BB Video: Inside Electro-Harmonix, guitar pedal engineers and vintage vacuum tubes

After we noticed the Voice Box FX pedal from Electro-Harmonix, I noticed that they were based in Long Island City, just a short train ride away from my place in Brooklyn. Since I’m getting ready to move to Oregon—Hello, Eugene!—I figured I ought to get up there and check out one of the last family-owned music gear companies in America.

Turns out that EHX also manufacturers a huge percentage of the world’s vacuum tubes in its factory in Russia, which are then sent back to New York for testing and pairing before being sold to vintage and high-end audio fans, as well as manufacturers like McIntosh.

I had a really good time checking out the factory floor to see the hand-made vacuum tube testing machines, as well as talking to the engineers that sit around all day and try to figure out how to get the ideas for new FX processors out of their crazy boss’s head and into working hardware.

And thankfully for you, Derek and Wes edited out all the footage where I was wanking around with FX boxes, looking mournfully at the camera and whining that “Hey, this box doesn’t make me sound as good as it does when people with talent use it. What gives?”

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28 Responses to BB Video: Inside Electro-Harmonix, guitar pedal engineers and vintage vacuum tubes

  1. ridl says:

    Joel –

    I’d love to introduce you to a nice pint of Ninkasi (the Total Domination IPA is fantastic) at Sam Bond’s, perhaps over bingo. Let us know when you arrive!

  2. dculberson says:

    Joel, you’re moving to Oregon?! Wow. that seems like a big change.

    If you’re driving the 2002, don’t forget there’s a nice garage convenient to I-70 in Columbus, OH that you can borrow.

    • Joel Johnson says:

      The 2002 is actually already in Oregon. I’m going to have to rent a minivan or something to get a big amp back to Kansas City, plus have room to put the dog’s cage in. (He can’t fly, as he’s an English Bulldog and they apparently just don’t do well even in heated, pressurized cargo bays.)

      I’ll post a bit more about it when I get the final pieces in place. I’d like to stop by!

  3. rockstrongo says:

    You guys should do a feature on how Mike Matthews took on the Russian Mafia when they tried to shut down the Sovtek plant. THAT is an interesting story. He’s a legend in the music industry.

  4. Neon Tooth says:

    Three of my favorite pedals on that board! The Big Muff of course, The Rat and The Tube Screamer! (although that one’s a copy).

  5. Gabriel says:

    Fabulous! I am using some of their tubes in my amps. Although certain types are completely un-usable due to high microphonics (like the EF 86).

    Cheers!
    Gabriel.

  6. rebelrob says:

    Fantastic video. Thanks!

    For those wanting to build their first tube stomp box, the Valve Caster is a really easy one to get started on. It’s based on the 12AU7 tube which is quite easy to find –

    http://www.beavisaudio.com/projects/ValveCaster/

    This guy also has plenty of stomp box related tutorials that are well illustrated get will get you drilling, soldering, spraying and guitar thrashing in no time!

  7. Xeni Jardin says:

    @#4 rockstrongo we’ll have more on that soon, actually! ;-)

  8. joegore says:

    Gabriel: I recently started using an EF86 18-watt Marshall clone, and found that you can use EF86s just fine if you use tube rings — rubber circles that clamp down on the tubes, minimizing microphonics. You can find them on EBay and at Tube Depot.

  9. Axx says:

    Well, as a grad student who has lived in Eugene for…erm…longer than I’d rather say, let me welcome you to the best town I’ve ever lived.

    If you need a friend in town (or you just want to know the good places to eat) speak up, man.

    I also play guitar, so let me say I enjoyed your factory tour too!

  10. joegore says:

    Also: Anyone a) interested in this stuff, and b) of a Maker-type persuasion should check out the amazing online DIY stompbox community. There are TONS of great things that will never see the light of day as commercial products. http://www.freestompboxes.org is a particularly lively collection of smart, creative folks. Interesting intellectual property discussions abound.

