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!

Visit to Mayones Guitars and Basses in Gdansk, Poland

Last week, 19 June 2013, I went to Gdansk in Poland together with my wife. The primary reason for going to Gdansk was to visit Mayones Guitars and Basses. I live in Stockholm, Sweden, so the trip to Gdansk isn’t too far. It is about an hour’s flight from Skavsta airport, south of Stockholm.

Me outside Mayones workshop

Me in front of the Mayones office building

Initially when I was investigating how to get there I looked at all the main airlines, which wanted € 200-300 / US$ 250-400 / £170-250 per person to get there and back from Stockholm, mostly via Berlin. Not really ok, as I could get a decent bass for that. But then I found the Hungarian low cost airline Wizzair, which wanted € 45 / US$ 60 / £ 38 per person. More reasonable, however, don’t fly far with them if you are tall. I don’t think I have ever been seated in a more cramped space. I am 190 cm / 6.2 feet, which of course doesn’t help in these type of situations.

Mayones basses, including the Flame brand (white bass)

A small showcase corner at the Mayones reception

I had been communicating with Michael Gabryelczyk, at Mayones before going. Mike works as marketing and artist manager, and he was very supportive regarding my visit and helpful when we got there. We took a taxi from the airport and we got to Mayones’ workshops just after lunch. The workshop is on an industrial estate that has some of that slightly unkempt look to it. Mayones are in a few low-slung unassuming buildings, which are quite easy to find as it is marked quite clearly with signs.

When we arrived, one of the first things that we noticed was that the whole Mayones outfit has a very relaxed attitude. They don’t seem to get a ton of visitors and they don’t really have a showroom as such. Mike had warned me about this beforehand. Essentially all their basses go straight from the workshop to the resellers and customers. You can’t go to Mayones’ workshops and expect to test a particular bass that you are looking for. They have a few basses at the reception area, but not what I have been looking to buy myself, but I knew that before I travelled.

Signed pictures from guitarists and bassists that play Mayones guitars

Mayones reception area with signed pictures from Mayones endorsees

Mayones is a family business with the mother and two brothers running it. It was started in 1982, when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain and it was very hard to get hold of any type of electric guitars in Poland. So the family setup a guitar business in their garage. Mayones moved to the current facilities in the ‘90s and have been expanding them gradually ever since. Today the company have about 30 employees of which 25 are luthiers working at one stage or another in the workshop. Five people work with sales, marketing and administration.

Mack Konczak, who works with international resellers and distributors, showed us around the workshops. First we went to the main wood storage where the wood is kept, sometimes for years, to dry out. From there we walked passed the paint shop, which didn’t have many guitars in process, on towards the wood workshop, which is currently being expanded to deal with the current surge of orders which Mayones is having. (When I say guitar I am using it interchangeably for guitars and basses. Although they make more guitars than basses.) At the same time the wood workshop is being used to make instruments, so you can imagine that it was a bit hectic in there. The workshop isn’t laid out in exact sequence of how the work happens, so in this walkthrough you may see some things out of order compared to how you may expect the work to progress.

Mayones guitar and bass paint shop

Paint shop

Mayones guitar and bass body materials

Body materials for guitars and basses

We go to the area where all the instruments are worked on, being fretted, assembled and more. It is a bit overwhelming stepping into a guitar workshop with hundreds of guitars and basses being worked on. Everywhere you look there are bodies or necks hanging, lying or stacked. Every piece I looked at I was trying to figure out what type of guitar or bass it would become. Apart from some minor items which today are produced in a CNC machine, essentially all wooden parts of the guitars at Mayones are handcrafted.

Mayones guitars and basses waiting for more luthier love

Guitars and basses waiting for some luthier love

This year, Mack and Mike told me, they are expecting to make something between 1500 and 2000 guitars. Essentially every guitar is pre-ordered. Business has picked up significantly this year and they are expanding the woodworking part of the workshop to be able to handle all the orders.

