For whatever reason, many a guitar player is satisfied with the idea of "mojo" being responsible for the way certain equipment handles or sounds. Theo Hartman of Hartman Electronics isn't one of them.
Much like a craps player who is more interested in studying probability than the superstitions involved with what makes a table "hot," Hartman is vocal about his mojo agnosticism. He won't deny that something unexplainable can
exist, but he'd much rather calibrate every known variable involved and explore the nuances of classic components than acknowledge a mysterious x-factor as the main ingredient for a killer tone. You'd expect no less from an architect whose projects include listening environments with top-rate acoustics. Combine that kind of technical precision with the passion of a classically-trained musician and you end up with someone who is uniquely qualified to build guitar pedals for a certain kind of player.
Theo Hartman has tinkered with electronic circuitry for decades but didn't start making pedals until 2005. In a few short years he has quickly gained a reputation for making equipment that satisfies discerning tastes. We recently had a chance to pick Theo Hartman's brain about his products and the kind of thinking that leads to a pedal design.
How would you describe your product line?
Every pedal I make is based very closely and faithfully on an out-of-production original from the past 40 or 50 years. My goal is to make the right tools for the job and in each case it’s to get that sound. So if you’re a producer or a player who needs to achieve a very specific sonic objective my goal is to be able to provide a pedal to do that, no more and no less -- no questions asked. There’s no trick to it whatsoever. I think we’ve all found ways to get tones from things that are other than what we’re trying to sound like and that’s fine. I’m just trying to make it a shorter walk.
What kind of player digs your stuff?
I think they might be the people who used to buy the UPC symbol groceries in the eighties, the ones with no brand on them with the black letters. They want what’s inside. A lot of them are involved in psychedelic rock and to some degree college rock of the eighties (what was then called "alternative rock"). There’s been an enormous resurgence of the tube amp in the last decade and a half. An entire generation is discovering why those amps sound the way they do. I think many people who are getting into that are realizing that there are some pedals from the same era that did things that kind of got lost in the shuffle in the heyday of value engineering in the eighties and they’re coming back.
You’re really into vintage components. Tell me about how that passion came about.
The vintage components I first came across were by accident. I believe in paying your dues and one of the things that attracted me to fuzzes was their incredibly simple circuit. I think it’s really easy to get wrapped up in the science and the math of electronics when you’re building electrical devices. I really wanted to keep myself grounded in the ear and its role in building these things and the fuzz is a platform that forces you to do that. There are fewer than a dozen parts that go into a fuzz. It’s a primitive electrical circuit -- a poor circuit from a strict engineering point of view -- but some of the things that make it deficient in that regard are also what lend its musicality and I was interested in exploring how that happens in a fuzz. Because it’s such a simple circuit, the decisions of the builder in selecting the parts that go into it and screening them and matching them up are really a large part of how the pedal ends up sounding.
So for me, that was a very musical, creative act – much more so than the decisions involved with making a Tube Screamer platform and then stamping out 1000 of them. I’ve heard it said that every fuzz is a snowflake and I think that’s as good an analogy as any for describing the amount of variety and level of detail that goes into people’s experiences in playing and hearing them. As a builder, that really attracted me because it kept me engaged creatively in every single unit that I was working on. It keeps me on my toes, too. The old parts have electrical characteristics that make them difficult to work with and end up resulting in me rejecting a lot of them but those same sorts of irregularities are also why the good ones sound so musical. It’s a double-edged sword. It keeps my head and my ear in the game with every pedal, which is what I love about it.
There are some guitar players who can barely tell the difference between tube types. To be able to tell the difference between a Phillips OC44 and one made by Texas Instruments, we’re talking about a certain caliber of clientele, aren’t we?
That’s true and it brings up an interesting point about who you’re building pedals for and why. There is no way around individually screening transistors that go into a Fuzz Face circuit. If you ignore doing so, you do so at your own peril and at the expense of how what you build sounds. But there are more sophisticated electrical circuits that people use or make all the time that don’t require that level of involvement from the builder. This gets into the really interesting question of when does something cease to be boutique and why.
I am not a big believer in boutique for boutique’s sake. I see lots of amazing designs getting built well on a fairly large scale, and I’m a believer of using technology that is available to do it right and to be able to pass on the value that comes from that scale of manufacturing to customers. In fact, a couple of the designs that I’m working on at the moment will require no individual parts screening from me as a builder once they are launched. I take a hard look at it this way: how do I make my production of the same level of value to people who aren’t listening for the difference between an OC44 and an OC71 transistor in their treble booster but want the functionality of these new designs.