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Welcome to the macro fab engineering podcast. I am your guest, Kevin Beller.
And we are your hosts Parker Dolan
and Steven Craig.
This is episode 168.
Kevin Beller heads up the engineering and new product development departments at Seymour Duncan. Kevin does the electronic and mechanical design, pickup design tooling and fixture design. He has worn a lot of hats in his 40 years at Seymour Duncan by starting out as production supervisor and manufacturing engineer in 1979.
So Kevin, my first question is, how did you get started with that? And how has it changed over that 40 years, like the industry?
Well, I started out actually, as a performing musician, I had an engineering background, but I was still at this point, trying to make my way as a performing musician. And I knew Seymour he was a he was a repairman and a local music store. And, and I just met him through the music store, we got to be good friends, I, I was bringing instruments to him from time to time to have repair work done. And, and at some point, he left to start his own business, I think around 1977 or 78. And he was just in a small garage at that time, you know, a little garage shop. And at some point in time, you know, I used to go to visit him all the time, I'd be picking up instruments taking instruments in there. And at one point, his wife, Kathy duck, and said, Well, do you think you'd ever want to work for us? And I'm like, No, I don't know, you know, I got a pretty good job. Now I'm working for a computer firm, and I'm doing engineering work, and it's not so bad. And, you know, at one point I had, I thought I was just going to make my way as a professional musician, I quit my job and I was with the original band and we were doing recording and big live performances and and that whole thing just came apart about as quickly as it went together. And and I remember telling see more of the story like Lee's son of a bitches, you know, they're, they're firing me, I can't believe it, me and the drummer and the singer and everybody, they just broke the whole band up and, and
was the bass player just firing everyone. It was
the the two, there were two brothers that were the songwriters. And they also had money backing and connections in the recording industry. And they just came in one day and go, Well, we feel like we want to go in a different direction than the rest of the band. We just fired me the bass player, the drummer, and the singer, who was an incredibly talented singer, they just came in wiped the whole band out in one big sweep. And I'm like, Oh, crap, I, I left my job. I, I had a good job before. And now here I am, I'm out in the streets. And you know, I'm telling the story to see more. And about a week later, I get a call from Kathy. And she says, Well, do you think you're about ready to start working again? I go, Well, yeah, I guess I'm running a little low on money. You know, I think I think I'm ready. And at that point in time, those guys were just, you know, they were in a small two bay garage, and just getting, you know, just thinking about introducing the first line of humbuckers. And, but they didn't have drawings or any designs or anything, Seymour had basic coil winding designs that he had derived through doing years and years of rewinds. And, but no bobbins, bottom plates, magnets, none of none of the raw materials had been designed. And that was really my first job. When I came in, I spent the summer time just designing all the bits and pieces for the humbucker line, getting it all documented and, and ready to go. And by the end of the year, we were producing our first humbucker. So that was really the start of it. And as time went on, you know, I went from just getting the production line set up, they really didn't have any experience with production. I had managed production lines in my prior job of I had a big group of technicians that were doing specialized process development and in the ceramics and ferrites and some fairly specialized material fields. But you know, I was really hired for my experience as a manager, more than as an engineer. But I pretty quickly evolved into the engineering role. Within a year I was doing the bulk of the new product design and managing the production floor and I gradually just sort of phased myself out of the production work is which is to me a real pain in the butt. It's not my favorite thing. I mean, it's definitely an important part of the process. But for me the design work is what I love doing and and You know, and I tried to limit myself to that as much as possible. I mean, we still have our production issues, and I have to jump in there and, and help out, however I can. But you know, given my choices, I would stay in the room and just design product all day long. That would be my, you know, my ideal world. Is that what you do now? Well, that would be ideal, I manage the engineering department. So we have a, you know, we have a about, there's four of us in the department on site, and we have one other off site engineer with It Works from his own shop, down in Ventura. And so I manage that part of the design process, you know, we obviously, we have more throughput right now than what, what I could potentially handle. So we have multiple engineers, mechanical and electrical, digital analog, and then I also manage the new products process. So that means, you know, making sure that the entire process from the concept to completion to production gets happens as smoothly as possible that we're not dropping details along the way that we're taking care of everything that needs to be handled, you know, product design, the documentation for the manufacturing of the product, all the, you know, the setup in our own production line, proper fixturing, tooling, just, you know, really handling everything, making sure that it all gets done, and we deliver a product according to schedule, or at least as closely according to schedule as we can manage.
So before we keep going is, we never explained also what Seymour Duncan as a company is. So people might be a little confused.
Seymour Duncan started out as purely, actually, I would say, in the beginning, before I worked there, it was more of a rewinding service where Seymour was working with some pretty big name, musicians, rewinding and, you know, customizing their pickups for their particular the sound that they were going for.
So yeah, I have a question is why? Because I'm not a musician at all. So why would you rewind, like, I'm gonna guess electric pickups on a guitar? Correct? Right.
