This particular interview has been linked to several times, but the first post mentioning this interview has since been removed so I’m just leaving it here without a post from the forum.
Designer Profile // BOB BRADSHAW
by James Santiago
Were you still working for the military when you decided to build audio gear?
Yeah, I was actually recruited from school to work for Hughes Aircraft. I moved out [to LA] in late ’78. I always wanted to get into music electronics somehow. I didn’t know really how to do it, but I figured I’d get a basic knowledge of electronics first. That’s why I went to electronics school. Hughes paid my way out to California. I left them after a year and saw an ad in the paper for a place called Musicians Service Center. I’d never really worked on musical gear at all. I had some fundamental knowledge, and I was trouble-shooting electronic assemblies and stuff at Hughes, but no real musical stuff. I just had an urge to learn that stuff. So I jumped right in the fire, man, at Musicians Service Center! [Laughs] I was fixing all kinds of amps, PA gear and anything that came through the door. Luckily, there were some more experienced techs there that helped me out. You know, I fried myself more than once on a few Marshall amps. [Laughs] There was a guy in the back who put pedalboards together for people. At the same time, Paul Rivera was building pedalboards for all of the studio guys in town.
Wasn’t Paul also modifying Fender amps?
Yeah, he was doing all of that stuff, and this guy at Musicians Service Center was building his own, little versions of pedalboards for people. I started kind of getting an interest in that. I’m a big reader, so I was always reading magazines about that stuff. I was intrigued by articles I read from Craig Anderton. Mind you, there wasn’t any MIDI, and there wasn’t any really ‘rack-mount’ type of stuff, other than in the studios. It was all pretty much pedals on the floor, and maybe a few guys had various, little pieces of gear. I started at home developing my own little switching circuit because I was watching guys play and they were fucking tap-dancing all over their pedalboards. It took away from the music. Bending down and tweaking stuff… It was lame. I figured, “Let’s see if there’s some way to make it all uniform and have a bank of switches, each one with an LED, so at least you know when something is on.” Paul was modifying pedals to give them LEDs and proper by-passing, but I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to be able to take a pedal and plug it in and, if I didn’t like it anymore, pull it out and plug something else in without modifying it and de-valuing it.
Well, Pete Cornish over in England was doing even more by taking them completely out of their original boxes!
Yeah! That is so wrong to me. I mean, he does great work and everything, but it was just terrible that you would mangle all of your pedals. That didn’t make any sense to me, because then you’re locked into the stuff and you can’t easily substitute things. Guitar players change their stuff all the time, man. That’s the nature of the beast – you’re always trying different things. So at home I built some little foot-switchers for a couple of club players around town. It was still all on the pedalboard, though. It wasn’t like a remote-switcher and another router. Then I started thinking, “Let’s take it off of there so you can adjust stuff and not be bending down on the floor.” I developed a remote-control with a multi-pin cable that would go to the rack-mount unit. Around that time, I was telling those guys at MSC, “Look, this is a good idea. We should do something with this.” The owner of the place looked at it and he kind of went, “Ugh, go away!” [Laughs] I thought, “Okay, fine, whatever you think.”
Right about that time I met Buzzy Feiten. I looked at his pedalboard and said, “I can fix that.” So I tackled it. He was my first real pro guy and I was a major fan. I was, like, freaking out. My girlfriend had to go back and introduce herself to get me to go backstage! We were at a club called the Sweetwater in Redondo Beach. There I was, meeting one of my idols, and at the same time, he was really receptive to what I was telling him. I thought, “Wow, this is really great.” So, suddenly, I got Buzzy on my side. Little did I know what that was going to entail. [Laughs]
Oh yeah, I know about Buzz’s gear tweaking!
Yeah, he’s a tweaker and he’s constantly searching. My black guitar right there, Buzzy gave me that. And if you take the pick guard off of that guitar it is totally gouged. [Laughs] That’s, like, a ’64 Strat body, and it’s totally gouged out from when he would move pickups around and change things.
You picked a good first client!
