Blackout Effectors + High Lonesome Sound
TBR: So if I have it right, you started off in BC (British Columbia, Canada), spent some time in St. Augustine (FL, USA) and now reside in North Carolina. Tell us about the long and winding road! How did you get to moving around so much? Do you guys have roots down now in NC or is there still a bit of the ramblin’ rover left in ya?
Kyle: Not exactly. I’m a Floridiot (a term of endearment) by birth, but I haven’t lived in St. Augustine since I was a teenager.
Blackout got started in Vancouver, BC in early 2008. At that point it was just me – doing everything. The hours I was putting in every day were ridiculous, but that’s just the way starting a small business is. I don’t have many memories from that year that aren’t hazed by solder smoke. If I wasn’t at my desk soldering then I was online promoting or on my laptop doing accounting.
I moved the operation down to NC in 2009. That move was mostly for personal reasons, but my brother, Ross, had also expressed interest in getting involved with the company. Fast forward a year later and its hard to remember how I ever did it without him. We have lots of part-timers who help out now too.
The future location of Blackout is anyone’s guess. The beauty of running such a streamlined operation is that its transportable, so I definitely don’t feel too tied down and if history is any kind of guide it won’t stay put forever.
TBR: What is your background in practical electronics? What was it or when did you realize that this was something that was more than a passing fancy?
Kyle: No formal electronics training. Tinkering with pedals was just one hobby amongst many that I flirted with for lots of years. I spent most of my 20s experimenting with many artistic mediums: painting, graphic design, writing/recording music, playing guitar and nerding out on learning how to build things.
I’m blessed/cursed with a laser-like ability to focus on one task while the rest of the world fades to a background blur. I’m the world’s worst multitasker. My M.O. for a long time was to dive into whatever the hot new interest was for months at a time. When I would eventually come up for air I would have satiated whatever compulsion was there to explore and deconstruct it, then I would move on to something new. For some odd reason I never came back up from the rabbit hole when it came to building pedals and its been years now. I’ll leave it at that. There’s a part of me that’s worried about examining what was different about this in too much depth – I might just jinx it.
TBR: One thing that characterizes your designs is that they offer more control but are still very practical — in that sense, they are very modern. Obviously, each of your products is unique unto itself but when things first began, was it your intention to build things that were new and different or were you simply out to build a better mousetrap?
Kyle: I think we all shoot for the former, but just like shit, the latter happens. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our first pedal, the Fix’d Fuzz, was all about doing something completely new and I think I succeeded there. The Musket on the other hand would probably be classified as a better mousetrap, but if it was up to me and a lot of other Musket fans it’d be called “the best mousetrap”.
The Whetstone is an example of something goes beyond a simple phaser and is actually a pretty unique device. Obviously a lot of thought went into it… any stories leading up to it’s development?
Kyle: The basic Small Stone circuit (at the Whetstone’s heart) is so unique and cool, but it’s a hard one to work with and I suspect that’s why there wasn’t much out there utilizing it. I set out to challenge myself to see to what extreme I could take that circuit AND still retain that original stock sound at a certain setting. There were a few mods floating around the DIY world that provided some jumping off points for certain settings, but I didn’t want to stop there. The circuit really fought back the whole way but in the end that old dog has some crazy new tricks.
TBR: Something that I found interesting in your FAQ is the statement that “these days we would actually have to go out of our way to find crappy parts”. What do you think is more important in terms of a starting point: Using the best/most expensive materials as the foundation for the design and building around them or would you say that the “magic” happens in the design itself and expensive components are somewhat secondary?
Kyle: Oh no, the decisive, no-win question! I’m a bit of a fence rider on this subject, alone in a world of black-or-white, choose-your-side encampments.
Modern production techniques HAVE made everyday parts cheaper and better, using tolerances as a measure*. Its much easier these days to make a hundred copies of the same pedals that sound practically identical due to those tighter tolerances. That kind of consistency ranks very high for me. The problem happens when we start trying to equate “best” with “most expensive”. First we have to all agree on how we define “best” and that’s a bitch of a dilemma. Then we have to determine which expensive parts are just expensive due to NOS/rare status (which doesn’t mean shit when discussing quality) and which are more expensive simply because of some proprietary manufacturing process that actually makes the parts “better” than the already tight tolerance modern day cheap equivalent. Some of the modern expensive parts are truly awesome, some are just truly expensive.