So you would rewind them during the 70s and 80s, most people's opinion, or that the quality of sound coming out of fender and Gibson instruments had degraded significantly from what it had been in the 50s and the early 60s, early to mid 60s. So that that was because of a number of reasons. But mostly it was because the fender companies and Gibson companies had been bought by large entities that weren't necessarily interested in, in musicians or musical instruments, other than as a way to make money. So they were there basically letting the accountants have their way with things and they had done a lot of cost cutting. And in amongst all that cost cutting, they had really the quality of the instrument itself had degraded and the quality and sound the you know, the tonality of the pickup had been significantly degraded. So that really opened up a big opportunity for guys like Seymour to come in, and, and rewind those pickups, rework them to have either reminiscent of old vintage instruments from the 50s and 60s, or to create whole new sounds, that that were kind of worked with the style of music that was emerging in that time. So that was basically how the company started. And then at some point, we started making our own versions of fender and Gibson pickups and, and some of the other manufacturer, but primarily in the beginning fender and Gibson. That was what the majority of the marketplace was demanding at that time. So that was the start, but we in the 80s, we expanded into amplifiers and speaker cabinets. And I think we discontinued amplifiers by about mid 90s. And by the late 90s, early 2000s, we started getting into effects pedals, which we still do today. And now we're just now getting back into some Elian, a very compact amplifiers, what we call fly rig amplifiers that are really designed for musicians to be easily able to carry on an airplane or on a fly gig. We're sort of back into a little bit back into our roots again with with amplifiers and and we've been doing pedals now for almost two decades. Ah, actually and we we hope to continue with the kind of success that we're we're just starting to see now with it. Pretty highly competitive market, it's a bit of a tough, tough road to hoe amplifiers to, you know, they're all highly competitive, lots of guys out there doing it. And, you know, a lot of choices for the end consumer. So you have to somehow rise above all that and get people's attention, which can be pretty challenging.
Well, and actually, it's interesting, because that kind of leads into a little bit of a topic that I want to bring up is, especially with, with a company that is a tad bit larger, and has some more overhead, I would love to explore the idea of of how an engineer like yourself sells a creative idea to both the market but also internally at your company. In other words, you have some idea for a new gizmo, or widget or effects pedal or amplifier, and it's going to be the best thing ever. How do you sell that to your team? And how do you sell that to Seymour himself? And how does that go from just an idea into
reality? And to expand on that question, it's, you know, it most engineers, they deal in specifications and data sheets, and they have a list of things they need that the product to do. Whereas in my mind, at least music is very subjective. And whether or not something sounds good or cool, for lack of better words for that. It, how do you say, yeah, how do you make that something that's that that? You know, you go? Yeah, let's design that let's spend 100 hours of engineering on that.
No, 100,000 hours?
Yeah, or more? Yeah. We can easily get into 2000 hours on some more complicated design projects. But anyway, to answer the initial question, one of the advantages that we have here is, out of the five guys in our engineering department, three of them are actually musicians. So that really helps. We have musical background, we've studied music we performed on stage, we understand a lot of the challenges that musicians face. And we, we have after this many years, just you develop, even if we weren't musicians, you'd develop a pretty good ear for tone, and what sounds good. Now, putting that aside for a second, musical tastes and musical styles are evolving, changing and evolving all the time. So whenever you come up with whenever I come up with a creative idea that I think is the greatest thing, and I want to pursue it, one of the first steps is to try to confirm that what I think is a great idea is something that a lot of musicians that are in today's market also think that it's a great idea. I've been surprised any number of times thinking that I had the perfect way to do things, only to after working and working and working with, you know, personally working with musicians, I find, you know, I was just not understanding it. When it first started, when we first started our discussion and through dozens of hours of discussion, you finally come to the understanding of what that musician was really looking for. And so the first thing is to like, dispel your own assumptions and try to get to the root of what musicians really want. And don't assume that just because you think you have the perfect engineering solution that that's going to translate into the perfect musical or the perfect tonal solution. It doesn't always you get wrapped up in your own head. And in your specifications. Like I got the perfect specifications going this makes total sense to me, and you present it to the musician and they kind of man you know, it's okay, but yeah, I have this other one over here that I like a lot better. I've been using it for the last 20 years. So it has more volume, more volume, it has more five or more Mojo. I mean, you have to be able to translate all those things into into engineering specifications. So that's the first step is making sure that you have at least the best understanding that you feel like you can get of what musicians are really looking for. Then selling it internally can be a challenge. We have a lot of musicians that that work here. We try to populate the sales and marketing department with predominantly musicians and not really a hard thing to do. There's a lot of those guys out there that need jobs, but you you develop a working relationship with them and and you try to sell the idea to them on an emotional basis or on a common sense musical musician basis and And you convince them and really what it always gets down to, is building a prototype, go down to the sound room, and let's listen to it. And and if they liked the sound, then they're sold. If they don't, then you just you do this collaborative process of working back and forth and alteration of the design modifications, breadboarding. Sometimes, you know, you might have six hours in a day of listening and quickly going back and tweaking, listening and tweaking. So you go back and forth with that process, and you come up with something that everybody agrees is really cool. Okay, so that's great. Now we're all on the same page, we all think this is a great idea. All of us musicians in here, think it's a great idea. Now you got the accounting people and the CEO and the CFO and all the money side of the business that you have to build a case for. So that's when you get into
getting into, you know, deriving your bill of materials, your cost models, your competitive analysis, you have to be able to show first of all, that this is a good idea on a financial level. And, you know, sometimes you have to convince people that, really, you need to just compromise your margin a little bit, because this is such a great idea. And people are gonna love this so much that the marketing value alone is worth taking a smaller margin. So there's certain logic that you have to adopt sometimes, in convincing the monetary aspects of the business that you should go ahead, they should go ahead with this, prove it because nobody is able to just go and develop a product and buy all the materials and deliver it unless you're the sole proprietor, you always have to be able to convince other aspects of the business especially, I mean, we're not a big business, we're a small business, we're probably just around 100 people, it's not like vendor boss or somebody like that. But there's still enough people here involved in the, in the various managerial aspects that you've got to be able to make your case. And it has to be made on multiple levels.
