Stones, Clones, & Muffs - An Interview With Howard Davis
From the August-September 1999 issue of Guitar Digest
By Ron Neely
Howard Davis was Chief Electronics Engineer for Electro-Harmonix from 1976 to 1981. Among the many credits to his name are the Deluxe Electric Mistress, the Deluxe Memory Man, the Talking Pedal, and the Clone Theory. Recently, he's worked with EH again on some of their reissues. The following interview was conducted via email in December of 1998.
RN: Tell me about your early work prior to EH
HD: I was a scientific prodigy, fixing TVs and building working electric motors from bell wire and metal cut from food cans when I was 10 years old. My family was poor, and I had neither the financial resources nor the encouragement I needed. Finally after years of frustrating technician jobs that didn't allow creative expression, I got into Cooper Union and earned my EE degree Summa Cum Laude. About a month after graduation in 1976 I started with Electro-Harmonix, and loved almost every minute of my 5 years with the company.
RN: How did you come to work at EH?
HD: It was the right place for me. I was a non-conforming, counterculture type of person with total disdain for the usual repressive corporate environment. I had loved Rock N' Roll since I was 14 (1958), and became aware that the audio technology then in use was primitive compared to what it could be. Long before analog delay pedals existed, I fabricated an acoustic delay using a hose-like tube with a speaker at one end and a mike at the other. Sounded weird due to the resonance, but it did produce what we now call a "slap echo." EH was a technological and musical playground for me. Being paid well to have productive, creative FUN is my kind of gig!
RN: What years did you work at EH?
HD: 1976 to1981.
RN: What was a typical day at the EH company like?
HD: There was occasional stress, but the work was challenging and satisfying. There was plenty of freedom to be yourself; Mike knew that what counts is that a person is productive, not that he or she dresses conservatively and cuts their hair short. Productivity at EH was rewarded, not taken for granted. And we had real fun - during breaks we would jam in the sound room. Mike did his best to treat his staff like family, unlike typical work environments where people are just competing cogs in the heart-attack machine.
RN: Can you describe the process of designing a new effect for EH?
HD: There are times I've come up with an effect idea on my own; other times I'm just asked to "think about" something. I need not think long, or with any great effort, before the circuitry just pops into my head. At times an idea flashes unexpectedly, and I'll grab the nearest piece of paper to jot down the schematic or whatever. It's actually very creative and enjoyable. Once calculations are done and a preliminary schematic is completed, I build a protoboard prototype. Testing, modifications, and final evaluation follow. Once a panel of musicians is satisfied the product does all it should, and nothing it shouldn't, the schematic goes for PC board design. When a sample board is received it is built up, wired into the box it is made for, and then evaluated and debugged. If necessary corrections are made, then boards and parts are ordered for the first production run.
RN: What's the best product you came up with?
HD: I'd say the most popular is the Deluxe Memory Man. I didn't design the first delay stompbox with the Memory Man name, but in 1977 I re-engineered it with such a substantial improvement in performance that it just took off - it was hard for the company to keep up with the demand. I'm also proud of my Deluxe Octave Multiplexer. The hardest part of that design was the fundamental extractor - the circuitry that locks in on the fundamental, or basic pitch, of the note being played. Before my work the existing products of this type had a tendency to "yodel," to jump up an octave and then back again. I came up with what was the best analog fundamental extractor used in a stompbox at that time. Once you have a good fundamental extractor, synthesizing the suboctaves is relatively easy. I also like my Ambitron, but that was designed for the audiophile market, not really in EH's primary area of interest.
RN: Did you specifically design the Ambitron for converting mono jazz records to stereo?
HD: At the time I came up with the Ambitron some records in my collection, which is mostly rock, were monaural. I even have old 45s and really old 78s. Some stereo recordings of that time were not realistically mixed; there was often a "hole-in-the-middle," with instruments on the right and left without much in or near the center except perhaps the vocals and bass. I wanted a way of generating realistic pseudo-stereo from the mono sources, and to enhance the stereo effect by synthesizing more ambient acoustics without actually changing the room or speakers. Thus was born the Ambitron.
RN: Are there any other variations on the Ambitron?
HD: EH product names came and went. The old Polychorus, Echoflanger, and Polyflanger were actually all the same pedal; the recently reissued Stereo Polychorus looks the same but I completely redesigned it to be far superior to the original. I recall that there was an "Ambitron" made for guitar, but not many were made and it is now a rare collector's item.
RN: Do you play any instrument yourself?
