How many times have you seen that comment as part of an argument online and kinda rolled your eyes at it? Well, if you are anything like me, you stopped counting when you ran out of fingers and toes.
So, to counter that, here is a bold statement. “Who cares if the audience can hear the difference?”
OK, so let me expand on that a little. When I play live (and I’m pretty certain that this applies to everyone I play with and coming to think about it, everyone I’ve spoken too about it), a great guitar tone (or bass tone – or drum tone or whatever) is about one thing and one thing only, giving the person who is behind the instrument the opportunity to feel as comfortable as possible in order to play at their very best. The audience, generally, only cares about two things. “Is the band any good?” and “Do I like the music?”. We can do nothing about the second statement, but the first we have total control over - I doubt very much if the audience is thinking about the composite parts that result in that what they are hearing.
An integral part of any live performance is whether or not the band is any good. It’s extremely rare that a band will sound good to the audience as a whole if they sound simply awful (unless of course, their whole existence is that rough around the edges feel). I’ve seen some amazing bands in the past that have given me a terrible night because they sounded awful – and that could be the FOH mix, the individual instrument tones or anything else. I remember one night were an entire pub emptied within 3 songs because the band sounded awful. And this was the same band that went on to sell out endless world tours and go on to become one of the biggest and influential bands currently performing.
In order for the band to sound great, each person has to be at the top of their game and a lot of the time you can peel that back to ensuring that every person on the stage is comfortable and loving what they are doing and hearing. Have you ever been on stage when for some reason your gear doesn’t react the way you expect it to and it go on to ruin your night? I have, many times. That’s the ‘beauty’ of playing in bars and clubs, some rooms naturally sound amazing and some kill the sound. The key to this, for me anyway, is that in order to feel comfortable I have to be in the right ‘zone’. And that zone is all about my mental state and the relation between me and my gear. If I’m not comfortable, then I don’t play as well. My wife can spot it by the time the first song is halfway through if I’m not comfortable.
Quite often, either during a break or after the gig, people wander over to the stage area and say “You don’t need all that… etc etc” and then go on to say how good it sounds and how much they enjoy/ed my playing. This always strikes me as a little odd, surely the only thing they care about is if it sounds good. It shouldn’t matter if I have one pedal and a £50 guitar into a crappy amp, or if I have boutique level stuff from start to finish… as long as it sounds good as part of the end product. In order for it to sound good, then I have to be stood there and feel 100% comfortable and ready to melt some faces. I think this is key to this debate and a word I've used several times already in this piece – 'comfortable'. Is the player comfortable? and is the gear making them comfortable? I am fully aware that my epic board is somewhat of a comfy blanket for me, I rely on it and most of the effects on it are used once, which is a lot of money to spend on something that is only used in that way – but consider this. I am there for two reasons. Firstly, to satisfy my desire to play live and make music with my buddies, and to see the audience enjoy themselves. The one song that flies into my head at this point is “Runaway” by Del Shannon, latterly covered by Gary Allen – and the version we go is somewhere in the middle of the two. The intro to that is quite a specific tone, and it uses a one time only patch from the Mobius and Timeline (although the TimeLine is used constantly throughout the gig the Mobius only features in 4-5 other songs, 1 for vibe, 1 for tremolo and 3 or so with chorus) - does it make having a £450 pedal worthwhile? My answer is a resounding YES! On that song, as when I hit that big Am riff to start it, people jump up and start dancing. That makes me comfortable, that makes me happy and so I play better.
The main question I have to ask myself is this. Would it sound any worse to the audience if I didn’t use those patches and just got myself a crappy cheap trem pedal. Or not use those sounds at all and just use a normal tone. Well, it may well do… but the fact it’s all midi controlled so the tempo is right makes me a happy boy. There is no tap dancing, there is no tweaking of speed, it’s just there and I know that it’s going to sound killer every night (not taking into consideration if the room is awful). This means I can relax, concentrate on one of the most finger bending solos I have to do later in the song and not worry about anything not sounding the way I expect it to.
