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Meet Calvin McCormick, the Journeyman Guitar Tech Making Ottawa Rock Harder Than Ever

Debunking the myth that Ottawa and its music scene sucks.

by Luke Ottenhof
07 December 2016, 9:01am

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.

It's easy to overlook Ottawa. Despite being the nation's capital, it's only the fourth-largest city in Canada, with a suburban sprawl that takes up an absurdly large geographical footprint. It's routinely bashed in public and private forums for being a boring, anaemic place; it's popularly discussed like it's the fucking Bill Lumbergh of cities. Even the words of praise it receives are semi-ironic, using the city's apparent lack of likability to sardonically present it as endearing.

But scarcity begets appreciation, and there's so much life in the city, in tight-knit, warm and welcoming communities. Ottawa's music scene is arguably the most inviting and relaxed that Canada has to offer. From local institutions like Steve Adamyk Band and Amos the Transparent, to killer (albeit insular) venues like LIVE on Elgin and House of Targ (Nestor Chumak of PUP is rarely seen not sporting his beloved Targ shirt), to the workhorse-promoters of Spectrasonic, the city has a unique and understated quality to its musical life. It's also home to successful independent effects pedal company Empress Effects, whose products can be found on shelves from downtown Ottawa all the way to Vancouver.

For the past few years, another local fixture has steadied itself in the city's musical heart. Twenty-seven year old Calvin McCormick officially launched McCormick Analog back in 2014, putting a logo and a name to the work he'd be doing for a few years prior to donning the brand. He started repairing amplifiers and effects pedals for friends and other musicians that he'd met gigging around the city, and then graduated to building them himself.

It's no small move to start an independent business building custom effects pedals and amplifiers in a city that's not exactly known for being a brimming hub of musical industry. But McCormick knows his beat; he plays in two bands around the city, and when he's not on the stage, he works the soundboard for the people that are. He's as Ottawa as you can get this side of a shirt, tie, and government ID card.


Locavore culture in music isn't entirely new, but it's enjoying a steady upward swing. Jordan Gauthier, who founded and runs YC Drum Company out of Waterloo, Ontario, pretty much runs Canada's entire indie-rock rhythm section, with notables July Talk, Arkells, Half Moon Run, and scores more sworn to his work. McCormick is joining the ranks of those powering Canada's musicians; this past month, he finished building a custom amplifier for Jeff Waters of Canadian thrash icons Annihilator. Last week, he was plucking silly string and confetti out of Ottawa party-punk dirtbags (and recent Dine Alone Records acquisition) New Swears' amps. It's the start of a new institution in the city that might value it most.

Noisey: You've been building hand-made amps and effects pedals in Ottawa for a few years now. I want to start with how you got into building gear, and what drew you towards it.
Calvin McCormick: I started playing in bands when I came to Ottawa, not knowing anything. I just had like a borrowed guitar and a borrowed amp. The first time I was given a fuzz pedal, I was like, 'what is this thing?' It was kind of like a slow progression into just finding gear for myself, and then through some friends, I met a buddy who also builds stuff, Dave [Arguin]. He started showing me some stuff and teaching me the fundamentals, and encouraging me to experiment, then it just kind of grew from there, and like having friends who also had broken gear and also the want for this cool stuff that is sometimes out of reach. So that kind of drove me, those factors: being a musician myself, meeting somebody who does it as well, and then having other friends who are interested in it.

So, you're not from Ottawa?
No I'm not. I'm from St. Catherine's, which is just south of Toronto. It was 2009 when I moved to Ottawa. I moved in with my girlfriend at the time, now wife. When I moved here, I didn't know anybody really, and I met my buddy Will [Thorne-Morris], who I started Big Moan with, and he was the one who really started showing me cool gear. He kind of turned me on to just being interested in gear, period.

