You're probably tired of hearing about how cool Portland is. I know I am. My adopted hometown has been victimized by its own hype for a long time now, long enough that even the inevitable hipster backlash has already reached a zenith of sorts and seems to be slowly petering out. Hipsters and hype aside though, Portland actually is really cool. It's a genuinely world-class city that feels (at least for now) like a small town, it is a hub of creativity and culture, and it's just generally a really goddamned pleasant place to live. I'm never leaving. They'll have to pry Portland from my wet, cold, dead hands.
For musicians and obsessive music enthusiasts, Portland is an especially superb place to find oneself. As a fan, the live music options are many and varied, and it's pretty rare that a touring band fails to plan a stop in PDX. For musicians, there's never a shortage of potential bandmates and collaborators, rehearsal spaces, or venues to rock a show at. There's also no shortage of cool, bespoke music gear. For the gear-loving guitarist, it is a veritable wonderland of handmade, artisan (organic, free-range, etc.) guitars, amps, and especially, pedals. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Portland, Oregon is the current capital of the boutique pedal world, and new companies are popping up or relocating here every day. Allow me to introduce you to a handful of my favorite stompbox builders that call my City of Roses home.
Founded by Nicholas Harris in Seattle in 2003, and relocating to Portland in 2006, Catalinbread is probably Stumptown's most venerable, well known boutique pedal export. It consistently releases exciting, innovative, ruggedly-built boxes of all different flavors, and it is responsible for more than a few industry game-changers, including the Semaphore Tremolo, the legendary Dirty Little Secret Marshall-in-a-box pedal, and the Echorec and Belle Epoch delays, among others. It seems that the clever, hard-working Catalinbread R&D dudes are always toiling away on some mind-blowing new project, and each pedal release is cause for much excitement around the Tone Report and PGS headquarters. We love these guys a lot.
In an industry that is positively overrun with clones and imitators, a company that prioritizes innovation and unique circuits is a rare thing. Southeast Portland's Mr. Black began in 2012 as an offshoot of Jack Deville Electronics, which itself began in 2008, and in that time the company has released a number of trailblazing designs, each of which delves deeply into territory previously unexplored by less-adventurous builders. Mr. Black harnesses its mastery of DSP to create peerless reverbs like the Supermoon and haunting modulated delays like the beloved Dark Echo. Through-zero flanging, in the style of analog tape flanging effects, is a particular favorite effect of mine, and Mr. Black offers no less than two pedals in its line that beautifully reproduce this magical sound. The company pairs its innovative design approach with a commitment to keeping its products compact, simple, affordable, and reliable, further endearing it to rockers in Portland and beyond.
Okay, so technically Subdecay is not in Portland, but we're claiming the company as our own anyway. Located in nearby Newberg, Oregon, Subdecay, the PGS and TRW crew go way back to the early days of both companies. It even bought us pizza one time! In recent years, the Subdecay team has really come into its own, carving out a distinctive niche for itself in the industry by creating some of the freakiest, best sounding filter, synth, and modulation pedals available. Pedals like the Proteus and Prometheus DLX filters, the legendary Octasynth, and the Starlight Flanger have solidified Subdecay's reputation for innovation and quality. It also makes some really unique dirt pedals, like the Variac and the Harmonic Antagonizer, and perhaps the finest tube-driven spring reverb simulation pedal on the planet, the Super Spring Theory.
Originally founded in 2006 in Austin, Texas by Josh Holley and musician/producer Paul Barker, Malekko quickly relocated to the Pacific Northwest, planting itself in the heart of Southeast Portland. The company launched with the weirdness that is the Barker B:ASSMASTER fuzz, and has only gotten weirder in the decade that has followed. It has continued to regularly release tortured, mutant fuzz machines like the Diabolik and Plus Ultra 213, deranged bit-crushers like the Scrutator, and unique, haunting delays like the analog Ekko 616 series. If you love left-of-center guitar tones Malekko has got you covered, but the company also is widely respected for its Omicron series of mini-pedals, which tend to be slightly less ostentatious, and generate warm, classic tones like phaser, chorus, and tremolo.
Spaceman gives stompbox fanatics who expect nothing less than the best an awful lot to lust after. The company's effects are all handmade, produced only as limited editions, and are constructed with the finest components available, price points be damned. If you're the type that likes to crack open a new pedal and admire the guts, Spaceman effects will leave you gobsmacked and short of breath. The innards are genuine works of art in circuit form. The effects themselves tend to strike a wonderful balance between the traditional and the adventurous, delivering top-shelf classic tones with plenty of options for envelope-pushing, noise making ne'er-do-wells. One of Spaceman's latest offerings is an all-analog spring reverb stomp housed in an unprecedentedly small enclosure. It sounds incredible, and solves the vibration and noise issues that plagued previous spring pedal 'verbs from other companies. Save up some cheese and get one before they're gone!
I cannot write an article about the local pedal scene without giving a shout-out to my boy Matt Wright, Portland's favorite guitar rehabilitator, and creator of the inimitable Fuzz-Stang. Mr. Wright's company, WrightSounds, hasn't produced a lot of pedals, but it has given us a genuine modern classic in the Fuzz-Stang. This unique and shockingly dynamic buzz box lives on the pedalboards of more than a few mad guitar geniuses, including Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Craig LeBlang, and Jon Spencer. It is a recreation of the ultra rare '60s Sam Ash Fuzz Stainer, built by hand with lots of love, experience, and reliable modern components, and the palette of sounds it can produce is surprising and inspiring. Unlike a lot of splatty, ripping velcro fuzz pedals, it ain't no one-trick pony. The Fuzz-Stang is less an effect, and more like an instrument that you write entire songs around.
Retro Mechanical Labs
Southeast Portland's Retro Mechanical Labs builds dirt boxes that look as unique as they sound, often housing its creations in re-purposed vintage electronic test equipment enclosures, and outfitting them with working VU meters and vintage knobs. It also builds some custom enclosures by hand, distressing them to look like old test devices and tricking them out with vintage knobs and components. As such, many RML effects often look more at home in a recording studio or sitting atop a handsome antique wooden desk than on a pedalboard (though the company does offer some designs in standard stompbox enclosures, as well). Beyond the one-of-a-kind look, these pedals conjure up a wide range of tones that typically go from sweet and musical to totally insane, and back again. RML's Electron Fuzz is a standout, looking gorgeous and producing everything from warm, dynamic sustain to absolutely molten sonic doom.
Respected local audio craftsmen Christopher Benson of Benson Amps and Steve Harmon of Synthrotek joined forces to form Harben Audio, and have thus far released a handful of excellent, handbuilt, yet very affordable, effects pedals. The company's Synesthesia is one of the best sounding and most versatile Colorsound Overdrive clones on the market, maximizing the potential of this time-tested circuit so that it can be used effectively as a clean boost, sweet overdrive, filthy fuzz, or even a very musical sounding, easy-to-tweak EQ. Harben also builds the Good Vibe, an optical true pitch vibrato pedal that is based on the legendarily beguiling vibrato circuit contained in vintage Magnatone amplifiers. It is delicious.
The thriving community of stompbox builders operating in PDX is in many ways a microcosm of the city's broader scene of creators, makers, and craftspersons. The city has established itself as a world-class place to make things and hang out with other people who make things, and this contributes in no small way to Portland's reputation as an American hub of innovation, culture and the arts. Forget the hype and the hipster nomads; when the backlash has subsided Portland will still be standing, and will still be doing things that haven't been done. That doesn't mean you should move here, though. It's wet and cold and full of pretentious assholes. You would hate it. Come visit in the summertime!