[interview] VFE Pedals: Peter Rutter

Here's FXDB's interview with Peter Rutter of VFE Pedals:

How did VFE Pedals start?

I started as an acoustic player, then started playing some electric & got really interested in effects. After spending way too much money & going through many guitar pedals, I stumbled upon Build Your Own Clone. I bought a few kits and started with the simple "Confidence Booster" kit they give out for free for new builders. Well, my Confidence Booster didn't work, as I was terrible with a soldering iron. I pressed forward anyway with the Lazy Sprocket, one of the more challenging builds. It took a while, but I finally got it to work. With my background in math & physics, it was not a huge leap to begin to learn the rules that govern analog circuits & start to come up with my own ideas of how to modify or create effects in unique ways.

Early on, I pretty much tried the different mods that were suggested by those on the BYOC forum. After I began to learn more & more about how analog circuits work, I began to branch out more with my own ideas. It's hard to identify where all the ideas came from, as I probably gather bits & pieces from over 100 websites.

Where do the name and logo come from?

My eBay user name was VonRutter when I started building and selling pedals as a hobby. When things progressed to the point that I needed to launch a business, I wanted to preserve the original name customers had associated with my products. My brother was working with me at the time, so the long form of the name was "VonRutter Family Effects", a play off the "Von Trapp Family Singers" from the Sound of Music. That got shortened to VonRutterFE for a couple of months until we landed on the name VFE Pedals.

I did all the text & graphics for my early builds free-hand with paint pens, an option that is still available in the VFE Pedals Custom Shop. When it came time to develop a logo & move to silkscreen graphics, I asked a friend to develop a logo that was a little fluid and looked like it could be hand-written like some of the titles of my stock & custom pedals.

What sets VFE Pedals apart from other builders?

For me, it's about the complete package:

  • Quality -- I am continually looking for ways to improve quality. I will gladly pit my pedals against any in the business, regardless of price.
  • Integrity -- If I had to, I would choose integrity over profit. But I don't believe I need to decide between the two. Technology has made the world even more transparent, and user forums are a huge drive to my business as customers listen to other customers directly. I don't put customer feedback on my website because I don't need to & I would much rather let my customers promote me naturally by talking to other musicians. In short, I believe that if I make a great product & provide great service, I won't have to worry about making a profit.
  • Price -- I spent a lot of time engineering my pedals both for quality AND efficiency. That way I could sell a top-tier product at a much more affordable price point.
  • Versatility -- I strive to design pedals that are extremely flexible. My goal is that no matter what your gear is, you will be able to find at least a few settings that sound amazing. That's impossible with only a couple controls.
  • Size -- At 2.4" x 4.4", no one consistently packs as much good stuff inside a compact box as VFE... with space for a battery too!
  • Looks -- No drab bare metal enclosures or names like "DS1" or "Compressor". The knobs, paint color font style, and any graphics are all designed to give the pedal a look & feel like it is ready to inspire & create music.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Most often, I start with a circuit I already like and then begin to find ways to expand and improve on that circuit. Other times I start with the idea of what I want to do, and then sit down & think through the simplest way to accomplish that idea. Most of the major development ideas are done in my head or on paper. I then design the circuit board & then use it to finalize the design. In short, the design is done with my mind, and the tweaking of the design is done with my ears.

How do you name your pedals?

  • The Dark Horse, Fiery Red Horse, Pale Horse, and White Horse are all taken from the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the book of Revelation. The idea was to create a flagship design for the 4 main tone categories -- overdrive, distortion, fuzz, and compression.
  • The Alpha Dog was designed as a tool box for creating lead tones, so the name reflects the stage presence of a great lead guitarist.
  • The Blueprint is a delay pedal, and the name plays off the idea that the delayed signal is the copy of the original.
  • The Blues King is based on the Marshall Bluesbreaker circuit, and the Analogman King of Tone is the most famous pedal based on this circuit. So the name sort of plays homage to both pedals.
  • The Choral Reef is a chorus -- I think you can figure out how I came up with the name!
  • The Distortion3 combines 3 circuits that are nearly 100% identical -- MXR Distortion+, Microamp, and DOD 250 -- puts the different modes on a switch & adds a number of extra features.
  • The Enterprise is a phaser pedal...if you know anything about Star Trek, then you know why.
  • The Fuzz Cocktail is based on the Fender Blender, an it blends an octave fuzz with a clean tone. So the word "cocktail" invokes both the blended signal, and it happens to have a similar phrasing as the word "octave".
  • The Fuzz Duo is a germanium-silicon fuzz hybrid.
  • The Old School is based on a vintage tremolo circuit with a modern twist -- hence a modern phrase that indicates a past reality.
  • The Rocket EQ is a huge clean boost with EQ.
  • The Scream...everyone knows where that name came from!
  • The Triplet also combines 3 circuits, but these are 100% independent & switchable in/out of the circuit with 3 toggle switches.
  • The Triumvirate splits the signal into 3 parts -- like the 3 rulers of tone!

