New Zealand firm pioneers lithium ion battery technology
for “functional innovation”
Tiny New Zealand is best known for sheep and spectacular scenery. But among guitarists, the remote Pacific island group is gaining a reputation as an important source for innovative effects pedals. Responsibility for this newfound notoriety rests with Red Witch Pedals. Founded in 2003 with a mandate to deliver “functional innovation,” the company now offers a wide range of effects that are used by top performers, including John Mayer, Sting, U2, INXS, and Billy Corgan. Red Witch’s engineering skills have been matched by its commercial success: in 2012, the company and its founder Ben Fulton received an “AmCham” award from the American Chamber of Commerce for fostering trade between New Zealand and the U.S.
The Red Witch approach to “function and innovation” is typified by the company’s popular Seven Sisters line of effects pedals. The seven pedals, which made their debut in 2011, deliver the kind of classic effects that have defined rock ’n’ roll over the past three decades: boost, fuzz, distortion, delay, tremolo, compression, and overdrive. As for innovation, the world’s first mini pedal range, also employs lithium ion battery technology, which makes it possible to pack powerful sonic performance into a pint-sized package. The battery, similar to those used in cellphones, is rechargeable and delivers its power for days, eliminating the need for replacement 9-volts or noisy power sources on stage. And, because of their tiny footprint, it’s easy to fit all seven on a pedal board. Premier Guitar went so far as to describe them as “on the brink of changing up the stompbox market in a significant way.”
Red Witch Pedals is a story that fits neatly into a “necessity is the mother of invention” framework. Ben Fulton was gigging as a solo acoustic guitarist in Western New Zealand, when he got a call to join a rock ’n’ roll band. He had sold off his electric guitar gear, and had to scramble to lay his hands on a secondhand amp in time for his first gig. The amp’s performance was lackluster, which led him to start studying electronics to figure out how to crank upits performance. Tinkering with the amp led to building effects pedals. The first pedals were reverse engineered versions of classic top sellers. But as he as his grasp of electrical engineering expanded, he began pushing the design envelope with entirely new creations like the Moon Phaser, arguably the first pedal to combine tremolo and phasing.
Response to the Moon Phaser among friends and fellow musicains was so enthusiastic, Fulton launched Red Witch in 2002. Geoff Matthews joined in 2009 as a partner, bringing complementary business experience to the venture. Over the past decade, Red Witch has expanded its line to include 17 pedals, all of which reflect Fulton’s original mantra of “functional innovation.”
Fulton’s novel design approach can be seen in the “Famulus,” which adds a new dimension to distortion. It incorporates four distinct distortion circuits in a single pedal that can be operated in series or parallel. The resulting flexibility allows players to truly develop a unique sound. The Titan Delay offers 1,200 milliseconds of delay in a pedal, but what distinguishes it is three distinct delay circuits capable of everything from simple repeats to lush, intricate cathedral type delays.
Although Fulton says he was never a big fan of chorus pedals, that didn’t stop him from building one to address marked demand. In 2006, he spent hours listening to Police albums, in search of the optimal tonal characteristics for his Empress Chorus pedal. A year later, he received the ultimate compliment for his efforts when Andy Summers and Sting both used the pedal heavily on the Police Reunion tour. The exposure dramatically raised the profile of the Red Witch line outside of New Zealand.
The latest addition to Red Witch’s product line up is the “Synthotron,” an analog guitar synthesizer matched with an envelope filter and sample/hold functionality. With just four banks of knobs, it has the simplicity that appeals to “hi-tech-averse” electric guitarists. However, with true fat analog synth sounds, it offers a new sonic potential that makes a guitar relevant in an electronic music setting.
Initially, Red Witch sold most of its products in the U.S. through a handful of premium brick-and-mortar retailers. Over the past few years, the company has found growing acceptance in the wider U.S. market. Retailers have seized on the pedals because they offer guitarists new tonal possibilities. They also appreciate Red Witch’s premium pricing, which enhances profit potential. The pint-sized Seven Sisters pedals have a street price topping $100 a piece, while premium pedals like the Empress Chorus and the Moon Phaser command $300 or more.
Having added a new dimension to the pedal market and bringing acclaim to his native country, Fulton isn’t done yet. He continues to develop new products that he says “will push the boundaries.” He adds, “There’s opportunity if you can create something that offers unique, useable features. Guitarists are always looking for a new way to shape sound.”
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