Sunday, August 19, 2007

HOMEMADE FUZZBOX OR SLAVE LABOR FROM CHINA? Not a trick question

In the coverage of Mattel's recall of millions of slave labor-made dangerous toys from China, the business media assiduously has avoided using the "slave labor" descriptive. It's OK to report on how the Chinese man in charge of toy production committed suicide or how American vendors are working industriously to catch lapses in product safety.

Please.

Writing about the immorality of the system, the complete lack of ethics in choosing to sell toys made by slave labor, that's out. So while it's OK for someone in the foreign company to commit suicide, it's frobidden to suggest that someone at Mattel ought to be invited to a public mock hanging for being an enabler of slave labor in the search for biggest market share.

"Now a massive toy recall by Mattel Inc. reveals an ugly side to that cost-cutting drive," writes Rachel Beck for the business section of the Chicago Tribune. "The sacrifice of safety just to provide cheap toys is something everyone will have to pay for."

"The slogan 'Made in China' has long stood for affordability," she continues heartlessly. "Thanks to the dramatically lower labor costs that China offered -- estimated by some to be a fifth of what they are globally -- toymakers could knock down their expenses by shifting production abroad."

Notice substitution of "dramatically lower labor costs" -- an evasion for the much stronger and more descriptive but inflammatory "slave labor."

Then comes the stodgy rationalization for the unethical decisions of toymakers to outsource everything to China for the sake of cheaper dolls.

Nowhere in these types of articles are there suggestions that American resellers are as culpable as the Chinese. The focus is on the lack of quality, or the establishment of better oversight, which treat symptoms of a disease, not the root illness.

The disease is slave labor manufacturing and by definition it must often produce bad product because making things badly is one sure and reliable road to making them inexpensively.

Two days ago, the Guardian -- an English newspaper -- published a piece that wasn't the usual he said/she said model of American journalism.

"Isaac Larian, the man behind the multi-billion-dollar Bratz dolls, has ... talked of starting up some production in the United States," it read.

"This is all marginal. The world toy industry basically is large American companies, mostly public with a constant eye on Wall Street, which design and market the toys, and the 8,000 Chinese factories which manufacture for them.

"To visit the Pearl River Delta, north of Hong Kong, is to enter the toymaking centre of the world. Choking smog stings eyes and throats. Behind guarded gates, factory compounds stretch mile after dusty, depressing mile... The workers, mostly young women, shuffle from building to building ... [they appeared] exhausted from working most of their waking hours. They have travelled in by bus from rural areas up to three days journey away - part of the biggest movement of people in human history. Shifts can last 15 hours a day or more, seven days a week - unlawful, but not uncommon in the peak toymaking season. Inside the fetid dormitories, their only living space, and often packed illegally with as many as 22 to a room ..."

"Many executives seem oblivious to the glaring incompatibility of what they demand from their suppliers - the lowest prices and production in large volume at very short notice and, at the same time, working conditions and practices that will not offend the west. It is these pressures that make the Chinese workers' and suppliers' lives stressful and even intolerable ..."

Last week, DD wrote about the phenomenon of slave labor guitars, cheap instruments for dilettantes. These goods can't hurt someone like lead-painted toys or anti-freeze-doped medicine and toothpaste, but they also can't possibly be made by a workforce earning an acceptable living wage under fair conditions.

I also mentioned my teenage search for rock 'n' roll wasn't hurt by the lack of access to a slave labor China-made guitar that, in real dollar terms, cost less than the entry level instruments made here or in Japan in 1972.

Somehow, entry level guitars were made and sold with some satisfaction but without resorting to slave labor and relying upon the misery of others for your pleasure.

Moving on from toys, DD returns to an example from the musical instrument industry.

One thing which electric guitarists cannot do without are effects boxes.

Icons Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix made music of a tone and timbre that couldn't be duplicated without these electronic devices. They used the fuzztone, a device developed for them, a simple electronic circuit made for hard rock.

DD's first fuzztone was manufactured by Fender Musical Instruments. It was called the Fender Fuzz-Wah and combined the effect of fuzz -- a naturally hairy sound -- with the equally popular wah-wah pedal. It cost one hundred dollars and while it was not dear, neither was it cheap.


Fender Fuzz-wah, made in California, 100 dollars. Slave labor not required for rock 'n' roll in 1972.

The Fender Fuzz-Wah's design was not particularly clever. In fact, the wah portion of it stank. However, the fuzztone worked fine for at least a decade. It also contained a volume control that was a gimbal/bearing tied to the black rubber-coated foot pad. Left with your ankle was off. Right was louder. The left didn't get much attention.

During the Nineties, digital effects replaced the analog circuits in these old devices. What was done with old transistors was done more cheaply and reliably by chips. The companies which made guitar effects moved their manufacturing to east Asia.

However, a funny thing happened in the marketplace.

Guitar players are a finicky bunch, always in search of the perfect tone. They listen to records of their favorite artists and always wonder, "How do I get that sound?"