The majority of the guitars are sold more or less equally in Japan, the USA and in Europe. You don’t see that many Mayones basses for sale on the second hand market, the odd Jabba 5 and a few Be in the UK and in France as far as I can see. But maybe that isn’t very surprising. Mike told us that nearly every bass is customized for the customer, not many are sold “stock” as described on their website. And when you order a customized bass for € 2000 / US$ 2600 / £ 1700 or more, you probably aren’t going to go sell it on the secondhand market that quickly.

Mayones guitars and basses, pained and ready for the next step.

Mack Konczak shows material for a Mayones guitar neck

Mayones bass body half with nice top wood

Ready made Mayones bass bodies

We saw the room where the guitars hang to dry after painting. I think they called it Bahamas or Bermuda or something such, as it was often very warm there. Here, like in all areas of the workshop, there were some guitar bodies that have been hanging around for years. These were made as test or for expectations of orders that didn’t pan out or some other reasons. I’d love to hang out a bit longer one day and actually go through these in detail. You could get some real lovely things made out of these bodies hanging around.

Mack Konczak shows where all the exotic woods are stored for Mayones

Exotic wood storage

Near complete bodies and necks for Mayones basses

Ready made Mayones bass necks

Back of Mayones Jabba bass body

Mack Konczak explaining how top woods are created

Mayones paint drying room

A smaller section of the workshop was where the luthiers that produce the custom shop guitars are crafted.

Mayones Custom Shop

Mayones Custom Shop

Mayones Custom Shop

Finally we got to the quality-testing department, where a luthier sat and test played a Jabba 5 just as we were walking through.

Mayones Quality Assurance testing out a bass

Mayones Quality Testing

I asked about their choice of hardware and electronics. Most of what they use are their own branded hardware. You can order other components if you want, but essentially they said that the flexibility they get from having their own mics and hardware allows them to respond quickly to changes. And as they make small series they feel that flexibility is necessary. I believe both hardware and electronics are made in Poland.

As part of the entrance and reception area Mayones have a small test room with a few guitar and bass amps. It was small enough that you have to watch how you turn with a bass or you’ll knock the headstock in the wall. I got to lay my hands on one of the Be Gothic 4s and also a Jabba Classic 4, which was on its way to Japan. I don’t really get on with Jazz basses for some reason (mic layout and the way I hold my right hand) so I can’t really tell much if they are any good to play. Even though most interest was shown on the forums about the Jabba 5s. Although others say they are really nice players.

Mayones Jabba 4

Mayones Jabba 4

But the Be Gothic 4 which I tried was very nice. Both were lighter than I expected and had a similar neck profile compared to what I am most comfortable with (late 70s and mid 80s Ibanez Musician and Roadstar basses). The room and amplifier setup, Aguilar, and time available, wasn’t such that I really could get a good assessment of how they actually sound, so not much help there from me.

A Mayones Be 4, tested by yours truly

Mayones Be 4

If you order a Mayones bass today it has something like a 20-24 week lead time before it is finished. Which is fairly normal in the custom built guitar world. They build guitars in batches, for efficiency, so if you are lucky there is a Patriot 4 (my favorite), or whatever your preference is, sitting on the shelf from a previous batch, which can turned around quicker than that. But after the Musikmesse guitar show in Germany and the NAMM Show in the US this year business has really picked up. Thereby the expansion of the workshop that is ongoing and the longer lead times than they have had before.

A big thank you goes out to Mack Konczak and Michael Gabryelczyk and the rest of the Mayones crew, who made our visit to the Mayones guitar and bass workshop a real treat. And for the reader, I hope that this has given you guys and gals a little bit of what you were looking for regarding Mayoness basses.

We also spent the rest of the day and the evening in Gdansk, which is a lovely looking old European Hanseatic League city, but that is another story.

Gdansk downtown

One place, which does have a few Mayones basses in stock, is Bass Direct in Warwick, UK. Check them out at: http://www.bassdirect.co.uk/

More photographs can be found in a Flickr set from the visit. http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjelkeman/sets/72157634340399354/