Steve Bragg from Empress Effects to talk about music, gear, robots, and the wonderful world of guitar effects. We discussed how Steve got started building effects, the "secrets" behind some of the great Empress pedals, and what's on the horizon.
P90: How long have you been building pedals and how did you get started?
Steve: I built my first pedal in high school. It was a Tycobrahe Octavia. It didn't work at all. My friends and I also tried to build a robot. We didn't get much further than the power supply. It wasn't a great start in electronics. In university I got my hands on the classic text Art of Electronics, that's when things started to make sense.
P90: Some of your pedals have pretty complex designs. What’s your background?
Steve: I took electrical engineering in university. During that time, I had a bunch of electronic projects on the go. I built a lucid dreaming inducer, which was a crappy version of the Remee (which I can't wait to get in the mail). First I designed it using logic chips on a breadboard, and it was a mess. Then I learned about embedded programming, which simplified things a lot. It also led to later putting a processor in the Empress Tremolo. Using a processor to digitally control analog circuitry makes things really interesting.
P90: The Multidrive is very cool in that it allows fuzz, overdrive, and distortion to be run in parallel. What was the impetus behind that?
Steve: The idea was pretty simple. Running dirt pedals serially kinda sucks. When you distort an already distorted sound, you end up with a mess. Sometimes that's what you want, but a lot of the time you want a thicker distortion that still responds well to your playing. Since the three subcircuits in the Multidrive are in parallel, they are each distorting the clean input. What you get isn't a mess, but a really nice thick distortion tone.
Steve: The subcircuits aren't based on anything directly. Jay designed the overdrive and distortion circuit from scratch. For the fuzz circuit, he employed the common trick of putting clipping diodes in the feedback path of a transistor.
P90: Which of your designs are you most proud of? Why?
Steve: I've been really happy with my current project. It's a reverb pedal that I'm working on with Jay. He's doing most of the sound algorithms, he knows a lot more about reverbs than I do. I'm working more on the architecture of the pedal. When we did the Superdelay, we were just learning how to code in C. The result was a tangled mess, picture the air conditioning systems in the movie Brazil. Trying to find bugs in the Superdelay code was miserable work. Coding the reverb has been a treat. So it's nice knowing that I'm getting better, or that I can completely delude myself into thinking so.
P90: What kind of music do you listen to mostly? Does what you listen to impact the circuits you design and build?
Steve: It's all over the place. Electronic, rock, orchestral, piano music. I used to be a lot more into rock, but I love dancing like an idiot, and nothing makes me embarrass myself like some fun electronic music, like Ratatat or Daft Punk.
As for affecting the products we build, I'm don't think it has much of an effect. I'm the least musical of our Empress team, I stay more within the realm of electronic design. I do have a couple effects that I've wanted to create for a long time that I think would be really cool. Stuff that might not sell well but hopefully helps really creative people push different ideas.
P90: You guys have some pretty big names using your pedals these days. Can you point to any songs where you know someone used an Empress pedal on a specific part?
Steve: There's a song on The Black Keys Brothers album that I'm sure has the Superdelay throughout.
Steve: Ever since we released the Superdelay, we've had a lot of players say "The Superdelay is great, but I spend most of my time in the tape delay setting." So we've taken the tape delay mode from the Superdelay and put it inside its own pedal. Sounds just as good as the one in the Superdelay, but there's a bunch of extra features. The dry signal is all analog, there's presets if you want to use them, you can control the tempo with tap or knob, it's smaller, and uses less current. And it's $250. That's in production right now and should be ready within a month.
Also in production is our buffer and buffer+. Unlike most buffer pedals, these ones are designed specifically to be the input to and output from your pedalboard. So they provide a large input impedance for your guitar, so it doesn't get loaded down, and a low output impedance for your amp. The buffer+ has a bunch of interesting features: a stompswitch activated boost circuit, an input loading circuit to control exactly how much you want to load down your guitar, an noise filter to help with your noisy pedals, and a tuner out. You can also mute your normal output easily when tuning. The buffer pedals should also be ready within a month.
P90: That’s it for me. Do you want to add anything in closing?
Steve: Thanks for all the great questions! I'd just add that if anyone wants to get in touch with me, especially customers with questions about their pedals, they can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.