Monday, 13 February 2012

A Witty Quote Proves Nothing

I keep seeing this:

"People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are “The Advertisers” and they are laughing at you. 

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. 

F**k that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. 
You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs."

 - Banksy

I wanted to find the original source where it came from; an interview, review, magazine, website or maybe the stones it had been first carved into.

But why? Knowing who said it or where it was said first doesn't make any difference to this quote. The words are still as confrontational and should still make you think as much with or without the attribution. Is there a proxy fame I wanted to bestow on someone for having seen or heard something first? How does that help?

Perhaps it requires a known personality for us to take it seriously, give it a weight we think it needs to deserve our attention.

Quotes are added to documents and presentations cheaply to give gravitas, a scattering of authority. With a suitably famous name attached we'll believe anything and not question for ourselves if it makes sense or is appropriate in that context.

So the next time you see a quote, ignore who it's attributed to and test it for yourself. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Building A Guitar Pedal

Building or creating something is always fun; there's a magic in separate, inanimate, bits being combined to make something that comes alive through having a purpose and being used.

I've been eyeing up building a guitar effects pedal for a while, but worried that my soldering skills would leave me with a smoking useless heap of resistors and solder. Luckily you can buy kits which come with detailed instructions, which increases the chance of having something working at the end. It does make it more a paint-by-numbers exercise until you are confident enough to strike out on your own, but a good way of building some confidence. It also takes the hassle of having to buy a pack of three hundred resistors just to use four or trying to find some of the more obscure components.

Which pedal to build for your first clone is an easy; a Tube Screamer overdrive. This is probably the most cloned pedal and is an easy first build. It is used by a huge number of guitarists and considered a classic pedal by almost everyone. It's also a nice balance to the distortion pedal I already have, a very high-gain no subtlety monster. A tube screamer softly distorts the signal and keeps much of the original sound intact while and giving a mid-range boost. The originals were famous for the JRC4558D Op-Amp chip used, which wasn't present in later models until Ibanez started selling re-issues.

The most arduous part of the entire process was wet sanding the bare aluminium enclosure to a nice smooth finish. As it came the enclosure had some very deep grooves around the edges which needed a lot of sanding down with 80 grade sandpaper. After that going through increasingly finer grades was easy.

Soldering all the components to the PCB went very smoothly and was not as fiddly as I'd feared, even with the very tip of my cheap Wilkinson own-brand soldering iron falling off. Sometimes you get what you pay for, and for eight pounds that's not a lot.

Originally I wanted to use hydrochloric acid to etch a pattern into the top, but I don't have anywhere safe to do that. I thought a well sanded and clean metal finish would look good with a decal added to the top. Once I saw it in place on the floor it looks very unassuming, the bare metal just appearing grey, so I think a coloured painted finish is called for. Sadly painting will have to wait, I can't do it indoors I'm going to need something warmer and drier than the 1ÂșC that February is currently offering.

The trickiest part of the build was balancing the three loosely screwed in potentiometers in their holes while trying to solder them to the board and keeping the unsoldered LED in the right place. I'll have to de-solder the DC power supply in the future to paint the enclosure which might cause some problems.
Once installed on my pedal board the result is very nice, producing a rich, creamy sounding subtle distortion; a very satisfying way of spending a day.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Weak Brand Bargins

Branding is important for most companies, but if you're in a market selling generic products, then branding is often the only way to improve profit margins.

Branding has many purposes, but the most important are to identify yourself to your customers and proclaim that you're unique. If you can make people believe you're different then they'll also be willing to pay a different price for your product. This is especially important for generic products such as food and drugs where you're competing against products doing the exact same thing; think mineral water, out of patent drugs, flour, milk etc.

You can buy the supermarket own brand or a branded equivalent, in some cases you probably do, but why? Working out why you prefer a brand over a generic item can be surprisingly revealing.
This differentiation can be achieved in various ways; you attempt to associate your brand to certain feelings, situations, lifestyles or to be a proxy for other properties, such as high quality, craftsmanship, speed etc.

Sometimes these associations can go awry, but it does not have to be as badly as the recent example of BMW paying to brand what has turned out to be a deadly cold front Cooper.

Many brands now rely on Original Design Manufacturers (ODM) for design and produce their products. Most people are familiar with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) who manufacture parts of or whole products for a company that does the design, sales, marketing and support of those products.

ODMs normally do everything but branding and sales of a product, they also retain the intellectual property of the designs. Brands are then almost literally slapped on at the last stage of manufacture. This is often useful for companies to produce accessories or other items which are not a core part of their business expertise. An example could be Nokia earbuds, where Nokia's experience is in mobile phone technology, not audio products.

So what happens when you spot the same ODM product that has been branded under different brands? You get a bargain. Companies hate that.

This is bad for the brands because their ability to differentiate themselves, and so demand higher prices, has vanished. Bad for brands but great for the consumer.

Years ago I received some Maxell HP-NC22 noise cancelling headphones as a gift. I was hugely impressed by the effectiveness of the noise cancelling, which until then I'd regarded as a bit of a gimmick and the sound quality was excellent. Sadly the right hand ear pad broke from the headband after years of use.

To my frustraition they appeared not to be produced anymore, or those few places that still had stock priced them outside my price range at around £150.

Then I spotted the Blackbox M10s, which looked strangely familiar, but at £99 still a bit expensive.

Blackbox is an own brand of the ODM Phitek, which designs and sells noise cancelling technology and products. You can see the headphones on offer as OEM products on their website, marketed as Storm and Storm Pro (left and right below). But I can't buy individual headphones directly from Phitek.

So now the hunt is on, where can I find the cheapest version of these headphones knowing that they're going to be the same?

Then enter, via a What Hi-Fi review, the Goldring NS-1000, priced at £60 on, you can see that they are the Phitek Storm Pro, but subtly branded with the Goldring logo (picture five). Goldring itself specialises in turntable cartridges, so they rely on a ODM to produce the other items they re-sell via the excellence in audio quality associated with their brand.

This practice used to be a lot harder to spot before the internet allowed people to quickly compare many products at the same time. We can now also easily compare products across different geographical markets as well as brands.

Branding is a confusing world, a strange examples being Persil washing powder. A well known brand, but used by two different companies and with different formulations. In France two of the formulations are on sale, but only one is called Persil.

Lots of food and drink companies also make adaptions to their products (such as Coca-Cola's Mexican Coke) depending on local tastes or availability of ingredients. At this point the concept of a brand becomes more important as symbol for something emotional, as not even the product sold as that brand is the same.