15 of the best boutique effects brands to watch
Over the past few NAMM shows, one pedal company has stood out – at first blush for the team’s sharp Reservoir Dogs-inspired uniforms, and upon closer inspection, for the weird, literally electrifying stompboxes on display.
Gamechanger Audio is the result of four Latvian friends’ mission to “explore the uncharted territories of music electronics”, and its host of fuzzboxes do just that. The brand is perhaps best known for the Plasma Pedal, a bizarre device that looks as though plucked from Nikolai Tesla’s lab. Plug in, and your guitar signal is transformed into high-voltage discharges through a glowing xenon-filled tube. In our review, we called it a “riot for noiseniks”.
And at Summer NAMM 2019, Gamechanger upped the ante by partnering another eccentric oddball in the guitar world: Jack White. Together, they released the Plasma Coil, a yellow box of noise that sputters and squelches like nothing you’ve heard before. Whatever’s next for the Baltic crew, we’re all ears – even though it may rip them to shreds.
Quiet Theory Soundworks
The Quiet Theory PreludeThe brainchild of Bryan Laurenson, one-time guitarist in emo-rockers Copeland, Quiet Theory has earned rave reviews for its one and only pedal so far, the lush, ambient Prelude delay and reverb. Created in collaboration with post-rock titans This Will Destroy You, the Prelude’s ability to create stunning soundscapes with just a few intuitive knobs – as opposed to the Cape Canaveral-esque layouts of many high-end delay and reverb pedals – marks Laurenson out as a builder who understands how to create powerful but user-friendly pedals.
The Beetronics SwarmFilipe Pampuri clearly really likes bees. He also really likes dirt pedals. Beetronics, then, is a perfect blending of the Brazillian’s two passions. For the last few years, Filipe has been crafting truly beautiful apid-inspired stompboxes that not only look unique, but sound like nothing else, too. His latest pedal, the Swarm, is a truly remarkable fuzz-and-harmoniser combo that was one of the most fun and inventive things we saw at Winter NAMM 2019.
The 1981 Inventions DRV is inspired by Matthew Hoopes’ 1985 Whiteface ProCo RAT distortionIf you follow a lot of guitar players on Instagram, you’ll probably recognise the elegantly simple design of the DRV, the one and only pedal currently produced by Matthew Hoopes. While hype around the pedal has been stoked by such clever marketing gimmicks as limited-number drops and one-off colourways, the DRV wouldn’t have set the internet aflame if the pedal inside wasn’t something special. Effectively a boutique RAT with all of the tone-sucking and harshness taken out, the DRV is a pedal that sounds as good as it looks.
The Spaceman Effects Mercury IVOregon-based company Spaceman Effects has spent a few years creating excellent-sounding hand-built pedals of various flavours, but the pedal that’s really marked the company out as one to watch is the Mission Control. The Mission Control uses a VCA controller and a built-in effects loop to fade in an effected version of any pedal, creating truly unique pulses and swells as you play. It’s a pedal that isn’t really like anything else, and marks Spaceman out as a truly inventive company.
Making one must-try effects pedal is impressive, but two? Jon Ashley of Aussie company Bondi Effects first struck gold with the Sick As, a supremely versatile overdrive pedal that offers two blendable voices with a powerful EQ stack and 18V operation for extra headroom. Then, he followed that up with something totally different, but just as impressive – the Art Van Delay is a 1800ms all-analogue BBD delay, that also offers MIDI control and preset storage. One of the most interesting circuit designers around today.
The Tsakalis Audioworks GalacticGreek effects brand Tsakalis AudioWorks has been making decent boutique pedals for a few years now, but the company’s Six BOD, which launched at the start of 2019, marks them out as a brand to watch if you’re after variety and versatility. That’s because the Six isn’t just a single overdrive: it offers three of the most iconic drives ever in one enclosure – the King Of Tone, the Timmy and the Bluesbreaker. If Tsakalis can repeat this feat with other classic circuits, all our boards could be about to get a lot smaller…
Nanolog Audio Inc
Nanolog Audio Inc’s range makes use of proprietary ‘quantum tunnelling’ and ‘carbon clipping’ technology‘Lab coats by day, classic guitar tones by night’ is the mantra of the ultra-boffins at Canadian effects brand Nanolog. Created by actual scientists, Nanolog’s impressive drive pedals ditch the silicon and germanium shooting match in favour of ‘quantum tunnelling’ and ‘molecular electronics’. In truth, we’re not sure we could explain the science if we tried, but in effect, the company is using nanotechnology to subvert 50 years of distortion-pedal circuitry in the quest for better tone. What more do you need?
