I’ve tried to branch out a little with the ol blog thing i’ve been doing and have interviewed a pedal builder. This interview is with Alex Millar from Zander Circuitry. I met him briefly at the North East Guitar show, and have tried a few of his pedals out, mostly thanks to Marc at Northern Stompboxes. I’ve been very impressed with the pedals from Zander that I’ve tried, but have not yet purchased one as I have plenty of drive pedals and my reverb and delay are sorted. I would say that my favourite pedals that Zander produces are the Tape Deck and the Exosphere and maybe one day I will get one. The latest revisions of the Zander line have made vast improvements to the usability and updated graphics. I would highly recommend having a go if you get the chance, or at least have a listen to his demos.
Below is the interview I conducted virtually:
Did you have a background in building electronics, or have you taught yourself as you’ve gone on?
Nope, short of knowing how to wire a wall plug I had zero electronics knowledge prior to building guitar pedals. Over time I just learnt bits and pieces through either trial & error or by looking stuff up as and when I needed to make a circuit do a certain thing.
What was the very first pedal that you made, and can you pinpoint the reason why you made this particular pedal?
I’d built a few DIY kits (I can’t recall what they were), but the first pedals a built and sold were simple true bypass loopers with a momentary feedback function, you’d basically just loop your entire pedalboard through the send/return and when you pressed the momentary footswitch it would feed the signal back in on itself, which, depending on what pedals were on, would create these mad oscillations/siren sounds, I just did it for a bit of fun.
Which of all the pedals you have made past/present is your favourite and why, and do you have one on your board?
Probably the tape deck, just because I love noisy, lo-fi delays. The tape deck goes to almost 3 seconds of delay time & I don’t usually use delays rhythmically, it can also get some really horrible broken modulation sounds. So just letting it sit & wobble around in the background of a clean sound is why I love it so much. Its definitely on the board.
Which is your favourite pedal (not made by yourself) if you had to choose one and why?
Ooh that’s a tough one, and my answer would probably change every other week, but for me it would have to be a toss up between two, and I’ll put in the caveat that I’ve never owned either of these, this is purely on the demos I’ve seen. The first would be the DOD rubberneck delay, its just an awesome sounding analog delay with a bunch of cool added features, most notably the effects loop for the wet signal, in the launch video they put a flanger in there and its just an awesome sound. The second would be the Hexe Melusine, which I guess you’d call a vinyl record simulator/vibrato, its basically a vibrato that you can add in a load of white noise/crackle to, not a million miles away from the ZVEX Instant Lo-fi Junky. I’ve been really into a lot of the guitar sounds in lo-fi hip hop lately and that pedal is basically that sound in a box.
What does the future hold for Zander Circuitry? Are there any future plans you can let us in on?
We’ve got loads of exciting stuff in the pipeline, I sometimes find it difficult to focus on one idea because I’m constantly getting new ones. I’ve been working with a lot more digital stuff lately, there’s just a lot of R&D that goes into that sort of stuff (compared to a fuzz for example) but I’m hoping to have something out late this year or early 2019.
What was the first pedal that you owned?
Haha, I was maybe 13-14 when I bought this, it was a Behringer Ultra Metal. I’m not even a huge metal fan but at the time I just saw it in the local music store and it seemed like the perfect answer to making my Stagg Strat copy & 15w Marshall practice amp ‘sound like Nirvana’. So I’d just dime everything and slam it into the front end whilst jumping around in my bedroom, it was a lot of fun.
What was the last pedal that you bought? If it’s been a while, is there anything on the cards?
With the exception of a tuner & a looper, I don’t actually own any other pedals (apart from my own), I find that I usually only get the time to play when I’m testing out builds or demonstrating at a show etc so I haven’ really had the need for anything else. At one point I did have a full board of Raygun FX pedals, they make some great stuff and are only down the road from us, their dual soda drive is still one of my favourite overdrive/distortion pedals.
What is your opinion on the Boss Metalzone? Love/Hate?
It’s honestly become a bit of a tiresome meme. Like anything, it has its uses in certain applications, you can hear it all over Biffy Clyro’s debut album, and it sounds absolutely awesome on those songs.
