A Meditation on Aesthetics and Mojo in Electronics
By Chris Loeffler |
Style , Substance, and Snake Oil in the Electronic World
A Conversation with Matt Reinhardt of MJR Effects by Chris Loeffler
The Reverb community has morphed from an "ebay for musicians" to a vibrant starting ground for artisans and upstart boutique companies to peddle their wares and build early buzz. One of the more prominant and active sellers on the site is Matt Reinhardt of MJR effects, who marries his love of electronics with a passion for aesthetics. His pedals are always eye catching, whether because of the reclaimed wood used as the faceplate or the antiqued copper plates, and they stand out in a sea of silk-screened graphics. In addition to stunning enclosures, MJR is making a name for itself by utilizing highly-sought after NOS parts that make for stunning gut shots. Harmony Central reached out to Matt to discuss his view on how style and substance overlap and why he bothers making beautiful things for people to step on.
What is the value of a great or unique looking pedal? Why do you go through the extra lengths to create a strong visual appeal for something that's going to be stepped on?
A great looking pedal says just as much about the artist as it does the builder. For the artist, a unique pedal shows non-conformity, a taste for the custom, the obscure, the finer things in life. For the builder, it shows a willingness to go above and beyond the status quo, to use that bare aluminum box to take an artistic stance and produce something that is much more than the sounds it produces and the parts that make it up.
Why make it look good? You look at it all the time, and if you perform I'm sure you have noticed the folks that come up to the stage, not to ogle you and your sick licks, but to check out your board. Give them some eye candy. Silk-screened designs and swirl painting bore me to death – personally, I love natural art, the gorgeous figuring in a fine exotic wood, the colorful reaction of chemicals on a sheet of copper. I started building this way because it's what I wanted to look at on my board, it's what I wanted my audiences to see. And the fact that these are made to be stomped is precisely why I cover all of my pedals in a thick epoxy – it's expensive and time-consuming, but it permanently prevents the paint from chipping, protects the wood or copper top from scratches and gouges, is easily cleaned, and even if you take a chisel to the top, a quick sanding and another coat will make the blemish disappear. A tank in a tuxedo.
Vintage parts... they look cooler, but do they actually sound better? Why do you think that is? Have you ever had an "ah ha" moment with a vintage component?
They certainly do look cooler, but just because a part is vintage doesn't mean it sounds better. Whether vintage or modern, there's components that sound great, and those that sound terrible – it's all about the manufacturing quality, end-tone, length of life, and the function of the particular part. Modern components have their benefits – tighter tolerances, lower noise (generally), more uniform results, and of course they are considerably cheaper – perfect for mass-producing pedals or for sections of a higher-gain pedal. I'll let the electronics academics (or the passionate forum member) debate whether vintage parts sound better through the actual physics; but, in the psychological sense, if you personally believe a part sounds better or is better, then it does and is.
When I use vintage components it's usually for three reasons: the look, the function, and the history. No film capacitor looks cooler than a Mullard Tropical Fish (but they honestly have no sonic advantage); regarding function, old Philips electrolytic capacitors give me those tonal “ah ha” moments all the time, as do Yellow Jacket, Bumblebee, and Vitamin Q caps; and, the history is what adds the greater depth – getting to talk about the early 50's Japanese diodes in your pedal's clipping section produced at the start of their electronics revolution, right after their country was crippled by war; or your pedal's Vitamin Q paper-in-oil capacitor that was made while Jimi was soaking his bandanas.
Right angle wiring... what's the benefit?
It's almost all about pride of craftsmanship. When you open a box and see straight lines and right angles, you know extra time, thoughtfulness, and care went into the construction of that pedal. You'll never see right angles in pedals from companies interested in pinching pennies for their bottom line – it takes too much extra time in the assembly-line atmosphere that even most boutique companies employ. Demand more for your money. Some folks are in this business to quickly pump out as many pedals as possible for the best profit margin; others, myself included, just want to make ends meet while fashioning the finest product possible because it's what they love to do. All that being said, I have encountered instances where bundled wires, or just plain sloppy wiring, adds a certain degree of unwanted or extra noise – clean and proper wiring can remedy that (assuming the circuit layout is optimal to begin with).
Fuzz built on custom Burl turrent board
Given that technology has improved exponentially, why do you believe antiquated components and designs are still viewed as the standard for effects and amplification? Is it a lucky accident that the designs were just right the first time, or have we grown to view the original tones and designs as the default standard?
I don't necessarily believe any vintage designs were “right” the first time – there's old pedals that sound great, and there's new designs that sound great. Old designs are still the standard mainly because of nostalgia – Jimi played this, Page recorded with that, this pedal is on that famous song. It's really due to the fact that you've heard those particular tones enough that it becomes the “right” sound in your brain. It becomes the benchmark tone by which you evaluate all others.
The Tubescreamer, for example – folks will dish out big bucks for an original searching for the SRV tone, but there's a plethora of more recent modifications and versions that can make that design sound “better,” and certainly more versatile. Same with the Fuzz Face, Rangemaster, etc. Modern technology has it's advantages, and some companies are finally starting to get the whole modeling/digital processing thing down, but most musicians are reluctant to turn their signal wave into 1's and 0's. There's something about the organic, natural sound of analog circuitry that won't go away no matter how far digital technology advances – perhaps that's also just due to nostalgia, some “hip” factor, but regardless, antiquated technology will always find a home in musician's rigs, if nowhere else.