Roundup: 20 Boutique Pedals

January 30, 2014
  • Handmade pedals have increased in numbers to the point that there are seemingly as many boutique pedal brands as there are companies that make micro brews. Both enterprises tend to be small operations that rely on reinventing proven formulas to appeal to more extreme tastes, so whether it’s increasing the shock-and-awe factor of a pale ale or a vintage fuzz, there’s an audience willing to support the cause and try it.

    The “craft” mentality of the boutique pedal scene has definitely given sonic spelunkers more options than ever before in stompbox effects. And, with so many small outfits bringing new pedals to the market, it can be a little overwhelming for anyone who is simply trying to figure out what to choose from the dizzying array of distortion, fuzz, delay, modulation, and other effects being offered these days.

    We recently lined up 20 boutique pedals of various types and put them through their paces on gigs and in our studios to see how they fared. Test instruments included guitars from Fender, Fernandes, Gibson, PRS, TMG, and Michael Stevens; a Bad Cat Hot Cat head and 4x12, a 50-watt Marshall JMP head, a Matchless HC-30, an Orange Tiny Terror, a Vox AC 30, and Fender Deluxe Reverb and Blues Junior combos. —ART THOMPSON

    $229 street
    One side of this dual pedal is a British-voiced overdrive that delivers the tight grit and crunch associated with vintage tube amps via a gain knob labeled Year, which travels from ’67 to ’77 with a corresponding increase in distortion. The other side’s Fuzz Face-style effect is worth the price of admission alone: Its ability to vary the input level produced an amazing range of vintage sounds, from mild overdrive to exploding amp. Instead of tone knobs, a toggle on each side offers a lowmid boost, which seemed to be all that was needed to get cool tones with humbuckers or single-coils. I also found both circuits to be dynamically responsive to picking attack and guitar volume changes. Bottom line: If classic rock tones are your bag, this pedal requires a serious look. —MICHAEL ROSS

    $275 street
    Analog Mike's Bi-Comprossor Combines his Comprossor [sic], a version of the classic Ross/Dynacomp circuit, and his Juicer, modeled after the legendary Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer, into a one-pedal compression fest. The Juicer side has a single knob for Volume (an internal trim-pot controls the bias), while the Comprossor offers Volume, Attack and Sustain. The Comprossor (which has the Rev 4 update for lower output impedance, increased boost, less compression, and no phase reversal) allowed me to dial in any amount of compression from almost zero (using the pedal as a clean boost) to severely squashed, while retaining the fidelity of my tone. The Juicer side comes on full bore and cuts a bit of the high end, making it better suited for adding sustain to slightly distorted pedal or amp signals than for clean use. Engaging both together made it easy to get controllable feedback at low volumes. In a nutshell, the Bi-Comprossor is a surfeit of riches for those who know and love compression. —MICHAEL ROSS

    $129 street
    Pennsylvania-based maker David Barber is known for his myriad flavors of overdrive and his determination to improve upon the formulas of even his most popular pedals. After several evolutions of the LTD, a low-gain overdriver, Barber unceremoniously dropped that big seller, and in its place we now have the Gain Changer, an overdrive boasting impressive versatility in an even more compact box. In addition to the requisite Volume, Tone, and Gain controls, the Gain Changer has a 3-way EQ switch to capture each of the most popular renditions of the previous LTD (Flat+Fat, Fat Mids, Flat Mids), and a Low/High gain switch to nuke the drive. All combinations render excellent balance, clarity, and note-to-note articulation, though I had the most fun ramming out thick, luscious lead tones with luxurious harmonic feedback by setting toggle 1 to Flat, toggle 2 to High Gain, and the Gain knob around 2 o’clock. All said, it’s a tremendous value in a boutique overdrive pedal. —DAVE HUNTER

