Inside Chass Bliss Audio
Tale of the tape ...
by Blake Wright (adapted by Team HC)
THE DAY WE arrived at Chase Bliss Audio’s new offices in downtown Anoka, Minnesota was a monumental day for the company. A few days before a Uline representative had paid a visit to sell office supplies. While pens and paper are nice and definitely on the needs list, there was really only one thing the company was after, but didn’t know if it even existed — and that was quiet tape. The new CBA digs are awesomely cozy, and not blessed with an overabundance of square footage, which means a lot of tasks done in the space — like packing and shipping — are done out in the open. Thus every time a box was needed, it was built, filled and taped shut within eye and earshot of everyone. To date, Chase Bliss used tape rolls that sounded like two-feet of fresh velcro being separated at light speed. We can vouch. It was off-putting. However, the day we arrived was also the day that the Uline shipment was delivered with the promise of quiet tape.
Blisser Holly Hansen wasted little time ripping into the box and retrieving the tape, loading it up on the handheld dispenser and giving it a go. Where as the old tape sounded like a back-alley scrape between warring possum gangs, the new tape offered a much quieter, more serene hum.
The excitement in the office was palpable. A small victory for sure, but for a growing company in the highly-competitive boutique effect pedal space, you take your happy moments as they come.
(When your first pedal is a hit, expectations change. Not only those of the buying public, but of the crew manning the ship. Chase Bliss Audion's Joel Korte knew this, and has planned his company's slow, but steady growth accordingly.)
The beginnings of Chase Bliss wasn’t necessarily rich with happy times. Founder Joel Korte graduated from college with an electrical engineering degree and soon found a job. A lifetime stutterer, Korte struggled with it more once out of school and in the private sector. Meanwhile, his brother relocated to California in pursuit of an acting career. In February 2007, Joel’s brother Chase was killed in an automobile accident. “So I started working and just really hated my job,” explains Korte. “Part of it was I think that I was really sad about my brother, part of it was that I didn’t like my job and part of it was I was really struggling with my stuttering. I think in college I was kind of able to sort of hide from it, I didn’t have to worry… well I worried about it all the time but I would be out with friends and just trying to hide from it and it wasn’t as central in my life but then once I started working it was like this huge change and it was the combination of all that that just made life really horrible for a while.” Korte decided to reengage with a speech therapist, even though earlier experiences with one were mixed at best. After a more positive experience, he decided to pursue a career as a speech language pathologist. That decision pushed him into grad school in the fall of 2008. It was around that time when he started playing in a band with friends. He wanted out of his engineering gig, but knew he needed money while he was going to school.
(Main Room: Chase Bliss' new digs have all the necessities - - guitars, comfy couch, max storage and a Super NES - not pictured)
Enter ZVex Effects. “I sort of just harassed Zack Vex until I got a job,” says Korte. “I was like, you know I have this electrical engineering degree, I have some knowledge and experience, I just want to work. I just want a job that I care about. I was seeing everything through the lens of losing my brother and thinking about things in terms of like, ‘life is short’ you know? I don’t think I thought about life like that before. So I started to work at ZVex. I worked there part time while I was going to school for about a year and I just loved it. There was this cross fade where I really liked the engineering work at ZVex and stuttering was becoming less and less a barrier for communication in my life. Then I was playing in a band and had this huge pedal board. You know, you just get obsessed!
(Testing 1,2,3...: Holly utilizes a Satellite combo amp to test pedals before they are boxed up and sent to dealers.)
The part time job at ZVex turned into a full-time job and I decided I wanted to continue on with the graduate degree in speech language pathology but I switched that to part time. I worked at ZVex for like four years.” Korte left ZVex in early 2013, just about the time he was wrapping up his graduate degree. He found himself at a bit of a crossroads — pursue a career to utilize his masters or move deeper into his passion for tone. “I was completely honest with Zack because I was interested in starting my own thing but you can imagine if you’re Zack and you had this guy who was working for you for four years, who’s interested in starting his own thing, it’s not good news. We talked about it a lot and I ended up, after I left as an employee I still did contract work for ZVex for about a year after that because there were still projects we wanted to wrap up and I didn’t want to leave him high and dry, because even though ZVex has been around forever they’re still a small company. It would have been kind of a lousy situation if I had just left.”
