Akron’s EarthQuaker Devices powers rock ‘n’ roll across the globe
August 5, 2015
by Brittany Nader
The next time you check out a show in the area, take a closer look at the gear edging the stage. There’s a good chance you’ll see EarthQuaker Devices guitar pedals at the feet of many a musician making noise in Akron. This isn’t just a local trend, either—EarthQuaker’s hand-built boutique pedals are becoming standard equipment for world-touring artists like Wilco, Modest Mouse, Pearl Jam, Steely Dan and some guys named The Black Keys. The little Akron brand has grown up into a force to be reckoned with, quenching the thirst of instrumentalists perfecting their craft far and wide.
Owned and operated by local musician Jamie Stillman and his team of loyal tinkerers, EarthQuaker Devices evolved from a basement operation on Merriman Road to a small shop on Bishop Street with a crew of more than 30 employees. As demand for the unique pedals soared in the last few years, Stillman realized he had quickly outgrown the space and needed to expand. A diamond in the rough was spotted downtown – an old building formerly housing everything from a meat grinder repair business to an automotive paint supplier – allowing the team to operate in a larger, more expansive location and pump out the in-demand devices to the masses.
“The new space is massive, about 15,000 square feet, and it will hopefully allow us to stay put and spread out,” Stillman says. “[It’s] the perfect spot. I can’t imagine finding a better place. We couldn’t do what we do without all of our employees, and everyone lives here in Akron.”
EarthQuaker Devices is undoubtedly experiencing a stellar year full of growth, recognition and widespread acclaim. Beyond moving to its larger location full of expansive offices and plenty of space for production, another big change Stillman and his team experienced this year is bringing its enclosure operations in house, allowing them to keep all facets of the company under one roof. The small, local company made its mark most recently at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Show, the world’s largest trade event for the music products industry. EarthQuaker Devices was named Best in Show, legitimizing the products Stillman first started devising in a scant spare bedroom on Westwood.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing to me — I never think of us as a brand that the bigger industry pays attention to,” Stillman says. “It’s nice to know that these weird ideas have a larger appeal than I could have ever hoped for.”
Almost a decade ago, Stillman was working as a road manager for The Black Keys. Tinkering with pedals was merely a hobby then, something he was fitting in along with freelance graphic design work and his parenting duties. He spent many sleepless nights learning the ins and outs of creating the pedals – something he says was a natural progression from working as a designer and playing music of his own. Stillman wanted to learn how to make new sounds and figure out how to develop a product he could use himself and share with others.
“The science of electronics is not really what I am interested in. I really only learned enough to get by,” he says. “I kind of like to learn the basics of anything I’m interested in and just wing it from there. Making tons of mistakes and not getting too technical is what keeps it exciting for me.”
Soon, direct orders started pouring in. He hired his first employee, Jeff France, to help manage some of the responsibilities that quickly began flowing in as EQD grew from a hobby to a legitimate business. Fusing the creative elements from his life in the design and music worlds allowed Stillman to naturally come up with eye-catching graphics and unique names that set his pedals apart.
Ghost Echo, Dream Crusher, Cloven Hoof and Zap Machine are just a few varieties of the delay, boost, fuzz, modulation and compression pedals EQD creates to this day. Stillman’s wife, Julie, has come up with several names as well, and local comic book artist Matt Horak has lent a hand with some of the distinctive design elements, making the production a true creative team effort.
From a technical standpoint, Stillman says he isn’t looking to fill any “holes” in the effects market or get his own versions of traditional device out there. Instead, he and his crew prefer to develop sometimes odd, borderline unusable sounds that add a whole new dimension to the musical landscape. He says old recordings are highly influential in the creation of his pedals, and perfect tone isn’t so much a priority.
To date, EQD’s most popular pedals are the Dispatch Master, known as one of the most versatile delay/reverb pedals on the market, and the Afterneath, described as an “otherworldly” reverberation machine that helps musicians craft wild, scattered sounds that bend, stretch, swell, and create beautiful sonic messes that transfix and bewitch listeners. Stillman says customer requests have influenced the creation of a few new pedals, including The Dunes, which is a simplified version of The Palisades — named after the street in Akron — Stillman’s creative take on the popular tube screamer overdrive pedal.
EQD is also debuting the Interstellar Orbiter, a dual resonant filter designed specifically for Canadian DJ Kid Koala to use on his Satellite concert tour. The pedal allows for a unique, interactive experience where audience members — even those who aren’t necessarily musically inclined — can individually alter the sounds they hear. It is an intricate process that involves interwoven aural delights crafted by a laboratory of amateur sonic scientists.
“Each audience member will be seated at one of 60 mini turntable stations that will include a small crate of color coded custom vinyl,” Stillman explains. “Each record contains a drone that is designed to harmonize with key moments in the show being performed on stage by Kid Koala. Each record player will be run through an Interstellar Orbiter and allow the audience to individually manipulate the sounds. Very excited about this one.”
With the help of illustrious local musician Joe Golden, EQD has also designed a new amp, the Sound Projector 25, which the team debuted at NAMM this summer. This particular device is unique because it can accept any octal power tube, Stillman says, and installing different tubes completely changes the sound and feel. The amp will go into production in the fall.
In the meantime, Stillman and the team will be developing new ideas for bigger, louder amps in addition to their highly revered pedal offerings. With a new location and a dedicated team working tirelessly to cook up new devices for the local and global music communities, there’s no doubt EarthQuaker Devices will leave its mark on the industry in a big, bad way.
EarthQuaker Devices wears its love of our city all over its website, capping every product description with a different and unique take on Akron.
hummingbirdv3 – “The Hummingbird is all analog, true bypass and handmade one at a time on a gilded cloud in Akron, Ohio.”
palisades – “Each Palisades is hand made one at a time in the tiny tree house community of Akron, Ohio.”
blackeyeboost – “The Black Eye is true bypass and built one at a time by human beans on the shore front of Akron, Ohio.”
fuzzmastergeneral – “Each Fuzz Master General is made by human hands in mostly tropical Akron, Ohio.”