Going back to that one thing, where it was taken a smaller margin, is that to like, raise more like top level awareness for see more like, you would do that to raise more market share, so to speak, right, in the, in that industry? Or sector?
Right? Yeah, a lot of times, you know, and people do this all the time, you know, they have lost leaders or, you know, in order to attract attention to demonstrate your skills as being able to develop cool products, get people's attention, you sometimes have to do that. Now, you know, taking a loss on something is definitely not, you know, a desirable thing, but but you can take a small margin on something, and still make it, you know, somewhat profitable and, and develop your name and bring customers on board and, you know, do other things that are beneficial to the long term. prosperity of the company. Sure.
So, kind of going along with that this is this is more of a of an interesting kind of concept when it comes to design work. In this realm, or industry, I've found that it's acceptable to break a lot of rules for the sake of the final product. So take for, for instance, like, there may be some magical transistor that you put in this particular position that just does the sound, it does what you're looking for. And that transistor may be three times as expensive as another one that functionally does exactly what you would want the circuit to use, but it just don't like the sound of it. How do you sell that on a bill of materials cost when someone looks at and be like, I could cut $5 off of this product right now?
Yeah, we don't. And you're right. There are certain things like that that you consider. And certainly in audio, there's, there's considerations that go beyond just mere functionality. And most of those things you can if you've been doing it long enough, you can actually start to put your thumb on why something that cost three times as much is so much better. Fortunately, here at Seymour Duncan, the accounting folks, they don't dig too far, deep into the bill of materials and start criticizing. Why did you pick this transistor? Why did you pick this resistor? They they kind of know better than to do that because That's where the realm of expertise of the engineer can really take over. And, and we're not going to put anything on there that cost three times as much without a good reason. And there is that level of trust in this company, where if I say, you know, I know this part's more expensive, but it really is the key to the sound here, this is a big driver, and why this thing sounds so good, why it's so popular, why every beta tester that tries it loves it. And I can probably come up with a technical explanation that would make their eyes roll back in their heads. And so, in general, that kind of challenge doesn't come up here, we take the challenge on ourselves as engineers to go, Is it really necessary to have this thing that costs three times as much is there another way to do this, can we find another part that performs just as well, but costs more in line with a typical transistor or typical op amp, we, we stay on top of all the latest developing semiconductors out there, I, I spend a certain amount of my time every day just looking at all the new stuff that comes up, there's tremendous development that's going on out there. And most of it's for, you know, cell phones, and for, you know, smart speakers and smart TVs and all this high technology that's being developed. But there's a lot of that technology can be applied to what we're doing. And so I'm, I keep my eye on this stuff all the time. And you think, Well, I can use that same circuit that I use two years ago for this power supply. Here, it was good power supply design, then. But now if you go out and look around just a little bit, you can probably find components that you can do a better power supply that takes up less space on the circuit board and costs half as much. So I try not to get too hung up in really expensive parts, I tried to look for other ways to accomplish the same thing. Not saying that you can always find one sometimes, you know, that expensive purchase the only way and it's really worth it. But But I don't take that as my first answer I really dig in. And that's what I drive the other engineers in the department we are always bent balancing the cost benefit ratio of just about everything that we do. Because we know that we're challenged to produce a competitive price, and still have an excellent product at it. But if you hit the wrong price point, you can totally kill a product out there. You might have the best distortion box it ever was produced. But you're trying to sell it for $450. Most guys are going sorry, that's what I pay for a hole amplifier and a guitar. I'm not going to buy a distortion box for that kind of money. I don't care if the things gold plated inside and out and it makes coffee for me, I'm not going to do it.
You can have the best best sliced fuzz pedal since you know, whatever. And just yeah, the price has been out of the range.
Yeah, I mean, we're still trying to make some money out of this whole thing. It has to be within the price realm that people are comfortable and paying. And you can always find a couple guys that will spend that four or $500 for for something like a fuzz box or distortion pedal or, you know something pedestrian like that. But the majority of guys aren't even going to give it a second look, they're gonna see the price and go Forget it more money than I can afford. Fuzz fuzz, though. Yeah, that's right. There's some great fuzz boxes that are under $20. So you know, you got to look at who your competition is and what the average price points are. And you find your place in the market and you go okay, this is the place that we want to occupy, we think that we can get some attention in this price point. And with this feature set and this is this is our place in the market.
