What a long, strange trip it's been...
Welcome to kittycasterFX! The fact that you are on this screen and reading this is quite a milestone for us. We've been dreaming and planning and working and working and refining and working to get this airplane off the ground for over two years now. Now that we've achieved takeoff, feel free to unfasten your seatbelt and have a look around. But keep your mask on though! I've been saying, it's hard enough to start a business from scratch much less start a business from scratch during a global pandemic! And the two years before that weren't exactly so fun for us either, but that's another story, for another day...
The kittycasterFX core team was formed by four of us that used to work together making pedals in a past life. We knew we wanted to work together again. We had ideas of how we wanted to do things and we were anxious to get started. We were finally able to begin working in earnest during the autumn of 2019. We had already secured a space for the workshop. Jean and Steve “Ham” were in charge of getting it ready to go - floors, painting, furniture, equipment, tools, racks, and... succulents. Scott, meanwhile, was in charge of all the business-y things like finding accountants, selecting financial software, starting the bank account, necessary things like that.
While everyone was building out the infrastructure I set out to develop the vision for the products. I already had a few ideas for new pedals going and honed in on two to really dial in for our initial offering. I'm not motivated by market research or making my version of the latest hip pedal. I just follow my own muse and create what I personally want to use. One thing I really wanted to do was to finally come up with a fuzz design that would not have all the problems common with fuzzes. Another thing I really wanted to do was come up with an end-of-pedal-chain preamp that could work as the master fader for the pedalboard but also would have the ability to do modulate in the tradition of the "harmonic tremolo". Both of these pedal ideas would also be explorations in designing around higher voltages than the standard 9-volt operation most pedals have. I had this big, majestic guitar sound in my head - one where the harmonics are perfectly aligned and everything was super dynamic and touch-sensitive. I envisioned pedals that made the guitar and amp sound bigger and played with that sense of having a bigger lung capacity - a sound and response that breathed.
Oh, but I also had this wild haired idea to design a custom pedal enclosure. I was bored with the standard enclosures that everyone uses. Plus, after working with them for years I found too many limitations and problems with those standard Hammond-style pedal boxes. OK, so I'll design a pedal enclosure! But wait. How the hell do I do that? I've never designed such a thing before. Where do I start? I can't even sketch worth a damn. I had a vague idea in my head of what it might look like. I could figure out how to sketch it on paper good enough to get someone else to actually fabricate it. But how will we iterate through revisions and prototypes? I almost abandoned the idea. It was just too big of a task for a stoner guitar player like me. Then I remembered my good friend Bryan had taken a CAD course and he learned how to use a 3D printer. So I thought, "Maybe I'll get a 3D printer for Bryan to use and he can try to translate my crude sketches into something." I ordered a 3D printer, a Prusa MK3S, that Bryan said should be a good one for the price. I looked it up and saw that I could save $250 by getting the kit. I figured it would be no more difficult to put together than an IKEA thingy. Well, the kit arrived and I opened the box and shuddered in horror. All these tiny pieces and motors and wires and gears. This was several orders of magnitude beyond the last IKEA shelf I put together. Uggh! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. My goal was to get it built and then bring it over to Bryan's house since I had no idea how to run it. After a full week of building I finally installed the last piece. OK, tomorrow I'll wake up and do the power up test. It'll probably not work and I'll throw it in the dumpster. The next day I made coffee and went over to the 3D machine. "OK, Imma gonna hit that power button and see what happens...." ErrrrrrEeeeeEoooo.... "STATUS: READY." Whoa! It freakin' works! I followed the directions to make a test print and it worked perfectly. Long story short, I started diving in and slowly started to learn how to make my own 3D models...
Meanwhile, the crew were busy working on the shop. One day Steve said, "Hey so we're going to paint the walls in the company colors." Now, we'd never talked about company colors before. I replied, "Well, the company colors are purple and green, right?" And Steve was like, "Yup." That was when I knew there was some kind of synchronicity going on. We had never talked about it but we both knew the company colors would be purple and green. Crazy. I contacted our visual director, Weird Beard. He'd worked with us before and he was going to do all of our graphics. I was stoked that he would be involved. "Hey yo! So our official colors are gonna be purple n green! Pick the shades for us and come up with our logos!" And he bounced back, "On it!"
During all of this, I had been posting guitar clips on Instagram. I tried to keep doing that to stay connected with everyone out there but mostly to preserve my sanity. Gotta try to play the guitar a little every day! The clips also became a way to test my latest breadboard revisions on an unsuspecting audience. I may be the only pedal designer that's live-demo'd my development process haha.
