Interested in guitar effects pedals? Looking for something different to sit on your pedalboard? Stone Box Audio is a UK based independent guitar electronics company specialising in effects pedal modifications, custom designs and switching units.
Guitar Jar catches up with manager Chris Hutchens, to ask him more about the vision of the company and his thoughts in breaking into such a competitive industry.
…what keeps me motivated is the really positive feedback from people who have used some Stone Box audio products and are much happier with their tone…
I then got hold of Iron Maiden’s “Live After Death” video… I hadn’t heard or seen anything like it before and was totally blown away by the whole thing. I watched Adrian Smith playing his solo part to “The Trooper” and that was it – incredible stuff – I HAD to save up and get a guitar and learn how to play!
There are a few very well known and respected modification companies in the USA and I wanted to create a centre of excellence for effects pedal modification and control in the UK and Europe, to even up the balance on this side of the pond so to speak. I’d like Stone Box audio to be one of the first solutions providers that musicians think of when they are looking for UK designed and hand made tone creation and control products.
With regard to components, it usually involves upgrading signal path components to higher quality parts, such as changing signal coupling capacitors to metalized plastic film types. I might change integrated circuits to lower noise parts to reduce background hiss or fit hi-fi grade parts clean up the sound and sharpen the attack.
I also improve the power supply filtering in the pedal, based on my experience in industry of designing equipment to withstand high levels of radio frequency interference. This is more important now, as more and more mains power supplies of the type used for effects pedals are becoming switched mode types. This is partly driven by a European Directive to improve energy efficiency in those “wall-wart” and “in-line” type power supplies. It means that the often lower noise (but less efficient) linear power supplies will become harder to obtain, as manufacturers who produce power supplies in volume will be forced to produce only switched mode types.
The problem with switched mode supplies at the lower price end of the market, tend to be noisier due to the switching frequency they operate at creating noise that is coupled into the pedal and results in audible breakthrough at your guitar amp. The outputs of these supplies often float too, which can also lead to noise problems.
With regard to tone improvement, I’ll listen to a pedal to see what it lacks tone wise. I’ll then undertake a circuit analysis of the pedal and run some computer simulation software and plot frequency responses of the pedal. This helps me determine component value changes to make the pedal less mid-scooped, cut the highs or boost the lows etc. So I will often widen the response of the tone controls and maybe shift the part of the tone they work over.
I also insert a lot of our custom “mini-circuits” into the pedal. These are about the size of a stamp and give massive clean volume boosts by inserting another totally clean boost amp section with a flat frequency response so that you get loads more volume without changing the character of the pedal. I also have some of these circuits to give different sounding distortion options.
We will mod other pedals as well, people should contact us to discuss their requirements, whether it be a tone or volume change, or a true bypass mod, or as simple as adding an indication LED. I’m currently developing a mod for the TS-808. A piece of trivia – we DON’T do “stacked op-amp mods” either…
…building effects pedals and amps was a natural progression…
I also build custom equipment for musicians – for example you might want a custom switch for your amp that has LED status indicators on it, or maybe a custom cable or power supply for your pedalboard. You may want two or three of your favourite stomp boxes re-housed into a rack unit with a remote switch. Our custom equipment uses hand built uniquely designed PCBs. Then there are our true bypass effects loop switching systems.
Our standard product is our True Bypass Dual Effects Loop Switch. It has two switchable effects loops. You can insert as many or as few effects into each loop as you wish. For example, you may want to use it in the way I have described above, or put all your modulation pedals in one loop and your drives in the other loop, or a different drive in each loop, or a maybe a use a loop for a dirty sound with your drives in it and a loop for a clean sound with compression and chorus. It is very flexible. Two footswitches control the loop switching. There are three switching modes that can be selected using the two footswitches, to make the unit easy to integrate into a musicians set up.
The mode you choose is stored in memory on the device at power down, so it switches on again in your chosen mode. The first mode uses one switch to change the selected loop and the other switch to select true bypass. With this mode you can go into true bypass from one loop selection, change loop whilst in true bypass and thus be in a different loop when you exit the bypass mode. The second mode uses one switch to control loop one and the other switch to control loop two – pressing one switch activates that loop and de-activates the other loop. Pressing the same switch twice puts the unit into a true bypass state. The third mode allows both loops to be on at the same time – each switch either switches on its loop or true bypasses its respective loop.
The unit has a totally analogue signal path, using low noise, gold plated signal relays, but is controlled using a micro-processor. The design is easily scalable, so if people wanted more loops I can do a custom unit with the number of loops required. Last year I built a custom programmable ten loop true bypass system with three banks, allowing up to 30 combinations of stomp box loops. We can also add level controls, volume boosts or buffers loop switchers.
What keeps me motivated is the really positive feedback from people who have used some Stone Box audio products and are much happier with their tone or control of their set up. Also, each month I read all the guitar magazines and there is always a constant stream of new amps / fx / accessories being launched, which is exciting and motivating. It is a market that is huge and musicians are very demanding in what they want in terms of new products / old products and variety of choice. A passion for music, playing the guitar and design also helps!
…I insert a lot of our custom “mini-circuits” into the pedals. These are about the size of a stamp and give massive clean volume boosts without changing the character of the pedal…
The immediate products that spring to mind are some boutique loop switchers, phasers, tremolos, wahs and compressors that use LDRs (light dependent resistors) and resistive output opto-couplers. These components are often non RoHS and there would be significant re-design to remove them from existing products, which would be likely to have an impact on the tone of the pedal.
Manufacturers really should be looking to steer their designs away from using any non RoHS parts though, as it is a high probability that non RoHS parts will have end of life and obsolescence issues.
I am also fascinated to see how far digital modelling technology will go and to see the life of the valve amp. With faster sampling rates and higher resolution ADCs (analogue to digital converters) being designed all the time, as well as increased mathematical processing capabilities in DSP ICs (digital signal processors) will the technology and implementation of mathematical modelling algorithms be so good that you really can’t tell the difference, leaving the warm glow of the valve amp to start to fade?
At the moment the appeal of the valve amp is as hardy as a cockroach and I personally hope this doesn’t change. I think there is a place for both in the guitarists arsenal, I just wonder if manufacturing costs and economic or regulatory pressures may eventually force the music equipment manufactures hand, particularly if relying, as many do on small companies to produce parts such as low volume bespoke wound transformers, valves etc.
A lot of these companies are run by an older generation of very experienced guys, but often the experience isn’t being passed onto a younger generation as there aren’t the people coming through to take over when these guys decide to pack it all in. The current economic pressures for those niche industries must be immense at the moment.
Plus, of course going to the future means I could always pick up those National Lottery Draw numbers for the week ahead!
…simplicity allows you to get on with the important part – playing…
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