Electro-Harmonix: a love/hate story

Electro-Harmonix has held a position at the forefront of the effects pedal market for decades.  They have consistently come up with a stream of novel, interesting, and vivid-sounding circuit designs over the years, many of which have become classics or even legendary collectibles—and they show no signs of slowing down.  So obviously EH deserves some respect and admiration.

On the other hand, EH has also bungled a large percentage of those designs, in the actual implementation or manufacturing.  Sometimes it’s a problem with poor quality control, with components falling apart, switches failing, and other electromechanical problems.  Sometimes it’s a question of designs put to market before they were fully thought out or tested in the real world.  And some of their products have elements that make you palm your forehead and say “what were they thinking?

I recently discussed this with a friend and we both realized it seemed very much like EH’s designers would come up with a novel circuit or a neat design concept, and right away the product would be packaged and put on the market with no further consideration.  In a sense, there’s logic in throwing a hundred ideas against the wall and seeing which ones stick.  But the flaws there are (1) some ideas would stick better if they were developed a bit more patiently and thoroughly, and (2) the ideas that stick are almost never given further development after the initial market release.  Once a pedal is out there, that’s how it stays, in all but a few cases.

I’ve owned about a dozen different EH pedals, and I had this love/hate relationship with every one of them.  Again, some were great ideas, but poorly implemented; some produced wonderful sounds, but broke down too easily; and some were a mix of good ideas and frankly bad ideas.

The most recent one I bought, the one that made me finally write this column (which has been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time), is the Bass Metaphors.  Now, I have to give EH credit for one more thing: they have produced more pedals meant for bass players than just about any other brand, especially in recent years.  This Metaphors pedal though, is a real forehead-slapper.  The EQ is a high-pass filter combined with a low-pass filter, which results in a mid-scoop at most settings.  For years, the #1 complaint about the major competing product, the Sansamp BDDI, has been that its EQ scoops mids too much—so when EH designed this one, did they say to themselves “let’s take the one feature everyone hates most about the Sansamp, and make it worse“?  Then there’s another brilliant bit of design: if you plug a regular unbalanced guitar cable into the 1/4” output, it automatically makes the DI output unbalanced as well!  Who at EH thought that made any sense?  You’re fired!  I also discovered that the XLR jack was not even attached to the housing—it was just sitting there, with screws resting loosely in non-threaded holes.  So somebody was asleep at the assembly and QC lines.  Lastly, the compressor circuit they chose to include in the package was one of their noisiest and least popular designs, the Soul Preacher.  So they must have thought “hey, let’s take a failing, badly-reviewed product and use that as a key part of our new bass preamp!”

Seriously, guys.  What’s the deal?  Are you under some dictatorial management pressure to release a certain number of products by a deadline, even if the designs are just barely thrown together?  Do you just not care?  Does anyone at EH read their product reviews, read discussions about their products on the forums, or let gigging musicians outside the company test the new designs in actual stage and recording circumstances?

Again, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the sheer number of new and interesting products EH puts out, or the percentage of them that are compatible with bass guitar.  And honestly, many of their effects sound fantastic and have earned their legendary status. But it really does seem like EH has some attention deficit disorder when it comes to the actual design, implementation, and construction of their products.  This has really held the company back in many ways.  I write this article in the hope that people can see the self-destructive imbalance here, and use that information to make sure their own companies do not suffer from a similar imbalance.

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2 Comments »

  1. john said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    Good post C. Personally..audio taste wise that is…I never warmed up to the big EH thrill. The word “schkroinky” comes to mind. And I wouldn’t want to be in their position, as soon as they release something that does work, behringer copies it for 45 cents.

    It’s interesting too that the boo-tikey aftermarket guys hardly ever delve into EH stuff..you see a lot of Boss compressor clones/improvements for example, but none for the Soul Hisser.

    they are definitely operating on an older way of doing biz, whether that still works is the question.

  2. Livingston said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:34 am

    You totally nailed it on the product ADD. I think in the last couple of years they have released too much stuff. As soon as people start talking about one of their new pedals, they pummel you with a barrage of new ones. Not only are they not giving the development enough time to gestate, but also the marketing phase, they aren’t giving any one pedal the time or focus it deserves.

    To their credit, believe it or not, they have toned it down some. At least now they’re only releasing audio processors. Check out the EH Man’s site for some of the truly out there things they released in the old days:

    http://electroharmonix.ronsound.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19&Itemid=45

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