Yeah. I was fueled by him and he was fueled by the possibilities, man, and we were just going for it. I’d been developing this stuff and learning all the time and it was just, like, exploding on me in terms of the amount of knowledge. There was nothing else like that at the time. That was pre-MIDI, too. We’re still talking about just having remote switches on the floor controlling stuff in the rack. From there it was word of mouth. I started getting calls from people. Dean Parks came in and Paul Jackson Jr. came in. That was 1981. I’ve kind of marked various little places in my “career” by different people. Buzzy, of course, was ground zero, pretty much, even though I’d done some stuff before. Then, probably the next one was meeting Mike Landau in 1982. I met him at a Tom Scott session that Buzzy was on as well. Buzzy was trying to get me to go on the road with him with Olivia Newton-John. [Laughs] I’d never been on the road. They didn’t want to hear about me, some green kid coming out. But I’d built Buzzy’s rig, and he said, “Look, I’ve got to have my guy run this thing and keep it going.” He wanted the guy who built it out there with him in case something happened. That’s when I met Mike and we develop a rapport and he wanted [a rig], too! So, throughout Olivia’s tour that summer of 1982, we were mapping out what I was going to do for Mike. In fact, I hooked him up with a little prototype thing to use on Olivia’s tour. Once Mike came in, there was a whole other level of possibilities. I ended up going on tour with Mike on Joni Mitchell’s tour in 1983. I was doing stuff after shows like yanking the switchers out of the rack. If we had a hotel that night, I’d be in the hotel room soldering stuff.
Were you using relays to do the switching back then?
At that time, it was all active electronics. We were doing active FET [field-effect transistor] switching and, of course, there were buffers involved. All of those boards and switchers were hand-built and hand-wired. If you saw the bottom side of those, everything was mounted on perf-board and point-to-point wired. No PC boards or anything. It was really labor-intensive.
Mike and Steve Lukather grew up together and were buddies, and Mike hipped me to Luke. I hooked up with Steve Lukather [in the] summer of 1984, and that’s when things really started taking off. I worked and toured with them for years. From 1985 to, like, ’90-’91, every show they did, I was there. I was custom-building rigs for other people, too. It took a few years to realize that there are certain building blocks that are the same in everybody’s rig. Then MIDI came along. The system worked the same way but you also had MIDI program-change commands that would go out when you stepped on a preset to call up the different patches. While I was working out all of the switching stuff, I was dealing with levels and making sure that every device was seeing its proper level and impedance so that everything worked.
When did you leave MSC and open your own shop?
As soon as I met Buzzy and started building his system, I left MSC. I went to work in the pressing plant at Capitol Records to bring in money. Once I went on the road with Buzzy in the summer of ’82, I left Capitol Records and I was a free agent. I was freaking out and wondering how the hell I was going to make money. I got a good salary on Olivia’s tour, but suddenly I wasn’t getting a paycheck anymore. I realized that I had to come out with some products. I was really getting tired of building custom rigs every time. They’re really labor-intensive, they cost a lot of money to build, and they just take so much time. I was back-logged, sometimes over a year, for rigs. And, you know, people don’t go that way anymore. [Laughs] They want it now!
How involved was the building process for you?
I’m talking about component level, all the way down to the blank chassis. I’d cut the holes in it, and the circuit boards were hand-built. The foot-controller evolved but it stayed in its same basic operating approach. We’ve changed things underlying it in terms of how it works, but it pretty much works the same as it did almost 20 years ago: an individual switch and LED for each function in the system that you want to control, along with presets to allow you to pre-set combinations of those things. That’s why, when you look at a board that we make, it’s usually bigger and has a lot more switches than a typical MIDI controller that just sends out a patch change. My thing is backwards from that: you’ve got everything laid out in front of you and on top of that you have the presets. They’re modular and expandable. You can start with a smaller version and expand the system as you grow.
At what point did Rocktron get involved with your company?
