You may not know his name, but Old Blood Noise Endeavors co-founder Brady Smith is one of the most influential people in the world of modern guitar pedals. We recently sat down for a chat with Brady to discuss his early years cutting his teeth in the Oklahoma City pedal scene, his views on the current state of pedal culture and all things OBNE.
The HUB: So, Brady, how did you get started building pedals?
Brady Smith: Yeah, well, let’s see. I started in probably 2009 and I live in Oklahoma, in some suburbs around Oklahoma City. So, to the north, there’s Edmond, Oklahoma where I grew up and to the south is Norman, Oklahoma, which is where I went to college. And after I got out of school, I actually took a job at Keeley Electronics, which was based in Edmond, Oklahoma. I didn’t have a background in electronics, or guitar pedals, or soldering or anything. I just had an interest in music and wanting to play music, but also needing a job that I thought was interesting. I kind of went from sort of a basic banking-related job and jumped over to Keeley to do guitar pedals, thinking, “This sounds cool. I don’t know what I’m doing, but this seems way more fun than what I was doing.” So, I started just doing the pedal mods back then. In 2009, Keeley was doing a lot of Boss and Ibanez mods, which was a big part of their business. I was there for a couple of years and learned a lot from some of the people that worked there with me. And then, broke off in 2011 to start Walrus Audio with a friend of mine who was an investor and wanted to start a guitar pedal company. So, I kind of spearheaded that for him. So, I got Walrus Audio up and going. And then in 2014, after doing many things in this industry and sort of figuring out, navigating my way through that I guess, I broke off to start a company with one of my close friends named Seth McCaroll, who is my business partner currently. We started, run, and operate Old Blood Noise Endeavors together out of Norman, Oklahoma.
The HUB: Before we get too deep into your story, you know, the triumvirate so to speak of Keeley and Walrus and Old Blood Noise. You've sort of seen the insides of all three of them. What is it about Oklahoma City being such a haven of creativity, specifically for guitar pedals?
BS: Well, you know, I think it really all comes from Rob Keeley. It’s kind of a funny, funny thing, well, at least from his business. So, the group that Robert assembled when he first started Keeley Electronics are some of the guys that have helped and bounced around between these different companies. He’s at the center of a lot of it, whether that's intentional or not. He just kind of got the ball rolling. He had a penchant back then for finding really talented people. There’s guys that work for him now that I worked with 10 years ago, just doing what I was doing building pedals and just kind of basic stuff. And now, one of my old office mates there is like the lead digital designer for Robert. It’s interesting because that's not a thing that he was interested in or that we would talk about that was even an option.
I think that Robert has a lot to do with it. And then it kind of branches out from there. One of the guys that works for me now is kind of my number two guy. He’s Production Manager and does analog design for me. His name’s Isaac. And he actually was the customer service repair technician at Keeley when I started there. And so, there's guys that I've worked with in different capacities over the last 10 years, just kind of jumping around these different jobs. So, yeah, I guess that's it.
Also, you know, you can afford to live here. You can afford to pursue something that is a little bit of gamble, a hobby job of sorts, you know. So, I think that that plays into it, too. I guess there's other spots, too. There's probably other little pockets where they've created this community of people who work on these specific things. They probably branch out, do their own thing, too, if you're around long enough.
The HUB: How’d you land on the name Old Blood Noise Endeavors?
BS: Well, you know, we get asked that a lot. I didn't really think it was that strange of a name at first. Then I actually had to tell people over the phone kind of what it was, people that didn't have anything to do with our business. We’d be setting up our accounts for our electrical account for our building and they thought we were insane!
So, Seth, I and my buddy Blake, who owns an A/V company (they help us do a lot of our video stuff), did a lot of brainstorming. We would just sit around playing video games or drinking beer, you know, talking, excited with ideas of how to do it ourselves and how we would do it differently and all that stuff when you've got energy and time. And “Old Blood” is kind of a reference to the opposite of “young blood”, or somebody who’s new to the thing. We thought we were being kind of cheeky.
Because we had worked at so many of these places, Old Blood would have been my third or fourth pedal-related company to work at. And so, with “Noise”… We always leaned more towards the angular, disruptive sounds in music and in creativity. We then added “Endeavors” because I think that we were looking for something that could be more than guitar pedals and still not really knowing what that would be.
The HUB: That's cool to leave it open-ended like that. A lot of the pedals that OBNE makes are effects that people are familiar with, but with a tasteful twist added. How does the word “Noise” inform your decision-making when creating pedals?
