Pedal builders often get too full of it.

Some of my best friends are pedal builders.  Really!  But today I want to talk about an unpleasant trend that I see more and more of, as the population of pedal builders increases.

“We use only the finest carbon-comp resistors and Alpha pots for superior tone.”  Sounds great, right?–except those are not actually great, special, expensive, or rare components.   They are common as dirt, and they will not necessarily improve your tone.  Same goes for the “indestructible housing” and the true bypass switching “so none of your precious tone is lost”… come on.  It’s just the same Hammond box and Alpha switch that everyone else bought from a catalog, and they do not imply any greatness on the part of the builder who bought them.  In fact often the 3PDT switch isn’t even implemented very well, lacking a pull-down resistor or other pop-reducing circuit.  The pedal company Aya brags that they use five different kinds of solder in their pedals, for better tone!  Por favor.

Another one that galls me is the claim that I see quite often that a compressor pedal is “based on the LA2A” or “uses a genuine opto-isolator just like in high-end studio compressors!”  But the reality is that merely using an opto-isolator will not necessarily give you results even close to what the pedal builder wants you to believe.  For one thing, those “genuine” opto components in nearly all opto pedals are just common little inexpensive bits from a catalog, while the high-end units have custom-designed opto components that have their own signature response.  Plus the vintage and high-end units typically use audio transformers, tubes, and a variety of other bulky and expensive components that add just as much to their tone and action as the opto elements do.  I’m not at all saying opto pedals are “bad” (in fact I usually like them a lot), but what I am saying is that the hyped-up advertising text about “based on the LA2A” etc. is usually nothing but empty words.

I also see way too many pedal builders puffing up their “artistry” by yakking on about the subtle nuances of their designs, when really they just copied an existing circuit and made one or two little adjustments.  I got into this over on a guitar forum recently, and offended some pedal builders there–they wanted to preserve the sanctity of their lofty status as craftsmen, when many of them are really just hacks.  A lot of the time a “boutique” pedal builder’s only contribution to the pedal is the labor to assemble it, and the paint job.  Some of these builders even use pre-made circuitboards from another supplier (such as GGG or BYOC) yet they still brag about the refinements of their “handmade” pedals.  Many of these builders don’t know anything about electronics and circuit design beyond what they learned by copying Tubescreamers and Fuzz Faces.  One of these geniuses (Michael at Mammothsound) actually tried to tell me that a buffered switch is the same as a 3PDT switch, and that relays are never used for bypass switching, and get this–“I know, because I build pedals!”

Don’t get me wrong, pedal building can be a deep art, the product of many years of education and experience.  There are some builders out there who really bring something worthy to the table with novel, complex, or elegant designs, and I truly admire their efforts.  I aspire to be like them when I get my own electronics business up and running (after I complete my EE degree).  But those deeper designers are in the tiny minority.  It makes me ill when I see one more variation on a common old circuit, given a fancy paint job and a clever name, surrounded by hype.

Certainly if a person has a product to sell, they should advertise.  But don’t try to sell me yesterday’s leftovers on a fancy new plate.

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2 Comments »

  1. Livingston said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    The funniest one I’ve seen lately is this: someone asked on TB how a specific clone of the Mutron Octave Divider differed from the original. I looked that model up and found a video with a gut shot of the circuit. I didn’t post anything in the thread, because I don’t want to seem like a builder dogging on another just because they’re competitors, but that thing was a disgusting mess, and they talk about it, just as you say, like it’s got some amazing stuff inside. “Genuine Neutrik jacks and Alpha pots” as if that’s not what all boutique pedals are made of. For $250 you get perfboard and a mess of wires? I’m saying absolutely nothing of my own work, but comparing the design, mechanical engineering, or build quality of the genuine Mutron to this thing is ridiculous.

    The worst part is that stuff this terrible is in the same market as really good designs with really good build quality – and anyone trying to produce a truly great piece of gear is in price competition with these hacks. Since consumers generally aren’t aware of what lurks inside most boutique pedals, they have a hard time understanding why they should pay more money for something well-built and designed, when the latest “SuperAwesome FX Cleveland Steamer w/Donkey Punch attechment” is $50 cheaper and it has a wacky graphic on it.

    You would think that they’d get the point when these pedals break down all the time, but I’ve seen people coming onto DIY forums asking how to fix their “XYZ” boutique pedals because they broke a month after they got it and they can’t get a response from the builder, or they don’t even ask the builder because they think he’s a delicate genius who can’t be bothered to repair his own work.

    The market actually doesn’t expect good quality, solid builds and designs. I’ve read some successful boutiquers, like the guy who makes the Timmy pedal, tried to move to PCBs, but the customers actually want him to keep building them on perfboard. Some people like their electronics to look like it was assembled by a kid who just got his first soldering iron.

  2. Charles Luke said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    Hi Cyrus,
    Great post. Please check out my website. I’m a EE from Ga Tech and have some truely original designs. Just got a patent on one. Are you still in school or have you graduated? Please send me an email address. I would like to keep in touch.

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