Work­shop: thorpy FX

We get the low­down on Thor­pyFX with com­pany founder, Adrian Thorpe, who briefs us on the mil­i­tary-pre­ci­sion en­gi­neer­ing and in­cen­di­ary tone that’s be­hind the com­pany’s me­te­oric rise to fame among au­dio­phile gui­tarists

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Rod Brakes Pho­tog­ra­phy Jesse Wild

With a long legacy of in­flu­en­tial sound de­sign­ers, the UK has a colour­ful his­tory of guitar ef­fects-pedal man­u­fac­tur­ing stretch­ing back to the 1960s and has pro­duced some of the most well-re­garded stomp boxes in the world. Bri­tish man­u­fac­tur­ing may have taken more than its fair share of ups and downs, but the spirit of in­no­va­tion and ex­per­tise in guitar ef­fects de­sign is alive and well, es­pe­cially in the realm of high-qual­ity, hand-built, bou­tique pedals.

When Am­mu­ni­tion Tech­ni­cal Of­fi­cer Ma­jor Adrian Thorpe left the Army to set­tle down he de­cided a change of ca­reer was in or­der. Mov­ing away from the rigours of bomb dis­posal and ex­plo­sives, he set up shop with Thor­pyFX in 2015 and im­me­di­ately picked up rave re­views in the mu­sic in­dus­try, as well as no­table en­dorse­ments and awards in the press.

Adrian and his wife, Ge­or­gia, still con­duct the pedals’ fi­nal assem­bly on a work­bench at their home. But, with the de­mand for Thor­pyFX pedals on the in­crease and a plethora of new cir­cuit de­signs in the pipe­line, how are they able to keep up with the de­mands of their new­found suc­cess in such a highly com­pet­i­tive (and po­ten­tially over­sat­u­rated) mar­ket? “It seemed to gather mo­men­tum very quickly,” be­gins Adrian. “All told, there’s three full-time em­ploy­ees: my wife and I and a guy called Mitch Keen, who has around 30 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the mu­sic in­dus­try. We also have a part-time con­tracted de­signer on board, Dan Cog­gins of Love­tone. Dan has al­ways worked in elec­tron­ics and he still does – he’s busy all the time and his skill set is very much in de­mand. It’s good to lean on peo­ple who have ex­per­tise in a cer­tain area that you don’t have and, as we ex­pand, I’m sure we’ll get more de­sign­ers on board. Dan de­signed the Love­tone pedals and I ended up build­ing a Love­tone Meat­ball en­ve­lope fil­ter as a per­sonal project.”

Aim­ing High

The tran­si­tion from se­ri­ous hobby to pro­fes­sional ven­ture can of­ten be a huge leap of faith, as for many peo­ple build­ing ef­fects pedals is noth­ing short of a labour of love. “When I started off, I was just cloning stuff for my­self – that’s how I crafted what I liked and what I didn’t like. It was just a lot of fun,” says Adrian. “Over the years I’ve cloned and built hundreds of dif­fer­ent types of cir­cuits and I’ve owned hundreds of dif­fer­ent pedals. It’s a bit of a bus­man’s hol­i­day now, but it’s more to do with cu­rios­ity than any­thing else – some­times I just like to do things ac­cu­rately; I’ve just built a Tone Ben­der that’s 100% ac­cu­rate.”

Build­ing pedals to pe­riod-cor­rect vin­tage spec can be­come an ob­ses­sion, not to men­tion a painstak­ingly ex­act­ing process, al­though there is much to be said in terms of it pro­vid­ing useful de­sign in­sights. “I love to col­lect pedals and I of­ten build clones for my­self,” en­thuses Adrian. “I re­cently built a Burns Buz­zaround fuzz clone for Dave Gre­gory [of XTC]. I wanted an orig­i­nal one my­self, but they go for about two grand, so I thought ‘Fuck that, I’ll build one!’ I built it in a sim­i­lar vein to Dave’s pedal and son­i­cally it was right, but it wasn’t right vis­ually, so be­ing the weirdo I am I de­cided to clone it en­tirely. I even or­dered the knobs from Burns and I some­how man­aged to get the right en­clo­sure on­line. I to­tally cloned it us­ing NOS parts.”

Be­ing a keen fan of ef­fects pedals with a deep level of cu­rios­ity stands Adrian in good stead when it comes to find­ing in­spi­ra­tion for his own de­signs: “I’ve got draw­ers full of rare stuff like Mu-Trons and that kind of thing, just be­cause I en­joy gear and I like hear­ing what other man­u­fac­tur­ers have done,” agrees Adrian. “I’ve stud­ied hundreds of dif­fer­ent cir­cuits and I just know what things are sup­posed to sound like and I just love it when I hear things that bowl me over. The last thing that re­ally stood out for me was the Roger Mayer Vi­sion Wah – I love the en­gi­neer­ing. I also love Roger’s Voodoo-Vibe+ and the Sweet Sound Mojo Vibe is also re­ally good. Any­thing by Kings­ley is re­ally do­ing it for me at the mo­ment – I par­tic­u­larly rate the Kings­ley Jester. I’m not such a fan of the re­ally glitchy, dig­i­tal, bit crush­ing ef­fects

though: half the time you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were run­ning a ‘59 Les Paul through it or a French horn!”