  11. BingoTheChimp says:

    @#17 MIKELOTUS

    Saying “tubes vs. mp3s” is like saying “paper mache vs. jpeg.” They aren’t two things you can directly compare. Tubes are means of amplifying electromagnetic current. Mp3s are a file format on computers, which (like any audio medium) might have been recorded/processed with tube equipment in any number of ways, might be played back over tube equipment, might not, might be some tube equipment and some not…

    As for “snooty audiophile nonsense,” well, you can’t explain colors to the color-blind. I would think you can express your opinion that mp3s are “good enough” without disparaging those who disagree.

  12. Mark Dow says:

    Welcome to Eugene, see you at the High St. Cafe. I recommend the Captain Neon Burger.

  13. arkizzle says:

    RossInDetroit

    That was amazing will power and self control!

    May you be an example to the rest of us.

    I really should be working on important stuff.. Cursed free will!

  14. pork musket says:

    Awesome video.

    Joel, if for some reason you feel like taking I-70 instead of I-80 and you end up near Denver or Cheyenne, let me know!

  15. mdh says:

    I’m jealous Xeni, Eugene rocks.

  16. arlopickens says:

    I found a gigantic tube-driven record cutting machine at a garage sale about 15 years ago. I could never get it to work. I wish some of these people lived in my neighborhood back then.

    Instead, the metro area was plagued by cacophonous cassette tapes.

  17. mdh says:

    Oh, heh, ahem: I’m jealous Joel, Eugene rocks!

  18. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    What is it about Russia? Today I shipped a set of vintage English Wharfedale drivers to Moscow. A lot of my excess vintage Jensen and JBL stuff goes to the Russian Federation.

    I love working with tubes. I have dozens and dozens of pieces of tube audio gear in restored and unrestored condition. lately I end up working on solid state gear because that’s what the most insistent customers come in with. Swapping transistors, testing output, screwing it back together. It pays the bills but doesn’t take the place of the thrill of mortal danger from working in a 500 volt circuit.

    I played the video back on my shop laptop and audio system using a wonderful Fisher 400 tube receiver from the 1960s. It seemed appropriate.

  19. Anonymous says:

    this video is SO AWESOME it made not one but TWO of my computers crash.

    EHX is great though…

  20. Xeni Jardin says:

    @MDH, wait — *i’m* not movin’ to oregon!??!

  21. pork musket says:

    I can’t watch this at the moment, but that’s awesome. Few things fill me with glee like plugging a bass into a Big Muff.

  22. Mim says:

    Ridl, Brotherprovisional, and I are all in Eugene (I’m a librarian at UO). We should have a little happy hour when you arrive!

  23. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    Okay. This must be the universe telling me to quit fooling around, get down to the shop and test that box of McIntosh tubes that I left sitting on the Hickok last night. Wrap up that Mac 1700 receiver and THEN watch the video. BRB.

  24. Brother Provisional says:

    Yeah, tube vs. mp3 is a little ridiculous. Thermionic audio technology is a funny thing. Tube audio processing often times sounds better than more modern audio technologies due to the fact that tends to distort audio signals in subtle and musical ways. Particularly, second-order harmonic distortion is a much sought after side effect, which often gets described as “warmth” by musicians. It is pretty common for recording engineers these days to stick a tube preamplifier in their signal chain right before their analogue-to-digital converters. Much of the music people are listening to on their mp3 players has some of that tube mojo captured, so there is really no need for tubes and mp3s to be at odds with each other.

  25. FutureNerd says:

    Thanks guys for setting up the YouTube channel. Now I can finally watch bOINGbOING videos– or at least bb Gadgets videos– on my tube-based computer.

  26. Kurtz says:

    Love the stacks of Sovtek amps used for testing pedals! I love my MIG-60 in unnatural ways.

    My first effect pedal was a 70’s Big Muff; it peeled the paint off my junior high school’s lunchroom/auditorium, and removed the smile from teachers’ faces.

    I like E-H pedals. They work best by themselves, in the studio, for specific sounds. Rock on.

  27. mikelotus says:

    Wait a minute. I thought that this was just snooty audiophile nonsense, you know tubes versus digital mp3s?

    #4 rockstrongo — what have you heard? Did he really win against the Russian mob?

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