Following my interview with Taiho Yamada about his days at Alesis, Taiho contacted me to see if I would be interested in chatting to his colleague, Frank Thomson of Experimental Noize.
Taiho said of Frank:
"I met Frank at Alesis way back in the 1990s. He’s a genius engineer who worked closely with Keith Barr on a number of projects, and designed many of the chips that became the cores of Alesis products during that period, including several entries in the QuadraVerb and MidiVerb lines.
By the early 2000s, Frank was managing the whole semiconductor division and he oversaw the development of the 1K DSP that was used in the ModFX, as well as other effects processors and synths. After that, he helped found Spin Semiconductor which provides DSP chips for companies around the world, including many modular synth manufacturers. Now he’s heading his own company, Experimental Noize, where he designs high quality boutique effects pedals."
I got in touch with Frank, who was kind enough to share his time as well as his thoughts about his diverse experience in the effects industry. I got a glimpse of the strong sense of "community" that Frank brings to the industry and his focus on making creative and useful gear so that others can enjoy making music.
Frank, you've had a unique career so far, working with some of the greats and developing some truly creative gear. Where did this all begin?
Well, after graduating with an engineering degree I worked in the film industry with props and special effects crews which provided a real education in how to work with many different groups with the same goal.
After about a year I was between shows and a friend introduced me to someone that worked in engineering at Alesis, I dropped a copy of my resume off with them. A few weeks later I got a call from Alan Zak who was the VP of Engineering and went in for an interview. I remember at one point he showed me a complex state machine and asked me to determine the outputs, I used next state equations to solve for the outputs and he had never seen that before. He offered me a position in the R&D group working on digital ASIC (application specific integrated circuit) design and that is how it all started.
He did ask if I was a musician and I had to explain that I am a very poor guitar player, I studied and practised but I just didn't have what ever "it" is that really makes one a musician. So I decided if I couldn't play I could still contribute to music by designing equipment for those that do have "it".
Your career has involved work in all facets of guitar effect creation, from developing hardware to coding and testing software. Now through Experimental Noize you are leaping onto the front line of effects manufacture. Does your heart lie in any particular part of this work?
I like all aspects of product development from conceiving the initial idea to production so it is difficult to select one item. I like solving problems, so it changes during the development cycle as to what interests me most.
I have to ask about Keith Barr, who sadly passed away in 2010. What was it like working with Keith in the early days of Alesis?
I started with Alesis in 1991, ADAT had been announced but was using a lot of resources to get into production. They had started work on the QuadraSynth and needed more engineers so my first task was designing the S4DSP DSP chip, the desk they put me at was right outside of Keith's office. I did not know this at the time since Keith spent a lot of time in Taiwan, I thought it was just an unused office as there was no nameplate or anything on the door to indicate it was his office.
One day they started to stock the office with Ding Dongs and soda explaining that Keith was expected in the following Monday. Monday morning I was working at my desk and Keith walked by and into his office, a second later he popped back out and said "Hi! I'm Keith, who are you?" I said I was Frank and was working on the S4DSP for the QuadraSynth, he said OK and went back into his office. Over the next few days he was in meetings so I didn't talk to him again until the end of the week I believe. I think it was Friday afternoon and he came out of his office and lay on the floor (the ASIC group worked in a large room) and started talking about a problem he was having with a design and bounced ideas off of us. At that point I realized he was really into the design aspects and someone that I could relate to.
You were responsible for engineering a lot of interesting gear during your time at Alesis. Do you have a personal favourite?
That is a tough question, I was lucky to work on so many different pieces of gear with so many talented engineers that selecting just one as a favourite is difficult. The QuadraSynth had my first chip in it which makes it special but the MidiVerb 4 (second gen) had the M4C chip in it and that was the first DSP we did in house with our own cell library, delay calculator, etc. The first version was not expected to really work, we were hoping it would just show some signs of life. When the product engineer powered it up it seemed completely dead so I sat at the desk with him and went over the schematic.
Now the original MidiVerb 4 used the M4 which used the fab's cell library and when we made the M4C there was a small difference in the pinout of the chip, the product engineer had connected the chip like the original M4. He made a cut and jump on the circuit board and suddenly the M4C was alive and passing audio. The product engineer pulled up some of the code he was running on the M4 and the M4C was doing reverbs, etc. So I guess I have two favorites, the QuadraSynth since it used my first ASIC and the MidiVerb 4 using the M4C due to the work it represented in developing our own cell library.
When you left Alesis, you joined forces with Keith to work on the Spin Semiconductor project which culminated in the very successful FV-1 chip. What did you and Keith hope to achieve in your work with Spin Semi?