    The Pin Up offers a footswitchable octave effect along with its fuzz section, which features Volume, Gain, Voicing, and Tone controls, as well as an internal trim-pot to adjust the octave level. Thanks to the Pin Up’s Voicing and Tone controls, crafting precise fuzz tones is a breeze. Radical cutting and boosting of the mids is possible, rendering myriad tones when used with my Fender Telecasters or Gibson SGs. The Pin Up doesn’t explode the front end of your amp with a load of output, but it’s no slouch in the signal department, either, allowing you to crank in a lot of saturation yet still be heard over the band. Whether I dialed-up fatter textures for some low-string raunch or turned up the highs to get some thinner, buzzier tones, the Pin Up always complied, with an overall smoothness and dead-quiet operation—pretty impressive! The octave effect also sounds wonderful for flutey, high-position soloing and low-string double stops. The Pin Up offers subtle shades of grind as well as full-on fuzz ferocity, and its powerful EQ makes it a good all-around grinder that can be used in all sorts of musical situations. —DARRIN FOX


    $469 street
    As a disciple of Mick Ronson—who famously cocked his wah pedal at fixed positions to create edgy textures—when I spied the wah-sound knob on a WTF prototype, I was immediately besotted. Genius! But the magnificent production model is not just a Ronson emulator—it’s a carnival of deliciously aggro fuzz and overdrive sounds. The WTF’s Tube O.D. (via a JJ Tesla 12AX7), Muscle Fuzz, Octave Fuzz, and Fixed Wah effects can be deployed individually, or layered simultaneously for buzzy-gonzo glory. Internal controls for the wah effect add to the tonal firepower, and colored LEDs (which are blinding enough to be discerned in direct sunlight) broadcast which effects are active.

    While priced at a budget-shredding $469, the WTF gives you a galaxy of tonal options. A simple trick is to start a solo with, say, the Muscle Fuzz, and then intensify the musical climax by clicking in a searing Fixed Wah sound. An undulating, Reeves Gabrels’-style fuzz tornado is on tap when everything is cranked up. You can go quasi-normal by sticking to the Tube O.D., but cranking the Edge knob to add some snotty sizzle, or get all fractured indie-rock brittle by using the Octave Fuzz without the octave effect engaged. I got a million of ’em—and you will, too, when you explore this deep gem of a noise machine. —MICHAEL MOLENDA

    $325 street
    Canadian maker Dr Scientist taps bucket-brigade technology of the late ’70s, but blows it up to greatly extend the traditional control parameters for its Cosmichorus analog chorus pedal. The result is a great-sounding and highly tweakable modulator capable of emulating several classics, as well as plumbing new tones of its own. TRS input and output jacks offer stereo in and out, the Hold switch controls a unique mode in which the wet signal is held until you hit the footswitch for modulation, and dual expression pedal inputs provide external control of the chorus rate and sweep. For all its deep controllability, I was most impressed with the Cosmichorus’s rich, watery sound, which quickly reminded me why analog chorus remains such a favorite of many players. To top it off, I dug the cool retro-space-aged graphics, and the pulsing LED within the transparent Rate knob is one of the niftiest functional visuals on any pedal in a long time. —DAVE HUNTER

    $345 street
    The simplest mass-comprehension tag might be to call the Disaster Transport Sr “the Edge in a box,” but this dual-circuit analog delay pedal is so much more than that, and truly packs enormous creative potential. Time A is a 600ms delay with modulation, Time B is a 300ms delay with reverb, and they can be run individually, together in parallel, or together in series, with the Bleed control feeding B into A even with B switched off. Add expression pedals for Repeats and Bleed to expand versatility. I found it a breeze to access lush, warm, tape-like delays with a little wow and flutter for texture, and the results are worth the price of entry alone. But a little experimenting with the parameters of A and B and their various chaining options unleashed a world of atmospherics, from subtle to totally trippy. As such, it’s a pedal that rewards instantly and continues to do so the deeper you probe it. —DAVE HUNTER

