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Student Innovators: Buck McKay
Student Innovators: Buck McKay

If you’re a musician who’s used effects pedals to manipulate and modulate the sound of your instrument, then you probably know how the simple twirl of a knob can have a huge impact on the tone, texture, dynamics, and resonance of every note played. Portland State University mechanical engineering student Buck McKay, aided by resources made available to him as an Innovation Program project participant, has designed and built the prototype of an expression pedal that controls potentiometers on third-party effects units that do not have built in expression controls. This device will allow a musician to control an effects unit without making adjustments by hand. If a musician wants to increase the volume, tone, or level of the effect, whether in the middle of or between songs, all the musician would need to do is manipulate a foot pedal in a manner exactly like how a wah or volume pedal is controlled.

This device will allow musicians to radically alter the configuration of their effects units while still playing and without crouching down over a pedal board.

“The idea came about,” McKay said, “because I played in a band that used a lot of effects. The more you incorporate a unique parameter of effects into piece of music, the easier it is to distinguish from other pieces of music. I wanted to be able to change the parameters of effects units mid-song while playing, but there wasn’t anything out there that would let me do that.”

It wasn’t until several years later when McKay became involved in the Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Sciences’ Innovation Program that he had the opportunity to turn his idea into a reality. In the winter quarter of 2012, McKay submitted his proposal for the Universal Guitar Foot Pedal to the council overseeing the Innovation Program. McKay’s proposal was accepted by the council and a year later a prototype was finished.

“The problem was controlling effects pedals without using your hands,” McKay said. “The solution I came up with has three parts, or stages. The first is the control, transfer, manipulation.”

“I think I’m at the stage now where I’m ready to let other musicians start to play around with it,” McKay said of his pedal.

When asked about the Innovation Program, McKay said the experience has been great.

“I think the Innovation Program is one of the best things the department has to offer,” he said. “I’ve had this idea for so long and the program gave me the resources to actually do something with it; receiving that support was like lighting a fire. Being able to engage with professors, having the resources of the various labs, space to work in if you need it and the funding have all been amazing. Because of the program I feel more connected to the department.”

Each year the Innovation Program helps dozens of students like Buck McKay turn their ideas and their creativity into something tangible. Students whose projects show promise are eligible to receive further funding upon completion of their project if they are interested in taking the next steps toward innovation, development, partnerships, or entrepreneurships. Keep an eye open for students like Buck McKay, students making up the next generation of engineers and innovators.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted April 4, 2013