In Conversation: An Interview with Alan Durham from Durham Electronics- Part 3
June 15, 2018
38 min read
Mitchakes Music: Going back to the Durham Electronics pedal line from a little bit earlier, I was interested in going back to when you were making the original SexDrive pedal for Charlie Sexton early on. Was Charlie giving you a ton of direction in what he needed in the design aspect of the pedal? I remember from earlier in our interview, you mentioned at the time you had never built a pedal before. Even though you had never built anything yourself, did you have some ideas running around your head? I always loved the compressor you designed into the SexDrive. How did you come up with that idea? Did Charlie turn you on to that because of the bottom end requirements he wanted out of a pedal, or was it just something you thought he this could work for his needs?
Alan Durham: It was Charlie saying this pedal is good but it's too harsh. And you know, Charlie always ran an MXR Dyna Comp in his effects signal chain, so we just quickly went that route. And because Charlie is a great studio musician compression was just one of his tricks. It was something that always sounded great with what he was doing. I wanted to figure out a compressor for the pedal. So, I had a compressor circuit that I thought would work with this and I'm looking at LA-2A compressors and other studio grade compressors with light bulbs in there even, just trying to get that vibe in a pedal. We wanted a natural sound in compression, not an over-the-top Nashville country production compression. We didn't want that style of compression at all. We wanted that softening feel that would happen with the hit that you usually hear in the studio.
MM: What's so cool, is that I can turn my amp up to a certain threshold and then the amplifier naturally compresses as part of the tone. The beautiful thing about the SexDrive pedal is that it is so close to what the amplifier does naturally when I turn the volume up on it. The fact that I can get the same feel with an effects pedal was such an accomplishment, it blew me away the first time I used it. I can't believe you made that happen! Regardless of having to adjust my amplifier volume for the size of the room I’m playing in, I still get the same feel and natural compression through your pedal every time. I just thought it was unbelievable how can get that sound any volume.
AD: Well go back to the fact that my background comes from loving tubes. I was looking at solid state stuff back at the University of Texas when I was working there but I was not passionate at all about anything solid state. I'm only passionate about tube gear. So, instantly when I'm putting chips, transistors, and stuff in a device, I thought this is not sounding good! Laughs.
So, when I had the luxury of engineering background and understanding I needed a roll-off frequency in my design. Having a low pass frequency here is going to do this. When I know this is what I want to hear, it helps me lead to what I should do with the circuit. It's not always looking at the oscilloscope but I'll mess with it. I'll play with it a lot. I look at the scope and I see what the waveform looks like, but I tweak with it. Ultimately, it's my ears deciding does this circuit design sound good? Is it musical? Is it usable in a playing context? And does it ultimately give me the feel I want? So, after answering those questions I know that's the feel I want right there in my design. If the wave looks wrong on the oscilloscope I don't let that make a decision for me. For example, a Crazy Horse fuzz pedal on the oscilloscope just looks like a total mess, but the sound and the feel are right. So, I try to go with the musical feel of a pedal design as opposed to just examining the oscilloscope.
MM: Let’s talk about the Crazy Horse fuzz pedal you designed? How did you get the tone knob to be that usable through most of the knob’s range? I tend to set tone knobs on other pedals and never change them once I find what I’m looking for. But your designs always have bucked that trend. With the Crazy Horse specifically, I like that when the tone knob is in the lower position it boosts low frequencies and when it’s in the high positions it boosts the high frequencies. This all really helps in getting radically different fuzz tones. Also, can you share anything about the voltage knob on the Crazy Horse? I see with other pedals, like with Analogman's Fuzz Faces internal biasing knob to adjust the sweet spot of a nine-volt battery, the voltage knob you've put on the front of the pedal reminds me of similarly sagging battery voltage concepts, but your design is much more musical. The Crazy Horse’s voltage knob seems to be used in tandem with the tone knob and the gain stages of the pedal, with all the knobs working together in the player’s experience as opposed to being used separately like any other pedal on the market. it was really great fun and I found it really usable! What's your thoughts?
AD: First of all, in addressing the voltage on the Crazy Horse, every manufacturer has a bias adjustment in their pedals. I am over-the-top Neil Young fanatic. That's my guy! So, what I was trying to achieve is basically what's going on when an amp it has reached its peak. The amplifier is dying, it's starting to fart and sputter out. I’m thinking in that vein and what's happening in the power section of an amplifier if it's draining too much right here and that the amplifier can no longer react quick enough to what you're inputting as a guitarist. So, I'm going to build into my circuit something that is starving the pedal to where it can't react when you hit it in the same way. My voltage control is not a bias voltage control or where I'm taking the power supply and dropping the voltage down. It's not the same thing.