When I left Alesis, I really did not want to do anything related to MI for a while. After the Alesis bankruptcy, seeing friends and fellow engineers get laid off I needed to step back from all of it. I started a web design and hosting company with a friend, Keith had a small company he was working on and a few ideas for other things so I was taking care of his websites for them. Of course, neither of us could stay away for long, after some time we would talk about what we could do to make a change in the industry, and making a new DSP seemed like the right thing to do. We thought if we could make a chip that was easy to use, program and targeted at audio effects that it would be of interest to pedal and amplifier companies.
Spin Semi operates on the unique concept of free sharing of information and resources - one person
commented that "the Spin Semi site is filled with stuff that's usually kept inside R&D departments". In fact, an entire on-line community of coders and builders has actually grown up around the FV-1. Is this something that evolved naturally in your work with Keith?
Keith and I both felt that just putting out the chip was not enough. For it to really be accepted we had to show people how to use it, how to program a reverb, how the digital LFOs can modulate a delay line, etc. We could have made the chip use only built in programs and kept all the code secret but then every product would sound the same and that does not move the industry forward. We decided early on to give people the tools they would need to learn and expand upon so they could create their own sound.
The FV-1 is now being used in amps by Fender and Blackstar, as well as pedals by Tech 21, Old Blood Noise Endeavours, Keeley, Catalinbread, Red Panda Labs and many others. What is the most unique application of the FV-1 that you have seen so far in an effects pedal?
I think the most unusual is those that have implemented tap tempo in the FV-1. We never considered doing that and the first time someone sent me their tap tempo code because they had a question about one of the FV-1 instructions I was shocked. Speaking of Catalinbread, they have done some real nice pedals and it was a real loss to the industry when Nick died. We were not real close but would talk a few times a year about new product, production schedules, etc.
In relation to your own endeavours, Experimental Noize already has two pedals on the market: the SpinCycle rotary speaker simulator and the Aphazing 12-stage phaser. Do you see Experimental Noize as the natural extension of your earlier work?
I always liked seeing a product go from the initial concept to a physical device so making pedals was a natural extension. It took time to design and build the pedals as
the FV-1 and support for that comes first. Neither pedal uses the FV-1 so they do not directly attack pedals made by FV-1 users. It simply gives the musician choice of a wider range of pedals.
What are some of the challenges and rewards that come along with starting your own effects brand?
Challenges are never ending, something is always changing and you need to adapt to the change and move forward. Rewards are simple, for me it is when I go to a show and see a musician using my product to create their sound.
The first 2 pedals show that Experimental Noize is living up to its name, and that users are being given the freedom to tweak and create their own sounds. Are there any secret features?
There are no hidden features, everything is right there for the user to play with. The one item I would mention is the high and low knobs on Aphazing. People think these are high and low pass filters but they actually control how high and low the nulls sweep in frequency.
P R O T O T Y P I N G : Aphazing (left), first metal for the SpinCycle (middle), and alternate housing for the SpinCycle (right)
Beyond the existing 2 pedals, what further projects does Experimental Noize have in the pipeline?
I really can't say much at this time. All I can say is that we are spending this year in a research mode; we aren't currently designing any new pedals but rather researching things that will become public next year. This is an international effort so it take a bit to coordinate everything.
If you could give one piece of advice to anyone looking to start-up their own effects company, what would it be?
I think this applies to anyone starting their own business, really think about what you are doing. Once you start a business you are responsible for sales, marketing, design, production, planning/buying, accounts payable, accounts receivable, shipping, etc. At first there is no one else, you'll be lucky if you can pay yourself anything let alone hire people! Plan on living on savings for a while and living cheap. If you have to choose between paying your vendors and yourself pay the vendors. If you don't they can kill your business by cancelling your NET terms and demanding cash in advance.
Given your background you are uniquely placed as a commentator on the effects industry. Where do you see the world of effects going in the near future and what are the main challenges?
Wow, that is a tough one. Technology changes fast but not always in a way that benefits the pro-audio industry. For instance, Intel can bring an incredible processor to market that runs plugins really fast in your DAW but that doesn't mean it is good for a pedal or an effects unit. The challenge will be to push the boundaries using new technologies, but in a way that stays true to the individual effects manufacturer and their customers.
[Note: check out Premier Guitar's review of the Aphazing pedal here]
I am grateful to Frank for his insights and to Taiho for arranging the interview. Please do pick up a SpinCycle or Aphazing unit if you get a chance - you will not be disappointed!