Other Equipment

We survived some Earthquakin’ in Akron…

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...that is, a few of us who accompanied RickyBob12String the French on his RRHoF adventure in August survived our visit to the clan of pedal-builders who ply their trade at Earthquaker Devices.

Over the past few years, my long interest in and fascination with pedals has blossomed (or withered, depending on your point of view) to a near-obsession. It's not that I feel compelled to bury my tone in effects at all times; I spend much of my guitar time playing almost completely clean but for a touch of reverb and compression, and frequently forgo even compression.

But the possibilities in pedals of all types - and the design and craft that go into these little magic boxes - have for me an attraction all their own. They richly fulfill the promise of electric in the term "electric guitar:" we can stomp the button, send our pulsed electrons through that mysterious labyrinth of inscrutable circuitry, and hear them transformed. I sense limitless sonic possibilities in their combinations, and am frequently enthralled at the sheer entertainment value I get in the vast domains waiting down the pedal rabbit hole. Or through the looking glass. Dimensional portal. Choose your metaphor.

It's like a twinkly-eyed Carl Sagan pops his head out of the quarter-inch input jack and invites me to visit the billions and billions of surprises and delights Nikola Tesla has scattered within. Sure, I love guitar AS guitar - but, from my very first experiences with electric guitar (and my nearly immediate discovery of saturation, reverb, tremolo, vibrato, and delay), the vast expansion of the instrument's qualities - sometimes transcendence of its nature - made possible by electricity have been equally attractive.

It's not that I want the guitar to become a synthesizer - I have synths for that. As I deploy pedals in a modular way to enhance, build on, and transform the guitar, its articulation, dynamics, voicings, and expressive interface are integral to the process, no matter how I pile it on. Usually the guitar part of the picture remains clearly visible, if not the focus.

(It does happen that I pile on so much stuff that the guitar starts to seem an inessential impediment to the sound. When I realize a keyboard would be a better interface for the sound at hand, I put down the guitar. So, usually, I don't use guitar as a front end for a synth - to MIDI out to samplers, synths, or even guitar models. Though I reserve the right to use the guitar as a MIDI controller if I feel like it.)

One of my big kicks in Pedaland is taking a could-only-be-guitar identity right up to the edge where it's no longer recognizable as a guitar, deploying the usual playing conventions (and fundamental sonic signature) of guitar to make noises that just couldn't be made any other way.

Adventures in this domain have led me away from the mass-market purveyors of "the usual" effects toward the boutique end of the business, where designers ring changes on the old familiars, twist new possibilities from every type of pedal, and crossbreed their functions in novel ways. Some work with analog circuitry, some find new in the newest generations of chips; some combine analog signal paths with digital control.

This is not to say that the mass market heavy hitters (Boss, for instance) don't come up with surprises and delights. They do. One of the oldest makers - Electro Harmonix - is among the least conventional and most inventive pedalatiers.

But my quest and appetite for out-of-the-ordinary has led me toward companies building in smaller quantities, who are most actively looking for unusual niches either to fill - or to create themselves by discovering new territory.

These companies grow out of the interests, ears, ambitions, and efforts of one guy, often with a lieutenant or two. In our own GDP universe, we have builders like Tavo Vega of Nocturne pedals (who continues to ingeniously mine the past for forgotten sounds to refresh), Jer DeLisle, and Shuggie (of GASfx Effects).

Out there in the wider world, there's Joel Kortes of Chase Bliss Audio; Josh Scott at JHS; Simon Labelle at Fairfield Circuitry; Zachary Vexter of ZVex; Scott Monk of Montreal Assembly; Knut Olai (Pladask Elektrisk); Doug Tuttle (Mid-Fi Electronics); Adrian Thorpy, Dave Koltai (Pigtronix); Brian Marshall (Subdecay); Nicholas Harris (Catalinbread, though he died in 2016); Steve Bragg (Empress Effects); Philippe Herndon (Caroline Guitar Co); Colt Westbrook and friends (Walrus Audio); Brian Wampler; Robert Keeley.

There are some duo partnerships: Ryan and Tanya Clarke of Dr Scientist; Curt Malouin and Sylvie Demers of Red Panda Labs; Jason Campbell and Ryan Schaefer (Hologram Electronics); Brady Smith and Seth McCarroll (Old Blood Noise Endeavors).

