Theo Hartman: Mojo Agnostic
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.
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.
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.
I assume there is a certain amount of pride in being able to make pedals that are appreciated by people with very discriminating ears, but at the same time, business is business – there is money to be made, right? I imagine it must be hard to know when to not cross that line for the sake of quality?
Achieving even a small amount of success with an enterprise like building pedals, I’m discovering, is forcing the question over and over again: why are you in it? And I got into this thinking that at some point the decisions I make as a builder and what I like and how it sounds, if that reaches enough people and enough people agree with that and like the pedals, that alone would mean commanding a higher price tag. But I’m finding that runs into conflict with my first principles which are about taking these sounds -- which may have been relegated historically to the cork-sniffers among us all -- and making them available to people who really just want a pedal that sounds good without sacrificing the quality and attention to that sonic detail.
A lot of guys out there, if you read their lit, would have you believe they’re successfully reinventing the wheel with every product they come out with. But I noticed that when you describe your products you’re very mindful to note when something started off as a clone.
We all grew up hearing these sounds. They’re part of our vocabulary. To me, their significance is that they were the building blocks of what’s now become a musical tradition and has been the soundtrack of at least a couple generations of youth now. I’m interested in why some people found some of those particular devices to be "the ones." What was it about them that made them musical? It goes well beyond electrical design and well beyond mojo or anything like that. It’s about the human ear and preference. To some degree I’m paying homage to those things by building them but I also think they’re still the elemental building blocks of rock n’ roll in so many ways. They are the primary colors of tone that people come back to time after time because we all know them. They are points of departure for people to make new music and new sounds but they serve as anchors within the realm of all possible sound out there.
Let’s talk about mojo. What''s your take?
I’m an agnostic. I think there’s a high degree of subjectivity in building, playing, and listening, and ultimately the ear is deciding what sounds good to an individual. So to the extent of that, a builder’s ear is involved in their creations. I agree that you can like one person’s Tube Screamer over another’s -- in fact, I would argue that’s kind of cool. If it were all the same it would be a boring thing to explore. But as far as mojo goes, if that’s simply a placeholder for something I or we don’t understand yet about how an amp or a pedal or a particular sound works then I’m not satisfied with stopping there and attributing it to some mysticism because, well, I’m curious. So I guess you could say I don’t believe in mojo but I believe in the magic of music and that everything that’s not the actual music itself can be explored in a fairly empirical way.
That’s kind of you to say, and I hope so in a way because my involvement in this has always been about learning and I’ve always been grateful that I learned from people who were imparting their knowledge and experience to me. For me, as a guitar player it’s always been about why things sound the way they do and if I like or dislike something to dig a little deeper to try and understand if there’s a principal involved so that I can make better decisions.
Your Germanium Treble boost was a limited run, due to the black glass transistors that you came across. Does that mean a player is hosed if he hasn''t already bought one?
The limited run of the original Mullard black glass did end in the fall of ''07, but I have been getting more back in and they’re actually the mil-spec CV7003 Mullards and I still have quite a supply of the Philips and Valvo black glass. More recently I’ve been adding Mullard OC71s, which were also used in original [Dallas] Rangemasters, most notably probably the ones used by Tommy Bolin and T-Rex, and another Germanium transistor called the OC76 which also has very complimentary electrical characteristics for use in a Rangemaster and sounds pretty good. The sourcing of the old stock parts… I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a pain in the ass but you can’t really get the singing kind of action out of the transistors that were made as a replacement in the mid-seventies or more recently. And I’m not saying that it couldn’t be done, but it hasn’t happened yet – I haven’t heard it so until I do I have to keep going back to the well for parts.
How long does it take you to build a pedal?
It comes down to however long it will take me to screen a transistor pair in a Fuzz face, for instance. It can range anywhere from an hour to a couple of hours. I’m probably making about 50 pedals a month right now.
Things in this industry are somewhat cyclical. Any particular trends you’re happy to see right now?
I’m glad to see a resurgence in interest in pedals versus rack gear, and this of course is a pendulum that is bound to swing back and forth for eternity, but this migration back to the floor from the rack has been a cool thing to see. The digitization of classic sound is the other trend that I’m really interested in. This is going to come across as heretical from the standpoint of a fuzz builder but while I would assert that none of the digital modeling out there has achieved the behavior and the feel of a Fuzz Face, I am a firm believer that it will. It’s only a matter of time and I think that’s great.
I really don’t have any predisposition toward dragging the 1960s, in terms of its machine-age building processes, along with us into the 21st century. If we can do it with new tools, we should. As much as I don’t dig how a lot of digital DSP stuff sounds, I’m excited about it as a trend because therein lies the future and it’s only a matter of time until we crack the code that allows us to recreate some of the subtleties that people experienced with analog equipment that they are rightfully unwilling to let go of.
What''s next on your horizon?
This year there will be some original designs. I will probably continue to put out some pedal designs based on some of the early one, two and three transistor fuzzes, but I have a backlog of my own ideas that are starting to find their way to my workbench. I''m taking a swing at doing a tremolo pedal in a way that it hasn''t been done before. I''m also taking a look at some of the clean and semi-clean boost circuits to see if what''s out there today is working and if there is room for improvement.