Friday, April 25, 2014

Overdrives and Everyday Magic

Overdrives and Everyday Magic

I love dirt pedals.  Overdrives, Distortions, Fuzzes – I like them all, but not every pedal makes the cut in my small collection.  

I’m not a pedal hoarder, although I do own close to two dozen pedals.  Most of the pedals I own are currently attached to my pedal board and are used on a regular basis.  I don’t have a lot of loose pedals that I don’t use, but those that I’ve kept are mostly dirt pedals of some sort.

Note:  I’m not really that much of a distortion pedal guy, so my choices tend to be more overdrive- and fuzz -oriented.

So, what makes a good overdrive, fuzz or distortion pedal?  If you’re looking for specific sonic qualities, then obviously, the pedal has to have those qualities to be considered.  Amount of gain, tonal control, character of the gain (grainy, smooth), are all factors to consider.  If you’re trying to nail a particular sound that an artist gets, then this is a very specific criterion to apply to a pedal.

However, when I choose a dirt pedal, the biggest question for me is, how does it make me feel?  

Do I want to keep playing through this pedal?  Does it inspire me?  If the sound is there, but I lose interest in playing after a few minutes, then there is something about this pedal that is not right for me.  It’s probably something about the dynamics of how the pedal reacts to my playing.  I don’t exactly know, I just know that it’s an emotional factor.  I’m either inspired in my playing or not.  Call it magic, mojo, or whatever you want, the pedal has to have it (and I have to feel it) or I don’t keep it.

I’m also aware that I have very particular way of approaching the way I play, so my choices may be someone else’s rejects, and vice-versa.

My favorites (i.e., the ones I kept):

·         Diamond J-Drive Mk III – This is currently on my board, which says a lot about how much I like it.  It wouldn’t be my first choice for a classic rock gig, but it could fill that slot very nicely, if needed.  It can be set up to be somewhat transparent, but that’s not where the true magic is.  It really takes on a unique character when you turn up its ‘Warmth’ control - it fattens up but doesn’t lose clarity.  I can’t explain why I like this pedal so much, but I can say it just makes me feel good when I play through it.  The independent boost is a great bonus, and I sometimes useit to solve gain mismatches between different guitars.

·         Earthquaker Devices Hoof – My newest pedal - this is also currently residing on my pedal board.  I went through a number of pedals before settling on this fuzz.  The sound in my head that I’m searching for is very near to the smooth, sustaining sound that you hear in progressive rock recordings from the early 70’s by Genesis guitarist, Steve Hackett, and by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.  The Hoof is, I’m told, a take-off on the ‘Rams Head’ version of the Big Muff, but with more tonal control.  Again, like my other favorites, it has a quality that makes me feel good and want to keep playing.

·         Way Huge Pork Loin – Despite the ludicrous name, this is my second favorite overdrive.  I’ve played other overdrives that mix in the clean signal like the Pork Loin does, but this one just seems to be doing something special.  This pedal could work in a lot of genres, but I love setting it to a classic, Screamer-type of sound, minus the attenuated low end and excessive midrange hump.  It can be transparent when turning down the guitar volume, as well.  This pedal is my first choice for jam sessions or any kind of classic rock or blues.  Why is it different?  I don’t know – again, it just makes me feel good when I use it.  It’s also a very nice purple.

·         Fulltone Fulldrive II – This is an original, first generation, red Fulldrive II that, early on, I sent back to Fulltone to have them modify it with the ‘comp cut’ switch.  It does the Screamer thing really well – smoother with less mid hump, and it sounds different than any other Fulldrive I’ve tried.  This overdrive has the added advantage of the second footswitch to add an additional amount of overdrive.  I keep thinking of selling it, but then I plug it in and it has that feel-good effect on me, so it stays.

·         Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer – This is a 90’s model that I got to replace my original 80’s TS-9 when that pedal’s switch failed.  It’s been modded to TS-808 specs, but has the original opamp in it, which I actually prefer to the JRC4558 (not NOS) that I swapped in originally.  I had two of these, one modded and one not, and I think I sold the better sounding of the two, unfortunately.  Nevertheless, I like the sound and feel of the real-deal Screamer.  While I don’t play it very much, but it does make the cut as far as being enjoyable to play through, so it stays in the herd for now.

·         Fuzz Factor – This is a germanium transistor Fuzz Face clone that I built from scratch.  The only changes from original specs are the trim pot inside to dial in the transistor bias (essential for cleaning up the sound when the guitar is turned down) and an on/off LED. In my opinion, it nails the Hendrix, Are You Experienced tone.  Every now and then I have to have that sound, and this pedal satisfies that craving.

