MAKE 23: Ross Hershberger interview

MAKE 23: Ross Hershberger interview

current_Volume_bug3.jpgRoss Hershberger is an audiophile and maker who has contributed two projects to the pages of MAKE: the Econowave Speakers in Volume 20 and Squelette, the Bare-Bones Amplifier in the current issue, Volume 23. Other than being talented and passionate, Ross is a really nice guy. I had the pleasure of meeting him and working alongside him at Maker Faire Detroit a couple of weeks ago, where he tirelessly volunteered to help us at the MAKE booth for the entire weekend (thanks, Ross!). I interviewed Ross earlier this week to gain insight on what inspires him, how he comes up with project ideas, his advice for makers, what’s great about Detroit, and how awesome his wife is.

1. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things?
I probably took apart my cradle as soon as I could get both hands on it. DIY is in our family DNA and culture. The Amish side of the family line probably has a large influence in this. We all make, fix, mod, create, design, and tinker as a way of life. I have five siblings, and they’re all adept at various crafts and technologies. Middle sister is a painter with an MFA from University of Michigan. Little sister creates gorgeous woven beaded jewelry and decorations. Our youngest brother had two research patents issued this year, for a thermoelectric device and a metal hardening technique. Middle brother is a skilled carpenter restoring building interiors for Michigan State.

To some extent learning maker skills is just expedient. A jar of pickles or a tuneup on the car is a periodic expense. Learning canning or auto repair is an asset forever. I went to electronics school half days my junior and senior years in high school. In the 70s computer programming looked like a rising field so electronics became a hobby and I was a mainframer for about 20 years. I loved IBM mainframe systems and got to work with some genuine geniuses. Seeing someone’s brilliant ideas elegantly implemented is still a great pleasure. Later I returned to electronics repair, then custom design and build. An eight month stint as a tooling machinist sort of jump-started my urge to create.

2. Who are your inspirations?
So many. Especially Norman Crowhurst in electronics and horologst Dr. George Daniels, MBE CBE, in mechanics. Both mastered their fields completely. They have broad, deep comprehension and write clearly. I particularly recommend to makers Dr. Daniels’ book Watchmaking. He describes the creation of a complete mechanical watch all the way from initial paper sketches and calculations to fabricating the pivot jewels, case, hands, and crystal. The result is a timepiece of uncompromising quality made entirely by hand with simple tools. Despite the unfamiliar subject and complexity of the work, every page is a model of clarity. I’ll never make a watch, but Dr. Daniels’ thoroughness and methodology set standards that I strive for. Study the masters of the craft. You may never equal them but some of the smarts may rub off on you.


3. How did you go about coming up with and designing the Squelette?
This project was designed especially for MAKE readers. After MAKE published my Econowave Speakers project in Volume 20, I proposed several audio-related ideas to MAKE Projects Editor Paul Spinrad. He liked the idea of a cheap, simple, high-performance audio amp so I started making prototypes. The aluminum and plexiglass version is more elaborate than my usual screwed-to-a-board chip amp builds, but I agree with Paul that it has visual panache. Chip-based amplifiers are all over the internet in hobby electronics discussion groups. Google “Gainclone” and you’ll find thousands. With the high performance/cost ratio of these audio chips and the low parts count it’s a no-brainer. The name “Squelette the Bare Bones Amp” is a bilingual pun that nobody seems to have gotten. Squelette is French for skeleton, a reference to ‘skeleton’ wristwatches with exposed workings and also to bare bones. Too subtle?


4. What is the biggest appeal of vintage electronics and audio equipment to you?
Older gear is simple and easy to work on, unlike a DVD player stuffed full of ICs. It doesn’t take a BSEE to get a Dynaco tube amp running. It’s instructive to analyze older consumer gear and see what practical design compromises have been made to optimize performance/cost. Also vintage audio is lucrative. North America is just flat covered up in high quality audio gear from the 60s. It’s in high demand in Asia so there’s good profit in restoring and reselling.

5. You have quite a music collection. Do you make music as well?
I’d deny it but Men’s Glee Club appears on my Michigan State transcript so I’m busted. I was a choral singer for a decade and can still carry “Happy Birthday” though I haven’t performed for 30 years. Music is enormously important in my life. Neko Case, Sonic Youth, Chet Atkins, Pavement, and Fila Brazillia get me through the work day.


