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Designing Dogman Devices

Designing Dogman Devices

Dogman Devices is a boutique pedal company based in Oxford, Ohio, owned by designer and builder Lance Giles. His pedals are built by hand, imbued with a sonic and visual uniqueness not commonly found in the pedal world.

We caught up with Lance to learn more about the early days of Dogman Devices, the surprises that come with seeing other people use his pedals, and how influences as wide-ranging as noise rock and Japanese tea ceremony inform his design.

Hello Lance, please tell us about how you started getting into pedals.

I started out playing electric guitar largely because of pedals that I was seeing people—well, hearing people use, in post-rock in particular. I had kind of played guitar, and I had a lot of different instruments up until then and I had heard other bands use pedals and stuff. But it wasn’t in quite as central as a way [as in post-rock]. You can't really make some of those textures and things with just an amp unless you go to a canyon or something! That's what got me really interested in playing electric guitar in the first place.

I was living in rural Ohio at the time, where I've moved back to just recently, and a lot of my musical stuff had mostly been stuff that I'd been doing myself. I'd been kind of geographically far away from a lot of the people that I know that play music and things like that. So, for a really long time, I had one multi-effects pedal and a loop pedal, and I was pretty okay with that.

When I later moved to Japan, I didn’t bring any of my guitar stuff with me; I wanted to kind of take a new approach to it. I had been wanting to get individual effect units instead of my one multi-effect so that I could stack up different effects with more freedom than the multi-effect allowed. For example, in its modulation effects, you could only use one of those [at a time], and I wanted to use all of them at the same time. And so, I started getting into separate individual pedals around that time. It wasn’t long after that that I started to get more involved with the music community that I was in, living in Japan.

A lot of the people in the noise community there, which I’d started getting into, make their own stuff. A lot of them were just like, “Yeah, you don’t really need to have a degree in electronics engineering or a whole factory and warehouse to make pedals. You can learn how to on the internet and make stuff in an apartment.”

After those guys told me that it was a lot more accessible than I'd realized, I started to really get into learning about it. I’d been interested in electronics for a while, anyway. I had started out college majoring in physics, but I ended up changing to Japanese studies. Pedals just seemed like an interesting way to kind of mix my interests in science and my interests in art into the same kind of thing.

What were you doing in Japan?

The first two years that I was there, I was in a rural area teaching English in public schools. The city I was in was, on paper, Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture. That's way up north. That's the capital of Iwate Prefecture but it's about the size of Dayton, Ohio. And I was a half hour outside of that by train, in the mountains. So, I was a ways away from people for the first two years.

Then I lived in the suburbs of that area for the last year and taught at an English conversation school. It was when I was in the suburbs that I was able to go to a lot more shows. I was still starting to go to them in the mountains just because trains were still easy to take.

What were some of the first individual pedals you experimented with?

When I first got there, I got the cheapest guitar and amp that I could find first just because I wanted to have something. And then, after I was starting to get paid more, I was going to upgrade my stuff. The first pedal that I got was an Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy, the smaller version of the Memory Boy. I have it right here. I know it's such a simple little delay thing, but it's still one of the main pedals that I use now.

After that, I started to get more into dirt pedals. A lot of the pedals that I saw in stores in Japan were BOSS pedals, of course, and then there would be brands that I kind of never heard of that—I think they're called Animals Pedal now. The one I got was when they were just called 9-Volt pedals, but I got a Surfing Bear Overdrive.

From what I've looked up about it online, people will say that it's based on a Tube Screamer but the Tube Screamers that I have used don't sound the same. So, I think it's a similar kind of topography of the circuit. That overdrive kind of ruined me for other overdrives for a really long time. I'd find a Blues Driver or something, and I'd like it, but I didn’t like it as much as that Surfing Bear. And the Surfing Bear and the Memory Toy together, I really liked to play around with the order of those, and I still do. That delay going into that kind of overdriven sound creates this really weird warm tone that I really like.

So, tell us about moving back to the United States and how you took your pedal building to the next level.

