How Source Audio Used a Gear Forum to Craft Its Smash-Hit Ventris Reverb

Editor's note: This article is written by Roger K. Smith, the president of Source Audio. In October 2017, the company released the Ventris Dual Reverb after crowdsourcing the pedal’s design and functionality by holding year-long conversations with Gear Page forum users. Source Audio took the feedback and criticism usually held until after a pedal’s release and brought it into the creation of the Ventris. We invited him to share that story here.

How can a company ensure it’s developing the next must-have effects pedal? There are plenty of pedal makers that have lots of experience but still get it wrong. Some may have a string of hits, but then somehow get off track. Others just hope to get lucky. Sometimes they do, but usually they don’t.

In this article, we tell the story of the development of the Ventris Dual Reverb, where we invited literally hundreds of potential customers into a kind of virtual development lab. It might have taken a bit longer, and it certainly was much more work, but the end product was better received than anything we have done before.

Along the way, we built up goodwill for our willingness to listen deeply to what customers really want. I think we proved that crowd-designing pedals is a great way to go, if you can pull it off.

Not Every Pedal Needs a Theatrical Release

A lot of pedals follow the development and a product release process as typified by Apple and Steve Jobs. Keep everything secret, use a PR machine to cleverly drop hints and rumors in the lead up to the release, and then have a dramatic, theatrical public launch.

The key to this strategy was in the fact that Jobs often knew what customers wanted before even they did. It's something that's extraordinarily difficult to guess, and sometimes even Jobs' uncanny instincts were off the mark.

While I know it’s romantic and fun to think of some brilliant wizards in a high tower forging the next epic pedal of your dreams, it’s a myth. Great products are most often the result of previously making mistakes and learning lessons—and/or getting lucky.

Source Audio Ventris

At Source Audio, we cannot afford fatal mistakes on big projects—we made enough of them early on. In addition, unlike Jobs, we do not believe we have all the answers inside and immediately around the company. This became painfully obvious when we released the Nemesis Delay.

In the first six months after the product came out, we realized we had missed a few key things, and a lot of the feedback was coming from buyers in the pedal community. Customers often said something like, "It’s a great pedal, but it would be even better if it did X,Y, and Z."

We added all of the new requests, but it would have been much more efficient to know these things in advance. When the work on Nemesis was complete and we moved on to the creation of Ventris, it became clear that we needed to innovate on our process of innovation and take it to a completely new place.

When we moved on to the creation of Ventris, it became clear that we needed to innovate on our process of innovation and take it to a completely new place."

During my 20 years at chipmaker Analog Devices, I was exposed to some of the best thinking about customer-driven innovation as well as the "adoption curve" of innovation. But while I knew the principles as they applied to consumer electronics and chip design, I had not fully considered how this might apply to pedal creation.

One of the key general concepts is to find a community of "lead users." These folks are important, because their needs tend to foreshadow the needs of rest of the market. And, they like to talk about it.

With Nemesis owners, we had the start of such a community, but we what we really needed was to reach out and include those who were not Source Audio fans. Where can one find a large community of experts in reverb pedals with a willingness to boldly share their thoughts on a future pedal? The Gear Page Effect Pedal Forum—the most active place I know of to conduct this sort of discussion.

Open to the Public, or Not?

But Source Audio’s plans to develop a new reverb pedal should be kept secret, right? This is where it starts to get complicated. If you pick a group of folks and make the conversations private (as in a focus group), you run the risk of not collecting all the right pearls of wisdom. If you go public, you have a full set of different problems.

First, someone (usually me) needs to process, respond to, and clarify a steady stream of input coming in around the clock. Second, all those pearls of wisdom are out there for our competitors to study and adopt. Worse than that, our competition knows exactly what we are creating at all times. It’s like they have spies all over your company.

On top of that, you have no place to hide if you’re late to market, you remove the element of surprise when the product is ready, risk making folks bored to death with all the waiting, and increase public expectations for a great pedal. If we did not deliver something special, our reputation and brand would have been permanently damaged.

After thinking it all over, we went all-in with a public product development process. Luckily, the community responded with levels of participation that can only be described as mind-blowing.

The Ventris Mega-Thread Begins

On October 20, 2016, Byron Sanford (a Nemesis owner who posts as LordByron) started what has become an enormous discussion thread about what Ventris should be, how it should be controlled, and how it should sound. We had no idea that this thread would grow to more than 5,000 posts and involve the input of literally hundreds of people.

It is interesting that all sorts of folks contributed to the discussion. Some are hardcore reverb experts. Some are not. Some are surf rock. Some are ambient. Most had never had the opportunity to tell a pedal company what they wanted in a pedal. This is the actual first post in the thread:

Forum Post from Oct 20, 2016

I am not sure that LordByron knew what he started, but 14 months later it is still going strong. Below is the timeline of posts in the giant Ventris Dual Reverb thread on The Gear Page leading up to release. It took almost one year from the first post until we started to ship the first production units.