The shop was coming along, my breadboards were coming along, the 3D printer was a new creative tool and I was prototyping enclosure shapes. And then it hit. Boom! COVID-19. I first realized it was really a thing when I went to the store and saw that the toilet paper aisle was completely bare. No TP. As we've all experienced, life suddenly got very surreal. In some ways, it didn't affect me though since I was mostly working from home on everything anyway. But it did slow down our collective ability to keep things moving forward at the rate we wanted.
The 3D printer had become my MVP. I don't know now how I would've been able to come up with the enclosure without it. I did countless prototypes - almost daily I'd be printing one or more versions of the enclosure idea. One of the biggest challenges was designing where all the controls, switches, and jacks went. And I had to think about the internal design as well. And I didn't want a sloppy internal design. I've built enough pedals the conventional way to know what a PITA they are to build and work on. I wanted to come up with an internal design that was elegant and functional. Oh wait, now the printed circuit boards. I hadn't done a PCB layout in years. "Hey Bryan! What PCB layout tool ya usin'?" So I downloaded the one he recommended and set out to learn that tool as well. My brain was about to explode from all this new shit I've been learnin'. Now I was making prototype circuit boards and getting the fit just right to go into the new enclosure. I've got several prototypes of pedals made from plastic 3D printed enclosures. But the whole package - the enclosure, the circuit board, the hardware - I wanted the whole thing to be totally cohesive. Form follows function. I'm mostly influenced by guitarists. Like you probably were, I also wanted to be Hendrix or Page or Eddie. But I also admired the work of Leo Fender. The Stratocaster was probably the most perfect example of form meets function we've seen in the guitar world. Everything in the design of that guitar was borne out of functional requirements, but the form of it, the expression of it, was sexy as hell. Now, that's what I call design! That's what I was going for with the enclosure. Something that made complete sense from a functional standpoint but that was also super cool looking.
After I got the dimensions and the hole locations dialed in with my 3D printed prototypes, I called Bryan once again. "Dude, I think I've got it. Can I send you the deets and have you render that using the bent metal CAD tool you learned how to use in class?" See, I was using a simple CAD tool, TinkerCAD. It was easy to learn and great for prototyping but in order to create a spec that could be sent to a metal fab a more robust app had to be used. Bryan did the rendering and sent me files which I tested by 3D printing them. We refined the design further by going back and forth until I felt the design was ready for the next step - metal fabrication. We had gotten a recommendation for a good company to do this sort of work. What I wanted was a two-piece bent aluminum enclosure, made from 2.5mm sheet aluminum. I sent off the files to the company and getting the first actual metal prototypes was pretty exciting. "Whoa! I designed a metal object!" Of course, that process required a few iterations to get everything dialed in.
It took a while to get the whole build - enclosure, PCB, hardware, wiring - dialed in. But what I was trying to do was create a form factor that I could then design any pedal I wanted to into. Once we had the design and the build procedure down then making a new pedal model would be simply fitting the new circuit into our custom kcFX form factor. In fact, everything we did, from the team setting up the shop, to our packaging design, to our business processes - we wanted to make sure we had everything in place for the future, or at least as good as we could predict, so that once we finally launched we could settle down into our daily groove and not be scrambling trying to build wheels that hadn't been invented yet.
What are all those sayings about details? "The devil's in the details.", "80/20 rule means you'll spend 80% of your time taking care of the last 20% of stuff to do.", "Details create the big picture.", "Details matter. They create depth, and depth creates authenticity.", "If you don't understand the details of your business, you are going to fail.", "Art is all in the details."..... I guess what I'm trying to say is, the little details are important and they can take a lot of time to work out. But you can't be lost in the details, head down with your magnifying lens to the grass. You've also got to get in that helicopter and survey the forest. And so that's the balance that the team and I have tried to strike as we built up our operation. One moment I'll be scrutinizing the choice of color for some packaging and then the next moment I'll be thinking of what the implications of decisions we make now will be in five years. It's one thing to come up with a pedal and make a couple. It's a whole other thing to put that effort into a big context. Basically, all this pre-launch stuff of stage setting is to get to a place where all I have to worry about is working on the next cool circuit idea lol.
And so we continued working as the pandemic raged on. I think the 80/20 rule really came into play during 2021. We started the year with the pedal form factor mostly complete. But all the little details of dotting i's and crossing t's seemed to take 80% of the time to resolve. And each iteration, whether it was the enclosure or the artwork or the product box, seemed like it took a month to cycle through. "The silkscreen art is a bit off, let's get a new version of the artwork and have our silkscreeners do another round of protos." - there goes another month. When you have several balls like that in the air it definitely becomes a case of hurry up and wait.
