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The Sound Factory

The Sound Factory

Ben Diamond
[intro-text size=”25px”]Jamie Stillman and EarthQuaker Devices are Akron’s guitar pedal industry[/intro-text]

KNOCK, KNOCK When I first get there, I wonder if I have the wrong place. I’m looking for EarthQuaker Devices, the guitar pedal company based here in Akron. Pale bluish paint is peeling off the bricks of the warehouse. There’s no logo or sign. Just some directions for deliveries on the door. But Google Maps confirms it and there are a few cars parked out front. Encouraged, I ring the doorbell and I’m buzzed through.

I’m startled twice before I see any people. First, at the sight of a dressed-up skeleton under the stairs. Second, at a barking watchdog who sniffs me out when I reach the second floor. His master calls him off and I finally meet some humans

Jamie Stillman, his wife Julie Robbins, and a few employees are huddled around a computer, listening to a demo of one of their pedals. Even through the desktop speakers, the sound is burly and the riffs are satisfying. Impressed, the group disbands, leaving Stillman in his office, which has impeccably clean hardwood floors and is bordered with amps, a few guitars and some band posters. I get the impression Stillman wears a lot of black. There’s some silver showing in his beard and he tucks more black hair behind his ears.

Stillman is the founder of EarthQuaker Devices. Since its inception in 2005, it has become an established force in the music industry and its products can be seen on guitar rigs and in studios around the world. They staff just under 40 employees, ship between six to eight hundred pedals a week, and recently moved into this 11,000 square foot warehouse—but there was a time not too long ago when Stillman ran the entire operation from his basement. He leans forward and explains in a low voice how the journey began.

RUMBLINGS The noise started when Stillman was in his late twenties, back home in Akron after touring with various bands for nearly a decade. For music equipment, he was left with “garbage gear and very little of it.” He still had one pedal that he really liked (a DOD 250 overdrive), but it was broken and he couldn’t find anyone to repair it. Without thinking twice, he looked up the schematics and fixed it himself. At the time, he was working from home as a freelance graphic designer and had a lot of time on his hands. Guitar pedals became an obsession. “I started tinkering with stuff— breaking a lot of things—and eventually I made some pedals for friends, and they said they liked them.”

One of his friends was Dan Auerbach, the guitarist and vocalist for local up-and-comers The Black Keys. Stillman became their tour manager around the same time his pedal obsession began. About a year into his experiments, Stillman, who by then had unloaded some pedals on eBay, produced a fuzz pedal for Auerbach. Somebody photographed Auerbach using the pedal at a show and posted an inquiry on an online forum: “What pedal is this? It sounds awesome.” Stillman happened to be lurking on the same forum and he identified himself as the architect.

A flood of messages came through. People wanted to know if Stillman could duplicate the pedal. From there it was all word of mouth. At first, Stillman sold directly to individuals, but then he secured some larger dealers. He needed help to meet the demand, and the basement began to get more crowded.

In the early days, mailmen were always asking questions. “What do you guys make? What do you do for EarthQuakers?” If Stillman was wittier at the time, he would have told them to watch out for a big one on June 12. In retrospect, he might have picked a different company name. But Stillman was locked in, never thinking too far ahead or behind. He had simply found something that he loved to do. “At no point in that [time] did I intend to make a business out of it.”

VROOM, VROOM After a while, a few of us step outside for a smoke. The sky is a grey blanket and it’s just cold enough to be frustrating. Julie tells me about the homeless guy that harvests their cigarette butts. Then she shows me a video (she’s got a bunch). The bum is a white-hot ghost captured on infrared surveillance cameras. We watch him shake the receptacle upside down like a giant salt shaker before he realizes the bottom pops right off. I look up and down the streets, but see nothing stirring.

