When Luis Etscheid and Caleb Henning began building effects pedals five years ago, they were working primarily off intuition, rather than experience. The pair, then in their early 20s, were (and still are) bandmates in the Denver-based experimental rock outfit Holophrase, and they spent much of their free time breaking open old toy keyboards and other electronics.
“We were circuit bending in order to make weird, wacky sounds for fun,” says Etscheid.
Today, working out of a cluttered two-car garage on a corner lot in Henderson, Colorado, Etscheid and Henning continue to make weird, wacky sounds under the name Mantic Conceptual, and the duo’s radical pedals have been embraced by some of rock’s more adventurous artists.
Adrian Belew and Jack White have versions of their Flex phase-locked-loop processor, Mars Volta and Racer X bassist Juan Alderete uses their Vitriol high-gain distortion, and Deerhoof’s Ed Rodriguez brought their Proverb spring-style reverb on tour. Additionally, post-hardcore heroes At the Drive-In offered a specially-made Mantic Axiom—an upgraded Proverb that added an oscillation circuit—with their recent reunion album, 2017’s in•ter a•li•a. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer purchased, according to the pair, “two of everything” they produce. Jack White’s Third Man Records snatched up the entire 250-unit run of their Isaiah digital/analog hybrid delay, initially built for late Mars Volta drummer—and Holophrase producer—Ikey Owens.
“We had to temporarily discontinue that one,” says Etscheid.
That Mantic attracts such bold, exploratory artists is hardly a surprise—their boxes are not for the faint of heart. Their first, and best-selling creation, was a sub-harmonizer and low-frequency booster they named the Density Hulk—a slightly modified clone of the mid-’90s DOD Meatbox.
“We blew out all the speakers of a 4x12 cabinet during testing,” says Etscheid, “as well as a set of monitors.”
“One of our users said he stepped on his Density Hulk onstage at a small venue, and it blew the club’s doors wide open,” adds Henning.
Though plenty powerful on its own, the Density Hulk also makes an appearance in one of Mantic’s top-of-the-line creations, the limited-edition Grinch. The Grinch pairs a turbo-charged Hulk (“It’s a lot louder,” Henning reports, “maybe too loud”) with a Vitriol, and the two effects are wired in series so that they can be used on their own, or in conjunction with each other.
“I just wanted to be able to turn on my Hulk and my Vitriol at the same time,” says Etscheid, “and I started to hear other people saying the same thing. So it seemed kind of obvious to combine the two circuits.”
The Grinch was produced in a very limited run of just ten units this past Christmas. It sold out immediately, and a larger run of 30 to 50 units is being considered for later this year.
But if the Grinch is an unusual box, it has nothing on Mantic’s other high-end offering, the Flex Pro.
“It sounds like a robot duck—that’s malfunctioning,” says Etscheid, seemingly at a loss for words to describe the wildly diverse and oftenextreme tones conjured by the pedal.
At its core, the Flex is a phase-locked-loop pedal, though Etscheid is quick to point out that it’s not a Schumann PLL derivative—it’s an original design with numerous modifications and tweaks.
“Adrian Belew received a very early version—at the time called the Master Flex—where we broke out the whole circuit to offer all the options you could imagine,” says Etscheid. “We warned him that the circuit at the time was really unstable, so it could get super jittery and glitchy and fluttery, but in a good way. And he was pumped. Back then, he was about to join Nine Inch Nails, and he said it would be the perfect pedal for the project. Now, he probably has five or six different versions, from that first inception to its current form.”
Of the six knobs on the Flex, “Filter, Rate, Mix, and Level are pretty straightforward,” says Henning, “but Focus and Pump are unique. I think that’s why they’re named so obscurely.”
Regardless of what, exactly, the knobs do on their own, or in combination with one another, a few twists and turns will quickly coax otherworldly squawks, squiggles, and squeals from the user’s guitar and amp.
“It’s definitely the pedal that has gotten the most attention, because it’s so out there,” Etscheid says. “There wasn’t really much like it to speak of when we first released it.”
At $349 and $400, respectively, the Flex and the Grinch don’t come cheap, and, at press time, the Grinch was completely sold out. But given that Mantic is still a two-man, all hand-wired and hand-assembled operation, those prices reflect the overhead and time that go into crafting each unit. Furthermore, Etscheid and Henning report that they’re so inundated with orders that “they can barely keep up.”
They still, however, manage to find time to work on new designs. Some, like an updated Density Hulk, they’re happy to talk about, but they prefer to keep the pedals in the development phase off the record.
“If it’s weird, striking, or different—or whether it’s even musical or not—that’s probably where we’re headed,” says Etscheid.