By Gregory Daurer | Sep 02, 2019
Synthesizers and effects pedals
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Synthesizers and effects pedals
Mathewson says, "We make guitar-effects pedals and modular synthesizers that support the electronic music community, film composers, touring and professional musicians, deejays all around the world." Whether the equipment is used to create an ambient soundscape for a film, or for making cutting-edge nightclub dance music, Mathewson's company makes gear utilized by a diverse group of creators.
For example, equipment made by WMD (short for William Mathewson Devices) has been used by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and the band's touring keyboardist, Allesandro Cortini. The prolific, Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer also utilizes WMD products, as does the internationally-renowned flautist and self-described "wind synthesist" Pedro Eustache.
The company also teamed up with the Canadian electronica act Mstrkrft to release a synthesizer module called the Trshmstr, which allows users to make their own gnarly sounds. "We like distortion a lot, but try to make it sound really good, sound different," says Mathewson about his company's audio ethos. Just like Inuits reportedly have multiple words for "snow," he notes, "There are all different styles of distortion."
Beginning in 2009, WMD was among the earliest boutique companies to make Eurorack synthesizer modules. "It lets you patch and build your own synthesizer out of little building blocks and tools," says Mathewson of the modules. "You can put [your own synthesizer] together however you want." The company has collaborated on keyboard synths as well.
Products made by WMD are sold in 15 different states and 20 different countries. Furthermore, by also contract manufacturing either partial or completed units for other companies, WMD has further expanded the availability of electronic musical equipment worldwide. Presently, the company works with 15 different clients, including one in Australia and one in Canada. "This [modular synthesizer] industry started out as a small niche industry of hobbyists, a lot of us are friends," says Mathewson when asked why he started doing production work for competitors. "We could grow the industry together, and we weren't stepping on each others toes, as well. Everybody's making money, happy."
Plus, the additional business has helped WMD to purchase the equipment that it uses to manufacture its own synth modules. In the company's 6,000-square-foot workspace, there's a printer which applies soldering paste in desired patterns onto circuit boards; a Samsung pick-and-place machine (which is also used by that telecommunications giant, Mathewson says, "to make their cell phones") that takes 25,000 "tiny parts and puts them where they need to go" on circuit boards every hour of operation; and a large reflow oven, which melts the solder "into one solid assembly." After that process, a line of six assembly techs adds additional pieces and completes the soldering. The company also uses a CNC mill to engrave aluminum panels in-house.
Before studying electrical engineering and then graduating with a degree from CU Denver in "music industry studies, with a focus on technology," Mathewson, 35, grew up in Longmont, listening to "Prodigy, Orbital, The Chemical Brothers, The Future Sounds of London -- a lot of that type of music that wasn't popular in high school," he says with a laugh.
Judging by the company's metrics, the world in general has caught up with his musical tastes: Since 2009, the company has grown 13X. Starting off with two employees in his garage -- where the first 1,000 of Mathewson's Geiger Counter pedals were built (a device that delivers "face melting sounds," according to the WMD website) -- the company now has 19 employees, who enjoy healthcare and 401K plans.
Mathewson acknowledges that he could have his products made cheaper in China. But, by manufacturing in Colorado, he says, "We're in control of our quality, rather than someone else." And it's just not where his head's at, in general: "As a philosophy, and as the type of person I am, I like to hire musicians: I like to hire people here [in Colorado] -- who are working-people in service-industry jobs that they don't like, who are also trying to be working musicians -- and teach them skills, and have them build the gear that other musicians use. It's like a feel-good thing."
Mathewson estimates there are a few thousand synthesizer enthusiasts along the Front Range. The company sponsors a monthly event, Freq Boutique, at which creators play their music -- and discuss what type of equipment and settings they used to generate the sounds.
Just like the interface between the synthesizer modules that he manufactures -- which can be patched with cords in multiple ways, uniting different elements into new sonic combinations -- Mathewson has interfaced with key industry players. He says, "I make art for musicians. My designs, my electronics, are my art project. And then other musicians get to make music with that. They make art with the art that I make. So, it's very fulfilling to see people that you love and respect using gear that you've made to make their dreams come true, to realize their artistic vision."
Challenges: "Managing people," says Mathewson. "Trying to provide benefits, and pay them what they're worth, and then manage cash flow, at the same time, and have everything work out. It's hard manufacturing in the United States."
Opportunities: Mathewson wants to bring more of his visions into reality: "Increasing our own output of our own designs. I've been focused on growing the contract manufacturing side of the business, basically since 2012, since investing in my first pick-and-place machine, and I have had very limited time to do design work, which is where I excel and what I like to do. So, my output has been pretty low. We have an electrical engineer now that's helping out a lot with both sides: contract and OEM [original equipment manufacturer] design. But, I still have a ton of designs that I'd like to get out into the world. I think the more of those that I can do, the more we'll grow."
Needs: "Just getting people to pay their bills a little bit faster," says Mathewson. "Cash flow management is everything. It makes or breaks you."