BS: Yeah. I think at the beginning, especially, it was case by case. We didn't really know how we were approaching new releases. There wasn’t exactly a formula. So, we started with the Black Fountain Oil Can Delay. That was the first idea. The effects we thought of, the things we were imagining, were like little pockets of sounds that we enjoyed but maybe weren’t something that every player would enjoy. It was a little more niche. We're trying to make things that both capture the unique and almost alienating sounds, as well as something that’s beautiful and can be used in a very musical way so as to appease sort of both sides of that, musical crowds. I don't think that we really cared so much at the beginning. If we thought it was a useful sound then we were all for it. “Let’s make it into a pedal. Let’s pursue that.” As time has gone on changed a little bit. It's like, “Let’s take that, but then let’s also add some elements that smooth the edges out a little bit.”
[Read our hands-on review of the Black Fountain Oil Can Delay. - Ed. Note]
The HUB: Do you find it hard to strike that balance?
BS: Yeah, yeah, sometimes. I think when it’s working, it’s really, really fun. That's a fun part of product development. So, I think that we always kind of start from a well-known effect type so like, reverb or delay, something like that. But there may be something that's happening within that that makes it unique or different. Hearing how something that we thought was weird can be really musical once it’s ready for release, once we've planned out and shot our announcement video and done demos … You kind of re-realize how enjoyable the effects are. That process is a fun ride when it works.
The HUB: Can you speak to how you combine different types of effects a little bit? How do you combine very different worlds of sound?
BS: Let’s look at the Black Fountain. At the beginning of the company, the Black Fountain is a delay that's voiced like the old oil can delays. And so, at the time there wasn't as many options for that. Usually we try and find a specific voice which is something that we've heard. So, you've heard it in a song or you've heard it in a rare pedal. Or maybe you've heard it in a combination of pedals. That’s a sound but it’s also like five different things making that sound.
So, five effects can do a lot of things, but when they're lined up just right, they make up this sound. And so, we'll do that on some things. Like I think the Black Fountain is that specific voice of delay, so we'll really focus on that. And then like the Reflector, the core voice of the Reflector, what we were going for was like an old Ibanez SC Stereo Chorus 10-voice. And that's not what it is, but that was our trajectory. That's where we wanted to get to. And where it landed, we enjoy and it’s different enough, but similar enough. Then you add in all these fun tweaks and modulation tweaks that just kind of came in along the way to make it interesting, to make it more than just a chorus. The Whitecap is, you know, what happens when you stack a bunch of delays out of time. It creates like these rhythmic pulses that come in and out of each other. And so, that's where you start, but then you get technical with it with like “Okay, well what if we did like one side is digital, so that you can manipulate the wave form shape? And then the other side is analog so that it’s always got like a pretty warm, but somewhat limited sound to it?” So, I don't know. It’s a lot of experimentation.
The HUB: How does the feedback, from the artists or customers, get incorporated into these designs? Or does it at all?
BS: I think feedback matters more depending on the scope of the project, thinking more specifically of the Maw, which just came out. So, the XLR primarily that will be used, I bet, as a vocal pedal. That's a pretty different world than just regular guitar effects that you plug in, ¼” cable and run it to your amp. The Maw we got feedback on. None of us are great singers, so what does a great singer really want out of a vocal pedal? Because if I use it, I'm just going to drown it in effects, you know? What does somebody want if they're like actually tasteful and actually good? So, that project needed a lot of feedback. It needed a lot of back and forth and trying to actually work it out to meet certain goals, rather than just see where it winds up. Other stuff not so much. We can kind of just roll with what we like. There are function things that people want, but it’s sort of, the project sort of dictates whether we can do it or not. Like stereo, or tap tempo or things like that.
The HUB: Speaking to the digital side of things: How have you managed that evolution, maybe coming from more of an analog design background
BS: I think about that a lot. So, we started out actually in the digital realm. There's a popular format, a digital format, that a lot of pedal builders are using right now that we sort of just started with. At the time it was a little rarer. Every year we'll try and expand a little bit more outside of that particular platform. I think there's a lot of options. There's a lot I don't even know about. It all depends on the specifications and the knowledge base that you have. We actually have a digital designer, he’s the guy on our videos. His name’s Dan. He does all the technical explanations of everything. He doesn’t actually have a background in coding or anything like that, but he is really, really good at it and has picked it up over the last couple of years. So, that whole department has been handed over to him. He’s kind of exploring different platforms and, you know, what we can actually do to further pedals and make something that's a little more interesting and moves the bar a little bit farther.
There's that and then there's the whole question of like, “How many times can particular effects be redone? You know, how many delay pedals do we need?” How many, I don't know. I'm cynical about it sometimes just because I look at guitar pedals every day. But I don't know, I’m not really sure where it’s all going.
The HUB: Are there any sounds you’ve heard at a show or on a record that have influenced any of your designs?
BS: Yeah. Yeah, there are some things. I feel like I lean more towards sort of ambient sounds.