When I think you said it earlier the there's a ton of competition in were in the area that you're playing in. And in the competition really does set the price point. Like if for example, if someone were to just come up and ask me like what is the general price for an effects pedal, regardless of what the effects pedal is, I probably have an idea in my mind of what an effects pedal costs. So you already have in general a target to shoot for before we even have the idea, right? All right, pretty
much dependent on the category that we're in. So for producing high featured, you know, digital delay or something like that something with a lot of advanced feature sets and a lot of programmability and a lot of, you know user customizable features, then we will have a particular price point for that based on who we're competing with. You know, if we're going up against Strymon or somebody like that, we're going to be looking really good closely at their products in that in that category and what they're charging for them, and what kind of features and what performance, we're going to be looking at their noise performance, everything about it, you know, we're going to make sure that we are competitive on every single important feature. And if we can meet or exceed everything that they're doing, we're going to do it. If we can't, then we'll probably just go, well, sorry, we need a different price point, or we're going for something else. So we really need to feel like we can meet or exceed what anybody's doing out there with what we're offering. The next challenge is convincing the customer that we've met or exceeded all the competition, that's, that's a big challenge.
That's actually what I was about to bring up is, how does designing these kind of, you know, it's sound and the feel and that kind of stuff? How do you work with marketing as an engineer on that kind of stuff,
you know, we, we do a number of things. For one, as we're developing the product, there's guys in the marketing department that are all player. So we're working with them to develop the sound to figure out what feature sets you should have how all the knobs should work, you know, the look and the feel of the product, we're working pretty closely with those guys, we don't really develop this stuff in a vacuum at all, we're engineers and, and we're really here to make the best possible product, but we aren't necessarily going to make all the decisions on what features, what shape knobs, what color, the things should have, how the graphics look what fonts are used. And so we're working closely with those guys to, to, to really put the whole package together. And and sonically we're working with them every day to fine tune the sound, how all the controls feel, what the range of the controls are, there's hundreds of details that we work with them. So by the time we're finished with the product, we're all pretty well in agreement of this is about as good as it can possibly be. And we're all loving this thing right now, if we're getting good feedback from our beta testers, positive feedback, and, and we've maybe oftentimes, we roll in features that are suggested by our beta tester. So by the time we've finished with the product, we've really broadened our spectrum of opinion givers out to where we've got quite a, you know, we've we've incorporated feedback from a wide variety of people. So selling it to those guys, it really is not hard, because they've been participants in the process for the whole time.
How early do you bring the beta testers in to the design process?
You know, we, we have two phases, actually, we have an alpha test phase, where there's primarily in house and maybe some local guys, and we try to get that into that phase as quickly as possible. I have a couple different ways that I do these things. But generally speaking, I try to get down to a complete schematic and a circuit board design as quickly as I can. And I really want to package the thing up the way it's going to be packaged in the end product. So I try to get to that stage. You know, it usually takes once you've all agreed on the features. And we do what's called a PRD product requirements document where we draw up a list of all the requirements, all the features, panel layouts, or proposed panel layouts. So that might take a couple of weeks to get that that together where we're all agreeing, here's the cool features, here's how many knobs it should have, here's how they should all behave. Here's the market that we're going for, here's the competition. So that might take two to three weeks to get that pulled together. And then from that point, we'll start paper design or you know, schematics, and it may take us several more weeks to get schematics two to three. And at that point, I'd like to jump into circuit board layout as quickly as I can. And that's where macro fab rolls into this process because we we usually ship this design off to macro fab and, and another three weeks typically we've got our prototype boards. In the meantime, I might have ordered prototype chassis is or if it's a chassis we already use, we've got our machinists, drilling, drilling and drilling holes in the chassis and we put, you know, labels on that we make ourselves and we build Alpha unit, and we get the guys in house to really start listening to it as quickly as possible, like within the first two to three months. I want to be doing some listening. Sometimes we build the whole thing up on a little proto board, you know, where you poke all the components in and run wires and stuff and we've done big projects that way in the past where we have, we call them trays or like cafeteria trays in will have just protoboard spread all over the cafeteria tray. And there's wires going everywhere. And there's parts everywhere. And it's a complete mess. And we've worked with that type of system for sometimes months. And that's where your daily at like 456 hours every day with members of the sales department in the marketing department doing listening, test, tweaking, listening and tweaking. But if we can get into the alpha test phase quickly, like within the first couple months, and then we feel like we've kind of exhausted that avenues of change there. Then we move into beta test where we do the next revision of circuit boards incorporate all the changes, maybe the circuit topology changes that we've been through different controls, different panel layout, possibly. And then we build beta units, and we send those out, we have, you know, a whole
retinue of, of guys at professional level. And musicians that we've worked with, sometimes we have our favorite dealers that are really pedal enthusiasts that we send it to, we also work with some of our major distributors where they have, you know, guys that are players that work for them that are really professional musicians that happen to orchestrate job. And we send beta units to them to get their feedback. And that may take a couple more months, two to three more months, sometimes longer if you want to incorporate feedback from a lot of beta testers. And then we compile all those results, we have a standard beta test form, we try to get these guys to fill that out a lot of times, we end up calling them up on the phone, and we fill it out while they kind of rattle off their feedback. And their experience. Yeah, yeah. And so then we kind of roll that all in, and, and if necessary, we might do a second round of beta tests, we'll modify the beta units, get them back from the testers, modify him, send them back and go, Hey, did we hit what you're what you're what you were talking about, when you gave us your feedback? Do you think we hit it? Is this satisfy you now? Are you feeling good about this thing? Or do you need? Do you feel like we're missing the mark somehow. So hopefully, we don't have to go through that process too many times. And then we tie up the design, we do a final cost analysis, back working with the accountants and the, you know, the money people again, and we have to make a final case for why we should be doing this, here's our cost model, here's our gross margin, here's, you know, all the risk factors. Here's why we think this is a good product and why we should be doing it and, and if we get approval at that point, then we go into the production phase where we contracts, you know, contact our contract manufacturer, somebody like macro fab and pass on all of our Bill of Materials and our gerber files and all the other documentation that's necessary to start the production cycle. And from there, we might go into like a first article, where we order 25 pieces, and we bring them in, we do a first production run, this will be the where we roll in the people for manufacturing, and they get to get their hands on things. And we do a small production run, evaluate how smoothly it gets through production, making sure that it's passing all of our, our test. You know, while we're doing a lot of this other stuff that I've described, we will be writing a, you know, automated test routine, we typically use Audio Precision gear to automate it out to do automated testing. And we want to be able to test things in three minutes or less. That's the goal. Not always possible. But in general, that's the goal. That's kind of our budget for testing. You know, how much we can spend on testing. So we evaluate all those things, how smoothly it gets through test, how smoothly does it get through production? Is there some thing that we need to change in order to make the production go a little bit smoother was something really difficult, they struggled with it, we go out there and watch while they're assembling things. So the engineers well, two or three engineers out there on the line, I'll be out there, watching the assemblers go through this stuff and going oh, man, they had a hard time getting that footswitch and there we better do something about that, you know, we can't spend 10 minutes putting a footswitch in every time. So I mean, it's it's like a process from from start to finish. You know, there's a lot of attention to detail that goes into making something it's not just designing and whacking out a prototype and then going in and building in your garage garage or something. There's more to it than that.