What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back to when you just started Zander Circuitry?
Stop trying to run before you can walk, everything took off really quickly when I started putting a name to my work & in hindsight I should have slowed down and worked things out a little better, but its easy to say that looking back, at the time I was just doing what I could with the tools I had.
What would you say has been your biggest improvement since you started building FX?
Offboard wiring, euuurrghh I hated it so much, the very very early builds were all built on vero board, including the tape deck, which has six potentiometers, so it all got a bit messy on the insides, moving everything over to PCB was a huge help in cleaning up the guts.
What would you like to improve on future builds?
I’m currently looking at the way all of the boards connect to the jacks/switches, to try and find ways to make things even more consistent across all of them. The aim is to reduce the offboard wiring even more, which will speed up the time it takes to make a pedal. Efficiency is a massively important thing for me.
What have been the high/low points since starting Zander Circuitry?
A low point was last year (mid 2017) when I had to basically stop/slow down everything for 6 weeks due to having surgery on my knee, I snapped my cruciate ligament and both meniscus cartilage which put me in a locked leg brace for a month and a half. It was just frustrating more than anything else, I could still function to a degree, but even simple tasks became a lot harder (using the drill press for example).
A real high point for us was being featured on That Pedal Show, it was something I had joked about months before on facebook with a couple of people, because the idea of it seemed so ridiculous to me, and I didn’t even know we were going to be featured on there until one Friday I was tagged in a post after they’d just put the video up.
Which other builders do you admire the most?
Steve at Raygun FX was definitely one of the main inspirations for me starting ZC, I’d been buying his pedals for a while and because they’re only down the road I’d usually just go and pick my orders up in person. Prior to knowing Steve, guitar pedals were, in my head anyway, products produced only by huge corporations with massive factories overseas. But seeing a guy in a workshop, doing everything by hand and making some of the best sounding fuzzes I’d ever heard got me into making some stuff for myself, which then kind of snowballed into making stuff and selling it on facebook groups, and so on…
I guess another would have to be Joel at Chase Bliss Audio, I’ve never owned any of their stuff, nor have I met him. But the boundaries they’ve broken as a company, and the work he did prior to CB at ZVEX is astounding.
Have you ever had a pedal that you have looked back on and been embarrassed by?
For example, I once owned a Danelectro FAB Metal pedal. (It was awful, I don’t know why I wasted my money, I don’t play metal so don’t know why 14 year old me thought the metal version was the best one to get)
There seems to be a trend of everyone buying ridiculous metal distortions as teenagers! Excluding the previously mentioned Behringer Ultra Metal. The other one that springs to mind that I had around the same time was the Behringer Auto-wah, and I’ll make it clear now that I have nothing against Behringer products, but I have absolutely no idea why I bought that pedal. I’m not sure if it was meant to work dynamically with how you played (like an envelope filter) because it seemed to work similar to how a chorus/phaser would work, with a set rate and depth, but with a ‘wah’ sound. Safe to say I didn’t have it for very long.
What is one effect you can’t live without?
Reverb, I could forgo all the gain in the world for a good clean sound with a ton of reverb. I’ve been really enjoying cranking the controls on our Exosphere into a crystal clean amp and just getting lost for an hour or two. It’s the sound that makes me start to write my own stuff and not just emulate existing riffs.
Can you send us a picture of your board/rig?
I don’t really have a fully-fledged set up at the moment as I’m current waiting on a new cab to arrive, I usually just play through the demo board I take to shows which consists of all of our pedals + a tuner, looper and an ABY box. My current guitars are a Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar & a Fidelity Guitars Double Standard, which is built to my specs with these amazing Mojo Pickups goldfoils & a Mastery vibrato.
My current amp is a YellowRock CA35, it’s a tube preamp with a solid state power amp and is honestly the best sounding amp I’ve ever owned, it takes pedals incredibly well, its got that fender-ish clean sound but without being sterile and fizzy when you throw a drive/fuzz in the front. I absolutely love it.