Interview with Bart Provoost
Guitar effects pedals have shaped or altered the sound of many of the great albums you and I have listened to throughout the years. In fact, many guitarists’ sound are instantly recognizable because of the pedals they utilize: Jimi Hendrix used a Vox wah pedal religiously, Tom Morello a DigiTech Whammy pedal, Eddie Van Halen a MXR Phase 90 and MXR flanger, David Gilmour various chorus and delay pedals and many, many more. Heck, U2 guitarist – The Edge – makes a living off of the sound of his pedals; just watch the great documentary It Might Get Loud to see (and hear) how he uses pedals to enhance his sound. Some guitarists even use “non-traditional” effects. Peter Frampton’s use of Leslie speakers and a talk box are great examples heard all over Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive album. Even more unusual, note the Theremin Jimmy Page uses to augment his sound palette. The possibilities are limitless!
Lucky for gearheads everywhere, Bart Provoost started the Effects Database website a decade ago; it has information about (nearly) every guitar effect pedal ever made. If you’re counting, that number would be over 18,000! Bart, thank you for creating and updating the Effects Database and thank you for taking time between pedal updates to do this interview!
One Louder Magazine: Hi Bart! In 2003 you were looking for an envelope filter, but couldn’t find a website listing more than 20, while you found more than 50 that existed. Which envelope filter did you finally settle on and why? Do you still have it?
Bart Provoost: I didn’t intend to settle with one envelope filter; I just wanted more (and different) pedals than I already had. Some of my favorites are the Mu-Tron III (of course!) and a few clones of it (3 Leaf Proton, Funky Fish, Shin-Ei Mute Box), Lovetone Meatball (still only have a clone of it, though), Koda Dynamic Filter (a Polish pedal from the 1990’s)…
OLM: What other effects pedals make up your rig and why?
BP: I don’t have a fixed set, these days [as] I’m too busy to work on my own music, so I just test a lot of different pedals. Before that I was always making different combinations depending on what I wanted to do at home.
OLM: What effects pedals do you not currently own that you would like?
BP: I still don’t have any Pigdog pedals while I have known them for years. I still need two of the Spaceman Effects (love them all!) and a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase. I don’t have a list; I just look at what’s available.
OLM: Let’s discuss the Effects Database. As mentioned earlier, things kicked off because of the lack of information about envelope filters. But then it expanded from there, as you started adding ring modulators, octavers, flangers, phasers and other pedals. When you first started the site, it was just a hobby, right? Is it still a hobby or has it now expanded to a full-time gig?
BP: It’s still a hobby, but it has taken over all of my spare time. I often wish I had more time to make music again, but then the site wouldn’t be up to date anymore. I also have a job, a family (girlfriend and 1-year-old son) and I’m currently doing an evening course at the university (about Human Centered Design for both soft- and hardware). My girlfriend often wishes I never started that site.
OLM: There are currently over 18,000 effects pedals listed on the Effects Database, but it all started with the first one. Do you remember the first pedal that was added to the Effects Database?
BP: I already had a short list of pedals when I started making the site and it was still plain HTML, so there was no real first pedal.
OLM: There have to be doubles, right? Are there really 18,000+ different effects pedals?
BP: They’re all different pedals, but some of them are OEM pedals that were made at the same factory line, with the same circuit and same enclosure, but with a different name. A lot of pedals are also copies of other pedals, either 100% identical or with modifications.
OLM: Speaking of copies, you were in a documentary [Fuzz: The Sound That Changed the World] where that very idea [“gooping”] was discussed. [Gooping PCBs is covering the circuitry with silicone.] Some designers stated that they don’t want their designs ripped-off (or reverse-engineered), yet other folks mentioned that they don’t want people to see that they were the ones reverse-engineering another manufacturers’ design, hence the goop. Which do you think is more prevalent and why?
BP: Most pedals are related to other circuits. Sometimes they’re just copies, but sometimes they make a lot of changes or are really original. Pedals are usually gooped to hide those small changes [whereas] rip-offs are often recognized from their sound (or because of the way they’re advertised).
OLM: As far as the documentary is concerned, how did your inclusion come about?
BP: The guy who made the documentary [Clifton Taylor] contacted me. He was using the site (still DiscoFreq’s FX Site at that time) and wanted to know my opinion about “the industry”, since I know more brands and pedals than most other people do (because I try to make FXDB as complete as possible).
OLM: What’s your take on the documentary?
BP: I haven’t seen the documentary in the last few years (mostly because I’m too busy), so it’s hard to answer that. The only remark I have about my own appearance is that my comments on Harmony-Central were only about the messy reviews (typos, double entries, etc.) on the original (v1) version of their site, not about any other aspect of their site. I remember that was not clear enough.
OLM: When you first started, did you ever in your wildest dreams anticipate the list growing to such huge proportions?
BP: I never expected this amount of pedals, but in my wildest (site-related) dreams I would have more time to add more info to each pedal and work on some of the special features for the site that I have in mind instead [of] dreaming about a large quantity.
OLM: Do you (or did you) ever feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew?
BP: Yes, sometimes my mailbox is full of mails I still have to answer or follow up (add more pedals) and sometimes I get negative remarks about the site (like people who say it’s just about the ads, while those were not there the first few years. I just need some help with the hosting costs).
OLM: Effects pedals are created almost daily. How in the world do you keep up with all of the new releases?
