Meet Tony Hall, the NASA Engineer Who Wants Your Guitar to Sound Dirty
It has become an inevitable part of the show-going experience: Phones held aloft, taking pictures of the action on stage. But early on, redheaded Lower Dens guitarist Will Adams noticed something unique about the phones being pointed at him while playing with the band. They were focused on his feet.
Gearheads make it a point to get prime spots up front during the band's set, pull out their phones, and take pictures of Adams's pedal board, curious about the elaborate assortment of unlabeled pedals—tremolo, fuzz, boost, phaser—that make up Lower Dens' ethereal woozy atmospherics. After the show come the questions: Where did you get them?
The answer: A doctor prescribed them. Dr. Balls.
"It happens nearly every time we play," Adams says, bemused.
Dr. Balls is Tony Hall, a NASA engineer and cheap-beer connoisseur whom Adams has known forever; his problem-solving skills and general handy nature are perfectly at home amid the circuit boards, casings, wires, pliers, resistors, old Soviet transistors, various tools, signal generators, and soldering irons that dot the workshop he keeps in his downtown Brooklyn apartment. He has built 35 pedals and two amps for Lower Dens to date.
"I get so many e-mails from Lower Dens fans who want me to build them the types of pedals they use," Hall says. His contact info is listed under the "Consorts" section of the band's site, and he has gotten said e-mails and pedal orders from all over the world: Japan, Singapore, Germany, England, Israel.
Hall is a guitarist himself, and he plays his own handmade gear in Cave Bros and Cold Ones. Before that, he played in Modern Bummer, which somehow existed in a world that never gave them the recognition a band with a name that great deserves.
Hall started building pedals four years ago. He built a simple boost pedal to start because it seemed like it would be easy enough. It was. "So many pedals today have 8 zillion parts and are so complicated," Hall says. "But an old fuzz face pedal is a very simple circuit."
Many of his early experiments were taken on to see if he could knock off existing pedals. He could, easily, and over the years he has become quite good at building exact sonic replicas of old-school pedals, many of which no longer exist in their original state, replaced by cheaper digital copies. He has stockpiled enough boards, wires, parts, and smarts to build them on the fly, should the need arise.
"We were recording our new album last October, and our producer [Drew Brown, Radiohead, Blonde Redhead] didn't think a certain part sounded right," Adams remembers. "He said, 'Man, if only we had a Klon Centaur, this would be great.'" The only thing Adams knew about Klon Centaurs—an overdrive pedal—is that they're very expensive. So he made a call.
"Tony made one that day, and overnighted it to our studio," Adams says.
Hall is equipped to make such quick turnarounds because his pedal building has become quite the boutique side business. He sells five stock pedals—Ballsmaster, Octaballs, Balls MkII, Black Balls, and Pink Balls—via his website, ballseffects.com, and at Williamsburg's Main Drag. Each is a replica of classic pedals.
The Ballsmaster is a treble boosting copy of the original Dallas Rangemaster, the pedal associated with giving guitars a great sustain during solos that's most closely associated with Brian May and '70s Brit rock sound. The Octaballs is, you guessed it, an octave pedal, specifically Hall's take on the Tycobrahe Octavia, as made popular by Jimi Hendrix. His Balls MkII is a replica of the original Sola Sound Tone Bender MkII, the pedal responsible for Jimmy Page's sound on Led Zeppelin I. Hall's Pink and Black Balls are both distortion units, naturally.
Speaking of Hall's Balls, how did he come to name his line of pedals "Dr. Balls"? "Oof," Hall bristles. "It's a college nickname that stems from a profane party trick. It stuck."
He's still open to building custom pedals for musicians looking for something completely original, tweaks of the classics that Hall also builds by hand, adding and subtracting on the circuit board. He has become quite adept at having a particular tone described to him. He can build effects by ear, essentially. In addition to being what is, in effect, Lower Dens chief sound architect, he has built custom pieces for country crooner Robert Ellis, lap-steel rockers Grandfather Child, loud Brooklyn locals the Goddamn Rattlesnake, and Boston hardcore groups like Bloodhorse and (NPR favorite) All Pigs Must Die.
He estimates he has built 350 pedals to date, which is a pace he's comfortable with. "To turn this into a full-time business that paid my bills would be to change the way I do things," Hall says, standing in front of a pretty healthy workshop bookshelf crammed full of his handiwork. "I'd have to order mass-produced, pre-made circuit boards from China instead of building them by hand, and, you know, I'd have to find a lot more people to sell them to."
As is, the good doctor is already spending a fair amount of free time at the operating table, sending out his handcrafted Balls to buyers around the globe.
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