We go back inside and Stillman gives me a tour of the ground floor. There are large, open spaces for storage and deliveries. They’ve got a new machine for the pedal enclosures and for printing pedal designs. In an adjacent room, dozens of employees sit at workstations for assembling electrical components. Because every pedal is made by hand, you could technically call EarthQuaker a boutique pedal company, but Stillman doesn’t like to use that term. He acknowledges that it is a selling point for people in his industry, but there are other reasons for doing things the way they do. “It would be so much cheaper and smarter for us to farm all of this out,” he says, but keeping things in-house enables EQD to have more control over the manufacturing process. And while he doesn’t believe that a pedal made by hand is inherently superior, there is a certain security in knowing where it came from. “If anything goes wrong, you can call us at any point. We’ll know everything about it, we’ll know how to fix it, and we’ll do it for free.”

Part of being Midwestern is not noticing that you are different until you venture out. Stillman noticed it at trade shows when he heard ridiculous marketing strategies and product pitches. EarthQuaker Devices has always used a clean, and simple approach to advertising: a white background, a picture of the pedal, a brief description. Anything extra doesn’t seem necessary to Stillman and his coworkers. He laughs because it sounds too simple: “We make a thing, and we sell it, because we like to do it.”

On a similar note, he doesn’t try to overtly promote the famous artists who use his pedals. But EarthQuaker Devices is associated with quite a few notable names and Stillman reluctantly gives me a few: Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead, Coldplay, The Mars Volta, Paramore, Sleep, Failure, High On Fire, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Modest Mouse. He likes some more than others. Because you can also find their products in so many studios, sounds made by EQD pedals are more prevalent than ever, but that’s not what matters most to Stillman. “The one thing that we’ve done is we’ve actually just maintained friendships with a lot of these big bands or little bands or any bands that we like,” he says.

From the sound of Stillman’s own band, Relaxer, he favors the heavier bands, the ones that deliver a certain kind of raw power. Relaxer’s album Lasers is self-described on Bandcamp as “ear splitting, cinematic, prog influenced psych rock” and is accompanied by artwork of a floating skull shooting lasers from its eyes.

The thing about EQD’s pedals is that they’re not just pedals; they’re portals to new realms of sound. They’re little Pandora’s boxes that draw you in with their righteous designs and symbolism. Their names perk the imagination: Talons, Hoof, Afterneath, Dream Crusher, The Depths, White Light. These devices are just part of the inventive world that Stillman and his team continue to build in Akron. They’re a model example of Rust Belt reinvention that has taken advantage of cheap real estate and a tight-knit community to build an authentic, American-made product. Only instead of rubber, they manufacture sound.

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EQD inspires loyal followers from all over who actively promote their brand, but what about their presence in the surrounding area? I ask Stillman if anyone knows they’re here. “No,” he says flatly. In fact, he even took a quiet pleasure in shutting down the city block so that data cables could be wired to their new headquarters. I gather that he doesn’t mind the isolation. It only means more quiet to fill with noise.


EQD’S Favorite Pedals

The Speaker Cranker: A single knob overdrive pedal, it’s Stilman’s favorite, partly because it’s maddeningly simple and esoteric. “Anything that we’ve made has come from something that I need or want,” he says. The Speaker Cranker is a prime example. He took it from his personal pedalboard to the production line only after receiving a great deal of positive feedback.

The Rainbow Machine: This Pepto-Bismo pink pedal can make full on double-rainbows all the way across the sky. Stillman had some fun with this one. Described on their website as “a cold digital beast made to pretend it has feelings,” The Rainbow Machine is a polyphonic harmonic pitch shifter that uses an accurate, but archaic methodology. Stillman purposefully made it imperfect to release some much needed chaos into the world. It takes a certain kind of person and a lot of patience to wield this one. Look! It’s even starting to look like a triple rainbow! What does this mean?!

The Hoof: This is the one that started it all. Striking this gold box with a cloven-foot will turn your guitar into saw, a sword, or half of a two-man band. Based on the green Russian Big Muff (get your laughs out now), this woolly fuzz pedal has been linked to Dan Auerbach’s own pedalboard.

Honorable Mention: The Dispatch Master is a popular reverb-delay combo pedal that can create a lot of unique sounds. It also pays tribute to the original name of the erstwhile Cedar Point coaster, The Disaster Transport.

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