The notion that a seriously powerful guitar amp could live comfortably on your pedalboard alongside your stompboxes would have been treated with amusement just a few years back. But nobody’s laughing now. With the the introduction of the PowerStage 170 amp head, Seymour Duncan has shaken up the old head/cab/combo range of options. Using sound-shaping effects such as the Palladium Gain Stage Distortion pedal can impart all the character and playing dynamics of a tube head or combo with none of the backbreaking heft of traditional tube gear.
As Seymour Duncan's Kevin Beller makes clear in our conversation, Seymour Duncan is taking an entirely different tack where guitar tone is concerned. Their guitar effects and amplification program is centered around a philosophy in which the pedalboard in its totality becomes your amp control center. We talked to him at the company’s headquarters in Santa Barbara, California.
The HUB: Hey, Kevin! Tell us a little bit about your background at Seymour Duncan.
Kevin Beller: I'm the VP of Engineering and I've worked at Seymour Duncan since 1979. I've seen every imaginable change and person who has has come through this place, so I could probably talk about a lot of things, but we can start off talking about one of our more recent pedal designs, the Palladium.
[Gesturing at a breadboard—a type of “blank canvas” used by electronics engineers to easily mock up and modify circuits.] This is just a very rough breadboard. It allows us a lot of flexibility in how we design products—you don't lock yourself in with this kind of approach. You have complete freedom to change things, rearrange things on the fly. A lot of times while working on the Palladium, we would change it 10, 12, or 13 times a day. We'd bring people into the listening sessions, get some comments, come back and do a couple of design changes; maybe change the EQ, change the order of gain stages or whatever. We'd revoice it, listen again, get more comments, make design changes.
The HUB: Let's talk about the early stages. How did the product start; did you say, 'This is something I personally need' — how did you approach it?
KB: Everybody in the pedal business knows that the biggest segments are distortion and overdrive pedals. There's always room for one more. We had a few overdrive and distortion pedals out at the point we started on this. But we felt that none of them were addressing what we wanted to produce in that kind of pedal. We were looking for something that had a more amp-like feel to it — we didn't want the sound of a distortion box, we really wanted the sound of an amplifier. Through the process of designing some of the earlier distortion boxes and overdrives, I could see certain recurring difficulties. The more gain you add, the muddier and dirtier things get and you lose a lot of tightness and definition in the sound. I was looking for ways to get around that problem while still retaining a lot of low-frequency character and getting that big thumpy sound you get from a Marshall cabinet. I found that to be lacking in most boxes and the only way guys were making it up was by turning way up, playing at insane levels through a big amplifier.
The HUB: So it's like the pedal designers are making the decision for guitarists—taking out the low end?
KB: Right. They have to take out the low end because a normal distortion pedal just makes a mess. The more you turn the gain up the messier it sounds. You lose all definition on the bottom end and the top end can get really nasty sounding. So I looked at what a speaker does to the sound. What kind of response does it have? What are the frequency limitations? How does it roll off on the top and bottom end? I looked at it from the standpoint of a filter, which is the same way speaker designers have been looking at speakers ever since the fifties. They look at them like filters; they have certain characteristics. So I started from that point of view saying, 'Here's a speaker box, it's got these filter characteristics. How can I replicate that in a circuit?'
Without giving too much away here, I also felt that we might need different distortion characteristics for the low end versus the high end. We have our gain and resonance control with a sort of a crossover inside that breaks the frequency out into two components, and we treat those frequencies differently. We apply the gain and overdrive circuits a little bit differently. We then have to recombine them in the right proportions to make it sound right. We went through a lot of changes establishing the proportions; we were adjusting the high-frequency proportion all the time. So that became a real critical element in getting that amp-like sound without having to actually go through an amplifier. The PowerStage 170 and PowerStage 700 Guitar Head also arose from that kind of thinking. Once we had gotten a really good amp sound, it was like, 'Okay, we don't really need to lug that giant head around anymore; we can have this very small amp in a box.' It's pretty small and there's a lot of power in that thing that ties right into the same thinking. Sometimes you start out on one path and it carries you onto several other paths.