Rock Your Repaired Amp is the brainchild of self-confessed perfectionist Shane Logan and you’re probably familiar with RYRA thanks to the company’s sensational Klone pedal – perhaps the most authentic-sounding and impressive take on the Klon Centaur to date. Shane claims the quality of RYRA’s pedals is a result of his no-compromise approach to build quality and component selection, but he’s clearly a bit of a wizard, too, as his expansions into other classic overdrive and fuzz circuits can attest.
“Rad pedals for rad musicians” is the mission statement of Tokyo-based pedal builders Bananana Effects. The brand’s pedal line is as vibrant as its mantra suggests, comprising mini-sized stompers decked in bold banana-yellow finishes.
These effects aren’t only visually stunning – they also serve up powerful tone-shaping options. The Abracadabra Shimmer Reverb, for example, taps on modes such as Exotic 5th and Error Delay for unrealistic, beyond-the-realm ’verbs. And it’s this under-the-hood innovation that in Bananana’s palm-sized boxes that underscores its selection as a builder to watch.
Ground Control Audio
The names of and artwork on its pedals may suggest the company hails from Japan, but you’d be thousands of miles off the mark – because Ground Control Audio is all Canadian.
The Montreal-based brand currently has five gain-based pedals on offer, with our favourite being the Tsukuyomi. This dual-purpose, transparent JFET booster adds sparkle and crunch to your tone, letting shy pickups cut through or pushing an already-hot signal into screeching solo mode. There’s both style and substance in Ground Control’s portfolio, enough to make it a brand we wish to see on more guitarists’ pedalboards.
Greece may be best known for the Olympics, Acropolis and Plato, but it’s also home to – much to our pleasant surprise – one of the fastest-growing boutique effects brands around: JAM Pedals. JAM started as a one-man operation, but has since grown into a well-oiled pedal-pushing machine under founder Jannis Anastasakis’ direction.
Handmade and hand-painted in Athens, the technicolour pedals offered by JAM have also quickly become modern classics – especially the cheekily named Delay Llama. Now available in multiple versions, the original is an analogue delay that does exactly what it says on the tin. Using faithful reproductions of Panasonic MN3205 chips, the Delay Llama breathes a depth and warmth into your sound that modern digital delays simply cannot recreate.
Since the brand’s launch over a decade ago, its stompers has found their way to the feet of some big names including Bill Frisell, Greg Koch, Steve Lukather, Christian Fennesz, Bernie Marsden and more. With a fanbase like that, you know JAM Pedals is doing something right, so we’re certainly keeping an eye on it.
Katanasound’s Blue Stripe Compressors. Image: Katanasound FacebookKatanasound is the brainchild of a Japanese maker who goes by the mononym Mitch. He caught the pedal-building bug in the 90s when he was tasked to repair great-sounding vintage pedals with poor soldering quality.
Having the opportunity to study these pedals, Mitch came up with the idea to combine those vintage sounds – which he terms “Western” – with top-of-the-line components and premium Japanese craftsmanship. Two standout examples are the Blue Stripe Compressor/Limiter and Thundercloud Overdrive Fuzz. The former is a studio-quality compressor inspired by the fabled 1176 unit, while the latter is a modified early-70s Big Muff Pi boasting a fuller sustain and richer mid-range.
Shin’s Music was founded by Tokyo-based amp engineer Shinichi Suzuki. Tapping on his experience working on Dumble amps, Suzuki was able to create what has become the brand’s most in-demand export: the Dumbloid Special BTM. This boost/OD stomper has risen to mythical status in the pedal world for its authentic cloning of the legendary amp, its $600 price tag and the many personalised iterations created for guitar stars. So far, Suzuki has crafted special Dumbloids for the likes of Richard Sambora, D’Angelo, Isaiah Sharkey, Orianthi and Charlie Sexton.
Compressors are far from the most exciting pedals around, but that may be because you haven’t heard of BecosFX.
The Romanian brand, led by founder Costel Burlan, has ‘shrunk the rack’ to concoct the CompIQ Stella, a stompbox compressor that has all the features and performance power as a high-end VCA studio unit. In our review of the pedal, we said, “Single notes are thickened without thumping, and chords gel together in a way that somehow makes you sound like a better player.”
The technological innovation that went into the Stella extends to BecosFX’s other pedals, too. Like the TS8-MS, an analogue overdrive and amp channel switcher that’s somehow also MIDI-enabled. Or the Micro Booster, an onboard guitar preamp that delivers up to 20dB of FET-based boost via a push/pull switch.
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