Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals?

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Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals?

Postby Mu. » 28 Mar 2016, 09:31

So I'm looking to build a small number of pedals (somewhere between 5 and 10) to sell on eBay, but the bill of materials to make just 5 is more than what I was looking to pay.

However, the parts to build 5 pedals costs more than £130, meaning the cost to build each pedal is £26 which is more than I was even hoping to sell them for, and this doesnt even include the switches and jacks for input, output and power. I'm not even being extravagant with my components (carbon film resistors, ceramic caps, etc.).

Are there any ways I can save money on building my pedals in order to pass the savings to whoever buys them, without sacrificing the quality of the end product?
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby deltafred » 28 Mar 2016, 12:40

Welcome to FSB Mu.

To get the costs down you need to buy your components direct from the Far East rather than through Mouser or Digikey. Same components but without their markup and postage costs.

Have a look on Ebay, set the Item location to Worldwide and compare prices.
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby uncleboko » 28 Mar 2016, 14:32

Talk to an Apple design engineer!!!
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby mictester » 28 Mar 2016, 15:17

Boko: :thumbsup

Mu: The "economies of scale" don't kick in until you're buying 50 pieces (at least) of a component. I buy commonly used resistors in 1000s, commonly used capacitors in 500s or 1000s, transistors in 100s and ICs in 100s (at least). I don't go in for large scale manufacture - I'd get stuff made elsewhere in the world for that - but for low quantity, high quality - often bespoke - equipment, I build by hand (or have an assistant build for me). I don't just do guitar gear - radio broadcast electronics is most of the work here.

I priced up building some (fairly simple) 4301-based guitar compressors. I can get the ICs I need (the 4301 and a TL074)for about £3.50. The resistors, capacitors, diodes, LEDs, transistors, and pots come to about £9. The diecast case, sockets, battery connector and knobs come to around £14. Box painting and front panel labelling adds another £8. Throwing in some rubber feet, rubber matting for the battery, a battery. bubble-wrap and a cardboard box to ship it in, and we're looking at a materials cost of about £37.50. Now I've got to factor in the construction time. Building the board takes about an hour including time to adjust the two calibration points (which have to be tweaked with the use of a millivoltmeter, a signal generator and an oscilloscope). Drilling out the case, fitting the parts and testing takes a further two hours. We're probably at about 3 hours per unit (though that's cut somewhat when I build a batch of - say - 10 pieces).

How do I price my time? Well, my full-time employer sells my time at £3500 per day, but that would be a rather unrealistic rate - no matter how special the product is! I set a target price for "out-of-the-door", subtract the costs of the parts and work out if it's worthwhile. My profit per unit is roughly the same (or slightly more) than the costs of the parts etc. A £40-material pedal would ship for about £95 - £100 (or £250 if I don't like you!). This is quite similar to the prices that DAM and other small "boutique" makers charge.

Small-scale manufacture is really just a hobby - you're never really going to make a living at it unless you take the Vex route and hype the hell out of your (very average) product at Trade Shows and get celebrity endorsements. If you're going to charge just the component cost of the unit (which it looks like you're contemplating), then you may as well give them as presents!
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby EBRAddict » 28 Mar 2016, 22:06

Take a look at Abominable Electronics. They sell a "Hail Satan" big muff clone for $120. The internal components are all Tayda and the board looks like it could be a Seeed special. If it wasn't for the artwork nobody would pay $40 for it. Because they cleverly went with demonic, hand-drawn (no outside cost) artwork nobody else was providing it generates a premium in the market.

If you try and sell a generic product you are going to lose money.
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby Ice-9 » 29 Mar 2016, 01:20

I agree with Micktester' s maths here which is very similar to my own workings, cost and built time is accurate and a lot of the time you work for less than minimum wage.
It's fairly straight forward, if you want to start it , press start. You can work out the rest of the controls for yourself !

No silicon heaven ? preposterous ! Where would all the calculators go ?
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby mictester » 30 Mar 2016, 08:35

There is one (very small) niche where there's money to be made, but you need to have a good reputation to begin with....

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I was the co-owner (and part-time engineer) of a small PA Hire company. We provided PA to lots of bands (many were very well-known) and I developed a reputation with musicians as the bloke who could fix stuff. I had set up a fairly comprehensive workshop at home, and would take in gear for repair or modification. Over time, I built up a substantial stock of parts and a lot of circuit schematics of amps, effects and instruments.

