The DIY Music Tech Enthusiast Who Builds Custom Guitar Pedals

Jamie Stillman founded Earthquaker Devices to push the boundaries of music technology.

|
Dec 20 2017, 7:30pm

Rei Watanabe 

When Jamie Stillman was 15 years old he started his own record label in Ohio so that he could produce his own music. He called it Donut Friends Records.

Around two decades later, the 40-year-old musician opened up a business in his home state again: it’s called Earthquaker Devices and its 53-person staff makes 1000 effects pedals a week that are used by some of the leading composers and musicians in the industry.

Stillman, who toured with multiple bands, including with the Black Keys as their tour manager, isn’t an engineer. He’s a drummer and guitarist and said he has no technical training. But when one of his vintage pedals broke in 2004, he couldn’t find one with the same sound. So he cracked it open to learn how it worked.

“It makes a huge difference for me—maybe someone’s favorite song wouldn’t have been written if that [pedal] didn’t exist,” he said.

He started small, with a book from the 1970s called Electronic Projects for Musicians. But by 2005, Stillman’s curiosity started to earn him some money. He was making 20 or so pedals a week in his basement and selling them on e-Bay. “I have a sound in my head and now I can make it,” Stillman said.

There are dozens of DIY pedal-building tutorials online. And when you break it down, most pedals are comprised of a case, controls, and most importantly, a circuit board.

But to get the sound perfect—to build a pedal that has the influence of, say, Jimi Hendrix’s iconic Dunlop Fuzz Face—it takes more than a YouTube video. Each pedal, kind of like a musician, has a voice.

“Part of me wants to say everything has been invented—reverb exists, distortion exists, delay exists,” he said. “But it’s about the new implementation of an old idea.”

In 2008, Stillman and his wife, Julie Robbins, started Earthquaker in Akron, Ohio. He was tired of being on the road, and the couple had just started having kids. Akron is a small industrial city with low rent and skilled people. Since they started, the business has already outgrown two offices and landed in its third.

Akron is also home—Julie, who handles most of the business side of the company, is from the city, and Stillman grew up about 20 miles away. And many of the people who work with Earthquaker, both remotely and on site, are fellow musicians or friends. “Most of us have zero business or manufacturing background,” he said. “It forced us all to be adults.”

Read More: Cloakroom, Earth's Most Futuristic Band, Explains How ‘Technology Is Chill’ Until It Isn’t

Stillman’s clients range from small, independent musicians to Hollywood composers like Mark Mothersbaugh, who has created music for Wes Anderson films. And while he’s a punk rock and metal musician himself, he said it’s often the more mainstream, pop, and hip-hop artists who are using technology to push the envelope, like his client Lady Gaga.

“That music is more inventive and creative that I could have imagined,” he said.

Earthquaker still makes their pedals by hand, aside from the circuit boards and a final powder coating. But these days there are multitudes of sounds that can be made digitally or through computer programs. For projects that require more digital skills, Stillman works with engineers and programmers.

While computers can do almost everything in music production, Stillman said musicians have started “going backwards” toward more analog devices.

“They’ve learned that it can be very boring and very sterile [to do everything digitally],” he said. “They want a way to interact with the music.”

These days, Stillman still tinkers, and he still plays music. He plays guitar in a psych rock band called Relaxer, and bass in an anti-Trump band called Fringe Candidate which he describes as “totally a band I should have started when I was 14, not when I was 40.”

He spends time in his studio, thinking of new pedals to create and other products that musicians can use. And while Earthquaker still puts out new pedals every few months, Stillman said every year they’re surprised by what they create, especially when it’s taking a sound in his head and channeling it into a device.

“I don't know how other people hear music, but I hear the parts,” he said.

Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here.