VARIETY FOR EVERYONE - A Visit With VFE Pedals
Four knobs and one minor control ...
by Gearphoria (adapted by Team HC)
AMBITION WAS an essential element of Washington-based VFE Pedals from the get-go. The goal was to take a classic circuit and make it as flexible and tweak-worthy as possible... to get the player to dive deeper into what most would consider, say, a simple dirt pedal. Then, add a layer of customization so a potential customer had aesthetic choices beyond the stock model. Seems like a pretty hefty chore for a team of a half-dozen. Peter Rutter did it (mostly) all on his own.
THE TWO-CAR garage. It’s a life landmark right up there with the house it’s attached to. The square footage is seductive. Some would dream of hot rods, others perhaps a man cave. For Peter Rutter, and other pedal builders like him, the two-car garage is the office… and the manufacturing facility, assembly line, parts store, and shipping center. One half of his garage has been consumed by all things VFE Pedals, but things are changing for the eight-year-old company.
Rutter is going back to teaching in the fall, and while he doesn’t want to walk away from all he has built with the pedal company he knows he cannot keep it in its current form. So he is blowing out all of this back stock of highly-tweakable pedals in order to bring a new, simpler form factor into mix. All new VFE pedals will be limited to four knobs and one minor control, like a toggle.
“I’m sort of reformatting things so that I can continue to do it on the side and if demand is there I can easily train someone one to build them,” explains Rutter. “It’s a much simpler form factor. The biggest thing for me is that it will just be one board. I’ve had a two-board system… one did all of the switching and other things, and the other was the effect. You’d have to connect them together and stuff them separately. It just takes a lot longer. With this, you stuff the one board, solder it up, stuff it in the enclosure, solder a few wires and you’re done. It is not twice as fast, but based on what I’ve done so far it has got to be at least 30% faster. The one slow task is that this one has more wires because I’ll be hand-wiring the jacks versus them mounted on the circuit board. Anytime you do hand wiring it takes longer, which is why they are usually more expensive. Not necessarily due to quality, but it does take longer.”
The transition will also involve some pedals being retired and not making the leap to the simpler format. Rutter believes he will be sold out of old stock this summer and is targeting a new VFE slate of eight pedals by year-end. The plan also includes going direct to be better positioned to manage the ebb and flow of the business.
“I’ve already developed most of the stuff that’s ready for the new launch,” he says. “In the old form I have 26 pedals, which is ridiculous. I’m putting a hard cap on myself at 18… not at launch, but if I get to 18, and I want to do #19… something will have to be discontinued. That’s what I’m planning, because one, it organizationally works better, and 18 is nice because you’ve got a lot of variety.”
Variety will include a version of the custom shop VFE is known for. Customers will still be able to pick from a variety of colors and add a graphic to most of the new pedals, but those will carry a longer lead time and be more expensive. Rutter is targeting an average custom shop build to come in priced around $150. There will also likely be cases of limited run pedals.
“Clearing out this stuff is going to allow me to get my overhead down to a ridiculously low level,” adds Rutter. “Definitely under $1,000 and maybe even less than $500 per month, which if it was that low… $500/mo… we’d have to sell like five pedals to break even or something. That is really easy to do… especially at that price point. $150 for custom pedal… that’s just not out there.”
The current set-up at VFE consists of an extended workstation for loading out boards and soldering. A pair of amps for testing every build and a shipping area for boxing and sending out product. The crown jewel of the set-up might be the DCS Directjet printer, which allows Rutter to run 20 enclosures at a time for label and graphic printing.
He is approaching this next phase of VFE as he would when launching a new product line, and with that a new mindset on how he will approach his effects. In the past, he has been keen on taking existing circuits and stretching them to their limits — adding controls, giving his customers the most flexibility. The new VFE pedals will be more focused.
“This time out I’m taking the approach of… I want to accomplish a goal,” he says. “So here is the sound goal… and this is how to get there. If it means starting at a certain point, great. If it means starting from scratch… that’s fine too. I always used to tell guys who were mad about cloning… physics is physics. There is only so much you can do. I can start from scratch, and it will still look pretty much the same, unless I invent new electrical circuit components. There is a variety of things you can do. But would you want to do it the way that you know will work or would you do it in a way where you had to experiment a lot to accomplish the same task… just so you can say it’s original? That’s kind of weird to me. No one does that with burgers, right? You put a beef patty between two buns… you’re a cloner! Did you do it differently? Did you do it better? What way is it different? You don’t worry about that fact that it is just another burger.”
