Dr. Scientist Sounds cracks the market for guitar effects pedals

It’s the deep part of the whispering night, and there is a light on in the laboratory. Here, somewhere in outer space – or at least on the outskirts of Edmonton, in an inconspicuous neighbourhood of new housing – Dr. Scientist Sounds is hard at work. The quest: the perfect guitar tone, wrangled to rigorous specifications.

The product: a unique line of handcrafted guitar effects pedals that are slowly but surely being heard around the world.

Dr. Scientist is the happy union of Ryan Clarke’s technical prowess as an electronics engineer and Tanya Bach’s flair as a graphic designer. A tour of their small basement studio is proof of a creative lifestyle gone terribly right. Here, both forces behind Dr. Scientist work their own hours to deliver a product they believe in, according to their own standards and ethics.

Chances are, audiences will overlook the little box on the ground in front of the guitarist. But to the musician, it is the key to new sonic territory, bending and teasing sound for the aural pleasure of earthlings. Seemingly innocent, the pedal makes the difference between a basic chord strummed on a guitar and one with attitude. And Dr. Scientist delivers the difference in spades.

In essence, the small metal box, roughly the size of your hand and twice as thick, is fi lled with a thin pad of circuits designed to change or add to the sound a guitar puts out. With twists of its knobs and dials, the device adjusts the sound the guitar pumps in, adding new textures of distortion or fuzz or reverb or any manner of tricks.

Since beginning in earnest in 2006, Clarke and Bach have shipped nearly 750 handcrafted pedals out of their basement laboratory in careful batches of about two dozen per order. Music stores in cities as distant as London and New York, and countries as far away as Denmark and Norway are selling the pedals to musicians including rock ‘n’ roll Juno nominees and country music guitarists.

It’s a long way from the years of 12-hour shifts in the oil field Clarke left behind to return to school.

Dr. Scientist began in 2005, when Clarke began his mission to create his favourite guitar effects as he thought they should be built. About to graduate from Electronics Engineering Technology at NAIT, Clarke had the skills and the plan to build the pedals.

He made some prototypes and they sounded good. All that was left was the look. At first he figured he could decorate the little boxes with a Sharpie marker to give them a little extra sass.

But it wasn’t quite right. Yet.

It was about then that he was having lunch at The Nest, the campus bar and restaurant where Bach worked. She couldn’t help but notice him. “He ordered pie and ice cream – for lunch,” says Bach, who graduated from Graphic Sign Arts in 2002.

There were more of these lunches, she says, until they got to chatting and, soon enough, the chemistry beneath Dr. Scientist began bubbling. Bach instinctively knew what the pedals were missing.

The pedal talk piqued Bach’s design sensibilities, prompting thoughts of sweet vinyl, a medium that intrigued her and begged to be explored on a smaller scale than the typical storefront signs. She considered the way slick segments of colour would make the pedals pop in a way no others do.

Each graphic element is cut with meticulous care, assembled by hand, and sealed with a layer of clear-coat vinyl that’s then heat-gunned to give it resilience against the wear ‘n’ tear of rock ‘n’ roll.

They had their first pedals.

With the input and support of friend Bryan Kulba, they got their computer and Internet logistics in line – details like answering emails and customer service inquiries and all of those little things that turn out to be big.

These days Clarke and Bach, whose relationship grew along with their business, work out of their home, often into the early hours of the morning, for no other reason than they enjoy the buzz of putting the pedals together.

They work this hard not to satisfy their customers, they say. They just want to blow them away.

Dr. Scientist pedals are handmade to exacting specifications.“We don’t mind working all night, because we love it,” Bach says.

There are times when it doesn’t go so right, she admits, and that just pushes them harder. Bach says it’s not unusual to roll the work into 5 a.m., just trying to get the images perfect, cutting each edge and element with the strictest care.

Every aspect of the business is designed that way – extraordinarily unique. The name Dr. Scientist is nothing more than something Clarke thought was “funny and cool,” but it hints at something built into each pedal. A little secret. A little mystery.

