Electro-Harmonix’s Mike Matthews

EH is Back!
EH is Back!

EH is back!”

So ran the ad copy for the Electro-Harmonix Corporation in the early 1980s. By that time, the company had been in business well over 10 years and their extensive line of affordable, innovative effects pedals were standard issue for the likes of Carlos Santana, Adrian Belew, Steve Howe, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Summers, and a countless number of aspiring strummers.

Founded by Mike Matthews in 1968, Electro-Harmonix set the standard for electronic innovation throughout the ’70s, Started with $1,000 and a lot of ingenuity, the company was grossing $5 million by 1978 and had offices in New York, Toronto, London, and Tokyo.

Yet success often walks hand-in-hand with hardship. By the time of the above-mentioned advertisement, Electro-Harmonix had already closed their doors once. After a brief comeback, Japanese competition forced the company into another corner. Almost as quickly as EH proclaimed their comeback, they were gone again.

Gone, but not forgotten. Electro-Harmonix products soon caught the eyes and ears of vintage collectors and analog tone buffs searching for unique sounds. Today, EH pedals command a premium price at guitar shows and vintage boutiques around the world.

And what of Mike Matthews? As the saying goes, it’s hard to keep a good man down. Using contacts he had made in the Soviet Union, Matthews soon founded the New Sensor Corporation and began importing Soviet-made Sovtek products to the U.S. Specializing in vacuum tubes and tube amplifiers, Sovtek was soon issuing updated versions of two of the most popular Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, the Big Muff Pi and the Small Stone.

Now, due to overwhelming demand, Mike Matthews has again resurrected the EH name here in the U.S. The company has begun reissuing several of its most popular effects, using the original ciruitry, chassis, graphics, and packaging. Mike was good enough to have me down to the New Sensor offices to discuss these fabulous effects, as well as his plans for the future of Electro-Harmonix!

Vintage Guitar: Give me a little background on the Sovtek/New Sensor relationship.
Mike Matthews: Relationship…well, New Sensor was my idea, and New Sensor owns Sovtek, and the trademark is registered in several countries. My girlfriend, Irusha Bitukova, lives in St Petersburg (Russia) and she handles all the details from there. Sovtek makes the best tubes in the world. Their tubes are used in some of the best amps in the world: Marshall, Fender, Peavey, Mesa-Boogie (shows new ad copy with list of companies). Besides Sovtek tubes, there’s Sovtek amps, which are really hot. They’re all-tube amps made in Russia and we check them over here and they sound great. Then there’s Sovtek/Electro-Harmonix sound effects.

Some of the Electro-Harmonix stuff we’re doing here, and some we’re doing in Russia, so they’re dual-branded Sovtek/Electro-Harmonix. Those items being made in Russia right now are the Big Muff and Small Stone. The Deluxe Electric Mistress is strictly under Electro-Harmonix, which we’re doing here. We have a warehouse in Russia, we ship direct all over the world from Russia and New York

The Deluxe Electric Mistress reissue is a lot different from the Big Muff and Small Stone reissues; in fact it’s nearly identical to the original. What made you decide to take that route?
We just haven’t been able to keep up with demand for the Big Muffs made in Russia, and I wanted to have a second channel for making that stuff, so we could concentrate on catching up with the demand. Secondly, a lot of people want to see the reissues exactly as they were; same package, made in USA. Thirdly, the Electric Mistress has several critical trimming spots we wanted to make sure were perfect, so we wanted to control production right here.

How would you compare the reissues to the originals?
The Small Stone is exactly the same, the Big Muff is better because it uses quieter transistors, it has less hiss when the sustain or gain is at maximum. The Deluxe Electric Mistress is richer than the original.

Do you feel the quality of the reissues is superior to the originals?
The component quality is the same.

I understand that you’re planning some other reissues as well; can we talk about them?
We’ve just finished the Deluxe Memory Man with chorus, which is the most famous Electro-Harmonix Analog Echo. Right now we’re negotiating with suppliers for parts, so that should be on the market soon. That’s also going to be in the original packaging.

There are rumors that you may redo the original Microsynthesizer, as well.
We’re planning to do the MicroSynth next.

Would that be an exact duplicate as well?

Would you be doing the Bass MicroSynth as well?
Yeah, right after.

What will the reissue MicroSynths be costing?
I don’t know. We’ll have to see what they cost us to make. We’ll do our best to keep it at a low price. They originally went for around $200, but I think we can reduce the cost.

The company has always been very innovative. Do you have any new pedal ideas cooking?
Yes, but I can’t really talk about them right now! Also, a big concentration of our new products is in really sensational combo amps, partly made in Russia and partly made here in the U.S. – we have these beautiful handmade oak cabinets that are just sensational – so, we’ll be able to bring out amps that would usually sell for $2,000 at a fraction of that price, and they’ll sound great!

Are you planning on redoing any of the old Electro-Harmonix amplifiers, like the Freedom or the Dirt Road Special?
I’d like to bring out a battery-operated amp that’s better than the Freedom amp – one with a rechargeable battery. Something a little more powerful than the Mouse amp with a battery that would last longer than the Mouse. We plan to do that. How soon, I don’t know. As far as the Dirt Road Special, that was an AC amp. We’d like to bring out some AC-only amps, but we can’t do everything at once!

What’s your view of the vintage marketplace and some of the large sums your old products are commanding?
It’s flattering that people like the stuff I used to make and they recognize some of the special sounds – that’s why they’re in demand. I just got tired of people calling me all the time asking “Do you have this? Where can I get that?” So, we just started, step by step, making some of the more popular units.

Do you plan to build the company’s product line back up to its former size, or will you keep it small and specialized?
Right now specialized, but who knows? After we bring out one thing, we’ll start something else, so who knows where it will go? Back in the old days it was just Electro-Harmonix, MXR, and Mu-Tron. Now there’s about 50 companies, so I just want to bring out selected items that are always in demand.

Speaking of other companies, how do you feel about some of the knockoffs of your old products that some smaller manufacturers are doing?
This is the first that I’ve heard of it! I think that if we bring out a reissue, it will still be the best, so we’ll let the market decide.

What current demands are you seeing from the marketplace that are not being filled by manufacturers, and what are your plans to meet them?
Right now, our main business is vacuum tubes, so as far as the Electro-Harmonix products go, we’re bringing them out slowly, one at a time. We’re working on the development of some new vacuum tubes. Shortly, we’ll have the new model 300B, which is more for the Hi-Fi market, but several months later we’re going to have a sensational new KT88 tube, which will be used for SVTs, the Hi-Fi market, and the Wesleys.

You know, people ask for things like BassBalls and Envelope Followers like the Dr. Q, but I’d like to do something new in an Envelope Follower, as well. But, it’s a lot of work to design a pedal. The electronics are easy, but the chassis is tougher, and it’s a big investment. We can’t do everything. There’s a lot of opportunities, and we can’t take them all at once!

Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, the Deluxe Memory Man with chorus is really good. It’s a little less noisy than the original, and I’m excited about that. I’m also excited about working on the MicroSynthesizer, because there’s nothing like it on the market

In closing, I’d like to say that you’ve done an awful lot for one life time. Is there anything you’d like to accomplish before you die?
(laughs) I want to get a bigger boat for fishing, so I don’t get killed when I go 40 miles offshore with Irusha, chasing tuna (laughs)!

Mike Matthews in the New Sensor Corp. offices, New York. The LED light display behind him was featured in the EH Hall of Science, on 48th Street in NYC! Photo: Kevin Bolembach.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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