[interview] Trogotronic: W.T. Nelson

Here's FXDB's interview with W.T. Nelson of Trogotronic.

Trogotronic is run by W.T. Nelson in California.

How did Trogotronic start?

As musicians who could never afford the stuff @ Guitar Center “we were left to our own devices“. We have been building said devices since the 1980's.

Speaking personally my three greatest mentors are:

  • H. Barnes / Amps for Christ who taught me hands on about Vacuum Tube topology
  • W. A. Nelson, a proper academically lauded E.E., who falls back on a life's work in that field and all the abstract math that backs up the practices which I can comprehend (and more which I cannot).
  • Chris Goudreau whose unfathomable understanding of interfaces is unmatched.

After building for more than 20 years for my music I had a change in career in 2002 that gave me a much more flexible schedule free from a 60 mile daily commute and 9-5 grind at a publishing office. At the time I discovered 3MS (now 4MS thanks to the corpo-fascists at 3M) which billed itself as something of a cooperative. I reached out to them to see if they were interested in marketing some of my high voltage designs. Fortunately they were cowed by the prospect and I concentrated instead on playing music and nurturing my new production business (both Shooting for Barely Legal Magazine, among other notable "Men's Sophisticate" titles, and Art Directing a "Lifestyle" title, the now defunct Arthur Magazine).

The Arthur gig yielded the realization that some of the advertising therein was unpaid, favors to people who did the project a solid in some way or hopefully would in the future. Since I was working for the project at a fraction of my rate I negotiated a 1/4 page advertisement per issue... But what to advertise?

While on an overseas music tour in 2003 I met Hiro' Uchino of Lastgasp Art Laboratories / Defektro and was inspired by his enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit. Soon-after on another overseas tour an old Heath' signal generator that my pops had built in the 60's was damaged. Rather than simply repair I set to work hot-rodding the circuit so it would produce COMPLEX signals rather than the mathematically perfect waveform it was designed for.Trogotronic 665

"Here" I thought was an opportunity to offer the unique high-voltage sound at a truly reasonable price and have something to advertise in the freebee 1/4 page space I was allotted. So I proceeded to procure through various surplus channels the same unit.

Finally an order trickled in. To my great horror every one of the units bought was "dead upon arrival" and the problems were myriad, almost NEVER a simple fix like a bad power tube, almost ALWAYS a Conan Doyle novel in scope. To make matters worse each was its own Sherlock Holmes story as NONE had the shared the same problem as the last.

What was originally priced to be turned around in days took up to a WEEK to diagnose BEFORE the rewiring could even begin. Needless to say the purchase price went up accordingly. So much for the grand idea of incredible value. (To this day the "Vintage Hot Rod" series is actually the most expensive line we build though now for a different reason: because they are nearly completely gutted and rebuilt from the chassis up, point to point, which is extremely highly-skilled-labor intensive—but—we are confident that they are now worth every penny and in fact a bargain).

Given the high price-point and little-understood nature of vacuum tube instruments sales were dismal. In the gesture of a big middle finger to those who balked at the price of superior valve sonics we decided to design our first solid-state instrument using all off-the-shelf low voltage parts available at Radio Shack. With some adjustments (a great local surplus store had a huge box of 10k pots @ 10 cents each that lasted us a few years) we were able to offer the new 665 at less than half of what the tube gear was offered at. In spite of the lack of resolution / audio quality when compared to the tube circuits these little black boxes sold very well and really began what is now our humble Trogotronic enterprise.

TrogotronicWhere do the name and logo come from?

The idea that we are subhumans playing with fire. Tektronix for one...

What sets Trogotronic apart from other builders?

Our instruments are more responsive than mass produced stuff stocked at "McCorporate" with signal qualities that far surpass the factory-made.

Our instruments were built to last and be repaired rather than tossed in the landfill should they malfunction or get damaged in the field.

Trogotronic instruments are not designed upon the strict conventions of audio synthesis established by electrical engineers for the low voltage solid state rigs of the 1960’s. This, now, "traditional" synthesis interface dispensed with Hammond Organ high voltage tube based synthesizers' familiar musical terminology established in the late 1930's for electronic means. The "pocket protectors" instead substituted the opaque language of mathematics completely foreign to classical composition. Worse still, in the 60's advent of a "modular format", the audio generation process was broken down into tiny elements, a pricey group of which are required to be patched together to coax even the most elementary sounds to emerge. Interesting results are not easy to come by given the price of entry and the hurdles of technical terminology; and those without deep pockets and countless hours risk producing cheesy sounds that are not even in the same league as the music of Raymond Scott or the Barrons’ Forbidden Planet soundtrack of the 1950's.

