Seamoon Funk Machine
If you added up every pedal ever created, distortion devices would surely capture the lion’s share of the market. There are so many ways to amplify and clip a signal that everyone has their own take, and even small tweaks can result in big changes, or at least enough to call it a new product. Near the bottom—or maybe even perhaps at the very bottom in terms of sheer volume—is the humble envelope filter.
While the cabinet has many of what we consider to be the finest iteration of certain effects types, we also have a cache of things recognized for their canonical significance. One such device is the original Seamoon Funk Machine. While it’s not the first box folks think of when they think of true envelope filters, it was the first, and it gives me a reason to once again sing the praises of Mr. Craig Anderton, the Michael Jordan of DIY guitar effects.
In the early ‘70s, Craig Anderton walked into Skatzenbag Music in Berkeley with a pedal in hand. He asked for John Lang, the store’s owner, and showed him a pedal he’d been developing. Lang was so impressed with the sound that he set out to assemble a team of engineers to cut into the burgeoning pedal market. The company centered around Lang and his talent acquisition was called Seamoon, and later, Analog/Digital Associates, or A/DA.
A/DA went on to develop many classic pedals, from the Final Phase to the appropriately-named Flanger. One such unit is of the rarest pedals ever made, the gargantuan Harmony Synthesizer. 950 were made. Robert Fripp owns two. All that aside, the first product from Lang’s central engineer core was the Funk Machine, a tweaked version of Anderton’s original prototype.
The effect is an envelope follower, which is one half of an envelope filter. It sounds a little hazy, because most people conflate the two. Typically, envelope followers are the less elegant second cousin of the funk family. A follower is the envelope detector part of the circuit, while an envelope filter takes that circuit and uses it to trigger a filter of some type. Only a handful of followers were developed in the early days of envelope-style effects, and the Funk Machine is one.
However, when it was released, the product manual called it a “synthesizer.” As we’ve covered time and again, the lure of the synth was a strong one, and pedal companies released all manners of things that they hoped would settle into the impending synthesizer pedal category, a vast, untapped landscape of pedals and a clear indication as to where effects were heading.
When the first version of the Funk Machine dropped, it sounded fine and dandy, but some players complained about what happened when certain notes hit it. Rhodes pianos were in heavy demand and the weak output of the Rhodes just didn’t open up the envelope particularly well. Upon releasing the second version, the Seamoon squad sought the help of an outsider, Jerry Pynckel.
Pynckel designed an outboard FET-laced input and a rudimentary compressor circuit that improved response and overall smoothness. Several prototypes left Seamoon but the owner had already ordered boards without enough space to implement the new changes. A scuffle ensued and one of the financial backers of Seamoon exited over the squabble. The second version of the Funk Machine was nevertheless released with some slight improvements, which became known as the definitive version, both graphically and sonically.
Bass god Larry Graham used a Funk Machine V2 due to its unique subharmonic throb that may have been the first pedal Easter egg, an achievement described in the manual with great detail. Because the frequency control adds a little treble to the signal, bass frequencies especially benefit from the gentle equalization for a particularly spanky quack.
Mr. Anderton first published the groundbreaking Electronic Projects for Musicians in 1980, which wrested the power of circuit design from pocket protector-adorned Poindexters and put it in the hands of the working musician. Though Anderton proclaimed that ICs were the wave of the future and scarcely mentioned transistorized effects, his impact was immediately felt. In 1998, R.G. Keen of geofex.com cracked the code on the Funk Machine, and thanks in large part to Anderton’s book, budding builders were able to affix the proposed FET input to the Funk Machine. How’s that for serendipity?