INTERVIEW: Ben Fulton of Red Witch
Red Witch pedals seemed to spring up out of nowhere a few years ago, commanding attention with their unique features and world class tone. The Empress Chorus, for instance, is very highly regarded. But years and years of work have gone into establishing Red Witch. Recently the company unveiled the Seven Sisters series of mini pedals, and there are more innovations on the horizon. Join us as we pick the brain of Red Witch founder Ben Fulton.
Tell us about the history of the company.
Red Witch Analog was formed about ten years ago. Initially it was just me in the garage building guitar pedals. We started out with the Moon Phaser, and the decision to start a company making guitar pedals was born out of me making a few pedals for myself. I’d worked as a solo acoustic musician for three or four years prior to starting the company and a friend had asked me to join a rock band. I’d sold all of my electric guitar stuff, so I needed an amplifier. My girlfriend bought me an amp to use and it needed some work, so I basically immersed myself in the study of electronics in order to be able to repair and improve the amplifier.
From there I built some guitar pedals, and some copies of classic units. Then I started tinkering with my own takes on things, and ended up with the Moon Phaser. So then we expanded the product the range and we’ve grown that range of products to seven now. We started selling pretty much from the outset all over the world, but we focused a lot of energy on America. When we had four products I took on an investor. I sold part of the company to a chap called Geoff Matthews and he brought with him a whole skill set of business experience and strategic planning, and between the two of us we came up with some goals for where we’d like to see the company, and through his experience we set up infrastructure. With him came capital too, to expand the range. That’s when we increased the product number to seven premium products. And then last year we launched the Seven Sisters range, which is the world’s first Lithium Ion Cell pedal range. They have a Lithium Ion battery inside them just like your cellphone or your digital camera, and they’ve got charging circuitry in there as well. They’ve also got the world’s smallest pedal footprint. So we’ve worked really hard to ensure we’re providing a pedal that’s artist-quality but at an entry level price. So now we have 14 products and we’re in the process of releasing another seven in the next twelve months.
How do you actually start to design a pedal?
I did look at doing a course but the information wasn’t an audio electronics course. So I got hold of university text books and found all this information online. I immersed myself and reverse-engineered things. From that starting point I started really looking to actually do something unique. There’s never been an interest in copying other peoples’ designs. Half of the challenge or the art form is to do something that’s unique and usable. The statement we fly on our flag is ‘function, innovation.’ Unique features that you’re not going to find anywhere else but they’re actually usable. There’s no point in having bells and whistles if you’re not going to use them.
What challenges did you have to overcome in developing the Seven Sisters pedals?
Obviously the power management technology we employed in the design had been created for small portable devices, and I was adamant that we had to have the charging circuitry in the pedal itself. If we’d provided a proprietary power supply and then someone’s supply died, of if they lost it or it was stolen, it could be a problem. So I designed it with the charging circuitry inside it so you could just use a 9V DC wall wart supply. So it was an immersion in a different field of electronics. There have been some amazing advances even in the last four years, because I’d had the idea about six and a half years ago, but things weren’t quite there as far as the products that were available, and the size and cost of the products. Fortunately we had another look at it and things had moved forward so we were able to utilise up-to-date technology.
The graphics on the Seven Sisters pedals are great – who did them?
The graphics are done by Rachel Gannaway, who’s an artist from New Zealand. I gave her a brief to do the faces of seven women but to do it in a really minimalist, almost Japanese style with minimal brush strokes. She came back with a range of different options but they were all very much in the flavour that the finished product has. I chose the seven that I liked, which she expanded, and then we passed those on to our graphic designer Anne Adams, who transferred them into a format that could be used for production. She also chose the fonts and colours. She did an amazing job. Unfortunately Anne passed away last year, which was really sad. But every time we look at those pedals we see her work.
The Empress Chorus absolutely nails it.
Thanks! I’ve never actually been a huge fan of chorus. There are a few people whose chorus soundsI’ve liked though, and one of them, probably at the top of the list, was Andy Summers. So when I designed the Empress chorus I was playing heaps of different Police riffs. So it was an amazing buzz to realise after the product had been out for a few months to read in the June 2006 issue of Guitar Player that Andy Summers was using the Empress Chorus for the Police reunion tour. Again, the thing with the Empress is it offers functional innovation. It’s the only chorus pedal that offers a variable delay time on the voice control. So that means you can get shimmery sounds or swampy sounds with the use of that dial. I guess that’s the point of difference it has, and the people who have picked up that product and decided to use it – particularly the famous people like Andy Summers, who can use anything – it’s pretty fantastic.
The Famulus is a great idea. Is it hard to think of new ways to approach distortion?
The short answer is yes. I held off doing a distortion pedal for a long time because the market was saturated with distortion devices, and even more so now, since the Famulus has been released. Again it was a case of giving some thought to what’s been done and what actually could be offered that hadn’t been offered before but still was usable. And every guitar player is looking for an original sound, so the thing with the Famulus is it enables the user to dial in their own sound. There’s a lot of flexibility between distortion and overdrive.
How’s the response been to the Titan? It’s such an unusual approach to delay. What are folks doing with it out in the field?
The Titan’s been really well responded to. The idea of having three delays in a row which you could have in series or parallel came from a few different people, including a buddy of mine called Jeff Boyle who’s in a band called Jakob. They’re a three-piece that does amazing, beautiful, ambient, heavy instrumentals. They’re based in New Zealand. He uses a lot of delays, multiple delays in series. And I’m also a big fan of John Martyn, who did a lot of experimenting with tape delays in the 70s. So I guess that being familiar and fond of the sounds of those guys were primary influences. It’s also got an effects loop on the first delay, so you can put anything you like in the dry return of the first delay of the Titan. The idea for that was born from people wanting modulated delay. I did think at one point of putting some modulation in, but then I thought of putting an effects loop in so you could put a vibrato or chorus or phase sound in there. Or you could put octave or distortion, so you could play something and the wet return comes back with the effect you’ve put on there. As far as folks using it out there, Billy Corgan is probably the biggest name who’s got them. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the end of last year in the States and he’s a big fan. There are a bunch of people who are using them. It offers a lot of different things. You can use it as a straight-ahead delay by turning the second and third delays off and just using the first, or you can have all three of them running in series or parallel for some serious sonic painting.
Are there any pedal-related myths you’d like to dispell?
Well, from the point of physics there are various myths that people tout as being fact and they aren’t fact. But there’s a strange thing that happens when people think that something sounds better. For them it sounds better, but it’s almost a sort of psychoacoustic thing. Some people say everything has to be true bypass and some people say everything has to be buffered. But there’s a time and a place for both. It’s not really a myth, but all of our pedals are true bypass. However, if you had a really long guitar cable you’re going to find that a lot of the high end is rolled off due to capacitance. And again, if you have fifteen or twenty true bypass pedals there’s a whole bunch of extra cable that you’ve got to go through and you’re going to find that you’re going to lose a bit of top end. So what you’ve got to do is have a buffered pedal at the start or you have something like, say, the Lily Boost set to unity. What that does is it changes the high impedance output of your pickup to a low impedance. And a low impedance signal can travel along long cable run without losing top end. Mic cables are low impedance which is why you can have those long snakes with ten connections on them and you don’t lose your signal. So I would say always have a buffered pedal or a true bypass pedal that’s turned on as a clean boost if you’re running a long cable run on a big stage.