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Psionic Audio
I'm very pleased and privileged to have the opportunity to have an interview with one of my favorite builders, Psionic Audio.
Where you are located?
Memphis, TN. I wipe the barbecue sauce off the knobs before shipping.
How did you get into pedal building?
My musical/performance background is kind of odd. I was playing in really rough punk/grunge clubs where the monitors were soaked in beer (don't smell the mic, people) and there would be a mosh pit right on top of your pedals most nights. Meanwhile I was also working as an engineer and producer in very refined recording environments. So while I was developing a real appreciation for pedals and amps built to withstand heavy stage abuse I was also learning about subtle impedance and gain staging issues, being exposed to high end studio products from designers like Dan Kennedy at Great River Electronics and EveAnna at Manley Labs. Those two extremes shape everything I make today.
I used to do a lot of custom rig building for people, so I dealt with a lot of other companies' effects pedals. Eliminating noise was a big part of what I did, and I would get so frustrated with most pedals out there. Ground loops, overly optimistic mechanical construction techniques, poor shielding, DC leakage, it's all out there, even with many "boutique" brands that start bidding wars on eBay. The vintage stuff is usually worse; even if it sounds great on Tuesday there's no guarantee it will work, let alone sound the same, on Wednesday.
At some point I got really tired of pedal "designers" who seemed to think the technological age reached its peak in 1974 so I applied correct, modern methods for grounding, shielding, and switching to other companies' pedals. And that led to designing my own, without the traditional shortcomings.
Can you elaborate? What makes your pedals different?
I start with the basics.
My products (BTW I hate, hate, hate calling them that) use custom enclosures made of 16AWG aluminum with stainless steel inserts for the stainless steel screws. Each enclosure has a stainless steel screw welded to the chassis for an internal ground connection with a toothed lug for the solder connection and held in place by a stainless steel nylon locking nut. I don't use the enclosure as a path for ground; only to provide shielding. The enclosures are powder coated satin back to prevent glare on stage and the silk screen is a very durable white with concise legible controls. LED's are bright enough to be seen in daylight but will not blind the player on stage.
I use Neutrik isolated jacks with very secure plug mating, compression washers that prevent the jacks coming loose, and chrome sleeve nuts for durability. Most pedals rely on the jack/enclosure contact for ground and will fail as soon as the jack nut comes slightly loose. Not a problem with my products - Psionic pedals will function even with all the jack nuts removed as all ground connections are hard wired connections.
I use heavy duty double sided through hole plated PCBs with a shield plane, local ground planes, and no ground loops. I separate shielding, DC ground, and audio ground functions throughout the circuit. Where there is the possibility of a ground loop in a circuit (when connecting to external devices in a loop for example) there is a small switch to lift that ground connection, with RF filtering in place (no ground loops, no Spinal Tap moments). Bipolar 30V rail to rail power supplies with local filtering and galactic ground methods are used throughout each Psionic Audio device. This results in a dramatic lowering of the noise floor, increased clarity and note separation, and an overall more natural, musical response.
The foot switches on my products do not perform the actual audio switching, and are not connected to the audio path. They instead control opto switching devices inside the pedal. This means that if a foot switch fails the audio path remains unaffected and you don't lose sound during a performance. The internal opto switching devices are rated for many thousands more cycles than are physical foot switches, and the circuit is not prone to microphonics as are many conventionally wired foot switches. Silent switching is good.
I'll spare you the full laundry list, but consider that in the buffer alone, I use a $5 op-amp where others use a 30 op-amp, and there are about $10 worth of parts per pedal just to filter and regulate the incoming power before it touches any part of the audio circuit. I don't make tonal sacrifices to lower costs - Psionic Audio has no bean-counters on staff. Quality in = quality out.
Why buffered bypass? Isn't True Bypass the best?
True bypass is a big improvement over the switching that was commonly used for older pedals where the pickup really got loaded down and the overall sound was dark and lifeless (I have no fondness for curly cables either). But like many guitar-related things in the days of the internet, true bypass has become over-mythologized. It suffers from three main drawbacks:
First, say you have a 20' cable from guitar to pedal, 6 true bypass pedals with 4 inches of cable between each pedal, and 20' of cable from the pedals to your amp. With all the pedals off, you have almost 42' of cable, with 42' of cable capacitance in place, noticeably rolling off the high end of your guitar (more noticeable with single coils than with humbuckers, but there either way). You adjust the tone knobs on your amp to get a good sound. Doing this you compensate for the treble loss from the cables, which increases the background hiss inherent in your amp. As soon as you turn on any one of those 6 pedals, the output of the pedal is buffered, and you lose the last 20' or more of cable capacitance, and your sound gets brighter. Your amp now has more background hiss, and the active pedal can exacerbate that and sound too bright.