Hav­ing de­vel­oped a strong knowl­edge and ex­per­tise over the years fol­low­ing the in­tri­cate anal­y­sis of count­less ef­fects pedals, what did Thor­pyFX kick off with and what was the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind it? “It was the Gun­shot [over­drive]. It was one of those things that I wanted to do,” muses Adrian. “I was try­ing to make a pedal that sounded as close to an amp as pos­si­ble – that was my aim. It’s got so much har­monic con­tent that it’s sim­i­lar to the sound of an amp that’s cook­ing. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a fully orig­i­nal cir­cuit these days, but it’s a hy­brid of, shall we say, a ‘mid-fo­cused cir­cuit’ (take from that what you will!), al­though it doesn’t sound like one of those pedals be­cause the de­sign is so far re­moved from it. There’s also a part of the cir­cuit that gives a high head­room clean boost and the two parts are melded to­gether. The front end and the back end are lopped off and, when you an­a­lyse it, it’s a unique pedal – they sound very dif­fer­ent.”

do­ing the Cir­cuits

Per­fect­ing a new cir­cuit de­sign can of­ten be a la­bo­ri­ous process of trial and er­ror, with rig­or­ous test­ing in­volved at ev­ery stage along the way. “I of­ten firstly build and test the cir­cuits on Ver­oboard (some­times known as strip­board),” con­firms Adrian. “It’s the same kind of thing that Dif­fer­en­tial Au­dio Man­i­fes­ta­tionz from York­shire, and com­pa­nies such as Pig­dog use. They use a lot of the tag­board stuff be­cause it’s vin­tage au­then­tic. I use that stuff to pro­to­type and then use a CAD pro­gram to de­sign the PCBs, which are man­u­fac­tured at a PCB house in Wilt­shire. By the CAD stage the cir­cuit is pretty much there – the ba­sic schematic and the list of com­po­nents. My method­ol­ogy is I’ll pro­to­type a schematic and, if I’m feel­ing con­fi­dent, I’ll send it off and get it made.”

How­ever, in or­der to per­fect the end re­sult there may still be the oc­ca­sional ad­just­ment to be made be­fore Adrian is happy: “If I’m not feel­ing con­fi­dent then I’ll re­build it on a bread­board and fid­dle with things. If I’ve got the EQ slightly wrong, for ex­am­ple, I’ll fid­dle with the cir­cuit un­til it’s spot on. When I ini­tially did the Warthog there was some­thing in the low-end that wasn’t quite right. It was a lit­tle bit muddy and it also felt like there was a slight la­tency around 30 mil­lisec­onds. Some peo­ple might have liked that but I wasn’t happy with it! I went back and redesigned the EQ, changed a num­ber of com­po­nents and re-bi­ased part of the cir­cuit.”

Us­ing high-stan­dard com­po­nents is cru­cial when it comes to the man­u­fac­ture of qual­ity guitar-ef­fects pedals and is of para­mount im­por­tance to Adrian, as he keenly points out: “It’s so im­por­tant to me that the firms I deal with care as much about their prod­ucts as I do. Ev­ery­thing that goes into the pedals and all the com­po­nents I use have to be as ac­cu­rate and re­li­able as pos­si­ble. I want re­li­a­bil­ity and if that’s com­pro­mised in any way then I’ll look else­where. All of the parts I use are high qual­ity, ex­pen­sive com­po­nents. I mean is it more im­por­tant to max­imise your prof­its or is it more im­por­tant to max­imise your prod­uct? For me it’s most cer­tainly the lat­ter. For some of the big play­ers in the in­dus­try it’s all about mak­ing profit, but you’ve got to love what you do!”

High-qual­ity com­po­nents are, ev­i­dently, of ut­most pri­or­ity to Thor­pyFX, but how does one go about sourc­ing them and what are these de­ci­sions based on ex­actly? “They come from all over the world, but they need to be ex­tremely con­sis­tent,” em­pha­sises Adrian. “My ears tell me I pre­fer the

“If I’m not feel­ing con­fi­dent then I’ll re­build it on a bread­board and fid­dle with things”

ex­pen­sive, high-qual­ity com­po­nents. Not just be­cause they’re more ex­pen­sive: they are all se­lected us­ing a blind test. For some com­po­nents, like ca­pac­i­tors, we buy di­rect from the man­u­fac­tur­ers, such as WIMA and Pana­sonic, be­cause we’re buy­ing in such big quan­ti­ties. It’s all about con­sis­tency and hav­ing ev­ery sin­gle pedal sound like the last one off the pro­duc­tion line. I reg­u­larly do batch tests to check the com­po­nent val­ues, out of my own cu­rios­ity, and they are ac­tu­ally amaz­ing! Our metal film re­sis­tors have only a 1% tol­er­ance.”

