[interview] EarthQuaker Devices: Jamie Stillman

Here's FXDB's interview with Jamie Stillman of EarthQuaker Devices:

How did EarthQuaker Devices start?

We started in 2005 but really didn't get off the ground until 2007. I was just obsessed with guitar effects and thought it would be a fun hobby to take on in my free time. I never imagined it would be a full on business 4 years later but I can't complain.

When I started building and selling pedals, I had no idea a boutique effect market even existed. I mean, I knew who D*A*M, DBA, Fulltone and Z. Vex were but that was just because a friend of mine had a few of their pedals. As I got further along, I couldn't believe how vast the market actually was. Now, in 2011, it seems like 1 out of every 100 musicians is a "boutique" effect company.

I learned a lot from places like Geofex, General Guitar Gadgets, Runoff Groove, AMZfx and Craig Anderton as well as researching old schematics and reading data sheets and app notes. I'm still learning new things every day.

Where do the name and logo come from?

Some old friends of mine in a band called the Minus Tide had an idea for a fake metal band called Earthquaker. I remember them yelling out EARTHQUAKER at some music festival and it stuck with me as a ridiculous name.

It's an octoskull I found in an old clip art magazine. Turns out we aren't the only people using it, I've seen a few people with octoskull tattoos and it's been on a few band stickers I've come across. We probably should have come up with something original but it seems to have stuck.

What sets EarthQuaker Devices apart from other builders?

I know that the actual look of the pedals is what brings people in at first but I feel like our customer service keeps people coming back. We are small and very hands on. I try to answer every email and fill every order as soon as it comes in. I still treat every pedal like a child. This means long hours and lots of work for all of us but the end result is an honest and fully self sustaining company. The sound they create doesn't hurt either. I think they (the pedals) all have a pretty unique style to them.

How do you start on a new pedal?

I usually have an idea that comes to me when I'm trying to fall asleep (I have an overactive brain). Sometimes I'll draw out a rough schematic and work from there but most times I just start plugging away at the breadboard. The time it takes to go from idea to production is an average of 4 months. The Bit Commander went from idea to breadboard to production pedal in about 1 month where as the revised Disaster Transport took about 9 months and a dozen revisions to get it to where I was happy with the outcome.

How do you name your pedals?

I alternate between Ohio land marks (Dispatch Master, Disaster Transport, Speaker Cranker), things I think sound cool (Sea Machine, Bit Commander), insects and animals (Monarch, Hoof, Tusk, Chrysalis) and bad ideas (Black Eye, Tone Reaper). All of which have some relation (at least to me) to the sound.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We do every last thing in house except manufacture the PCB's and paint the enclosures.

All our full production pedals are on industry standard PCB's (ground planes, solder mask, plate through, etc). We populate every PCB by hand in our shop, nothing comes to us pre-fab. We have 2 pedals with surface mount IC's, we solder those by hand too.

The enclosures come to us from a variety of sources. They are all powder coated before they arrive and we drill and screen them in house.

How important is the look of your pedals?

Very. I like things to look nice as well as clean and intuitive. I'll spend hours making sure a font is exactly the right size and kearning or redrawing clip art. I know something is done when it makes me feel comfortable. That goes beyond our pedals or graphic design into my every day life. Our shop is tiny but we've utilized every square inch in a very efficient and clean manner and still have room for 6 people!

Is parts selection important?

We use 1/8w xicon metal film resistors, Panasonic & Epcos metal film caps and Lelon & Nichion electro caps in part for their size, their specs and because we know what to expect quality wise. There are very few pedals that we make the require a certain type of resistor or cap. I try to stay away from anything that has been discontinued except germanium transistors and even with those, I have to know where to get thousands of them before I make the decision to use them. We have a lot of different types of parts around the shop to experiment with but I tried to put limits on what we'll use in a production pedal. It makes the work flow faster and more stream lined. However, I do think we use what sounds best in any given design.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The Bit Commander. It was a happy accident, a total "I can't believe that worked" situation and the out come sounds so cool. It required no major revisions from its first incarnation and it's a good combination of weird niche and universally musical at the same time.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The current project I'm working on has proven to be the toughest. It's a fairly complicated layout with a mix of DSP and analog circuitry with SMD and through hole parts. The isolation has to be more exact than say a fuzz or something like that. I've spent a ton of time on the design and twice as much on the layout of the PCB. It's proven to be a tough balance to make it function as it should and make the layout clean enough to easily populate and assemble.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Hoof Fuzz is our most popular. I think people like it because it's heavy and thick without being overbearing or drowned out. It's a rare "clean/transparent" fuzz that can actually cover a lot of ground. That or people just like it cause Dan Auerbach played one for a while.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

We don't make them for any specific generes, but my own personal tastes definitely leaks through to the end product.

A lot of "famous" people use our pedals but I don't really advertise it. I may put some known artists up on our site soon, I think it helps people in some way but I used to think it was... weird. Here are a couple bands that I can think of right now: My Morning Jacket, Coldplay, The Mars Volta, Earl Slick, The Black Keys, Against Me, Twin Shadow, Tv on the Radio.

I haven't made any custom pedals for any of them except Dan from The Black Keys.

What does the future of EarthQuaker Devices look like?

The current state of EQD is beyond my wildest dreams. I wouldn't and probably won't change a thing until I absolutely have to. We have a goal to create a very vast line and maintain producing them by hand. Kinda like Boss but on a basement scale. I'm constantly working on and learning new things and have no foreseeable shortage of designs in "the book". Our current production plans take us through 2013.

Are you working on any new products?

We have about 6 pedals totally done, PCB's, art and all but I can't let them loose yet. I think the mystery is more appealing.

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