Yeah, yeah. Speak. Speaking attention detail. So back when you first start your prototype pin design phase is there has there ever been like a design where you did it on proto boards, and then you built a board and it sounded different, like because of the parasitic inductance and resistance of the breadboards. And you had to like, incorporate that into your audio design,
we've thing, and we check that kind of stuff pretty carefully, because that is definitely a possibility that usually what it is, it's the other way around. When you package everything up really small, there's parasitics that enter into the equation from everything being so close together. And we've had issues where we have oscillation, and circuit instability that we have to work out, you know, we have to find ways to stabilize the circuit as we shrunk it down. A lot of times when it's spread out all over a cafeteria tray, it's pretty stable, unless you've done something really bad, you know. And then I guess in a way, it can be subject to noise and things. So a lot of times, we'll expect our cafeteria trade designs to be somewhat noisy, because there's so much open circuitry, and there's wires running all over the place. So that's the problem at the cafeteria tray stage, when you get it down to circuit board level, the problem becomes parasitics, like you were talking about, okay, then we have to figure out how to get around that. And in cases where we have what we know is going to be a sensitive circuit with a lot of signal density and a lot of routing. And, you know, we will go to multi layer boards. So we'll, we'll go to maybe a four layer board. And we'll have some plain ground plane layers, and we'll route sensitive signal in between planes, it's almost like having shielded cables. So there's tricks like that, that we use, when we know that we're going to have a problem. Other times it's a matter of stabilizing the circuit, correcting some routing errors that we made, or adding some stabilizing capacitance selectively in the circuit to keep something from oscillating to flatten out the you know, the phase response so that you don't, you know, get yourself into an unstable situation.
So I'm curious, Has it ever happened where you, you get down the line on a on a project, and just nobody's liking it? And you just say, Okay, no, this, this is not what we want to do.
Yeah, sometimes, you know, you pursue something and, and it sounded good on paper. And, you know, you go, like, this is a great concept, we should be able to make this work. And you keep after it, and you keep after it, and you keep after you keep, you know, trying little variations on the theme. And I try just altering the design a little bit. And you go through your in house testers, generally those types of designs that you're describing, they don't get beyond our in house testing, where we've listened to it. And, and I and I, you know, it's usually me, I'm like, I think I can do something about this. So I go back, and I try things, and I tweak it, and we put it in front of the sound testers here. And now No, it's not quite there, you know, it's, it's not sounding right. And I go, Well, I think I can do it. And I go back and I tweak it some more, and I try some more things. And, you know, finally, at some point after like four or five rounds of that, of like altering the design, fine tuning it, trying something different. Finally go, you know, I just don't think that this approach is going to make it. So you either abandon the whole design, which is pretty rare. Usually, there's always something about a design that can be salvaged. But sometimes you have to go back and rip up significant portions of a design, and just rethink it, just do it differently. And, you know, like I said, it sounded good on paper, the concept was good. But when you get down to the listening, it's like, Nope, sorry, this is just not making it. It's not what we thought it was going to be. And then you just chalk it up to experience and, and try to find the best way to recover and salvage what you can. And the rest of you just toss it off in the trash and start over again.
So I got a question about part selection. So is there is as you you, as an engineer, and also as a production manager. I'm going to guess that you really like surface mount components.
Yeah, we in order to package the amount of features into the size of package that people are expecting these days. We feel like you have to use surface mount components. So we do we use them extensively.
