This is the first blog entry of a series describing the evolution and development of Zexcoil® hum-cancelling pickups, Lawing Musical Products’ Tone Tuning Technology™ and the Theory of the Pole Piece (TOPP). This installment will outline the impetus to develop a one-coil-per-string pickup, the early development efforts that served to lay the foundation for the design elements incorporated in Zexcoil pickups, and some of the initial signals that pointed to the emphasis on engineering a pickup’s tonal signature with pole piece materials.
I’m a Chemical Engineer by education and I hold BS and MS degrees from The University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My early work experience consisted of a hodgepodge of odd jobs including dishwashing, landscaping and pumping gas. After receiving my Bachelor’s degree I worked in the field of High Pressure Liquid Chromatography for a few years. When I hit my mid-to-late 20’s I made a choice between buying a house and continuing my education and decided to pursue a MS at URI. My Master’s work consisted of developing thin film sensors on turbine blade alloy substrates (mostly at that time for in situ testing of jet engines during the development cycle). This work incorporated a range of techniques and provided me with a background in thin film and vacuum techniques (a lot of sputter deposition), metallurgy and electron microscopy. After completing my program in the familiar and comfortable environment of URI and my home base of Southern RI, I decided to throw myself into the pressure cooker of MIT. This was one of the hardest, and also one of the best, things I ever did. After getting my butt handed to me in the academic rigor of the “core courses” I realized my strength as I hit my stride in the research program. My research at MIT centered around semiconductor processing and my focus was on gas phase cleaning of silicon wafer surfaces. I was able to solidify and extend my skills in vacuum science and also pick up some knowledge of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS or ESCA) as well as get exposure to some of the plasma technologies applied to semiconductor processing. Upon finishing up at MIT I took a job with Motorola in Phoenix, AZ working on a process called Chemical Mechanical Polishing (CMP). I worked at Motorola for three years and then took a position at a small company called Rodel, still in CMP. Rodel was acquired by the Rohm & Haas chemical company, who were eventually acquired by the Dow chemical company.
Genesis of Lawing Musical Products
Sometime in the mid 2000’s I started to become less enamored with the corporate life and my wife Claire and I started to think about what else we might do where we could start to build something for ourselves. We were always thinking about doing something music related. One of our initial thoughts was to start a music store, but the difficulties of competing with the big box stores made this a less than attractive option the more we looked in to it. Another early thought was to attempt to make vacuum tubes. While I had no direct experience in this area I felt confident that my general experience in vacuum technology and my educational background in what basically amounts to Materials Science (although in a ChE context) would enable me to be successful. After doing some initial research into the requirements for tube manufacturing, we decided that this was a little much to bite off as a start-up endeavor.
In addition to being an Engineer/Scientist I’m a guitar player, beginning in high school and continuing to refine my chops through college. I played in a series of bands after graduating college, culminating in my not quite successful original band while I was MIT. This band, Gloryhound, did manage to make it to the finals of a nationwide battle-of-the-bands, the Ticketmaster music search. While we didn’t advance, we were proud of the fact that on the strength of two of my original tunes we were one of less than 200 bands selected from more than 10,000 entries that year. While we did appreciate this validation, ultimately it was too little too late and I put the band thing down while I finished up my Ph.D. After moving to Phoenix and realizing that I now had more time (and money) I started to pursue music again and also got more serious about the Tone Quest. As a young musician, I wasn’t lucky enough to be exposed to the kinds of influences that would properly educate me about the tools of tone. Coupled with the fact that I didn’t have a lot of disposable income over much of that period, I basically just threw together a rig that allowed me to make music and get a decent sound and I didn’t think too much about it. It wasn’t until later that my eyes were really opened to the broader world of gear and I dove into it with relish. This tonal awakening was also accompanied by spending time on internet forums where a lot of this formerly difficult to obtain information was shared openly, and also the explosion of boutique gear makers in the 2000s and even before.
So there I was, practicing in a partial basement in a historic home in downtown Phoenix, AZ with some of the noisiest knob & tube wiring you’ve ever heard. It was so bad that I really never played a Strat® at home and even humbuckers were incredibly noisy. I had a Telecaster® with some stacked noiseless pickups that I found less than desirable (very flat and lifeless) so I started thinking, “I should try to make a better hum-cancelling single coil pickup”. And, in fact, I thought I would try to make a hum-cancelling pickup with an individual coil for each string rather than stacked coils as in most of the existing designs. My thinking was always that six working coils have to be better than one working coil and a dummy coil. What did I know about making pickups? Nothing! But, having the experience of getting in to multiple technical areas that were historically more art than science and helping illuminate what was in “the black box”, I had confidence that I could figure it out. Even more important, Claire had the confidence that I could figure it out!
So, in early 2007 I bought a little hand crank winder (it was cheap and it had a counter) from some guy in Hong Kong on ebay and I started winding my own one-coil-per-string pickups. I started out winding cylindrical coils on conventional cylindrical single coil magnets. I made quite a few pickups this way and went down the path of cylindrical magnets for a couple of years. I rapidly discovered a couple of things. First, the basic idea of one-coil-per-string pickups consisting of round coils on round poles was not particularly novel. One of my boundary conditions was that if I was going to make pickups, it was going to be something novel (i.e. protectable from an intellectual property standpoint), so this was somewhat of an issue. I felt like I wanted to do something different with pickup technology, and felt like I wasn’t really equipped to or didn’t really want to, compete in the crowded boutique pickup market – dominated by winders with a wealth of accumulated experience that I didn’t have. Thankfully, the second problem I identified, while daunting, pointed to a potential pathway rich with the opportunity for innovation. This second problem is the issue of signal drop-out when designing with adjacent poles of opposite polarity.