Function f(x) Clusterfuzz

By Scott Auld

cluster_finalI first heard about Function f(x) pedals from one of its partners, Forrest Whitesides, whom I’ve known for several years from his participation on The Gear Page (as cj_wattage). I’ve bought one-off pedals that he’s made now and then, I’ve had him mod my wah and other pedals, and I even sold him my prized Les Paul when it was time for me to move back to the Fender camp.

When Forrest said he and some partners were starting up an effects company, I was conflicted. I was happy for them and for guitarists everywhere because I know that Forrest knows his stuff, and the pedals he and his partners would turn out were going to be great. I was conflicted because I know the guitar effects world is pretty crazy and I would hate to see my friend enter the mad universe that seems to be the pedal world. Turns out, Forrest and his partners have been able to navigate the insanity and come out with some really cool effects while remaining relatively sane.

Only a bunch of math nerds would come up with a name that sounds like “Function Effects” but reads in text like a math equation. Engineers, what would the world be without them?

Function f(x), LLC, came together the old-fashioned way: through internet message boards and with the help of a crowdfunded boost to its startup capital. The five company partners are an eclectic mix of personalities and specializations, but with a singular mission to bring to market the best guitar effects pedals that they can possibly produce. The company evolved over a long period from key friendships first forged in the DIY effect pedal online communities, most notably the forums hosted by Madbean Pedals and Build Your Own Clone. They tell me their primary focus is to design and produce musical equipment that is both highly functional and inspiring to the touring pro, weekend warrior, and bedroom rockstar alike, while striving to be as innovative as possible in their designs.

Function f(x) operates in a distributed, online fashion, as the partners do not all live close together. Joining Forrest in the company is Brian Aldsworth, the owner/operator of Madbean Pedals, a DIY-focused business that sells printed circuit boards used to build effects pedals. The company “quarterback” is Dave Friesema, another DIY forum stalwart, and it was his idea to pull together a team for Function f(x). The other two partners are not forum regulars, but both have extensive experience in electronics product development.

The guys from Function f(x) sent me their Clusterfuzz pedal to test drive. What stands out most to me about the ClusterFuzz is its sheer versatility. It’s not a low-gainer by design, but it can do crunchy overdrive up through raunch Velcro-like fuzz tones. If I had to sum up this pedal quickly, I would say that you can pretty much come up with just about any fuzz sound you may be familiar with, and you can get some convincing heavy overdrive tones as well.

The ClusterFuzz sounds densely textured with lots of rich harmonics. It cuts through the mix and gives you tons and tons of tweaking room. The Tone knob is high-cut control (variable low-pass filter), while Fuzz is an overall gain control. The Filter switch offers additional low-pass filtering control. There is a clipping selector rotary switch that steps through four sets of clipping diodes, as well as offering a “diode lift” (no diodes) option. The base tone doesn’t change when switching between diode sets, but the overall compression, dynamics, and low-end are very different, as is output volume. The “8-Bit” control I don’t totally understand, but I know that the more clockwise the knob goes, the more crazy the tones are coming out of the pedal. Forrest explains more about that in the Q&A section below.

Q&A Session with Function f(x)

The nitty-gritty details of how the circuit works are beyond the scope of a review based on the sound of these pedals, but I asked Forrest Whitesides, one of the product developers at Function f(x), a few questions about how everything works.

Q: Why did you guys decide to launch with a fuzz?

A: When we first had the discussion of what products to develop, one of the first things we all agreed on was a fuzz. Because "fuzz" is a very broad category with hundreds of current products, we really went out of our way to come up with something that is as original as possible. We just didn’t see the point in churning out yet another clone of some early 1970s Big Muff or rehashing the Fuzz Face or Tonebender yet again. Pedal geeks already have an outrageous array of excellent options for these classics. So we started tinkering with ideas on how to make fuzz tones without relying on the old favorites as a starting point. I expected it would be difficult, and I was not disappointed. We threw away maybe 10 ideas that looked great on paper before we settled on a few designs that stood out as having promise; and it ended up that those didn’t cut it either. I was charged with the Fuzz design lead, and I was about to temporarily take a break and work on something else, but then a “shower idea” struck and it turned out to be the sound we were looking for. I handed off my initial design to Brian and Dave, and they added some fantastic features to the core design.

Q: The ClusterFuzz has quite a few controls. Can you give a technical breakdown of what they all do?

A: Volume is just volume, like on any other pedal. The Tone control is a fairly simple single-pole variable low-pass filter you might find in any number of pedals, preamps, or stereo equipment. Fuzz controls the gain of the first transistor , so it’s sort of like a preamp gain knob on a guitar amp. The 8-bit control is more or less a gain control for the second transistor. The gain for transistor 2 is fixed, but this knob lets the output from transistor 1 drive transistor 2 harder. Once you go past a certain point, transistor 2 can't amplify the signal without distorting it massively, and you end up with square-ish wave output (which sounds like 8-bit Nintendo video games sound effects if you play it the right way…hence the control name). The Filter Switch provides a fixed level of high-cut on the input. This cuts highs at the front end, while the Tone knob cuts highs on the back end. This can nice to have at stage volumes because it wipes out a lot of ice-pick frequencies as well as noise floor hiss and buzz. The Clipping Selector rotary switch progressively does three things: reduces output volume, increases compression and sustain, and cuts low-end.

Q: I notice the bypass switch is the soft-touch type. Why did you go in that direction?

A: We wanted to avoid was that loud "ker-chunk!" that accompanies bypass switching on many pedals. Since we’ve got a guy on the team that is handy with programming micro-controllers, we figured it would be best in the long run to just design our own relay-based bypassing system. Relays are rated for many more actuations (tens of thousands more, at least) than the typical “blue” 3PDT mechanical bypass switch used in many pedals now. Our relay-based system is quiet, reliable, and true-bypass. Hard to beat that.

Q: How did you get the look and feel on the outside of the box?

A: The enclosures are cast aluminum (the current standard for effects pedals) and powder coated. Then we laser etch the graphics and text. The laser basically cuts away the powder coating down to the bare metal, which creates a nice contrasty “debossing” visual effect that is permanent. It gets expensive to rent time on a laser etcher, so we bought our own to keep long-run costs lower.

If you’re geeking for a fun pedal to try out, I would recommend checking out the Clusterfuzz from Function F(x). It might even replace some of your favorite pedals. Check out the company’s dealer information page for how to order your own:
http://www.function-fx.com/dealers.html

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