In Detroit, a few minutes up the street from my office in a 500 sq ft space towards the back of a shared office space (for now) the folks from Red Panda work diligently crafting a variety of unique, inspiring, utilitarian and sometimes just plain weird, effects pedals.
I somehow failed to connect that they are a local company even after seeing their charity work benefiting local women’s organizations – not sure how I managed that. After realizing my mistake, I reached out to Curt about talking about the company, his pedals, and background – I did this at the absolute most inopportune time for any pedal builder – during the leadup to the winter NAMM show. Miraculously, Curt was nice enough to carve out some time to answer my questions amidst the absolute chaos of traveling across the country into a dangerous biological sickness dome with thousands of coughing musicians. Thankfully he survived and made it safely back to Detroit.
Red Panda make pedals that play in the exact area that is hyper interesting to me, they are very experimental in nature but also laser-focused on musical application. The engineering behind making something wild but also musical is often overlooked in the sea of harsh, extreme noise-making devices. I’ve spent some time playing with their Tensor and it manages to pack a ton of music into a very strange concept. I believe that is a rare and exceptional pairing (also an exceptional pedal) that I was very curious to ask about. Curt’s answers to my prodding are available below.
To start, thanks so much for taking the time to do this – I know this time of year is crazy for everyone and I seriously appreciate it. Could you let everyone know who you are and what you do?
I am Curt Malouin, an electrical engineer who designs pedals and runs a small pedal company called Red Panda. We are a four-person company that designs and builds pedals in metro Detroit. We use automated factories for our enclosures and circuit boards (local when possible), then do the printing, final assembly, and testing at our workshop.
From a couple of other interviews I’ve garnered that you didn’t always make boutique stompboxes and at one point actually worked a “normal” job – how was that? Does it feel like a past life at this point?
Having a “normal job” was great. I was lucky enough to work on some challenging projects with smart and interesting people. I worked for 5 years writing vehicle design optimization and realtime test software at two of the auto companies here in Detroit. Then I spent 12 years at a company that wrote software for authoring and publishing large, complex documents, such as repair manuals for airplanes and excavators. There is something to be said for having a steady job that is mostly enjoyable and gives you the time and resources to pursue things that you’re passionate about.
Working a normal job for 17 years also allowed me to save enough money that I can be very intentional about picking projects. So Red Panda does not have to put out new products just to grow revenue, we can work on hard, interesting problems and let the company grow naturally.
Moving from the hobbyist to a full-time career is a tough transition, what made you think “this might just work” and make the jump full time into making pedals?
2009 was a different time in the pedal industry, and there were not a lot of small companies making digital pedals. I let the products I wanted to make and the way I like to work guide how the company would be shaped. I am introverted and do not enjoy sales and marketing, so I just focused on making the product as good as possible.
Shortly after I release the Particle, I was working on a very intense project at my job. 70+ hours a week, lots of last-minute travel to the customer site, and the team dynamics were not ideal. I tend to be hyper-focused and work compulsively, so it is easy for me to completely sink into a project. My job was preventing me from making progress on the Particle and other pedals, which is when I knew it was time to quit.
A lot of creative types tend to be their own worst critic. I know I suffer from this and absolutely loathe most things I’ve made about 2 seconds after they are completed. Do you look back on your pedals and think of all the things you would change now?
There is nothing major I would change – I still have fun every time I play with one of our older pedals. But I always learn from watching people use the products, and environments and musical techniques evolve. The Particle (2011) was designed around granular synthesis and implementing it in an intuitive and performance-friendly way. By the time we released the Particle 2 (2019), a lot more people were familiar with the concept of a granular delay and the update was focused on making it easier to use on tour.
Our new pedals have USB firmware updates so I can make improvements as we get more experience and feedback from musicians. In most cases, that is adding deep configuration or MIDI parameters for people who need them, or improving the behavior with certain instruments, pedal chains, or signals.
Following up on that, and I asked this same question to David from Drolo effects, how do you know when a project is “done” as far as sound quality/control values, etc, etc. This feels like it could go on forever with revisions.
What is released in the final product is typically about 10% of the stuff I designed and prototyped. It’s an iterative design process and a lot of features that might be cool are removed because they are too hard to use or don’t fit with other features. At some point, everything comes together into a cohesive set of features.
One of the most interesting parts of doing these interviews has been reminding myself of how unbelievably flexible the concept of a stompbox is – you’ve released a number of pedals now that really defy the standard pedal classification. Could you outline your process when it comes to creating something like this? Iterations on a simple idea, or do you start with a sound in mind?
It often starts with a technique or algorithm I want to explore. It can be an idea from a non-music area and trying to see if it can be applied in a musical context. I set a few constraints: it should be musical, not blow up at any setting, and allow you to explore extreme sounds and then find your way back. After lots of tweaking, the original idea might be buried low enough that it is no longer visible, but all of the design decisions along the way contribute to the end result.
Your pedals sit at a really cool intersection between hyper feature-heavy and wild but while also maintaining a real musical undercurrent. For as crazy as they can be, they seem to by default produce incredibly musical output. How do you go about tuning a pedal for flexibility vs. guaranteed output?
It basically comes down to spending a lot of time on design and engineering. Most of the credit goes to the musicians who find ways to use our tools within their process.
I have to ask this – a few pictures of your space have a Lab Series L5 visible. That’s, in my opinion, one of the most interesting amps ever designed. Is there any story behind it?
The L5 is a really interesting circuit that uses an operational transconductance amplifier (OTA) for distortion. I am not a guitarist, so when I needed a guitar amp my friend Eric Iverson suggested the Lab Series. He had an L7 back in the day and said that the Lab Series L5 would be a perfect fit for Red Panda. So it’s a combination of admiring the engineering and being a dependable, great sounding amp.
That makes sense, you create the tools and everyone else puts them to use. You recently curated and released the “Tensor Tracks” album (link here) featuring a ton of amazing artists using your pedals. How did this project come about?
We’re lucky to have a lot of talented friends who were generous enough to donate their time and show how they use the Tensor in their work. It’s a hard-to-describe pedal, and doesn’t always jump out at you, so it helps to hear it in a song. The response from musicians and listeners has been humbling and inspiring.
It was a really fun, rewarding group effort. The musicians, Women of Banglatown, and the folks at Reverb all helped us bring the project together. Ian Pritchard (Collector//Emitter) mastered all of the tracks and Jesse Weiss (IG: @jessedidthis) created the original artwork.
All of the proceeds from album donations go to Women of Banglatown, a women and girl’s community art organization serving the immigrant community in Hamtramck, Michigan. They just moved into a new building with classrooms and private artist studios that they will rent at a low cost. We’re thrilled to see them grow and happy we can support them in a small way.
That is absolutely amazing! It’s great to see small business giving back to the community. Thanks for taking the time to do this, anything else you’d like to say?
We’re moving out of the 500 sq ft workshop we have been in for the past five years, into a 2,400 sq ft office and shop. 2019 was a pretty chaotic year for us, and in 2020 we will be tying up a lot of loose ends. I want to thank everyone for their support and for allowing us to continue making musical tools.
There you have it! Thanks again for taking the time to do this Curt, and thanks for reading this far! For more information about Curt and the folks at Red Panda Labs check out their website. If you’re looking to purchase some of their products and want to help out the site – do it via this Reverb link and we’ll get a bit of a kickback at no cost to you!
All photography in this article provided by Red Panda – credit Ali Lapetina.