Another goal is to make the new stomps as intuitive as possible, to where even a novice could sit down with it and just by examining the controls have a good indication of what it does. Straight-forward control labels, smooth tapers, making ‘noon’ the average setting on some controls are just some of the plans. If any one thing has hurt the VFE brand over time it has been the seemingly endless string of price increases — a result initially of pricing for direct sale and not building in room for possible dealer mark-up.
“One of the things from a business perspective you don’t realize, when I first started pricing things they were pretty cheap… like $100 or so,” explains Rutter. “So when dealers come knocking, it was like… what will they want this for? I can’t build it for that! So you make an estimate, but you never really estimate factoring in any growth. You estimate for the here and now. One of the toughest things that has hurt me has been the continual price increase instead of starting at a point that was higher. I was there for a little while, and had too much business. My margins weren’t big enough to allow me to grow fast enough. I couldn’t keep up. I was working more and making less. I put the brakes on it. What I should have done is said there was going to be a back order. Instead, I said I was going to take a break from wholesale distribution. I lost dealers on that. Not that they were mad, but if you can’t build something, you can’t build something. It is harder to get them back. Dealers are ok with lead times. If I had done that it would have been smarter. The demand was there.”
Another was a plan to revise the look of the pedals back in 2014, to bring a bit more uniformity to a range that had grown to over two-dozen offerings. Rutter had one employee at the time. There was an upgrade to metal knobs and overall sharper appointments. The graphics were cleaned up and made more consistent throughout the line. All of this resulted in yet another price increase, due to the fact that Rutter was not making a more expensive product.
“My sales from Q4 to Q1 had always been slightly higher in Q1… every year,” he says. “But last year… Q1 of 2015, they were 40% lower. So the change backfired. We apparently hit that tipping point on price. It became that I needed to do it by myself. I need to come up with a model that works for just me and not worry about getting to a point where I need to hire someone. It was pretty clear that I dug myself to deep a hole, overhead was too great. What is nice is that I have a lot of inventory. So when I’m clearing this stuff out I’m not spending a lot of money at the same time. A little bit, but not a lot.”
Like many boutique effect houses, VFE was born from a hobby. Rutter would built a few boxes to tinker with, but due to school teachers salary he really couldn’t afford to keep them.
“By the time I actually decided to make it a business I had already designed 18 pedals,” he recalls. “So the 26, I have only developed eight pedals in the past five years! I’ve made improvements. I’ve taken my lumps just by the fact that I never intended it to be a business.”
One lesson learn quickly… and an important fact that all should embrace is that music is subjective. Highly subjective. VFE’s best selling pedal is the Alpha Dog… a control-heavy variation on the classic Rat circuit. Rutter is quick to confess he hates the Rat.
“It is too compressed,” he says. “You hit on it and it’s got no breadth to it. If you try to chord anything on it, it is a mess. It’s great for leads though, which is why people use it. The circuit can do chords though, if you remove the clipping that does the huge clamping on the circuit. That is why there are so many Rat variations. It can sound so different, but still maintain some of the characteristics that made the original desirable. There is a way to set the Alpha Dog up as a stock Rat, but it’s my least favorite setting… but if it is yours, I’m not going to judge you on that!”
He has run into the same problem with his popular Merman pedal — a highly-tweakable take on the famous Klon circuit. He has been around the block more than once with people who can’t get the circuit to sound like a Klon.
“If you wanted it to sound like that pedal, why didn’t you buy a simpler version?,” he puzzles. “There are plenty of other clones out there. I appreciate it, but the reason I built it this way was so you could experiment and find something different.”
Under the company’s new mission, Rutter is excited to continue to bring new colors to the aural palettes of his customer base and maintains a strong desire to assist in helping players achieve their sonic goals.
“I understand that music is completely subjective,” he says. “I’m going to not care if I don’t like you’re tone or not. That does not matter to me. What does matter is… What are you trying to do and how can I help you get there? So I tell them… don’t give me any ‘tone’ words. Go find me clips of what you want.” -HC-
Republished with the expressed permission - www.gearphoria.com
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.