Then, one evening at a sound check, I needed a DI Box for a keyboard. I rummaged around in the microphone chest and produced one of my home-built, unmarked, blue DI Boxes. This was plugged in, the "ground lift" switch operated to eliminate hum, and we sound-checked the keyboards. Within 30 seconds, the keyboard player asked what kind of DI Box was it? Could I make him a couple of them? Over the next 35 years, I must have supplied a couple of thousand of these little active DI units!

Pretty soon, I began building bespoke effects for guitarists: often they'd ask for "like a Big Muff, but better tone controls and less hiss", or "like a 60s Fuzz Face (germanium) but with consistent performance (ie: without temperature and battery condition changes)". Pretty soon I had a large repertoire of effects and a clientèle that included some "household names". I had been building effects for myself and my friends since about 1969, so knew pretty well how and what to build.

The secret isn't the big names that use my gear - that's just dumb luck: right place, right time! The actual secret is being able to design and reliably construct exactly what the client wants. They don't care that it doesn't have a pretty silk-screened front panel - they want a box that always works when they kick the switch, gives them exactly the sound that they want, and is at home on stage or in the studio. They also don't want gimmick "features" or tricky settings. I often provide pedals with no external controls at all, just with internal presets that are set once and then left alone for exactly that sound and a footswitch and (perhaps) an LED indicator. All my pedals can be battery powered, and most are fitted with rechargeable batteries. This has been found to be the best way of silently and safely powering effects in all environments.

I'm retiring from my full-time occupation in a couple of years (yes - I really am that old!). I'll spend a bit more time with my soldering iron and will keep making (largely) analogue effects in a (mostly) digital world. It'll provide some useful extra income and will keep my mind and body active for as long as possible.

I've never made huge money out of effects engineering, but I make enough profit to pay for a couple of very nice holidays each year for me and my wife! I'm not out to make a living from it - it's a self-financing hobby!
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby Dirk_Hendrik » 30 Mar 2016, 18:01

mictester wrote: They don't care that it doesn't have a pretty silk-screened front panel - they want a box that always works when they kick the switch

Tell that to any Zvex customer who paid bucks for a box that makes a scratchy sound when the gain control is rotated and displays a childrens paint job....... :oops:

other than that, as others have said above, bulk is the keyword. Ensure doing as little as you can yourself. Collecting empty bottles in the supermarket at minimum wage is usually a better paying job that doing small batches of pedals.
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby Zokk » 30 Mar 2016, 19:55

To my experience most people seems to want these silk-screened and painted boxes, but not always with children drawings. Anyway, aluminum color sounds too DIY to them.
And of course, they often prefer big boxes compared to the small and compact ones, even with the same circuit inside... you know why :lol:

I'd also add that a "nice looking enclosure" is often one of the most expensive part in a pedal build, that's where you'll have to make deals with other people (painters, metal factories etc...). Just check the price for a painted 1590BB in the big european shops... way too expensive, but doing the same yourself could be really time consuming... and time is money isn't it?
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby Mu. » 30 Mar 2016, 20:28

Dirk_Hendrik wrote:
mictester wrote: They don't care that it doesn't have a pretty silk-screened front panel - they want a box that always works when they kick the switch

Tell that to any Zvex customer who paid bucks for a box that makes a scratchy sound when the gain control is rotated and displays a childrens paint job....... :oops:

other than that, as others have said above, bulk is the keyword. Ensure doing as little as you can yourself. Collecting empty bottles in the supermarket at minimum wage is usually a better paying job that doing small batches of pedals.


i should probably say that im not looking to do this to make any kind of profit, i just want to get them out there to just cover the bill of materials so that i can just make another after the first one is sold
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby tabbycat » 30 Mar 2016, 20:56

Dirk_Hendrik wrote:Tell that to any Zvex customer who paid bucks for a box that makes a scratchy sound when the gain control is rotated and displays a childrens paint job....... :oops:

though i agree with your feelings about most of the zvex pedals (i feel underwhelmed by them generally) i do feel bound to say (to give credit where it is due) that the laura bennett artwork used on some of the early zvex boxes is gorgeous. by far the best thing about the pedals they adorn. obviously art is in the eye of the beholder and it's all subjective and a matter of taste, but speaking as a (seriously overqualified) college art tutor, i see and have seen a lot of art in my time and i still find her stuff interesting. damn good eye for colour, texture, rhythm, etc. basquiat, pollock, mondrian, miro, even hints of native american textiles, etc. it's all in there. so gut your laura bennett zvex enclusures and refill with your best build. if i was a rich man i would treat you to one, dirk. partly to thank you for all the wise pedal advice you've given me. and mostly just to annoy you. you know you want one really.