What we're trying to do is solve problems for musicians. Almost all of us have music backgrounds to varying degrees. We've all been onstage as performing musicians, seeing the problems and discomfort when things aren't working right; the struggle to get your sound right in a live situation. We use that experience to guide us in our pursuit of tone and design—they're part of our guiding principles.
The HUB: It sounds like the original signal path and features were drawn up in advance but it was in the voicing that the process took on a life of its own.
KB: It does take on a life of its own when you get a lot of people involved in the process. You have a concept: 'This is an idea I've had for a while, and I think I can apply it. I'm not sure how it's going to shake out, but I'm going to start down that path. You throw something out there, a quick schematic, you listen to it and go, 'I think this is promising, or, no—this is junk' and might just throw the whole thing away. Or you take a couple more swings at it. But at a certain point, we might say, 'This is going nowhere; we'll leave it alone for now.'
But then some things like the Palladium show promise and the process can go on for months. I think we worked on it seven, eight or nine months, continually listening and developing. It was a pretty continuous process.
The HUB: Then there's the problem many of us musicians also have: when do you know you're done?
KB: That can be an issue. That's when you start bringing other people into the process, outsiders. When you feel like, 'Wow, this is sounding pretty good.' People like our CRO [Ed. Note. Chief Revenue Officer], Max Gutnik. He's got a lot of experience as a player, he's been in touring bands a lot. He's a great guitar player and has a good ear—we rely on it to get us to a certain point. Our Product Marketing guy, Riley, is a great player; he's had a lot of experience playing live. I'm a bass player so I don't factor in too much on guitar tone, but I know when I hear a good one. We all have our opinions on when it sounds good and when it doesn't. When we start getting general consensus among the various players here, we'll start rolling some other people in and build out some prototypes and start getting them into the hands of some players. Often times we'll send them to organizations like yours; we're always interested in feedback.
The HUB: You want to make sure someone's going to find it useful and ultimately buy it.
KB: Yeah, right, you want to sell it! You want an idea of what price point matches up with the features; whether or not people are willing to pay that much for what it is you're trying to sell. You have to get outsiders involved at some point. It's sometimes a little risky. The information sometimes goes a little further than you hoped. But it's always worth it in the end—you've got to check yourself; you can't do this in a vacuum. I know some people do, and maybe they produce great results, but we tend to want to get some outsiders' opinions to make sure we're on the right path and not drinking our own Kool Aid.
The team at Seymour Duncan discusses the design process for Palladium.
The HUB: You were saying the Palladium paved the way for the PowerStage amp heads.
KB: We were building the Palladium and we were listening to it through Marshalls, Boogies, 5150s…all kinds of amps. And at one point I said, 'Let me grab one of our old Seymour Duncan power amps—we had this 2100—it's a 100-watt-per-channel two-rackspace vacuum-tube power amp. Listening to that, it sounded so good we were 'Wow, just a flat power amp sounds really good!' I'd been doing a lot of research on my own on Class D power amps and I thought, 'Why not put a little Class D in there and see how it sounds.' So we just bought some quick development kits from Texas Instruments—they have development kits for 200-watt, 300-watt Class D amplifiers. We put it together with an off-the-shelf power supply to test the concept. Designing a Class D amplifier is a huge undertaking that you don't want to go through if the concept's not going to pan out. We did some initial listening and we were really satisfied and surprised actually by how good it sounded. So we said 'Okay, let's see what we can do developing our own Class D amplifier.'
We developed the 700 first. I told Max that there were other, smaller modules we could work with, and he asks, 'Could we get one inside a pedal-sized box?' I told him that might be pushing things; it could be difficult. So we put it together and did a lot of testing—we were basically packing a lot of power into a very small package that became the PowerStage 170. From an engineering standpoint, you have to be concerned about heat and how to deal with it. Can you put a fan in it and risk ruining the studio experience? We went through a lot of that with the 700 where we had a deactivated fan where we're monitoring heat in several locations and turn the fan speed on accordingly. We tried to hold it off as long as we could so it's not a nuisance in terms of turning on and off. We definitely want to make sure the thing is reliable so we did a lot of heat testing.
