As part of Overdrive week we interviewed a couple of pedal makers who are making strides in new designs and new ways of thinking about tone. Jamie Stillman is the owner and designer of Akron, Ohio’s EarthQuaker Devices, whose Talons and Palisades overdrives were featured in our Ultimate Overdrive Shootout.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your company.
My name is Jamie Stillman, I run EarthQuaker Devices with my wife Julie Robbins. I started the company in 2005 as one dude in a basement, now we are a crew of 30+ and have over 35 pedals in our line.
What inspired you to start building pedals?
I had a DOD OD250 with a broken pot. I looked up the schematic, found one on generalguitargadgets.com and thought, “That’s it? I could build one of those”! Following that I started obsessing and building stuff for friends and myself.
Why do pedal makers still make tube screamer clones and variations? Will we ever have a “better mousetrap” overdrive?
I’m assuming because that is the sound most guitar players want. I don’t think it’s about filling a hole in the market or trying to build a better version for most companies. I think it’s about having something to offer to those people who want that sound from a specific brand.
Most OD designs are based on existing chips such as the JRC4558D or the MC33178. Are there any new chips being manufactured that could change the OD game? Or is there a kind of chip you wish someone would make that’s different than what’s out there?
While I’m sure there are a lot of people who use a 4558 because that’s what guitar players on the internet heard is the best, most people use the right IC for the job. If the JRC4558 is what’s needed, that’s what I’ll use. Basically, whatever I think sounds best is what I’ll use. I don’t think we have any 4558 based overdrives but I use one for an LFO in the disaster transport. I personally prefer Discrete JFET or BJT based overdrives.
What is your favorite kind of clipping?
Overdriven JFET or BJT.
Whose guitar tone do you think is the single greatest ever?
The tone on “Woman is a Hellhound” by Sir Lord Baltimore is a favorite of mine.
Whose is the worst, and what would you do to fix it?
I don’t really have an opinion on this, I guess I would say the middle position on a strat is not a tone I like a lot.
Where’s a good place to start for someone who wants to start building pedals?
I like all the earlier info sites like DIY Stompboxes, AMZFX, geofx, etc. They are all really helpful with good info to actually help you learn. A lot of the more modern sites are less about teaching. I still think the Anderton EPFM book is very useful too.
What is your design philosophy?
In a nutshell: “Tinker ‘til it sounds right”.
How are your pedals different from the other manufacturers out there?
Because they say “EarthQuaker Devices” on them.
What other manufacturer’s designs do you like?
Subdecay are great, I really like pretty much all the modulation they have done. Death by Audio is another favorite of mine, as well as Differential Audio Manifestationz and Way Huge. I really like a lot more vintage pedals than I do modern. I have a huge collection of pedals, most are weird old fuzzes. Early Roland, DOD, UMI, EHX, Mu-Tron, Shin-ei are all (mostly) great.
There are a couple basic effect types, of which most effects are just variations of, ie: flange, delay, overdrive/distortion, boost, reverb, phaser, wah, etc. Do you think there’s an undiscovered effect type just waiting to be found?
I’m sure there are tons of sounds waiting still to be found. Even if no one comes up with anything new ever again, there is still room for more dirt pedals in the world. There will always be someone, somewhere looking for something different than what is easily found.
What’s next for Earthquaker?
We just released the Levitation Reverb, a project we worked on for the Levitation music festival (AKA “Austin Psych Fest”). We are planning a big move in June that will finally get us the space we need then following that up with NAMM in July.