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I'm Still Alive: The 1991 Story

Posted by Andrew Ilgunas on

I was four years old in 1991; having moved to England from Malawi in 1989 and living in the comfortable confines of the private school my Dad worked at, surrounded by the lush fields and rolling hills of the Oxfordshire countryside.
As you might expect, I was, having only just started primary school, completely oblivious to the seismic cultural shifts happening in the world of music; namely, the thunderous march of the Grunge movement, stampeding its way out of Seattle and pummelling the ears of all in its path and spreading like a virus.
I'll confess I remained pretty oblivious to the music of the Grunge movement until the end of the decade when a school friend introduced me to Nirvana.... I'll make a big confession here, I don't really like Nirvana!
I've never listened to the Nevermind album (though obviously have heard the singles) and I have to say I've never felt that I am missing out; Bleach is quite cool for a few tracks but I've never got through the whole album; I will admit to having a lot of time for the In Utero album which is, I think fully deserving of every bit of praise it gets; but I've never bothered with the Unplugged album, Insecticide or anything like that.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'll never deny the cultural impact of Nevermind and Nirvana in general, but for me, they've always been the least interesting band of the scene. Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains will always rank as my absolute favourites of the Grunge era, with Soundgarden, Afghan Whigs, Stone Temple Pilots and a certain Eddie Vedder frontedbunch all ranking pretty damn highly too.
I probably got into Pearl Jam later than the others I've listed above. Early in the then new millennium I was on work experience at a warehouse which mixed, packed and shipped, of all things... Grass seed. Now, that might sound awful but it was surprisingly fun and the people were great.
One such "person" told me a story about a car crash, in which he was driving far too fast down a country road, hit some black ice, span off into a skid and hit a tree. When he came to; he found himself miraculously not dead and with none other than Pearl Jam's "Alive" still some how emitting from the radio of the ruined car.
This story alone was enough to make me go out and buy the "Ten" album so that I could hear this song. What I found was an absolute banger of an album that has been a constant in my life for a very long time now; which is something I think is true of the vast majority of people who have listened to it, at whatever point in time they may have discovered it; and it's this that brings us to the point of this whole story.
Way back in March of this year I was lucky enough to meet the lovely Matt Webster when he purchased a fuzz pedal from me. Seeing as he only lives 15 minutes away from the shop I took the liberty of delivering the pedal to him in person and ended up chatting on his doorstep for the best part of an hour, during which time I discovered he has a very successful channel on YouTube (Let's Play All) which focuses on guitar lessons for grunge songs; and also plays guitar in a very successful Pearl Jam tribute band. We've been mates ever since. 
Cut to late April of this year and one Monday evening, fueled up on wine Matt messages me with a challenge. Namely, to sort out a pedal for the 30th anniversary of the Ten album (27th August) which could nail the PJ guitar tone of that album in one pedal.
I was fueled up on beer and so it goes without saying that I accepted the challenge!
From the off our thoughts went to something along the lines of the JHS Sweet Tea, which was some pretty sound reasoning. The classic Pearl Jam guitar sound is a Tube Screamer smashed into a cranked Marshall JCM800 and the Sweet Tea is a Moonshine (modified TS808) V2 into an Angry Charlie (cranked JCM800 in a box). So in theory, the Sweet Tea is the PJ sound in a box.
As I've said, sonically the reasoning was sound and it would be very easy to put together as I had (still have) clones of both these JHS circuits in stock and it wouldn't have been hard to contact Joseph from Demiurge instruments and get him to sort a Sweet Tea clone... However; there were things holding me back from going ahead with that.
The Sweet Tea is a big pedal with a lot of controls. As well as taking up greater amounts of precious pedalboard real - estate; all those extra pots and switches add to the costs. It's all very well getting something like this together for the fun of it, but ultimately there has to be some consideration to the costs. When you factor in cost of materials, builders fee, artwork design costs, packaging and box candy... to bring all that in for under £100 and make enough out of each unit for it to have been worth the work that's gone into it is no easy feat.
