TINKERING!!! THE ART OF ENGINEERING SOUNDS




PEDALS!!!!!!! - YAY!!!!!!  I'll never forget the first time I used a guitar pedal, it was some sort of cheap overdrive pedal, I couldn't believe how all of a sudden, all those Nirvana riffs I had learnt suddenly sounded like KC himself! (SLAYER)
Over the years I have played around with many different types of pedals and its gotten to the point where I've started experimenting with effects on the recording end of things, just coz its fun to play around with different types of sounds. Recently I've started thinking about making my own pedals, mainly because some of the pedals that I want are super expensive, but also because I'm starting to chase a sound that only exists inside my head. I've never played around with circuit boards before and I only just found out what a schematic diagram is, so I thought I should probably talk to someone about it before I end up making a Frankenstein. This week I talk to Ruban Nielson from Unknown Mortal Orchestra a bit about tinkering and engineering sounds. 


How long have you been tinkering?
I've been messing around with electronics for about 4 years. I didn't know anything about it when I started. I wanted to change some pickups in my guitar and I was sick of sending it away. I need my guitar so I didn't want to wait for it so I got a screwdriver and just opened it up. I went to radioshack and got a soldering iron and just started. The first thing I did was I made a mess of my guitar and had to send it to a guitar tech anyway haha I actually knew nothing about what I was doing but that's how I do things usually. Jump in and make a fool of myself until I get somewhere with it. I just kept going and got better at it and deeper into it.

Why did you start building pedals?
When I was in the Mint Chicks I used to paint my pedals so you couldn't see what they were, and because I thought they looked cooler like that, all hand-painted. I was an assistant for an abstract painter and used to build and help paint metal panels for him so painting my pedals just kind of happened coz I was always painting back then. One day someone said to me at a show "did you make them?" and it never occurred to me that I could make my own pedals. The idea stuck in my head and I really wanted to actually build some or modify them.




What was the first pedal you built?

I built a really simple fuzz pedal circuit. The simplest one I could find online. I had been buying old machines at junk stores in Portland and ripping all the parts out, so I had all these old components that I thought might make a cool sound if I could figure out how to DIY a pedal.

What was the first pedal you brought?
Probably like a holy grail reverb. In the Mint Chicks the most I ever had was three pedals at very most, usually I'd have just one, and never a pedal board. Just set up on the ground. Partly because of money and partly because I wanted it simple. I didn't understand electronics and they seemed like just another thing to get in the way. The bass player Michael Logie had a big pedal board and lots of exotic pedals. He was really into weird gear stuff and has created this really unique bass sound.

Are there pedals that you can't live without in your set-up?
If I'm totally honest, not really. Recently we got a new drummer and the day of her first show we flew to Quebec and the airline lost all our gear and we didn't have anything. We had to borrow guitars and keyboards and drums. Just everything. And I didn't even have my own guitar or amp, let alone my pedal board. I ended up borrowing one delay pedal because Amber does a drum solo right at the beginning of the set and I wanted something to make a drone behind what she was playing so I borrowed a delay pedal but that was all I had and the show went totally fine. It was a good lesson about gear. And not to crap on in this answer too long but I've always tried to keep the band away from relying on particular technology. I was at a festival once and saw a band dealing with a piece of software that wasn't working or whatever. They had to stop the whole show and just cancel. Fuck that. I don't want some particular piece of gear making or breaking my show. 

How did you learn to make pedals?
It was all just the internet and trying to make it happen. The internet sucks now but the part that's still good is that there is so much information for stuff like this, and I have access to places that have all the parts I need. If I don't understand something I'll just start learning. 

What other gear do you make? Outboard gear? With all the stuff that you can buy out there at the moment, if you do make other gear, why do you?
I get really particular. Like I'll just hate the colour of something or wish it had this or that. I've started on outboard gear. I made some distortion boxes and a little compressor that's rad. I tried to make a box that would imitate the sound of cassette tape but without the hassle and with less noise. Stuff like that. Over the past three years I've been working on a semi-modular analog synth that's pretty close to being finished now. It took ages because I'm always on tour but also it takes a lot of time and money even when you're building your own stuff. 

What was the first guitar that you owned?
My Dad got me an Ibanez for my 19th birthday. Our family was going through a lot of shit at the time and he was making amends. It's crazy though because that guitar changed my life.

