Finding a way through the jungle of electric guitar pedals has become a nearly impossible effort. It would take lifetime tests, analysis, comparisons and cheap tries to choose the right one through the undergrowth of overdrive and distortion pedals. This short view wants to represent a shipping forecast in order to avoid taking the wrong course in the stormy seas of six string electric guitar market. A limited guide about four analogic processors –reliable and basic– but extremely valuable and practical to set up a complete and well-rounded pedal board.
Put to the test: Ibanez TS808HW, Hermida Audio Zendrive, Fulltone OCD, MI Audio Crunch Box.
The last two decades of the electric-guitar universe has been characterized by the popping up of more and more boxes in various editions, reissues, variations on a theme, reinterpretations and revisitations. To top it all off with – very often – unlikely marketing acts and with a general tendency to price rising. A large number of manufacturers got started once they had smelled the electric guitar pedal business, a large, turning a handful of electronic components into object of veneration and desire. This marketing formula is easy: making a mass product, which tends to be of rather elementary technology, unique. And the musician wants and must feel unique. Therefore “boutique” pedals, esoteric pedals, valve stomps, modded or upgraded units, reissues and “custom shop” versions appeared. And immediately afterwards: selected components, “vintage” op amps, “new old stock” condensers, metal layer resistances, military potentiometers. And again: unique hand-drawn cases or made of precious wood, valves which have been made even brighter by… hidden leds (?). And lastly, names which recall esoteric religions, mystical dimensions, ancestral references, lost musical universes, sexy paradises…
Well, if back in the 80’s the “poor” guitarist was feeling ashamed of his little distortion pedal in comparison to the pile of his good old fashioned hippie colleagues’ racks, stacks, pre and amplifiers, nowadays the average guitarist is able to spend a fortune in stomp boxes…but bit by bit without realizing it. In a word, trying to change our sound with “just” 200 euros could be a good deal… The point is that we guitarists keep on doing it more and more…
This “usual” guitarist’s condition develops the tortuous journey in the land of distortion pedals: One eye to the “myth-of-the- moment” pedal board, the other one to thousands of opinions about it in forums: one ear to the in thing, the other one to our set-up which never seems to satisfy us.
Gentlemen, here we go: one hand on your heart, the other one … on your wallet.
A warning is due (and, about this one, we don’t allow compromises!): No distortion pedal, be it a cheap or a luxury one, sounds good or bad by far but any pedal sounds in a different way as long as we put it in a different audio chain. The risk to spend a fortune, to keep on changing and never be satisfied is always around the corner. Let’s never forget that: pairing it with the amplifier is the crucial part. The general recommendation is that amplifiers which show considerable generosity on lower and higher range but rather cut on the mid one (meaning Fender) are harder to control in distortion, with a marked tendency to metallic and crumbled tone colours, implying effect units which would emphasize mid frequencies way better. Assumed the condition – the very usual one – such as: “Using the clean channel of a combo which I have to add distortions to”, the recommendation is terribly simple: “Choosing the proper “clean” combo channel and starting to try out pedals that sound good to our ears”. Mind the fact that, eventually, every test should be made in a band context: Woe to those who test a pedal on their own at home. Let’s get used to a certain realism: Ever happened to you, at the end of a session with other musicians, to look at your set-up adjustments and say: “ Was it me who did those?”. In a band context we must “cut through the mix” in a situation where there are already busy frequencies such as bass, bass drum, keyboard, voices and cymbals’. In short, the entire frequency range is already filled and what we may like at home not necessarily will sound effective in a live setting as well.
The stomp boxes we are about to test are very well known, easily available – except for the Zen Drive (anyway available via internet directly from its manufacturer) – and with similar prices, on average lower than two hundred euros. So nothing esoteric here, we stick to “ordinary” products, of medium-high range but for professional use indeed. The selected four units have not been a random choice but driven by the need to have at our feet a gradually heavier range of distortions, so to cover the widest timbric scenario as much as possible: from the light boost to crunches, up to distortions for prima donna solo stuff.
For this test I used my usual set-up that is: Fender Hot Road Deluxe amplifier (the pedal-eater…), Fender Stratocaster (various), Gibson ES 345, Gibson Les Paul Standard- I used both a Line6 G30 relay and Reference, George L’s and Fender cables. The pedals have been connected one another via George L’s cables (and jacks) but also via switcher/true bypass Road Rage Bigfoot 4.
