Ian Schneller built his first musical instrument in 1986: a 30-by-32-inch kick drum for his band Shrimp Boat. The monster appears on the cover of the group's 1991 collection Volume 1. "It would just barely fit through the doors of all the venues," Schneller recalls. "But we'd always win over the sound operators. It was kind of a PR thing as much as it was an enormous kick drum."
In 1984 Schneller had started working toward a master's in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute, and not long afterward he founded Shrimp Boat with a few friends, including Sam Prekop, now front man for the Sea and Cake. (Future Liz Phair producer Brad Wood would eventually join on drums.) Today Schneller says making that drum was a fork in the road, and the path he chose led him away from a career in fine art. He's now an accomplished builder of stringed instruments, speakers, and amplifiers, but despite the artfulness of his designs, he says he isn't seen as an artist. "There was an automatic slamming of the door in the art world in regard to them being regarded as sculptures," he says. "They became decorative arts or utilitarian or something. I always regarded them as nothing other than art or sculpture. But I try not to be hung up on the nomenclature."
Schneller calls his business Specimen Products, a name he's been attaching to his work since his undergrad days in Memphis. He originally had his shop in the building where Shrimp Boat rehearsed, and moved three times before arriving in 2003 at his present digs—a spacious Humboldt Park loft at 1240 N. Homan, where he also runs the Chicago School of Guitar Making. Since the late 80s he's built more than 200 instruments, including pretty straightforward guitars and basses—the ones he made for Tar in the early 90s were unusual principally in that they were hollow aluminum—as well as less easy-to-define things like a solid-body electric ukulele and an odd chimera that combines a Telecaster-style electric-guitar body with a stubby, mandolin-length neck.
Schneller formed Falstaff, a band Trouser Press refers to as "patience-trying," after Shrimp Boat broke up in 1993, but that lasted only a few years. He's currently without a working group—he says, possibly earnestly, that he's thinking about putting together a power trio to play Renaissance dance music—but he's no less a musician for that, and his experience as a player has had a significant effect on his craft. "Playing an instrument," he says, "is a biofeedback occurrence, and the closer you can get inside the materials—obviously they're inanimate, they have no mentality, but you can imbue them with a musical mentality by understanding them very well." His designs often reflect his own desire as a musician to reach greater extremes, whether of volume, clarity, or depth. "For instance," he says, "that kick drum. Obviously the bottom end from that thing was stunning. It was like a kick timpani."
Schneller prefers simple, robust construction because he believes it produces superior tones. On my visit to his shop he delivered a convincing diatribe against adjustable truss rods in guitar necks, which have become standard; necks stabilized by fixed supports, he said, are more solid and sound better. And he backed it up with a demo using necks of both stripes.
Schneller's amplifiers include models intended for use onstage with instruments and at home with hi-fi systems. He's also designed a line of speakers crowned by fluted, octagonal horns, like whimsically reimagined Victrolas. They were conceived to give extra projection to the low-power amps suited to finicky instruments like banjo, harmonica, and violin—Andrew Bird uses several as part of his live setup—but Schneller says they were also meant to be "sculpturally profound."
This week he's launching a new version called the Little Horn, designed for home use. For Specimen a product launch like this doesn't mean there's a big inventory on hand but rather that the speakers will be part of the shop's regular production rotation—at $1,850 a pair (discounted to $1,500 till the end of the year), they're hardly an impulse purchase anyway. That said, I do expect Schneller to sell a few. He played me selections from his iPod through two Specimen tube amps connected to an array of six Little Horns, and I've never heard an MP3 sound so good.
About a mile northeast, on the other side of Humboldt Park, there's another gear shop run by musicians. In a warren of rooms beneath a nondescript two-flat is Emperor Cabinets, producer of custom speaker cabinets, road cases, and recently drums. Dylan Patterson and Kris Milkent, guitarists for local metal band Raise the Red Lantern, started the operation four years ago.
"I was just working at a road-case company and had shop access," Patterson says. "I wanted another cab, so I made one there. Kris had the name and we got nameplates made and started making a bunch of them. We had like 50 plates and we were like, 'Man, it would be awesome if we went through all 50 of these,' or whatever." By their own estimate they've gone through ten times that many—word of mouth has made Emperor pretty much the de rigueur cabinet in the stateside underground metal scene. Among their customers are heavyweights Converge, High on Fire, Baroness, Pelican, and Sunn 0))), as well as local heroes like Indian, Russian Circles, and Minsk. The company now has a total of four full-time employees.
Like Schneller, Patterson says playing music affects his approach to making gear. Bands like Raise, he says, are "detuning and stuff," and most cabinets can't handle the low end. "Everything loses its focus and gets thin. I feel like our cabs deliver a tight response even when you're playing low, detuned music."
Playing through the merchandise is part of Emperor's quality control—their shop includes a rehearsal room. "I would say being down here doing this, we all probably play five times more than we used to when we worked regular jobs," Patterson says. "Every cabinet that comes through here you need to rip out on a little bit."
Emperor, like Specimen, represents a rebellion against mass-produced gear. Their cabinets are all handmade to order and built like tanks—from real wood, not plywood. Basic jobs run about the same as you'd pay for a decent off-the-shelf equivalent, but the available range of customization is immense: for Louisville avant-hardcore band Young Widows, Emperor made a monster double cab, each half of which holds three bass drivers, three guitar drivers, and three floodlights.
Specimen and Emperor cater to slightly different sensibilities—I can't imagine anyone discussing whether Emperor's cabs qualify as sculpture—but they both know how to reduce musicians to puddles of gear lust. In fact their businesses depend on it. "I used to literally go out to clubs carrying an instrument I had finished, desperate to pay rent and buy groceries, and target people and spring stuff on them," says Schneller. "They have to be unique and different enough, these devices, to leave people no choice."