[interview] SubDecay: Brian Marshall

Here's FXDB's interview with Brian Marshall of SubDecay:

How did SubDecay start?

It really just came down to pure curiosity. I had been interested in electronics and music from childhood and I knew a bit about electricity from my old job in the electrical industry, but never really learned about audio circuits until a lot of information was on the internet. Around 1999 information was becoming much easier to find. Eventually I found the Harmony Central website. They had an index with a lot of schematics and DIY projects.

I built a preamp/boost, a couple of fuzzes, a direct box and an equalizer. All were built from DIY projects. I still didn't really understand how they worked. I decided I'd educate myself, bought several books and read each cover to cover several times.

I did get some really good advice from members over at DIY Stompboxes. Probably the most important advice I was ever offered was from Zachary Vex. He recommended a book: Practical Electronics for Inventors by Paul Scherz. It's still my go to source when I'm having trouble. Reading that book really allowed me to think of an idea and turn it in to something rather than digging through schematics to figure out how others had done it before.

I've also had a great relationship with Nicholas Harris over at Catalinbread. We've exchanged ideas over the years.

Where does the name come from?

I always had an interest in physics, how the universe began and how it will end. Why everything doesn't just fly apart in to chaos. While I don't think I have a real understanding of quantum physics there are little bits and pieces of it that I've read up on over the years.

I'd been reading about the possibility of sub-atomic partical decay. Specifically the idea of proton decay. An idea which has never been proven, and might even be considered impossible by people who actually understand physics. The idea is that protons have a half life. A very very long half life. After a period of billions of years half the protons in the universe break down until enough time has pass eventually there's no protons left.

All matter is held together by the attracting charges between protons and electrons, and neutrons holding the protons together. Neutrons decay if they are not in an atom. So without any protons matter ceases to exist, and the negatively charged electrons all repel each other and the universe expands infinitely at near the speed of light until it's completely empty.

I'm not sure I've really thought about it before, but I suppose I named the company after the end of the universe.

What sets SubDecay apart from other builders?

Our tag line is "Unique Sonic Concoctions".

We don't make clones and don't reference prior work in most of our products. We have a great crew and are always looking to expand our ideas and finding better ways to do things.

We keep up with demand to make sure our customers aren't stuck overpaying for used products on the open market. Often you can actually go in to a store and try our pedals without having to take a leap of faith by ordering online.

I like bringing in employees as much for their personality and good conversation as I do for any particular skills they have. When you spend so much time with a small group of people you at least hope they can stay interesting for a while. This also makes exchanging ideas easier if we are always talking and laughing.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Most of our recent products take over a year of development before they go in to production. It's not always an issue of simply drawing it up and ordering parts. Often we have ideas and save them for later. Sometimes we start on something and we keep working on it and refining it. The early stages of the Quasar DLX and Prometheus DLX were a bit different than our original ideas. Other times we will start on something and send it back to the drawing board completely.

Often the actual idea's flaws become obvious once a prototype is built, and we start over from scratch. The story of the Octasynth dates back to 2005, but the actual production version really only took two days to complete the design, including the schematic, artwork, and circuit board. The original idea became bloated and complicated over the years, but the time spent working on it made the implementation of the production version go very quickly.

The FMbot on the other hand has been a ton of work, and we still plan to make something out of it one day. We have built countless prototypes and started from scratch at least four different times. I must have at least one hundred sheets of paper full of notes, drawings and ideas.

How do you name your pedals?

Sometimes a name just seems right. The Liquid Sunshine for example: it just popped in to my head while I was working on it. Liquid Sunshine here in the Pacific North West of N. America is what some jokingly call rain. In Florida it's orange juice. Mmmm, I like orange juice.

Sometimes I like names to make it really obvious what a pedal does. Echobox for example.

Sometimes I prefer the name is a bit more obscure, usually to let people know that it's both original, and maybe a little on the mad science side of guitar effects. The Prometheus would be the best example of that. I really wanted to let people know what they were getting themselves into before buying that pedal. It's definitely not "set and forget".

The Super Nova Drive, Blackstar and Quasar names were taken from a 1980's video game called Wasteland. To finish the game you needed four keys named Nova, Blackstar, Quasar and Pulsar. Obviously someone else beat us by a few decades with the Pulsar, otherwise we probably would have used that as well.

