“It was a massive learning experience”: Walrus Audio on developing an amp sim and the future of the Mako range
Walrus’ Colt Westbrook and Jason Stulce give us the lowdown on the future of the Mako range, why they don’t want to be like Tesla, and why they’ll never stop making pedals that “are simple and sound great”.
Since their formation in 2011, Walrus Audio has set itself apart as one of the biggest and most forward-thinking players in the boutique effects world. Back in early 2020 the company launched the D1 the first pedal in its Mako range – a brand new SHARC DSP-powered platform that would bring high-end sounds to compact pedal formats.
Now for 2021 the range has expanded again with the introduction of the new R1 and ACS1 units, moving Walrus into the complex world of amp and cab modelling for the first time – it’s a brave new world for everyone.
With that in mind, we caught up with Walrus president Colt Westbrook and lead developer Jason Stulce to talk about the development of the Mako range, what they’ve learned from another year working on the platform, their plans for the future of the core Walrus range, and why Jason needs to stop playing A…
What did you learn from the D1 that you applied to the new pedals?
Colt: “Taking all of our functionality from the D1 and applying it into the R1 and the ACS1 was kind of one of the big points – we wanted infinite tweakability to the point of appropriateness. We want to make things that sound really great, but where every sound could eventually land on a record somewhere. And so, no nonsense noise – just really creative, high-fidelity, colourful, robust sound is really what we’re going for. It’s what we were going for in the D1 and we just took that same ideology to the R1 and to the ACS1.”
Was the plan always to do the R1, it feels like a logical progression from the delay – was that always the plan?
Colt: “I think delay and reverb make a nice combination. It makes sense to release those within 12 months of each other. Not necessarily going in order of signal chain but, it helps! It makes sense and it makes trade shows easier when you’re setting up your board!”
The ACS1 on the other hand feels a bit less of an obvious move – was that always the plan, or did the events of the last year, and the changes in how we play guitar, have an impact?
Colt: “Kinda? It wasn’t the plan at the beginning of 2020, but then when we were at NAMM we realised we’ve buying and borrowing amp cab sims from lots of people for trade shows– and they were really good ones – but I was just like, ‘Man screw this we gotta have our own thing on the board at these shows.’
“And really the ACS1 was taking everything we loved about the cab simulations that we have played and then adding the things that we wanted something with our name on it to have. The Fender Deluxe reverb sound, the Vox AC30 sound and then specifically with the Marshall, we really wanted to go more in a Bluesbreaker direction rather than like a high-gain avenue, because we’re shooting for pedal platform, y’know? Then the other huge thing was being able to do separate amp cab simulations in the left and in the right, so that you get another level of charm when you’re playing in stereo.”
How much of a technical challenge was designing amp sims, cab IRs and the like compared with what you’re used to doing?
Jason: “On the technical side, literally everything was new. The idea of developing algorithms that model tube amplifiers – that in itself is a big undertaking. And then learning the IR world to go with that… There are kind of two pieces with the ACS1 – there’s the amp simulation, that’s your amp head, and then the IR, which is covering the speaker of the cab and the microphone – so it meant having to learn both worlds on their own, and then bring it together.
“And then on top of that, it maybe doesn’t seem like too much from the user’s perspective, but we also developed this web app – walrusaudio.io – that lets you update the firmware, lets you load IRs onto the pedal and that is completely custom from the ground up. And it’s just really challenging to learn all that stuff and to work on it and get it all working. And we’re still learning, we’re constantly learning. It’s one of those things where, I think anybody that puts something out and says it’s perfect right off the bat is lying to you. And so we’ve done our best, and we’ve also made it to where we can continue to tweak on it which is really exciting for me! We’ve never had that before – we’ve never had the ability to update a Walrus pedal in the field.
“So, to be able to get that going and working as smoothly as it is really exciting, because like I said, we can continue to tweak and refine and push things out. We’ve already pushed out a few updates for the R1, we’re gonna push one out for the ACS1 in the next two to three weeks.
“It’s just little things, little bugs – we can test until we’re blue in the face but when you get so close to something, it’s really easy for things to slip through. And then you give it to fresh eyes and fresh hands and it’s like, ‘Hey, when I hit this switch and turn this knob, and it’s in this MIDI command… it does this!’ And it’s like, ‘Woah! Oh, well I never did that exact combination of things!’ But now we can recreate it, patch it, come up with a firmware fix, push it out and then you know that person is good to go and everyone else can go grab it as well.
“So, it’s easy to fix little things like that and that’s been amazing, but developing cab sim is definitely a departure and it was just a massive learning experience that is still ongoing today.”
In the high-end boutique pedal world, new firmware updates have almost become an event in themselves – do you think you’ll keep evolving the capabilities of the Mako pedals in a similar way through updates?
Jason: “I think for us, we’ll just see where it goes. We’ll see what the user community is asking for, because we aren’t going to be able to just like jump and do whatever anybody asks for, as great as that would be. We only have a finite amount of time and we have a lot of things going on. But it is exciting to kind of see where it goes and decide where we should devote effort as far as updates go.
“My plan is to continue where it makes sense, to add other pedals, maybe even non-Mako pedals to the IO platform. We’ve designed it from the ground up to be very scale-able and not Mako-specific, although that’s the only pedals that operate with it currently. That’s another exciting thing for me, is to be able to know that I can carry that technology to other designs down the road.”
Our reviewer noted with the ACS1 that the sound of the Dartford setting was significantly improved with a firmware update, is that the sort of thing that you’re talking about with firmware updates going forward?
