There Is No Brand: An Interview with Strymon Engineering
In Greek mythology, Strymon was a river god who had a son with one of the nine goddesses of music, song and dance. In this realm, Strymon is one of the heaviest hitters around as far as guitar pedals go — and they aren’t showing any signs of backing down.
The SoCal-based company finds its roots in three friends and a startup called Damage Control.
“Gregg, Dave and I worked together at Alesis and Line 6 for many years, and we started Damage Control back in 2004,” says Pete Celi, Strymon’s resident DSP programming guru. “We released a line of pedals incorporating high-voltage vacuum tubes and DSP, but after a few years working on some long-term consulting gigs for other music gear companies, we got back into heavy product design and wanted to begin selling these new pedal designs direct.”
That’s where now-departed co-founder Terry Burton comes in. He was working independently in the Damage Control offices and created the Strymon Trademark.
“We decided it was time to switch gears and try something new,” says Celi, “so we started promoting and selling our new product designs using the Strymon name and website. We brought on Ethan Tufts to handle the marketing side of things and it took off from there.”
Eleven pedals later — more than half of which have significant awards from the likes of Premier Guitar and Guitar Player magazine — Strymon has become one of the most popular pedal brands around, appearing on the pedalboards of Radiohead, Jeff Beck, Andy Summers, John Mayer, Peter Frampton, Billy Corgan, Robben Ford, Michael Landau and Rascal Flatts, among others.
Let’s meet the team and find out more.
Tell me about the team. Who is Strymon?
GREGG STOCK: Sound design is Pete's domain — he has a unique skill set as an accomplished guitar player with an exceptional ear, as well as being a brilliant DSP engineer. The separation between engineering and sound design is from one side of Pete's brain to the other. Dave handles the system software which provides a platform and interface to Pete's tone crafting. Dave also designs the DSP section of all our hardware. I handle getting the analog and digital hardware developed and tested. Ethan brings in the non-engineer perspective and gets the word out to the world of musicians and gear nerds.
What’s the creative dynamic like?
ETHAN TUFTS: We’re all about collaboration here. There is no one ‘mastermind’ or egocentric founder behind the design of our products. They’re all conceived with input from everyone on the team. We decided early on that we don’t want to work for “the man,” and we don’t want anyone here to feel that way either. We don’t like authority and that shows in the way we run things here.
DAVE FRUEHLING: A large part of our process involves clearing the path for creativity. By that I mean removing the limitations that technology and business can sometimes put on a product design. First we just experiment and play around with ideas, and just create. Though we don't really enjoy formal meetings, we sometimes actually do sit and discuss things with an agenda and a goal. Admittedly though, we still often go off on ridiculous tangents. But that's what leads to new ideas—to discovery. Though we need to be flexible and willing to change direction when something is just not working. There have been many projects that have been shelved well into their development because we just didn't feel quite right about them. That can be really difficult to do but if a product doesn't feel right, we won't make it.
On the website you call the BigSky a “journey of research.” Talk about how that pedal came to be and, generally speaking, the process of how a Strymon pedal comes to life.
PETE CELI: It seemed natural to extend our 'big format' pedal series to include a reverb-oriented pedal. The next step was designing a wide range of sonically interesting reverb sounds. To that end, we studied a heap of literature dating back to the early 60s. We wanted to assemble reverbs collected from the classical approaches, while using today's processing power to create great-sounding reverb effects.
ETHAN: The process from inception to a pedal available to purchase can take anywhere from a year to several years of development. The design process includes tons of time bouncing around ideas, studying and researching, laboring over mechanical details, thrashing out features, building prototypes, reworking board layouts — all with a goal of creating music gear that we want to play with ourselves.
Let’s talk technology. Most Strymon pedals rely on a SHARC chip — what makes that one so special?
DAVE: The SHARC platform allows us to approach design of signal processing as art rather than technology. The power of the SHARC processor, in combination with the VisualDSP++ tools, allows us to write code in 'C' rather than in assembly language. This allows us more freedom and creativity in the development of our algorithms. We’re able to spend more time trying out new ideas rather than worrying about the low-level workings of the processor. Later, we could optimize the algorithms as needed. The simplicity of the SHARC assembly language made this much easier.
Strymon has been the fastest growing brand, popularity-wise, I’ve ever seen. Do you get the sense that you’ve reached an apex of any kind? Or are there markets left to tap into?
ETHAN: We don’t look at what we do as tapping into markets. We listen to our customer suggestions, but we don’t really do any market research. We try to build gear that is fun for us to design and fun for us to use.
GREGG: Reaching an apex is not something that we can really control. We want to keep focusing on making products that bring something new to musicians and are done to the best of our ability.
Talk to me about dealing directly with customers. You used to operate on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, but changed to a preorder system. Why?
ETHAN: We’ve had experiences working at other companies where customers were not top priority, and it sucked. We decided early on that this isn’t worth doing unless customers are viewed as indispensable. It sounds incredibly cliché, but we really do want to make our customers happy.
GREGG: We’re still a very small operation, and we haven’t always been able to build enough pedals to meet demand. The launch of our TimeLine delay pedal actually crashed our credit card processor’s servers, and we quickly realized that a first-come, first-served approach would not work. We switched to a pre-order system because our customers told us that they preferred that method. We strive to get better at everything we do and are always evaluating ways to improve.
You guys clearly get marketing. How has that helped (or hurt) Strymon over time?
ETHAN: There’s not really a great way to answer this question, as we don’t know what would have happened had we approached the business differently. Some might look at us and say that we’re great at marketing, but really we don’t think of it that way. We spend our time ensuring that everything that we do is a reflection of our beliefs and what we stand for. There is no “brand.” Strymon is just us being ourselves. What you see is what you get. We appreciate and value the design in everything — whether it’s web design, packaging, or video production — not just the design of our products. And sure, we hope that being ourselves will help us continue to be able to build pedals and satisfy musicians and gear nerds.
When we interact with our customers on Twitter, Instragram, Facebook, and the like, we really do care and have real conversations with people. We’re not just there to hawk gear. When we comment that we liked your YouTube video, it’s because we really watched the whole thing and we truly liked it. When we feature your Soundcloud track on our Facebook page, it’s because we were moved by it and want to try to help you get your music out there.
Last Question: What’s next for you guys? Anything new in the works that we can talk about?
PETE: If we told you we’d have to kill you.
For more with Strymon, go to strymon.net
Note: This interview was originally featured in Tone Report Weekly