By then it was the late ’80s and I was hooked up with Van Halen (and that’s another level of recognition). I had been using [Rocktron’s] HUSH things in rigs. They really spoiled me. Having the HUSH in there for the longest time was a good thing, but it was a Band-Aid. They said, “We should put out a switching system.” I thought, “Wow, this is great,” because that would really free me up from having to deal with all of the manufacturing, which is just a bitch. So they started developing this switching system. I was just grateful that I didn’t have to build those things anymore. They added more features than I felt were necessary, ’cause they were thinking, “We’ve got to get to a wide variety of people.” If you look at any of my gear, most of it is pretty simple in terms of its operation, and it’s not confusing in terms of controls. It’s basic, and I like it that way. I’ve been fortunate. I started out working with pros. I wasn’t looking to sell to every single kid out there that needed what Van Halen had. I wanted to work with pros and I wanted to work with the end user. It’s more creative that way, you know. It’s easier if you’re going to be working with the guy that’s going to be driving the thing. That’s the best that you could hope for.
[Rocktron] added all of these features, and I finally got a hold of one. It was cool. It was really good at first, especially the foot-controller because it added to what I had already done. It had a little character display which was cute. It had features like being able to arrange presets into a song, which I thought was pretty cool. But the audio router didn’t use quite the same components that I had used. It was plagued with other, little problems early on with some jacks that they were using. Another killer was that they totally underestimated the cost of the thing. So they went to all their dealers and said, “Here, it’s a Bradshaw Switching System,” and everybody went “Wow, great, give me one,” and before the things even shipped, they had to go back to all the dealers and say, “Oh, by the way, we underestimated the price. It’s going to cost this much more.” Dealers don’t want to hear that shit, so the thing was kind of doomed from the start.
So you were happy to see it out there, but….
Yeah. I had never worked with another manufacturer before to, like, put my foot down and go, “Look, it can’t be this way.” I was just grateful that they were doing it, so I kind of went with it. They made them for years. A lot of them are still out there. It was really a tough sell for them, too. It was something that really required some knowledge. Dealers didn’t know how to deal with it. They didn’t give a shit. They didn’t realize that they had something there that could demo all of the other gear in their store. I remember walking into Manny’s [Music] one time in New York (they didn’t know it was me), and I saw [the Rocktron Bradshaw Switching System] lying over in a corner. I asked them, “What’s this thing?” And they said, “I don’t know.” They don’t want to know about it. They want to sell a guy a fucking whatever, take the money, and see the guy walk out the door. “See ya later!” It was always tough to educate people and dealers about how this stuff was going to make their lives better.
Did you use the Rocktron version in your custom-built systems at all?
For a while there I was exclusively using the Rocktron stuff. And then I realized that the Rocktron thing is too big for some people and not big enough for others. I knew that it was going to come to an end eventually, so I started developing my own foot-controller, along with that some other products. Building systems has always been the most fun part of it: designing a system and seeing it come to life.
I seem to remember you building a pretty elaborate system for David Gilmour.
Yeah, his was pretty elaborate. There were actually two different versions of that. When he came in, he had been used to using a bunch of pedals. We put all of this rack-mount gear together and did our normal trip, and he didn’t like it. It wasn’t his sound anymore, and it wasn’t as easily accessible. You know, back then you’d sit there with an SPX-90, scrolling through programs. He wanted to go to a pedal and go bink and get a little instant gratification. So the system came back in and we re-arranged it for all of the pedals. It evolved quite a bit.
Do you still find it hard to get players to put their pedals in a rack instead of on the floor where they can see them?
Yeah, people are used to looking down and seeing pedals on the floor and stomping on them. Once they get to hear and use [a rack system], all of those apprehensions go away. The Rocktron [switcher] was really an active switcher, meaning that it had active electronics in the signal path. If you had a big string of loops, you had a whole lot of circuitry in the signal path. Even when the loops were bypassed, you were still running through a lot. With pedals, that became much more critical in terms of making them sound like they were plugged straight into the amplifier. We developed more passive audio routing so there wasn’t much active electronics in the signal path, so it was much truer. The good thing is that the routers disconnect the cables connected to the pedals, too!
My main issue with buffers is that then when you stick any kind of old fuzz after one, it sounds horrible.