And some collaborative trios: Terry Burton, Jinna Kim, and Angelo Mazzoco of Meris; Henry Widjaja, Yonas Darja, and Jesse Darja (GFI); Roger Smith, Jesse Remignanti, and Bob Chidlaw (Source Audio); Pete Celi, Gregg Stock, and Dave Fruehling (Strymon).

That is by no means an exhaustive list (making one would be an impossible undertaking) - just a list of "boutique" builders whose pedals have enriched my musical life. Most are based in the US - many in midwestern or midsouthern locations away from centers either of music or technology - a handful are Canadian, and Norway and Indonesia are represented.

Some of the builders have made pedal-world household names of themselves; I had to research to find the individuals behind some of the other brands, because they let the pedals speak for themselves.

I don't know for sure, but suspect that some are essentially one-man operations. Others range from a couple of partners to a few employees - and up to maybe 50 for the larger producers in the group. Some have arguably become well enough known and diverse enough in product offerings to have outgrown the boutique mystique. (Wampler, Keeley, and Strymon are nearly institutions.)

Most started as a guy (or two) with an idea and a soldering iron, and little formal electronics education; a few were built by better-trained idea guys with great ears, and couple came into the pedal business with enough prior technical and business experience to almost ensure great pedals and market presence.

But in every case, ideas are the energy these builders run on, their reason for being. I suppose it's always been the case, but it remains fascinating to me that a handful of people can accomplish so much - and that, especially in a niche technical market, one or two people with a great idea and either the expertise to develop it - or the willingness and energy to learn - can stand side-by-side with the big boys, and even show them the way.

In this market, among this group of builders (and others I failed to mention), Jamie Stillman's Earthquaker Devices is a perfect case study - and a real success story.

A native of rust-belted Akron, OH, guitarist and punk record-label impresario Jamie came into pedalbuilding out of a fascination born when he took apart and ultimately repaired his broken DOD distortion pedal. He found he had a knack for analyzing and "whispering" circuits, started hanging out and soaking up the available smarts in online pedal-builder forums, and schooled himself with hands-on experimentation. His first "commercial" product was the Hoof Fuzz (an updated/improved Big Muff), which he first sold casually online. Kinda "put it out there and see what happens."

What happened was that it went over well enough that he had to hire a guy or two to help solder them together, working out of his basement. The Hoof became a fully commercial product in 2007. Jamie had more ideas, and produced more designs, learning at every step. Eventually nine people were working out of that basement, making hundreds of pedals a week.

At that point, Jamie's wife Julie Robbins left her job in banking to help out on the business and administrative end. In 2011, they moved to an industrial building in Akron, and in 2015 refurbished another building there, where the company of "over 50" people (30-some are listed on the website) now produces at least thousands (I'm guessing) of pedals of over 40 varieties every year.

In purely local terms, this makes EQD quite a success story - maybe a model - for industrial rust-belt redevelopment. It keeps a lot of otherwise wayward misfits off the street while re-imaginining economy-of-scale heavy industry as bespoke, boutique light manufacturing. (Red Panda is accomplishing something of the same order in Detroit.) The city of Akron is well aware of - and proud of - EQD; their annual Earthquaker Day of live music has become a major local event.

It also puts EQD in an interesting niche in the pedal industry. It's no longer a boutique startup, and the company spreads considerable volume over one of the more extensive product lines in the segment. But it's not yet a giant of the Boss-EHX sort. Does it compare in scale to Keeley or Wampler? That's kinda my impression - but I don't know that for sure.

In my take, EQD has distinguished itself in the market by developing at least one (and usually several) top-tier and distinctive pedals of every major type - while (like EHX) offering something a bit over-the-top and unexpected in each one AND innovating at least a couple of pedals the likes of which we'd never heard before. The Hoof fuzz early on became a mainstay of pedalboards everywhere; the Rainbow Machine pitch-shifting wacko thickening delay caught the attention of weird-seekers; the Dispatch Master was an early combination delay-reverb that remains a popular utility go-to and ambient machine.

The essential character of an Earthquaker device is a combination of stellar sound quality (both engaged and out-of-chain), ample utilitarian functionality (with a couple of fabulous exceptions), some really creative and unexpected variations(s) on the theme, excellent pedalboard citizenship (top-mounted jacks, a housing more compact than you'd expect for the functionality on offer), mighty handsome graphic design (with a distinctive font and fine typography), and excellent value for the dollar.

