Interview With Johan Maertens of Valvette
By Adam Ironside
Valvette is the company of Johan Maertens. Based in the UK the company is very new releasing their first pedal, the Custom Drive, in early 2009. Here we get an exclusive chance to talk to the very friendly, and professional, Johan Maertens, the man behind Valvette.
Dirtbox - Hey Johan, thanks a lot for taking the time do this interview and welcome to Dirtbox. First off a little about you… Where do you live and where is the Valvette company based?
Johan – I’m based in the North-East of the U.K. in a little industrial town called Goole where I live with my wife, two lovely daughters and a lively son.
Dirtbox - Great man, I’m not actually that far from you then. When did you first start making pedals?
Johan – I’ve always had a keen interest in music and electronics from a very early age. I can remember building my first projects when I was about ten years old. My Dad used to build electronic organs and repair amplifiers for local bands in Belgium where I grew up, so I guess that’s what got me interested. I’m 38 now so I’ve been at it for quite some time. As far as the Valvette pedals are concerned I just started building these about a year ago, based on some of my old designs that I had floating about with some modern twists applied to them.
Dirtbox - …and why did you start making your own pedals in the first place?
Johan – I started playing the electric guitar when I was nine and quickly got frustrated playing it through an old discarded hi-fi amplifier my dad gave me, so I got my hands on an old Elka tube amp with quad EL84’s that was actually designed for keyboard amplification and couldn’t be persuaded to sound dirty at all. This amp didn’t have any of the fuzz going on that I had gotten used to while saturating the old hi-fi amp. So that’s when I started looking into recreating that effect. Local music stores where selling distortion pedals, fuzzes and overdrives that where priced way beyond my means. I used to hang around the shops playing the hell out of the pedals, not buying anything and eventually getting kicked out of the shop. Good times! So I decided to have a go at it myself. I’m pretty much self-taught; lots of trial and error there, point to point wiring on breadboard and the likes, picking schematics out of DIY electronics magazines and so on, but eventually I built myself something pretty useable. Later on, some high school friends who where playing in bands asked me to build them some pedals and that’s how it slowly started. Throughout the years I’ve always been toying with the idea of actually releasing some of these designs into the wide world, so that’s how the Valvette brand came into existence about a year ago. The brand logo was actually designed by me when I was about sixteen.
Dirtbox - That is an interesting story man and not too dissimilar to some other guys like you that I have spoken to. Now, onto the pedals!
What is your philosphy on pedal making?
Johan - Well, I don’t believe in cutting corners. There’s a lot of products out there with inferior components, making sacrifices to tone for the sake of profit, and I just don’t believe in the sustainability of a product like that. I want what I build today to still be on someone’s pedal board years from now and put a smile on their face when their foot hits that switch. The only way you’re going to do that is with an original product that’s well built with quality parts.
Dirtbox - Your sole product is currently the Custom Drive, does it sell well?
Johan – The First batch of pedals that I produced in February of this year has now completely sold out, so I’m currently assembling a second batch with some minor adjustments. Some of the pedals from the first batch have been given to artists to be taken on the road and be put through their paces and so far all of the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. However, there have been some requests for just a little bit more drive by players that bridge into the heavy rock genre, and these requests have now been implemented in the second batch. As a result, I have had to redesign the PCB to accommodate the extra components. Overall, I think it’s improved the pedal and I’m sure it will be selling as well as the previous batch.
Dirtbox - Are you working on expanding your range of effects, or sticking only to the Custom Drive?
Johan – I am definitely looking at expanding the range of pedals, but for now I’m dedicated to getting this pedal and the brand well established on the market. There are some variations on a theme that I’ve been working on, such as a version with expanded ‘Dumble’ type EQ options and external switching that sits in my rack right now and is working quite well, but this won’t be released for a while. The pedals I build are assembled with passion, in small quantities and that’s the way I’d like to keep it. There’s plenty of schematics left in my notebook though ;oD
Dirtbox - Excellent, I look forward to seeing what you release in the future.
What do you make of the effects pedals market today? Do you think it is a good thing that there are so many companies out there now?