Every couple of years or so I go through a big God Speed You! Black Emperor season. I don’t know if you've ever listened to them but they've got songs that are like 20 or 30 minutes long. The songs are a bunch of orchestrated movements with a guitar and a bass and drums at the center of it but with lots of other things happening, too. And it’s kind of chaotic and it’s pretty and it’s intense and it’s weird. And there's a lot of sounds within that, that I always go back to. I think one of the modes on the Black Fountain is essentially a sound from a God Speed You! Black Emperor song.
That's my stuff, yeah. Something that you can create like a mood, or sort of an undertone. So, a lot of our reverbs have a complete wash on them. The mix goes all the way wet so that you don’t hear any of the attack. You can kind of create these soft, swelling things happening. It doesn't necessarily sound like a guitar pluck or anything like that.
The HUB: Have you had a moment where you've realized or found out about any musicians you admire using your pedals?
BS: Yeah. Yeah, we've had a few of those. The guys from Mogwai use our stuff. And that's really fun and exciting. Some of the members of Slowdive do. There are people that pop up now and then we'll see that they have one of our pedals and it’s fun. It feels good.
It may not always translate to something we’d talk about, you know make a “marketing thing”, but with the bands that we really like it’s kind of like, “This is really cool.” It’s a celebratory moment. So, Mogwai was a big one for me.
The HUB: Have you heard any of your pedals on records? Have you been able to pick anything out?
BS: Yeah, there's one or two that I'm thinking about, but I think it’s only because I know that they have that pedal and so, I can confirm that's that pedal for sure. But I haven't heard something and been so convinced, but not able to make a connection to us. Like, hear a sound and be like, “Oh, that's probably a Dark Star, but I've never talked to that band and I'm not sure how they would know about us” so that hasn't happened.
The HUB: When you're designing a pedal and voicing it, what is your typical testing rig? Do you have a specific amp you go to? Certain guitars?
BS: Yeah. Yeah, I think it changes here and there. For a while, I was testing on an old Fender Champ. It was just a small Champ next to my desk. Now, we typically run the pedals through some of the small practice amps around the shop. So, a Vox and we've got a couple of little Orange Crush amps. I think they're the Crush ones that we sort of test everything on. So, it's like if we can make it sound good on that, then it’ll sound pretty good.
We also have a Fender Quad Reverb and a Super Six. Until recently we had a Marshall JCM800. So, we kind of run them all through those to see how they respond. Some of the phasers and flangers, you know, they can get a little bit hairy with some of the frequencies. So just to kind of test the boundaries, we would use those amps.
The HUB: You have such a strong visual presentation. Can you just talk a little bit about how that connects to the sound of the pedals?
BS: Yeah. So, I and my business partner Seth, we went to University of Oklahoma for Film and Video studies. We met in that program. We've always had sort of a geeky appreciation for movies, in particular sci-fi, and for a while, horror. I think Seth really enjoys Danish movies and certain European-based movies. Stylistically he pulls a lot from that.
So, when we started putting out pedals, we fell into this pattern of treating it like it was sort of almost an album release, or like a film release. It was a complete sort of “visual-audio project”.
That wasn't totally intentional, but I don't know, the process along the way is kind of pretty similar for each design. So, come up with a sound or an idea for the sound, come up with a character that encompasses that and try and not be too specific. I feel like we try and create something that feels like, you know what it is, but it’s also not easily identifiable and you don't have other connotations of that thing in your mind that overtakes what we're trying to communicate.
For example, Procession, and the artwork on that, is sort of this Dune-style, sci-fi mystery guy walking in the desert. And that's sort of where we built up the whole—in our minds, the whole story behind it. Yeah, it all kind of just ties together.
I’m not sure if that answers that question adequately!
[Read our hands-on review of the Rever and Procession. - Ed. Note]
The HUB: It does. The idea that each pedal is viewed as a whole story within itself, or that it’s a character in and of itself is really, really cool.
BS: Yeah, yeah. And they can either interact with the other stories of the pedals. I wouldn't say there's an exact theme that we have across all our pedals, but it does feel like each one can kind of be put into a genre of like a film or something. And then made into its own little story, so.
The HUB: Given your background in film and video studies, and seeing how important Instagram and YouTube are in pedal culture, can you speak a little bit about your philosophy and what you're creating there for those spaces?
BS: We spend a lot of time trying to figure out sort of how to navigate. And it’s also one of the things I think that we enjoy most about a new release. We’ll try and develop a trailer or like, an announcement video, that is usually performance-based. On most of them, we'll go to a location and we will have ideas and parts in mind and record all of the audio live. Then we’ll take it back and edit them together with the video. So, it’s actually performed in the spontaneously and in the moment.