Yeah, so yeah, that's one of those things. It's where you look at a lot of like the hobbyist audio stuff, they're really big into through hole components. Right, right. Is that Is there any pushback or flux seen on on that on that
front? I think there's some opinions out there that says, and not a lot but you know, you have your your gear snobs that believe that through hole parts are better. But I don't, that's what I'm getting at. I don't think there's any technical basis for that. And certainly, when you're working with through holes, or with surface mount parts, you do have to be selective in what you're picking, you can't just grab any old part, same thing with through hole parts, so, but we're pretty picky about what manufacturers we use, we only have a limited number of manufacturers whose resistors that we'll use, we find that the quality on some of the other manufacturers is poor. From a reliability standpoint, mostly, we're also selective on what type of capacitors we use certain types of, well, any you know, ceramic capacitors, a certain dielectrics are microphonic. So you want to be careful how you use so she don't put those types of dielectrics in your input stage, you're going to have, it's going to be highly sensitive to like when you click a footswitch, or somebody touches the panel, you're going to be picking up all kinds of microphones. And in some cases, they may actually squawk and squeal and make weird noises. So you want to definitely avoid that kind of stuff. So you have to be selective, you have to know what parts you're picking, we stick with certain major manufacturers, we don't go with all the really cheap, offshore. I mean, let me back up most surface mount most components through hole or surface mount are all made offshore. But there's some like no name brands made in China and some other offshore factories that are really poor quality. The majority of them are really good. They're they're good quality components. But there are definitely certain manufacturers like what I call second tier or third tier manufacturers that you want to avoid. And, and we just we just rule those guys out. We have our favorite capacitor manufacturers, we have just a couple of resistor manufacturers that we use. We're pretty picky on what potentiometers we use, we don't use surface mount pots. We don't use surface mount connectors, we feel like there's a mechanical integrity that comes with the through hole mounting on certain parts. So we insist certain parts are through hole just for for mechanical reliability and mechanical integrity. So
so go. So going back on the capacitors, you're talking about using ceramic capacitors, you're talking about using class one dielectrics, which is c zero G's basically, right, right. Class Two are like x seven R and down, which are microphonic.
Right X seven RS will be microphonic. They're they're not a bad capacitor other than the microphonics. But they aren't as stable over voltage and temperature. Things like Wi Fi views and x five Rs, those things are terrible, we never touch those are so unstable over voltage as your AC is you know your signal is going up and down. The capacitance is changing. So they're very sensitive.
That's actually that's actually one thing I haven't thought about is because we talked about DC bias on ceramic capacitors a lot, which is, you know, as you ramp up the voltage on a class two capacitor dielectric, the capacitance goes down. I've actually never thought about being used in a signal path, what you're explaining like an audio where your signal is an AC signal, thus, the voltage is changing all the time and your capacitance will completely wildly change.
Yeah, it will and you're introducing tremendous distortion, and probably not the good kind of distortion into your signal.
It's up to the listener. Yeah,
but But it's, it's, it's a weird, it's a weird distortion. If you look at it on the scope, or you listen to it, it's it's a weird distortion. It's not like creating this nice tube, low order harmonic distortion or anything like that. It's a totally bizarre thing that varies with signal level. And to me, that's not something that's under my control, and it will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. So in the key areas, we always use the MPOs and the CO GS or the c zero GS, for the most important signal path. Sometimes if we need a large capacitor, and it's not near the input stage, or in a place where it's going to be subject to microphonics we'll use an X seven or we never go lower than x seven Rs. And in cases where we really need a large capacitor, we'll use a non polarized electrolytic or something which are actually really nice capacitors. They're there they have, you know, great audio property. So we you know, we try to stay on top of that kind of stuff and and when You stay away from certain types of surface mount parts.
Do you ever use a surface mount film capacitors?
Yeah, we've tried them, you know, the and I'd love to use them. But nobody is making one that will withstand reflow temperatures with RoHS compliant solders. That's the big problem if you're using regular lead based solder, which you aren't going to be able to use anywhere much longer. But now if you sell into Europe at all can't use lead based solder is you have to use RoHS compliant, they all require higher reflow temperatures, the the film's surface mount films all peel the layers peel, and they develop cracks. And we had experience with this product that we made. years ago, it was a graphic or parametric equalizer for acoustic guitars. And we had all surface mount films in there. And this was just at the transition over to RoHS compliant requirements. So we weren't all that familiar with what kind of pitfalls there were at that point. So we get our first run production run in and we're checking these things out mapping, the, you know, graphing the response in the queue was all over the map. And the frequency range of the parametric was all over the map and like oh, my God, what's going on, we have this thing working perfectly in the lab. So we we dug in a little bit, and we look at the board under a microscope, and we notice all the peeling of the film caps. And we see that they are all developed cracks in the layers of dielectric. And when they when they were cleaning the boards it was absorbing cleaning solution inside the capacitor totally changing the capacitance, totally changing the queue. And the dissipation factor the cap, it just ruined the circuit, we had to make a quick change and dump that whole first production run and move over to c zero GS at that point. So that was our first big lesson there.
It's actually funny as at McAfee, we did like a I did like a video series and obviously a blog series on some audio DAX with with doing a bill material analysis on how it sounded. And the the one of the building tools use surface mount film caps, and one UCS zero Gs, and people liked the c zero GS and we actually never went deeper on why people were like that, but and that might be why was is the film caps actually, you know, became damaged or whatever in reflow. Because typical, you know, people say film caps sound better. But in that situation, we found that the CEO G's just were better sounding.