There are a lot of players out there who survive beautifully going straight in, or using cheaper pedals and everything else, but as a player I need to know what to expect when I hit that button. When I know what to expect, I relax, when I am relaxed I play better. And the only thing the audience does care about, I’ve found, is that I play to the best of my abilities every time I get up on that stage. It’s not about sounding the best because the £2K Klon has more mojo than the £150 Tumnus, it’s about only having to concentrate on the playing. For me, the Klon is excessive as I feel I don’t need it as the Tumnus does the trick for me every night, but I know many players that only feel comfortable when they have a real vintage Klon in their chain. Now, I can barely tell the difference when I play them side by side, so incorporated into a band mix I’m 100% confident I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and I would go as far as saying that they can’t either… the audience wouldn’t have a chance – but if the player is happy, and therefore playing their best because they are so happy, then for me – it’s worth every penny spent.
For reference, here is my rig and I’ve taken the liberty of adding up the total cost of it all new.
PRS Brent Mason signature.
’94 Fender MIM Strat with hand wired Seymour Duncan Antiquities
Line6 G30, TC Electronic Polytune 2 into One Control OC-10 looper that contains…. Wampler Mini Ego Compressor, Wampler Mini Tumnus, Wampler Paisley Drive Deluxe, TC Quintessence, Strymon Mobius (split into pre and post), Strymon TimeLine, TC Electronic MiniHOF, Wampler dB+… All wired up with Evidence Audio SIS/Monorail.
Amps and Speakers
Custom made 2x12” speaker cab loaded with WGS Reaper HP and WGS ET65.
Spare amp – Quilter 101 MR
Yep. That’s £7k of gear to play covers in pubs once or twice a week. But, let's face it – I could double that figure EASILY! Yes, I know, that original figure is insane. I really know it is, but it makes me happy and this is my only hobby and I know whenever I go out to make a noise I sound as good as I personally can - so in that regard, it’s worth it. All of it!
As you might expect, one of the things we hear a lot from some people is “How can you charge $200 for a pedal that I can buy the parts for, for less than $50, and make it myself?”
Right, let’s get comfy and pick this apart piece by piece. I’ll do my best to remain objective and not end up in a socio political rant about ethics, but you know, if you poke the bear sometimes you get bitten! But, I’ll try to keep my muzzle on and remain professional! lololz.
Let’s take the Thirty Something. A pedal that we sell for $239 USD. The first thing you have to remember is that Brian didn’t wake up one day and have it all mapped inside his head, he didn’t just do a “Let It Be” and have it ready from a dream. I kid you not that Brian took almost 3 years to design that circuit, it went through more prototypes than any other Wampler I know of (and I’m pretty certain I’m up to speed on this stuff), it was tweaked, changed, restarted, thrown in the bin so many times I actually stopped asking about it. When it was finally ready I remember Brian saying “I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I just can’t see how I can make it any closer”. That being said, when it arrived in Wildling territory and I plugged it in, I was staggered how it reacted and how it felt. I still think it remains the benchmark in AIAB pedals, it does the job perfectly. And I was brought up playing Edge, Queen, The Beatles and Hank Marvin songs… so, I’m kinda fussy with VOX tones.
Thinking about that, and thinking about how Brian is considered in his field, can you begin to imagine how much investment that is? To import a design engineer and have them work at something on and off for 3 years would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, I can’t comprehend how much it would be, but just think about that minute, that is a lot of R&D work, and you know, with a large family to support and employees to pay, that kind of work doesn’t pass unnoticed by the company accountant. R&D aside, then you have to imagine that once again, the designs of everything else doesn’t appear out of thin air, the pedal logo needs designing, the box art, the manual, the marketing, the demo videos, the promo shots… it’s actually quite ridiculous when you think about it, costs a bloody fortune.
Here is a picture I took for the marketing for the release of the Thirty Something. I am very lucky that I live near Manson's Guitar Shop and have a great relationship with them (they stock us). I go in, take over a corner of the shop, use their stock guitars as backing and then spend a long time photoshopping the picture to make it look like this. It all adds up!