The main reason for holding back on the Sweet Tea clone though was that for me it just didn't meet the brief. Now that probably sounds bizarre, considering a few lines ago I said that the Sweet Tea is the PJ sound in a box. But there's a difference between a pedal that embodies and nails the tone by design and one that has the required sound in it somewhere but you have to faff around for ages to find it. As I've said previously, the Sweet Tea has a lot of pots and switches which ultimately means a lot of tweaking, which for me defeated the object of offering up a pedal for the Ten tone when you may as well just say
"Buy a JHS Sweet Tea second hand for the best price you can and use these settings"
So having mulled it over while sober; I then drank more beer which gave me the courage to decide I could do better!
Having been fully immersed in the murky depths of the pedal world for several years now; it's probably no surprise that I had been thinking about having a crack at designing and building my own pedal for a long time and where I was able, would spend my time educating myself on how to put a circuit together.
Now, any self respecting pedal builder will advise a newbie to start with a kit build and start small and simple, the usual recommendation is an LPB1 Booster or similar circuit. These people are right, this is definitely what you should do.
However; one knob booster clones don't motivate me and because I have very little in the way of time, patience and available head space, I can only fill it with things that motivate me.
This pedal idea really motivated me. To the point where I decided that rather than get in touch with one of the many builders I know to knock me up a clone, I was going to design and build it myself.
Now I fully agree with what you're thinking right now; something like this for a first time build... disaster waiting to happen.
You're right. Stupid idea without a doubt.
However, such has been the turbulent nature of my life this past couple of years, I found myself in the unique position where if I ploughed full bore into this and completely fucked it up, I'd be no worse off than I already am. I've been determined that all the turmoil of the last few months should act as a catalyst for positive change; this felt like it could be a good means of making that change happen.
So the work began.
First thing was to get an idea of what Matt used to get his PJ sound currently and to say I was surprised by the fact he uses a Tumnus into an SL Drive is an understatement.
Something which really defines the sound of the Ten album is how top-ended it is. It is a bright, sparkly album with a hell of a lot of mids and treble going on (bitey top end is the signature of a Marshall amp and honky mids the signature of a Tube Screamer) and not a lot in the low end department. Even Ament's bass is top heavy in sonic terms. So the fact that Matt was using two pedals which pack a lot of low end beef really had me stumped. When I got in a room with him and heard him riff through them it made a bit more sense but still, it seemed a bizarre set up for a sound so reliant on being incredibly pokey in the top end. 
His use of the SL Drive got me thinking though; I had one in stock when FLB first opened and I had done a short demo vid of it in which I discussed the huge amount of low end it had on tap and how uncharacteristic it was of the amp it was trying to emulate. In that video I compared it to the distortion circuit on the amp I was using at the time, which had a very JCM800 sound to it.
That amp sound really lodged in my brain though and ultimately led me to what became the bare bones of the pedal. 
After endless trawling through the sludge of guitar geekery available on the internet I finally happened across an obscure amplifier circuit from the early 90's which seemed like it would fit the bill due to having 2 individual gain stages; with one driving the other, therefore acting in the same way as a pedal driving an amp and began the work of adapting it.
This took a while, but I got my head down and was really pleased with myself when I was finished. A hairs breadth away from ordering a load of bits to start breadboarding it; I thought I'd shove it under the nose of an expert and just check I'd got something that would work.
So I got in touch with the amazing Simon Andrews of JSA Effects; he looked it over and told me
"No, it won't work. You've got the right idea but it needs work."
I was a tad crestfallen. However I'm not so proud as to not be willing to ask for help. After asking if he'd point me in the right direction, Simon willingly presented me with a corrected circuit, a detailed explanation of how each part worked and a pile of formulas so that I could calculate the required component values.
I can't underestimate how much Simon's help here mattered in terms of bringing this pedal together. His willingness to help allowed me to fast track a whole pile of knowledge that would have taken months for me to work out on my own. I cannot recommend enough that you talk to him if you're wanting to get into pedal building and need some help.
With a schematic for a working circuit finally down on paper, I began the laborious process of breadboarding, which basically ended up being an endless and messy job of troubleshooting without much to show for it.