    Price TBA
    Built by Pigtronix and aimed at jazz guitarists, this gold-sparkle box is powered by an included 18-volt adapter (batteries aren’t an option) and features a compressor based on Pigtronix’s Philosopher’s Rock pedal with Volume, Sustain, and Blend controls. There’s also a footswitchable Boost control that provides up to 12dB of clean boost, a true-bypass effects loop for adding external effects between the compressor and booster sections (the Send jack can also be used to feed a second amp or a tuner), and an XLR out for sending a balanced output signal to the house mixer. The New York can make clean tones sound fatter and more sustaining with no loss of definition courtesy of the Blend control, which mixes clean signal in parallel with the compression. The Sustain control ranges from mild limiting to heavy squash, and the Volume knob has plenty of make-up gain to keep the sound front and center when using higher amounts of compression. The Boost switch unleashes a preset level increase to help solos stand out, and it can be used with or without the compressor. Operationally quiet at all but extreme boost and compression settings, the New York Jazz Pedal has plenty to offer anyone who wants something more than a basic comp pedal. —ART THOMPSON

    $179 street
    A four-transistor buzz box based on a vintage Colorsound Supa Tonebender, the Silicon Crystal Valve features Volume, Tone, and Gain controls, as well as true-bypass switching. Through various Fender combos, a non-master 50-watt Marshall, and a Vox AC30, I cranked the Hartman and let ’er rip with various Telecasters and Gibson SGs. The Silicon Crystal Valve is squarely cast in the classic Big Muff mold, with its aggressive fuzz and molten distortion characteristics. The pedal’s Tone control is where the action is, however, as it can take you from a notched grind à la Randy Rhoads and Mick Ronson, to a bass-heavy sledgehammer tone that works for liquid, sustaining leads, and detuned punishment. With single-coils or humbuckers, the pedal produces intensely colorful blasts of fuzz that work for anything from Sabbath to Santana. The Silicon Crystal Valve can get skinny, too, allowing for some cool lo-fi tones without the spittiness of, say, a Fuzz Face. You can back off of your guitar’s volume control to lessen the intensity of the gnarl, but cleaning up for jangly clean tones isn’t really part of the deal here. With tones that straddle old-school fuzz and more extreme modern sonics, the Silicon Crystal Valve lays it out with attitude, musicality, and boldness. —DARRIN FOX

    $139 Street
    Featuring a clean-boost circuit running in parallel with the distortion circuit, the Blue Dog allows you to blend in any amount of clean signal necessary to obtain a more defined overdriven tone, or to push a clean amp into distortion by hitting its front end harder. The Gain, Tone, and Drive controls set the levels and EQ for the distortion section, while the Clean knob simply controls the clean signal content. The Volume knob adjusts the final output irrespective of the other control settings. With the Clean knob down and Drive turned up, the Blue Dog delivers everything from warm grind to nicely sustaining lead tones depending largely on where you set the Gain. Turn the Gain knob down and crank up the Clean control, and now you’re in classic booster territory. Dial in some Gain in this mode and the tones quickly thicken into a cool crunch rhythm sound. Depending on how you set the Gain and Clean knobs, the Blue Dog can produce copious amounts of clear and articulate distortion, to the point of even sounding like two “amps” running simultaneously—one clean, the other distorted—which is a neat effect unto itself. The heft of the tones can get pretty unreal too, especially at high Drive and Volume settings, making the Blue Dog a good choice if you want one distortion box that can handle a variety of applications. —ART THOMPSON

    $199 street
    The WTF features a continuously playing low-frequency oscillator (LFO) with high-gain distortion. The Attack control modulates the LFO, creating variable octave-down effects and Dubstep-style envelope sweeps, while the Frequency knob tunes the LFO’s pitch. Tuning to the playing key produced almost normal fuzz effects, but random frequency settings and wild attack envelopes were much more fun. Different settings yielded laser guns, envelope filters, and other cool effects, and I could deploy the Gate if I wanted the craziness to stop when I damped the strings. Users with a penchant for controlled chaos might find their audience muttering an awestruck “WTF,” when they hear the Loud Button in action! —MICHAEL ROSS