When I got back from Japan, I moved back to my family's house in rural Ohio. I didn’t have a car, and so that, and all of my work history, was in Japan, and I thought that people would be like, "That guy was working in Japan. Sweet. Let's hire him to speak Japanese for us." But all the jobs that I was seeing around just seemed kind of terrible. I was mostly trying to save the money that I had to make sure I could pay for my phone and all that stuff before I went and spent all my initial money on getting tools or anything. It was still a good few months that I was just kind of studying stuff on the internet and not really getting my hands on things until the spring of that next year.

So, that was 2018. I finally had some money coming in, so I felt like I could spend a bunch of money on getting tools and kits. That first bit of making kits, it was really just a couple of months, but I think I made three kits. I made a Big Muff. I made a Tube Screamer. There was another kit that I got and after that I started to do the stripboard things.

Are these “Build Your Own Clone” (BYOC) kits?

Yeah. The Big Muff one that I got was literally a BYOC. The Tube Screamer was the same kind of idea. All of the parts are already there, enclosure is already drilled, and it's almost like a Lego kit. It’s cool to make something and it works but it was—I get all of the parts, and it has instructions, and I look at the instructions, and put it together. I loved Legos as a kid, but I wanted to kind of go outside of what you have in the instructions in the Lego book. Essentially, I wanted to just go get buckets of Legos, instead of Lego kits, and that's still really a big way that I approach circuit design.

Dogman Devices Fire Fuzz

Pictured: Dogman Devices Fire Fuzz Effects Pedal

Can you speak to that a little bit?

With some of the same circuit boards that I had, I could make very different pedals where you can take that same topography and make all sorts of little changes, and they accumulate into something that can be a lot different. You would think that most sounds aren’t going to really sound good. In reality, most things do sound pretty good, and the hard part is kind of deciding what I want the balance to be.

To make the perfect gain pedal, that’s actually kind of hard because you want it to cover a huge range of stuff. For me, what I want out of an overdrive and what I want out of a fuzz are really different, and it doesn’t make sense to try to just have one pedal that can hit that whole spectrum. If I were trying to do that, then it would be a lot more complicated. I like the idea of having things that are in their own territory, so I still have a range built into them. Being able to decide what that range is, as a musician, I think is kind of freeing, especially for noisier types of things that cover a lot of the kinds of sounds that I'm looking for.

I don't think they are necessarily hugely profitable for big companies to make—I don't expect that BOSS is going to make weird, ear-splitting filter pedal things. Just doing that as a hobby, that's something I can do for myself, and if I come up with something that seems like it's cool enough that more people than just me, or a handful of noise people, would like it, then it's like, “Oh, I can make a handful of these and see if people like them.”

The feedback looper pedal I have, Ouroboros, at first, I was just making that for me. I made three of them, and that's all of them I was going to make. I didn’t think other people would necessarily want one because it's a super noisy, almost scary, thing to use. So, I just made enough so I could sell a couple of them, but it's actually been really popular. It's one of the main things that people will email me about, which is really kind of awkward, because I have them designed in a way that I don’t really make them all that reproducible. They’re visually different every time. So, it actually makes it harder to make that a bigger product without kind of changing that aesthetic of it.

In studying Japanese, I studied tea ceremony a lot, and a lot of the different aesthetics and things that go into that are things that I try to put into my pedals in a way. For example, I don’t put any clear coating on the bare metal and that's so that over the years they will kind of oxidize again. They'll age because all things are impermanent. I don’t fill in the engraving with paint partly because I just like the way that looks, but it's also that concept that all things are incomplete, that everything is in the process of developing all the time.

I definitely have a limit to the amount of imperfections that visually go into a pedal, but some things, like when I'm texturing with the hammer, if I kind of miss into a little area or something, sometimes, that actually is kind of cool. That's another one of those things that form that same aesthetic of all things being imperfect.

One problem is that that whole aesthetic is really difficult to try to market. Normally, people want their stuff to look like it's perfect and super clean and pristine but I don’t necessarily like my stuff that I'm buying to look like that. That's part of why I buy stuff used a lot. I kind of like the sense of character that those things will have.