Yeah, they're actually excellent capacitors, the Cgo G's in spite of the fact that they're still a ceramic, they're an excellent capacitor, they're very stable over temperature and voltage. And they're just really, they're good quality part. And I mean, to me, that's more important than whether you define it as audio approved or not, it's a it's a good quality part and, and it has we've done measurements, and where we took through whole film caps, and we compared it to Cesar Geez. And we found in terms of measurable distortion and noise and everything, the two things were really almost identical. And listening tests as well, we did listening tests, and we and this is compared to through whole film. So we granted we weren't using the most expensive Solan caps or some fancy, you know, $4 capacitor cap, that's not the kind of stuff that we can afford to put in our product. Nor do we have the space for anything that large, but we were using good quality polyester and films. And so they're considered a decent, a decent film. They may not be the very highest, but they are definitely high up in the in the film category.
So another quick question is actually going on the topic of trust between the engineering team, the marketing team and the sales team? Well, I guess there's more teams above and beyond that at Seymour Duncan. But what what I'm getting at with this is what happens if the team start to butt heads? What if one says this is the greatest thing ever and one is like this is the worst ever. How do you rectify those kinds of situations?
Well, you know, I guess it would depend on what was being said and what was being argued about. I think ultimately, now it depends if it It's a technical issue. And I'm feeling strongly from a reliability standpoint or something like that, like we had, we had some issues, I'll just give you an example. We were working on a power amplifiers of fairly, you know, 700 watts per channel. So it's, it's a pretty beefy Power App. And the, the CRO, which our chief revenue officer was arguing, like, I don't like fans, I don't like how much noise they make, if somebody is using this in the studio, they're gonna hate having a fan. And I'm arguing from a technical point of view, this thing is producing 700 watts per channel, he is going to be a major issue, you can't not have a fan in this amplifier, you're going to be taking the things back, people are going to be pissed, they're going to be burning their fingers, everything, you know, there's going to be just problems. We were definitely butting heads on the issue. So you know, and I finally just put my foot down said, we're going to have a fan, whether you like it or not, but here's what I think we can do. I'll, I'll we'll design, we'll design a temperature sensing circuit that ramps the fan speed up and down as required. So if you're in the studio, and you're cruising along at 15 watts out and you're just, you know, not creating a lot of heat, then the fans not going to come on. If you're in a situation in a Hot Club in Atlanta in the summertime and somebody throws a jacket on top of the amplifier, that fan is coming on, and it probably will turn on pretty fast, and it's going to go full speed. So that that was how we solve that particular problem was, you know, drawing a line saying reliability is more important than anything sorry, you don't get your way on this. But here's a compromise position that I think will work for both of us. So you try to figure out some kind of win win solution. Ultimately, you have to take your customer into consideration and go, What, what's the most important thing to the customer? Is it a little bit of fan noise? Or is it something that stops in the middle of the gig? I mean, you can't have that? Well?
Well, the thing is, I'm going to assume once you're running 700 Watts through this amplifier, you're not going to be here the fan?
No, that's the point. That was one of the points. Yeah, you know, nobody's going to hear the fan. When you're when you're up there, those kinds of playing levels, you're not going to hear anything except for what's coming out of the speaker. So it's sometimes you know, things can get a little unreasonable people get unreasonable in their position. And they get stubborn, and they, you know, they won't let go of it. But, you know, then it's like a challenge. Okay, what do I need to do to break through this person's stubbornness, or their unreasonable bility and propose something that's acceptable to them, and is still going to meet my technical requirements for reliability, sound quality, or whatever else noise level, you know, we were very picky about noise, we pride ourselves in knowing the how to design low noise circuitry. And that's really one of the things that we think we bring to the music industry is a higher awareness of how to design low noise product and what low noise really means, you know, how does that translate?
This question that Steven, I actually really like it is how much is too much input on creative design. So you say you have a lot of people in your sales and marketing department that are awesome musicians, let's say you design a pedal that is for a certain kind of musician. And so like, you know, half your sales team doesn't like it, and the other half really likes it. Do you? Do you actually accept the feedback? Or the people who like a polarizing product? I guess?
Yeah, yeah, that can be a problem. And too much creative input can definitely be overwhelming in it. You know, it's like designed by committee problem. So we try to again, keep in mind who the customer is, what the customer is going to want. And then we make sure that the beta testers that we have, so we're designing a distortion pedal, and it's primarily voiced for a certain type of metal, then we make sure that we get beta testers that play within that genre, and that we're getting feedback from the guys that we're targeting. And if we have a bunch of guys in house that just say, you know, I don't really like that, but I don't play that style of music. And most of the people here I'd say all the people at this point are reasonable enough to go not my style, but it seems to be really popular with our target customer. So I'll I'm not going to insist that you voice it the way I think it should be voice I'm going to defer to the customer. That's that's really the easiest way to solve those kind of arguments is still okay, let's just find out what the customer wants and and then you have to be ready to you know, go with that. So that might mean getting off of your position to
you Exactly might be worse. Yeah.
