to read best at about 2.5' away where it will likely sit next to a steel player. Simple, clear, vivid graphics. Aesthetically pleasing. Not too cluttered or intense.
Is parts selection important?
Very, very conscious of our parts choices. That's a core ethic here at SMS. Wire type, capacitor material, resistor material, opamp or tube selection, etc. Signal path integrity is king. Everything matters.
Which of your pedals makes you most proud?
We are most proud of our Earth Drive. It's the one design that we've come up with that has truly been a hit with pro players. Both Nels Cline of Wilco and Andy Summers of The Police have found it to be a nice replacement for their Klon Centaur, which is no simple feat. At least for the moment, these guys are very enthusiastic about the Earth Drive. It's so versatile, and I guess mostly I'm proud of it because I use it every day and it serves my personal guitar tone needs better than any other drive pedal I've found.
Which of your pedals was your toughest build?
Our Revelation Tube Preamp was by far our most difficult build. Very extensive hand wiring, very laborious and time intensive. But it's the ultimate clean tube preamp.
Our most popular product to date is our Steel Guitar Black Box. It's a very high quality all-tube buffer with variable input impedance. It's become a staple among pro pedal steel guitar players as a tone enhancer and treble sweetener. It's also become very popular with acoustic instrument players as the tube circuit naturally smooths and sweetens the brittleness of piezo pickups. Not only is the treble made nicer, but the midrange becomes much less barky and less needing of heavy EQ to sound right. It's kind of a miracle box in that regard. It's also a great buffer for a guitar pedalboard so the guitar thinks it's plugged right into a tube amp, and all that before the pedals. The only other tube buffers on the market just seemed to fall short with regards to tone quality, component quality, and noise performance.
Who uses your pedals and for which genres?
For the longest time, we've specialized in niche needs type gear for pedal steel guitarists, but in more recent years we've developed more guitar related stuff. Our "Steel Guitar Black Box" is a very universal tube buffer that has been popular with pretty much anything amplified. Our Earth Drive pedal is used by guitarists and steel guitarists. Our preamps serve the pedal steel world, although our SMS Classic Tube Preamp (Jerry Garcia model) has been very popular with people going for loud, clean, tube-preamped rack rigs. Namely players going after a Jerry Garcia or David Gilmour approach, and some jazzers too.
So our most popular niche genres are the pedal steel world and the Jerry Garcia-tone world.
There are several famous musicians using gear we made: Bob Weir, Nels Cline, Andy Summers, Brent Mason, Paul Franklin, Buddy Emmons, Steve Kimock, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Dean Parks, Trey Anastasio, Jim Campilongo, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Mike Auldridge, Randy Beavers,...
What does the future of Sarno Music Solutions look like?
Short term, we have two new tube preamp designs slated for 2012 release. More details on those to come. Also working on a line level clipping device for both studio use and live stage amplification. Also a few pedals in the future, likely something heavier and fuzzier than the Earth Drive.