How do you balance between the freedom to do anything in an industry versus figuring out what to do?

It's kind of hard, really. For example, it's like when I was designing a fuzz. I probably have ten different demo versions of that fuzz. There are just two or three little things that are different in it, but there's—you just kind of know when it's at the right spot. But it's hard to do that on a timetable, really.

Coming up with overdrive, one thing I was really trying to avoid was trying to make a super-common-sounding thing. A lot of the diodes I ended up picking for that are such generic clipping diodes, but I made a whole crazy diode selector contraption where I could switch between [them]. I had three of these and they each had like eight diodes on it. So, I was going between a really huge combination of what different diodes sounded like. I could've had that just be part of the pedal, but that just starts to seem like it's a little too much going on for something that there's probably going to be one or two settings that whoever is using is going to like and sit with.

On the one hand, it's kind of cool because in a way, that could've been 20 different pedals in one, but I could also just make the individual ones out of that that I like the best. Then they could each have their own little tweaks, so that the best parts of those things kind of shine instead of “they kind of work everywhere.”

I like the idea of it being really good at one thing and it's just not super clear-cut where one thing ends and another begins sometimes. For example, fuzz and overdrive are different, but it isn’t a rule that, “Once there is X amount of gain, it is fuzz.”

What would you say drives the innovation of your designs more: your musicianship or your electrical knowledge and physics knowledge?

It's a bit of both, but I'd say it’s more the musician first. Part of that is really to apply new technologies and physics into guitar pedals with an order of magnitude beyond what I can actually do.

Some “digital” companies are choosing all sorts of digital circuitry and setting sampling rates and probably writing anti-aliasing algorithms and stuff, in addition to writing programs for their actual effects. Comparatively, I use a DSP chip aimed at effects that internally handles all the digital stuff so I can just write the effect programs, without dealing with the really complicated stuff other builders may be doing.

Designing something like that is beyond what I'm capable of, right now at least. I am studying, though. I'm not saying it's impossible for me to do something like that, but it's a lot more interesting to me to just think of what kinds of sounds I want to play with rather than what kind of technology and things do I want to use.

I think the end-result other people are going to experience is just what it sounds like and what it feels like to use. So, if it's a digital effect or an analog effect on this, it doesn’t matter if it just sounds cool.

What I'm looking for, and part of what I use to constrain my own designs, is how well I understand something. That's why I don’t make any digital stuff right now. It’s that I just can't really make a good digital thing today when I know I can make a decent analog thing today. So, I will have those other ideas kind of in the back of my head, but there’re always future projects.

I definitely want to get into some weird digital stuff, but with this Elemental series, the premise of it was at the time, I had a five-position daisy chain. I used one loop pedal a lot, so I wanted to make four foundational pedals. For me, that was overdrive, fuzz, kind of like a delay thing, and then some other modulation thing that's probably tremolo, but something that has a little bit more movement to it. I kind of just wanted to make my own desert island pedalboard, essentially.

Some of what I want to hear influences what I want to learn about. I keep talking about digital things. Do I want to make a reverse reverb? It pretty much needs to be digital. You might feasibly be able to do something with that that would be analog, but it would involve getting parts that aren’t commonly produced anymore and would make it way more complicated than it really needs to be. And reverb is reverb. It's just something I like a lot. It's not quite one of my foundational tones, so it's not in my first run of stuff that I want to make, but that latent desire to make reverse reverb means that I need to get a pretty solid foundation on digital effects down.

Dogman Devices Earth Overdrive

Pictured: Dogman Devices Earth Overdrive Effects Pedal

How does seeing how someone uses your pedals influence things?

The first time I really saw somebody else use some of my stuff was in Minneapolis when I went to El Diablo Amps and Guitars, this little amp and guitar shop in Minneapolis, and I went there to kind of show them some pedals. One of their main guys that tests their stuff does a lot of metal things, whereas I mostly just know how to play my music, and so to get just a regular metal riff or something, it's like a study session for me. I have to really listen to a lot of things and look some stuff up, and this guy can just kind of whip one out and play his guitar way better than I do, and [he] had that VOX AC15 amp that I have now.

