The weird undercurrent of cheap gear in music

There are a number of products out there considered to be “great bang for the buck” pieces of gear these days. The BOSS Katana is a digital amp that’s taken the guitar world by storm, mainly because it’s a $225-$500 amp series that actually sounds good, and yes, can be gigged with. For what I paid for the Fender M-80 Turd Sandwich (not actually it’s model name, but appropriately described nevertheless), I could have had a really good-sounding amp. Well, if I had been born and/or started playing guitar 25 years later, that is. 🙂

Then there are the countless value brands out there, that offer a massive selection of affordable effects pedals. Joyo, Donner, NUX, Mooer, etc.

They offer pedals that are often suspiciously similar in look, name, or sound to something we’re already familiar with as guitarists. For example, this past weekend I tested out a few pedals, one of which looked just like a Keeley Mag Echo (and served the same purpose), one that looked like a Phase 90 (and served the same purpose) and one that looked like a Strymon pedal.

Right? Wrong? I’m not going to get into the morality or ethics of companies stealing/heavily borrowing other designs. You can decide for yourself if that bothers you.

Rather, my intent is to talk about the actual quality of these devices.

Build Quality

First, let me say that perhaps I shouldn’t be lumping the Katana in with the rest, since it’s obviously a different product than a $100 delay pedal. It’s also not an “homage” to anything else. The only reason I mention it is because it comes up constantly as something cheap that’s as good as more expensive gear.

The Katana build quality, in my opinion, is pretty good for a $225 amp. I can see excess glue in its cabinet, and the cabinet itself isn’t exactly something that would inspire confidence. But it’s not terrible.

The pedals from the above mentioned companies usually seem to range from cheap-feeling but serviceable to pretty damn good. The NUX and Mooer pedals that I’ve tried in particular seem quite solid. Reliability is a bit of an unknown, at least to me. However, I’ve never seen any glaring complaints about Joyo, Mooer, or NUX.

Sound Quality

Obviously this is to be taken with a heaping helping of salt, because sound quality is so subjective, once you get past the “does it make sound, and does it do so without hissing/crackling or squealing like a stuck pig” point.

BOSS Katana – Yeah, it sounds good. It produces pretty impressive (for the price) tones in all the settings, and the effects are typical BOSS fare. Do I like the Katana? Absolutely. In the sub-$400 mark, there just isn’t a better option. Homerun for BOSS.

As for the pedals, well as pedals often do, they vary wildly. The Mooer preamp pedals sound good to great; the Mesa Mark emulating pedal I had was very cool.

The NUX pedals I tried (probably 6 or 7 of them) were all…….serviceable. Not terrible, not great. Not something I’d recommend to someone if I knew they had the money for a BOSS, Electro Harmonix or MXR pedal. I’ve had the same experience with Joyo pedals too. I get why they exist, I really do. I just can’t get excited about them.

So what’s my problem then?

The Internet, in a nutshell. Facebook groups, Reddit groups, gear forums, etc. seem to have a habit of elevating the gear mentioned above to near mythical status. The Katana goes from being a modest amp with a serviceable tone to something that “can replace a good tube amp”. Mooer/NUX/Joyo pedals go from decent values that have okay tones to “why would you buy an MXR Phase 90, when you can get the Mooer version and it’s just as good. Maybe better!”

Maybe it’s my gear snobbery showing in my middle age, but I think it’s getting a bit absurd. Can you gig a Katana? Sure. Does it replace what I’d consider a “good tube amp”? Hell no. Are Mooer pedals decent? Sure. Would I take them over a BOSS pedal, or one from EHX or MXR? No. Definitely not. And it’s not like MXR/EHX/BOSS (the latter of which of course makes the Katana) are boutique brands. But they ARE brands found on every major pro board out there. Hell, Prince’s board was all BOSS. The Purple One seemed to value reliability and availability, which BOSS provides in spades.

All I’m asking is that people keep a bit of perspective, before blurting out “KATANA!!!1” when someone asks what head they should get for their band. Sure, it’s an option. But when the person in question has Mesa Boogie/Friedman/Marshall/Rivera money to spend, there are likely better options.

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