Clarke, 32, is all excitement and tousled hair, sitting barefoot and sporting a T-shirt with the Dr. Scientist robot icon; Bach, 25, is warmth and sincere attentiveness, even with Little Miss, a Maltese/Yorkie puppy, tucked into her lap.

“If you’re going to do this, you really have to take it up a couple of notches,” Clarke says. “The Dr. Scientist mythology is part of the whole thing. You need more than a good sound. You need a good look. You need a good story.”

With descriptions that include the birth of mankind, sonically sinister synthetic life forms – a.k.a. robots roaming the universe, white coats and clipboards, sunny days and secret dimensions, teaching the universe to sing in perfect harmony and lawyers in the ’80s driving Ferraris, these pedals are as fun as they are technically rewarding.

And customers are buying more than pedals.

According to Dr. Scientist, they’re buying into the experience, the idea and the vision. There may be a pinch of madness, but there is nothing diabolical in their science.

Bantering over the business and building on each others’ sentences, Clarke and Bach radiate a genuine love of what they do, every accomplishment – and every little mistake.

Clarke admits that as he was developing one of the pedals, he tripped up. He was working on the design of a special-sounding fuzz circuit and made a mistake with the orientation of a component.

That tiny misstep resulted in something unexpected – and cool. “I made a pedal developed around thewrongness,” Clarke says. “I cuddled the wrongness and made it something good.”

That pedal is the Frazz Dazzler, the pet of the whole operation. “Frazz is my baby,” says Clarke, pulling a guitar off the rack and taking it through its paces.

Of course, the mistake is built on Clarke’s technical foundation; he knows his circuitry and how it makes good audio better. But it’s a lot of experimentation, too. “It’s so personal,” Clarke says. “If you’re a creative person, you can turn anything into a cool sound.”

The duo still attends to every detail. And that matters to them as much as it does to their customers.

Although an audience may have little care what pedal the guitarist has kicked on, Clarke says, it really matters. “Rock ‘n’ rollers are so picky about tone.”

The Dr. Scientist team appreciates pickiness. Bach will customize the pedals to particular graphic preferences. Clarke will add an extra knob for adjusting sound, if that’s what makes the difference.

At Dr. Scientist, “it’s still about rolling up your sleeves and doing all of the work,” Clarke says.

Dr. Scientist is evolving. The pedals are slowly changing as Clarke tweaks the circuitry and Bach explores 125 colours of vinyl. Gone are the days when Clarke used to cook up circuit boards from scratch, a labour-intensive – and rather dangerous – process that has since been moved to a professional manufacturer.

But they’re reluctant to release control of production to the world outside.

The guitar pedal industry falls into two streams: big manufacturers and boutique builders like Dr. Scientist. With the boutique crowd, it’s the craftsman approach to detail that matters, catering to the discriminating musician who values a unique sound in a world of factory-made standards. While there are rows of mass-manufactured guitar pedals available, Clarke says that is not what they are about. They want things to be personal and refined.

“We shoot for perfect,” he says.

This commitment involves a strong focus on customer service and quality, and has made them popular among everyone from basement musicians to touring professionals.

Talk of getting bigger elicits uncharacteristic discomfort from the young entrepreneurs. They say they are planning on getting to the NAMM Show by 2010 – a big step. The largest music products trade show in the United States – attracting 80,000 in the industry – it could mean new artists and new media attention.

But they are intent on continuing what they have here. Clark says they won’t sacrifice that for growth.

“We’re already succeeding,” Clarke says. “We live on this. We’ve got a career we’re passionate about.”

In this basement, there’s proof that it’s paying off. Here is an empty bottle of French dessert wine that could encapsulate the very essence of Dr. Scientist.

It came from France, sent by a client named Romain for no other reason than he was touched by the work the Good Doctor put into tweaking a pedal he’d previously purchased.

Clarke and Bach, though not much on drink, gleefully tippled every last drop, a sweet toast to getting things right, somewhere between Alberta and the stars.

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