The HUB: Speaking of that, pedals and pickups are one thing, but I imagine from a safety compliance standpoint, that's not new to you since you've made similar gear in the past, but the standard is different…
KB: Definitely. Whenever you exceed a certain voltage, there's what's called the Low Voltage Directive. It's a European safety standard and it ties in with UL. Standards are being harmonized across the globe, so we had to become aware of them. Any time you're designing something that plugs into wall power, there's a potential for serious, lethal injury. You have to design adequate clearances around all high-voltage sources—that was one of the challenges of packaging everything in a small box. Then once you have that taken care of, you have the magnetic compatibility issues to deal with. We had to take several extreme measures to control electromagnetic emissions both back down the power line and radiating from the box itself. We had to set up more sophisticated in-house testing than what we've had before. Ultimately, you have to send the stuff to an outside laboratory and those guys have very strict procedures they follow and really expensive equipment to test everything in detail. They'll come back and tell you, 'Sorry, your emissions at 500 megahertz are outside the FCC limit and you have to get in there and figure it out. Safety is the big thing. It's a little more cut and dried—if you follow the rules it going to pass.
The HUB: As the PowerStage came along, did you go back to this and say, 'I wish we had done this a little differently'?
KB: You know, there are always ideas that come up afterwards. But for the PowerStage 170, if we had made it just a little bit bigger, we would have had a lot less trouble passing all these regulations. But other than that, from a design standpoint, I'm pretty satisfied with the way it is. I think it's pretty darn good. There might be other things eventually where we might feel we can improve it.
The HUB: That's what “Mark IIs” are for. [laughter]
KB: You can always come back and do another one. You have to put it out there at some point. And we really feel we waited a little longer than we should have. I'm seeing activity in the marketplace indicating other people are moving in this direction. It would have been nice to have a bigger head start, actually.
Artists give their feedback on the Seymour Duncan PowerStage.
The HUB: It's interesting, if you look at guitarists, they tend to be a pretty conservative bunch as far as what's acceptable tone-wise or workflow-wise. If you look at the eighties and the obsession with rack stuff, then we moved down to the pedal board, but now this type of thing seems to be gaining more acceptance.
KB: It is, surprisingly.
The HUB: What do you attribute it to? Is it about their backs or…?
KB: Yeah, it's some of that because everybody's getting older and they don't want to lug that stuff. I definitely went through that phase. But there's a much higher acceptance of digital products now than what there was 20 years ago. They've gotten so good, you know. Processors have gotten really good. Bit rates and sampling rates have gone way up and everything sounds really good. I think people are also learning how to write the firmware better. The Class D amps have gotten really good. Everything sounds a lot better than it did ten, fifteen years ago. I wouldn't say it's quite as good as the very best linear power amp, but it's pretty darn close and it's a lot, lot less heavy. They're very reliable, they take care of themselves—they have a lot of protection features built in. So I think the advantages have outweighed the drawbacks and the drawbacks have become vanishingly small.
The HUB: We're at a point where maybe the 'gear snobbery,' for lack of a better term, can only go so far.
KB: People start to become practical after a while. You'll always have some people out there who are purists and they'll have their big linear amplifiers or their giant 300-watt tube amps. I won't discount that those things sound really good; they do, I just don't want to have to haul them around personally. Some of it is opinion too; some people say the sound of the Class D stuff is better. It's more controlled, you can control your sound through your pedalboard. That's really become part of our philosophy, where your pedalboard is your sound. The PowerStage lets you get it into the speaker of your choice and you're no longer beholden to some massive head that you have to lug around. Or, if you're a touring musician and you don't take all your equipment with you, if you're renting backline, you no longer have to be at the mercy of whatever gear shows up at the gig.
The HUB: I don't have the numbers, but I'd bet there are more recording guitarists now than there used to be, which may be impacting the market when you're buying gear for a variety of uses, not just live performance.
KB: I think it might be as much as 80 percent of guitarists who are recording-only.
The HUB: And if you're recording on a home setup you're probably a little more accepting of digital because you've come to accept digital plug-ins. And you don't have racks full of compressors, so if you can accept digital in that setting, you're more likely to accept it in other uses. This combination of factors is helping people open their minds and ears a little more.
KB: Some people's ears are driven by preconceptions and preconceived notions. I think you get over it. A new group of musicians infiltrates who are more open to new things; they haven't experienced all the old stuff. So you get this constant turn of upcoming players bringing in new ideas.
The HUB: That's a good way forward. Thanks for your time, Kevin!