Dwarfcraft 'Left To Its' Devices
By Team HC |
Dwarfcraft 'Let To Its' Devices
Get all the fuzz on these effects wizards ...
by Blake Wright
In January of this year (2017), the effects wizards at Dwarfcraft Devices celebrated their 10th anniversary — a decade of over-the-top distortion, mind-blending oscillation and things that go bloop and bleep in the night. The anniversary loomed large during our visit to the company’s current digs, which was at the rear of a building currently housing an art collective of sorts. The shop is split into two sections — one houses the main workstation area the other holds offices and musical equipment for both testing pedals and play time. For the first two years of its existence, Dwarfcraft was Ben Hinz, in his basement… alone. He would toil away on builds while his wife Louise attended college then landed a job at a local law firm. It wasn’t long however until she was pulled into the business. “He got in way over his head,” says Louise Hinz. “He was drowning in emails. So I just started by answering a few emails here and there. Then I started sending invoices. As things got more official I was doing business, backend stuff. I quit the law firm and have had one other job for like a year and a half where we could get health insurance and all of that regular stuff that grown ups do, and that was just a nightmare so I quit after about 18 months there and came back full time and I’ve been back for 2.5 years full time now.”
Soldering Iron in Hand: Ben Hinz being left to his devices.
While the company has never been in as good of a position as it is in today, there were times — four by Ben’s count — that he was ready to walk away. “Most of those I never said out loud,” he says. “It was probably at work. For a while I was on LinkedIn and headhunters would show up with jobs that I should really apply for. And at the end of a shitty day…” “I would have said there was only one that I remember where it was like ‘Is this f#@* it or no?’,” recalls Louise. “There have been a couple of times where things got ugly… ok, now I can remember two (laughs).” The pair have become grinders over the years. The times of despair, or dis-repair, have only toughened their resolve to trudge forward, try harder, fix mistakes — rather than repeated contemplation of throwing in the towel. “Our whole lives together into this business,” says Ben. “I don’t think a lot of thought went into a lot of the decisions that were made and then here we are running this company. It was our only option. We’re addicted to that struggle and the rewards from it.
On The Bench: Dwarfcraft currently has two full-time employees and a pair of part-time helpers. Those numbers are expected to grow.
The short way to say it, which is what I tell my kids when they ask why I do this, which doesn’t make any sense to a child — because it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” One thing that has served Dwarfcraft well, and continues to serve it well, is ability to maintain a high level of regard from within the peer group of boutique pedal builders. The Hinzs are every-people. They aren’t the stereotypical circuit nerds that can’t ‘do’ large crowds. They are as personable and approachable as most in the business can get, which can be a double-edge sword, but so far the payoffs — like relationships build via the NAMM shows — have exceeded the hardships. “I have a strong opinion on the NAMM shows,” says Ben. “Early on it was really good. Immediately good. Picking up dealers. Dealers making orders. Because this is where they learned of us. Now, at this point, we don’t really pick up new dealers at trade shows, but part of me feels like you have to show up to assert to the entire industry that we’re still here and we have not compromised.
The things you were sneering at last year have sold X units and bought this plane ticket, you know? And here’s new stuff for you to sneer at. For my own mental health, because I don’t look at the books, the most important part of a trade show is to meet up and hang out with people that are doing a job like yours or related to yours in a different part of the world. It’s like Cheers — you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and the troubles are all the same.”
Networking and those friendships that get built out of trade shows are important to Dwarfcraft, who at the 2016 Winter NAMM show hosted the Guild of Calamitous Effects — a group of like-minded gear providers who shared a larger space at the show. Guild members included Fuzzrocious, WMD, Mantic Conceptual, Rainger FX, smallsound/bigsound, Industrialectric, Verellen Amplifiers, and, of course, Dwarfcraft. “Everytime we come out of a trade show we feel good about where we’re going,” says Louise. “We’re gain some perspective every year. For us it is an important part of every year. We skipped a few years back and I don’t think we’ll ever do that again. As long as their is enough money to make the trip it will be important.”
On The Menu: Dwarfcraft usually has anywhere from a dozen to fifteen pedals in circulation at any given time, but they are not shy about retiring old or underperforming designs.
