NAMM 2019: Q&A with Roger Smith (Source Audio)

At NAMM, Roger (Founder of Source Audio) graciously sat down with me for some Q&A.

TGP: What did you do before Source Audio?

Roger: I was the head of all audio and video chip development at Analog Devices. Analog Devices is the key chip supplier to every mixed signal effect pedal company. That's where I got the idea of going off and starting our own company. Actually three of us from Analog Devices started up Source Audio in conjunction with Bob Chidlaw who was the chief scientist at Kurzweil and he did all of their effects. So, we have very, very deep knowledge from analog devices and Analog devices is our key technology supplier as a company.

TGP: You joined TGP in 2007. Do you remember how/why you found us?

Roger: That's a good question. I think I was in the process of searching for the keywords around our first products and then noticing that there was some discussion and posting going on and questions and I thought, oh, well, here's a question being asked about our product. I should jump in and maybe answer that question. So that's what led me to joining: our first product came out at NAMM in 2006 so not too long thereafter.

TGP: While your core products are pedals, you've also recently released some interesting products for integrating pedals on a board. Where did that vision come from?

Roger: I think that we're always paying attention to how customers are using our products. A lot of that comes from being so deeply engaged in The Gear Page and um, and really living with our customers as they're living with our products and paying attention to some of their desires. Particularly when it comes to creating presets and sharing presets. If one lives of the bubble of I only do pedals, then you really aren't thinking about the pedal board ecosystem which is out there. That's very important. So we want to make sure that we're providing not only the pedals but also the tools and the software and the things that go around those pedals so they can be seamlessly is with each other. And if you're excited about the sounds that you're making, you can seamlessly share them publicly with the community,

TGP: Your products seem well-differentiated. How do you keep the ideas flowing?

Roger: There's a couple of ways. First of all, as a company, we go out to lunch together every single day and spend that time brainstorming joking and responding to what's going on in the community. And because I'm so engaged in The Gear PageĀ as is Jeff [Mcalack, SA's marketing director], we're constantly following discussions around our products, the wants and desires our customers are having as they are using our products and also paying attention to what's going on with the experiences that people are having with our competitors' products. I believe that as we are constantly engaged with these topics, it leads to creative solutions. I think that's kind of the key thing. First of all, you've got to be paying attention and having all this information coming into the company. That's an area where I think we excel. But then you have to create a forum inside the company where you can bounce ideas off and then quickly go back to the community and bounce your ideas off them. This kind of constant interaction is really what leads to innovation. It's not one smart, brilliant Steve Jobs-like person. Now maybe those people are out there and I know Steve Jobs was one of them, but I don't think you can build a company around one single visionary. It really needs to be built around a process of engaging with your community and collectively finding innovation.

TGP: You're very upfront about incorporating input from sources like TGP discussions. How do you know when to follow the wisdom of crowds and when to follow your instincts?

Roger: That's a good question. I think it's always a good idea to give the technical creators in your company a certain amount of leeway and developing their ideas and turning their ideas into something that's commensurate with their vision. Our new C4 synth product family was really Bob Chidlaw's dream. Most pedal companies would have killed that product but I thought Bob has earned the right to go off on his own and create something. So it's my obligation as the leader of the company to give these technical artists some leeway and then allow their ideas to then percolate throughout the forums to get feedback and then eventually turn that into a product. But you really need to allow artists to have a certain amount of latitude to bring their ideas to life. And I think that's the right way to let that kind of gut instinct be part of the process. I think the creative process demands that. We can't all be reacting to what people want: there has to be some give and take, but it also requires truly creative people to have some space to create without worrying about whether something's commercially viable. Luckily, given my engineering background, I'm okay with that. So Jesse, he's one of our visionaries technically. And there are times when I have to give him latitude. Likewise Bob Chidlaw.

[Opens up binder with block diagram of C4 Synth engine] This is what it looks like on the inside of this pedal. I mean most people would just view that as an envelope filter but Bob's like "No, no, no. It's gotta be a four voice synthesizer" and you'll notice that while the pedal only has four knobs, there's like 200 knobs on this thing [the block diagram].

TGP: So those are software-controlled then?

Roger: Absolutely! And then, in the community, there's probably a hundred people who will be able to program this and they then will save their presets and post them publicly and talk about them on the gear page. And then you can basically go here on your phone and immediately burn it into the pedal. No slow burning, but imagine I need to sample this, sample that, sample that and sound clips. They'll be sound clips on The Gear Page. So we have a very simple, easy, and fun tool for navigating. And then this huge tool for the creative people.

TGP: So it's like a series of pedals within a pedal.

Roger: It's nested complexity, simple here and then layers of complexity below it. You only need to go as deep as you need to go.

TGP: Last question: What, what would you like people to know about the source on your team or your products?

Roger: I think we are the most customer-driven company in the pedal industry. I think we've been incredibly innovative in the way that we systematically bring the voice of the user community into our product development process and into our customer service and all that we do. And I think that that really is, at the end of the day, that's really all you need to know. All the products and all the little details are really a consequence of that. I don't really need to say, "We make the best delay pedal." I could just say, "Well, our delay pedal has had the benefit of more interaction with the user community than probably any other pedals before it. And that's really where we're different and special."

TGP: Thank you, sir.