I like stuff that sounds a bit "science-y" or Sci-Fi. Even the mythological names we have used are often used in Sci-Fi themes.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

All pedals are built in house. We have four employees, and we all have responsibilities other than building pedals.

All pedals are built on printed circuit boards. All circuit boards are populated by hand. Most components are through hole or hand wired, but we do use some SMT IC's to save space when needed.

The cases are powder coated and screen printed.

We did things in a more DIY fashion years ago, but these days we are really focused on making things more reliable and consistent.

How important is the look of your pedals?

It is really important.

I learned how to screen print a few years ago, and we've refined our technique enough to do two and three color screens. We received a lot of negative feedback a few years ago when we changed the look of our pedals. Much of the results were good ideas, but poorly executed.

We've never had a trained graphic designer in house. I had tried a few freelance designers to help us out, but those efforts went nowhere. A couple were just flakey, but really most of it was due to communication issues. So I finally took some time to really learn the ins and outs of vector art and drawing on a computer. I feel I have gotten a lot better at it, and we have been getting much better feedback on our more recent designs.

A lot of pedal builders are using Lexan these days. It's basically a sticker that goes on top of the pedal. You can do so much with it. Any color you like. As many colors as you like. I like stuff to look classy and somewhat simple. Screen printing is like making music in a three piece band. you don't have to fill all the space with endless swirls and lines just because it's there. Screen printing has been around for a thousand years, and will be around for a thousand more.

Is parts selection important?

We use a lot of Fairchild and TI IC's. I used to love AVX capacitors, but the ones we used were discontinued, and I don't like to spend too much time searching for obsolete parts. We design everything around parts we can get. I would hate to have to discontinue a great product just because we can't get a transistor.

We do use 1% metal film resistors in most of our pedals. They are actually a requirement in some of our designs because things need to be closely matched.

In any pedal we make there are parts that matter more than others. Parts that really contribute to the sound, and others that are just there to bleed off radio frequencies, or create bias voltages. There are some specialty opamps we use in some of our pedals where a common substitute will not work at all.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The Prometheus.

Before we released that pedal there were very few interesting analog filters on the market. Filters are one effect in particular that I've always felt adding more controls is really beneficial (at least if they all do something significant).

After we released that pedal you saw a lot of other companies do interesting filters. I really feel it's the one product we have made that has been a real game changer in the market, and I still think we make the best filter pedals on earth.

To a lesser extent I feel the same way about the NoiseBox, but there had been similar things done before. I think we just did it better.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The Quasar DLX. It's just a really big build. Also when we started the project we really didn't know what we were doing. The R&D for that pedal cost over 3x what we originally planned for.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

Right now that pedal would be the Proteus. There's not many filters on the market with its features and its ease of use.

It's simple, but it does a lot. Really any filter is going to be a special effect for most guitar players. You'll see many guitarists use several overdrives, but they usually have only one filter if they use one at all. For that reason it's sometimes surprising how many we sell.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I don't find it helpful to tie gear to a specific genre. If anything I'd like to make something as universal as a piano. The piano fits in to so many different styles of music.

I've always said we make pedals that we would use and make us happy. It's really hard to try to design products around customer feedback for two reasons. First, most of their opinions are based on things that are already offered by someone else. Second, and probably the most important, is that most people don't know they want something new until they see it or try it.

I really don't get that excited about famous people unless I consider my self a true fan. I read an interview with Steven Drozd from the Flaming Lips. He mentioned using our NoiseBox for several songs on Embryonic. The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands, and I actually had them in mind when I designed the pedal. I was pretty happy about that. I would love to just be in the room while they were making an album.

I've had the opportunity to speak with a few famous/semi-famous musicians over the years. Some were really nice. Some were... well not so nice. Bibi McGill (Beyonce) was probably the nicest and most gracious person I've ever had the pleasure of speaking with. She even let me ramble on for a while about electronics.

What does the future of SubDecay look like?

Lately we have been focusing not just on pure analog design, but using digital technology to control analog circuits as well.

In the last two years we have really shifted away from me designing pedals in complete isolation. Collaboration is necessary now. We have the talent and dedication to take on projects many of our competitors won't even attempt. The process takes time, but we have built up experience and a collection of information that will bear more and more fruit down the road.

I don't like to give away secrets, but I can say looking at some of the ideas we are working on really blow my mind when I consider our humble beginnings.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes... The Spring Theory will be ready very soon.

We have a long list of stuff to keep us busy for the next two years or so. We are keeping most of it secret for now.

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