From his home in Mt Eden, Paul Crowther makes one of the best distortion pedals in the world. Henry Oliver asks him how he does it.
The first distortion pedal I ever wanted was a Boss DS-1. But only because I knew that Kurt Cobain used one and I was learning guitar by playing his songs. Years later, the next one I wanted was a Hot Cake, a mysterious New Zealand made pedal that everyone in every local band seemed to have. And it seemed like everytime a cool indie band toured, they made a pilgrimage to get one. What was this thing? Who made it? And how did every distortion-phile in the world know about this thing?
After owning one for years, and then not owning one for a few more years, I was reminded of the Hot Cake on a visit to the Volume exhibition at the Auckland Museum. I listened to the YouTube-esque demo guitar licks and twisted the knobs, remembering what it sounded like and wishing there was a Prunes and Custard pedal (Crowther’s other great invention) next to it. Then, a week or so later, I travelled to suburban Mt Eden to get the answers to the questions I had asked myself all those years ago.
Video by José Barbosa
The Spinoff: How does the Hot Cake work?
Paul Crowther: If you have an amplifier and turn it beyond its limit, it will overload and that’s distortion. We can create that effect at lower volume. The Hot Cake is a preamplifier that overloads at a certain point, depending on what you set it to. But it works a bit differently to a lot of other ones. As it overloads, it produces a fatter, warmer sound than a lot of others do.
How does it sound different to other distortion pedals?
I came up with the idea first in 1976 and the other distortion pedal around was the fuzzbox. If you wanna hear the classic fuzz box sound, just listen to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones. Then people looked at getting an overdrive rather than straight out fuzz, just to give a bit more expression to a guitar sound, so you can push the sound.
A lot of instruments do that besides electronic instruments – a flute can be blown hard to produce harmonics. It was called distortion but you could also call it wave-shaping. And when you overdrive, you produce more overtones, over and above what’s already in the signal and that can sounds a bit edgy and fuzzy.
The Hot Cake works in a different way in that, as you drive it harder, the overtones are attenuated so you get a warmer distortion sound.
What lead to the invention? Was it a dissatisfaction with that was currently available?
I was was the Split Enz in England at the time. Noel Crobie, who was with Split Enz doing largely percussion and a lot theatrical type things like standing on stage doing anything – that was quite good, quite effective – he would occasionally crash around on guitar, playing complete rubbishy stuff on the guitar and I built one into his guitar so the guitar would distort by itself without using a separate box. And he thought it sounded a bit too professional for what he did and I thought, that’s good. After I came back to New Zealand, I started making a few for friends and some for local music shops and it just grew from there.
How’s it changed over the years?
The fundamental workings of it, the principle on which it works, haven’t changed at all. But I’ve added and changed the tone circuit a little bit and anything to make it more reliable. But apart from that it really hasn’t changed in 40 years.
Do you make them all at home?
We do. We have the circuit boards made, then my wife Jo loads the parts on, then I add the controls and wire them all up and test them. They all get tested twice.
How many are you making a year?
Not as many as I was a few years ago. Between the Hot Cake, the Double Hot Cake and the Prunes and Custard pedal, about 800 maybe.
What is it about the Hot Cake that has given it both popularity and longevity?
I think, from a guitarist’s point of view, they plug it in and switch it on and they haven’t lost the guitar tone. The tonality is still pretty much intact but as they drive it harder, the sound gets bigger and fatter, but still with quite good clarity. And they handle chords quite well. In any instrument, the low notes are a lot more electronically powerful than the high notes and they will tend to override, but in the Hot Cake they don’t as much.
When you’re working with electronics in this way, do you know what the sonic outcome will be or is it a process of experimentation?
Sometimes you know in advance, but when you’re going outside the bounds of how circuits are supposed to work, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can take a pretty good guess. You kind of know what to do to get a certain type of effect but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to behave or respond. Or how it’s going to behave dynamically. It’s one thing to put something on the test bench and put a steady test signal through it, like a tone. It’s something very different if you’ve got a dynamic signal like a guitar and someone playing it.
How did it get the name Hot Cake? Were you selling that many?
After I came back to New Zealand from being in England with the Enz, I was forming another band with some friends and we were trying to think of a name. I was saying we needed a name that would sell, a name that was catchy, and Doug Rogers, who was running Harlequin Studios at the time, said, ‘Call the band the Hot Cakes’. And I said, ‘No, that’s what I’ll call my pedal. That’s it! Hot Cake!’
When I made the new pedal, I just said ‘Prunes and Custard’. In fact, the first ones I made were called a Google Box. Since then, we’ve got Google, but I liked the word Googly. So there’s a couple around, just with printing tape, which say Google Box. And then I gave it a subname, all in one word like one of those German names, HarmonicGenerator-Intermodulator. I thought it sounded quite cool. But it’s basically what any distortion does.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Visit Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa (also supported by Spark), which includes a Hot Cake you can play with, at Auckland Museum from now until 22 May 2017 and get closer to the music you love.