Around this time, Marc Dunn of Soundlad Liverpool fame got in touch and started giving me sneak peeks of the Scran; as a trade off it seemed only fair I let him see what I was working on. He was ridiculously enthusiastic and offered to help me out with prototyping as I confessed I was getting angsty about time running out. Again, not too proud to accept help, I took him up on his offer and
was soon round Matt's house to test and tweak the circuit.
The overarching aim was to be able to nail the intro tone to "Alive" but with the intention of having a whole load of other good tones on offer. Tone tweaking is a laborious process so I'll spare you the tedium of picking over everything, however there are a couple of details worth going over.
There were two really key factors at play that determined whether we nailed the tone or not.
Firstly, the amount of bass coming through, too much low end and the whole thing was a bust; too little and you'd have a thin, rakish tone good for nothing.
We thought we had got on top of this part of the equation pretty quickly however ended up coming a cropper and requiring an emergency session to correct it.
Marc clocked late on that the treble pot had been incorrectly wired up and so only a tiny fraction of the treble on tap had been coming through. Meaning when the mis-wire had been corrected there was far too much on offer. A frantic hour of testing resistor and capacitor combos ensued with very little time for making the pcb ordering deadline and fortunately we nailed it.
Secondly, and just as importantly, the clipping diodes. Now don't worry, I'm not going to go all Klon on you and start talking about "magic diodes" and all that bollocks. I mean, they are magic diodes because they proved the thing that really nailed the sound after a lot of experimenting, however, they're one of the most commonly used and widely available silicon diodes going so no fear of any myths arising regarding components used in this bad boy. But suffice to say, the diodes used in it are the last ones we tested in the circuit and it was a massive eureka moment!
And so, with a lot of help, a huge amount of luck and, to quote Placebo "a lot of guts, a little vision" we have the finished product.
The first, original release from Funny Little Boxes and something which myself and all the other dudes involved in this are certain is a bit of a gamechanger for this little company.
Speaking of dudes involved; the stunning looks of this pedal are all down to the incredible skills of my good friend John Stewart at Stompslaps. He's my go to guy for all design work and has excelled himself with this beauty. He's nailed the brief as always and the pedal is a real statement piece.
The final piece of the puzzle comes in the form of the custom knobs, designed by the awesome Ritch Tompkins of Stompkins pedals. 
So, to the sounds. First off, have we succeeded in our original goal? Well that's an emphatic Yes! It absolutely nails the PJ Ten tone, like it was meant to.
Crank Gain 1 all the way; set Gain 2, Bass, Mids and Treble all to noon and whack the volume up as loud as your neighbours can take it; engage a bridge humbucker and play the riff to "Alive" and you'll see what I mean.
But it does so much more. The reason it's called the 1991 is that there were so many amazing rock releases that year and with the versatility on offer in this pedal you have access to a massive variety of them and more besides. 
I'm hyper aware of the risk that this could be viewed as a "novelty" pedal and there will undoubtedly be snobs and cork sniffers out there who both view it and describe it as such, even if they never bother to play one. 
But let me assure you it is anything but a novelty.
Whatever style of music you play, this has something to offer you. I will do another blog and hopefully a video on all the tones on offer in this thing in the near future and there will be a video on the way from Matt in the near future.
Ultimately, I can say with no small amount of pride that it embodies everything Funny Little Boxes stands for; versatility, accessibility and affordability.
And it goes without saying, awesome tones!
What's more, it's only £99!
The plan had been to release the pedal on 27.08.21, 30 years to the day since the release of the Ten album and up until this week we were on track to do so. Sadly however, the beautiful custom knobs we've had made are still sat in a warehouse in China so the release is delayed; hence why there are no complete pictures of the pedal yet, I don't want to show it off in an unfinished state.
I promise it won't be long though so keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground for this beast landing very, very soon!

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  • Dear owner, Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Abbey Nunes on
  • Grumo Theddy, i have one. Number 4 of the original batch, i would be willing to sell to you

    jamie montgomery on
  • I really wanted to buy one but I don’t know how and where. Please help if you know where to buy other than the bloated prices in reverb. Thank you

    Grumo Theddy on
  • It sounds amazing, just got mine last week. Blown away at what it can do. Thanks

    Justin K on
  • Oh man! can’t wait to have one! looks amazing!!!

    Luis Garcia on

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