Barbershop Talk with Guillaume Fairfield of Fairfield Circuitry

Based out of Hull, Québec, Fairfield Circuitry is a pedal manufacturer that is small in size but quite big in sound. The inspiring story and tone of their Barbershop Millennium Overdrive pedal proves that it can more than hold its own in the ever-expanding universe of so-called transparent overdrive pedals.

I had the chance to sit down with Guillaume Fairfield, founder and designer of all things loud from Fairfield Circuitry. We talked about his less-is-more pedal design philosophy, the origins of the Barbershop Millennium Overdrive, and how some of the best effect innovations are the result of happy accidents.

When you set out to make the Barbershop overdrive pedal, was there a sound that you were trying to recreate, or was the motivation to build an overdrive unlike anything you had experienced before?

I was playing straight into a tube amp, usually without a lot of effects or overdrive pedals. I was really enjoying the pristine, direct sound I was getting with a six-foot patch cord straight into a nice amp with a nice guitar. I guess I was trying to get that sound, trying to retain that sort of simple quality.

At the time, I was also reading a lot about JFETs and tubes versus transistors – particularly their differences in saturation. So I built up this first little circuit just as a boost – as a gain stage – to see what would happen. It sort of grew from there.

I added another stage and a few more stages before eventually coming back to just the two stages. I liked the idea of having the least amount of components in the circuit. Whether that has an impact or not is debatable. I wanted to keep things really simple, to get that tube sound or have it completely transparent, to be able to just ride that edge of breakup.

I guess you could say that I wasn't really trying to build an overdrive. I started to realize that it had a familiar sound with a fresh approach and that people were really digging the tones.

The Barbershop has a deceptively simple design and a “less-is-more” philosophy. As a designer, is it hard to stick to that approach?

It’s a challenge that I face with many designs because of enclosure size, costs and other technicalities. With a pedal, you don’t have a lot of room for complicated circuits so you have to aim for something and then dumb it down to a simpler alternative that still works like your original idea. By dumbing it down, sometimes you get something even more interesting.

That “less-is-more” philosophy really shines through with some of our pedals, like the Barbershop and the Accountant Compressor. I wouldn’t say that I've stuck to that approach entirely, but it's definitely a consideration with each design.

For a pedal like the Barbershop, it was easier to really push that philosophy. One of the ideas behind it was to have something simple and to keep the sound pure using JFET transistors that react more like tubes than your typical transistor. It started with building a textbook gain stage for a JFET common source amplifier. It sounded great – everyone loved it. It was perfect.

In the midst of those familiar knobs and switches, you find a “sag” dial. What does that control do, and how did you come up with that idea?

The sag dial is definitely what draws a lot of attention to this pedal. It’s an essential control on the Barbershop, but wasn’t present at all in my first designs. The really early Barbershops that I built had just drive and volume controls.

I was reading about and playing with power supply sag. There are a lot of old tube amps whose power supplies would sort of choke and reduce the power when the power amp was driven really hard, leaving the player with a compression effect. This wasn’t intentional in their design, but it happened anyway.

The Fender Bassman, for example, turned out to be a really great guitar amp even though it was originally designed for bass. I was thinking about that and toying with other ideas, like having a dying battery in a pedal and, you know, how that can bring out things that are really interesting. I had a [MXR] Dyna Comp, and when I had six or seven volt battery in there, it would just turn it into something different. So squishy. I loved it.

So I thought, let’s stick a sag knob on the Barbershop to capture that same sound. Turned out it didn't do the same as tube amp power supply sag, but it sounded really cool regardless. It more or less chokes the current to the amplifier and changes the bias and saturation points. It was a happy sort of accident because I actually made a mistake when wiring it up. When I noticed the mistake and fixed it up, it sounded terrible, so I stuck with the mistake.

I mostly spend my time on the breadboard, trying different things, changing part values. Listening to what is going on is really important."

I don't do a lot of math anymore – some simulations – but I mostly spend my time on the breadboard, trying different things, changing part values. Listening to what is going on is really important. You can look at a clipped waveform and think it’s going to sound like good distortion, but then you plug a guitar into it and it’s terrible. You really have no idea until you hear it.

As the designer of a pedal like this, are there times when you hear guitarists use it in ways you had not anticipated? How much does the goal of versatility figure in your initial design?

I’ve definitely had those moments with all of my pedals. Occasionally, I’ve seen people play with the Barbershop with all the knobs at max through a stack that’s also cranked to ten, and I’m like, “Alright, if that’s your sound, I’m cool with that!”

People use it as an overdrive pedal as well as a boost to slam other pedals or amps. But, honestly, I was really surprised to see how people enjoyed its stacking capabilities. That’s something that I did not expect when I was designing the Barbershop.

Versatility was a strong consideration. I think it always is. But I made clear choices to limit versatility, like having no tone. Less is more. Some of its versatility is focused on gain structure, being able to really push the output and to react well to large signals at the input, that’s probably why it stacks well.

When you plug in the Barbershop today, what is your favourite setting, the one that you identify as the most characteristic tone you created?

I’ll start with all the knobs in the middle because I know what to expect. But the setting I like most is when it is sort of barely there. When the drive isn’t that heavy, where you can play softly and get that nice clean sound, but then start digging in and it starts to drive a bit, that edge of breakup.

I like the tone switch in the middle because of the little boost, that brightness and shimmer it gives. If you have really hot pickups, it’s cool to bring down the sag and turn up the drive for a nice low gain fuzz.

Thanks for telling us a bit about your experience with the Barbershop overdrive and perspective on its sound.

Yeah, for sure. It’s great to be able talk over not just how we approach pedals, but what went into this one in particular. And keep an eye on us, we should have something new out in the next couple of months.

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