Boss Pedals: Owning the Market in 1988

Bob Leggitt | Sunday 30 September 2012
There was never any doubt that Roland’s Boss effects pedals were greatly desirable. However, through the mid 1980s, neither had there been any doubt that they were expensive. During the 1984 to 1986 era, there’d been various alternatives to Boss, provided by the likes of Frontline, Tokai, Ibanez, etc.

Quality and price varied, depending on the brand, but by and large, guitarists bought alternative pedals because they were cheaper than Boss – not because they had a reputation for being better. Don’t get me wrong; Ibanez made some first rate pedals (a mate of mine had a superb Ibanez Flanger, and another mate was very fond indeed of his Tube Screamer), and I owned a very nice Tokai Phaser in early 1985. But these brands weren’t challenging Boss for hype, and the likes of Frontline and Tokai really didn’t offer attractive looking pedals. Given the importance of image in the world of rock and roll, this played to the distinct advantage of Boss, whose colourful products had a highly enticing visual appearance. Simply, Boss didn’t need to reduce their high prices.

Boss - Tight Fisted Rock n Rollers ad
This 1988 UK Roland/Boss advert boasted new low prices on eighteen of the pedals in the effects range. At the more subtle end of the cuts, it was hard to see exactly which pedals were included, as some reductions were so small as not to be out of line with natural price fluctuations in the market. The pedals in the photo numbered more than eighteen units, and so obviously not all of those depicted were part of the price-slash. You can find more details in the main body of the article (UPDATE: the official 18 price reductions are now listed in full in the main text).

The pic is an interesting insight into the Boss range in 1988. For reference, left to right, the pedals are:

TOP ROW… PSM-5 Power Supply and Master Switch, GE-7 Equalizer, BF-2 Flanger, HF-2 Hi-Band Flanger, DC-2 Dimension C, DC-3 Digital Dimension, PH-2 Super Phaser, CE-3 Chorus (Stereo), LM-2 Limiter.

MIDDLE ROW… DSD-3 Digital Sampler / Delay, NS-2 Noise Suppressor, DD-3 Digital Delay, CS-3 Compression Sustainer, PS-2 Digital Pitch Shifter / Delay, RV-2 Digital Reverb, OC-2 Octave, CE-2B Bass Chorus, BF-2B Bass Flanger, GE-7B Bass Equalizer.

BOTTOM ROW… HM-2 Heavy Metal, MZ-2 Digital Metalizer, FT-2 Dynamic Filter, SD-1 Super Overdrive, OD-2 Turbo Overdrive, Super Feedbacker & Distortion (name then recently amended from Super Distortion and Feedbacker), DS-1 Distortion, DS-2 Turbo Distortion.

In 1986, Yamaha mounted a serious challenge to Boss with their SDS pedals, which popped up in the UK bestsellers top five that year. I doubt that this made Boss too pessimistic long term though. The SDS pedals were poor in comparison to Boss – clearly made on the cheap, arguably overpriced for what they offered (even though they were significantly cheaper than Boss), and almost certainly only selling so well because of Yamaha’s overwhelming dominance in the keyboard market at that time.

With their FM synthesizer range, Yamaha had become a byword for innovation and value in music tech, and that brand reputation was inevitably going to drive up sales of any Yamaha-branded music tech product. But I dare say Roland could see that the plastic and sonically-suspect Yamaha SDS pedals would have no real longevity. As the saying goes, “people aren’t stupid”. They might buy one pedal based on a company’s reputation (as did I), but if that pedal ain’t very good, they won’t buy another.

However, as the mid ‘80s morphed into the late ‘80s, brands such as DOD and Peavey were really coming to the fore with a modern, striking and attractive look to their pedals, some slick advertising, good sounds, sturdy construction, innovations of their own, and still those keen prices which undercut the Boss equivalents. These pedals obviously were a long term threat to Boss.

And adding insult to injury, Aria were now offering their rather retro and select (not to mention sturdy) range of ‘Big Foot’ pedals, at well under half the price of Boss’s output. By the latter throes of the ‘80s, low price no longer necessarily equated to low desirability, and DOD’s understanding of the heavy rock market (something most other manufacturers just didn’t ‘get’) was demonstrably bashing Boss sales in a very lucrative sector. It was no longer enough for Boss to remain at the cutting edge of effects pedal technology. To continue to lead the market, they now needed to cut prices, and cut them fast.

Hence, a massive round of price cuts flashed across the Boss pedals range in early 1988. In the UK, most of the cuts appeared to take place in or around the April, although there were also a few preliminary cuts made in the February. All pedals which saw price cuts in February, saw further cuts in April.

Boss achieved the ’88 price cuts in a number of ways, and they didn’t cut prices on all pedals. Of the pedals which were affected, some prices were almost halved, whilst others showed only a marginal change. Conveniently, the price of digital chips (used for delay and reverb effects) was plummeting at the time, so all units based around such chips could be reduced heavily in price by aggressive shopping around or re-negotiation on digital chip costs. However, analogue pedals did not have the same luxury as regards the cost of their components, so more drastic action was needed to bring down manufacturing costs. Thus, in a new move for Boss, production of some chorus and overdrive/distortion pedals was moved out of Japan and into Taiwan, taking advantage of much cheaper labour costs.

It’s not fully clear to me how price cuts were facilitated on other pedals, which used analogue circuitry and continued to be produced in Japan. It’s possible, however, that some of the marketing costs were re-distributed across the range. Popular pedals like the HM-2, whose production moved to Taiwan, may have adopted a higher margin in order to subsidise the reduction in price of lesser-selling units. Given that the move to Taiwan reduced the price of the CE-2 by 40%, it’s feasible that only taking a mere 10% off the prices of both the new Taiwanese HM-2 and OD-2 may actually have represented a marked increase in revenue for Roland. If that was the case, this extra revenue could have been used to subsidise marketing costs throughout the range, and that would allow price cuts on other pedals, which had not seen any change in manufacting cost.

