Meet a Seymour Duncan Engineer – Wayne Rothermich: Shapeshifters, Mars, and Margaritas
Good design is often reflected in the intuitive nature of how something works. My first foray into design occurred when my father asked me to hold the flashlight for him while he fixed the wiring on a ceiling light fixture. I decided, in my 4-year-old wisdom, that putting the huge flashlight on the ground with the light beam facing upward would allow me to walk away and continue playing while my dad fixed the light. Genius? Probably not, but intuitive nonetheless.
Seymour Duncan takes great pride in the awesome folks that work for us. Wayne Rothermich is no exception. A member of the engineering team here in Santa Barbara, Wayne brings with him a plethora of experience in design and development. We decided to talk to Wayne not only about his work at Seymour Duncan, but his experience with being a member of the team that designed the Radar Altimeter for the Mars Curiosity lander for NASA. Oh, and we decided to ask him about Margaritas too.
How did your relationship with designing stomp boxes, pickups, and Seymour Duncan begin?
Before joining Seymour Duncan, I had done engineering for a few different electronics companies in the Los Angeles area, and followed that experience with a decade of running an engineering consulting business. During all that time, I had been designing and building amplifiers, loudspeakers and other audio equipment for my own use in my spare time. When Seymour Duncan offered me the opportunity to turn my hobby into my profession, I jumped at the chance. That was twelve years ago.
When you’re designing a pedal/stomp box, what is the process that you and the team go through to create a prototype?
The hardest part is right at the beginning: Determining the specifications of the pedal. It has to be feature-rich, but not so complex that it becomes confusing or frustrating for the guitarist. Next comes the preparation of an overall block diagram, which defines how the audio signals will be routed among the various circuit blocks within the pedal. Then each block is designed in detail, often using computer simulation to optimize performance, and a breadboard (a three-dimensional collection of wire, solder and electronic parts) of the new design is built. Alpha testing of this breadboard by in-house guitarists is usually accompanied by minor (or sometimes major) interactive tweaks to the design. Finally, the first actual prototypes are built and sent to outside beta testers, who are typically professional studio or touring musicians. Additional tweaks often occur at this stage as well. This process can take anywhere from three months to two years, depending on the complexity of the pedal.
What particular pedal or product that you’ve designed would say is your “baby” or your favorite and why?
That’s a toss-up between the Shapeshifter Tremolo and the Catalina Chorus. Both of those pedals have a pure-analog signal path, with all of the warmth and organic sound that pure analog provides. We paid special attention to the dry channel in both of these pedals, and I think that most people will be pleasantly surprised at just how clean the sound is on these. The range of tremolo effects and the envelope-following ability of the chorus are also beyond the abilities of most other pedals.
You have the distinction of being one of the engineers that helped develop the Radar Altimeter on the Mars Lander for NASA. How did that come about and what can you tell us about the experience? How different it is from designing pedals and pickups?
When I was consulting, I met a great many people who are involved with interesting technical projects. After I had been at Seymour Duncan for a few years, I received a phone call from one of them, who was working at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena. He was looking for some help with the Radar Altimeter that was being developed for the Mars Curiosity lander. Seymour Duncan allowed me to leave to work on that project, which led to additional work on the Juno mission to Jupiter (specifically the Microwave Radiometer Instrument), and also to assist with some research on future improvements to the Deep Space Network. All told, I was gone from Seymour Duncan for a year. Designing for space is different from designing pedals in that you are operating under very strict reliability requirements. If something breaks on its way to Mars, you can’t send a repairman to fix it. At least not yet.
Are you a guitar collector yourself? If so do you have any favorites in your collection and a story about that guitar?
I have a Fender American Strat, which I bought new, but it doesn’t leave its case nearly as often as I’d like, so its story is actually pretty boring.
We often think about rock stars and musicians when we think about a particular guitar or effect. If you had to choose one of the most innovative guitar/bass players that you’ve worked with or has inspired your design process, who would it be and why?
In my work at Seymour Duncan, I have had the honor of working with Laurence Juber, who is an extraordinarily gifted and versatile professional guitarist. In addition to his solo work, he is also an in-demand session musician in LA, and the Martin OMC Laurence Juber model guitar bears his name. He was a key contributor to the guitar samples we used to develop the D-tar Mama Bear. Did I mention that he also toured with Paul McCartney and Wings?
Can you tell everyone about the super-size Margarita glass that you’re famous for in the Seymour Duncan office? 🙂
Around Seymour Duncan, I am infamous for my “Keg of Margaritas” parties, which occur on occasional afternoons when the boss is away. We dress up the engineering lab with rock-n-roll memorabilia, party lights, and a table full of drinks and snacks. Most of the company spends an hour sipping Margaritas (non-alcoholic, in deference to the insurance company) and munching on chips-n-salsa, cheese, pretzels, and whatever other goodies I find at Costco. On occasion, we fire up the bubble machine or the fog machine and pretend that we’ve warped back to the Disco era.