As musicians, sound designers & audio engineers first (electronic technicians second) we approach audio “synthesis” the same way: PRAGMATICALLY. Rather than getting lost in the minutia of process we focus on an interface that READILY navigates through most interesting areas of unique “Analog Audio Artifacts” the moment a Trogotronic instrument is plugged in. Our instruments encourage investigation to the transcendent singularities (otherwise known as "chaos", "turbulence" and "fractal" phenomena) that analog systems excel in. These "regions" yield the most unique signals that electronic instruments offer. Our High Voltage Vacuum Tube units render these domains in an even more magnificent manner, displayed in spectral melodic harmonics which render the most horrifying signals somehow beautifully. Much as the neck and strings on a violin are not marred by cypher our stand-alone models' controls are not labeled; the user is encouraged to LISTEN and FEEL the instrument, observe the signal lamps so that it may more readily serve as an extension of the mind and body rather than a calculator or indexed jukebox full of memorized sounds that begs verbal thought and comprehension.

Trogotronic model 666How do you name your pedals?

Fairy tales and humans' unprecedented efforts at self destruction do serve as inspiration.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We have five people building our devices.

  • All pedal circuits are currently completely hand wired with each built as a prototype.
  • All M Series Modules use PCBs with all active components in sockets.
  • Enclosures come in ABS (in the interest of giving the best price) and cast aluminum.
  • We hate paint as we are clumsy and without finesse.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Extremely.

Is parts selection important?

We always balance value with quality.

While we loathe and stand against repressive regimes, we will source parts from "P.R." of China if the quality is comparable with a large break in price we will use said parts.

However if the price is in the ballpark with Taiwanese / Japanese / Korean / European / American parts then our choice is clear. Use the one that was made closest to home.

Why?

Simple:

  1. Least amount of impact on mother earth to use stuff built around the corner.

  2. Fuck the PRC ruling Party. They are assholes that make our own flavor of red, white and blue assholes seem like perfect roses.

Trogotronic model 787 Barbarian To be clear the people of China are almost incomprehensibly diverse and it is impossible to generalize beyond this: we stand WITH the PEOPLE of China against the fat-assed Red-Book-Party morons/crooks.

Generally with electro-mechanical and finish parts the Chinese offerings are complete shit, but some passive and active parts leave us no choice (often because the American companies choose to fabricate older IC's over there).

It seems that more and more parts from Japan, America etc. are comparable in price to China which means that every day we use less PRC stuff due to natural market forces as Chinese labor gets compensated at a more realistic rate.

Sometimes we use foreign parts because they are the only ones that live up to our standards of quality. Case in point: on our controllers (such as the Model 11) we hand-pick switches (in this case from Japan) and import them directly to us because the function and feel of these interfaces is key to their "playability". Yes they cost more and it is an extreme hassle to deal with importing what is not available here but otherwise the Model 11 is not even worth building given the hundreds of different crappy switches we've tested here in the states.

But we question much of the mumbo jumbo out there touting that this or that version of unobtainium is the best part at an astronomical price if the function is identical to a cheaper part and invisible to the ear. I mean really: does a $10,000 bicycle really perform 500 times better than a $20 one you picked up at a thrift store?

As far as hand building and custom robot manufacturing, it all happens here in corpora-fascist fueled USofA (which has its own set of earth gobbling blood-soaked micro management problems), specifically in smog choked Southern California and are marked accordingly.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

Each new instrument presents its own challenges and are rarely ever easy to get right the first time. I.E. they ALL seem like the toughest design at the time.

Trogotronic model 77Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

We build synthesizers / instruments, save for the tube distortion/modulator model 77 which is arguably a guitar pedal.

While everything we build has inputs that an axe can be patched to / through, the point is it does not sound ANYTHING like an axe on the output.

Indeed we are not really focused on the minutia of the next great neon-orange-painted ever so slightly different $200 two-knob solid state distortion box for Joe Noodler or or Bob Bluesriffer. All this stuff is amazing but not our focus as there are so many people who do this so much better (we assume).

Are you working on any new products?

Yes, but I can't tell you more about them because it always takes longer than we expect. Would love to be able to.

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