The Global Gear Community: Eastern Boutique

  • By Fletcher Stewart @tonereport
  • April 15, 2016

Gear Gurus from Beyond the Pond
What are the first questions that spring to mind when the word ‘boutique’ is used to describe a pedal? Are the units hand-wired one at a time in small batches? Are they built to spec rather than price? Do they use top-shelf components? Those examples are reasonable enough criteria to dub a pedal “boutique” right? But, the main question that irks me personally is the old “is it made in the USA” yarn. Now, I’m all for creating and supporting onshore creative ventures and I’m not an uppity easily-offended type of bloke, but years of gear obsession has taught me that great gear comes from great engineers and ears no matter what part of the planet they reside or work in.
All pedal politics aside, today’s feature is all about shining the spotlight on current gear manufacturers from the Far East who are innovating and building on a level that is all their own. In my years of writing for TRW I have watched what was largely an American phenomena spread slowly across the globe, nurtured by online gear demos, pedal-obsessed bloggers and online threads from all over the world. Some of these builders I will detail in this article have been in the game much longer than the ‘boutique’ global gear community has been around, but all are players in this ongoing top-shelf effects design game. These are indeed the boutique beasts of the East.

GFI System
Hailing from Jakarta, Indonesia and weighing in at a lean three pedals in the product line (plus a futuristic pedal junction box) GFI System covers a ton of familiar and previously unexplored sonic ground. It seems chief designer Henry Widjaja is trying to offer up maximal tonal options with minimal pedalboard space taken—if this is his goal than he is succeeding big time. Take the WaveLogic MKII + for example. It reads like a huge rack-in-a-box on paper. A whopping 14 modulation and filtering algorithms are crammed in there, and unlike similar offerings from bigger brands, the two independent processors allow for simultaneous use. Add features such as MIDI access and external effects loop and we are talking about a serious contender for heavyweight total mod-box champion.

On the ambient front, GFI offers up some seriously versatile and incredible sounding little space-saving horizontal boxes. The Clockwork 2 Delay features stereo ins and outs, 24-bit processing, analog dry-through signal, subdivisions, tap tempo and of course incredible sound quality. Though there are LoFI, Tape, Ambient and a few multi-head modes onboard, the standard repeats achieve that mysterious balance of appearing aurally crystalline without a touch of cold sterility. This theme carries on into my favorite pedal of his product line: Specular Reverb V2. This is an ethereal verb pedal of the highest order. Based on psychoacoustic principles rather than mechanical reverb approximation, it sounds like Robin Guthrie’s ghost serenading Saint Pete for a ticket into heaven—pure, gorgeous immersion, particularly in stereo. I could be happy with the whole GFI System line running through my effects loop for quite a long time. These boxes bring a welcome whole new meaning to the often ignorantly maligned moniker of “Made in Indonesia.”

Free the Tone
Unlike many eastern effects units—some fairly judged, some not—the words “Made in Japan” are generally viewed as a sign of quality. After all, Roland, Boss, Maxon, Ibanez, Yamaha, Shin-Ei and other Japanese game changers have been pushing the boundaries of build quality and innovation since the very beginning. While some of those aforementioned deservedly remain absolute gear giants to this day, Free the Tone comes from the green room of the gear industry. What could I mean by this?

Similar to Pete Cornish—who actually came up with Free the Tone’s company name—Yukihiro Hayashi cut his technical and tonal teeth in the pre-boutique days building custom boxes and systems while touring as a guitar tech with X Japan guitarist HIDE. Years later, Yuki eventually became responsible for the design, development and manufacture of the Providence line of effects pedals . . . Anadime Chorus ring a bell? In short, this man has rare experience on a technical, completely custom, and commercial level. Free the Tone is now his independent sonic venture and after reviewing his Flight Time Digital Delay and now his Tri Avatar Multi-Dimensional Chorus unit, I am seriously impressed. The former is 32-bit digital delay powerhouse with incredible sonic clarity and precision programmability, and the latter is a modern take on the tri-chorus routing schemes of the ‘80s—remember those rack Dytronics units? The Tri Avatar sounds just as watery, wide, silky and phasey without the hiss of old BBD chips. Seriously, this unit will make true believers out of chorus haters and almost force them to run a stereo rig; once routed, never returned. I look forward to hearing more of Yuki’s incredible boxes.

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