Stone Deaf FX and the Next Wave of British Tone

Stone Deaf has hit top gear in 2017 and is one of a small group of UK pedal builders that have really had a global impact.

Thanks in large part to their truly unique parametric EQs, Stone Deaf's pedals have come to be considered world class effects. The first PDF–1 was acquired by Josh Homme and the follow–up PDF–2 has proven itself as one of Stone Deaf's highest achievements. Its creative use of parametric EQ makes for a versatile fuzz that sounds great on all sorts of instruments in all sorts of contexts.

We caught up with founder Luke Hilton — a guy who doesn’t pull any punches in interviews — to talk about the state of pedal building in the UK, the passions that fuel his designs, and collaborating with renowned illustrator mcbess.

What got you started building pedals?

I first started building pedals because I couldn't find a reasonably priced parametric filter pedal. The Moog MPF–1 was what Josh Homme used, and we reverse–engineered it and made it better and lowered the price. The original was £350–£400, as it's a very rare beast.

I was also a collector of pedals and had old Coloursound original D*A*M pedals, Shin Ei, and Tonebender, etc. [I] soon realised that these were simple devices to make, so I thought I might as well have a crack at that.

Aside from a handful of brands similar to Stone Deaf, the UK isn’t really a hotbed for pedal building, traditionally tending toward amp building. What does being a UK pedal builder mean to you? Do you draw inspiration from other UK pedal builders, UK amp brands, or from looking across the Atlantic at what the American brands are doing?

I think the UK has a strong electro–mechanical engineering background by invention, in the sense that there are and have been a lot of cutting edge tech startups in the UK. This evidently filters down to all walks of life — including MI — and I think it's ingrained in our nation's psyche to just get on with it and try it.

We had a lot of people saying “You can’t do that,” and “I wouldn’t do this.”

We had a lot of people saying “You can’t do that,” and “I wouldn’t do this,” but most of them didn’t have a clue what they were talking about and are now either very small or no longer in the industry.

I didn't draw any inspiration from other pedal builders in the UK when we started because there wasn’t really anyone who was inspiring. Most [of the pedals I saw] were overpriced copies of Tonebenders or some pseudo fuzz with “mojo” because Dave Gilmour used them. And we all know he could make a cheap pedal sound good.

Now, I think Origin Effects are inspiring, Rainger FX are inspiring, and some ultra–small experimental builders are too. Most of [the inspiring builders] are in the US and Europe.

UK amp brands are a strange bunch. It's like they’ve either been taken over by accountants and forgotten how they started or they are now 100% focussed on digital. For American amp brands, I’m inspired by Mesa Boogie purely and simply because of their innovation in PCB design, packing so much into a tight space. It's hard — really, really hard.

A lot of the others, in my opinion, are focussing on traditional builds with more aesthetics. It's like buying a dependable Windows laptop in a fancy case, whereas I like to think Stone Deaf and a few other brands are more like Apple. [The pedals] work, they are innovative, and look cool too.

You seem to have a love affair with parametric controls for your tone sculpting. What triggered that affinity, and why do you think it’s not more common with other pedals?

I do, I love them, and I think everyone should use them. In my opinion, they are way better than simple low–pass or high–pass filters for tone, and they allow you to be completely different in fitting into your band’s sound or creating new tones with other products.

Not to say they don’t act like a normal pedal because they can do, and I think people fail to realise that. They can do the simple tone shifting that a low–pass or Baxandall filter can do, but they offer so much more. Needless to say, they aren’t a magic bullet, and they can make you sound shit if you don’t know how to use them.

We don’t use them in our amps. We use a passive network of filters for the tone stack — as is traditional in amps — but one that is way more responsive than a normal tone stack and took a long time to develop. I think this is uncommon because a lot of pedal builders can’t do it. It’s hard to get the noise down and oscillation when dealing with active filters and high–gain, for instance.

The Warp Drive was a bastard to get right and so was the Fig Fumb, they took ages to nail down. There are couple of brands that do it digitally (but not analogue) in the US.

Was there a reason you decided against the same parametric controls for the new amp range?

Tradition, time to market, the fact that it was valve, and the different voltages involved were the main reasons. A lot of people don’t like active tone stacks in amps. I don’t know why, but they just don’t — unless it's a bass amp.

I think if we had spent another year designing the amp, I could have bought a terraced house instead with the R&D money it cost, so cost was definitely a factor in not going down that road yet.

Stone Deaf's SD50 Amp

It takes hundreds of man hours to nail audio down when dealing with analogue systems. Whereas with digital, you have a chip, you give it some code, and it’s repeatable every time and also scalable with software updates, although it can sound very clinical as it is in nature because it’s binary.

Don’t get me wrong, coding takes hundreds of man hours, too. But once it's done, it can be manipulated into something new, like a new effect or filter. You can design a digital system that uses the same hardware, but it's the code that makes it sound different. Just look at Strymon — essentially the same hardware with different code.

Analogue is infinite and gives you idiosyncrasies that only come out through extensive testing and R&D, which has to be done every time. But I think the results are natural and familiar to the human ear. We will do some digital stuff eventually, though, because I think some stuff sounds truly awesome.

You’ve got some history iterating on classic circuits to improve them. If you could improve any classic vintage pedal, which would it be, and what would you do?

In all honesty, I don’t think anyone has made an accurate Leslie pedal yet. Main reason is the sound is analogue and mechanical in nature. I think it could be done, but it needs a little thought. Let’s just say I’m thinking.

Distinctive branding doesn’t seem to have been an issue for Stone Deaf FX. How did you end up with your striking visual style?

Illustration from mcbess on Stone Deaf's Fig Fumb Fuzz

mcbess, the first customer to buy a Stone Deaf pedal, is a London–based French illustrator and one of the most striking in his industry. I think he got the PDF–1 number two and Josh Homme got the number one.

We became friends, and he now helps us out with design. His band is called The Dead Pirates and his work can be found on his website. He’s an amazing guy and a true gearhead, with hundreds of pedals and dozens of guitars and amps in his collection. He plays drums, guitar, and piano. I’m a tad jealous at his talents, to be honest.

What is Stone Deaf planning in the near future?

We are going to be initiating a custom shop, where customers can order a specific pedal in a specific colour. This will eventually filter down to amps, as well. Customisation is an up–and–coming thing for every industry, so why not pedals and amps but without the huge price tag? We recently did a commission for Skin Tyson of Robert Plant’s band, which can be seen on our website.

How do you see the industry panning out over the next few years? What’s on the horizon?

I think the pedal industry is just getting bigger and bigger, as it's the only thing that's growing in the MI industry. The amp business for premium and low cost amps is slowing because everyone has bought one, and it's not something you change often.

I think our main focus for Stone Deaf is on analogue with digital control. Making intuitive products that look great, function well, and offer the customer something new. Valves are not going away, nor should they. I believe they should evolve and shrink, to be honest — along with transformers — but because the industry is so niche, that tech will eventually come out of other industries and is already beginning to appear.

We are at a turning point, I think, in the fact that the amp industry and pedal industry is sectioned into three spaces: analogue, digital emulation, and digital profiling. I want to take the best from each section and fuse them into new products that sound like classic records but feel like new tech. After all, the next generation is the smartphone generation.

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