Ibanez - TS808 Hand Wired Pedal:
To chronicle the history of the “Tube Screamer” and describe its place within the electric guitar scenario, it would take a work ad hoc. Let’s take for granted these notions and sum up the “Screamer” family in the “market standard” concept: the most simple, emulated, cheap and widely distributed electric guitar overdrive. The Tube Screamer is a standard, end of story. There’s to ask, instead, why Ibanez produced – in between 2008 and 2009 – this limited edition. Obviously, the reason is to be sought in the fact that the original (the Tube Screamer, as said) has been so much emulated and accompanied by upgraded versions that mama Ibanez wanted to have her say with a handmade limited edition, and that would fully satisfy the latest market trends. It’s no coincidence that the original tube screamer (TS 808 Pro-Overdrive) had been strictly built on a stamped circuit board, while this HW follows the hand-wired tendency as for the “boutique stomps”. The pedal here is sold inside a heavy duty dark green metal box ( Pic. 1), showing slightly bigger size and weight in comparison to the standard version and differently shaped, with vaguely trapezoidal section rather than rectangular.
The chassis appears to be very solid, losing the typical Screamer family’s light green colour and has been nicely painted with a staider and darker green. Controls are the standard ones: gain, tone and volume. ( Pic. 2)
The real new stuff, anyhow, lie inside of this unit. The 808 HW is, as previously said, hand wired with the “point to point” technique. In the internal part the components – which the manufactures claims to be highly selected – are soldered in shipshape two little bakelite boards in parallel and the connections are wired with Mogami deluxe cables. Of course it’s not lacking the JRC4558D chip. The overall assembly is extremely neat and clean, with impeccable welding.
For this version the typical on/off switch accompanied by f.e.t. switching has been abandoned and replaced by a 3PD true bypass; indeed a much more reliable choice in comparison to the other one which, sometimes, has caused mechanical problems over time.
But how does this Hand Wired sound?
I personally spent hours in comparing the 808HW to the standard version (TS808 Reissue) connected in series and I must say that as long as my ear was getting tired, differences were starting to be much few. Basically we can affirm that the HW version, except for being a little more noisy – when gain is at its highest – due to the “point to point” built, seems to be characterized by much more elegance and transparency, responding better on the lower range and less nasally which is typical of TS808 and TS9 reissued brothers. The Hand Wired is surely less invasive in terms of timbre and enhances the various features of the guitars and of the many pick up combinations. The fact that this unit is less effective on the mid range could lead to the conclusion that it gives a lower boost in distortion but – in the end – the better dynamic response, the higher transparency and timbric elegance, indeed makes it “the older brother” of the standard versions. With guitars like Strato, the typical blues voice is guaranteed, with that distinctive “hoarseness”, peculiarly dense and catchy, in particular when using pickups on the fingerboard. The single coils of the Strato enhance the particular dynamic skills of this pedal in vocalism and strength when the plectrum is used strongly. Features like these are even more evident in “difficult” Stratos , set with non-light scale (at least 0.10) and high on actions. The “painful” executions are guaranteed to most people…but if it will be us the ones with the bleeding fingers, listeners will easily be the ones with the bleeding ears. Humbuking pick up is quite another thing. The less dynamic is balanced by the greater warmth and sustain. The “darker” and denser Gibson’s timbres are converted to compact and liquid sounds. The 345 one “sings” big time and never seizes the opportunity to show elegant and moderate INNESCHI. The 808 Hand Wired is a pedal which the bluesmen, “screamer” timbres cognoscenti, can’t afford to miss to have in their arsenal. The really rocky built, the possibility of easy assistance services or replacement of generous internal components, makes it a reliable and virtually everlasting pedal. In spite of all trends.
Model: TS808 Hand Wired
Italian distributor: Mogar Music ( www.mogarmusic.it )
Price: 250 euros (VAT included)
Genres: Blues, rock-blues, fusion.
