Trying to continue the trend of not really focusing too much on specific product questions and instead on the fact that guitar pedals are created by humans - I asked some questions of the humans Grant & Karen from BIG EAR pedals.
Grant has been very open with his experiences online and speaks about the positives and negatives of ASD, this is hugely brave and incredible. I wanted to dive more into that alongside their incredibly productive work with BIG EAR pedals. I think their answers are incredibly illuminating and offer a glimpse into the workings of the real people behind some rather faceless (although still very beautiful) guitar pedals. As a bonus for the folks looking more for pedal nerd insider information – there are some juicy details about the next BIG EAR pedals release!
Also, I asked them for some photos that sum up the company and they provided amazingly cute cat and bunny pictures. If you’re looking for some #gearybusey action here you might be disappointed. However, #cutepets delivers.
Hey Grant, thanks for taking the time to do this, I super appreciate it! Could you give a quick intro on yourself and what you do?
Hey There! My name is Grant Wilson, and I own and operate BIG EAR pedals out of Nashville, TN with my partner Karen Schierhorn.
You guys have a pretty small product line up but it’s rather constantly evolving. Could you take us through a typical R&D cycle for a new product? Is there such a thing?
Well, honestly, it’s never been the same twice, but I can kinda walk you through a little bit of the process of the pedal we are currently working on, ALBIE. Basically, the pedal consists of eight patches, each one being a different chain or stack of effects. These chains emulate the sounds you would associate with the new wave / post-punk genres of the 80’s. And here’s the silly part.. The parameters of each chain are set and the only control the user has is a blend knob to blend in the effect. I know it sounds crazy, but we spent a lot of time perfecting each chain and designed them for the “every player.”
So first, we researched the specific effects that notable players of the genres were using and then gathered the physical pedals together, built chains with the effects, then had ten players test-play through these pedals, set up in a loop with a blender, and allowed them only to control the blend level. The first test was simple.. Could they use the sound right off the bat? Was it inspiring? If it got a pass, we moved onto the next chain. If it did not get a pass, we asked the player to adjust the knobs to where they thought they should be, again aiming to recreate a specific sound / era of music.
The next part was the tricky part. We hired Neil Graham (you may know him from his work with Dr. Scientist) to recreate these pedal chains digitally, and so to do that, we had to send him detailed audio and video of several loops of audio playing through each of the effects, both solo and stacked with other effects, in various combinations. These were used to recreate the chains for the eight patches on the pedal.
Once the patches were created, we tested them with another set of ten players and basically had a checklist for them. And if a patch got a check mark from 8 out of 10 people, it would make it into the pedal. The beta testers were players from all different musical backgrounds.. singer-songwriters, to engineers and producers, to arena touring rock-stars. Because the user can’t control any of the parameters, we wanted to make sure that it would work across the board for as many different kinds of music-makers as possible.
So that’s the meat of it.. The pedal also has some fun switching stuff happening, too.. By holding down the footswitch, you enter a secondary mode, where a new effect is added, or a parameter of an existing effect is adjusted. This is actually called the “Neil Mode” because we gave Neil full reign to design these modes. We thought it would be a fun way to give him more of a fingerprint in the pedal. And so… yeah, that’s kinda the short explanation of how this particular pedal was designed.
When you’re approaching a new pedal design do you have a final sound in mind, or is the journey as important as the destination as some may say?
Yeah, I’ve definitely always wanted a specific sound.. the final sound is what we’re after. At least in our case, we’ve never stumbled upon something while trying to do something else.
You design pedals that are optimized across a variety of instruments (synth / bass / guitar, etc) which is amazing to me as someone who loves experimenting – how do you find the balance between all of these? I feel like I’d struggle with wanting to optimize to a specific use case.
Honestly, it’s just about how they handle and reproduce low-end. I just don’t think a pedal should be only for the guitar, and with a few parts changes, it usually doesn’t have to be. This doesn’t mean that it will work for all players on all instruments. People still have to like it and decide that it works for them, but if it doesn’t work with bass, that cuts out a lot of music-makers, and way more people than just guitarists use pedals these days.
I have to know the story of how “SHAKE” was born. Such an interesting concept and execution.
I went to Nelson Drum Shop in Nashville (I’m a drummer first), and I was just so inspired by the visit and the vibe of the shop.. on my drive home I kept thinking “I wish I had something we could sell there!” And by the time I made it to my door, I had come up with probably the dumbest idea yet.. an electric shaker (like a percussion instrument) that looks like a guitar pedal! Even down to a fake switch and fake knobs. Inside is a small wooden box full of lead trimmings from our pedal builds. The wooden box is fitted with a piezo transducer that is wired to a jack, and that’s that. You plug it into a bunch of pedals, and you shake it, and it’s ridiculous, but it’s really fun! And it repurposes all of our lead-trimmings, so that’s great, too!
You’ve been super open and communicative about your life outside of pedal building, the willingness to share your experience with ASD is incredibly inspiring. What made you decide to do this?
It’s part of my everyday life.. Not just my bad days. So I have to talk about it. The #AutismLooksDifferentThanYouThink series started as a way to educate people about something that still is really misunderstood today. And honestly, the people that already know me, they know this is just as important for me as it is for others. It helps people. And it helps me.
The idea of putting yourself into a position where you’re the public face of a company in an industry that is pretty big on large group gatherings and face time while at the same time living with ASD is pretty extreme. Did you ever feel like there was another choice or was this just what you had to do?
It’s hard sometimes. But I like it, too. It’s kinda funny. I always tell people, when they think that ASD means I won’t talk.. HA! I will talk long after you have lost interest.. So in some ways I was built for that kind of mingling and tradeshow floor hanging. But, there is always a few days of downtime after big events where I just can’t do anything. And so that has to be prepared for as well. I kinda give it all, but I can only handle so much stimulation, so sometimes by the last day of a tradeshow for example, I am spending most of the day outside.
You’ve spoken very candidly and generally positively about your experiences, but this last year started to shift into some less flowery discussions. What triggered this change?
I think just because I wanted to be as honest and open as I could be. People have been following along now for a few years, and I can’t just say the same thing over and over.. like, some of it is ugly. Some of it is hard. Some of it is confusing. But I think the overall takeaway should be that these things are just part of the story. Good days and bad days. And people need to be able to recognize these things when they are happening.. that they don’t need to be scared. They don’t need to be angry. They need to be understanding. But they’ll never understand if we just talk about the good shit like “look, I can put together puzzles really fast!”
If you had the opportunity to give advice to yourself 5 or 10 years ago about everything you’ve experienced and encountered, what would it be?
Oh man… 10 years ago? I’d say “Quit the band and start making pedals now! But learn to do it yourself right away… You can dooo it!” 😛
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Anything else you’d like to let everyone know?
Hey, thank you! And if you’ve made it this far. you’re awesome, and I appreciate you! And Karen appreciates you! And Pam and Chase and Cat Albert appreciate you, too! Be on the lookout for ALBIE, too! Keep your eye on bigearpedals.com for the launch! <3 <3 <3
So many thanks to Grant and Karen for taking the time out of their busy schedule to answer these questions. If you’re looking for more information about BIG EAR pedals, check out their website at www.bigearpedals.com and be sure to keep an eye out for the new ALBIE release in the near future. I’m sure I’ll be posting about it once it’s released as well! Thanks for reading!