You're doing work for bands and musicians in Ottawa now. I saw you had New Swears' gear on your bench, and you just did an amp build for Jeff Waters from Annihilator. How did those partnerships come about? It must be kind of validating on some level to have Ottawa musicians supporting your business.
It feels really great, man. It is a little bit of a push when you get those [artists], it's a big deal to me. All that stuff came about through mostly word of mouth stuff, like 'I've got a broken amp,' or, 'I want a custom amp made,' and in a conversation, friends of mine or other people I've done work for just say, 'you should check this guy out.' It spreads slowly. It's the type of thing where you could spend a lot of money on advertising and go crazy, but I don't know if it would really garner a better result. I think your work has to speak for itself in this type of industry.

Where have you encountered the most difficulties in running an independent business making music gear?
Just getting customers, to be honest. It can be kind of tough. I don't make a ton of stuff, I don't do production line, typically. I do a lot of stuff custom because I like to make stuff for artists particularly. It can be tough when you're working with an artist or convincing an artist that they should try something, whether it's cause they're stubborn, stuck in their ways or they just don't want to learn. It gets pretty technical and some people don't want to understand the technical side of music: why an amp would make that sound. People don't want to know the science. They don't want to know why it does that or how, which is totally cool. I totally understand when you're playing music or creating music period, it's so easy to overthink. So, not having to think about that stuff, totally understandable. I get a lot of inquiries and not as many products made. But that's fine. Every person that reaches out, if they ended up with a positive experience, whether I make a product for them or not, it's usually good. Maybe that's the person that told somebody, 'yeah, this guy, I didn't get anything made from him, but when I met him, he knew what he was talking about.' I've found that engaging everybody can help.

There are a lot of great boutique and independent gear companies in Canada right now. Jordan Gauthier's YC Drums are popping up on stages across North America. Empress Effects, also from Ottawa, make very popular pedals. Out west, there's Dingotone and Union Tube and Transistor. I was wondering how it feels to be a part of the movement bringing local business and gear into the local music scene.
Without sounding too cheesy or whatever, it honestly gives me purpose. I really feel like I have a purpose. I supply a service to people that need it and it makes me feel fulfilled. I love working with my hands, I love making people happy. It's one of the greatest feelings in my life, I think. I say this all the time to everybody around me. I work doing live sound, I'm working with instruments everyday, I listen to music constantly, I play in two bands; music is my life. So the fact that I get to contribute in more ways other than just playing music and helping with the equipment? It fulfills my life.

It must be really interesting to be part of it from all angles, from producing the gear to playing to doing sound for other live acts. What's the build process like for your amps and pedals, and where does it end?
So, typically if somebody messages me saying they want a certain pedal, I usually ask them where they heard of it. Maybe [they're] at a music store and they saw one, and maybe it's particularly expensive, maybe they don't produce it anymore so it's like a used product that just costs too much. They're like, 'I love this thing but I don't have $500 to pay for it.' Then I just research the pedal, find out what it is, find the schematic, and build it for them. But sometimes it'll be a little bit of an adaptation. They'll say, 'I love the pedal, but it has a little too much bass.' So then I would go in and manipulate the pedal accordingly, and make minor tweaks.

When it comes to amplifiers, it's pretty much the same thing. Very rarely is someone like, 'I have this idea in my mind, it came from nowhere.' We all get inspiration, there's always a point of reference. So as long as i can find that point of reference and be comfortable with it, I can usually just make [it]. An amp will usually only take about three weeks, but I just say six to be safe. Depending on what the pedal is, usually it's only like a week or two to make. I'm really lucky to have pretty immediate access to most components that I use so things don't take long at all. I've been asking for 70% [of the total payment] up front for the amps, and 70% of the cost is parts anyway. I get that so I can invest in the parts. I'm not out any money, I can build the amp, and then they can pay me when it's finished. That way, worst case, if they decide to not take it, for whatever reason, I still have a product and I'm not out any money, just out my time. I've been lucky so far, and I've had everybody come through on everything that I've made.