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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby R.G. » 31 Mar 2016, 19:00

It's amazing how much things remain the same. I put "Effects Economics 101" on geofex.com back in the 90s before some of today's boutique effects tycoons were born.
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby thesmokingman » 31 Mar 2016, 20:37

if you're looking to just afford to build the next one then how do you expect to replace a defective unit without losing your ass/reputation?
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby mictester » 31 Mar 2016, 22:48

I've found a number of ways to reduce the possibility of effect failure. They're all construction related and simply affect the mechanical reliability of a pedal:

1. Don't use board-mounted sockets (audio, control or power) - always connect them via flexible wire and leave enough slack in the wire to allow replacement if necessary. Heavy-handed use can easily break away the best mounted socket from a PCB!

2. Minimise the number of external controls. Many guitarists I know set and then cut the spindles off the pots on their effects! This prevents others "adjusting" their pedals away from their preferred tonal settings. They're also points of weakness. I frequently build pedals with internal presets - set them up at rehearsal or sound check and then leave the settings for ever more. This eliminates the "twiddling roadie" problem and allows the construction of really robust pedals!

3. Don't skimp on the electronic protection of your circuits. Reversed battery or power socket connections shouldn't cause damage - a simple diode handles that. Over-voltage can be protected against (three-terminal regulators are wonderful things!)

4. Protect the inputs and outputs of your circuits. It's actually quite risky to connect an FET-input op-amp to the "Outside World™" - they're fried in an instant by static. Everything I build uses transistor buffering and diode clamps. You never know when some stoned moron is going to feed a fuzz box from a speaker output!

5. Avoid using the nasty "blue foot switch". They're invariably useless.

6. Waterproof your circuits if possible. Most of the stuff I sell for stage use is sealed with resin. This is not to hide the magic of my electronic designs - this is to keep the gear working properly in a rainstorm or when beer is kicked over it. I sold an entire suite of effects to a well-known guitarist after he saw his pal's distortion box continue to work well whilst in a pint glass of lager!

7. Avoid jack sockets. This may sound strange, especially as the standard guitar connector is the ¼" jack. They're unreliable and fragile compared to XLRs. All my gear is available in an XLR connected format, and this is proving very popular with gigging musicians. I can vouch for the fact that it's possible to drive a truck over a diecast box with XLR input and output without any damage! They also allow the possibility of balanced circuits - great for eliminating hum and noise in a stage environment, especially near dimmer racks! They're also waterproof!

If anyone has anything to add to this list - press on. I'm sure that there's lots that I've missed!
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby drbob1 » 31 Mar 2016, 23:21

mictester, Kevin at Henretta Engineering is right with you: boxes with at most one control knob!

One question, though... While I applaud the durability of XLR connectors, they ARE bulky, and in this day and age of monster pedalboards is there a better way to connect pedals? I've often wondered about the neodymium magnet connector that powers my Apple Laptop-that has 3 conductors which could be configured as ground, power and signal. The socket is sealed, so no beer gets in. If someone steps hard on the board they just pop out they don't break anything, and if you staggered them the distance between pedals would be less than right angle 1/4" jacks! You could even build a 4 pole one for balanced input/output.

Of course, failing that, you could use RCA, which can be sealed but does invite damage...
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby mictester » 01 Apr 2016, 01:01

I tend to put inputs and outputs on the "top" end of the box. This means that the boxes can live side-by-side on a pedalboard.

One recent project was for a multi-order-of-effects switcher, which was fascinating. I ended up with a raised rear panel for the pedalboard that had a number of (differently coloured) XLR leads coming from it. There was a similar front lip, with a row of momentary footswitches, with the rightmost one being a "reset" that put all the pedals in their natural order from right to left. The pedals sit in a large rectangular recess, and are slightly higher than the front and back panels.

The owner wanted (for example) to put a wah pedal either before or after a fuzz, and wanted to be able to insert effects into a return loop for his echo unit (he sometimes uses chorus on the feedback path which sounds really strange!). The whole thing, including 12 pedals, routing logic, power supply, radio mic transmitter and two receivers (vocals and guitar incoming, foldback to in-ear monitors the other way) and cable drivers / DI Boxes was assembled into a rectangular flight case that was originally designed to contain a bass guitar. There was quite a lot of space left over, and I'm expecting a call like "can you do a digital reverb that doesn't sound digital?".......

