Somewhere in the catacombs of an industrial building near the Navy Yard sits the new home of Death By Audio, a Brooklyn-based custom effects pedal boutique run by D.I.Y. entrepreneur Oliver Ackermann, the charismatic and imaginative guitarist/ vocalist of New York’s “loudest band,” A Place To Bury Strangers. As I walked down an endless winding hallway, the smell of fried circuits filled the air before I encountered some indescribable sound emanating from a door marked only with the numbers 113. Spooky? Definitely. Loud? Definitely. I attempted knocking several times, then laughed to myself before giving Ackermann a call.
On the other side of the door was a cozy workshop, the state of which could be described as calculated disarray. Ackermann invited me in and introduced me to his busy skeleton crew at DBA. He started giving me a tour of the space before pausing near a station where one of his crew members was working out the kinks on a new product. Oliver knelt down to show me this bizarre red pedal with so many silver nipple-like foot switches, it looked like a mechanical udder. He then flipped it over exposing the insides and pointed out a series of several more tiny black switches. “Five hundred different combinations!” Ackermann excitedly bragged, insisting that his team “did the math.” For a nerd like me, this is the part where I drooled.
For those who don’t know, effects pedals are a hands-free way to instantly change the sound of an instrument and arguably a musician’s most important accessory. Both on stage and in the studio, they interrupt the signal from an electronic instrument and modify it before sending it out to an amplifier or a soundboard. Typically, a pedal is activated by stepping on a footswitch, and deactivated by simply stepping on it again; however, what if you need to activate three or more effects at the exact same moment? What if the exact sound you needed for a performance required some feat of electrical black magic? Enter the world of custom effects pedals.
“We’ve made all sorts of crazy things.” Ackermann said, who has made custom equipment for some big names like Nine Inch Nails, Wilco, and U2 (though it’s hardly a bragging point for the humble pedals maker). “It’s fun to do wild projects and make things that are even one-of-a-kind in some sort of way. Even things that aren’t useful to everyone, like a pedal that lets the guitar player jump between five different amps or something. It’s something cool for performance because when you see someone play something live, it’s a whole different thing then the recorded world. Creating the instruments for these sorts of things is totally different.” For pros, inventing custom pedals to help streamline the process of creating their live sound is only part of the equation. “We have to make shit that is really sturdy and super strong because, you know, we’re friends with musicians who like to fucking smash their pedals with their guitars or whatever,” Ackermann explained. “We like to do that stuff too!”
This strange sort of devil-may-care irreverence combined with an acute respect for functionality is reflected in the simple makeshift wooden cabinetry, shelving, and structural elements they’ve added to a space that was merely a big empty room when they first arrived.
“We tried not to put too much effort into it because we’ll probably end up moving again sometime,” Ackermann admitted in a bout of realism. “But we still tried to make it where we could have all this extra stuff that we wanted to do in this space as well.” He gestured toward two small rooms they had built after moving in; one furnished by one of Ackermann’s partners in the business, to be a video editing room, and the other a small recording studio for Oliver.
“I don’t mind living in a mess.” Ackermann said of constantly being surrounded by a mélange of activities. “My brain works in wild ways, but I like to jump around to a lot of different things. I mean, we’re moving from a warehouse where we could do everything we wanted,” he explained, referring to the former music venue/ recording studio/ rehearsal space of the same name that closed in November of last year.
As a custom pedal shop, DBA had its humble beginnings. “I had a giant warehouse in Virginia that I didn’t pay anything for. The rent was like four hundred dollars a month,” Ackermann said. “We built all these practice spaces in it, so the bands each paid, like, 120 bucks a month, and that paid for it. It was dope. We would just collect tons of junk. Once eBay started, it was like nobody was using it, so I was getting so much stuff for like, nothing. It was a time when I could really take stuff apart and tinker with things. Eventually I just wanted to move to New York and nobody else wanted to move, so I just did it.”
As many business owners know, operating a company out of Brooklyn can at times be a double-edged sword. “You pay a lot for space,” said Ackermann. “You pay a lot for everything that you do, so we can’t make these pedals for maybe as cheap as other people could, but I think also then being in New York and being able to talk with so many different bands, playing all these shows, and all these different opportunities you get, we build our products with–almost-more competition in mind.”
For a man who seems to constantly be on the move, I wanted to know what he and the team at DBA had in store for the future. Ackermann explained that a “bunch of stuff” is in the works.
“I feel like the business is probably going to expand into more areas like doing rack equipment and amplifiers and all the stuff we like building,” Ackermann explained. “The thing is, it just takes a long time to come out with new pedals each time. I don’t know maybe in 2023 we’ll come out with our first rack piece of equipment and maybe in, like, 2035 we’ll come out with our first amplifier.” A respectably chill timeline, if you ask me.
For every other young Brooklyn bohemian who is uncertain about their own a future, Oliver had this to say: “I think you should try to focus on what you love to do in life, and try as much as you can to do that as much as you can. You’ll enjoy it more and be happier with yourself. And better the world!”
… Or at least Brooklyn.
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