People Behind The Pedals
Interview with Alex Millar of
In our ‘People Behind The Pedals’ blog series, we delve a little deeper into the brains behind the businesses, the memories of the manufacturers and the expertise of the effects pedal aficionados!
In the latest instalment, we chat to Alex Millar, founder and namesake of Zander Circuitry about the inception of the company, the passions behind what drives product development and what is next in store!
How was Zander Circuitry born?
“I have worked full time as a Graphic Designer for almost a decade now; after leaving college I completed a number of design and marketing apprenticeships, slowly moving up the ladder across various agencies.
I now have a senior in-house position with a global insurance company so Zander has always been an evening and weekend job for me.
With no level of electronics background originally, everything I’ve learned has been from hands-on experience and experimentation.
This stems all the way back to discovering I’m left-handed and getting bored as a late teen with the limited three or four guitar options for left-handers at the time – usually a choice of a Black Strat, butterscotch Telecaster, Sunburst Les Paul and maybe the odd Gretsch.
It’s a different story now, but 10-12 years ago I would scour boot sales, EBay and Gumtree searching for random parts that I could piece together into these strange Frankenstein guitars that I’d spray all kinds of odd colours, and wiring the pickups/controls for those is how I learned to solder.
That DIY attitude eventually turned to me trying to build my own pedals, initially just for my own amusement, which soon got to the point of having built so many I needed to sell some online. The response was really good, I enjoyed the building process so additional order requests didn’t feel like a burden, being busy wasn’t a chore.
It was my wife who encouraged me to actually put a name to it. Having worked as a designer for a few years, at that point it was fun to do some branding and design work for myself.
What was the first pedal you ever built? When it comes to developing new pedals, where do you draw inspiration from – both in terms of sound and visual appearance?
The first pedal I ever built was actually a DIY kit clone of the Electro Harmomnix LPB-1 booster, it is a super-simple circuit that only has about half a dozen parts.
Getting to the end of it, turning it on and realising it was working was definitely the moment that kickstarted my obsession.
The first pedal I built for Zander was our SiClone fuzz (albeit looked very different to what it does now); the very first iteration was quite similar to the Z-Vex Fuzz Factory, but over the years we’ve reworked the entire circuit multiple times and added/removed stuff to the point where it’s now entirely its own entity.
The inspiration for new pedals can come from all kinds of places, but a couple of good examples would be:
American Geek and Siva – both of these pedals are Big Muff-based fuzzes inspired by the sounds of the early Smashing Pumpkins records, they’re named after two of their tracks (Geek USA from Siamese Dream and Siva from Gish).
They also incorporate references into the graphics (the Siva’s artwork is the Hindu god of the same name Siva/Shiva, while the American Geek’s artwork is the slightly more cryptic Bullet with Butterfly Wings, another famous Pumpkins track).
Junipero – a multi-modulation pedal, with 8 different modes that centre mostly around different variations of chorus, flanger, phaser and tremolo.
The name and artwork for this pedal were inspired directly from an episode of Charlie Brooker’s series ‘Black Mirror’ entitled ‘San Junipero’. For anyone that hasn’t seen it, I won’t give away any spoilers, but the entire episode has a very 80s/Miami/Neon/VHS aesthetic to it; as the 80s was THE decade for heavy use of modulation effects on guitar and bass, it seemed like the perfect way to combine those elements into a cool pedal.
What makes your pedals different from other brands / similar models?
The main thing that we try to go for is versatility. I’ve no interest in churning out part-for-part clones of an existing circuits. Even if I know that it would sell, I’m only interested in making pedals that I’m genuinely excited about, and straight forward clones don’t do it for me at all.
A great example of this is our Cranium distortion, at its core it is a Proco Rat, but over the years there have been many variations released by Proco with different clipping options and slight part changes that make them all very distinctive (BRAT, You Dirty Rat, Turbo Rat to name a few).
I created a circuit that allows you to switch between the different diode types, add some extra controls that let you sweep through those slight part changes, throw that together with a couple of our own twists, and you’ve got the ultimate rat-based distortion that I think is arguably the most versatile one on the market, especially for its size.
When it comes to designs that are uniquely ours, I think the Junipero and Duplo are set to redefine what is expected of a small pedal company, as, to my knowledge, we’re the first UK company to put out anything like that (digital controlled multi-modulation/multi-delay with tap tempo, presets, expression control, MIDI and so on).
Can you talk us through the creative design / branding process of each product? Do you come up with the visual ideas yourself, or do you work with third-party illustrators?
I do all of the artwork for the pedals, a few years back we went through a small rebrand where we moved away from all of the pedals looking very different, to housing them all under one consistent, aesthetic with the same font styles.