    $275 street
    Why use just tremolo when you canTremvelope? This powerful yet intuitive modulation box performs happily as a standard optical tremolo pedal with a great range of depth and speed and emotive pulses from either its sine or ramp settings. But dial in the bonus features and it goes anywhere from tactile, playable retro-trem (the sort you always wished your standard tremolo could be) to a unique and adventurous tone crafter that is something way beyond. By attaching an envelope follower to the circuit to trigger the depth, speed, or both (in the same or opposite directions), according to your picking strength, the Tremvelope both eliminates the random dropout that optical trem can lend your attack, and provides an unprecedented playability of the effect’s main parameters. Jack in external expression and/or volume/pan pedals for further control, and take it all over the top with the stereo out to tap the Tremvelope’s panning mode, hitting two amps with trippy, room-filling aural delights. Yummy stuff. —DAVE HUNTER

    $394 street
    “Warm" is a well-used term in gear reviews,” but the Silky Drive serves as a reminder of what that descriptor can mean when used in earnest. Designed to mimic the smooth distortion tones of vintage tube amps, the Silky Drive is part of Providence’s high-end F-Series, with quality construction and added engineering features (such as noiseless switching) to match its elevated price. Featuring Drive, Tone (passive), and Level controls, along with a Gain Boost switch, this overdrive double-dips into the smooth, creamy, “thousand-pound violin” tone that aptly gives it its name. As such, it’s a sweet choice for big rock balladry, atmospheric blues, or any application that calls for finesse. Even so, it never lets its silky demeanor turn mushy, retaining enough cut and bite throughout its range to let you stand out when the going gets loud. —DAVE HUNTER

    $259 street
    Rockett designed this pedal in conjunction withAllan Holdsworth to help him achieve his signature sound when faced with different backline amplifiers. As Holdsworth already uses some gain on any amplifier, the Drive section of this pedal offers minimal distortion, but plenty of level to push the front of the amp. That section also contains Bass and Treble controls, as well as a mini-toggle with which you can subtly emphasize either the low or high end (though “high” is more flat than a treble boost). A footswitch engages a Boost section that can be used alone, or to push the Drive section. Here, the mini-toggle chooses between Fat, Clean, and Treble settings, with Fat and Treble adding considerably more boost than Clean. Though it can deliver Holdsworth-ian tone (as much as any pedal can), this effect is no one-trick-pony. The low gain makes it ideal for blues grit, while the Treble setting of the boost delivers some classic ’60s British tones. Pushing the Drive section with Boost in Fat mode seriously upped the sustain quotient, while retaining the kind of articulation for which the fusion legend is famous. This solidly constructed unit presents a wide variety of terrific tonal options that will appeal whether you are a fan of Holdsworth or have never heard of him. —MICHAEL ROSS

    $219 street
    A combination boost and low-gain overdrive, the Saturn V added sparkle to clean amps and really came alive when I increased the Boost (level) to drive the input stage of an already gritty Orange Tiny Terror amp or as an overdrive effect. The Saturn added plenty of extra grind without coloring the sound, and upping the Drive introduced lush harmonic overtones and further increased the boost level. Playing with the ratio of Boost to Drive yielded a much larger array of sonic options than normally found in a boost pedal—from slight dirt to near fuzz and everything in between—making the Saturn V a great choice for helping your sound achieve liftoff. —MICHAEL ROSS

