Interview: Zack Slater (Birmingham Sounds)
Zack Slater of Birmingham Sounds is a Maryland-based pedal builder. His debut pedal, the Twentyseventeen, is a versatile drive pedal. I met Zach at NAMM and liked the Twentyseventeen so much I put it on my list of NAMM 2020 gear highlights. We chatted over email in early 2020.
Tell me about yourself and your musical journey.
I started playing guitar in the 5th grade…so about 1999. A friend of mine had a guitar and loved Blink 182. My sister was also a huge fan of them and I got heavily into them from there. I quickly got completely obsessed with music and learned bass and drums as well. I played in bands all throughout middle school and high school. The county I lived in had a vocational school that focused on audio engineering. I went there my junior and senior year which pushed me in a direction of learning to record, mix live sound, and production in general. By the time I had graduated I was still playing in bands, mixing sound at a small club in Asbury Park and a theatre in Lakewood. I also had a little PA system of my own and started doing sound for all the local rock shows for all my friends’ bands. One of my friends bands got signed and ended up on a few national tours. I went along as the sound guy and did the touring thing with them and some others for a few years. I was a gear head the whole time…guitars, drums, PA systems, mixing consoles, microphones…all that stuff. I stopped touring when I was 23, came home and got a “Real Job”. I still play in a band now, but it isn’t my main focus.
How did you get your start making gear?
I’ve always liked making things. When I was a kid I used to make toy boats and airplanes out of cardboard and other stuff like that. As I got older I got more into making things that I wanted. When I started playing music I was always modifying my guitars and such. Eventually I just picked up a soldering iron, went to Radio Shack (RIP), found DIY Stompboxes and DIY Guitar Pedals on YouTube and just went from there. I never did kits (I actually just did my first kit a few months ago) I always wanted to making something unique, that I thought up. For a few years it was just me messing around with a breadboard and building one offs on strip board. I basically learned everything I know from YouTube and forums.
Tell me the story behind the Birmingham Sounds name.
Well, I’ve never been great at naming things. I’ve been in a slew of bands with terrible / not cool names. When I was living in New Jersey I lived on Birmingham Ave. I was driving one day and thought “hey…Birmingham Sounds…that sounds kind of cool”. I had a little studio in my basement at the time and ended up calling it Birmingham Sounds so when I really started the pedals, it kind of just carried over.
Tell me about the inspiration for the Twentyseventeen. What was the initial idea for its sound?
The Twentyseventeen is really just me making something for myself. When I started building pedals I really wanted to make something for myself that wasn’t just a kit or a clone of something. I started working on it in 2017 and really didn’t know much about electronics so it took a little while to really get it rolling. I was also playing in a punk band at the time and we recorded our EP ourselves. While recording the guitars and bass I was always tweaking everything, stacking various pedals, trying different amp combinations and was really just searching for a simple solution to get the sound I was going for. My goal was to build something that had a lot of gain and saturation but also maintained clarity. I wanted to hear the notes and not just a wall of sound. I do remember when I had the final version on the bread board and I thought “yup, this is what I’ve been looking for.” It was a good day.
What’s your all-time favorite piece of non-Birmingham-Sounds gear?
Wow this is a tough one. I have owned a lot of gear (high functioning hoarder here) in my life but I guess if we are staying in the guitar pedal realm I’d have to say my favorite non Birmingham Sounds pedal is the Strymon Iridium. I live in an apartment so the amp isn’t really an option.
When did you realize you were onto something with Birmingham Sounds?
Am I onto something? Haha. I’m just having fun and enjoying building pedals and meeting cool people. I’ll stay in the game as long as I possibly can!
What can we expect from Birmingham Sounds in 2020?
I have a few things I’m working on right now. My main one is a fuzz. I keep going back on forth with it but I’m hoping to see it out this year. I’m also working on a delay, but that’s in its very infant stages
Do you have any advice for aspiring gearmakers?
Just do it! The idea of building pedals is something I wanted to do for a long time. But I’m bad at putting myself out there, so I never really did anything other than make random one offs in a spare bedroom I had. Looking back though, I wish I had done this years ago. The pedal community has been one of the most welcoming group of people I’ve ever met….it gives me faith and hope for humanity haha. Really though, just do it. Make something that fills a need for you. Make something that you are proud of. And get a good soldering iron with a good tip. Also, if it doesn’t work at first and you’re getting frustrated, just put it down and walk away..come back later and you’ll probably see the problem immediately.