Can you tell us something about the production process?

All of my pedals are build in-house. Until June 2011, I was the only builder. I have one temporary employee for the summer, and we'll see were things go after that.

The circuits are double-sided PCBs with plated through holes. Currently every part is done by hand, but I may transition parts of the switching system to surface mount in the next year. This part of the circuit doesn't impact the tone, and is universal to all of my effects.

How important is the look of your pedals?

My goal is to make pedals that are both visually & sonically appealing. However, I didn't want to use methods that would greatly increase the cost of the pedal. Some methods look great, but you are literally just paying for the pretty case. Even with my pedals, close to half of my parts cost are in the things you see, and not the circuit inside. For builders with even more elaborate finishes, I am certain that there biggest cost in building the pedal is the looks.

I try to find that compromises between great looks & a great price.

How important is parts selection?

Wow, answering this question in full would take way too long... and I don't have that kind of time. So I will summarize. I look for the best quality vs. price. If it's going to cost extra, it better be well worth the extra $$$! In the audio path, I also use tighter tolerances on the tone shaping components so that each pedals sounds as great as the next.

Finally, I let my ears make the final decisions. If I can't hear the difference, I don't try to convince myself that one part is better than other. I want it to be real, not something that's popular & will give me something I can hype.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I pour a lot of thought into all my designs, and I am constantly tweaking with them. So the one I am "most proud of" would have to be the one that has gone through the longest journey -- the Pale Horse overdrive. I think I am on revision 8 by now. It took quite some time before I finally figured out how to get the circuit to have all the features I wanted, without causing the op amp to go into self-oscillation with some of the settings!

Which of your pedals was your

toughest build?

Anything with a bucket-brigade delay chip -- Choral Reef chorus & still-in-development Galaxy Star flanger. I am working with a small space so it makes it very difficult, and I haven't found a compact voltage-to-frequency IC that works great with these circuits. That makes the design more complicated & modifications can sometimes have unexpected surprises.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

At this point, it's hard to say because things fluctuate so much. The Pale Horse is probably my flagship design -- the most uniquely VFE design. The Alpha Dog is picking up a lot of steam, and the Bumblebee has a nice niche market that it does well in. Many of the other pedals are not that far behind, and there has been no decisive leader of the pack just yet.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

There are probably some famous users, but I guess I never have cared much about how well-known anyone is. Plus I have a non-endorsement policy, so I have turned down many touring artists who wanted a free or discounted pedal. I could make a long list of great customer feedback, but I don't post it anywhere because I believe my pedals will hype themselves. Also, if that great customer feedback stops, I will know something is wrong...and I won't be able to use past customer feedback to convince myself that everything is fine (because I didn't hold onto it). I don't know if that made any sense to you, but it does to me!

Different pedals tend to have niche markets (like the Bumblebee), but I don't tailor my products for a specific audience. In fact, I design pedals to be extremely flexible, so that any musician can tailor it to work with their style of music and sense of tone. While 3-knob pedals are great for some things, there are usually many tone decisions made by the designer that could (and often should) be left to the musician. That's why I have so many controls, to let the musician be the designer & sculpt their own tones.

What does the future of VFE Pedals look like?

My current focus is getting my products into different markets so that musicians can try them out in person before purchasing.

I plan to launch the "VFE Pedal Wizard" in the summer of 2011 to let musicians completely customize their pedals. I plan to continue to expand the number of options available through the Custom Shop over the next couple of years.

I have many other goals, but most are too far away or too unique to list them here.

Are you working on any new products?

I have a million ideas in my head. I just don't have the $$$ to do all of them. So, we'll see. The plans I have now are very tentative & have changed several times in just this last year alone.

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