I mean, sometimes you lose on these things you never know. But in general, I think you can't go too wrong and making sure that you're satisfying your customer. They're the guys who are paying the money, are the ones that are spending it,
actually. So that sort of brings up another kind of question on that. So so if you were it say, say, say, everyone likes something that you were, you didn't, but everyone said, Hey, let's go for this, you then kind of have to get passionate about something that you're not necessarily into. And that can lead to some troubles. Right? And can make it a lot more difficult for you
not not really, you know, I mean, ultimately, I'm there to, to realize the design, and I don't have to be the guy that conceives of every detail, I will defer to somebody that's an expert in the particular field that we're going for. If I feel like I'm the expert, then yeah, that might lead to some trouble. But in general, I don't, I don't feel like I'm an expert in all these fields. I, I think that, you know, there's people that are specialists, I mean, this is a, we're in the age of specialization. Now. I mean, try to go to a general practitioner, doctor, everybody's a specialist. So there's no way that you can possibly be an expert in everything. So I'll defer. But then my challenge is to try to get the best possible understanding of what they're talking about. So I can convert that into, you know, circuit design and, and component choices and, and, you know, performance in a way that will satisfy their requirements and the bulk of the people in that market segment. So I don't I don't get too personal about it really, or I try not to take it too personally. doesn't do me any good.
Probably doesn't do anyone else good. No, no, no, it's
never does. All that does is create office politics. Like yeah,
once we try to avoid I mean, I think we have right now really good crew. We haven't always in the history of Seymour Duncan, there's, there has been internal conflicts and a little bit of office politics, we're still a relatively small company. But right now we have a great crew of people. And everybody's kind of really rowing in the same direction. And I feel pretty enthusiastic about the, you know, the team that we have right now. So those kinds of problems don't tend to come up these days. I mean, it could at any point in time you get the wrong person working here. And once the balance of the universe is upset, but right now, it's pretty good.
Been there? For sure. Yeah.
That's all I'm gonna say about that one. So, Kevin, let's see. Do you have any other questions?
Just one more quick one, actually, because I'm just curious about your particular process. If you were to just put, I guess, like a percentage or a number on it. When When approaching a design and actually physically working with physical components, how much do you think that you do rigid design as in like, I've calculated this component, I'm putting this component here, versus I'm just going to put this component here and see what it does.
I'm pretty much a calculated sort of guy. I mean, I'm not beyond we do a lot of experimentation. And, you know, maybe you have an idea, like, I really want to try this particular app app and see how it performs or I want to, so we try a lot of things. It's there's a lot of experimentation that goes on. So I mean, while I might calculate a lot of the actual component values, I don't feel like I have preconceived notions of what's always going to be the best thing to do or best part to use. Like I said earlier, the electronics industry is evolving really rapidly, there's lots of development going on, what might have been a favorite op amp, you know, 30 years ago for the first, you know, 808, or whatever, is now completely obsolete by all the great development that's happening at Texas Instruments or Analog Devices, or those guys are doing audio research all the time. And they're coming up with great stuff all the time. So I really feel like I don't have cut and dried ways of doing things. When it comes to component values. There's a lot of calculating you can do, especially if you're trying to do low noise design. So I have rules of thumb that I apply all the time to. Let's say the range of component values that I work from, I try to avoid certain ranges. Maybe I tried to avoid really high circuit impedances unless I'm working with tubes or something then then you know, you're just stuck with it. But in general, you know, in order to have Low Noise circuitry, you have to avoid high impedance. And so that kind of restricts you to a certain group of component values. But, but beyond that, you know, it really gets down to fine tuning and listening and seeing what performs the best, you know, in a listening test.
So, if Stephen doesn't have any other questions,
right? Yeah, I think I think I'm good. We need to get better at ending these podcasts. No, I'm sorry. I thought you had something to say there. Nope. All right.
So Kevin, if you want to sign us out?
Well, actually real quick. Where? Where can people find out more about Seymour Duncan?
Well, the best way is to go to our website, Seymour duncan.com. And you can pretty much find out everything you would possibly want to know. If there's remaining questions you would call us at 805-964-9610 and speak to anyone in sales or technical support, they can answer your questions personally, we all they're all musicians, they understand the kinds of things that you might be going through and they are all very personable. So they can they can definitely help you solve problems that you might incur in the course of your you know, your daily effort of being a rock star.
Oh, great. Would you like to sign this? Okay. Yeah,
yeah, so that was the macro fab engineering podcast. I was your guest, Kevin Balor.
And we are your host, Parker, Dolman. And Steven
Greg. Be a rockstar today. Take it easy
Thank you. Yes, you our listener for downloading our show if you have a cool idea, project or topic. Let Stephen and I know tweet this at Mac rep at Longhorn engineer or at analog E and G that is Stephens handle, or email us at podcast at Mac fed.com. Also check out our Slack channel. If you're not subscribed to the podcast yet, click that subscribe button. That way you get the latest episode right when it releases and please review us wherever you listen as helps the show stay visible and helps new listeners find us. And a quick announcement before you leave this podcast for tonight. Key con 2019 is a user conference for popular open source CAD software KiCad happening April 26 and 27th 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. This is the first and largest gathering of hardware developers using KitKat talks at the conference will span hardware design, revision control, scripting, manufacturing considerations and proper library management and getting started developing the underlying tools. All the announced talks have been listed on the conference site, which is in the show notes. And last I checked Chris Gamble is going and there's not a lot of tickets left. I think it's like 10 tickets left so you better get your tickets now if you're going to go later, everyone and be a rock star today.
Stephen finally gets a license for the Eagle EDA Tool but not for the reasons you would expect! Also, sheet metal design and IoT device security!