Back to small scale pedal construction:

It's a bit like the football club joke: "How do you get a small fortune out of football?" "Start with a large fortune!"

If you're going to make multiple quantities of one device, it's good to get a PCB made, and it's good to be able to buy batches of components. We have an electronics retailer in the UK that charges 12p (£0.12) for a single 0.4 Watt metal film resistor. I can buy a thousand of a single value in 1% metal film from the far East for around £1.10, making them (almost) ten-a-penny! Many of the far Eastern suppliers will absorb the cost of carriage to get your business if you're ordering larger quantities.

My last resistor order was for over ¼-million of various values. It came in a tea-chest and cost just under £300 delivered to my door. The resistors are on paper tapes (for insertion into automatic assembly machines). I've batch-sampled them and found them to be of excellent precision and quality, Their coloured bands are clearly visible and the value accuracy is generally better than the 1% they specify.

Capacitors are another bulk buy - I don't stock as many values as I do of resistors, and frequently design either around values I have or use series and parallel combinations to derive values I need.

ICs are generally bought in hundreds, though some of the more commonly used CMOS are bought in 1000s and dual op-amps are generally bought in thousands as well. I get through huge quantities of NE5532 / LM833, TL072 (LF353), 4558 and LM13700. The NE571 (used in broadcast compressors and limiters) is also a favourite - it's not a hi-fi part as it stands, but with the use of external (rather than its internal) op-amps and careful trimming of the gain control cell, the performance is exceptionally good.

1N4148 arrive in thousands (I seem to use them in everything), and LEDs come in bags of 100 of a particular colour.

I use PCB Train if I'm in a hurry or one of the Far Eastern PCB manufacturers for stuff that isn't urgent. I've found several good PCB makers in Eastern Europe too, and some of them do a component loading service as well. The price I pay for PCBs usually is in direct proportion to the urgency with which they're needed!.

I have a project I'm working on with a high quality Audio DAC that's connected to a Raspberry Pi. It also has a wi-fi module, a CD mechanism, a radio receiver module, a stereo pre-amp a Class D power amp and a pair of 4T hard drives as a RAID array, all in one slim, stylish case. It has "Brennan" functionality - it's a complete hi-fi system in one box that you can record your CDs into, store your record collection into, listen to FM, DAB or Internet Radio, Spotify, and all the other on-line services, and doesn't cost too much. It should appear as an article in an electronics comic later this year. If we can get the boards made at a good price, source a reliable supply of good quality hard drives, and get the cases pre-assembled with the front panel ready to take the display and the controls, and the back panel with the holes ready to take the power, speaker, aerials and all the other sockets, smart constructors will get all this functionality for £150 - £300 according to the sizes of the hard drives that are used. The software is largely complete and will just be supplied as an image file to be loaded on to a micro-SD card (though you'd get a pre-programmed card with a complete kit).

Again - this project isn't going to make me money. It'll pay for itself, and I'll get a couple of "free" hi-fi systems for rooms in my house without them and I'll build an extra one for my Father. Like making guitar pedals, it's a self-financing hobby.
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby thesmokingman » 02 Apr 2016, 00:48

my question was meant more as something for the OP to chew on ... but ok
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Re: Ways to reduce costs when building a small run of pedals

Postby Ice-9 » 28 Apr 2016, 23:29

mictester wrote:I've found a number of ways to reduce the possibility of effect failure. They're all construction related and simply affect the mechanical reliability of a pedal:

1. Don't use board-mounted sockets (audio, control or power) - always connect them via flexible wire and leave enough slack in the wire to allow replacement if necessary. Heavy-handed use can easily break away the best mounted socket from a PCB!


That point is absolute rubbish, correctly mounted jacks etc and correctly drilled enclosures are totally reliable and are the preferred way by many makers of pedals, if done properly it is better design than spaghetti boll.

Edit, I have re read all your points here micktester and all your points are all spaghetti bollocks, apart from number 3


Point 2 , I don't know a single person who snaps off the pot shaft so they can't be adjusted, that path would more likely cause a pot to fail. Keeping pots in a set place is more often done using blue tac or tape.

I have a feeling the points you make are taking the piss in a fun way rather than serious observations.
It's fairly straight forward, if you want to start it , press start. You can work out the rest of the controls for yourself !

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