Month # of Posts Topics
Oct-16 274 What do people want in a new Source Audio reverb pedal?
Nov-16 168 How to really address spillover, and the move from a single DSP to a dual solution.
Dec-16 102 What to name the pedal?
Jan-17 56 Ventris name announced. Discussion of the "True Spring." Early prototype at NAMM.
Feb-17 445 Price climbs to $399. Schedule slips from March to April to June.
Mar-17 170 Dual DSP concept sinks in. Control surface is debated and improved over and over. Final top engines are debated.
Apr-17 171 First round of True Spring beta testing. Footswitch control options are discussed and refined.
May-17 324 Complaints about the schedule heat up.
Jun-17 213 Offspring work begins. Multiple candidates discussed. Boss RV-500 announced.
Jul-17 177 More and more control discussion. More impatience with schedule.
Aug-17 180 Schedule slips... again. Beta testers lined up. (2 types)
Sep-17 195 Final sound design. Beta tester post clips. Control testers follow.
Oct-17 346 We post the manual and ship the first units.
Total 2821 On October 17, 2017, production units finally ship.

As of early January 2018 there are almost 5,000 posts in the Ventris thread.

Early on in the feature set discussion, there were many requests for seamless "spillover" where the tails of one reverb preset persist gracefully as a new reverb preset is engaged. It’s easy to ask for, but it is not easy to implement.

Our first response was that we could not do it, or perhaps we could do it but only within the same reverb engine type. It was pointed out that a key competitor supports a pseudo-spillover that works with some limitations, but does support two types of reverb engines. As he often does, our Chief Technical Officer Jesse Remignanti thought deeply to find a creative solution.

One day he suggested that we add a second DSP processor. This way, we could not only support uncompromised, infinite spillover, but also dual reverbs and all that comes with it. Obviously, this would increase the cost, but the Analog Devices SigmaDSP is small and efficient.

By adding a small daughterboard to the design, Ventris went from being a single reverb to a dual reverb. This was the first of many game-changing directions that flowed directly from our interaction with the growing community we established.

Adding a small motherboard to the Ventris

Development of the "True Spring"

We had never encountered a spring reverb in a pedal that sounds like the real thing. It is a universal weakness in all reverb pedals, including a few we tested that actually have real springs inside. Bob Chidlaw, our Chief Scientist, had some ideas for how to create a very realistic spring reverb sound.

The historic problem was the computational power needed to pull it off. However, with the new dual DSP architecture, we could now allocate 95 percent of the processor to just doing one sound. This sounded very promising. We started telling the community about this work in the relatively early stages. We committed to the "Dual Reverb" name and having the engine right on top. However, Bob’s theories had never been actually tested. For all we knew it might sound terrible.

The first few iterations sounded good, but not great. This turned out to be a very scary moment in the development process. Then, Bob, Jesse, and beta tester Christopher Venter went on an all-out blitz to track down the bugs and other fine-tune sounds. The end result was stunning and represents a real breakthrough in real world reverb modelling in a pedal. And Christopher, who makes his own effects under the Shoes Pedals brand name, later credited the team with being "super patient with [his] voluminous notes."

Source Audio Ventris Dual Reverb | Reverb Tone Report Demo

Beta Testing and the Long Road to the Finish Line

It’s exciting to talk about a product during the concept phase. It’s exciting to talk about the control surface and features. It’s exciting to play the initial beta units. But, it is not very exciting to wait while the prolonged process of code development and internal testing takes place.

During this period I shared as much news as I could about where we were and any new sounds that came out. The posts below give a sense of the understandable frustration with the process (and the good community humor that kept us all going).

Forum Posts from Jul 8, 2017

Beta testing was never a strong point for us. From the new community around Ventris, a small group of amazing beta testers emerged. In the end, we had two groups: the "sounds" experts and the "control" experts.

The first group needed to have a large collection of all the important competitive and historic pedal and rack reverbs. But they also needed to have the ability to clearly articulate the gaps between what Ventris was sounding like and how it ought to sound, as well as the willingness to invest lots of time into the project as a volunteer. The mandate we gave them and ourselves was: We will not quit until the Ventris reverb engines are as good or better on all key sounds than the best reverb pedals on the market.

The second group needed much of the same skills, but they also needed deep knowledge of how Source Audio pedals fit into a pedalboard ecosystem. We are eternally grateful to Christopher, Nathan, Chance, Dan, Dave, and David for being such a spectacular beta testing team.

Will We Crowd-Design Our Next Pedal?

As we hoped, our new process made the release of Ventris very smooth. All of the things we might have missed or gotten wrong were identified months earlier and addressed during the design phase. Ventris is our most complex pedal ever, but the launch has been uneventful—other than trying to keep up with demand.

Because we ship all our pedals with USB ports, and Jesse uses a graphical editor for final sound design internally, we are in a strong position to release tools for our customers to craft their own sounds in an analogous manner to what we do in-house. We did this with Nemesis, and there are now almost 200 sounds available for download that have been created by the community to extend the capabilities of the pedal.

The process of positively and proactively interacting with hundreds of global enthusiasts takes extreme levels of dedication. But if that is what it takes to produce results like Ventris, I will do it every time."

Given the dual engines and the depth of parameters available on Ventris, this aspect has the potential to explode. The True Spring has positioned us to tackle another "holy grail" for reverb enthusiasts, the 6G15 outboard spring tank.

These devices sound different than the in-amp sound we were targeting with the True Spring, but the mechanical design is exactly the same. Early testing indicates that we will have something very good. This will be a free download for any Ventris customer.

I am not sure we can develop all products in the same manner as Ventris. The process of positively and proactively interacting with hundreds of global enthusiasts takes extreme levels of dedication. But if that is what it takes to produce results like Ventris, I will do it every time.

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