As far as Dwarfcraft pedal range is concerned, they currently have just over a dozen offerings… and it floats in that range most of the time. There is no real emotional attachment for a pedal that is not selling well. If the thrill is gone, so is the pedal. “Trent Reznor once said that pop music is run on the shit gun theory,” says Ben. “Where you shoot a shit gun at the wall and see what sticks. Now he meant that in a bad way, but I embraced it fully. We make these things that I want to see, use and try… and if they don’t stick, odds are we’ll make our money back and move on.
Once it is done and it works, my emotional entanglement ends there. That’s the victory.” The company’s current top seller is the Wizard Of Pitch, which started as an idea to cut their Pitchgrinder pedal down to a single pitch shifter with a mix control, but became much more. The pedal’s ‘resolution’ was cranked up to 32-bits from the Grinder’s 8-bits, but offers the same lo-fi, glitchy sounds. “I think even in normal pitch shifting mode it sounds different that anything that’s out there… then it goes further,” explains Ben. “It opens a lot of doors creatively. It is fun to get your hands on it.” “It’s the weirdest pedal we make,” adds Louise. “Noisiest. Not super cheap, but clearly the top seller.
The Great Destroyer is the all-time leader by a lot. It sells consistently every year. It’s a weird one too. Eau Claire Thunder would come after that, but we’ve sold thousands of Destroyers over the years.” One of the biggest growth spurts for the company was also one of the most complex.
In early 2014, it was announced that Dwarfcraft purchased Devi Ever FX. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. By September 2016, Devi Ever FX was back in the hands of its namesake. Both Ben and Louise remain resistant to speak at length on the subject. In fact during our visit, the transition of the company back to Devi was likely already underway. “It was a good business decision,” confirms Louise of the purchase. “It wasn’t fun. We gained a bunch of new dealers. We had a pile of operating income. She was bigger than us then.
We’ve gained a lot of ground. Acquiring the brand was a big deal.” So perseverance has paved the way for the next half decade at Dwarfcraft. So what will this focused, yet unpredictable noise merchant look like in five years? “We’ll be in Eau Claire,” says Louise. “The long term goal is to have a modular synth system out. That’s actually a shorter term plan. That’s like next. To just keep making bigger, better, crazier stuff. We want to get more into DSP stuff. A lot of ideas Ben has for pedals can only be done that way. And it’s stuff that is not out there today. That’s a big part of what we’re planning on doing.” There has also been talk of being increasingly active in the community with music and kids.
Words of Wisdom: The shop guitar has Bob Dylan Lyrics taped to the side as a reminder to stay grounded.
As Wisconsin’s largest pedal provider, they find themselves in a position to do more outreach, with enquiries actually flowing into the company. The city is in the process of building a confluence downtown made up of performance space and art galleries. “We have an opportunity to build something in Eau Claire and contribute to the community’s growth and the art community and performance, which would be lost any-where else,” says Louise. “We’re talking with the high school about a battle of the bands, which they haven’t had in probably 10 years. I want to make that difference. I want to make musicians. More kids should make art and make music and feel confident doing so. We can do that here. Our reach is longer.”
“Kids are listening to music, but they’re not making music,” says Ben. “Most parents don’t have a frame of reference. They don’t know what a drum machine is or how MIDI works, but we do. Any other style of music has come before was considered garbage and not music, but that’s not up to us. We’re old now. But we can show you how to make your own tracks.” That goal is not so much a Dwarfcraft sales thing, it’s a human thing.
With a larger crew that can handle the day in/day out production line, it can allow the Hinzs to do more in the community, including teach classes and do things they couldn’t do before. Another move Dwarfcraft is eyeing in the future is… another move, which could in fact be their own building. “I’d like to get our own building,” says Ben. “Build it out to spec. Have it feel like a permanent home. I’ve been thinking about starting a production company, possibly under the same name… maybe not. We were talking with Rick at PureSalem. We had thoughts of doing a gear show… for YouTube. Not a demo show, but something different. What I’ve put forward so far is like 10 minute episodes with like a musically bumper at the beginning… two minutes of conversation and then more music. Each episode would be themed, but abstractly. Like Space. Conversation. Disagreement. And the players involved would try and express those themes… probably with PureSalem guitars and Dwarfcraft pedals.” “We’ll see what happens,” adds Louise. “There are a lot of maybes out there.” -HC-
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.