Do you have an all-time favourite guitar?
 I've been really into my Jag-stang. I keep buying other fancier guitars and just keep coming back to it because it suits me. The first one I ever got was a gift from my friend Kosuke that I went to art school with. He gave me the guitar when he went back to Japan after studying at Elam. That was the guitar I used when I started UMO. Another time that someone gave me a guitar it changed my life. Just realized that. Weird.

Have you built your own guitar? Do you modify your own guitars?
Yeah I built a Telecaster from parts. It was nice! I gave it to my uncle as a thank you gift because he let us stay at his place for months when I first got to Portland and he'd never had an electric guitar before. I've modified most of my guitars. I like being able to change them and make improvements or even just personalize them and make them my own. You can put different pickups in them etc. 

Out off all the music gadgets that you've made what has been the most satisfying and why?
They're all satisfying because it's cool to just make your own version of something. It'll look all homemade and you can make it the way you want it. If it works it's amazing. Every time you use it you're like "damn, it still works". I fix and recondition stuff too. All my old synths are reconditioned and modded and stuff. I recap all the vintage pedals I buy etc. It's good to be able to do it. It gives my brain something to grab onto when I'm getting burned out on music. It's all one thing. I'm just in my basement going to different tables to work on different stuff. It all contributes to the goal of trying to get an album done and put on some cool shows.

Are there any artists that you follow or are influenced by in terms of tinkering, and building their own sounds?
Not really in modern times I guess. Not that I can think of right now. I really like the idea of Les Paul building his own recording studio and using it to make records. I like how the engineers at Abbey Road made a lot of the equipment, and that kind of equipment is still considered the best. King Tubby made his own mixing desk which I've always found super inspiring. It looks fuckin amazing. I think I'm really visual. I'm pretty sure if gear looks right to me I can make better music on it.
Les Paul fixing a control board in his home studio 1963

Do you ever listen to music and hear a particular sound and go off and build that sound?
All the time. I have so many pedals now I can often recreate sounds I really like what I already have. Lately I've been getting into the guitar sound from the intro of 'When Dove's Cry', and also various 'My Bloody Valentine' guitar sounds. If I'm missing anything I'll build it and if I can't build it then I'll buy it. I buy a lot of pedals too. I think I'm addicted. Like it's embarrassing how much money I spent on pedals this week alone. Often I'm building the like "vintage" pedals that are going for massive money on eBay. Because usually they're things I can easily just build. If they contain rare vintage components then I can just source those. Like even if I have to pay $40 for one little component it's still better than paying $1000 for a vintage fuzz pedal. I'm not a collector I want to use this shit to make music.

Are there any songs that are your all time fav in terms of cool sounds?
I've been really into Prince's sounds for a couple of years. His guitar sound on things like 'When Doves Cry' and stuff makes me psyched to make music. I've been getting into his synth sounds a bit more, he was really into Oberheims. I'm starting to get back into British 80's guitar lately too. I mentioned My Bloody Valentine, I've always considered Kevin Shield's one of the best guitarists ever but lately I've been curious about the specifics of the pedals he uses and I've been kinda studying Keith Levene's stuff with Public Image Ltd again and stuff like that. I used to be super into that stuff but more from a playing point of view, not really the tech side. I really love 70's synth sounds. Like the sounds on Stevie Wonder's 'Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants' and stuff like that, and Wendy Carlos is one of my favorite artists. "Switched on Bach" is one of my most listened to records ever. It's hard to find her stuff on modern platforms actually so I had to get vinyl just to hear it, which is weird. George Duke's stuff with Frank Zappa and his album "the Aura Will Prevail" are a big influence. He was really good with the Arp Odyssey. I've started to get into modular because it's kind of the logical next step. I'm close to finishing the semi-modular and I'll probably get more heavily into that stuff with my building so I can get more of those sounds.

What are you listening to at the moment?
I've been kind of ignoring listening to music a bit because I'm writing and trying to isolate a bit and get in that head space. It can get kind of scary but I used to discover music on the internet a lot but I hate social media and just media in general at the moment. It's just not exciting to me right now. Having said that I've been listening to my friend Adrian Younge's record "the Electronique Void" because he sent it to me and I was writing some music with him this year. 






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