Right! Those devices, typically ones that utilize discreet transistors, want to see a high-source impedance. That’s the output of your guitar. You’ve got to be careful putting buffers in the signal path, because then those pedals aren’t seeing that reactive impedance from the guitar itself. We tend to put all of those critical things up front and buffer after them, because you’ve got to have buffers in certain places in the signal path. A lot of people say buffers make their signal too bright. Well, the buffers are actually allowing your instrument to react into its proper impedance. You can load down a guitar through a buffer [to] roll off highs – or run a 100-foot cord if you want! [Laughs] The bottom line is: whatever works for you. Hey, man, I did stuff for people because they wanted it. I didn’t impose myself on it. If they asked me what I thought worked, I told them what works and what is easy to interface. But I’ll make anything work that anybody wants to use. A sound is subjective. If it’s a crappy pedal, well, crappy is subjective. [Laughs]
When did you start building your own amp?
I commissioned Michael Soldano back in ’87-’88 to build the X88R pre-amp. We were doing a Toto tour, and Steve was using a Soldano amplifier for lead, a Marshall for a crunch sound, and a Boogie for a clean sound – all loaded-down heads – in a huge rack, and they were giving me shit about freight.
I thought, “Let me get Mike to build a three-channel pre-amp, because that’s what these amps are, anyway!” So Mike built the prototype for me. I did this all on my own, without Steve saying anything about it. I even gave Mike one of my switcher chassis. That’s what the prototype was built into. He built this great pre-amp and I brought it in to Steve and said, “Look at this, man: Here is everything in two rack spaces.” He loved it. We did a couple of little tweaks here and there and got it dialed in, and there was the Soldano X88 pre-amp. We used that thing on tour for years and years. Even inside the box [Michael had] written that it was built for me per my specs. Of course, it’s his circuitry. I told him the concept and what I wanted to have and he built it.
He started building those things like crazy. I didn’t ask for anything from him. I thought it was great. We were friends. When I would buy one from him to put in a rig – and I put a lot of those pre-amps in a lot of major guys’ rigs – he was charging, like, $1,800 for this pre-amp and selling them to me for $1,700!
You didn’t see anything else from that pre-amp?
NO! I was happy that he made it because it made my life easy. He was making a ton of money. He was making a great thing. This went on for years. After a while, the Soldano pre-amps needed something. They needed life at the top and they needed some more oomph on the bottom. Mike Soldano even said that the pre-amp thing was tough to deal with because there’re so many things that can get in the way with a pre-amp. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen between the output of the pre-amp and what comes out of the speaker. With a head, you know exactly what you’re dealing with as a manufacturer. I’d developed a friendship over the phone with John Suhr over in New York. I talked to John all the time and I was like, “Look, man, there are changes that need to be made. Let’s do our own pre-amp and add the kind of things that we feel that it should have.” We actually added another tube-stage EQ to our pre-amp because you never knew what kind of power amp guys would be using.
Back when pre-amps started coming around, there weren’t guitar-voiced power stages available. You had PA-type things or the power stage of an amplifier if you were lucky enough to get an amp with an effects return. We were adding [external] EQs to the X88 because [the pre-amp] wanted to see a guitar-voiced-type power stage. With our pre-amp, we added a switchable tube-stage EQ so that if you did use one of those flat-response power amps, you could give it some life and it would sound better.
If you put a pre-amp and a power amp in the same box, you’ve got a head with a good loop, because you can totally separate them. People say, “I like the sound of a head; I don’t like the sound of a pre-amp and a power amp.” Well, what kind of power amp are you using? Have you matched that up properly? As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t any difference between those things. A head is a pre-amp and a power amp in a wooden box!
When we built our pre-amp, we voiced it with the power stage of a Marshall amplifier with EL-34s and Vintage 30 [speakers]. We compared every single power amp that came along. I’ve got a system where I can switch [each] power amp into the same set of speakers so that I can compare instantaneously. A [Mesa Boogie] 2-90 [stereo power amplifier] doesn’t have two separate power supplies. There’s inter-modulation between the channels due to a common power supply. If you can separate that stuff by using two [independent mono amps], your stereo image gets wider. When it came to solid state power amps, we found that ones that utilized MOSFETs [metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors] seemed to be warmer-sounding. One of the things that Mike Landau and I developed early on was this thing called ‘slaving.’ Other people were doing it, but I didn’t know about it. We really opened that up to a lot of people, I think, when we started doing that in the early ’80s.