6. You’re active on the AudioKarma forums. How has being a part of that online community helped and inspired you?
AK is a vast archive for discussions on vintage gear, equipment development, and audio discussion. I highly recommend it. Another great one is DIYAudio. The original AK group development thread that the Econowave speakers project grew out of exceeds 11,000 posts and 750,000 hits. More than 100 different pairs of Econowave speakers have been documented and far more were inspired. That’s a great example of group-sourcing, with ideas and experimentation in a number of places shared to refine a technology.

Enthusiast discussion groups are valuable for giving you the basics and other people’s points of view/expertise. There are some very advanced and generous people contributing on discussion forums. Their knowledge is invaluable.

I’d caution that interacting exclusively with your peers limits your vision and puts you in a rut. Peer discussions can become constrained by commonly held knowledge and conventional thinking. Read the boards and contribute, but also read basic texts. Look outside your area of interest for inspiration in applied arts, industrial design, theory, archaic creations, and history. Fertilize them from a range of sources and you’ll grow better ideas.

7. How long have you been living in the Detroit area? What do you love most about Detroit?
We live in Huntington Woods, a first-ring suburb built in the first half of the 20th century. Full of trees, parks, and peculiar houses like our Bauhaus-lite 1939 Art Moderne home. I moved to the Detroit area in 1990 for IT work opportunities. Possibly not the brightest move in retrospect but I’ve come to love it here. Because status means little in a downtrodden town, Detroiters are pretty humble and easygoing. The cultural diversity here is fascinating. We can walk across the street to a 50-year-old Kosher bakery for lunch, then drive downtown to hear Cheb Mami sing at an Arabic culture festival.

Making stuff is central to Detroit’s history and place in the world. The level of knowledge, experience, and skill that you find is amazing. Need an expert on industrial controls, anodizing, welding, pneumatics, or paint? Two phone calls and a 10-minute drive gets you there. It’s a hands-on city, particularly rich in technical competence.

The car culture here is delightful. One neighbor drives an Alpine Sunbeam and another has a fabulous old Supercharged Auburn Boat Tailed Speedster that he loves to give rides in. Every summer there’s the week-long Woodward Dream Cruise. It’s an enormous gathering of enthusiasts of rare, vintage, custom, goofy, and interesting cars. If L.A. is car crazy Detroit should be locked in a padded room.

8. Your wife is also a skilled maker. Tell us about her. Do you ever collaborate on projects?
Her skills so exceed mine that I’m hardly worthy to hand her tools. She’s a machine designer and project leader for CCD Engineering, a Michigan company producing custom industrial controls and auto parts testing machines. She’ll handle creation of a complex, precise machine from pencil sketch to final testing, bringing it in on time and at budget. Nobody I know works nearly this well or hard. We have to keep her away from the Bridgeport and welder or she’d build the machines herself too.

Parts production machines are a very interesting technology. They work in a hostile environment, flat out with short cycle times and minimal maintenance. They have to hold tolerances in the thousandths of an inch for thousands of cycles with zero down time. Designs are constrained by cost, ease of repair, upgrade-friendliness, use of off-the-shelf components, and a dozen contradictory factors. After 15 years I haven’t figured out how she can do all this stuff herself so I chalk it up to plain genius. As I write this she’s arguing with a welder on the phone about a clevis on a machine to handle huge steel billets for a shearing press. She’s never done a machine like this before but it will be flawless, rugged, and elegant. And when I need a micrometer she has one in her purse.

9. What new idea has excited you most recently?
Pentode tubes and Depletion Mode N-Channel MOSFETs. I’m working up a new DIY project for MAKE: a tube audio amplifier. It uses an exotic-looking vacuum tube from the guidance system of the WWII V2 rocket and high performance TV video pentodes. I cribbed an idea from Norman Crowhurst to reduce the power tube’s inherent distortion, and applied modern semiconductor technology to get the performance I need from the rest of the circuit. Compared to conventional circuits of this type the distortion will be an order of magnitude lower, the cost will be reduced by up to 80%, and the power output will exceed the Squelette chip amp. After months of study, thousands of tests, hundreds of hours, scores of tubes, dozens of circuits, and one small explosion I’m nearly there. The design will have to be torture-tested to make sure performance, safety, and reliability hold up long term under a variety of use and component conditions before it’s ready to be presented to makers.

Ideas like this practically possess my brain. It gets uncomfortable to have an exciting concept clambering for attention around the clock, blocking everything else out. After a reasonable period of obsession I have to force myself to clear the slate by locking the shop door and reading a book, taking a hike, watching a movie, pulling weeds, or anything that will claim my brain space back for a while and restore my perspective.