Johan – Yes, definitely… the more the merrier. At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is to come up with the tools for musicians to be creative with. That’s got to be good, right ? Although the quality of a lot of cheap, mass-produced products on the market today leave a lot to be desired in terms of road worthiness and circuit design. But then it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that, to a certain degree, you also get what you pay for. I think the majority of small independent builders will be diminishing over the next couple of years though, as it is getting increasingly hard to put a product on the market legally. There’s so many rules and regulations to adhere to that it becomes nigh on impossible for a single person to pull it off.
Dirtbox - What do you think of the word ’boutique’ being tagged onto so many pedals?
Johan – The word implies that there’s a personal element to the production and sale of the pedal and that there can at least be some form of communication between the buyer and the actual builder. That’s exactly why I like to keep things small so I don’t loose the ability to be there for my customers. I think nowadays the term is being used so loosely by companies that are obviously turning out quantities ofpedals that can’t possibly have been built in a small shop, that it has completely hollowed out the meaning and is being used as a justification for a hefty price tag. A price tag that can actually be justified in the case of low quantity production, but turns into ripping the customer off when you’re mass producing your product. Companies turning out serials in the thousands and calling their product ‘Boutique’ are really exploiting the customer.
Dirtbox - The Custom Drive is obviously a high quality, all analogue effects pedal. What is your take on the Digital Modeling technologies and pedal that seem to be increasing in popularity?
Johan – Every technology has its place and as always it will be down to the individual taste of the musician. Sometimes it’s also a question of application. If you’re after very long delays with pristine sound quality it should be obvious that analog technology will not be able to deliver this. However, when it comes to overdrive / distortion / tube emulation sort of effects, digital modeling has come a very long way but in my opinion still lacks the proper response to picking and volume control. The power of digital modeling lies in the fact that it can give you numerous sounds from one box and do a decent job at an amazing price, but at the end of the day it will never interact with your instrument in a natural way. I just never got the point about recreating analog circuitry using digital means when the analog stuff is available and still getting better every day. There’s IC’s available nowadays that are so quiet, designers of yesteryear could only have dreamt about using them. I think analog effects technology still has a long life ahead and like tube technology, will claim it’s rightful place over time.
Dirtbox - I think certain stomp boxes already have and I am pleased to see that so many people still prefer true analogue effects, not sacrificing tone for ease of use and versatility.
The Custom Drive is true-bypass, is true-bypass an important thing to you? Explain a little about your reasons for offering true-bypass.
Johan – The true-bypass switching in the custom drive is very important to me. This pedal was designed to be as transparent and naturally responsive as possible when paired up with a valve amp. As soon as you start using buffers in your circuitry you affect the tone and the relationship of the pedal with your instrument on an impedance level. This is not only true when the effect is on but also when it’s turned off and alters the way the amplifier reacts to volume changes and picking on your guitar. I really wanted to preserve the tone and uniqueness of the guitar/amp combination. This pedal is aimed at the subtle guitar player that knows how to control the dynamics of his instrument. If musicians want to use elaborate effects chains with long lengths of cable involved, then there will be a need for some buffering, but there will also be the loss of responsiveness.
Dirtbox - What are your plans for the future of Valvette?
Johan – I’m quite happy with the way things have been going so far. I hope I can continue to build up an interest in my pedals and come out with some new products in the next year or so. The website will be getting a restyling soon with and artist page and a 360 degree product view. Lots of things to do and loads of customers to please ;oD
Dirtbox - And finally, what we have all been waiting for… what is your all time favourite Dirt Box?
Johan – That would have to be my good old trusted 80’s Boss DS-1, if not only for sentimental reasons. It was the first pedal I ever bought with pocket money that I saved up for weeks. I eventually modded it to true bypass adn swapped out the diodes. It’s sitting on my board looking bruised and battered from the many years of heavy use, but it still rocks! Other than that, the Ethos overdrive sounds pretty sweet to me ;oD
Dirtbox – Good choice! The DS-1 has long been hailed as a fantastic distortion pedal. Johan, thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview and I look forward to checking out your Custom Drive pedal for myself in the near future. All the best.
Well, that is the end of our second interview at Dirt Box and I think you will agree it was a worthwhile read. Stay tuned over the next few weeks as Johan will be sending one of his Custom Drives out to me for a run through and a review.