HD: Rhythm guitar, but I don't consider myself a highly accomplished guitarist. I have written several songs - actually poems set to the appropriate chords. I sometimes sing and play with David Peel and the Lower East Side - we played the Woodstock reunions at Bethel, NY for several years. I was in The Blunt Fringe, a short-lived Brooklyn band, and I play in summertime jams in Washington Square Park, clubs, at parties, whenever and wherever. I totally love music and I love to dance.
RN: What are some moments you can remember at EH?
HD: One day for some reason our power got cut off. My lab didn't have any windows, and of course without power no equipment would work. I did though. I got a few candles, put them on my desk, and did what paperwork I could. Another day Jack Bruce walked into my room, asking to hear some new effects. I think I showed him the latest Memory Man and the Talking Pedal. Another time I was given a project for Pink Floyd - the design of a special filter. I always felt good about my work being a medium of artistic expression and being appreciated by many successful musicians.
RN: What's the story behind the "Pink Floyd Project"?
HD: By the time I had been with EH for a few months, I had improved the design of several products, including the Memory Man, with active filters. In Cooper Union I had taken an elective course in filter design, feeling it would be useful for audio and other analog work. One day, WOW! - I'm asked to design a 5-pole (30 db per octave) active lowpass filter for Pink Floyd! Having always loved the band and their technical innovations, I was ecstatic with this assignment!
RN: The Talking Pedal would be an excellent candidate for reissue. The non-standard pot would be the only problem.
HD: It would indeed. The company is understandably reluctant to use custom-made parts or parts without backup sources. I designed the Talking Pedal using data on human speech I got from my brother, a professor of audiology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. The custom tapers of the dual pot sections were designed using that data and the characteristics of the bandpass filters they controlled.
RN: What finally made you leave?
HD: As I remember, the company had been put under siege by an unscrupulous labor union seeking to organize the factory workers. Towards the end of 1980 the business had declined for this and other reasons. As my responsibilities were technical and I didn't care very much for politics or corporate culture, I tried to stay away from the management woes, but they affected everyone. I left in 1981.
RN: What did you do after leaving EH?
HD: For a few years I became a free-lance writer. I've always loved writing, and have published many articles in technical and hobby publications, sometimes with a free subscription my only remuneration. I had several articles in Guitar Player. I had the time, so I wrote a book. I had some experience designing and installing alarm systems, so I wrote "PREVENT BURGLARY - An Aggressive Approach to Total Home Security." Published by Prentice-Hall, it got great reviews, and I expected to make a mint. I was interviewed on dozens of radio talk shows to promote it. Prentice-Hall was bought out by Simon & Shyster just as the book was to be marketed, and they botched the marketing royally, with almost no books in the stores just when demand was hot. I made a little on it though, and even wrote two more books, but I was discouraged by the low pay to work ratio for writing in general. A few years ago I self-published a book of original poetry, and have put some of my poems to music. Nice hobby, but without a relative in the publishing business the chances of doing well financially at writing are poor no matter how good you are.
RN: What are you doing today?
HD: Living! If you haven't found the key to happiness by my age, you never will. I'm into health and fitness, I've been into several self-development and mental/spiritual practices such as Avatar, and have made good use of what I've experienced and learned. I create my own life, as we all do whether we know it or not. I feel about as free and happy as one can within the constraints of this crazy world. I would never work full-time for someone else again, not because there are no good people to work for, but because of the unacceptable restrictions on personal freedom such employment imposes. I now do electronics engineering as a self-employed consultant, and custom modification and repair work on guitar pedals � many of which I originally designed.
RN: What would you consider your "crowning achievement?"
HD: That's a hard question to answer. A happy life is a succession of achievements, and for the best, the satisfaction you feel within is better than any financial reward. I'd say designing electronics as an independent consultant is my current crowning achievement. I've greatly upgraded my lab and information resources, and welcome every interesting opportunity that comes my way, whether it's a totally new design, repair and reconditioning of vintage EH pedals, custom effects pedal mods, whatever.
RN: What do you think the future of effects will be?
HD: Certain staple effects will always be in demand, and so will the technologies originally used to implement them. Just as there is still a market for the old technology of vacuum tubes, there will always be a demand for transistor and IC-based analog effects, no matter how digital technology advances. Many musicians look for a certain sound; if they believe it can only be obtained using tubes, they buy a tube amp, no matter how one may present the many substantial advantages of solid state. Music is so much a matter of taste that I don't dispute opinions; if there is a demand for a tube device, I'll design one to the best of my ability if asked to, despite my belief in the superiority of semiconductors.
RN: If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
HD: I wish I had become more knowledgeable in law and management; if I had, I might have helped to prevent the 1981 Electro-Harmonix downfall. Management just isn't my thing - too many wheelydealy problems and stress and not enough creativity involved. It stifles personal freedom, which more than anything else is precious to me.