Steve Kollander launched Crucial Audio in 2005 and soon after released the beloved Echo-Nugget, a portable analog delay in the stomp-box format. The Echo-Nugget combines a boutique tube preamp with the classic sound of a Bucket Brigade Device (BBD) delay.
Designed as a sturdier alternative to tape echoes, guitarists and engineers quickly fell in love with its warm, gooey sound. Since then, Crucial Audio has released a series of popular devices, including several based on the original Echo-Nugget design, including the Studio-Nugget. This rackmount version is custom-voiced for studio use and also comes in a stereo version.
We recently sat down with Steve to chat about why people love the sound of the Echo-Nugget and Studio-Nugget, what people are using them for, and what other products Crucial Audio has to offer.
Tell me a little bit about why you started Crucial Audio.
I started Crucial Audio in Northern California back in 2005 with the goal to create great sounding and reliable electronic products for the music industry. The Echo-Nugget Vacuum Tube Analog Delay was our first product, featuring the warm tone of a high voltage vacuum tube preamp with a true BBD analog delay. Originally, it was a sound that I chased in my mind and something that I wanted for my pedalboard.
I'm a guitar player and have been a sound engineer for over 40 years. I started dabbling in electronics and playing guitar when I was 13. Then started running sound when I was 16. As a matter of fact, I turned 21 in a nightclub, running sound for a band. We were on tour in the 1980s, and I had to tell him I was turning 22 because we'd been playing there for a few nights before. That's another story.
Over time, the Echo-Nugget gained recognition amongst guitar players, and then recording engineers started getting key on it. There's a track (“Freece” on Kids See Ghosts) that my friend Nico Aglietti ran Kanye West's voice through his Echo-Nugget guitar pedal.
The Echo-Nugget put Crucial Audio on the map, in terms of recognition, and then I came out with the Time Warp, which is a modulator version of the Echo-Nugget. Then those evolved into the Studio-Nugget, which is a rackmountable prime number analog delay. The Echo-Nugget is voiced for guitars, while the Studio-Nugget is voiced for studio use. Additionally, I created some custom analog delay modules in collaboration with Matchless Amplifiers for an extremely special client of mine. I also released a line of Vacuum Tube Direct Boxes that sound great and have impressive technical specs. Check out the DUB-1 and DUB-5.
What’s changed the most over the years?
The Echo-Nugget took me several years to where I finally said, "Yeah, that's the sound I like." It's our oldest product and has been around for over 15 years. Now we have 10 products on the website.
When I moved to Northern California, back in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was almost a prerequisite that you have a Toyota pickup. Back then, they a 22RE engine that would go for like, three of four hundred thousand miles, and then you could sell it. I always admired that, as a manufacturer, Toyota looked at the feedback every year. They made changes along the way until they finally had to discontinue the 22RE because it was so successful and so reliable, it was affecting their resale.
I've kind of taken that approach with the Echo-Nugget, the Time Warp, and all of my products. With each circuit board revision, I try to make it better or address some of the requests that I've gotten. For example, the original Echo-Nugget was voiced for guitar, but after receiving requests for a studio version, I took a lot of time to voice them for studio use. I listen to what our customers are saying and requesting. And I'm constantly chasing that sound in my mind and I'm not satisfied until I have achieved it.
I'm a big fan of spectral purity on our pro recording products, as well as our guitar-level products. Over the years, I've worked to maximize the spectral purity of our products, meaning total harmonic distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, and frequency response. There are subtle differences between each model that most people wouldn't pick up on unless they really pay attention to the details.
What inspired you to create the Echo-Nugget Vacuum Delay?
It's a two-fold sound for the Echo-Nugget and the Studio-Nuggets. Although they're related electronically, they do have different sounds. The sound I chased for the Echo-Nugget stemmed from a long time ago, when I was in college in the 80s. A bunch of my old college buddies and I shared these old row houses in Baltimore. Of course, we always jammed together, and I was in a band at the time.
My old roommate and good friend, Geoff Hummer, had this huge vintage MXR or DOD analog delay that actually plugged into the wall, and he ran it straight into his amp. It sounded great and was a fun effect. I remember one afternoon, I was half asleep in my bedroom upstairs, and the sound of his guitar just resonated through these old brick and wood structures all the way from the basement. He was just going off on that analog delay and sweeping the time base with heavy feedback. That sound felt like more than just a tone. It was an experience. Kind of like the sound of an aircraft going right over your head.
To me, there's nothing like the experience of a great live guitar rig, and I wanted to capture that sound with the Echo-Nugget. I was able to do so using a combination of audio analysis and feedback from other people. Once I felt the design was at a good point, I would bring it out to gigs and say, "Hey, what do you think of this?" Right off the bat, people just loved what the tube preamp did for the sound. But it took years of fine-tuning the analog circuit to get it to sound the way I wanted.
What do you think makes the Echo-Nugget Vacuum Delay so special?
