The Electric: Attack Of the Clones

In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll talk about cloning effects pedals.

Whether you know it or not you probably have one or more cloned pedals on your pedalboard. What are they? Where did they come from? What does it mean? Let’s talk about it.

WHAT IS A CLONE?

 The short version is that in the world of guitar effects pedals, a clone is a copy. A clone builder or “cloner” will either reverse engineer or take a published diagram of an existing circuit like the Tube Screamer and build their version of the pedal.

Clones can be divided into 3 groups (Vintage Copies, Modern Copies, and Modded Copies) in 2 sections (In Production, and Out of Production)

VINTAGE COPIES

Vintage copies are pretty much what they sound like: recreations of classic designs. Pedals like the Ross Compressor, Boss DM-2  or Ibanez AD-9 analog delays, the EHX/Sovtek Big Muff Pi or the Ibanez Tube Screamer are all examples of vintage designs being made into exact copies by modern builders.

Examples  of vintage clones would include the Wren and Cuff Box of War and Tall Font Russian (Big Muff), Analogman Comprossor and Keeley Comp (Ross), and too many Tube Screamer clones to count.

MODERN COPIES

This is were things get dicey. Danelectro was recently found out to have taken the Timmy OD circuit and put it into their Cool Cat OD. Accusations have been made about other builders as well.

Then of course there are brands like Mooer, Biyang, and Joyo who take well known designs and make cheap copies that sell for considerably less than the original.

Is that right? Or ethical? We’ll talk about it later in this article.

MODDED COPIES

The rule in cook books is that you have to change the recipe 10%. My wife tells me a lot of cookie recipes out there are just Nestle Toll House with a few changes (how long you keep the dough in the fridge, how many eggs, etc) so that it’s 10% different than the original.

Modded clones start with an original circuit and then change the design either slightly or dramatically.  They could be called “10% clones” although many are changed much more than that. The Ibanez Tube Screamer, Marshall Blues Breaker, EHX Big Muff, ProCo Rat and Fuzz Factory are all common targets for modding. Sometimes they fix flaws in the original design, sometimes they use the circuit as a foundation to build something completely different. For example, the Analogman King of Tone started as a blues breaker circuit that was heavily tweaked for a very different “amp in a box” style sound.

IN OR OUT OF PRODUCTION

Like it sounds, the three types of Clones can be divided into two groups. Designs like the Ross Compressor, Boss DM-2 or Klon Centaur that are no longer in production. In contrast to circuits like the Tube Screamer or Fuzz Face that are still produced.

Of course, as with Modern copies, there’s a question of whether this is right or legal, and we’ll deal with that soon.

WHY WOULD YOU WANT A CLONE?

From a builders standpoint, cloning makes a lot of sense. A lot of builders started out by modifying and correcting flaws in existing pedals like the Fuzz Face or Tube Screamer for customers or friends. At some point they think “hey, I can make my own version, with my mods.” And so they go from there. Plus, there’s a market for classic pedals designs that are no longer available new.

From a consumers standpoint, some of these designs are no longer made and hard to find. Most of us just can’t imagine paying $1,500 for a Klon on eBay, so a Klon Klone at $150 looks pretty good. Maybe you love a certain pedal, but it has all kinds of issues (like the tone suck on my old Sovtek Big Muff) and now a guy is making a high quality version that fixes a lot of the problems and so it would make a lot of sense to trade out for the clone. Or some of us are just cheap and so we pick up a Joyo or Biyang copy because we can’t understand why anyone would spend more money on a pedal.

IS IT LEGAL?

Yes. I could go out, and take the exact circuit design from any builder or pedal on the market and make a direct clone and sell it for whatever I want. You cannot patten or copyright a design because you are building a variation on a pedal, not a brand new pedal. The fuzz pedal has already been invented so there’s nothing to own. Whether that’s right or wrong that’s what it is. People make the mistake of assuming that all copyright and intellectual property laws are the same when they are not.

IS IT ETHICAL?

Now that’s the big question. It should not be just enough for the worship guitarist that something legal or not strictly illegal. We should live and serve with a certain amount of ethical integrity. But there is a reason why not all intellectual property laws are the same, and we can’t assume that the ethics that guides one guides another.

The truth is that we don’t have a great ethical framework for this field. It’s incredibly subjective, with one builder criticized while another is praised for the same thing. There is no black or white, just a whole lot of grey.