Can expensive NOS parts make a difference in tone? Yep, and in a small handful of circuits you may even be able to hear that difference. 99.9% of the time though any difference you’ll hear is due to the sloppy tolerances on those old parts, making some units sound great and some sound shit. I don’t live in Vegas, so I don’t want to sell anyone a crapshoot. I’d bet on good design with consistent components every time.
TNR: What are your thoughts on the sort of reverence that some people have for using traditional circuit designs and using NOS materials? Is this just boutique pedal wankery or is there something left to be said by refining older designs?
Kyle: As far as design goes – everything is old. Current production pedals that aren’t somehow based off of old designs are very, very rare. Those older designs themselves were mostly just copied straight out of old electronics textbooks themselves. Those old builders may have been first on the block to use those circuit blocks in pedal-format, but they didn’t invent modern analog electronic circuitry. Its all textbook stuff and those textbooks were written a long time before pedals came around. We all use those little circuit fragments, so the real artistry comes when people come up with a design that combines them in some new cool fashion. That’s the kind of standard that I set for my own design work anyway, if only to keep me interested in what I’m doing. If others are content to recreate part-for-part, that’s their choice obviously.
TBR Care to give us a short list of a few of your favourite “non-Blackout” pedals that you appreciate or have otherwise inspired you?
Kyle: Empress Tremolo – just brilliant stuff. There’s one that lives on my personal pedalboard that always gets used.
EHX Big Muff – I own some. They don’t get played much anymore because we have Muskets to play with, but my reverence for the original remains. Its just “the” sound.
Pigtronix Philosophers Tone Compressor
Tech 21 CS-VT SansAmp Character Series, VT Bass
MXR MXR M-173 Classic 108 Fuzz Guitar Effects Pedal
Malekko Omicron Fuzz Effect Pedal
Xotic Effects X-Blender Guitar Effect Pedal
Fulltone Ultimate Octave
Dunlop DC Brick DCB10
(x2) Visual Sound 1 Spot 9V Power Adapter
TBR: Do you get out to play live often or record?
Kyle: I don’t play out, but I still record stuff occasionally when inspired. Admittedly that hasn’t been too often lately. I blame migrating to DAW-based recording. It’s just been such a headache. A fun, futuristic headache, but it just seems like I’m always tweaking some software parameter trying to get better DAW performance, instead of recording. Back in the days when I recorded to tape (8-track) things were much simpler. Outboard gear either worked or it didn’t; and if it didn’t I’d just bypass it. Either the take was good or it wasn’t, with no thoughts of “but can I fix it with some time stretching plugin?” Either way, songs got done. These days Blackout keeps me very very busy.
TBR: Your latest product is the MANTRA overdrive pedal. What made you take the challenge of building a device that is already so prevalent in the market? What makes the MANTRA different than other OD pedals?
Kyle: Overdrive definitely wasn’t on our radar for a long time just because of that reason. There was even a point where we were saying the “never” word to people. There is already so much out there to choose from, some of which is great stuff.
Basically, at some point I had a circuit on the breadboard that I new was pretty different circuit-wise than most of the stuff out there. It had this cool vintage-sounding rawness to it and we fell in love. The “never” bluff was called.
TBR: Interested to hear more about your visit/collaboration/friendship with the guys in Baroness and Torche…
Kyle: Those guys are just cool. Both bands were early adopters and they’ve been very good with helping us spread the word. We choose to only work with nice people and they’ve been nothing but. Bands that think in terms of what they can do for us (as well as what we can do for them) get lots of pedal love.
The guys from Baroness play Asheville a lot and they usually end up coming by the shop before their show. John Baizley is a total gearhead, like us. He owns at least one of everything we’ve done and some doubles.
We wish Torche would play here more often, for the purely selfish reason of wanting to hear the sound of Jonathan’s aluminum neck bass through his Musket into all those speakers. It is transcendental and bowel-disturbing.
TBR: If there were two or three artists out there at the present time that you’d like to see and hear using a Blackout Effectors pedal on their next record or performance who aren’t already, who would they be?
Kyle: Wilco: they already have a couple of Fix’d Fuzzes but I have no idea if they’ve ever used them. It’d be cool to see one of them turn up on a pedalboard or a track. Maybe they have been and we just don’t know about it.
Melvins: we just love them.
Radiohead: is there bigger exposure possible?
TBR: Anything new and exciting on the drawing board you’d like to share??
Kyle: Of course there is exciting stuff coming, but we try not to telegraph our next moves.
Jonathan Nuñez photographed by Jana Miller. Check out more of Jana’s work here.