One of the things we are really happy about is our product box. Just like with the pedal enclosure, we wanted to come up with something unique, useful, and cool. Steve ("Ham") took the lead on coming up with the drawer style box concept and then had our box manufacturer prototype it. Then we handed the template over to our artist, Weird Beard, for him to do his magic with it. Weird Beard and I had talked about how to create the look for the new company and how we wanted to come up with not only some cool graphics, but a whole branding style guide that we would use throughout. He had a lot on his plate to do for us - logos, color schemes, pedal art, box art, merch design, t-shirts, etc! One of the cool things he came up with is the idea that each pedal gets its own unique accent color and we would use that specific Pantone code for all things related to that model, like labels and user guides. So with our product line you'll be able to know what model it is just from the pedal accent color. This is one example of the stage setting I was talking about.
Oh, and another detail we were keen on achieving - our own custom 9-volt batteries! This is something Ham and I have been dreaming about for years. "Wouldn't it be cool to get our own carbon-zinc batteries with a cat on them?!" Some pedals, especially fuzz pedals, respond particularly well to being run on carbon-zinc batteries. The harmonics are smoother, the attack is warmer, and the decay is more musical, and the playing feel is more elastic. I will sometimes sit down and compare not only battery vs external DC operation but I'll also compare different brands and types of batteries. There are differences! So we added to our list of things to accomplish the procurement of custom batteries. Weird Beard knocked it out of the park on the artwork. kittycasterFX Ultramega Super Heavy Duty batteries! Available at our webstore! /spam ;-p
I'm proud of the team I get to work with. Since we had worked together before making pedals we knew what each person would bring to the table. That was very helpful during these pandemic times as we would be mostly working autonomously with very little guidance. We'd just check in each week with each other and then continue on. When I would stop by the shop for something I'd see the latest progress they had made on getting the shop dialed in. They really outdid themselves by painting all our logos on the walls! The vision for the workshop was to make it a fun, creative place that you wanted to spend time in rather than some drab, dirty white industrial space.
The last few months before launch were mostly about dialing in those last details. But the pedal circuits themselves were done months earlier. Still, I played the pedals every day to see if there was anything that was annoying me or that I thought could be better. I'm my own worst customer but I'm happy to report that I didn't change the specs at all for the last several months. I thought they were ready for prime time!
Where did the name "kittycaster" come from? Well, the whole reason that name came to be is because of my beloved cat, Maya, who passed away August 30th of 2021 after being with me for all of her twenty years. I wasn't a cat person before meeting Maya, in fact I used to be severely allergic to cats. So if you were to tell my younger self that one day I'd have a pedal company with a cat themed name I'd tell you you were trippin'! Sometime in 2005 or so I was signing up on some effects forum, Harmony Central, I think. It asked me what I wanted my forum name to be and I didn't know what I wanted. I saw Maya walking by my Strat and thought, "kittycaster", and that was it. Soon that became my online identity. When it came time to name this company I wasn't going to call it kittycaster but everyone on the team said, "No, we gotta call it kittycaster!" So there you go. kittycasterFX! I'll always miss my little Maya though. I wish she could've been here for the launch. Buddy and I will try to carry on without you, Maya.
Are you still reading this?! Haha, thank you for reading this story about how we started kittycasterFX. Tl;dr - we tried to set the stage to be able to create cool new pedals for years to come. There are soooo many pedal builders out there now. It's a completely different scene then when I started back in 2007. I try to not pay attention to what other designers are doing though. I just follow my own muse. I actually never set out to be a pedal designer, it kinda just happened accidentally and here we are!
On behalf of the kcFX team, I'd like to thank the folks that have been so supportive over the past couple of years as we worked to get this thing off the ground. Without the support and encouragement of people following on Instagram we may not have made it this far!
Please leave a comment below and say hi! We'd love to hear from you!
What a wonderful story. I’m likely to indulge my pedal addiction to sample your stuff. Best wishes and good luck with the company!
To me, you are a pedal genius. Your pedals have a quality about them that recreates the tone and times that have been. I am so happy to see that you continuing the trend of not doing this to just build a business but build a great product.
I will say this. I have never sold the pedals you built because there is something about them that is just special.
It was really heartbreaking to hear about you leaving CB. But great to see you back. And follow your instincts. Give us the history and the context behind what you do. Create the videos. They are all part of this and we want it.
All the best Howard and team!
Well you know my thoughts :) Always impressed with what you have achieved and will go on to achieve! Could not ask for a better friend and confidant over the years. One day we will get to play music in the same space vs online. MASSIVE respect Howard, MASSIVE.
Awesome perseverance! Looking forward to your visionary creations. And kind of hoping for a new & improved Dirty Little Kitty! Something that’s never been done. Mahalos.
So glad to see you back in the pedal biz, Howard.
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