the Greater Good

High-qual­ity com­po­nents aside, a suc­cess­ful pedal de­sign is, more of­ten that not, a mat­ter of whether it sounds good and is likely to have wide ap­peal. Adrian says, “With the Peace­keeper [over­drive pedal] I was go­ing to set the mids on an in­ter­nal trim­mer with­out any ex­ter­nal pot con­trol, but then I thought ‘If I put the con­trol on the out­side and don’t fix the value, I’ll end up with a much more ver­sa­tile pedal that will cater for a greater num­ber of peo­ple’. It ended up that by do­ing this I could re­ally change the char­ac­ter of the over­drive and ended up with a pedal with many more over­drive voic­ings. The mids sit firmly be­fore the main gain stage and con­se­quently, when you ad­just it, it makes the gain re­act dif­fer­ently – it’s much more dy­namic. I do these things by ear and then make the nec­es­sary ad­just­ments, be­cause the proof is in the pud­ding – and it’s fun!”

Given that Thor­pyFX pedals have been well noted for their ap­peal across a broad range of gen­res and styles, one might pre­sume the cir­cuits have been en­gi­neered to in­clude a wide range of tonal op­tions. “I EQ the pedals so they ap­peal to as many gui­tarists as pos­si­ble,” ex­plains Adrian. “I don’t want my pedals to have too much of a sweet spot; I pre­fer there to be dif­fer­ent colours within the pedals. It’s well known where gui­tars sit in terms of fre­quency range and I try to make sure that the tone con­trol ful­fils your typ­i­cal in­stru­ment, but I also try to make sure the whole gamut of gui­tars are cov­ered, to give a wider ap­peal.”

With a grow­ing ar­ray of artists us­ing Thor­pyFX pedals, it would ap­pear that main­stream suc­cess has ar­rived, de­spite the hand-built ethos of the com­pany, as Adrian af­firms: “We’ve got some well­known users: Matt White [The Tem­per­ance Move­ment], Ed O’Brien [Ra­dio­head], Oli Brown [Raven­eye], Gra­ham Coxon [Blur], J Mas­cis [Di­nosaur Jr], Ariel Posen and Joey Lan­dreth [The Bros. Lan­dreth], Dave Gre­gory [XTC], Bootsy Collins [Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic], Lon­don Gram­mar... Ed O’Brien has got the Muf­f­room Cloud [re­cently re­named the Fall­out Cloud] fuzz on one of his boards. Dan Stein­hardt built his boards for him. To be fair Dan in­tro­duced him to the pedal and he was blown away by it. Ed is such a great artist and it’s bril­liant to see him us­ing my pedals. It’s so hum­bling to have these guys use our pedals. I know that sounds trite but it means the world to me.

“I’m so grate­ful to be do­ing what I’m do­ing. The winds blew the right way and I’m so gen­uinely grate­ful to have bro­ken through. My plan is to be suc­cess­ful for a long pe­riod of time. I re­ally don’t want to be that com­pany that comes and goes; I want to have longevity. I mean look at Mike Piera [of Ana­log Man] – how long has he been go­ing? He was right in there at the start and how many com­pa­nies have fallen by the way­side since he’s been around? A lot! It’s about do­ing things right. Ev­ery sin­gle pedal I re­lease I think ‘Fuck! I hope it takes off!’ It’s like the dif­fi­cult sec­ond al­bum! I just want to make ab­so­lutely sure that peo­ple are gen­uinely happy with the prod­ucts. That’s what I care about the most.” www.thor­pyfx.com

“My plan is to be suc­cess­ful for a long time. I don’t want to be that com­pany that comes and goes”

1 1. Red Mist is the work­ing ti­tle of a su­per-heavy dis­tor­tion pedal, cur­rently in the pro­to­type phase

2. Adrian’s own ped­al­board show­ing a se­lec­tion of Thor­pyFX pedals aug­mented by The GigRig G2, along with his Moog MF-104M Su­per De­lay 2

3. Adrian as­sem­bling a pedal by hand, be­fore fi­nal test­ing 3

4 4. Adrian shows off his ‘board, as well as work-in-progress pro­to­type cir­cuits

5 5 A Mar­shall JCM25/50 Model 2525H sits atop of an as-yet-un­re­leased Thor­pyFX D.E.W. 15/30 amp head

6 6. Adrian’s sub­stance of choice, irid­ium, is none more ‘space rock’ – it’s of­ten found in me­te­orites!

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