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
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.”
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!