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INSIDE: DEATH BY AUDIO
That’s how our conversation with Oliver Ackermann begins, appropriately enough with death. It’s what the “founder, owner, designer, and head decision-maker” of the popular effects brand, and also the guitar player and singer for Brooklyn band A Place To Bury Strangers, offers as his answer to our very first question: What is Death By Audio?
It’s a loaded answer to a loaded question, but with death in the very name of the brand it’s not surprising that building pedals means something more to Oliver.
“Once I bit and tasted sound oh so sweet I just can't ever go back,” he writes. “It's the sound of my heart and pumps the blood through my veins.”
Like a pacemaker to a broken heart, or 9V to 1mA circuitry, one breathes life into the other, and it’s this fundamental connection of sound to mortality that sets the actual heart of Oliver Ackermann to beat. To live, Oliver must make pedals that kill.
Oliver founded Death By Audio in Brooklyn, NY in 2002 because he needed money. He wanted to backpack through Europe and to do that he designed his first pedal: the Total Sonic Annihilation, a “super insano” creation that “forces your effects back into themselves.” It was “bulletproof,” Oliver remembers. Nobody had ever done it before. It didn’t cost much to make. It didn’t require a lot of parts. It was a ton of hard work, but it was work that he was glad to do. He could share his sounds with the world and the world wanted to hear them. He was hooked.
“After that original inspiration it really was the fans and people in to what I was doing that convinced me to go on. Without positive reinforcement it can really be uninspiring to want to share anything in the future. When the company had started I was just getting my skills up enough to feel confident making pedals that were able to stand up to rough touring conditions. I decided I should do what I wish someone else had offered me years before and make any custom project anyone would dream up. I used to have so many ideas for music makers and had no idea on how to transform those ideas to a physical unit to destroy sound and now that I did I could be that missing link between artists and the tools they wished to use. This was a great learning tool for me as if there was something I was unfamiliar with I would research the heck out of it, make tons of prototypes and teach myself how to make it. Now when I hear that someone used one of my noisemakers to make a piece of music that I admire it really is inspiring to create more wild and crazy units to fill that void that only some can connect with.”
And almost 20 years later that’s still how it goes at Death By Audio. Form follows function, reinvention is necessity, and new chips are king.
While their enclosures are powder-coated, milled, and silk screened offsite, every Death By Audio effect is made by hand in their Brooklyn warehouse, taking anywhere from one and six hours to create a single pedal from start to finish. Capacitors, resistors, diodes, and other electronic components are all matched and tested and soldered to boards. Each is closely inspected for maximum durability and performance before being soldered into an enclosure and finished with the appropriate switches and pots. Then the entire pedal is rigorously tested before it is touched up, tightened, given knobs, hand-numbered, and finally tested again. If all goes well, it’s wiped down and placed, along with a manual, in a hand-silk screened box, ready to be shipped.
Heather Bickford, Oliver’s wife, and the rest of the Death By Audio crew like Christopher Puidokas, Natalie Hernandez, Noah Sider, Harlan Muir, Ella Salonen, and Douglas Hock pride themselves on their tireless approach to making intuitively-constructed pedals from the best available components, never skimping on quality, always robust and tour-ready, and never a corner cut in the process.
Oliver writes, “We want to create something extraordinary for people to use that gets them excited and facilitates them to create new music. We want to actually make things which are quality and useful and if they are not, then we don't bother.” He continues, “We used to have wise words to live by around here which made it so we didn't stress out about things. I think it went something like ‘fuck it.’ It's pretty funny because that's not what we are into anymore. Now it’s probably something lame and practical like ‘always improving.’ I feel like there are always ways to do things smarter, build them stronger, and make things sound better so why ever stop improving. It also is really necessary sometimes as parts become obsolete for smaller and sometimes less robust components. We try really hard to constantly reinvent ourselves and the way we work to take on more interesting projects.”
Interesting is putting it mildly when it comes to ongoing projects at Death By Audio. Oliver assures us that there’s all sorts of top-secret stuff in the works.
“The place where we are working on the most cutting edge designs is done in complete darkness so that no employees can leak photographs of the work.”
But long before the world’s fascination with Oliver’s sound, Oliver’s fascination with destroying it began when he bought his first pedals. While recording demos into four- and six-track tape machines he discovered quickly what happens when you get creative with your signal chain.
“It seemed like certain combinations of pedals in different orders would make all sorts of crazy sounds,” he remembers. “I was in love with every different sound I heard I just had to hear more. Every sound was a possible sound that could be used in a song as an interesting texture that would relate to a feeling.”
Constant exploration, Oliver found, can create relatable feelings “opening users to...extreme sounds,” and through those extreme sounds an “extreme vision of music transformed into an enclosure.”
And that’s what Death By Audio really is: an extreme vision of music transformed into an enclosure.
That’s also what a heart is. It’s a homemade box with two ins and two outs, set in a natural effects loop. It receives a clean signal into the right atrium, pumping it out of the right ventricle and into pulmonary circulation where it is conditioned by the lungs. It feeds the dirty signal back into the left atrium and pumps it out of the left ventricle, sending it to the entire body, all the while keeping perfect time. An extreme vision of music transformed into an enclosure: keeping Oliver alive–even if it kills him.
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