I’m also intrigued with Arduino, which MAKE has covered extensively. In my teens I built very early 6502 hobby computers like the KIM-1 and OSI Superboard II. I had to teach myself machine language programming, as there were no affordable assemblers for the KIM-1. Arduino is a very versatile and attractive package. With my backgrounds in electronics and programming, this should be a natural. But I really don’t have an appropriate application for it. I like to use the simplest technology that will get the job done, and fully utilize it. When I get around to implementing an Arduino application it will be because nothing but a processor will do the job.

10. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?

Thanks for asking. I’m full of advice.

A) Document. Find a process for recording your work that’s comfortable for you and keep records of ideas, parts, designs, techniques, source information, and tests. Don’t trust your memory. This slows you down but recording things helps to clarify them. Also you’ll have an archive to share and refer to. Trade off speed for building a library of your work.

B) Start simple. Complexity will find you on its own. Basic designs become complicated ones in the build, and complex designs become impossible.

C) Read your peers but not exclusively (see above under question 6). You’ll find useful ways of thinking about your hobby from sources outside your specific area. Study earlier and basic texts. Analyze other people’s work and understand the decisions, consequences, and trade-offs. If you don’t get it, go back to basics and analyze the pieces.

D) Don’t assume that other hobbyists’ work is ideal. It may be cooler than what you’ve made but it’s still limited by the maker’s ideas and skills. Question their choices and work up alternatives to see if it can be improved. There’s a lot of sub-optimal work out there that can be bettered.

E) Make friends at the hardware store. Go in when they’re not busy and sort through all of the odd drawers of bushings, grommets, handles, knobs, clips, nuts, pins and miscellaneous materials. If you fill your head with off-the-shelf hardware possibilities they’ll find their proper places in your designs. Every old hardware store has at least one guy who knows everything in the store. Seek his help, with donuts if necessary. Often if they don’t have what you need they can order it fast and cheaply. Or they know an alternative that you don’t. The guys at the local Durst Ace Hardware have pulled me out of a tight spot more than twice.

F) Publish. If you come across an interesting idea, material, or technique, share it with your peers.

G) If you can’t describe it, you don’t understand it. Teaching something will point out the gaps in your own knowledge. Trouble expressing an idea means you have to go back and improve your own comprehension.

H) Avoid shotgun development (throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks). This is fast but very inefficient. Start with well-defined goals and a good understanding of basic concepts. Your work will go faster if you start with three solid ideas rather than 15 brainstorms that haven’t been analyzed.

I) Be humble. When you’ve learned a lot, others still have much to teach. However much you’ve gained, there’s more, and the only thing that will keep it from you is pride.

J) If you find yourself adding parts to make it work the way you want, consider a trip back to the drawing board with what you’ve learned. Complexity is often a symptom of non-optimal implementation.

K) Control design should be intuitive. Squelette has no labels but anyone who knows what it is can operate it. Chose control types and locations that tell the user what they’re for. This additional layer of refinement can turn a hobby lashup into a nice usable product if you think of the user’s needs.

Thank you for the interview. MAKE magazine has come to mean a great deal to me. I wish this book existed when I was younger. Exposure to makers’ ideas and passion has really enhanced my own work. I hope I can continue to develop contributions worthy of this great magazine.

Thanks so much for sharing your time and knowledge, Ross! Might I add that the line about your wife (“Her skills so exceed mine that I’m hardly worthy to hand her tools”) should totally be used for maker valentines. Too awesome. Folks can check out the full Econowave Speakers project in Make: Projects and Squelette in the newest issue, available at the Maker Shed.

From the pages of MAKE:

MAKE Volume 23, Gadgets
This special issue is devoted to machines that do delightful and surprising things. In it, we show you how to make a miniature electronic Whac-a-Mole arcade game, a tiny but mighty see-through audio amp, a magic mirror that contains an animated soothsayer, a self-balancing one-wheeled Gyrocar, and the Most Useless Machine (as seen on The Colbert Report!). Plus we go behind the scenes and show you how Intellectual Ventures made their incredible laser targeting mosquito zapper — yes, it’s real, and you wish you had one for your patio barbecue. All this and much, much more.

2 thoughts on “MAKE 23: Ross Hershberger interview

  1. Ross Hershberger says:

    One more item that I think is important and I should have included in the advice section: Unit test everything. Mechanical and electrical devices may have interactions between sections that you don’t anticipate. Before building something for the first time, prototype the separate assemblies and test them individually. Use the test data to adjust the final design so the parts will work together optimally. Sometimes things that look right on paper exhibit unexpected behavior that can compromise the performance of the completed project. Breaking it down and working step-by-step with actual test data helps ensure predictable results.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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