Once again, I made the trek to Santa Monica - and this time the $30 Dunlop GCB-95 I bought arrived. Unlike the last time I made the trek to Santa Monica, I wasn't listening to any KCRW or being thrown into horrendous confusion with southbound 405 traffic to Long Beach backing up for miles. No, today was different; and the traffic was surprisingly easy.
But, it did give me a chance to muse on some pedal things...
Here's the problem with pedals today. I genuinely believe we are in a pedal bubble - not unlike the housing bubble of 2008. While "pedals" aren't nearly the economic issue that the housing bubble was, it does seem like everyone is trying to make their own special (or more appropriately "not-so-special") pedal. A few months ago, a neighbor was throwing a party. I was talking with a fellow who plays bass and he says to me, "Hey you're all into the music stuff and building amps and stuff. I'd like to build a pedal. Will you help me?"
Let's call this bass player "John". Now John is a nice guy. But there was something that made me apprehensive - and that was that he created the impression that this wasn't going to be a pedal for himself. Yes, this was going to be "his pedal". But he was clearly interested in building "his pedal" for the purposes of selling it. The other thing that made me apprehensive was that I got the distinct impression that John may not be as plugged into the music gear scene as well as he should be before coming to a decision like this.
So I tell him: "I would not go into the pedal business right now - there are so many people putting out pedals right now. You not only have the big guys like Boss and Dunlop/MXR - you've got guys who were small potatoes 10 years ago now being serious contenders for attention and mindshare in the space right now - like Catalinbread. I genuinely believe that at some point in the not-to-distant future - there is going to be a whole bunch of knockoff pedals that will come flooding onto the market for $5.00 apiece. I could be wrong, but we at Thermionic agree here that there's no point in attempting to compete in this space.
There is a path that's easier to tread.
So many others who are making pedals are really not doing anything terribly interesting, innovative, or NEW. The problem, as we see it, is that there too many "pedal builders" that are reworking pedals that have already been overdone. Oh, you need an overdrive? Sure? Just make a clone of the now-all-too infamous Tube Screamer. This is the part I lament, because it didn't used to always be this way. Boss used to be releasing new pedals at a pretty reasonable clip. Jim Dunlop and the MXR line seem to be the most vibrant right now.
Despite the above situation, there are a number of "pedal builders" who are actually taking a pretty shrewd approach. Instead of building all new pedals themselves, they are building printed circuit boards (PCBs). The really interesting makers aren't rehashing what's out there - they're doing some of the following things:
1.) They're releasing PCBs of new electronic architectures that are original pedals. This is the least common but the most interesting approach.
2.) They're releasing PCBs of vintage pedals that are no longer available - with upgraded architectures and better parts. This is also interesting
3.) They're modifying the architectures of existing available pedals and calling them "not clones". This is not that interesting although in the right cases it allows for a much more affordable price point when you've been wanting something otherwise out of reach.
4.) They're taking existing pedals and putting features on them that the original builders are not. An example of this might be a Tube Screamer that has double the gain and options for using different clipping diodes. This is probably the least interesting option.
We're buying pedal PCBs from the first two categories as we believe we'll be able to rent these out to rehearsing bands. Our feeling on the other categories is mostly, "why buy and build a clone when you can just get the real thing right now?"
We've bought *some* PCBs of the third of fourth categories. We either weren't sticking with the above mission, or we felt there was enough variation in what was being offered to actually make it interesting.
We'll review the most interesting PCBer's soon. Stay tuned!