Now, we get to parts. Brian is RIDICOUSLY fussy about parts. He will only use parts that fulfil his requirements, and there was a stage at one point in time when we were ditching 2/3rds of a certain part because they didn’t come up to scratch - mere mortals like me can’t hear the difference, but let’s face it, I’m not Brian Wampler, his ears are better than mine and I expect most of yours as well, so you have to budget that as well.
So, let’s get back to the meat of this. You will find websites all over the internet that ‘kindly’ reverse every pedal ever made and post the schematic for all to plagiarise, errmmm, I mean “study". So, once we’ve spent ages designing and marketing a pedal and released it, someone can then probably go to their favorite online parts store and order the parts, an enclosure and get pretty close to how the original is. I say pretty close, because I can guarantee that the components won’t be to the spec Brian demands, it won’t be laid out as well and let’s face it, I expect the basic soldering won’t be that good. We stand by our 5 year guarantee, I bet the places the parts are bought from don’t!
Let’s now look at this from another angle. And throughout this, I’m not going to mention any prices, because people will jump on it, but just think about where we are and what we are doing in this, and where you can buy it. We are not a retailer. We do not sell to the general public (we do offer direct sales through our site, but they account for next to nothing in term of units moved compared to our international sales team). We are a manufacturer. We manufacture a product, and then sell it to people who sell it through their own stores. Sometimes we sell it to a distributor who then sells it to a dealer… taking local and international taxes, shipping, the price goes up. Then I must mention the 5 year guarantee again… So, if you want to try a product in store, have that store stay open to offer you a service, you see where we, and everyone else, is coming from. Having said that, some pedals are overpriced for what they are. I’m not going to mention anything or anyone specifically here, but there are pedals out there that are basic reworked clones, with minimal R&D, with a crappy box, labelled with one of those crappy Embosser Label Maker gun things that are for sale direct from manufacturers that are silly prices, but that’s their conscience, not ours!
Made in USA. What does that mean? You may have noticed we’ve shifted from Made in USA to Built in USA. Why I hear you ask? (and to be fair, it’s another question we get asked a lot at the moment.) Well, to be able to say “Made in USA” with complete honesty means that every component is made in the USA, and as far as I know (and I like to think I’m up to speed) most parts are impossible to source, let alone in the numbers we need them, from the USA. So, we source parts – as does EVERYONE else, from around the world - we just wear that information on our sleeves. The same burden of consistency and quality is applied, and we use only the very best. I would say that if a pedal is sourced from USA components (if it was actually possible) you’d be looking at a pedal that is at least 3 or 4 times the price, and you can imagine how many of them we’d sell! (worth noting that technically, it’s illegal for any pedal company to say “Made in the USA” due to the reasons above. We just found this out recently and changed the wording to be in accordance with US law).
When you think about a $199.97 pedal (also: inflation. www.usinflationcalculator.com a pedal that costs $199 today would have sold for $107 in 1990. Ever since 2007, we’ve had a main price of about $199 unless it’s a deluxe pedal. Accounting for inflation, that pedal SHOULD cost $235.10 in 2017, yet we’ve never raised that 199 price), remove the dealer margin, shipping, taxes and everything else (I’m not going to even go to how we manage to sell our stuff for virtually the same price all over the world, give or take $30 or so dollars) then start to think about production costs, there isn’t a lot of room to think about R&D and then the guarantee period. Now do the same with a pedal that is $149, $129 or $99 - think about how much it costs to build and how many compromises have to be made in those price reductions – kinda makes you wonder doesn’t it. Strip it back, work it out, and then you think about the Built in USA (as our stuff is) you’ll see that not only are we bringing you a quality USA product, but paying quality USA salary for the guys who design, build, test, market, sell and repair (which isn’t very often thankfully) our stuff… Then look at the guys who will sell you a clone of a pedal that is still in production for $50. Do you think that will give you the same pedal? Do you think that will encourage companies like us to continue to make quality products that will inspire you to sound the best you can do?