Hermida Audio – Zendrive Pedal:
If Robben Ford claims he travel around the world carrying this pedal with him to recreate everywhere, with a simple Twin or Super Reverb “reissue” available from local live services, the sound of his Dumble, one has to believe it and that’s it. And if Robben Ford has made the Zen Drive famous, the Zen Drive has made Alfonso Hermida famous – its manufacturer – whom, in a few years, has achieved fame and growing consideration in the guitar context, enriching the catalogue of his productions – strictly in a handcrafted way – aimed to guitars.
The Zendrive is built in California and comes as a little box, extremely light, provided with a four knob controls: Volume, gain tone and “voice”. (Pic.4)
The aspect and the weight of this pedal give an impression of economy. The Zen Drive, in fact, is cabled inside an anonymous standard case (one of those you can easily buy for electronic homemade constructions). The upper surface is coated with silk screen printed Lexan, the knobs of the potentiometers are really humble: a standard, as I said, of the do-it-yourself electronic supplies.
Inside of it we can see a few components which are cabled on an extremely thin board and everything is strictly covered with a dark paint to protect “Guru” Hermida’s secrets. (Pic.5)
On a timbre level the Zendrive can be associated – in a very approximate way – to the “Screamer” family, with light boost in gains and a general constant timbre.
The first “Zen” listen could even fail our expectations but, keep in mind that this stomp is one of its kind. And its uniqueness, according to me, comes from the fact that this pedal has the not-so-common ability to provide –excuse the pun- a “clean” distortion: All the features that are bound to a saturated sound (compression, depth, sustain), match perfectly with an overall “clean” timbre. We could compare this Zendrive to a guitar boost but with the dynamic features which are typical of a distortion.
And “the dynamics” is just the main feature which pushes away this unit from the Ibanez/Screamer family: The Zendrive is really sui generis in response to the plectrum, which conveys, as the strength changes, more on timbric/espressive variations than on the volume range. But if at first we feel a little puzzled (“…but is it little dynamic?”), later on we’ll learn to appreciate the great voicing skills and the ability to listen to a clean guitar which for example …feeds back.
Regulations are rather standard: Deserving notice: the remarkable db gain which the volume and the voice control are capable of. The latter, rather than simply lighten or darken, seems to work effectively on the sound “structure”, with an aimed emphasis towards scratchy timbres and way too distorted as long as you turn the knob clockwise.
Even with higher pitched regulations, this stomp is never disagreeable –which is something rather rare when it comes to overdrive world.
The Zendrive, actually, represents a discordant note in the guitar distortion chorus; furnished with great elegance and personality in spite of, perhaps, of a limited versatility in musical genres, which pretty much line up in the…..Robben Ford context. Which is –trust me- no insignificant thing.
Manufacturer: Hermida Audio Technology
Italian distributor: N/A
Price: 199 USD
Genres: Blues and surrounding areas.
Fulltone – OCD Pedal:
This Fulltone is probably the pedal I’d carry with me on the notorious desert island: Versatility is its first great talent. With a OCD and, for example, a StratoSSH (single/single/hambuking), we could get out of a lot of trouble. Pop, blues, fusion, rock (not so soft either!): This pedal always feel comfortable within different genres and styles and provides solutions when they are required, even though it has to find indeed compromise solutions in comparison to specialized pedals usage.
Its design is unique: a proper combination between luxury and workmanship. I believe pictures not to be so true to the original ones; this Fulltone is made with real care and looks good in its cream colored outfit. We’re dealing with a full “boutique stomp” tradition by Fulltone. (Pic.6)
It’s really hard to describe the category which this overdrive fits in. Listening to it, the adjective that often has come to my mind is “classic”. The OCD is the typical rock overdrive, provided by a really high gain resource and of a stable balance in very range: moderate lows, smooth mids and never squeaky highs. It might sound like cold neutrality is pushed to the limit but indeed everything is the result of good care and, I’d add, of a real manufacturing virtuosity.
In light of all we’ve said, the only wrong note is the name the manufacturer gave it: OCD (Obsessive/Compulsive/Drive) which, to my opinion, doesn’t really suit the concept of an “ordinary” overdrive though it’s…a top class one.
The three unit controls, towered over by black “pointer knobs”, are similar to the ones for TS 808 ( volume, tone, gain) and show the peculiarity of a gradual control of the tones and not so heavy on digressions and a drive resource which is remarkable if pushed to its limits.
