“BOUTIQUE OR NOT?” THAT IS THE QUESTION BY TOM HUGHES
Last month we raised the ques- tion, “What is boutique?”
Exploring this topic, we discovered that as the stompbox market
has changed and grown, the term’s
meaning has become vague and
imprecise. We also found it’s not
as easy as it once was to outline a
set of standards that would qualify
a particular product as boutique.
Now, let’s see if we can reevaluate
the meaning of boutique, both
as a concept and a definition, to
better understand its relevance in
The points most often
discussed when comparing
boutique versus mass-produced
products are, first, the method
of production and, second, the
type and quality of components. Let’s look at the method
of production first.
Most people assume that
mass production involves the
use of automated machinery for
the purpose of rapidly assembling products in high volume.
Cheap labor may also be
employed, and it is usually performed by unskilled individuals
with little understanding of the
end product. And of course,
the majority of mass-produced
products these days happens
in China. This view, while not
inaccurate, is a somewhat oversimplified generalization.
A similarly simplified view,
however, is the idealized notion
of the lone boutique builder,
performing daring feats of elec-
tronic wizardry while working
feverishly on his next ground-
breaking sonic innovation. He’s
had a soldering iron in his hand
since he was 7, and his point-
to-point turret-board work is an
architectural wonder to behold.
He uses nothing but new-old-
stock parts in all his builds—
the best of the best of the best.
Finally, he makes his own
enclosures by bending a sheet of
metal with his bare hands, and
then paints it himself to create
a one-of-a-kind artistic master-
piece. This is an exaggerated
depiction, no doubt. The truth
is usually far less glamorous,
and in some cases isn’t much
removed from what most mega-
corporations are doing, the only
difference being in scale.
Comp is an
the handwired reissue
wiring has understandable
appeal. This may be why a
growing number of larger boutique companies have started
using PCB-mounted hardware.
However, some purists frown
on the idea of allowing any
hardware to have direct contact
with the PCB. They reason that
any user-accessible parts on the
outside of the pedal would naturally be subject to the rigors of
use and abuse, which could easily cause the board to crack or
otherwise be damaged. Critics
say the PCB-mounted approach
is the hallmark of cheap, disposable electronics. This sentiment has been strong enough
to spawn a cottage industry of
“re-housing” cheap pedals in
more durable enclosures with
Now let’s talk about parts.
Aside from new-old-stock (NOS)
parts, nearly all currently available
electronic components (resistors,
capacitors, transistors, ICs, etc.)
are manufactured in China or, to
a lesser extent, Taiwan and Japan.
So it’s generally accepted that
most pedal manufacturers, boutique or otherwise, will be using
at least some components produced in Asia. Electronic hardware such as pots, jacks, switches,
knobs—and even die-cast enclosures—now come mainly from
the East as well. Today’s global
market makes most alternatives impractical or prohibitively
expensive, and except in the case
of certain specialized products
(vintage fuzz replicas, for example), it’s generally not of great
concern to consumers.
While the origin of components is usually not in question,
the quality of components often
is. The best example of this comes
into play with effect modification.
The whole philosophy is based on
the concept of taking a relatively
inexpensive, mass-produced pedal
and upgrading certain key components. The days of stompbox
mods may be limited, however.
Over the last decade, there has
been a dramatic development
in technology that will forever
change the way all our gear is
made. Surface Mount Technology
(SMT) has profoundly altered
not only the manufacturing
process, but also electronic components themselves.
A full discussion of SMT
is outside the scope of this
column. The point here is
that SMT practically demands
automation. Surface Mount
Devices (SMDs) do not lend
themselves easily to being
soldered by hand. And the
equipment used for SMT is out
of reach for all but the largest
manufacturers, which means
the work must be outsourced.
Though many feel this is the
antithesis of boutique, several
ostensibly boutique brands have
already jumped on the SMT
bandwagon. At the same time,
a few of the mega-makers have
been waving the boutique flag.
Danelectro pedals are touting
true bypass, and Dunlop now
has its Custom Shop making
handwired reissue MXR pedals.
Yes, it’s all a bit confusing,
and still leaves us wondering
what is exactly “boutique.”
Perhaps boutique is in the eyes
(and ears) of the beholder.
TOM HUGHES (aka
Analog Tom) is owner
and proprietor of
For Musicians Only
and author of Analog
Man’s Guide to Vintage
Effects. If you have questions or comments for Tom, feel free to email him at