I remember seeing Steve Vai’s David Lee Roth-era rig that you built with a lot of slaved heads and racks of power amps.
When we were developing that whole thing, we used load resistors. Load resistors were padding the signal down and loading the amplifier [so it could] act as a pre-amp. We went that way for the longest time. The Boogies were some of the first amps that we started doing that with. They were much more forgiving (having a load resistor on them) than, say, Marshall amps. As soon as we put a speaker on the amplifier it was like night and day: the amps were breathing properly. The Marshalls were the most sensitive to that. So I thought “Okay, I’ll put a 16-Ohm cabinet on my Marshall amp.” Suddenly people were carrying around these [closed] boxes with a speaker in them. Those are the load boxes so you can have a reactive load.
When I first did Van Halen’s rig, I built him a load box that would allow him to switch different heads into the same bank of load resistors. For years – starting with the 5150 tour on through OU812 – I realized that we shouldn’t have this load resistor on his Marshall amp, we should have a speaker. I was all excited to hip him to this revelation, you know! And I got up there, man, (they were in rehearsals) and said, “Look at this Ed, you’ve got to have a speaker on there!” (I wasn’t even talking about incorporating that dry speaker into the overall sound, I was just talking about hooking up a speaker and burying the thing so that it is just a reactive load.)
He heard it and he just went, “Nope, it ain’t happening.” I was crushed, man. He was like, “I didn’t like it. It didn’t work well with my wireless.” I was just like, “What are you talking about, are you nuts? You fucking idiot, I can’t believe you’re saying this.” He went back out on tour with his normal load-resistor thing. It took another year or so before we incorporated the speaker. Finally, somehow, it clicked with him. That’s when we started thinking, “Why are we burying the speaker?” Then he went to the [left wet – center dry – right wet] configuration.
Do people still ask you to build them the exact rig that Van Halen has?
Oh sure, yeah! I don’t do that. Some people don’t give a shit about what they’re using and don’t care who knows. Other people put time and effort into developing their sound and they don’t want people to know every single, stupid thing that they’re using. That’s understandable, and I respect that. People call up and go, “What’s this guy using?” I just say in generic terms that it’s a couple of delays and this chorus or that. I’m not going to get into the details. If anybody, like for magazines and stuff, wanted to know those kinds of things, I would always contact the guy first. Nine times out of ten, they would go “Sure, no problem.”
Most people will sound the same no matter what they play through.
That’s the thing about this business – everybody wants to know what everybody else is doing. That’s the frustrating part about it. I’ve got to watch myself sometimes. I’ve got to be diplomatic about that kind of thing and say “Look, all of this stuff really doesn’t matter.” All of this stuff is a tool box. You can’t fix a Ferrari with a monkey wrench. You’ve got to have tools.
The rack thing gets a bad rap all the time. People think that just because a guy’s using some little piece of gear like that, he’s covering up for some inadequacy. That’s the biggest load of shit. It’s all about choices. A guy chooses to play a Les Paul or a Strat or whatever kind of guitar he wants to use. It’s the same kind of choice if he wants to use an SPX-90 or a G-Force. I’ll tell you something man, as soon as you go from plugging your guitar straight into your amplifier, there’re three choices right there. You choose your guitar, you choose your cable, and you choose your amplifier. As soon as you get past that and you need more stuff, I can help you.
What is your main focus for Custom Audio Electronics?
The switching stuff is the closest to my heart because it’s the stuff that I developed, really, and it’s pretty unique. There wasn’t anything like it. There’s more competition out there these days, and all of it is based on… I ain’t bragging, but it’s stuff that I came up with. People have copied that. There are manufacturers out there to this day that are blatantly ripping me off, man. [Laughs] Prove me wrong. I mean, I’m not saying that I developed all of this shit in the first place, but I didn’t steal from anybody else. My concept and everything is certainly my own thing. So that’s my little “claim to fame,” so to speak.