The AC15 is my first real “big boy” amp. Most of my other amps were small solid-state things, and the main philosophy I've had is, “If it sounds good on a not-so-good setup, it will sound good on a good setup.” And that's been true. That's been working. I'm glad now that I have my own good amp to test things with, too.

It is exciting to see how people use stuff. I had some audio samples made with a guy, and I stayed there when he was making those samples, and we were noodling around. The Get Offset podcast has done videos for my overdrive, Earth, and fuzz, Fire. I know that she'd kind of played around with both the pedals before actually making the video, but still, just seeing her kind of respond to it was really exciting to see.

I use a Gretsch guitar and a VOX amp to make noise music. So, it's interesting to see the combinations that people take. I got a hollowbody guitar because it will feedback easily. It's why a lot of people don't want one.

I know one guy is using the fuzz pedal with an electric violin. I had never even thought about people with electric violins using pedals. It's actually why I started including little instruction cards with the pedals. With guitar players, it's like, “Oh, yeah, it's going to be a 9-volt supply. That's the center [pin] negative, just like all my other pedals do. This side's going to be the input. This side is going to be the output, like all my other pedals.” And that violinist was so confused that he had everything that he could've connected wrong connected wrong, because he doesn’t really use guitar pedals and has more experience with synth stuff.

I think it would be informative for me to see more people use the pedals as I'm developing them. I kind of just have to accept that I can't plan for how everybody is going to use everything. And something about that is actually just kind of exciting.

What do you think is universal about having lots of little boxes that all plug into each other for musicians?

I don't know really, but in Japan, a lot of my friends were in the hardcore punk scene or noise scene. I was able to play around with some of their modular synthesizers and talking with them, playing around with pedals and playing around with the modular synthesizer is the same sensation. For me, there is something that's also added by the guitar itself. There’s something that is just really tactile-y pleasing about moving knobs and having a bunch of cables all over the place. There's just something that's fun about it!

What went through your mind over the summer of 2020 when you ended up on this much larger stage (as far as guitar gear goes)?

When I was coming up with formal business plans and everything, I never actually considered that the audience would get as big as it is now. So, my primary reaction was, and still is, surprise and gratitude. I feel very lucky. But the way things happened was bittersweet. It was amazing that Jason Isbell would tweet about me during such a tough time, but it also seemed like I had the only good news in the country at the time. I had a strange mix of emotions, really.

I feel like part of how I was brought to people’s attention in the first place is kind of political in a way that I normally would avoid. The general business advice is to not be particularly political.

I think that my background informs the kind of pedals that I try to make. As uncomfortable as that might be to discuss sometimes, my racial experience is a part of that. I would rather be known for the things I make, rather than my background, but it’s a bit of an illusion to see them as totally separate things because I’d be inclined to build different things if I were in different circumstances.

I think of my company as being unique because of the specific things I’m making rather than being unique because I’m a person of color in a very demographically homogeneous industry. But the fact is, they are both true. I hope that my experience will draw more diversity into this industry so that maybe someday only one of those things are true.

Getting the voices of different communities out there I think can just be interesting for other musicians to get other sounds out that you might not hear otherwise.

What experience do you hope people have when they try your pedals for the first time?

The way that I think of it is that when I bought that Memory Toy, when I was trying that out in the store, I just got the feeling that I could keep playing around with it for the rest of the day. I felt like it was starting to be a nuisance for how long I’d been messing around with it. That's kind of the feeling that I want to promote. And when I test pedals that I've built, that will be the main way that I feel like I have got it down right. When the intention is to play a couple of notes and chords through it and then I play around for like 15 minutes, that's when I know that I got the circuit down right. It just makes you want to keep using it.

That's a common builder idea.

I mean it's one of the things that I think is cool about gear in general is that you can kind of get inspired by the thing that you're playing in the first place.

Getting to be surrounded by pedals and guitars and amps is the dream.

It's kind of R&D. You need to have a good tube amp to test these pedals out …

Totally. Thanks for your time today, Lance!

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