Interview: Terry Burton, Jinna Kim and Angelo Mazzocco
FutureMusic: Effects pedals are having a bit of a moment…
Terry: When we first started Meris, we concentrated on bringing our effects into the pro audio world but customers already knew our guitar pedal background. I’d like to think we had some influence early on in breaking guitar pedal effects out of their traditional form factor. That was already happening naturally of course, but mix engineers were regularly using pedals in the production process and that was part of the inspiration for our 500 series products. We are guitarists, but we also love synths and electronic music. Jinna and I have reached out to electronic musicians all the way back into the Strymon days just because that is music we listen to. With Meris, we threw out the whole notion that our pedals were just for guitar and I think it has proven very true. In addition to guitarists, there are synthesists, sax players, violinists, and vocalists all using our effects creatively. I love guitar, but the diversity of musicians using our stuff makes things so much more interesting.
Angelo: I think there are a lot of factors that go into the expanding role of guitar pedals. One part is the growing group of musicians using effects as instruments, as a true extension of their musical expression. Also I think that pedals are irresistible because they offer such an immediate and direct way of interacting and sculpting your sound. There is no substitute for turning knobs and dramatically altering your sonic landscape.
FutureMusic: Take us through the development process of a new guitar pedal or module at Meris. What’s the genesis of the idea? How does it go through the design process?
Terry: We consciously start with two criteria for a new piece of gear. One, it has a conceptual foundation that we may get from unorthodox sources like visual art or a film. Two, it needs to be an instrument in and of itself. Our qualification of it being an instrument is that it allows a musician to be creative in a way they couldn’t be without it. Enzo is an example of a pedal that is an instrument in the literal sense, where the signal being fed into it (usually guitar) becomes a controller to trigger actual oscillators, envelope generators, etc. Once we have the basic criteria for a new idea, it’s a collaborative process among our small design team to bring something to life. There aren’t any focus groups, marketing considerations or anything like that. The product is just driven by our collective passions and inspirations.
Angelo: Each project is a personal statement from us, and comes from a place of pure creation. I am always challenging myself to bring new sounds and new capabilities to the table, and it is all in service of expanding what’s possible for musicians. During development, a good sign that you are on the right path is when you get lost in the sound you are creating. If you find yourself getting drawn to play through what you are working on, it usually means other musicians will feel the same way.
FutureMusic: The LVX is a big leap forward in terms of complexity for Meris. What pushed you to develop and release a pedal with a visual interface?
Terry: One of the biggest leaps we made with LVX was graphical user interface development. We made a huge investment because the operating system is written from the ground up. Everything is custom. Jinna had a huge role in this product because she designed all of the graphics and much of how the UI flows from the user perspective.
Angelo: LVX is certainly a big technical leap, but in a lot of ways, I would say that LVX is the most accessible of all Meris pedals. From the easy access of presets, which give you a taste of what’s possible, to the Graphic View which Jinna carefully designed to help you discover the capabilities one component at time, to the Text View where the entire UI becomes a dynamic control surface, we focused on designing LVX to ease you through the journey of discovery.
FutureMusic: So, take us through the development of the LVX’s operating system including the dynamic GUI.
Terry: I had some initial sketches of designs and functionality for a larger pedal format including the idea that it should be a modular delay system. They were refined over the years by Angelo, Jinna and I working together collaboratively. The UI really came to life once Jinna started working on the final designs for LVX. She really took the lead on the UI design and made it beautiful and easy to use at the same time. It is extremely difficult to design something that is complex but also easy to use. Angelo went above and beyond what I could have envisioned for the modularity and signal flow of LVX. As always his DSP is just incredibly tasteful and excellent sounding as well. What I love about our team is that we’re all engineers and/or artists collaborating together. The development process is so much more fun when it’s done in that way.
Angelo: LVX’s operating system started out life as an extension of the code from our two footswitch pedals, and it has certainly grown exponentially from there. I’m so proud of what our small team has accomplished, everyone played such a deep role in bringing LVX to life. It is inspiring to work with such talented people, and I’m grateful for their deep drive to make LVX defy expectations.
Jinna: Professionally, I had made many GUIs in the past. But they were all fake UIs that didn’t need to work, they just needed to look cool. So LVX is actually my first real go on a working product. Honestly, I didn’t think I could do the product justice. I wanted the visuals to serve Terry and Angelo’s impeccable hardware and software well. I looked into hiring a UI/UX person, but Terry didn’t want to hire someone. He wanted only me to do it and encouraged me for weeks. I just used my own intuition. I strived for it to be intuitive and super easy to use. I didn’t want it to look cluttered and overwhelming.
I knew I wanted to incorporate the idea of star constellations and the natural occurrence of orbiting stars or planets. I didn’t want it so literal so I used bubbles instead. I developed the “Graphic View” which is more focused based; allowing the user to explore one parameter at a time through presets. I also pushed for “Text View” for those who want a more traditional style while simultaneously changing up to six parameters at a time. I think the biggest challenge was pushing animation within a smaller LCD screen. I was used to unlimited possibilities for TV – where the sky is the limit. There were limiting factors in pixels however, so I had to be very mindful of frame rate, how animation plays, how color looks, storage, processing power, etc.
Our software engineer, Jon Reeves is the fourth team member who worked on LVX from the ground up. Jon is brilliant, and I loved how he never compromised my vision. He always embraced my ideas. Building a user interface from the ground up is a lot of work. We worked side-by-side to make a carousel orbiting animation work. He pushed the code. And I pushed visuals. Our team really pushed hardware, software and visuals beyond our comfort zone to meet the challenge.
FutureMusic: Will the LVX now become a platform for Meris to expand into different types of effects beyond delay?
Angelo: We have so many ideas…
Terry: I don’t disclose future plans, but it certainly would be a waste not to use this powerhouse platform for more than one piece of gear.
FutureMusic: What inspires you these days?
Angelo: I am always inspired by watching people who are deeply in love with what they do. Before the lockdown, Terry and I visited Matt Brewster at 30th Street guitars and he clearly fits in that category. I love working on guitars, and have done almost every type of work you can think of, but I’ve always been afraid of fretwork. When I mentioned my fear to Matt, he pulled out a couple of guitars that needed different types of fretwork and generously proceeded in giving us a master class. I learned an incredible amount, and what stood out the most was how much he loved what he was doing.
Terry: It’s primarily music still but also visual art, movies…even comedy. We’re always sharing things with each other that inspire us and it’s very collaborative in that way. I’m grateful to have a team where we are friends too.