An Interview with Howard Davis

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The following is an interview conducted with EH designer Howard Davis via email in 1998. Howard is still active in the effects community today, working with EH on reissues as well as offering effects repair. You can contact him HERE.

Tell me about your early work prior to EH

I was a scientific prodigy, fixing TVs and building working electric motors from bell wire and metal cut from food cans when I was 10 years old. My family was poor, and I had neither the financial resources nor the encouragement I needed. Finally, after years of frustrating technician jobs which didn't allow the expression of my creative talents, I got into Cooper Union, and earned my EE degree Summa Cum Laude. About a month after graduation in 1976 I started with Electro-Harmonix, and loved almost every minute of my 5 years with the company.

How did you come to work at EH?

It was the right place for me. I was a non-conforming, countercultural type of person with total disdain for the usual repressive corporate environment. I had loved Rock n' Roll since I was 14 (1958), and became aware that the audio technology then in use was primitive compared to what it could be. Long before delay chips existed, I fabricated an acoustic delay using a hose-like tube with a speaker at one end and a mike at the other. Sounded weird due to the resonances, but it did produce what we now call a "slap echo." EH was a technological and musical playground for me, and being paid well to have productive, creative FUN is my kind of gig!

What years did you work at EH?

1976 to 1981.

What was a typical day at the EH company like?

There was occasional stress, but the work was challenging and satisfying. There was plenty of freedom to be yourself; Mike knew that what counts is that a person is productive, not that he or she dresses conservatively and cuts their hair short. Productivity at EH was rewarded, not taken for granted. And we had real fun - during breaks we would go to the soundroom and jam. Mike did his best to treat his staff well, unlike typical work environments where people are just cogs in the heart-attack machine.

What's the best product you came up with?

I'd say the most popular is the Memory Man. I didn't design the first delay stompbox with this name, but in 1977 I re-engineered it with such a substantial improvment in performance that it just took off - it was hard for the company to keep up with the demand. I'm also proud of my Deluxe Octave Multiplexer. The hardest part of that design was the fundamental extractor - the circuitry that locks in on the fundamental, or basic pitch, of the note being played. Before my work the existing products of this type had a tendency to "yodel," to jump up an octave then back again. I came up with what may still be the best analog fundamental extractor circuitry ever used in a stompbox. Once you have a good fundamental extractor, synthesizing the suboctaves is easy. I also like my Ambitron, but that was designed for the audiophile market, not really in EH's primary area of interest.

Did you specifically design the Ambitron for converting mono jazz records to stereo?

At the time I invented the Ambitron some records in my collection, which is mostly Rock, were monaural. I even had some old 78s. Some stereo recordings of that time were not realistically mixed; there was often a "hole-in-the-middle," with instruments on the right and left without much in or near the center except perhaps the vocals and bass. I wanted a way of generating realistic pseudo-stereo from the mono sources, and to enhance the stereo effect by synthesizing more ambient acoustics without actually changing the room or speakers. Thus was born the Ambitron.

What incident at the company sticks in your mind the most?

One day for some reason our power got cut off. My lab didn't have any windows, and of course without power not much would work. I did though. I got a few candles, put them on my desk, and did what paperwork I could.

What are some of the best moments you can remember at EH?

One day Jack Bruce walked into my lab room, asking to hear some new effects. I think I showed him the latest Memory Man and the Talking Pedal.

I remember reading about this. The Talking Pedal would be an excellent candidate for reissue. The weird pot would be the only problem.

It would indeed. Mike shies away from using expensive or custom-made parts or parts without backup sources. I designed the Talking Pedal using data on human speech I got from my brother, a professor of audiology at SUNY Plattsburgh. The tapers of the dual pot sections were based on that data and the characteristics of the filters they controlled.

What finally made you leave?

As I remember, the company had been put under siege by an unscrupulous labor union seeking to organize the factory workers. Towards the end of 1980 the business had declined for this and other reasons. As my responsibilities were technical and I didn't care very much for politics or corporate culture, I tried to stay away from the management woes, but they affected everyone. I left in early 1981.

What did you do after leaving EH?

I became a free-lance writer. I always loved writing, and have published many articles in technical and hobby publications, sometimes with a free subscription my only remuneration. I had the time, so I wrote a book. I had some experience designing and installing alarm systems, so I wrote "PREVENT BURGLARY - An Aggressive Approach to Total Home Security." Published by Prentice-Hall, it got good reviews, and I expected to make a mint. I was interviewed on dozens of radio talk shows to promote it. Prentice-Hall was bought out by Simon & Shyster just as the book was to be marketed, and they botched the marketing royally, with almost no books in the stores just when demand was hot. I made a little on it though, and even wrote two more books, but I was discouraged by the low pay to work ratio for writing in general. Recently I self-published a book of poetry. Nice hobby, but without a relative in publishing, chances of doing well financially are poor no matter how good you are.

What are you doing today?

Living! If you haven't found the key to happiness by my age, you never will. I've been into several self-betterment practices such as Avatar, and I've done wonders with what I've experienced and learned. I create my own life, and feel about as free and happy as one can within the constraints of this crazy world. I would never work full-time for someone else again, not because there are no good people to work for, but because of the unacceptable restrictions on personal freedom such employment imposes. I now do engineering as a self-employed consultant, and custom mod and repair work.

What would you consider your "crowning achievement"?

That's a hard question to answer. A happy life is a succession of achievements, and for the best, the satisfaction you feel within is greater than any financial reward. I'd say designing electronics as an independent consultant is my current crowning achievement. I've greatly upgraded my lab and information resources, and welcome every creative opportunity that comes my way.

If you could do it over again, what would you do different?

I wish I had become more knowledgable in law and management; if I had, I might have helped to prevent the company's 1981 downfall. Management just isn't my thing - too many wheely-dealy problems and not enough creativity involved. But you can't keep good people down; EH is back, and I'm glad to be part of that.

DISCLAIMER: Howard Davis does not work for The EH Man, nor is he in any way associated with The EH Man or RonSound except as a fellow admirer of Electro-Harmonix products. Contact Howard at the website URL given at the beginning of this article.