Finally a two level micro-switch is placed at the top of the box and controls two different modes (HP-LP). I don’t know this control could act at the preamplification phases or enable/disable any components but, in short, the upper position (HP) –which I prefer the most- increase the drive unit, while the lower position (LP) choose the crunch sounds improving the already good dynamics.
The OCD plays really good, its luxury design guarantees fat and full of “twang” notes, an amazing softness even with the highest gains and considerable dynamic skills: I believe I never listened to any capable pedal at this level of gains as well as accompanied with such good dynamic features.
My greatest satisfaction was using hambuking pick ups which is when the pedal goes (moderately) wild. But also with the Stratocaster it reaches really unusual drive levels.
If I really had to find a deficit about this Fulltone, I’d search it in the low drive levels use trying to match the boost/Screamer style. With those settings, especially with the Strato, the pedal shows a certain weakness and a lazy drive. But, probably, is truly a personal opinion.
Suggested to anyone who looks for a “jack of all trades” overdrive, but really deluxe in terms of sound and manufacture.
Italian distributor: 440hz ( www.440hz.it )
Price: 179 Euros VAT included
Genres: Rock (above all) and any other genre which doesn’t require extreme (in excess or in lack) distortions.
MI Audio – Crunch Box Distortion Pedal:
After Tommy Emmanuel and Maton guitars, this Crunch Box is probably is the most well-known Australian guitar production. All we’ve said about Fulltone OCD is opposite to what we will say about this pedal produced by MI Audio for about five years: No name was ever so inappropriate. There is really too little “crunch” here and that’s because we have abandoned the overdrive family and got to the distortion one ….the bad one.
The box is really nice. It’s standard size as well (in little MXL style) but with a vivid fire-red colour, toned down by silk screen printings and white “pointer style” knobs. (Pic.7)
Standard controls (volume/tone/gain), (Pic.8) with the gem of a “presence” trim inside the unit whose intent is to match the effect voice to the amplifier’s one which is more or less crystal-clear.
Turning the trimmer clockwise it increases the high notes dragging, obviously, a lot of harmonics benefitting the overall drive: Really useful.
The family which this box belongs to (would experts forgive me) is the “Boss DS-1 style” one, i.e. the one where a distortion, whatever single or humbuker, screams a lot.
The general timbre reminds me, to some extent, of the Catalinebread “Supercharge”, especially during the spectacular distort rhythmics which convey an harmonic wall of a … 7 string guitar. The Les Paul Standard (Custom Shop ’58 reissue) bared its claws, showing all its heavy mahogany and all the sustain it is capable of, the resulting sound is really terrifying.
I liked this Crunch Box a lot; even with low drive levels it provides musical and smooth distortions. Setting gain to 9 o’ clock and rather bigger strain towards high notes, we get into Plexi context and as long as we darken the timbre and increase the distortion, we reach high gain areas in Marshall style as well.
This box is really magical: It’s small, it has elementary and direct controls, powered at 9 volts and so it will surely find room in every pedal.
Suggested to anyone who needs to increase their arsenal with a considerable amount of heavy timbres, without making their life difficult, in a quick, easy, and a very affordable way.
Manufacturer: MI Audio
Model: Crunch Box
Italian distributor: Joe Music ( www.joemusic.it )
Price: 150 Euros VAT included
Genres: Pop/rock, rock, rock’n roll, hard rock, metal.
At this stage, how should I distort?
This brief digression about distortion is ended. Due to problems with available space it’s not possible to dwell on further testing, talk about the difference given by the use of cables, transmitters or switchers; as well as evaluate some interesting settings or, moreover, the sum of different interconnected overdrives (I got something good with the pair Hermida/TS808).
But at this stage… how should I distort? In the end there’s no use in giving advices to us guitarists: We would buy almost any stomp, maybe only to sell them back and perhaps, sooner or later, buy them once again…
Well then, “rehearsals are ended” and now we have to play live.
But that’s a whole a different story. It’s the restless guitarist’s magic: Once he pulls his hand away from the wallet he forgets immediately and puts it back…on his heart.
To the next time.
All pictures have been taken by Bruno Mazzei and they are copyrighted material of ageofaudio.com
Italian to English translation: Umberto del Giudice