A lot of what Seth does in the editing process is to piece them together to create a fully functional song that displays a lot of the parameters of whatever effects the video happens to be about, so.
So, yeah, we all sometimes feel like we accidentally stepped into this thing that worked really well at the beginning. We just sort of did DIY videos. And Seth had a background in video production. He worked for a couple of years for the Flaming Lips in their video department and sort of brought that experience over.
Each video that we've made we try to—I guess the real challenge is trying to figure out how to demonstrate something while still making something visually pleasing and interesting. And I think it’s becoming more and more redundant, more and more difficult especially as more companies are getting in-house video people and things like that.
The HUB: It’s sort of, “But first, here’s my clean tone.” kind of vibes.
BS: Yeah, yeah. There's that, too. We've never really enjoyed that. I think at Walrus I tried to do videos like that, where I was being sincere, but also being very serious about the information I was presenting. And it’s not—it’s not something I would want to watch.
So, we try and do something silly, but not really. Maybe more stupid than silly I guess. It’s kind of like poking fun at ourselves, but also sort of trying to like it’s an actual thing.
You know, it took a lot of effort to do some of the videos that we've done. Currently in our garage, next to our CNC and our screen printing set up for the cases, we have an 8x15” foot green screen wall that we built just to shoot videos in front of. It’s so stupid, but it’s a lot of fun. It creates a good background. It just takes up so much space!
It took more time and effort than was worth it, but stuff like that, we really enjoy the DIY construction of an idea that may or may not land in the video.
Most recently for our Maw, we had the grand idea of creating a lounge bar setup where an actual band is playing. And while they're playing, Dan is sitting at the bar demonstrating. He’s talking to a camera, demonstrating all the effects that can go on the things happening in real time behind him. It was chaos, but it turned out great. I mean, it was really fun, but it was also just like, a real endeavor.
The HUB: Do you think you would be putting your degree to use if you weren’t running a pedal company?
BS: You know, I don't know. I've often thought about what else I would be doing.
The HUB: It’s kind of a good excuse to make videos.
BS: I know, it’s the best. It really is one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole thing. I mean, it's like it’s such a challenge, but also when it works, it’s really, really fun. So, yeah, the video stuff is a big part of what we've been able to do. I guess why we're even able to be a company at this point, so.
The HUB: Not to go too far down the rabbit hole, but it seems “pedal culture” has become self-aware. It can joke around about itself in some forums. How do you view the current state of the whole scene?
BS: Well, I feel a little bit cynical at most times however, I do have strong, I would even say affectionate, feelings for the other pedal makers. I think there's a lot of talented people making things right now. And a lot of like-minded people and in those ways it’s very, very cool.
I guess in some ways it’s difficult because there are a lot of us doing similar things or trying different approaches. But I think it’s good, right now. It seems to be pushing forward. There's like new unique things coming out. And then there's also some not new unique things happening. And that's fine, too. But it’s just less interesting to me, I guess.
The HUB: It feels like the friendship that you all have is fostering a greater sense of community within all of the musicians as well. Like no one’s drawling like lines in the sand by brand, or by anything else, and everybody sort of celebrates each other.
BS: That's good, yeah. If I've learned anything from jumping across three or four different companies, it’s, “live and let live.” I don't want to be the person that's tearing something down. I'd rather be supporting or propping it up.
The HUB: Is there any pedal of yours that you think if someone hasn't played one yet, like they could really get to know you guys out playing just the one?
BS: I think the Dark Star is probably the one.
The HUB: And what is it about that, that you think is a good introduction to the company or the OBNE philosophy?
BS: The Dark Star, I think that we've—we really enjoy reverbs. It’s a sound scape maker. We call it a pad reverb because you can just create really long, sustaining notes and swells and things that happen underneath that are subtle, but are also whether you know it or not, sort of influencing the way that you feel. It can create tension, can create relief, happiness, sadness … just based on a single note. And you sustain it and then you can manipulate it with the pedal. Yeah, I think that that's probably our, maybe the best pedal that we have.
The HUB: What is it that you want people to experience the first time they plug into an OBNE pedal?
BS: I would hope that they play it and it feels — this is just personally what I want from pedals — that it feels warm and feels good. I hope it feels like “Oh, yeah whatever I was going to play, I like it more when I play it through this thing.”
That's what I've experienced with our pedals. You know, my pedal board doesn't necessarily have all Old Blood stuff on it, but whenever I plug in something to noodle around or test, if I get lost playing just a really basic thing with the effect, that feels really, really good.
So yeah, I would just hope that they enjoy what they're playing more because they're using that effect.
The HUB: Well that’s a beautiful sentiment. It’s been really cool, Brady.
BS: Awesome, man. Thanks!