There are at least a dozen tone freaks in town churning out boutique circuitry in little metallic boxes, providing sonic wizardry that’ll have your guitar sounding synthy, fuzzy or tripping in outer space. (You can even build your own, thanks to She Shreds.) Naturally, some fly completely under the radar while others have been around 20-plus years, and still more continue to pop up. Here are three to keep your ears on.
Malekko Heavy Industry
Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation isn’t afraid to throw convention out the window. From a weird cauldron in SE Portland, veteran performer Paul Barker (Ministry, Revolting Cocks) and synth-obsessed entrepreneur Josh Holley cook up strange electronic concoctions in the form of mind-bending effects pedals and modern-meets-vintage synth modules.
Irreverence and adventure are part of the recipe, including stories of rejected pedal designs being mercilessly run over in the parking lot. The company’s flagship bass fuzz pedal, the cheekily christened B:ASSMASTER, sounds as solid as its name is fun and helped launch the company from a kitchen table collaboration in 2006 to the duo’s near cult-level status as innovators in today’s industry.
Malekko’s most recent pedal, the Downer, is a novel take on an octave effect with detailed yet intuitive tone-sculpting controls. The warm glitch-and-stutter box called Charlie Foxtrot and the Scrutator bit crusher allow bass and electric guitar players to venture remarkably close to the realm of synthesized electronic sounds.
Indeed, synths make up the other half of the business. Led by the powerhouse Manther, an analog monosynth with a 64-step sequencer and onboard delay—a heavy nod to the synths of the ’70s and ’80s—it produces tones that would be right at home as the opening sequence of an ’80s sci-fi blockbuster. Plus, the company makes a wide array of interchangeable synth modules designed to lead waveform enthusiasts blissfully down the rabbit hole of infinite sonic possibility.
Catalinbread is a company at a crossroads. Nicholas Harris’ unwavering vision earned him a reputation as a trailblazer in the industry and helped position Catalinbread as one of the Rose City’s preeminent pedal manufacturers. Tragically, Harris was killed in 2016 when a tree fell on his car during a wind storm, and the company has been on a quest ever since to recapture its pioneering spirit.
Not swayed by fads or market trends, Harris designed such modern classics as the ’70s Marshall-inspired Dirty Little Secret, the Topanga spring reverb, and the magnificent Belle Epoch—a faithful aural reproduction of the Maestro Echoplex EP-3 tape echo, with quirky modulation and all.
“With a few exceptions, Nick kept everything in his head,” says Stefanie Castillo, Catalinbread’s executive administrator. “Fortunately, he had a few key people he trusted who knew where he was going or [who] were privy to some of his ideas.”
Catalinbread continues to produce its current effects lineup, and Harris’ final design—a new compressor pedal—was released on Black Friday this year. (Hear what the NiCompressor sounds like below!) What happens next is up to a new crop of engineers as Catalinbread moves forward as a largely employee-driven effort.
“Nobody could tell that man what to do,” Castillo laughs. “In that spirit, we would rather design the gear we would want to play ourselves,” she says. “Seems like it’s worked well for us so far.”
Spaceman Effects' attention to detail is of astronomical proportions. With aged copper plating and difficult-to-source surplus knobs from the ’50s and ’60s, every pedal is painstakingly built by hand, and every run is limited edition. It’s no surprise these pedals go for a pretty penny: Each one is a work of art, and the circuit designs are quite unique, making each a potential secret weapon on the pedal board.
Spaceman was founded in 2009 by Zak Martin and Paul Anthony Troiano when Martin was playing guitar for the DIY touring band Woke Up Falling. “As an audio engineer with an ear for tone, I was frustrated by the cheap pedals I was using,” Martin recounts. “No one in Portland was offering mods at the time, so I got online to learn how components affect sound, and I thought, ‘Could I design one from scratch?’”
Ten years and 16 pedals later, Spaceman has grown to a seven-person venture with a singular business model where quality and scarcity generate demand. Previously available only by preorder, the company now holds surprise releases of its products along with “Top Secret” releases of pedal prototypes. “It’s broken our website before,” Martin explains, “with hundreds of people trying to access just 10 to 20 prototypes.”
Pedals like the Orion analog spring reverb, Sputnik germanium fuzz, Nebula octave blender, and Explorer Deluxe are sold until they’re gone, with no plans to re-release. Despite their scarcity, the curious can try out these rare creations at Old Town Music and Centaur Guitar in Portland and Five Star Guitars in Beaverton.