AnalogMan, based in southern Connecticut, was boutique before boutique was a thing. The company’s products are handmade, and their core business is clones, updates, and revisions of classic pedals. As the name implies, almost their entire catalog is analog—they also eschew surface mount in favor of through-hole, prefer old-school leaded solder, and when possible, rely on stashes of new old stock circuits as opposed to more modern components. Their pedals are also made-to-order, so nearly every purchase is a one-of-a-kind custom design.
Mike Piera, better known as Analog Mike, launched the company back in the days of Usenet and early email (he still has an aol address up on his site). His first project was a popular Tube Screamer mod, followed by a clone of the Electro Harmonix Small Clone chorus. In 2000, AnalogMan became his full time job, and in addition to mods and clones, he began selling original pedals as well. But despite his company’s growth, longevity, and loyal following, it’s still a low-key operation.
“We’ve got several people working here depending on the day,” Piera says. “We also have other people who work at outside locations and either send me circuit boards or bring completed pedals. We don’t have to manage them. They do the work on their own time and bring the things in for us to either ship or final assemble here.”
Piera spoke with us about AnalogMan’s trailblazing history, his never-ending search for discontinued exotic chips, and why he started using what he calls, “Twinkie-sized,” enclosures.
How did you get your start?
I’ve always been interested in electronics and pedals. I still have the first pedal I bought in 1974 or so. It’s a Maestro Phaser. When I was working in Japan—I was a software engineer for a transistor testing company, I built transistor test equipment—I got turned on to the vintage guitar scene. I had a lot of time over there when I wasn’t working, so I went to all the vintage guitar shops. I learned about them and I started to sell vintage guitars in Japan. Then I started selling vintage pedals in Japan, too. There were only a few guys selling vintage pedals in this country [in the U.S.]—this was the mid-‘90s—we’d advertise in Vintage Guitar magazine. I sold vintage pedals in Vintage Guitar magazine, and started selling them overseas. I always had to fix them, get certain ones for parts, and figure out how they worked. Eventually, as they started getting harder to find, I decide to start trying to build some—there were very few companies in the mid-‘90s building pedals. I started doing modifications first. When I was in Japan, I found the chips to make a Tube Screamer TS9 into a TS808, so I started modifying those. This was before the World Wide Web—we had email and we had something called Usenet. We had email lists that we would send around to different people, and we had Usenet where you could post things, other people could reply, and there were threads. I posted up there about the mod and I was surprised that people, without really knowing me, would send me their pedals and some money. I would modify them. Everyone really seemed to like them. It just started growing and I did a lot of modifications back then.
“We’re making things for the people who really want those old sounds, which are tough to get. “
That was when you were still in Japan?
I got the parts in Japan, but all of my modification work and building was done here when I came back. I would work in Japan for a few months and come back. I think the first pedal we built was the chorus. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were really big back then and the original Small Clone pedals that Electro Harmonix made were hard to get. They were very poorly made, so it meant that if you got one, it would probably break on you. With the help of Alfonso Hermida—of Hermida Audio, he makes the Zendrive—and R.G. Keen, who works at Truetone pedals, we came up with the circuitboard, and started making the chorus pedals. It grew from there.
You’ve been around since before the internet, how have things changed?
It has changed so much. It started growing around the turn of the century or so. I went full time in 2000 at this same location in Connecticut. There were maybe three or four boutique companies back then, and then it started getting bigger and bigger. We still do things the exact same way we did them 25 years ago. We still build everything by hand. All hand soldered. All new old stock parts as much as we can. But things started changing about 10 years ago—a lot of companies have gotten so much bigger than us, but we still make stuff by hand. We barely sell to dealers. Our business model is completely different from where the other boutique manufacturers have gone.
Your stuff is handmade, and that’s also through-hole and not surface mount?
We don’t use any surface mount parts. We don’t have anything digital except for our analog delay controller. In order to calculate a delay time, you have to have a computer in there. But that controller sends an analog signal—basically just a voltage to the analog delay—so there’s nothing digital at all on the delay side. It’s just for calculating the delay times and presets, and the modulation is done digitally.
Why is that, because analog sounds better?
Yes. Also, it differentiates us. Most companies now, whether it’s a chorus, or delay, or a flanger, or anything like that—it’s so much easier to do it with digital. There are a lot less drawbacks and they sound pretty good. But we’re making things for the people who really want those old sounds, which are tough to get. That’s why our chorus is still using 1980’s new old stock delay chips for generating the chorus and sound. Our compressor still uses new old stock compressor chips that no one else is using in any large quantity any more.
Some chips, like some bucket brigade chips, have been reissued. Do you use them or do have to have the old ones?
Our analog delay uses a reissue of the delay chips. It’s nice to have some companies coming out in the Far East with enough production to have chips remade again, and some of the chips are quite good sounding.
What’s your attitude toward clones? Do you make exact replicas or variations based on older designs.
We do both. For example, our chorus started out as a one-to-one replica of the Small Clone, but then people said, “There’s a drop in volume when you turn it on.” So we fixed that. Then people asked for a different delay time, so we add the depth toggle. Then people said, “We want to have more control over the depth of the chorus—instead of the two position toggle can we get a knob?” So we added that. Then people wanted stereo, so we came out with the stereo option. We just kept adding different features and options to get the chorus that people actually wanted. It is customer driven in that way. Or with our fuzzes—we started off copying a Fuzz Face, but we realized after building thousands of them that there are certain things you can make better. For example, a potentiometer that can control the fuzz better than a linear potentiometer, ways of biasing transistors better, so that it will work better at different temperatures and sound a little clearer, and things like that.
In other words, you stay loyal to the essential design, but you do things to fix glitches or to accommodate customer requests?
Exactly. People love the original sounds, so we don’t want to lose that. But while keeping the original sound, we want to give you more flexibility, more features, make them more usable, easier to use, and ultimately sound better because you can do what you really want them to do.
You’re also not averse to trends, for example, you make a number of mini pedals.
Yeah, in the past I was not that interested in the tiny pedals because, basically, you need to have room between each pedal for your foot in order to actually use them. For me, the perfect sized pedals are the small MXR boxes. It is just a little smaller than your foot, so you can put two of them side-by-side, and those switches are going to be as close together as you can get without hitting both of them at the same time. It didn’t make sense to me to make a pedal smaller than that. But people kept asking for them and I realized that in some situations, like if you want to stick a pedal on the end of the board, or if you want to stick it between some pedals, or if it’s something that’s always on—then you can actually use a small pedal. We call them “Twinkie-size”—the Twinkie cases—and those do give you some benefits. We’ve come out with mini versions of a number of our pedals. But it’s tough, too, because we don’t use the surface mount parts. We could put our chorus on a board the size of a postage stamp by using surface mount parts, we could fit it in the mini box, but we don’t want to compromise the circuit that much.
How about artwork: is it ornamental or does it serve a more practical function?
I find it important. I don’t want to have something out there that I don’t find looks correct. There are certain customers who don’t care what a pedal looks like. Some people will even put tape over them. But there are others—if you see some of the boards that people post on social media—there are people who like to have pedals that have six different colors of swirls and 12 knobs and three flashing lights and switches on it. All their pedals are like that and I guess they like that design. I certainly don’t. I like to have more of a clean aesthetic—a little more vintage, classic, not as industrial looking, but then again, all of our pedals don’t really look the same. We have some, like our envelope filter, which is just a classic MXR look. But then we get up to something that is a little more crazy, like our Sun Lion, with the colored lion eating the sun with red blood dripping on it.
More exclusive content from our interview with Analog Mike will be featured in the Stompbox Book, coming summer 2020.
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