    $230 street
    This hand-built, true-bypass, point-to-point wired, three- transistor germanium fuzz also comes with a smattering of irony. The pedal’s photographic top panel—a pastoral field of flowers reminiscent of the “poppies” scene in The Wizard of Oz—does not represent beatific tones, florid aromas, or blissful slumber. The Babbling Flower is more like a thrill-ride nightmare—an angry, gritty, shuttering, barking- mad weapon of glorious timbral dissonance. As you may have already guessed, Philadelphia’s TSVG goes for lo-fi delight on its brand-new release, and it’s a savvy tool for crafting gloriously off-kilter frazzle. The fundamental Babbling Flower tone is extremely dynamic and snotty. Lighter attacks produce interesting sizzles, while heavier manners push the sound into crackling overdrive—like turning the Volume knob on an old Fender Champ to around 7. I love how the BF’s “on the edge of Armageddon” sonic stance helps transform riffs, rhythm parts, and staccato solos into way more memorable noises. It’s not a first call for sustained, David Gilmour-style solos—although the “thickness” switch definitely adds enough edgy sustain to get you with striking distance of Mick Taylor-ville. But this ain’t no blues-rock pedal—it’s a superb gizmo for a tonal anarchist’s trick bag. —MICHAEL MOLENDA
    $159 street
    The Alpha Dig is nominally based on the ProCo Rat, but with its three extra controls it offers a much wider range of distortion options. In addition to Level, Gain, and Filter (tone), a Fat knob adds variable mid-bass boost. A Hard (clipping) control varies the response from compressed Vintage to the more dynamic Twin, whereas the Soft control dials in varying degrees of Germanium or MOSFET clipping components. Judicious balancing of the Alpha Dog’s controls unleashes many shades of bark and bite. At low gain settings I was able to launch expressive blues riffs that cleaned up nicely through changes in picking strength or guitar volume manipulation, while turning the Soft knob in the Germanium direction added an octave fuzz edge that sounded particularly cool at higher gain settings. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? —MICHAEL ROSS

    $219 street
    In an effort to harnass the best of both technologies, the Faux Tape Echo uses powerful PT2399 digital delay chips surrounded by all-analog tone shaping and a dry signal path to capture a tape-style echo in a compact box that’s also capable of doing much more. Engage the Faux Tape Reel section and dial in Movement and Sway to your tastes, and this pedal accurately slathers the tape-delay “faults” that we have so learned to love all over the erstwhile clean sound of your echoes. Impressive stuff. Alternatively, bypass that function, and retain a sharper, more precise—yet still deep and toothsome—delay that’s suitable for more contemporary sounds. It’s all straightforward and highly functional, and there’s even the bonus of Tap Tempo. —DAV E HUNTER

    $235 Street.
    When a pedal claims to mimic the sound of a Marshall amp, the question arises: which one? But the Atomic’s parametric-style midrange control circumvented the issue by letting me sculpt various iconic Marshall sounds. For Bluesbreakers-era Clapton tone, I set the Gain low and boosted the Mid control with the toggle set on Hi. Aiming at Paul Kossoff, I pushed the mids up on the Mid toggle setting. Conversely, cranking the Gain and scooping the mids nailed a modern metal tone. Add the EQ power of an additional Lo Mid setting and the wide-ranging Treble and Bass controls, and it’s hard to imagine a Marshall model or era you couldn’t cop. The Atomic Overdrive sounded and responded like a real amp while it turned my Fender Blues Junior into a raging stack, so look to this pedal to satisfy your lust for badass Brit tones while simultaneously saving your pocketbook, ears, and back. —MICHAEL ROSS

    $329 street Hand Painted/ $199 street Vexter Series
    This pedal has two NOS '60s germanium transistors that are controlled (barely) by five knobs: Volume, Gate, Comp, Drive, and Stab(ility). By judiciously adjusting said knobs I was able to attain something resembling a normal—albeit huge—Muff-style fuzz. But the Fuzz Factory’s appeal has always been its destabilized modes where tunable feedback, spitting fizz, and general transistorized mayhem reign supreme. The Fat Fuzz Factory also adds a toggle that selects between Classic, Fat, and Fatter modes. The availability of extra low end made playing into a clean amp even more wide screen, making this new version a must for sonic adventurers. —MICHAEL ROSS

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