Musical Manufacturing in New York: Electro-Harmonix

Let's get something out of the way: no other effects company has done more to shape your aural experience than Electro-Harmonix. In a musical world overrun with processing choices, it can be easy to forget that from the late '60s through most of the '70s there were only a few effects available to most people. Back then, anything other than fuzz, wah-wah, reverb and tremolo seemed like magical spells cast by wizards in far away studios or on far away stages. Electro-Harmonix changed that - both by pioneering small (for their day) solid state effects and by making them affordable and therefore available to the masses. Music was forever changed.

Mike Matthews on the Electro-Harmonix production floor. Mike Matthews on the Electro-Harmonix production floor.

Mike Mathews started Electro-Harmonix in a small space on the 1200 block of Broadway in 1968, and except for a few years in the '80s he's been making pedals ever since (almost 50 years!!). For the entire time of its operation, EH has designed and manufactured in New York City. Most recently they have expanded into a massive, 90K sq ft space in Long Island City. With over 80 people employed, they have become one of the bigger operations in the domestic musical instruments industry. Mike told me they'll need all that space in the coming years. When I asked what new products they had planned that would require all that space, he smiled and said, "We're looking into tube amps". Vertical integration indeed.

One of the first things I asked Mike was if operating on this scale in New York was cost effective...why not build the pedals in China like everything else? His answer was quick: you can't effectively outsource this kind of audio product because the smallest variation at the component level can have a huge effect on the sound produced and, as every musician knows, the sound is the real product. In fact, despite the massive output at EH, every single pedal goes through three levels of testing. He maintains that's just not possible offshore unless you own the factory. Then I asked, if it has to be done domestically, why New York? Why not a cheaper city like Buffalo or Louisville? Again his answer was quick: the savings in operating costs would be offset by the lack of a large enough labor pool on the production end and talent on the design end. That, and the fact that Mike is a native New Yorker. His best people are all New Yorkers. The roots are deep.

Stacks of finished units waiting to be tested and packaged. Stacks of finished units waiting to be tested and packaged.

In the '70s EH made products from the parts level up completely in house. Times have changed, though, and now their model is typical of most boutique effects and higher-end audio products - only done on a much larger scale. Design is done in house, components are then outsourced either domestically or overseas. When components arrive from various suppliers, there is a first round of quality control. The products are then assembled and there is an additional round of quality control, including a musician actually playing through them and listening to them. Products that pass all tests are then packaged and shipped out to dealers or distributors.

Assembly stations. Assembly stations.

Walking onto the production floor at EH is truly awe inspiring. On one side of the enormous room are warehouse shelves loaded with boxes of components that reach all the way to the top of the 30' ceiling. On the other side are banks of tables with dozens of workers assembling units. In the margins are long piles of various completed pedals waiting for final testing and packaging, then to be moved off to the shipping department. The size of runs is dictated solely by the quantity of chassis in a carton (varies by chassis size) and its multiples. Mike said if they're going to pull down a carton from way up high then they're going to make them all. As for what starts a run he said that after 45 years of experience he can walk by the piles of finished units, eyeball them, and know how many more they need to make. Bear in mind EH currently makes close to 100 models! I found this amazing. When pressed he admitted that he gets some good advice from his staff from time to time, but it's clear that he is passionate about the process and very deeply involved.

Racks of components waiting to be assembled. Racks of components waiting to be assembled.

Another thing that struck me on the production floor and in the shipping department are the large amounts of units designated for export. It turns out about 50% of EH's product is sold overseas. This adds a whole other layer of complexity to production. Besides meeting stringent RoHS requirements, there are issues of varying voltages and AC socket types to be dealt with. Not to mention protectionist governments. Needless to say, the hassle is worth it. "It's a big world" as MIke says.

After so much time and so many changes, Electro-Harmonix has managed to stay vital and relevant. And it's still growing. Just last week a new stand-alone cv/expression sequencer shipped that answers the prayers of many a synth user. A few weeks before that a new, powerful but easy to use multi-track looper came out. A few weeks before that 4 more new pedals. Like the city that gave birth to it and will probably always be its home, Electro-Harmonix will never be finished re-inventing itself. Oh, did I mention Mike built a living space in the factory that he stays in during the week so he can get up and work in the middle of the night? I guess you could say it too never sleeps.