dBs Plymouth graduate Nathanial Harris has launched his own guitar pedal company - Buzztone Audio Effects! We caught up with Nat for a Q&A on how he did it and his hopes for the future.
Launched in December 2022, guitar pedal manufacturer Buzztone Audio Effects is the brainchild of dBs Plymouth graduate Nat Harris. Crafting each pedal by hand at home, Nat launched his new business with just one product - a distortion pedal called The Mind Flayer. Since then, he's released - and sold out of - a boost and octave pedal (The Defibrillator) and has plans to release tremelo (The Inhaler) and octave fuzz (The Gatekeeper) pedals later this year.
We caught up with Nat to talk about how his Innovation in Sound MA project turned into a business, what the journey has been like so far and his hopes for Buzztone Audio Effects in the future.
Hi Nat! Please introduce yourself and how you got into sound and music tech.
Hi, I’m Nat. I've played in bands for many years, and that's sort of where it all started for me. As a guitar player, I was quite tunes into to the tones of guitars and was always trying to chase the perfect sound by trying out different pedals and amps. That is how my fascination with sound and music technology began.
How long have you been with dBs?
I originally started at dBs quite a while ago. I finished my BA in 2017, studying Live Sound. That was really good. I learnt loads about sound in general by going down that avenue. Then I struggled a bit when I graduated to find what it was I specifically wanted to do. Even though I did really enjoy the Live Sound course, I don't think the live environment suits my personality. The hectic nature of a live event and having to think on the spot rapidly didn't really suit my personality. I find it a bit overwhelming. Obviously, in the studio, you still have to think on your feet and problem-solve, but there's not that pressure of things going wrong in front of hundreds of people. I knew I was really into studio gear and I got curious about what goes on behind the metal enclosure of a microphone, which is when I start getting involved in the more technical details of how sound equipment works. Being a guitar player, I became fascinated by guitar amp circuitry and guitar pedals specifically. That fascination developed during my Innovation in Sound MA at dBs. I wanted to get back into education and really hone in on something and become proficient at something. Find my lane.
Cool! What was involved in your MA project?
On the MA, I originally was trying to develop a microphone design. That was my initial project idea but certain factors, including costs and mechanical engineering skills, made me change my focus to guitar pedals. At the time, that change was a bit stressful, but in hindsight, I'm really glad I did it. I feel like I've come a long way with it so it definitely worked out to be a good change.
Tell me a bit more about why you changed your focus.
One of the reasons I changed my project from microphones to guitar pedals was that the microphone I was going to design was based on tube technology. I love tube technology, but one of the big tube manufacturers is based in Russia, and obviously, they have an export ban because of the war in Ukraine. Because of that ban, it was harder to get tubes and the price went up everywhere. It didn't seem like a smart decision to design a new product using tubes when articles were coming out saying tubes are going to go extinct!
When I decided I was going to make pedals, I was trying to find a way to replicate tube characteristics with other components. I thought, maybe I can make a pedal that sounds like a tube but is more affordable. That was the goal. I made an overdrive pedal that used JFETs because they share quite a few similar characteristics with tubes. That meant learning a new technology and finding out how I could get the harmonic content that the tubes have and tailor my pedals to sound that way. There were quite a lot of long nights researching, prototyping and trying out different things. In the end, I came up with a product that, in my opinion, was a really good-sounding product. I've had quite good feedback on it. That product is the one that I've continued to work with as Buzztone Audio Effects!
So what's your plan for the business broadly and where are you with your plans at the moment?
When you first get into guitar pedals, you just care about the circuit designs. You don't really think about the business stuff. So yeah, there's been quite a steep learning curve but it's definitely coming together, which is exciting! A few weeks ago, I secured a small business loan to get a new laptop and some other tools required to make my products to a professional level - a new soldering iron and a drill press, stuff like that. That loan also helped me to properly prototype a product and send a few of them out to get reviews and feedback. So, that's what I've done over the last few weeks. Feedback so far has been really good. There were a few amendments that I wanted to make, quite small ones like how the wiring is done inside the pedal and how the PCB looks. Just little things like that. I've made those amendments and I feel like I'm very nearly there. Once those pieces are done, it will be nice to be able to say officially that I manufacture pedals now. I don't just sit in my room inhaling solder!
So do you have a business plan? How do you see the brand and the product developing?
Yeah, to begin with, the pedals will be on the website to purchase and through social media, I’ll be trying to spread the news about them. I want to maybe network with people doing guitar pedal demos and things like that. That’s what I'm in the process of doing now. All it takes is one well-known person to play your pedal and do a little video review on YouTube and, you know, people will buy your product. I suppose there is a bit of luck involved, but sometimes you have to make your own luck and network and put yourself out there. That isn't, I suppose, a natural trait for me, but it's something you have to learn if you want a successful business out of something you enjoy doing. In terms of manufacturing, it's all hand-wired at the minute. I don't expect to be selling loads, to begin with, so I can make them myself and see how things go. If the demand is super high, there will be other things to take into consideration. That would, obviously, be very nice, but you can't expect that to happen. You’ve got to work towards it.
Cool! So all the pedals are handcrafted by you at the moment in your house?
Yeah, it's just in my house at the minute. I’m probably taking up too much space here with enclosures and parts and components, to be honest!
Is there anything that makes these pedals unique?
There is an innovative aspect of my pedals that I proposed in my dissertation which, as far as I'm aware, no one else does. I'm kind of like keeping it a secret at the minute. With guitar pedals, people are coming out with unique things but it’s sometimes a bit of a tricky one. Quite a lot of people like old-sounding, vintage pedals and are quite loyal to them, so a lot of people don't accept new, weird pedals. There are definitely people that do, but when a Tube Screamer comes out, people seem to love it, even though it's been done a million times. It's a bit of a tricky one. I really love tube technology. I've designed a couple of overdrives that I think are quite close. They're not clones of big overdrive pedals that are out there, as far as I’m aware. They are a bit different to Tube Screamers or Klons or DOD 250s that a lot of people use as their overdrive pedals. I've tried to make something that reflects the sound I'm trying to chase in my head. As far as a range of pedals, the first few pedals coming out are ‘drivey’ gain pedals. I’ve known about those pedals the longest, so I've been able to fully tweak them and get them sounding good. I've started to move on to other ideas, I just need to prototype them. I have a backlog of ideas and projects that I will work my way through. There are a handful of designs that I'm happy with and I'm trying to get them released as soon as possible.
Cool. Do you have any long-term goals for the business?
I'd love to say I will be a well-known pedal company in the UK. Obviously, it's quite a saturated market so I have to be realistic. I'm not going to be the next Boss or MXR or anything like that but being able to do what I love full-time is the ultimate goal. I think I’d like to build relationships in the music industry and provide pedals for educational institutes or help musicians who can't afford pedals and things like that. I think it would be really cool to have an impact that way. I'm realistic. I’m not going to be the biggest company in the world, but to do it full-time and make some sort of impact, is the goal. I'm optimistic that’s possible, otherwise, I wouldn't have spent the time and effort I already have into the business!
Finally, how do you think your time at dBs helped you get where you are with this venture?
Being a dBs allowed me to do this and follow what I was passionate about. The lecturers and tutors there help you tailor your craft and give great feedback. Obviously, for me, it was very handy that my tutor Stu is very competent in this field as well. He was able to help me a lot, gave me a lot of feedback and pushed ideas and stuff like that. The reason I did my master’s was to “find my lane” and become competent at it and try and push on to make a career for myself doing something I was passionate about. It was tough. It's a master's degree. It wasn't always easy, but I was really happy with the overall result!