Some pedals have combined familiar functions in ways that produce something entirely new - something you may have found by deep diving through combinations of pedals you already own, but might have taken years to stumble on. I understand Jamie Stillman is the essential idea man for every product EQD has built - which makes him a man of fecund imagination. His ears are the court of last resort in judging the voices and ranges of EQD pedals.

Jamie also has a knack for specs that hit a sweet spot between the generic and the crazy - and an interface that generally lets you go from barely-audible subtle to a little further over the top than you think you'll need, with truly musical results all the way. You CAN twist the knobs and get something completely usable - but the pedals don't break down into unintelligible bloops and blips and squalls and squawks. (OK, a couple will.)

In personality, the pedals might be called the perfect marriage of EHX wackiness and Boss utility. And Jamie is careful that every pedal have its own personality. There are multiple delays, modulators, and distorto-fuzzes - but each is its own distinct thing.

So Jamie and his minions at EQD have built a distinctive brand, with a clear identity and solid value, taking advantage of every marketing channel the internet offers as well as selling into a conventional dealer network. The website is a masterpiece, combining perfectly-toned wry whimsy with solid technical info, clear organization, great demos, and ongoing blog interest.

I've had 15 or more Earthquaker pedals - and currently have 11 across two boards. With a couple exceptions, none are the most extreme offerings of their type in the industry, but they're just crazy enough to offer continual interest - and, importantly, controllable enough to dial it in.

So when RickyBob was planning his August visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I suggested we make a side trip to Akron to see what Jamie Stillman's Earthquakin' Empire looked like inside the hangar. I already had an ongoing active correspondence with the Earthquakers (sometimes I have questions...), and JP Pasternak in Customer Service extended his welcome to our group, subject to EQD's tour visiting hours and prior arrangement.

So...on the morning of a sunny Tuesday Aug 28, at least two carloads of us made the half-hour trip from downtown Cleveland to Akron. From some of the wry copy on the website, I was expecting to find EQD in an derelict industrial district. And in fact, it kinda was, except that it didn't look derelict. The building is located on a pretty shady street, lots of trees and grass - and though it sits almost in the shadow of what appear to be much larger abandoned plants (or at least facilities now used to a small fraction of their original intention), the neighborhood was quite pleasant. As if the town has recovered somewhat from the worst ravages of industrial collapse, and the rust smoothed over by grass, sheltered by trees, and well-tended by the population. We parked in the clean asphalt lot, knocked on the only door we could find (clearly not intended to be an impressive front entrance), and looked for someone to lead our tour.


The picture is EQD headquarters (and manufacturing) from the street. More pics will follow. (With WAY fewer words.)

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...eagerly waiting with bated breath...

– Rhythmisking

Or, in my case, "baited" breath.

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What, you've been eating earthworms???

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What, you've been eating earthworms???

– Parabar

Sushi.

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What, you've been eating earthworms???

– Parabar

Apparently.

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I was a no pedals/vintage gear tube/purist guy for almost all of my playing life... fuzz in 1970 lasted less than a year, wah done by '72. Then nada except for Fender amp trem and verb, until just recently with Boss delay and chorus. Trem pedal doesn't count since that's just not on the amp I am into these days. But actually I prefer Boss trem to on board trem. So yep THREE pedals, but not more that 2 @ once. Totally gone crazy.

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There's no big Earthquaker logo on the front of the building, and I don't recall if the single-wide industrial door we entered had any signage. We walked into a small alcove, with a stairway to the right and a door to what was obviously the build floor straight ahead. All signage was intended for employees, and without a directory of departments or so much as a "Visitors must sign in HERE--->," I guessed wrong and led us upstairs.

There Jamie Stillman was rushing through the hall between what were obviously administrative offices. His look at us was a combination of challenge and irritation. "We're here for a tour," said I. "Downstairs," he pointed - and that was that. We traipsed forlornly like a gaggle of aging guitar geeks to the bottom of the steps and in through the door to the shop area, where we were greeted by our host, senior builder and long-time EQD associate Justin Seeker.

Without fanfare or elaborate introduction, he lit right into a matter-of-fact walkthrough, showing us around to each build station and telling us what each Earthquaker was doing. Not that it took much explanation: the workstations were pretty self-explanatory.


In this pic, our first view into the elven workshop.

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Quality control, final testing, and diagnosis of strange behavior - both of pedals off the line and customer returns. (EQD pedals are guaranteed forever.) Joe Garcia looks perplexed.

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Digging deeper. I believe it's a Hoof Reaper dual fuzz upside down on the left desk, and a small fleet of the luxury Avalanche Run reverb/delay to the right.