After he left, Korte began working on what would become Chase Bliss projects. He spent some time working under contract to ZVex, and other times as a speech language pathologist. Over time, he realized that of his multiple endeavors, the speech work days were his ‘least favorite’ days. He became more obsessed with his own effect designs, the first of which was the Warped Vinyl — a vibrato/chorus designed to simulate the effect of a warped vinyl record.“I just wanted to hear the sound that I had in my head! I ended up releasing the first version of Warped Vinyl in December of 2013,” says Korte. “I didn’t know, I wanted to sell some and I don’t think I was ever super unrealistic about it. At the time I knew that wasn’t going to be my only source of income or any source of income for a long time. Maybe I thought it would happen a little quicker and that I would get some income from it, you know? Because you just have to reinvest everything.
(Doing Work: While much of the building process takes place off-site, there's still plenty to do for Joel [left] and Zack W. [right].)
But around that time, I ended up getting another engineering job for this other company which I worked at for about a year. It was a temporary position so I thought it would be right, because then I would work on my stuff on the side and then once my contract came up then I could reassess.”
(Around The Shop: Inventory, pedals and tape)
The Warped Vinyl was a hit right out of the gate. In fact, most of the company’s releases since the Warped Vinyl have all been successful— the Wombtone phaser, Gravitas tremolo, Spectre flanger and Tonal Recall delay. “What’s kind of amazing to me though is that even with all the stuff that’s gone really well it’s still really hard to just start a business,” says Korte. “Even when pretty much everything goes right, it’s still so fragile at the beginning stages. And finally it’s starting to feel, it’s been a little over two months since we released Tonal Recall and that’s by far our most popular product. Since that has happened, we’ve been able to move here and Zack (Warpinski) is coming up on his one year anniversary and Holly has been here officially since April, she was working a little bit as an independent contractor since February 2016. Ever since then it feels like a real company and now we have this space, we’re not in my basement.”
There is a circuit board that is universal for all of the Chase Bliss pedals to date. It acts as the digital brain. Another board is placed on top of that one — the analog effect. The boards are all surface mount, and Korte knew he could not afford the equipment required to build those in-house. When the brain design was ready, he got a loan from his dad and build 250 of the motherboards with a local contractor in Minnesota. Today, the motherboards are built in California. For the effect boards, the Wombtone and Spectre are done in Minnesota, while another contract manufacturer does the Warped Vinyl, Gravitas and Tonal Recall. “We get everything here and do the testing and calibration,” explains Korte. “For Tonal Recall there are all sorts of trem pots in there we have to carefully set everyone and we have to go through this big process, it’s sort of awful but Zack does the majority of that. I’m doing a little bit right now because we are behind a little bit. Zack does a lot of the technical stuff. Holly does a lot of it as well though. We all kind of wear a lot of hats. It’s great because there’s a big part of it we don’t have to worry about. I was actually really inspired by Tim Marcus (Milkman Sound) we went to this small business workshop that Salvage Custom set up with Taylor Guitars. It was insane, it was amazing and it was kind of through that experience where it really solidified this idea in my head, if you go on the factory tour, that company and Bob Taylor specifically is just like a master at assembling guitars with all these machines and all these different processes. They build all this custom machinery to be able to assemble these guitars in such a high quality way. And I just realized thatI’m not interested in building crap. I’m good at designing pedals and writing code and electronics.”
Following the Tonal Recall, Korte admits he was exhausted. It was a difficult birth, leaving him a bit of a zombie. The company showed a small midi controller at Summer NAMM, but a lot of folks are curious about what might be next on the company’s development schedule. Could a reverb be in the queue? “I kind of painted myself in a corner with this digital brain, analog heart thing,” admits Korte. “I don’t think, at least with the layout and the size of the box that I have I can’t. I think it would be pretty difficult to do an analog reverb. With the current motherboard I’m using 99% of the ROM… but the beauty of it is, it’s controlling an analog circuit. Analog circuits never go out of style as far as I know. We use this, musicians used technology that’s like seventy years old and they’re not changing and they shouldn’t change. I’m probably always going to play a tube amp even if there’s a 100% spot on digital emulation of it, just because they’re cool and they glow. There’s just something about ‘em. I also think there’s some weird sort of safety in working with analog circuits because they never go obsolete because they are what they are. Even the technology of an analog delay is like 40 to 50 years old. But we’re going through all this trouble to digitally control this antiquated technology in this sophisticated way because we like the sound of it. That’s the sound that I like and that a lot of people like. So the processor just has to do enough because all your doing is just controlling analog.
But who knows, I’ll probably want to do something crazy at one point and switch to a more powerful processor… maybe not, I don’t know." -HC-
(Comforts of Home: Super Nintendo, amps, and pedals.)
(USA Today Video: This guy stutters, and he's owning it in so many ways)
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.