SO WHATS A CHRISTIAN GUITAR PLAYER TO DO?

This is a Romans 14 issue. Some will feel at peace in their faith with it and others will not. You have to do what seems right between you and God in how you spend your money. If a Christian said that it was against their conscience to own or buy a cloned design I would understand and respect that. But what I can’t agree with is those who try to take the ethics or laws of another field and try to place them on this subject, or who don’t respect the right of another Christian to make a different decision.

Like I said at the beginning, we’ve all probably had clones we weren’t aware of. The Fulltone Fulldrive 2 is very common on pedalboards and at it’s heart it a heavily modified Tube Screamer. Most of the popular compressor pedals are Ross clones. How many reverb pedals are just variations on the belton brick design? How many analog delays are just takes on the DMM or DM-2 circuit?

My take is this: It’s not illegal, and when you think about it, it’s not really immoral. A pedal is more than a circuit design. I wouldn’t touch any of the cheap knock offs for the same reason that I avoid cheap original designs. It’s not the circuits, its the components. More often than not, the biggest difference is the parts, and quality or lack thereof. If you’re buying cheap gear, whether clones or not, you’ll get what you pay for. If someone is building a tube screamer, but with high quality parts, then I’m all for it and I’ll pay the higher price.

I love builders that really are making new and innovative designs like Caroline Guitar Co and Wampler. I love builders that make awesome copies of out of production pedals like Analogman. I love builders that take a circuit or concept and bring it to a new place like JHS, Analogman, Mad Professor and countless others do.  Not to mention builders who do all three!

So understand what something is, and come to your own decision. I won’t hold it against you either way.

For a different perspective, Karl over at the Guitar for Worship blog wrote a blog post HERE that takes a different view.  The only thing I would note is that many of circuits he wants to protect (like the King of Tone) are clones themselves. I may not agree with his take, but it’s good to hear all sides.

Until next time.

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7 thoughts on “The Electric: Attack Of the Clones

  1. Pingback: The People Vs. JHS Pedals | Real World Worship Leading

  2. YouForgot

    You forgot to mention that nearly all previous guitar pedals are variations of older pedals. MXR, Ibanez, all the big names, they all “ripped off” various pedals and designs.

    The truth is there is only SO MUCH one can do scientifically to make electrons go down one path or another, to make the gain block of these little boxy pre-amps stumble and clip, and so on.

    Your article should include The Stompbox Cookbook as reference. Everything that people want in their signal chain has been done and done to death. Big corps copy it all.

    The only true test of “doing it with your ethics intact”, supposing you had qualms about it and wanted to do it, would be to “black box” it. Draw up what a circuit does that you want to get in the market with. Say its a wah-wah style pedal with that type of sound.

    Now you take this idea, try to flesh it out as much as possible in block diagrams, and then get it to work.

    Thats black boxing. Its not illegal, its not unethical, unless anyone who worries about very similarly shaped circuits being “too unethical” (again, because you MUST use physics to do the job you want to do). Its not different from cars, or the wheel. People can’t say “my ethics feel violated, I’ll make this wheel square”. It won’t do the job you actually want well, if at all. Car mfgs are all knock offs of fords or even earlier ‘horseless carraiges’, and so on.

    Like I said, you must use physics to do the job you want a circuit to do. That necessarily means that, if you’re using minimal parts for cost and reliability reasons, you’re going to stumble on the same or similar building blocks that other people have used in the past. Its not a question of if.

  3. YouForgot

    The qualms are other people not wanting to buy a clone, or not wanting to create their own clones to sell.

    The reality is that every pedal manufacturer has “ripped off” others’ designs.

    Take the simple triode common cathode gain stage. Is the BJT common emitter stage that followed it in all stomp boxes/effect pedals a rip-off of the inventor of the triode CK (K = cathode) stage?

    The production of a working circuit is based on math, numbers and rules of physics which do not change.

    Suppose you have two circuits.

    Rb1 = 100k.
    Rb2 = 10k.
    Rc = 10k.
    Re = 100.

    Rb1 = 470k.
    Rb2 = 47k.
    Rc = 4.7k.
    Re = 100.

    Are these circuits the same? Is it just because of the different resistance numbers, or possibly a different transistor used?