·         ‘Len-Tone’ Fuzz – This is my original 60’s Jordan Bosstone that I transplanted into a stomp box enclosure (the original was a plug-into-the guitar unit).  The original pots had disintegrated, so I had to search for schematics to figure out what values to use for the replacements.  I’m pretty sure the components’ values have drifted so far that it no longer sounds the same as when it was new, but it’s fun to pull it out once in a while to play around with it.  It’s probably my least used pedal, but it may have a use on a recorded track someday.  That, and the personal history attached to it keep this pedal in my collection.

·         Boss DS-1 – This is a 90’s Taiwan version, self-modded with the Keeley ‘Seeing-Eye’ circuit.  I didn’t bother to drill a hole for the added LED (the ‘eye’) that serves as an additional clipping diode, but I did change the on/off LED to a bright white one.  I bought this pedal hoping to recreate the sound of my original Japanese-made DS-1, which I sold a long time ago, but it was never close.  The Keeley mod makes this pedal a lot more fun, though, more so than a number of modern distortion pedals that I tried.

Dirt pedals that didn’t stick around:

·         Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer – 90’s version, unmodded.  I tested it just before I sent it off to its Ebay buyer, and I was very sorry I was selling it.  It sounded better than my other 90’s TS-9.  Oh, well.

·         ProCo Rat – early 80’s white logo version.  I don’t know- I just never bonded with this pedal.  I never used it live or on a recording.  I’d start playing and get bored with it after a few minutes.  I know many players love these, so I’m at a loss to say why I didn’t like it.

·         Fulltone Catalyst – Not bad, but I couldn’t find a sound that inspired me, and I liked my modded Boss DS-1 better.

·         Way Huge Swollen Pickle – I really liked this pedal, but it was too sensitive about what pedals were in front or behind it in the pedal chain, and I needed a fuzz to use on my pedal board.  The only other negative thing I could say about it is that having the trim pots inside was really inconvenient for dialing in the sound.  (They’ve changed that on the newest version of this pedal.)

·         Way Huge Fat Sandwich – Another distortion pedal that I liked, but not enough to keep.

·         TC Electronic Dark Matter – This is a great sounding pedal, more vintage-oriented than the name might suggest.  I liked it, but not that much more than my DS-1.  Actually, I’m a little sorry I sold it.  I don’t know why TC doesn’t promote this model more, because it’s really a nice pedal.

·         Bixonic Expandora – Original version.  I used this as my main overdrive for a while, but there was a subtle quality about it that I didn’t like.  It was slightly fizzy, and there was a certain boxy quality to the sound – it’s hard to explain.  Otherwise, it was a decent sounding pedal, and I enjoyed using it on multiple gigs and jams.  Plus, you gotta love the circular can enclosure.

·         Prescription Electronics Experience – Original swirl finish.   Very interesting sounding pedal, but it’s the sort of thing you use for one solo at the end of a set, or once on a recording.  That, in a nutshell, is exactly how I used it.  I had this for a number of years and it was no longer being used, so…

·         Toadworks Little Leo – This pedal emulates the sound of a Tweed Fender, but at the risk of guitar heresy, I have to say that I’ve never been a big fan of the tweed sound for my own playing.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a good sounding pedal, but the feel wasn’t there for me, and bottom line, it didn’t inspire.

·         Diaz Square Face – Original hand-wired version, signed by Cesar Diaz.  I sold this quite some time ago, and it’s very possible that I might like it better today.  It’s a fairly thick Fuzz Face without a lot of dynamics, although it cleans up very effectively when you turn down the guitar volume.   At the time, I couldn’t see using it very often.

That’s it for my dirt pedal selections and rejections.  I’m sure there will be more in the future, so stay tuned.

As a footnote, I have a couple of pedals on the workbench, waiting to be resurrected.  One is an Ibanez TS-5 Tube Screamer, the black plastic ‘Tone Bug’ version.  I took this to a lot of jam sessions and open mics, but the footswitch became temperamental and I could never find a direct replacement.  The second one is a 60s Heathkit fuzz that I built when I was thirteen.  Actually, all that remains are the insides, waiting to be transplanted into an enclosure.  I plan to combine it with an original EHX LPB-1 (also missing it’s enclosure) and put them both in one pedal housing.  It’s been years since I heard these old pedals, so it should be interesting when I finally get around to bringing them back to life.

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