MM: For me as a player, I love the Crazy Horse because of its interactive qualities. I love that all the knobs are together and that was just so different from anything on the market. I have reserved my Crazy Horse pedal for studio use only now. I’ve stopped using it live because I have the original big box one from 10 or so years ago. Some people around town started telling me for whatever idiotic reason the older big box pedals you made originally with the jacks on the same side were worth more money to collectors! I found this to be ridiculous because I knew my pedal was the same than the small ones you make now. Laughs.
I have a huge collection of fuzz pedals and I find that for the most part I can get anything I want with your Crazy Horse Fuzz pedal. I usually work with the idea of I need a Fuzz Face for this style, I might need a Mosrite Fuzz-Rite for this style, I might want a Tonebender for this with this guitar application. If I sat there for 10 mins and tweaked the knobs on the Crazy Horse I found that I could get a usable sound that was whatever I was looking for instead of swapping through different pedals. I wasn’t even trying for the Neil Young dying amp sound at first, I just found that I could replicate all my vintage fuzzes in one box authentically.
AD: To get something that was that flexible was really just a bonus. I was chasing a different sound though. The sound I wanted it was the dying amp sound, but the pedal also allowed it to get this, or get this, or get this, and I was really happy about that. But anyway, the voltage is different and as far as the tone knobs it goes back to what I said earlier about high-pass and low-pass filters. What I did was in my tone knobs on my pedals, I bought in the high pass low-pass filter so that when you switch back and forth you get more bass or you get more treble. The SexDrive is a different tone circuit altogether. It's more a presence knob.
MM: The pedals you make reminds me of very amp-like controls. I found myself thinking that it doesn't matter the amp I'm using. I can treat that presence knob on the SexDrive like the presence knob on my Fuchs Amplifier and get similar results. That’s pretty amazing. When you were tinkering with amps and repairing amplifiers did you have anything that was a particular favorite? Because the amp World cover so many grounds. There’s the Tweed Fenders, the Brownface Fenders, the Blackface Fenders, then you can go into Marshall’s, then you can go into vintage Vox styles, then you can go into Hiwatts, then Mesa Boogie amplifiers and Dumbles, and they seem to be the only standards. Right now, it’s 2018 and I’m not seeing anything really that new in amplifiers. Designers seem to be, just like with pedals, copying the old stuff and slapping a new name on it. Did you feel like both players and designers keeps returning to the old designs because that's the sound they are accustomed to? Because I’ve played more Hi-Fi sounding amplifiers and I'm hearing so much more of my guitar signal than I’m usually accustomed to, but I will return to my 1966 Deluxe Reverb, I will return to my 1959 Bassman, I will return to my 1967 Plexi, and because you design original circuits I wanted to maybe lead into the amplifier designs that you're making like the SiTone. Are there designs from an electrical engineering standpoint that's demonstrates why certain amplifiers are benchmark amplifier designs? Or is it going to take more people looking at how can I turn this on its head to get to the next design?
AD: If we go back to the original makers of amplifiers being the Fender stuff, why doesn't Fender have any patents on any of the amplifier designs they made iconic? Because you have what are called receiving manuals, RCA receiving manuals are books that tells you that a 6L6 tube has a plate here, it has a grid here, a cathode goes here, etc. These books also tell you how much current you need to power a tube, what the tube can handle, what the plate voltage is. RCA receiving manuals give you specs of every tube there is.
MM: It sounds like these books basically give you the rules of the game you play as a designer. It sounds like you are chained to these rules when you are making new designs. I guess you can only reinvent the wheels so many times before you start to build a foundation of knowledge. Tubes can only work a certain way etc. That makes sense.
AD: Inside of those books there are example circuits. They are amplifier circuits for 6L6 amplifiers, 6V6 amplifiers, and there are also old radio circuits, and all the circuits are there. Well that is where the designs came from. Those books are where the design came from for every amplifier. Fender came into the fold in the late 40’s saying yeah we created this buy our amplifiers from an advertising angle. But no, they didn't really create anything at all. They copied it from these books. That's why there's no patents because those circuits already existed. The earliest Fender stuff came from those designs. Leo Fender took these parts and made them function in a way they were intended to be used with great success.
MM: That makes sense because Leo was in Radio...
AD: That's why I can't get patents on the SexDrive, or the Crazy Horse, or the Mucho Boosto etc. I took components and used them like they were meant to be used like Leo Fender. It's like I might have seasoned the design a particular way with resistors or whatever, but it's not enough of a change to get a patent. Going to the amplifier realm, everything is built around Fender designs. You have your own original Fender Bassman and then Marshall copied their Bassman designs. Then Marshalls have 6L6 and in Bassmans there are different tubes. Everything is built around Fender. The big change would be more in the class A Vox circuit. That was the biggest change of the amplifier world. It wasn't Marshall. It was Fender that just started it up and Vox changed everything.