You mentioned you have pretty immediate access to components. I was wondering if sourcing the proper parts was challenging, given you're a small-scale, independent operation.
There are a lot of tube amp enthusiasts around North America, a lot of them being in the states. But we're fortunate to have Hammond [Manufacturing] in Canada. They're a big manufacturer of the transformers for tube amps, and a lot of the [effects] pedal enclosures themselves, as well as some of the chassis for amplifiers. You can get them through a local parts dealer that's just sprung up. I should preface this by saying I actually just started working for him. It's called Next Gen Guitars. He just started selling tube amp stuff in Canada, like Tolex and grille cloth [for amplifiers], and the company has just grown. He's been doing it for two years and it has gone insane. He's gone from working out of his house to looking into a bigger warehouse space, and he hired me as his first employee. He's used me as a point of reference for what components to carry. [Beside that] there's a place in Scarborough which has capacitors, there's the tube store which is in Hamilton, and has fast shipping, [so theres] great access to Canadian companies.

You're churning out these replica amps and pedals, so how does copyright work with music gear? Are the schematics patented? How do you avoid legal issues?
Well, it's the name that you copyright. You can't really copyright an analog circuit necessarily. I mean, you could copyright a specific layout, so you have the resistor laying perpendicular to the capacitor, but if you went in and made yours, and had them parallel to each other, you could argue that it isn't the same product. To be fair, most of the time, the designs for the stuff that I'm building are stuff that companies have long forgotten. Fender doesn't produce a real, hand-wired Blackface Twin Reverb replica. They have reissues, but they're circuit boards. There are mods to them, and the components they use are inferior compared to the vintage ones. Plus, I'm not putting 'Fender Bassman' on the front. I usually don't even name them at all, I just put my logo on them.

It seems like that's the tradition. All amplifiers and pedals had to build on what came before them, except for the square-one originals. It's all borrowed.
Totally. The first Marshall amps were based off the original Fender Bassmans. And the whole rabbit hole that you can jump into is that the modern production method doesn't really allow for companies to produce a product the way that they did 40 years ago. Back then, everybody was hand-wiring everything. It was the only way to do it. Now, you have to compete with that guy over there and that company over there. You can argue that it's good, cause it's a lower price for the consumer, but I would argue that it's not as good, because the quality of the product is deterred, and kind of contributes to this 'throw-away' society we live in.

So, what's the next step? Any big plans?
Not really at the moment. I'm just taking orders one at a time. There's quite a strong possibility that I'm going to be moving into a space with Next Gen Guitars, where it'll be more of a warehouse space. Clients can come by and we can really crank out amps. It'll be in an industrial part of town and I'll have immediate access to parts which is a big thing. So, if some one comes in and they're like, 'is it possible to build an amp like this?' I can go into the back, get the parts that would be needed, and see if it's possible. So that's going to be a pretty big step forward. That's hopefully happening in January, maybe February. I'm really looking forward to it.

Ottawa's music scene and Ottawa in general get harped on for being sleepy and boring, which is obviously bullshit. What would you say to counter people who say that?
Come live it, come experience it. There are world-class bands here. It's really mind-blowing, like I work doing live sound [at downtown venue LIVE on Elgin] as well, three to four nights a week usually. It's continually amazing to me. These bands I've never heard of before just blow everyone away and they play to like 30 to 40 people. The people are digging it, and it continues to happen. I've been working there for like a year and a half and it still happens.

There's almost a sense of humility to it. It's a really humble music scene by virtue of it's size, yet it's so dense with talent.
Other music scenes seem to be pretty competitive in a way. When we play in Ottawa, everybody knows everybody. It's super chill, everybody's friends with everybody. 'Oh, you have to work in the morning? I'll play second instead.' It's so much more of a better attitude playing gigs in Ottawa. I don't know if it's because that's where we're from, but it's an interesting thing. I've talked to bands from Toronto who come and play here, and they seem to say the same thing. They're like, 'all the bands we play with when we come to Ottawa are so friendly. They're all so nice, they offer us places to stay.' Don't all bands do that?

Any advice for someone wanting to do what you do?
Find someone to teach you, and do lots of reading!

Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.

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