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Populating circuit boards with components. Note the jigs to suspend the boards for work.

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The essential skill to quake earths: soldering. There were exhaust hoods to suck the noxious fumes away.

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Installing case-mounted toggle switches in Grey Channel "dirt doubler," a dual-voiced version of the DOD OD which launched Stillman's career in pedals. Here, just from the count of cases on the bench, we begin to get a sense of Earthquaker's unit quantity. That may not be a lot of pedals of one model - but it's a snapshot of one moment on one desk during a Tuesday shift, and there are over 40 pedals in the line.

Also, we start to see that the (perfectly obvious) challenges of production are organization and supply. There's nothing very glamorous in bins of parts, at the desks where they're needed, when they're needed - but keeping the bins stocked with the components needed for a production run, at the right time, is the game.

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The main room was lined with 4 or 5 rows of such workstations, maybe 5 or 6 to a row. Most were manned (or womanned), and the work environment was mostly quiet. (Maybe they were on their best behavior for visitors.) Several stations are equipped with guitars (a number of Reverends, as I recall) and small amps for occasional tests.

The back wall houses either finished inventory or empty boxes.

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Through the door in that wall, and we were in a large garage/shop area. Dude at the drill press is clearly drilling holes in a case...

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And he's been busy. The scale starts to impress.

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Storage - and in the loft overhead, a workshop where Earthquakers build demo pedalboards - for their use during trade shows and traveling dog-and-pony (dirt-and-delay?) shows, as well as for dealer displays.

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Coot thread! I've enjoyed the demos of their product line and I've liked what I've heard. It's neat to see the behind the scenes and small business success. The info and pics are appreciated! I do like to support businesses like this.

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A recent acquisition: the wave-soldering machine that instantly solders a whole side of a board's worth of components in a single pass.

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Our host demonstrates exactly how you DON'T want to hold your hand to palm a tray full of molten solder.

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Every little shiny thread of sparkle in that bin is the cut-off leg of a surface-mounted component. (All work that has to be done before the board takes its short dip in the solder pool.)

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And here Samuel Tubwompus the Hooff picks out some swag which was conveniently for sale at the end of the tour. Most of us availed ourselves of a piece or two.

There were no pedals available, either for testing or purchase; the Earthquakers instead directed us to their local Akron dealer for a visit.

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And that's all the pics I have. They were supplied by Ric12String, who used his camera during the tour. (I didn't.) Clearly others of our clan were there, and if any of y'all have other illuminating pics of the EQD tour, here's the place to post them.

Random other points of interest, not depicted:

• There's a paint booth, where I believe all pedals are squirted. Or at least there was a heavy-duty printer, which might put the graphics on? I should have taken notes.

• EQD sources as locally as possible for boxes, printing, and services.

• EQD's graphic designer, Matt Horak, who is responsible for the look and typography of most pedals (since Jamie gave that part up), now telecommutes his EQD duties from his full-time gig as a comic book artist.

• Earthquaker was releasing a new pedal the DAY AFTER we visited, and Justin had to steer us away from some silk-screened cases to hide it. He would NOT tell us what it was, nor let us hear it. It turned out to be the Aqueduct dynamic Vibrato. I have one, and I like it.

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I can feel your deflation from here Tim. What a truly dreary tour, utterly bereft of seismic revelation.

The drill-press is truly the nadir moment!

And yet you hold up your end of the bargain with a thorough report.

The Tru-Arc tour is so much more fun, as you well know. It's set out like a ghost train, guests go round in the little car through the Veil Of Mystery into the darkened Tone Chambers to a soundtrack of wolf tones. The finale when guests are invited to play on the Tru Arc Marimba comprised of 88 different bridges in different radii and materials is breathtaking. That's how you do a factory tour.

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Well yeah. And on the Tru-Arc tour, we saw the Master Machinist of all Tru-Arcs draw blood while working! You'd think a visit to an earthquaking operation would involve something more dramatic!


Nah, in truth I was perfectly satisfied with the tour - and hope I sounded so. Seeing the dirty, dreary, cramped facilities where cars like Duesenberg, Cord, and Auburn took shape gave me even more appreciation for the magic those workaday craftsmen wrought.

Similarly, though Earthquaker was clean as a pin, well organized and efficient, humming along quietly, there was no drama and no sense of epic accomplishment. Just people working their day jobs.

But building magic boxes.

It's good to see how that works.


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