Updated: Sep 15, 2020
This is going to be a long one, but I really wanted to tell this story! Thanks in advance for taking the time to read it!
So what is ALBIE?
ALBIE is the sound of New Wave and post punk, or jangle pop.. whatever you want to call it.. basically the good sounds of the 80s.. and the late 70s!
ALBIE is a first for us in a lot of ways. It’s our first all digital pedal.. and it’s our first multi effect pedal.. though we’ve been calling it a multi-mutli effect because there are no standalone effects found in the pedal.
ALBIE features eight modes, which are actually a series of pedal chains, or stacks of effects, all on at once.. and the only control you get is a master dry/wet blend. So it’s like you turn on one pedal, but you hear four or five.. or six (depending on the setting)!
This is also our first collaboration pedal. We worked very closely with our friend, Joe Mccaffrey, who originally brought this pedal concept to us.
(This is Joe. He's an absolute peach.)
We met Joe through a mutual friend (Jared Samuel - AKA Invisible Familiars) when Joe was looking to overhaul his old touring rig for some reunion shows with his band “Nightmare of You.” We were also practically neighbors in Brooklyn at that time! Nowadays Joe lives in Texas and we live in Nashville but we still stay in touch and talk about pedals often. He is a pedal nerd like me!
Joe’s original idea was to create a pedal that had only one setting along with a single blend knob.. that setting would essentially be a simplified version of his go-to chain of comp, chorus, reverb, and delay. This combination of effects could also emulate the signature tone one of his favorite guitar players, arguably one of the most notable players to come out of the post-punk scene.
Traditionally, our pedal designs always start with the look.. so I started sketching some layouts, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the pedal look good with just one knob, one LED, and a footswitch, while still fitting in with the aesthetic of rest of our line... so I thought, “What if we added a second knob? It could be an 8-way selector to give you multiple options of effects chains you would associate with the music of that period." And that's exactly what we did.
Next, we needed a name and Karen came up with that while we were driving.. ALBIE was one of our cat’s nicknames. Most people knew him as Cat Albert, but "Cat Albert" wasn’t as good of a name for a pedal!
(This is Cat Albert. He was the most beautiful cat we've ever known.)
Once we had a name, we made a few graphic mock-ups (we obviously went with Concept B below) and then started looking for someone to help us design this thing. This pedal would utilize coding to make it all work, which is a very different world from the analog circuits that we were used to!
This search led us to Neil Graham, who you may know from his work with Dr. Scientist. I had originally reached out to Ryan from Dr. Scientist to see if he, or anyone he knew, could help us. After explaining the concept, he told me that Neil was down to do the design.
Now the sound design process was kinda different in that there were two parts.. first there was the sound design, which we did here in Nashville, and then there was the circuit design and coding. That was done by Neil in Canada.
So first I did a whole lot of research. I scoured the internet and message boards for info and photos of the rigs that were used by a handful of the players that really defined those genres. And then we gathered together all of those pedals (or pedals like them) and started recreating those sounds.
We tested these sounds with a group of ten players. Because the end-user wouldn’t be able to control any of the parameters of the individual effects within a particular setting, we wanted to test with players from a variety of musical backgrounds. We wanted to see how the “average player” would interact with these pedal chains. So we tested with everyone from singer-songwriters, to studio musicians, engineers and producers, and even musicians that play in arena rock bands. We set up the pedals in chains and used a blend looper to let them mix the effected signal path into their clean tone. The only knob they could touch was the blend knob.. and the first round of testing was simple.. “Do you give this a thumbs up?” meaning they could plug in and vibe with it right away.. Or “Do you give this a thumbs down?” .. meaning, they just didn’t like it.
(The super-duper, high-tech blend looper used during testing!)
If someone gave a thumbs down, we would then ask them to adjust the knobs to set it how they would use it and I kept detailed notes of all of those changes... Then if several people made the same change, we would adjust that setting accordingly. However, that never happened. All of the settings got an overwhelming number of thumbs-ups!
After that, we recorded several loops to send to Neil so he could recreate these real-life pedal chains in the digital realm. We recorded clean guitars playing a variety of styles, and then looped them through each of the pedals individually and then stacked. This way Neil could take the clean and effected loops and compare them to his programmed effects every step of the way. He ultimately made several options for each of the eight settings and then mailed us the chips to test them out.
For this part, we were able to use my Dr. Scientist Bit Quest as a controller essentially. By replacing the chip in the Bit Quest, and by just using two of the knobs, we were able to cycle through Neil’s various options with a group of 10 players once again.
(Our friend, Scott Vicknair running through options on the "controller"!)
This time we asked the players to pick their favorite of the options for each setting. I took detailed notes of their critiques, if they had any.. but again, most of the winning settings received an overwhelming majority of the votes.
Lastly, we mailed the chips to Joe, our collaborator in Texas, and he and I went through the settings over the phone and made our final list of critiques for Neil.
(Tallying up the votes.. Don't worry, that's sparkling apple juice!)
So Neil made the first proto pedal featuring the updated and edited final settings and this was the first time I held an ALBIE in my hands.. but this proto was all hand soldered with through-hole parts, And I realized that this pedal would be absolutely insane to build by hand! So, Neil redesigned it to use surface mount components which take up less space and would allow us to automate a small portion of the building process, which of course allows us to keep the price down for our customers!
That said, there are still a handful of parts on each board that have to be populated and soldered by hand, so I guess technically it’s still handmade in a lot of ways and will still be assembled, tested, and shipped out of our shop here in Nashville, TN!
So once summer NAMM of 2019 rolled around, we thought we were closer to being finished than we actually were, so we teased this last prototype on our show board, and people seemed to really like it.. but we ended up adding and tweaking a few more things since then, so it took about another year to get the pedal to where we wanted it.
One of the main things we added was the addition of the secondary settings for each mode.. which we called the “Neil Modes” as we had Neil design these settings on his own. Basically, he altered each of the settings by either adding a new effect or by adjusting some of the parameters of an existing effect. These extra sounds can be accessed by holding down the footswitch, or by setting your pedal up in “Ultra Neil Mode” which allows latching functionality over the secondary modes.
I know that might sound confusing, but the best part is that if you don’t want to use them, you can just ignore the Neil Modes and use the pedal like normal. The footswitch is momentary, but it still clicks, so the Neil Modes are kind of a hidden feature!
(Karen taking a photo of the first finished ALBIE pedal!)
All in all, we are so so so happy with how this pedal turned out. We love how ALBIE sounds (and looks). And I personally love just playing with it and writing music. I’ve had one on my board for several months now and it really makes playing a lot more fun!
We hope you will have just as much fun playing with it as we have had making (and playing) it!