With a high quality buffer at the front of your chain this capacitance issue is effectively removed - all you hear is the capacitance from the first cable from guitar to pedals, and as this remains constant you won't have to overcompensate with the amp's tone knobs and you won't have the tonal disparity that comes from turning pedals on/off. The buffer built into every Psionic Audio pedal is a world class buffer that can easily replace any standalone buffer on the market. This saves money and pedalboard space.
Second, the output of a high quality buffer is very low impedance. This means that it is not only fine running into the 1M input impedance that is typical of an amplifier (which guitars are designed to connect with) but the buffered output is also fine running into a 250K volume pedal or the 100K input input impedance of an old overdrive, either of which will load down a Strat or Tele, lowering the overall volume and darkening the sound. Tonal preservation is no small thing.
Third, true bypass makes silent switching very difficult with many effects, as the level of the active pedal is often much higher than the level of the bypassed signal. This level disparity is one source of the pop that usually happens when switching a true bypass pedal on/off. Psionic pedals use an internal buffered split and very high end opto switching devices that perform a 3ms cross-fade between the effect and the dry sound. This ultra fast but smooth transition eliminates any pop or switching noise and sounds completely natural.
All this tech talk can be boiled down to one simple thing - if you like the sound of your guitar right into your amp with just one cable, get a Psionic Audio pedal and that's the sound you'll always have even as you add more pedals and cables.
Note: there is no problem running multiple Psionic Audio buffered effects in series. If this was at all an issue, Boss would have gone out of business years ago, and the Boss buffer is not in the same league as mine.
Why the emphasis on multi-function pedals? Why not make several smaller pedals?
Stages are getting smaller, cartage is increasingly a thing of the past, and for every collector putting pictures of their 2 acre pedalboards on the internet, there are real pros out there trying to deal with airplane carry-on restrictions. So I try to put as much versatility in as small an enclosure as possible. Combining a buffer, boost, and two overdrives into one relatively small pedal, like the Telos, is a good thing for the touring pro - one pedal, one power supply, two foot switches, replaces 4 standalone pedals. That's good math. Most of my current and forthcoming pedals are dual (or triple - see the Triad) foot switch pedals. The 3.14 is a very compact pedal with just the one foot switch, and I'll have some new products in that same smaller enclosure late this year.
Speaking of foot switches, all my pedals feature a remote switching control jack (labeled CTRL) that allows Psionic pedals to be mounted on a rack shelf without losing access to all needed functions, or so a player can trigger Psionic pedals from more than one stage location. This can be done via programmed MIDI switchers or by simple external latching normally-open foot switches.
Any new upcoming effect pedals?
Glad you asked (cue evil laughter)...
First, there just really isn't a great EQ pedal for electric or acoustic guitar or electric bass out there, IMO. Some are OK but limited in features, others promise the kitchen sink but just don't sound very good. Coming from a studio background, I have always loved the sounds of the old Pultec EQs, and am trying to get that great sound in a compact pedal. I'm working on the prototype right now, with more details to come - I think this is going to be very exciting. Hi and Low shelving, two fully parametric bands with adjustable boost/cut and adjustable Qs - stay tuned.
Next will be a pedal that combines a truly transparent series/parallel mixer with the same frequency filters found on the Triad, combined with a choice of two highly sought after preamps from certain vintage guitar echo devices. When combined with some of the fantastic new delays on the market from Strymon and Eventide... well, this is going to be a very good thing.
Then I'm coming out with a revised version of my old Lavaflow pedal, in a more compact enclosure with silent switching. This will have the Psionic Buffer, A and B loops associated with A and B outputs, a high quality isolation transformer on the B output with polarity reversal, and the ability to change channels on most amplifiers at the same time the player changes the A and B loops. This will bring MIDI versatility to a pedalboard without the expense and headaches of MIDI.
Any online articles?
I've begun a series of articles on my website, Mojo Part 1 with more in the works, and I've done articles and reviews on various forums, MyLesPaul that I need to compile in one place. I'm discussing some possible columns with some industry magazines, but it's too soon to say much more on that front. I'm very fortunate to be a busy guy!
Do you have pedals sold to big artist names in the business?
Yes, but some of them won't let me tell you without being paid, and others probably own one of everything, so I'm not sure how valuable "rock star" clients are. What means more to me is the feedback I get from very talented professionals who aren't necessarily household names. Chris Nix in Nashville, John Flannery in LA, Doug Wamble in New York, Nate Najar in Florida - these guys are at the pinnacle of playing ability and creativity, and they are extremely discerning about what works and what doesn't. I'm honored that my pedals suit their demanding needs.
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