A visit to Darkglass Electronics, Helsinki

This week I and two friends had the privilege to visit Doug Castro at the Darkglass Electronics workshop in Helsinki, Finland. Doug is the founder and CEO of Darkglass. As some of you undoubtedly have figured out already, Doug is a very likeable guy, easy going and tremendously passionate about his work. That he and his team make some of the best bass distortion and preamp pedals in the business doesn’t make a visit any less interesting.

Doug started building pedals when he lived in Chile. A bass player himself, he obviously was interested in the sound he was producing when playing, but: “I couldn’t afford a compressor pedal, so I built one myself.”

Video: Interview with Doug Castro, Darkglass Electronics

He did build some “generic pedals” but quickly became bored with that. The next pedal he tried his hand on was what eventually became the Harmonic Booster. The booster was only ever built in a small series, about 50, and is somewhat of a collectors item among some Darkglass enthusiasts these days. Many people have asked for Darkglass to release another series of the Harmonic Booster, but Doug doesn’t want to do that. But what most people may not realise is that the Booster eventually turned into the clean circuitry before the distortion part on the B3K distortion pedal. So if you have a B3K then you sort of have the booster too.

A “Made in Chile” Darkglass B3K

Pic: A “Made in Chile” B3K.

When we got to the workshop Doug invited us to have a coffee and cookies in the shared kitchen in the space where they work. But we didn’t get further than packing up the cookies. We had already launched into talking about pedals, and soon Doug said “Oh, I need to show you this.”, and into the workshop we went. (We did get to the coffee & tea later.)

One of the for me interesting things with Doug is that, until recently I didn’t realise that I have ended up with pretty much the same tone stack as Doug has (just missing a Mayones/Spector bass, which I haven’t been able to justify for myself yet…). There are two Mayones basses in the workshop (read about my visit to Mayones), a Mesa Carbine amp and of course Darkglass pedals. There was also some Ampeg, Lakland and Spector equipment to be seen, and a bunch of pedals.

Stack of backplates for Darkglass pedals.

Pic: Stack of backplates.

These days Darkglass not only have the very successful B3K, but also the B7K with a four-band EQ and DI, the Vintage series of tube sound and preamp pedals and the Duality bass fuzz.

The good news is of course that it doesn’t stop there. Doug himself said that he was maybe spreading himself too thin with new things he is working on. We did get to see and hear about some rather interesting things in the pipeline, but if I told you about it we’d have to convert you all to trombonists. We did get some nice previews we can share though.

First, I had already read on Talkbass about an onboard preamp to fit in a bass. This got me rather excited, as a lot of preamps on modern basses are to bright or harsh for my taste, I was hoping that maybe Darkglass could provide something new and interesting there.

Prototype Darkglass onboard bass preamp.

Pic: Prototype Darkglass onboard bass preamp.

The preamp will come stock as part of a “Nolly” Getgood (Periphery) signature bass from Dingwall.

The preamp has three tone controls, but unlike most bass preamps, the three controls are one bass (centred around 70Hz) and two mid controls, low-mid (700Hz) and high-mid (2800Hz). Which is a rather interesting take on it and according to Doug it was Sheldon Dingwall that came up with the idea when they were having pancakes for breakfast together at NAMM this year. Sheldon said: “Bass, mid, treble is a bit boring, everyone is doing that. Lets go with something different, bass, mid, mid.”

Great meeting Doug Castro from Darkglass Electronics today. Write-up and interview to follow.  @darkglassgear

Pic: Doug Castro, about to show us a cool new thing on his laptop.

Doug says the high-mid and the low-mid are about the same as the B7K mid controls and give better definition and crispness compared to a standard bass/mid/treble setup. It also should be less noise and harshness. And if the shipped preamp is anything like the boxed prototype I got to test, I think that really can be true. I liked what I heard and I have a bass project in the cellar that needs a preamp and it is going to get a Darkglass one! Doug hoped to be able to ship the first of these in December or January. I need to go reserve some at my local pedal candy store, These Go To 11.

Doug is also working on a compressor, we did actually see the component prototype for it, but Doug said it didn’t work anymore as he had had to cannibalise some components for another project.

Darkglass compressor component prototype.

Pic: Compressor component prototype picture.

The first compressor prototype boards should arrive soon though, but that is no guarantee that it will be available soon. Doug said “It was months since I listened to the prototype last. Maybe when the boards arrives I don’t like how it sounds anymore and then it is back to the drawing board.”

Darkglass is a very interesting international company. Some things are done by sub-contractors. Electronic printed circuit boards are done in the UK. The metal boxes are bought in standard shapes and customised locally in Finland (holes drilled etc). All assembly is now done at the workshop in Helsinki. PR and marketing is handled from Chile. The team is now seven people in Chile and Finland.

I recognise this type of micro-multinational myself, as where I work is one like it too (albeit in a very different business). There is something inherently international in it. People from different cultures and backgrounds working together. You hang on Skype chat a lot. Video conferencing going. In the morning when you check in you have hundreds of chat pieces waiting for you.

Two people work with assembling the pedals in the workshop, both are actually bass players, which means that the quality check right after the assembly is done by a person who really knows how the pedal is supposed to sound. Doug says he helps assemble pedals too if the order volume is high.

The bits and pieces box in the Darkglass workshop.

Pic: The bits and pieces box in the workshop.

We did get to see some really cool new things that are coming in the future. Things that I want myself, really. But again, I can’t tell you about them. You, like me will just have to wait for them to appear. And they will only appear when they are ready, because Doug doesn’t ship something he doesn’t like or would want to play himself. Remember that the B3K took nearly two years to get right before he shipped the first one.

Thanks Doug and the rest of the Darkglass team for your awesome creations. I look forward to lay my hands on the next one!