For the first installment in our series we visited a very traditional company - one that follows the basic model that defined industrialism for almost 200 years. This time we visit Death By Audio, a manufacturing company born in the post-industrial, "information" age. Like many of the younger companies we'll be featuring, Death By Audio (DBA) has created a hybrid system. Unlike most contemporary companies that design in one place (US and Europe) and manufacture in another (Asia), DBA designs and assembles in one location with components made in-house of outsourced parts. This cuts down on the cash needed to get production rolling. Freed from the requirements of capital, DBA and companies like them are creating exciting new products that are revitalizing musical instrument manufacturing from the ground up.
Death By Audio was started by Oliver Ackerman in 2001 while he was living in a communal loft in Virginia. The first run of his first pedal, called Total Sonic Annihilation (still in production), sold out and he was off. He relocated to Brooklyn in 2002 or so - details are a little fuzzy. After a stint in pre-hipster Bushwick, he found the space on South 2nd in Williamsburg that is now known as Death By Audio. Pleantiful, cheap, post-industrial space and a laid-back landlord provided fertile ground for creative youth and Oliver's pedal making put down roots. The first pedals were very DIY but they looked cool, had great names and above all they sounded amazing. Companies driven by profit must constantly increase their market and in the process usually decide they need to water down their product to do so. Born of a artistic environment, DBA came from the opposite end of the spectrum: they'd make it the way they'd want, which is to say as loud, nasty and f*#%ed-up sounding as possible. If anyone bought them, cool. Needless to say, people did buy them. Death By Audio has enjoyed constant growth ever since, with over 40 stores carrying them in the US and robust sales in Europe and Japan.
Main Drag has been selling Death By Audio pedals from the time Oliver moved to Williamsburg but, except for stumbling around their space while partying at 4AM, I had never visited their production facility before today. I found it inspiring. In less than 500 square feet (yes, 500), they are designing, building, selling and shipping an astonishing amount of pedals. All this and there is still enough room for several people to stand around without feeling claustrophobic. Every inch is used efficiently with custom-made cabinetry - even the shelf that holds shipping materials does double duty as a drying rack for their silk-screened boxes! Because creativity was clearly the driver, you feel like you're in the studio of a really together artist and not a factory. As principal Matt Conboy put it, "We weren't concerned with efficiency, we just created a place we'd want to work in."
Death By Audio has their boards printed in Oregon but they are stuffed in-house. During my visit Shannon was busy working on a run; trimmed wire leads from resistors and capacitors lay around her feet so thick they looked like metallic fleece. The enclosures are painted in an ingenious spray booth that takes up only a few square feet. Parts and materials cover every other available bit of wall space. I asked if parts availability was ever an issue and Oliver said yes - they are extremely important as the pedals are designed around the sound of particular parts, but those parts are often discontinued with substitutions having very different sonic characteristics. After years of having to redesign or discontinue pedals based solely on parts availability, DBA has now grown to the point where they can order runs of custom parts. Obviously, this opens the doors of creativity that much wider and it will be exciting to see what they develop with their new freedom.
One new avenue Death By Audio is pursuing is a line of limited edition pedals designed with and for players whose music they like. Currently they're building a sold-out run of 100 Ty Segall Sunshine Reverb pedals and based on its success you can be sure more artists will follow...although you might want to pre-order the next one...I know we will.