Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hyponomics: The Klon Centaur

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: July 3rd, 2014

The Klon Centaur, at first glance, seems an unassuming overdrive pedal. In its first incarnation, the Centaur came simply, and rather unattractively, in a matte gold casing with burgundy knobs for gain, treble and output; the only frill being an unadorned illustration of the mythological half-man, half-horse creature, after which the pedal’s named, wielding what looks like a sword or cudgel right below the gain and treble knobs. For such a minimalist aesthetic (compared to, say, anything Electro-Harmonix puts out), no other overdrive, or for that matter any other effects-pedal, inspires such contentious debate or even downright vitriol on music blogs, guitar forums, and the comment section of product reviews on YouTube than the Klon Centaur.

The reason for all the cyber animosity is that the Centaur, which has been out of production for years, is just so damn pricey – a used original (or, if you’ve already doled out the cash, a certified pre-owned original, hand-built by Bill Finnegan himself’) will cost you upwards of two-thousand dollars. As you may have already gleaned, the most frequent complaint about the Centaur by bloggers, commenters, trolls, etc., is that you’re not so much paying a couple grand for the astounding tonal quality – the warm, robust, tube-like breakup it’s purported to deliver – but the hype that for whatever reason has developed like ectoplasm around the fabled overdrive.

At some point in the late 80s, early 90s, Bill Finnegan conceived of a guitar effect that would emulate at lower volumes the organic distortion of a turned-up tube amplifier. One could get their hands on an Ibanez Tube Screamer at the time, but Finnegan, in an interview with West Warren from Premier Guitar Magazine, thought they “compressed the transient response of the original signal a lot, had a midrange character I didn’t like, and subtracted a noticeable amount of bass response from the signal as well.” What Bill was after was an overdrive that accentuated the natural characteristics of a quality amplifier, not something that filtered them. From the same interview: “[Finnegan] really wanted… a big, open sound, with a hint of tube clipping-a sound that would make you unaware a pedal was involved.”

For about four years thereafter, Finnegan, with the aid and technical expertise of MIT graduate Fred Fenning, slaved away on the design of the Centaur’s audio circuit, which Bill claims is a bit more involved than the circuitry of your traditional overdrive pedal. Moreover, the circuit they were devising made use of germanium diodes (as opposed to the silicon diodes that are generally found under the hood of an overdrive) that he was able to purchase on the cheap from a distributor who had a sizeable overstock. To Finnegan’s ears, the inclusion of these diodes in the circuit produced “a very natural-sounding distortion in terms of the harmonic response. It’s not harsh, but it also doesn’t round off the highs excessively. It doesn’t compress the signal as much as many germanium diodes seem to, but on the other hand it provides a little bit of what-to me-is exactly the right kind of compression.”

Despite an impressively acute concern for detail and embodying an admirable DIY ethos, Finnegan’s venture proved all too quixotic, never destined to last very long. Because of the exorbitant price of real estate in and around Boston, where Finnegan lived and worked, he was never able to expand production of the Centaur. For 15 years, about 8,000 Klon Centaurs were hand-built by Finnegan “on a cheap folding card table in a succession of small apartments,” using, exclusively, custom-made parts, which jacked up the aggregate production cost to “seven to eight times that of a pedal built with off-the-shelf parts” and, for an overdrive pedal whose retail value was only around $329, did not lend itself to hefty returns, much to Finnegan’s dismay. As it’s been shown here and elsewhere, time and time again, idealists tend to make lamentable businessmen. In the mid 2000s, Bill Finnegan stopped building the Klon Centaur.

During its modest lifespan, a number of marquee-names in the guitar world took a liking to the Centaur’s crafted tonal personality. A simple Google search will give you a disparate list of guitar greats who’ve been enamored by Bill Finnegan’s progeny: Jeff Beck and John Mayer and James Hetfield and Joe Perry and why don’t you just go ahead and pick a name out of the hat. In a piece Pedal Board Spiel, Nels Cline of Wilco writes, “Why the Klon Centaur?… It’s an amp in a box. No more worries in the world of amp du jour about overdrive tone. It will always be OK. The Centaur will take care of it. Consumers: It’s worth the wait to get one. I’ve had this thing for years now. What did I ever do without it?” With this kind of celebrity attention, it’s no wonder the price of an authentic Klon Centaur – there’s a whole market of Klon “Klones” – has skyrocketed in recent years.

Even Bill Finnegan seemed baffled by the hype-economics of the Centaur. In an effort to reproduce the greatly sought-after distortion of his original overdrive, Finnegan manufactured a short run of the KTR overdrive, which was based the original audio circuit he and Fred Fenning had developed but produced in a much more cost-efficient manner. Right below the footswitch, the KTR carries Finnegan’s somewhat wry inscription: “Kindly remember: the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.”

There are overdrive pedals on the market now that are purported to rival the Klon Centaur sonically. Some examples being the Soul Food by Electro-Harmonix, which to my ears sounds a bit chintzy but not a bad alternative for those with thin wallets (a demographic that constitutes most of the music-making population), and the Kalamazoo by Lovepedal, which frankly I couldn’t tell apart from the Centaur, but that’s just me, and costs a cool $200. But the question these gear-geeks forget to ask on whatever guitar blog, forum, or product review: Is all this obsessiveness with tone manipulation and gear hording really so necessary? I think someone like, say, Steve Albini would agree with me ­– largely because I’ve heard him make a similar point – if I said that great music can be made on even the crudest equipment. And just because you bought the perfect distortion tone doesn’t mean your music isn’t complete shit. And so unless you’re Nels Cline, an interesting guitarist in his own right, I recommend that you don’t buy the hype.

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