Humans of Speed: Dr. Martin O’Toole on Imagining and Designing New Sounds

May 26, 2017

Humans of Speed: Martin O'ToolePrior to joining the Bioengineering Department in the JB Speed School of Engineering, Dr. Martin O’Toole performed with the band Draft Riots. A musician, O’Toole played bass for the group, which was a learning experience. Since then, O’Toole has divided his time between education, parenting, and building effects pedals for guitar and bass, a challenge that blends his engineering acumen with his musical background.

O’Toole has a long history with music, from early Van Halen to local luminaries like Rodan to hip-hop and beyond. Despite his keen interest in the music scene, Draft Riots marks the only time that O’Toole performed with any group. Fortunately, it was a good experience.

“They needed a bass player. You know the guitar player that plays bass and tries not to sound like they play guitar. It was the Draft Riots. I got to do that thing where I was excited to hear my own song on the radio,” explains O’Toole of his tenure in the band.

Now he channels his energy into making gear. By and large that manifests itself into effects pedals, devices put into a signal channel between the amplifier and instrument that alter the sound in unique ways.

“I think I made my first one in 2011. That took like 6 months. I had to learn how to solder and stuff. Those websites are crazy, Digikey and Resistor. They have like 10,000 parts, so it’s hard to sort through. I probably built one a year for the first few, but then started building a lot of them,” says O’Toole of his process.

What started out as a slow learning process, has developed into an obsession. O’Toole currently has around 25 of his own boutique pedals, all emulated after popular effects and handcrafted. As such, the aesthetic quality of the device is of equal concern as the function of the pedal. Fortunately, his background in engineering has helped him with the practicality of the design work.

“You find out pretty quickly what’s broken and what’s not. You take what’s called an audio probe, and you take it to the cables and see where the sound dies. I had to learn layout design for the faceplates. Learning chemical etching, and faceplates,” says O’Toole.

O’Toole primarily makes pedals for his own interest, although he has worked with others. Recently, he built an amplifier out of a reverb tank, a project that involved careful time management to see to fruition.

“It’s taken like a year. It’s me and the wood working guys. We meet for like two hours every month and a half. We bought the lumber and planed it down. It was all rough cut,” says O’Toole.

In terms of his pedals, he has effects that delay the note, an echo quality that can be manipulated, stacked, and twisted, all making for an otherworldly sound. He has distortion or overdrive pedals, which alter the tone of an instrument, often adding a crunch or fuzz tone. He has various chorus or oscillator style pedals, which bend the tone by manipulating the wave form. His creations are limited only by his imagination and available time.

“My music space is right underneath both of my kids’ bedrooms. If I want to do anything, I kind of have to build things. I just build these things and test them on crappy headphone amps,” says O’Toole adding of his desire to stay productive, “I’m at that age where if I turn on the television, I’ll fall asleep.”