[interview] Spencer Amps: Bill Spencer

Here's FXDB's interview with Bill Spencer of Spencer Amps:

How did Spencer Amps start?

I built my first pedal around 1976 before playing an instrument. My friends didn't have a lot of money and I had a "75 Projects" book. I became fascinated with trying to understand why different types of distortion sounded different. I experimented off and on with audio projects for many years, along with a separate electronic design career. About 10 years in I switched from bass to guitar as I started messing with tube amps and indulging more deeply into effects.

Actually getting into the business involved a moment of desperation.

I've mainly been inspired by great music, the attempt to contribute something of my own in that area, and some of the musicians I have met.

Where does the name come from?

I wanted a name that could cover a whole area of my interests, which at the time was mainly amps and amplike effects. Really anything capable of distorting desirably or inevitably. I launched with 2 low-gain pedals aimed at use with amp dirt. I did expect to maybe be making some actual guitar amplifiers by now, but as my researches continue my view of amplifiers is changing.

What sets Spencer Amps apart from other builders?

Circuit design and desire for innovation. I'm just not interested in making things that other people make, it's redundant. Niches are OK, any specialized product fills a niche, but I strive to do this by creating new niches with circuits that create new possibilities.

My Mixfuzz series (e.g. SubZombie) utilizes good engineering and production to pack in more complex functions and controls than the usual dirt devices. While the base concepts were known, the result transcends expectations generated by the prior art. They also have increased my understanding of the complexity of distortion phenomena. I am now moving into some truly original distortion generating circuitry (no, this doesn't require inventing new components) and a more scientific understanding of how tones can be shaped.

In a sense, I don't think of myself as a "boutique" builder except for the business model of starting small. If I can grow the business, I'd like to make them cheap enough and widespread enough everyone can try the stuff. I don't buy ridiculously expensive pedals or amps, so don't make them.

How do you start on a new pedal?

In the case of the SubZombie, development actually took about 18 years. I originally stumbled across this *sound* and made a box, but also immediately realized the possibilities were more endless than I was ready for. In 2004 I built 2 complex prototypes and in 2005 I distilled them down to the Subzombie.

The Mystique was the result of an intensive research project over the summer of 2008, the results of which I am still digesting. On 7/20/08 I decided it was getting too intense and frustrating and decided to take it easy. About 2 weeks later, with the main thrust of experimentation stopped, I just had to try a weird circuit I'd been tossing around, breakthrough. However, this was a new sound with its own rules. It took another year and a half to refine it and produce some pedals.

How do you name your pedals?

Subzombie: The root is Zombie Fuzz. I'm not into zombies or anything and honestly it took me a few minutes to even recall the word, but as soon as I heard this *sound* it, I knew it. Subzombie itself was based on the concept of Zombie Jr., but "Sub" sounded cooler and it produces the most essential SUBset of the sounds of my original prototype.

"Mystique" was coined in advance as a take-off of the "hype and mystique" associated with expensive overdrive pedals, but rapidly became something to live up to. I considered I might have to change it.

I sometimes think I don't come up with the best names, but working titles do seem to take a role in my development process.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I currently do everything except PCBs and, sometimes, drilling. I would like to outsource part of the work, based on what services are most available and professional, in order to concentrate on the important stuff: R&D, final assembly and testing. Plus a sales department would be nice ;)

I have hand-wired and will if I think its appropriate, but strive for a more economical direction, but high ruggedness. I have circuit boards produced as the quality is amazing and it's not too expensive, and reduces wiring. Jacks and footswitches are still proper hand-wired panel mount types.

I find enclosures, painting and labeling the harder part. At the current low production rate it is appropriate that I do finishing myself, but this may change.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I do think enclosures should be painted *and* labeled or otherwise properly finished; it would save a lot of effort and problems to do as some others. I try -- its not the easiest to me.

Is parts selection important?

I use better quality than mainstream pedals, but more on the hi-fi side than the mojo side. Fewer electrolytic caps, slightly more expensive ICs, etc. Circuit design is more important, but by now I have seen that consistency can be an issue.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The design and build of the Splonkulator was completely ridiculous at the price I was asking.

Of modded pedals, I did one Mix Muff using the old tall box Black Russian with a 2-layer front panel, too much work (the NYCs are much easier). It kind of seemed motorcycle-fuzz to me originally, OK, but ended up the sweetest of the several I made.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The SubZombie has been my only pedal to achieve any real popularity yet. It is not subtle in sound and isn't too intimidating in controls, but I don't think most musicians grasp how much can be done with it, which relates not just to any specific sound of it (awesome enough), but the ability to shape the sound through the controls and playing. Or maybe they just liked the graphics: sales have dropped since I changed them.

At the same time, surely it can be improved on. I haven't decided yet whether I'm looking at an overdue update or a new pedal.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

My own taste is a huge part but I can be influenced by comments. I don't see pedals as being made for any specific genre of music, although the genre, or at least the individual musician, must be interested in exploring sound for it to make any difference.

What does the future of Spencer Amps look like?

Currently, I am recovering from a robbery and working on relocation. I was already in an R&D phase and considering the future (I have some stock and will produce pedals if there is sufficient interest). I plan to restart production, probably in 2012, of a limited and/or improved line with a better sales effort.

Are you working on any new products?

Too many.

The MIX Thing is based on the idea of clean mix distortion/fuzz with a fun, simple new method of controlling the sound through a "big knob" that can be moved with the foot, and coming through with the right tones (some perfectly good dirt tones suddenly sound ridiculous when placed aside a clean sound). It can be produced almost immediately, if I can convince myself there is a market for it.

I recently did an update to my SupraZombie mod and, while I'm questioning if mods have any future, this may inspire an update to Subzombie. Another possibility is a sequel with expanded capabilities (but $?). And I'm not finished with overdrives.

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