If I had to build my own pyramid of awesome gear companies, Strymon would certainly be in the top tier. Lots of companies innovate, plenty of others do amazing quality work. Strymon does both, which puts them in select company. Not only that, but it’s incredibly rewarding to play one of their pedals. You think it sounds great, and then you start to notice all the meticulous details and “hidden” features.
All of this gushing is legit. But it also does a good job explaining the joy I felt when I was given the opportunity to interview one of the top dogs over there, Gregg Stock. Gregg is a co-founder, analog engineer, avid baseball fan. This you can learn from reading their site. Keep reading, you’ll learn much more.
Daft Paragon: First off – Your title says you’re an analog engineer in a company that lives and breathes DSP, can you explain your typical role in things a bit more?
Gregg Stock: It’s an analog world 🙂 Unless we can power the chips and the get analog audio in and out, the DSP is all for naught. I do the analog design, board layout and develop the manufacturing acceptance tests.
DP: So you helped start Strymon after working with Damage Control, but what’s your story before that? How did you get into engineering in the guitar world?
GS: I started Damage Control with Lucian Tu, Dave and Pete joined within a few months. I started playing guitar at about 15 and played in some bands in Seattle. I wound up teaching guitar with about 40 students per week. I started fiddling with my tube amps and effects and realizing that if I wanted to build what I imagined, it would require going back to school. By the time I got a BSEE from University of Washington, we had two kids and I was focused on paying the rent and not so much on music. I worked at Boeing in Seattle and moved to California to work at Power-one in Camarillo. I did some consulting for QSC and eventually left Power-One for Alesis and then Line 6. I think working outside of the music industry was a huge benefit. It have me a broader understanding of electronics and product development.
DP: Since so many guitarists make a big deal about the analog/digital debate, did you ever struggle with the idea of trying to build a company that sells DSP based effects? Do you think that the analog vs digital debate even has merit in the modern world?
GS: Do you have a few hours 🙂
One of the most difficult parts of making a comparison between analog and digital is setting up some sort of objective listening test. This is no trivial task. I believe that most of what people think “sounds digital” has nothing to do with the actual digital conversion process and is attributable to other factors.
We get close to 110db dynamic range out of our end to end conversion process and in some setups, you can hear the difference in noise floor. This is why we went to the trouble of preserving the analog dry signal, which has closer to 120db dynamic range.
At Boeing and Power-One, I designed switching power supplies which generate lots of high frequency noise but have strict limits on how much of that noise can “leak” out. This really helped me be able to understand how to get a DSP system to co-exist with an analog system. It takes a lot of attention to detail in the layout and routing of the PCB.
The debate is still valid. When 120dB converters are more practical, it’s going to be much harder to tell the difference.
DP: Over the last couple years, the idea of “DIY DSP” has started to gain some traction. Do you think we’re approaching a point where we see a boom in digital effects pedals from small manufacturers?
GP: It has to. The barriers to entry in the market will keep getting lower. The ARM processors that are in every smart phone are getting more DSP in every generation, they are low power and inexpensive. There are also low cost development tools and communities online for support. Analog will never go away but digital will continue to evolve.
DP: While it seems fairly easy to buy a DSP stomp box kit and even tweak it a bit, developing from scratch seems way out of reach for most hobbyists. What sort of background is needed to do build drivers and whatnot from scratch?
Drivers and whatnot are a pretty big category. Dave, Pete and I have a general understanding of what the other two do but would be lost trying to switch jobs. If you are one guy, keep it simple, start small and keep learning. If you don’t understand something take time to figure it out. If you don’t understand why it works, you won’t know how to fix it when it doesn’t work.
DP: Strymon and others are really pushing what we thought were the limits of guitar effects technology, especially with modulation and time-based effects. Do you think there’s still room for major innovation left in this area? Is there another area that you think will see a digital revolution next?
GS: I hope so 🙂
DP: I’ve really wanted a Timeline, Mobius and/or BigSky – but my fear is it’s too many options and I’ll get lost in the rabbit hole of tinkering. Do you think this is a fair statement for some? Are there are types of musicians you think these pedals are definitely for or not for?
GS: I think Pete does a good job of making the rabbit holes shallow and easily avoidable. Each of those pedals can be very simple. Turn the bottom row of knobs on the TimeLine to minimum and the top row is a simple three knob deal with 12 different machines. I think that if the people that feel intimidated by the possibilities, just take it slow, and they will see that you don’t need to get lost unless you want to.
DP: What’s Strymon’s biggest goal as a company these days?
GS: Our biggest goal is always to continue to get better at every aspect of what we do. New products (which I could tell you about but would have to kill you) are really our biggest focus. We have some new directions that we are excited to venture in.
DP: Of all the cool products you’ve help develop, which one are you still most excited about and why?
GS: Our first generation of Strymon pedals was on three PCB, it was a real challenge to get everything to fit on two boards and improve the design to simplify the assembly process. We’ve heard some people complain that our pedals draw too much power but I don’t think they realize what it takes to run a 266MHz SHARC, 114dB CODEC, SDRAM and digital pots from 9V at less than two watts. There are two switching power supplies and 7 different voltage rails.
DP: Can you give us an example of an artist or song who has used a Strymon pedal in ways you might not have even considered?
GS: One of the most magical nights of my life was when I saw Radiohead in Santa Barbara. I was amazed that Ed O’Brien had integrated the TimeLine into their old material in a creative way.
DP: I’m a Brewers fan, what team do I have to see when they come into town this year?
I would say Dodgers. Yasiel Puig is one of those players that you never know what he might do next. And if you get to see Kershaw pitch, you might be seeing one of the all time greats. Hanley Ramirez is also one of the few players that the ball just sounds different coming off their bat.