BP: Social networks (Twitter and Facebook) are very useful, but my main tool is still Google Reader, but Google is shutting it down in less than two months. I still didn’t find a perfect replacement, so I’ll move some content to a system I’m building myself and the rest of it to one of the alternatives that are suggested on various sites now (but which all lack certain features I need).
OLM: Do effects pedals manufacturers contact you directly when they release new pedals or is this something you need to find out on your own?
BP: Some of them have mailing lists for customers or press, others send me an email, but for most of the brands I just have to keep my eyes open all the time.
OLM: Are there plans to add sound clips of what the effects pedals sound like when engaged?
BP: There are already lots of demos from YouTube and Soundcloud on the site. I’m thinking about adding demos of pedals of which there are no demos yet, but it’s hard to find some time for that.
OLM: In your opinion, what effects pedals give you the most “bang for the buck”?
BP: Ten years ago I had to be more careful about my purchases than now, so I bought lots of cheap ‘80s pedals. A lot of them are quite good, partially because they have the right IC’s that are so expensive now.
OLM: Do you have a favorite pedal? Or maybe a top-5/top-10 must have pedals (with no regard to price)?
BP: It’s very hard to pick favorites (and it changes quite often), but these have always been on my list:
Musitronics Mu-Tron III, Harmonic Percolator (I have the Chuck Collins reissue), Spaceman Aphelion, Sola Sound Tonebender MkII (D*A*M reissue) and Ghost Effects Dizzy Tone.
OLM: What is the future of effects pedals? What hasn’t be done that can (and should) be done?
BP: Hard to say. I hope there will always be a market for analog pedals and small companies making them. One of the reasons I continued after the envelope filters is that I noticed how small companies can compete with multinationals; there’s not just one distortion pedal. There are so many different flavors and if you make a good pedal on your kitchen table you can sell it all over the world if you want to.
OLM: What is the future of the Effects Database? What else can you do to make the website better, increase visibility, etc.?
BP: That’s hard to say. I had a problem with my Google ranking from the middle of 2011 until [the] end of 2012; I lost a lot of hits. It’s better now, but still not what it was. To do better I should add more info to each page, but at the moment I already need my time to add new pedals to keep everything running…also the tools and interfaces I use, like the way I used Google Reader and have to replace that now. It’s a bit a “chicken and egg” problem. I have several ideas for features that would be very interesting to readers and companies; things that are either not available anywhere else or not the way I want to make them. They would make the site more popular and if that happens maybe I can work on it more than just in my spare time. But I first need more time (or resources) to build those ideas.
OLM: Is the Effects Database a one-man gig or do you have a support team?
BP: I do this on my own. I do get mails from visitors with information and pictures sometimes and I have two people who are writing reviews for me. [I’m a very slow writer, erasing 10 times as much as I end up with in the end]. It would be great to get some help, but I can’t offer anything in return right now and I also want to keep control because it could get messy if everyone could just put things on the site. The old “v1” Harmony-Central reviews were an example of that: lots of double pages because different people wrote the name of the gear they were reviewing differently (with/without model number, typos, etc.).
OLM: Have you gotten to the point now where you can make your own effects pedals? Have you made any effects pedals? If so, which ones and why did you make those?
BP: I sometimes have ideas for pedals or improvement of other pedals and I’d love to start with DIY because I love science and technology, so electronics shouldn’t be a problem if I could spend some time with it, but that’s exactly the problem. I did ask a good friend in the U.S. to build me a prototype of something I had in mind, but it’s not 100% ok yet. I can’t tell you much more because it’s both unique and simple.
OLM: What does a typical day look like for you?
BP: Check emails, Google Reader, Facebook, go to work (and peek at those other things when I need a break), go back home, have dinner and play with my son, then I read more emails and news, create new pages, do some programming for the site and around 10pm I move to the couch to relax and watch something on the TV with my girlfriend.
OLM: What is your favorite part of working on the Effects Database? How about your least favorite part?
BP: My favorite thing is to talk to a lot of people all around the world. In fact, I see some of them as friends; my other friends are not interested in pedals! I like to check out interesting pedals, etc.
My least favorite part is how the FXDB became something I have to do. If I don’t do anything for a few days, then I have to catch up with a lot of things (news, emails, auctions I missed) and that’s worse than before I needed that break.
OLM: What are some of your hobbies? What do you like to do when not working?
BP: When I’m not at my job and not working on the website I spend most of my time with my son and girlfriend (although not enough according to her). I don’t have time for other hobbies anymore.
OLM: The desert island question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
BP: I usually listen to a lot of different artists and styles all the time (and I’m always looking for high quality compilation series of specific genres), so that’s another hard question. Parliament, Lee Scratch Perry, Leadbelly, The Doors,… hard to pick just one more!
OLM: Who are your guilty listening pleasures?
BP: My “DiscoFreq” name comes from a time when we did some disco parties at the local youth center. I liked those parties because it was just “having fun”, so when I needed a nickname (it was around that time when I first went online) I took that name. I still like ‘70s disco from time-to-time, but am often too tired or busy to listen to “heavy” music (in lyrics or “pressure” of the dynamics). I also listen to some Flemish folk singers (mostly ‘60s and ‘70s) from time-to-time, especially in Winter, both for old (childhood) memories and a general melancholic feeling.
OLM: How can people find out more information about you and everything you’ve done (and are doing)?