COMPANIES TO WATCH
|Bill Ruppert, co-designer of many of Electro-Harmonix’ top-selling effect pedals.
Product development & marketing aimed at inspiring guitarists drives top pedal maker’s business .
ACCLAIMED GUITARIST BILL RUPPERT recalls approaching the Electro-Harmonix booth at his first-ever winter NAMM Show, in 1972 Chicago. Just 18 years old, he’d asked to try out the company’s newly launched Black Finger compressor. Ruppert had only played a couple of notes when Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews, sporting “long wild hair,” burst into the demo booth and yelled, “‘Hey man, let’s jam!’ and started wailin’ away” on an acoustic spinet piano. “There I was, jamming with this wild man! That was my first experience with Mike.” Casablanca-like, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, melding two formidable talents that have helped turn Electro-Harmonix into an industry icon.
Among other new pedal collaborations, Ruppert came up with the concepts for all of Electro-Harmonix’ enormously popular 9 Series pedals—the B9 and C9 Organ Machines, Key9 Electric Piano Machine, Mel9 Mellotron Emulator, Synth9 Synth Machine, and, most recently, the BASS9 Bass Machine. After hashing out each prospective product’s commercial viability with Matthews and the EHX marketing team, Ruppert partners with the company’s third savant, super-designer David Cockerell, who creates the digital “workstation” from which Ruppert designs.
Like Matthews and Cockerell, Ruppert approaches product design from a musician’s perspective. Something of a studio music legend, he is credited with playing nearly 10,000 sessions over his 30-year career. Many of the gigs involved television and radio commercials for every brand imaginable, from GM and Toyota to 7-11 and Budweiser. Album work included dates with the likes of Phil Collins, The Beach Boys, Richie Havens, Chuck Mangione, and Bryan Ferry.
Outside his native Chicago studio and gigging scene, Ruppert is best known to guitarists as the guy who puts new Electro-Harmonix pedals through their paces on dozens of demonstration videos. On their most basic level, the spots are primarily instructional, indicating pedal control settings to achieve particular effects. But they also entice guitarists to buy more EHX pedals. Consumer reaction to the videos, plain to see on YouTube, can be fairly summed up with the following actual recent viewer comments: “Bill Ruppert rocks!” and “Sigh. Here’s my wallet.” One asked Electro-Harmonix for a direct deposit routing number.
The videos serve additional purposes no less positive for the industry: They educate and inspire creative exploration. “We’re telling [guitarists],” says Ruppert, “‘You’re not limited to doing what was done in 1960—what’s “normal.” Your guitar is unlimited: experiment!’” This appeal, on steroids, is on display in the Effectology series videos, all of which feature Ruppert using nothing but a guitar and a variety of EHX pedals (and the occasional pocket AM radio).
It is a testament to Electro-Harmonix pedals—and Matthews’ and Ruppert’s vision—that all of the effects are presented not in isolation, where they might be dismissed as gimmicks, but in valid musical contexts. In many cases, Effectology’s effect combinations simulate other instruments, from Caribbean steel drum to Irish uilleann pipes, or seminal works originally performed with keyboards, synthesizers, and other non-guitar instruments including Pink Floyd’s “On the Run,” or The Who’s landmark organ/synth-driven “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and the timpani and trumpets of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man—all without samples, synths, or special cables.
Ruppert has been pushing the guitar’s definition for much of his adult life. In college he was enthralled with a Moog synthesizer lab in which three bays of synth modules were patched together with cables. He cut his audio exploration teeth there, endlessly plugging in cables, listening, and recording. Years later it occurred to him that experimenting with a guitar and multiple effect pedals involved essentially the same process and reward—a logical but unobvious extension of the electric guitar’s nature: “The minute you plug it into an amp and get distortion,” he says, “you’ve left what a guitar is; and when you plug into pedals, you’re basically playing a synthesizer.”
He draws the line, however, at what he calls “bloops and bleeps” pedals that, when a single note is struck, generate an afternoon’s worth of spacey sounds. “At that point,” he suggests, “you’re turning on an appliance. I want to create tools musicians can steer.” (He adds, “How did we get from Earth Wind & Fire onstage to someone spinning a record?”)
The new BASS9 Bass Machine, which effectively transforms a guitar into nine distinct types of basses, is a good example of EHX pedals that are both boundary-busting and musically practical. Its target customer is “any guitarist who isn’t comfortable playing bass, doesn’t want to carry one to the gig for just a few songs, or wants give the bass player a chance to play keyboards or front the band.” It will also be loved by the growing number of guitarists who are using loops for recording, songwriting, practicing, or even gigging. Requiring no special pickups, cables, MIDI, or instrument modifications, the BASS9 employs the same technology powering all EHX 9 Series pedals but features a new algorithm optimized for transposing one to two octaves down with superior dynamic range and tracking. The pedal’s nine programs include: Precision pays homage to the iconic Fender P Bass; Longhorn emulates the Danelectro six-string bass, ideal for baritone guitar-like tones; Fretless features both electric and standup fretless basses; Synth pays tribute to the classic Taurus Synthesizer; Virtual lets the user adjust the bass’s body density and neck length for a variety of bass sounds; Bowed delivers the classic bowed bass or cello; Split Bass makes it possible to play bass on the lower strings and chords or melody with the higher strings; 3:03 is a polyphonic salute to the iconic Roland TB-303 vintage bass synth; and Flip-Flop is inspired by EHX’s Octave Multiplexer, providing a ’70s-style logic-driven sub-octave generator that tracks without glitches. Independent Effect and Dry volume controls let guitarists precisely tune their mix at the Effects output jack; plus an always-active Dry output jack outputs the input signal at unity gain. Controls 1 and 2 adjust specific parameters for each of the nine programs.
Once you get past the plain coolness of the BASS9’s sounds, the practical value of its low latency, facilitated by fine-tuned algorithms and a faster processor, kicks in. “For a guitarist,” says Ruppert, “trying to sync up with the drummer [while dealing with high-latency effects] is horrible, like trying to run with lead boots on. With the BASS9, I didn’t have to move a single track on the demo. I could see [the tracks] in Pro Tools, and they were spot-on with the drums.” And of his favorite Synth sound, he adds, “there are no drop-outs or mis-triggers.”
“The market’s appetite for great new sounds is insatiable,” says Matthews. “The BASS9 is one more example of our brilliant design team giving guitarists new ways to be creative. Rock ’n’ roll!”