I think the Echo-Nugget and all of our products are special for a number of reasons. I strive for good tonality and reliability. That's the primary reason they're popular. They sound really good and there's a lot behind the development and production that makes them special. The BBD (Bucket Brigade Device) analog delay circuit that I've developed and perfected over the last 15 years is definitely proprietary. It's not something you'd see in other analog delays.
To capture that tape-like sound in the Echo-Nugget, I created a circuit design that's tuned for optimal audio sweetness. That's how we got that warm tube sound musicians and engineers fell in love with. The Studio-Nugget takes that series to a higher level with a number of new features, including a transformer-balanced I/O circuit, buss and insert functionality, longer delay time including a prime number identification algorithm plus analog VU meters.
We just don't put in any tube in there. They're all measured with an industrial-grade, high-voltage, digitally-controlled curve tracer, which enables me to see detailed data, similar to what major manufacturers of tubes and distributors use in their facilities.
All of our chassis are designed for a rugged touring environment. I've worked in the music business most of my life, but for a while, I worked in the GPS satellite industry building and designing GPS enclosures that were used for NASA, fighter jets, and air transport racks. That's where I learned how to build rugged enclosures and circuit boards, and I've incorporated that knowledge into Crucial Audio’s products.
Finally, I give each product individual attention before we ship it. Vacuum tubes and component tolerance stack-ups give each product a unique personality.
What about the Studio-Nugget?
The Studio-Nugget uses a similar design as the Echo-Nugget, just voiced for studio use. My vision for the sound of the Studio-Nugget series wasn't to match a tape delay, I wanted to exceed them. I chose to use the RIAA curve to get that vintage vinyl sound. When you listen to full-range music through the effect return, the output on the Studio-Nuggets almost sounds like you're listening to vinyl.
What are some common applications for the Echo-Nugget and Studio-Nugget?
Primarily, people are using the Echo-Nugget by plugging in a guitar and then going straight into the amp as a tape echo replacement. It was never meant to be part of a pedalboard, although it is a stompbox, so you can put it on the ground. The Echo-Nugget was really meant to deliver a reliable tape echo option in the field, at about half the price of a tape echo. Some folks put it on top of their amp and leave it turned on because it sweetens the tone. José Neto, Steve Winwood's guitar player, was one of our first artist endorsers. He used to say that his sound engineer would notice and get upset if he wasn't running through his Echo-Nugget. Because it's not a true bypass pedal, you're always running through that tube preamp.
For the Studio-Nugget, the most common application is going to be buss-level effects. Some people also use it as a channel insert. A person I highly respect in the industry recently told me that it's a refreshing change from the plug-ins that he uses in the studio. Rob Fraboni, a legendary producer and recording industry icon, has one of the prototype stereo Studio-Nuggets, which they use instead of a tape delay. On Rob's first session with the Studio-Nugget, he kept reaching over for their tape delay and realized, "Oh, it's the Studio-Nugget!”
What are some unique ways you like to use the Echo-Nugget and Studio-Nugget?
The Echo-Nugget is a really flexible device. I've heard of folks using it on all sorts of instruments, even cello. Some people like to keep them around the studio just to warm things up, they'll run vocals through it. I've also heard of people using them with a line-balancer, and going into a mixing board, since the Echo-Nugget is a high-Z device, originally meant for guitar.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit, I've got all this great audio equipment, but sometimes I'll listen to music on my phone, and I'll plug my headphone jack into the Studio-Nugget to sweeten the sound. Whether it's a CD, audio from my phone, my iMac, interfaces off the DAW, or any digital audio source, the Echo-Nugget smoothes out those harsh digital square wave edges. That's one reason why people love transformer-coupled tube preamps!
What makes Crucial Audio different from other pro audio companies?
It's hard for me, with all due respect to other companies, to compare Crucial Audio. One thing I do notice, is there are a lot of tribute products out there. Then there's definitely a proven market for product copies, or even circuit cloning and putting them in unique enclosures. Some of them may even be better than the originals!
I don't want to knock that. It takes a good level of talent to make a good reproduction. But, I prefer to think outside of the box. My products are original creations. I like to consider them functional works of electronic art in a way. I try not to look at what other people are creating. I'm very honored to have arrived at a place where people recognize the Crucial Audio brand in conjunction with some of these other inspirational products.
One more thing that makes Crucial Audio different than most companies is that you can call, email or message me to talk audio. Our products are built and tested by musicians and sound engineers in search of that Sonic Nirvana. We really do care about every unit sold, and truly want all of our customers to love our products.
What’s in store for the future of Crucial Audio?
I'm currently working to release two new products, hopefully within the next six months. And I've got multiple product ideas getting ready to hit initial development. Crucial Audio hopes to make an appearance at the Summer NAMM Show in 2022. I'll also be taking part in the streaming Audio Engineering Society Fall 2021 convention. There's some really exciting stuff we've signed up for, but I'm most excited to announce our new relationship with Vintage King.