Mostly, I utilise public domain artwork, etchings from old books or patent drawings, which I then convert to digital illustrations and edit to fit the shape or layout of the pedal. Often, I piece together elements from multiple sources or add things I’ve drawn myself to construct the final artwork.
I like the rough and lo-fi nature of these illustrations as you can really see the artifacts of both the original artwork (things like ink bleed and smudging) and from the process of it being digitised, where certain details are lost or smoothed out.
What have been your biggest learnings in pedal production, and business in general, to date?
Never be afraid to ask for help, or admit that you have help. When I first started, I had this very strange attitude of having to control every last detail. That might be fine when you only have a handful of orders every month, but that attitude isn’t scalable at all once the business starts to grow, it is far too exhausting and time consuming.
Ultimately, the end product is the only thing that matters, so whether or not someone with far more knowledge and experience in PCB design, or digital programming, had a hand in helping with the R&D, is irrelevant.
So I’ve no qualms with openly sharing that, whilst I am still a one-man-band and the face of the company, I am by no means doing 100% of the legwork for every aspect of the business. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with that, but I’m totally fine with it now.
What’s in the pipeline for Zander Circuitry? What are your business goals/ hopes for the future?
I can’t give too much away on the product front, but we’re hoping to expand our line of digital multi-effects and really lean into the almost-endless possibilities of DSP.
We’re also hoping to expand our retailer network in Europe, Brexit has really had a big negative impact on myself and many other small UK builders, effectively killing off our direct sales to the European market (and understandably so, as someone in France or Spain now has to factor in that on top of buying a €200-300 pedal, they might also get hit with €60-90 in additional taxes and import fees, which puts it out of budget for many). Realistically, the only way for us to continue selling in Europe is to have a decent network of sellers in EU countries.
Where do you see pedal production moving in the future, for the industry as a whole? Upcoming trends / industry predictions? Will you have to make any changes based on the growing business scrutiny of green / eco / sustainability practices?
Surface mount components are an inevitability and it is something we’re already moved over to for the most part. The attitude to SMT now compared to 10-15 years ago is very different; in the mid-late 2000s the ‘boutique’ pedal industry was full of questionable-at-best claims surrounding ‘mojo’ parts.
I’m glad that consumers are, for the most part, far more knowledgeable and accepting of SMT, because pedals like ours wouldn’t be possible to make without it. Not to mention it uses far less raw materials compared to through-hole components.
Running as eco-friendly as possible is also something we’ve been very conscious of from the off. Some of the things we’re doing include:
- Being fully ROHS compliant with all of our products, this is a directive that puts restrictions on the use of hazardous/harmful substances like lead and cadmium
- Using as little plastic as possible (not using plastic knobs anymore, using biodegradable mailing bags etc).
- Using limited printed/paper collateral, shifting lengthy product manuals from physical printed copies to online PDFs
- Storing and reusing packing materials from our purchases rather than buying new rolls of bubble-wrap, packing paper etc.
What is your Zander Circuitry career highlight to date? Have you had a ‘pinch me’ moment?
Being able to showcase our products at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California was a huge thing for us. It is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go (even prior to owning a pedal company) and it really isn’t even something you can imagine the scale of until you see it in real life!
When people from the other side of the world come up to me, know me by name because we’ve interacted over email or through Facebook, or because they’ve seen a video or podcast that I’ve been in, it’s a very surreal feeling to know that the products and videos I make from my loft room in Essex are reaching all corners of the globe.
Personal favourite of all your pedals?
I think it’d have to be the Junipero, I’m just such a sucker for a totally clean guitar with a load of chorus on it. And for me the Junipero does that perfectly.
Excluding your own brand, what’s the one pedal you wish you had created yourself, any why?
It’s really hard to pick just one as there are so many great builders putting out amazing stuff. But, gun to my head, I think it would have to be the humble Electro Harmonix Big Muff.
That pedal, and its many iterations, have been on almost all of my favourite albums. It defines the sound of the 90s alt-rock/grunge era and it’s just one of the most versatile and resilient distortion/fuzz circuits ever made.
What’s the guitar riff/song you immediately play when picking up a guitar?
It depends on which guitar I pick up, if I’m in standard tuning its usually a Smashing Pumpkins riff or something heavily inspired by one. Something that sounds like Cherub Rock or Rhinoceros.
If I’m in Drop D, then probably something by Superheaven, Basement or Dinosaur Pile-Up.
And finally, if I’m in a lower tuning, like C standard or something, then definitely a Queens of the Stone Age riff, something heavier off of their first album like Mexicola.
Thanks Alex! – it’s been great talking to you
Keep updated with Zander Circuitry putting their effects to the test and replicating Alex’s favourite riffs on one of the most active Youtube channels of any small pedal company!