    One of these theoretical circuits might have better input impedance over the other, and a lower output impedance so it isn’t driven hard by the next stage (or amp). In practice you want a number of things: high input impedance for equal gain across all frequency ranges and little loss of signal voltage, low output impedance for the same reason when going to another input, a maximum reliable gain from the “best” transistor biasing arrangement “H” type resistor set for the type of transistor thats going into that slot, mid-rail quiescent voltage for maximum headroom, and “right” current draw so that the circuit works.

    The circuit issue is about getting the “right” answers. It reminds me of Plato’s Republic. He asks about whether the better or worse person tries to outdo everyone, and when he discusses physicians or musicians, the question is “does the superior musician/physician try to do better than others”? The answer is no, they try to get it right. The musician tries to get the right pitch and tuning. He doesn’t try to outdo other musicians in pitch and tuning.

    The same thing is true of electronic circuits as well as car wheels. You don’t try to outdo other makers, you try to get it right.

    In the above example of the two circuits, depending on the input signal’s voltage/current, the transistor’s gain (and gain variances within the specific transistor designation e.g. 2n4401, etc), and the supply voltage, one of those circuits might be much better at faithfully reproducing a guitar signal, while the other might falter, have poor headroom, be badly biased for Q voltage on the collector, and so on.

    There’s no way someone can say to these electrons “please bend the rules of physics so I can use these different numeric values of resistance in my circuit and it still works to sound like the customers want”.

    Take the fuzz face which everyone should know about. Its one of the most simple guitar pedal circuits out there. How it accomplishes its signature sound is based on POOR BIASING. The circuit is designed to be flawed from the standpoint of faithful amplification. Everything in that circuit, from input impedance, to coupling capacitor farads, all are integral in making it sound like it does. You can make a hugely complex circuit to model all of these variables, going through tons of resistor and transistor/IC elements, only to come out in the end with the same clipping of the right frequencies, or you can simply use the original fuzz face circuit.

    Everyone who has become a successful large business selling guitar gear, such as MXR, Ibanez, has done it by copying the circuits of older models, or producing near-identical works of each other due to the fact that electrons don’t care about patents or ethics. If you want something to sound like another something, it has to process the signal in such a way that it comes out the other side like that.

    1. I’ll say it again, i don’t get your issue.

      If you read this article or others I’ve written like The People Vs. JHS, you’ll see that I’ve covered this.

      While I didn’t go into electrical theory per say, it’s no secret that most of what you’re saying is true. But that’s not really what the OP was about.

  4. YouForgot

    I think it’s exactly what the OP is about. People choose to hate a pedal company by saying its simply ripping others off, or have ethical dilemmas creating their own or buying from companies who they think are just cloning others. Realistically, to make one thing sound like another, so that people want to buy your product, it must necessarily invoke similar electronic rules from the circuit, which means making sure that in the end, the signal comes out processed the same way.

    Its an argument against people who feel like there is an ethical, moral, or legal dilemma. Patents only work for circuits or designs which are considered too complex for the average amateur in the field to discover, anyway, and anyone can bend circuits.

    No one should feel an ethical dilemma in producing circuits based off the tube screamer, since all brand name companies have done that exact thing. No one should feel an ethical dilemma buying a “clone”, since makers have to deal with immutable laws of physics when pushing electrons around a circuit to affect a signal. Physics doesn’t care about patents.

    Take, for example, the Joe Bonamassa fuzz face. Its an identical circuit to the “original” fuzz face, and while both are sold by dunlop, the thing is that there’s distinctly darker sound from the JB fuzz. It uses different resistances, different transistors (NOS russian) to achieve a similar effect to the Fuzz Face, yet sounds different thanks to impedances and/or junction capacitance and/or gain, even though it has the same number of working parts. If we scratch off the numbers, the circuit would be considered identical, and yet it doesn’t sound the same even with the slight variations in it’s design.

    So to produce something that sounds like a fuzz face from a much more complex design, meant to emulate the sound, while avoiding being an ethical quagmire, you’d have to go through a hefty amount of R&D only to end up with a product that might sound inferior anyway.

    Most people who want to sell a fuzz face clone, like Zvex with his fuzz box, add more functionality to it, paint an interesting enclosure, and charge a premium for it. They are even sold next to Dunlop fuzzes in guitarcenter, and Dunlop doesn’t seem to be going after them with lawyers.

    Granted, the Zvex fuzz has additional circuitry, but the core circuit is nearly identical to Dunlop’s.

    I think people over-blow the ethical issue.

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