One answer was to get the same equipment used by your favorites. This triggered an immediate inflation in prices of old and not-that-hot but made-in-America or made-in-Britain vintage gear. Snob wars erupted. Musicians of note insisted in print that new gear, mass produced and with different and cheaper parts for business and market-pricing imperatives, just didn't sound as good as the old hardware.

Whether this was actually true for most players was unimportant. What was important was the group perception that old gear was better. And it was a perception that stuck.

While this did not, by any means, put the mass-producers of effects boxes for electric guitar out of business, it did open the way for American tinkerers to begin duplicating the old analog circuit designs in the comfort of their apartments and garages.

This spawned what is now commonly known as the industry for boutique guitar effects. Boutique, while not a bad snob-marketing term, isn't a good descriptor.

Think of the industry as a bunch of people who just went back to making guitar effects by hand, one by one, just the way they were made around the time of their invention.

This automatically made such devices more expensive than mass-produced-in-China pieces. But not that more expensive that an average player couldn't quickly save up to buy what he or she wanted. In dollar terms, they go for about what my old Fender Fuzz-wah would go for today, if it was still made in California.

Which brings DD full circle to about 2002.

I needed a replacement for the fuzzy part of my old Fender Fuzz-Wah, which had vanished years ago as guitar equipment stored in boxes and secreted away in closets sometimes does.


Black Fuzz Custom. Not DD's model, which has a blue paintjob and a different switch. Note Sharpie-marker lettering. It's custom-made in America, not slave labor!

After reading product reviews, I settled on something called the Nick Greer Black Fuzz Custom. Wow!

Whether it actually sounds exactly like my old Fender Fuzz-Wah is hard to say. I can't compare the two. However, my memory says it does.

The number of people now making boutique effects boxes -- or homemade guitar pedals -- rapidly grew. Now it's a truly astonishing field. Since the barrier of entry into the business is low, it's easy to start. Much more difficult, though, is hanging around.

Makers are reliant on word-of-mouth advertising on Internet chat boards, occasional reviews in trade magazines, sales on eBay, or local music stores becoming interested enough to stock items on consignment.


Holowon Static Egg. Pic artistically souped-up by DD. Think the sound of the riff from "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones.

One example of a good fuzzbox from the homemade industry, one that didn't take off, was a thing called the Holowon Static Egg.

To understand the value of the Holowon Static Egg, one has to know the sound of early rock 'n' roll was trashy. To a kid, trash was a great noise. "Hello, I Love You" by the Doors sounded like trash. "Mr. Limousine Driver" on the RED Grand Funk album was trash. So was "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?" by the Mothers of Invention.

The Holowon Static Egg is a fuzz-tone that does trash. Turned up all the way, it lets out shrieks and makes a loud "Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz." Somewhere, the sound of a trashy fuzztone is always in style, ensuring that while the maker of the Holowon Static Egg had a hard time of it, someone will always be wanting something like it.

The magic of such a fuzztone lies in the design of a circuit which becomes an extension of your hand upon the electric guitar's volume knob. With the guitar volume on full, the fuzztone delivers its most extreme tones. Turning down the volume in such a circuit, while not making the guitar much quieter, removes the extremity of the tone while retaining great heft. This relationship allowed and allows guitarists to span a myriad of heavy sounds -- from very clear to extremely distorted -- all with the quick and mostly unnoticeable flick of the wrist.

The tonal nuance put into the hands of electric guitarists by this early and simple technology is difficult to describe to people who haven't actually used it. Nevertheless, it is one of the foundations of hard rock.

If you have ever wondered how a hard rock guitarist produced an amazing, exciting and dynamic sound at one of your favorite concerts, this is part of the big secret.

Anyway, perhaps DD's Holowon Static Egg will be worth twice what he paid for it in fifteen years. Or maybe not.

These tales from the music instrument industry reveal that it's not necessary for every partipant in the American experience to give in to Chinese slave labor.


Blackbox Oxygen guitar effects pedal. Note nifty paint job! Even if not used, it sure looks good!


Old DD novelty tune employing the sound of the Holowon Static Egg.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mmhmm. People get pretty shrill when they're worried about their own children licking lead paint. Suddenly, Mattel is doing something amoral.
My favorite new ad campaign is Evian's. "The most important body of water is yours."
That's right. More important than the Pacific Ocean is your body, a-hole.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

The workers, mostly young women, shuffle from building to building ... [they appeared] exhausted from working most of their waking hours. . .Shifts can last 15 hours a day or more, seven days a week ... Inside the fetid dormitories, their only living space, and often packed illegally with as many as 22 to a room...

Absolutely disgraceful. This should not ever be allowed. Descriptions of such labor should be couched in terms of Santa's happy elves working to make wonderful toys for all the good little girls and boys. Accurate depictions of the human detritus left behind in the wake of the consumerist juggernaut can only hurt business. Such behavior will quickly earn you a place on Santa's naughty list!

8:45 AM  
Blogger Dave Latchaw said...

Most of the circuits for the classic stompboxes are pretty simple and available on the web. It's pretty easy to throw one together on a piece of perfboard. The stumbling block has always been getting the footswitches and cases, but these are available on eBay now. Rolling your own is good fun.

8:06 PM  

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