Jason: “Absolutely – when I say I’m excited about that feature, that’s why. Because up until now we’ve developed things and put them out knowing that when they’re gone, they’re gone. When they’re out there they’re out there, and sometimes that’s fine. Having the ability to update a pedal after the fact is not necessarily a great thing for development, because it allows you the potential to say, ‘Well we’ll just fix that later’. And that’s Tesla, right? They’re just like, ‘Let’s just get the car out there whatever the little bugs are, we’ll just push firmware updates to the car, and we’ll fix it’.”
“So, I don’t love that mentality, and I still want to make sure that we’re operating with the mentality of putting the best thing out there that we can right off the bat. But what’s also great is having that ability to be able to sit with the pedal and spend less time focused on technical aspects of a sound, and just play it. How does it actually feel when I’m not thinking from a development standpoint, when I’m just like playing music? Because there is a lot of development doesn’t involve playing music or being creative… ask Colt how many times he’s heard me play A – it’s a lot.”
Colt: “It is a lot. I’ve been to counselling because of it.”
Jason: “So having that space to just sit and just think as best you can from the perspective of a customer rather than, the technical development standpoint of things, it’s hard to do. And sometimes it wouldn’t matter after the fact, but in this case it does matter. So, I play it live like, three times a week with in-ear monitors, and it’s an environment that means I’m able to not think from a technical standpoint. That said, I’ll be in the middle of a song thinking, ‘What was that? What was that thing I just heard? What did it just do there?’ It’s hard to break that mould!”
How hard is it to balance the power and potential of what you can do with the SHARC chip with the ability to make something that’s usable and functional in a compact pedal format, it must be quite a balancing act?
Jason: “That’s R&D 101, right? I think developing pedals is all about what you don’t give to a customer. It’s not all about what you put on the pedal, it’s what you don’t put on the pedal. It’s like the notes that you don’t play that make you a good guitar player. You have to constantly think critically about it – I had a dry-erase board full of knobs that were all the things we could put on this thing, but at the end of the day, you’ve got six knobs. And we can get tricky with toggle switches and get eight knobs out of it but, personally neither one of us – Colt, nor I – are tweakers when it comes to effects. Nothing against people that are, we’re just not, so we just kind of try to stick to just essential controls that give you kind of a pretty wide range of flexibility with the sound but try to allow for there not to be any bad sounds on the knobs, on the dials.
“And that is hard to do in the case of an amp/cab sim, I’ll say that! Like, the Julia for example – it’s hard to make that sound bad, you can make it sound different but it’s hard to make it sound bad. You can make the ACS1 sound pretty bad if you want! There’s a lot of power in the tone stack, and in the gain knobs and things like that. So yeah, you can make it sound bad.”
“But back to my original point, constantly thinking critically, y’know, does this feature make sense? Does this feature allow you to expand the range of sounds of the pedal, versus if I were to put this other knob in its place? So, always weighing those types of questions up, and what ends up coming to the surface is what makes it onto the face of the pedal.”
We’ve spoken before about how the whole Mako platform required a lot of development before the D1 launched, now that you’ve done that, does it make it easier and faster to iterate new products?
Jason: “Well, we couldn’t have done the ACS1 this quickly two years ago, but it was a massive learning experience and it still is. There is nothing easy about mixed-signal designs. So you’re dealing with really powerful, complex digital systems varied with relatively low-frequency audio spectrum signals. Anybody that says that is easy is lying. It’s not, and it’s really not when you talk about developing a system that fits into the size of a Mako enclosure that includes a SHARC chip, and SD Ram and external processors and things like that.”
“We’ve definitely learned a lot from the first round with the D1, and then we’ve had to kind of change the architecture for a few reasons, and one main reason is to help walrusaudio.io work well with the pedal, so it’s kind of just constant evolution from a hardware standpoint. From the D1 to what we have now, we’re already working on the same type architecture but modified a little bit to potentially fit into a different enclosure size even. But knowing what we know now, is making that process smoother, and much more efficient. Knock on wood, right? But you certainly get to take everything you’ve learned and the more time you have with those complex systems the more efficient you can be.”
You mentioned earlier that you obviously have a finite amount of time and resources to devote to products, with that in mind are you still planning to keep releasing new non-Mako Walrus products in the near future, you mentioned that the IO platform could be expanded there?
Jason: “You will never not see new Walrus releases; I can say that with confidence. In terms of the IO platform, that will not be brought to the full range of pedals. That’ll only be brought to pedals where it really makes sense – I don’t think we need it on the Julia, I don’t think we need it on the Ages, but there are some other pedals that you could see where it might make some sense, and I’ll just leave it at that.
“But you’ll see it brought to traditional Walrus pedals and you’ll never not see traditional Walrus pedals released. That’s for sure the core of our business and we still love it, it’s still very close to our hearts. Pedals with art and that are simple and sound great. You’ll definitely see some other releases, traditional Walrus releases this year, and next year… and, Colt, give it to ’em…
Jason: “There you go.”
Colt: “The Mako series was just another space we created for our ideas that didn’t fit with the original line. But the original line is still there for going after what we’ve been doing since 2011. And who knows, maybe someday we might do a hybrid between the two that includes the IO site and maybe, you know, new stuff…”
Jason: “You better tell me more about that after this call…”
Colt: “Oh, but I think I just saw it? I think I saw it this morning sat under your desk…”
For more information about the Walrus Mako range visit walrusaudio.com.
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