I’m guessing, to be honest, but here’s what I do know for definite... It's a list of notable price reductions which took place between December 1987 and April 1988, based on ads from a typical UK dealer. Unless otherwise stated, the first price quoted for each unit will be from December 1987, and the last will be from April 1988…

Boss CE-2 Chorus: £83, down to £49. Production moved to Taiwan.

Boss CE-3 Chorus (Stereo): £99, down to £59. Production moved to Taiwan.

Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal: £55, down to £49. Production moved to Taiwan.

Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive: £67, down to £60. Production moved to Taiwan.

Boss DS-1 Distortion: £55, down to £45. Production moved to Taiwan.

Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive: £55, down to £43. Production moved to Taiwan.

Boss DD3 Digital Delay: £170, down to £155 (February), then £114 (April). Production remained in Japan.

Boss RV-2 Digital Reverb: £175, down to £149 (February), then £129 (April). Production remained in Japan.

Boss DSD-3 Digital Sampler / Delay: £150, down to £129. Production remained in Japan – manufacture coming to an end.

Boss PS-2 Digital Pitch Shifter / Delay: New pedal, not listed in December ’87. £148 in February ’88, down to £115 (April). Production remained in Japan.

Boss LM-2 Limiter: £69, down to £59. Production remained in Japan.

Boss OC-2 Octave: £76, down to £59. Production remained in Japan.

Boss FT-2 Dynamic Filter: £75, down to £55. Production remained in Japan – manufacture coming to an end.

Boss DC-2 Dimension C: £119, down to £105. Production ceased – pedal replaced by DC-3 Dimension D.

Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor: New pedal, not listed in December ’87. £80 in February ’88, down to £69. Production remained in Japan.

Boss DF-2 Super Distortion & Feedbacker: £79, down to £69. Production remained in Japan.

Production progressively continued to move to Taiwan as time went on, enabling Roland to keep the range of pedals ruthlessly competitive. Personally, I couldn't see or hear any obvious qualitative difference between the Japanese-made and the Taiwanese-made pedals - unless they underwent tangible spec changes, obviously.

UPDATE (2nd Oct 2012): I've now been able to establish exactly which eighteen pedals Boss deemed to have been lowered in price in their full page ads. The following list is taken from a Boss Link promotional magazine pull-out, compiled in summer 1988. Prices are RRPs - current RRP first (as in Aug '88), and old RRP in brackets...

Boss BF-2B Bass Flanger: £69 (from £87)

Boss CE-2 Chorus: £49 (from £83)

Boss CE-2B Bass Chorus: £60 (from £78)

Boss CE-3 Stereo Chorus: £59 (from £99)

Boss DC-2 Dimension C: £104 (from £130)

Boss DD-3 Digital Delay £120 (from £170)

Boss DM-3 Analogue Delay: £120 (from £135)

Boss DS-1 Distortion: £45 (from £55)

Boss DSD-3 Digital Sampler: £139 (from £150)

Boss FT-2 Dynamic Filter: £55 (from £75)

Boss HF-2 Hi-Band Flanger: £79 (from £89)

Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal: £49 (from £55)

Boss LM-2 Limiter: £60 (from £69)

Boss MZ-2 Digital Metalizer: £89 (from £99)

Boss NF-1 Noise Gate: £55 (from £60)

Boss PS-2 Digital Pitch Shifter / Delay: £140 (from £148)

Boss RV-2 Digital Reverb: £140 (from £175)

Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive: £45 (from £55)

Whilst this was an officially sanctioned list from Roland, it does seem there are some anomalies, and if it really was thought through in any depth, they've certainly missed a trick on the OD-2, which was clearly subject to cost-cutting on account of its move to Taiwanese production. Also, since the NF-1 was by this time out of production, I'm wondering if they've mixed it up with the (then) current NS-2. Mind you, the DM-3 was out of production too, and that's in the list, so maybe they delegated out the compilation of the list as homework to the work experience trainee? Hard to imagine how a price cut can be valid on an item people can no longer technically buy...

Boss’s monumental, pioneering ME-5 Guitar Multi-FX unit, hitting the UK shops in the middle of spring, was another factor which must have forced down prices on a lot of Boss pedals. Those who bought an ME-5 would perhaps have no need for a CS-3 Compressor, a CE-3 Chorus, a BF-2 Flanger, an NS-2 Noise Suppressor, a DD-3 Digital Delay or an RV-2 Reverb – all of which had their territory pretty well covered by the ME-5’s excellent effects.

Whilst the distortion and overdrive effects in the ME-5 did not, in my opinion, directly mimic specific Boss pedals (unlike the drive pedal options in the later ME-8), they’d probably still render the purchase of pedals like the DS-1 Distortion and the OD-2 Turbo Overdrive unnecessary for ME-5 owners. So Boss had to be careful with the balance of pricing between the ME-5 and the individual pedals. I’m sure they wanted to sell as many ME-5s as possible, but I doubt they’d have wanted the ME-5 to discourage people from creating custom pedal setups – which is what I think would have happened if the individual pedals route had been disproportionately expensive in comparison.

So that was the picture. Late spring 1988, and a new, phenomenally powerful commercial proposition from Boss. Some fashionable new pedals (including the Turbo Distortion and the Digital Metalizer), the world’s first programmable, guitar multi-FX box, and some truly aggressive pricing across the rest of the range, which left the ball firmly in the court of rival brands. It was defining moments like this, which ensured the lasting dominance of Boss in the effects market.

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