Tone Clone Pedals Retro Screamer
Based On: Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer
Time To Build: 1.5–2.5 hours
Tools: Soldering Iron, Phillips-head screwdriver, wire cutters
Complexity: 2 (out of 5)
The Tone Clone Pedals Retro Screamer kit is a reproduction of the Tube Screamer. The kit arrived as an unfinished enclosure, circuit board, pots, knobs, and components. Tone Clone was kind enough to include separate spools of blue and white wire and four sturdy rubber feet to affix to the device when complete. It did not include instructions, but it did provide an internet address so I could download and print them myself—no complaints there, as it’s a great way to save paper if you’d rather read them off a computer screen.
From my past experience in working with effects, I was pleased to see that the materials were top notch. The thick, non-malleable circuit board had a nice weight and substantial feel, and it’s a higher quality than many commercial pedals I’ve seen. Even the heavy brushed aluminum enclosure was impressive. Knowing that you’re working with quality materials is certainly a confidence booster. If I were to suggest any improvement to the kit, it would be for better labeling of the parts. If you’ve ever built a pedal from a kit, you quickly realize that matching each component to the parts list is essential to a problem-free build. Some of the diodes used in the circuit were not clearly labeled. I received two different types of diodes, but I couldn’t match them up to the component list because the writing on the parts was so tiny. A bit of masking tape on the leads with the values would’ve helped greatly. As a matter of fact, that would’ve been helpful on the capacitors as well, as they were also difficult to read. In addition, the IC socket was missing, an essential part of the circuit. No worries, though—a quick trip to Radio Shack and two dollars later, I had my part and a nifty green LED to swap out for the stock blue one.
After a thorough matchup of the components with the parts list, I eagerly dove into the build itself. The instructions wisely recommended that I start by installing the resistors, which are the most common type of component in the circuit. It was really great that Tone Clone split each step into a separate component-type install, resistors first, capacitors second, and so on. This helps eliminate a lot of confusion with placing the wrong component in the wrong slot, and the dreaded “finding extra parts leftover” scenario. There’s even a short segment on how to align the parts neatly, for those who have never attempted to solder in such close quarters. Honestly, one of the biggest thrills that I get when I finish a pedal is seeing the board complete. If everything is aligned perfectly and geometrically, solder joints are perfect and the wiring solid, I get an immense sense of accomplishment, as if I’d just created a work of art (in my nerdy eyes, a neat circuit is actually quite beautiful).
The only major issue that I had in populating the board was actually the biggest issue that I had with the entire project, and it all came down to one single component. During the capacitor install section, each area where one should go on the board is circled in a picture in the instructions. One in particular, C12, didn’t exist at all on the parts list, which just went from C11 to C13, skipping C12 entirely. It might not seem like a big deal, but it could have been a part that decided whether the device would work at all. In addition, later sections of the instructions used stock photographs of populated circuit boards from other Tone Clone pedals, and freely admitted that they might not be for the pedal that’s being built. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more effort was needed to just put the actual photo of what was being worked on in the instructions. New DIYers, especially, need that kind of reassurance.
After the circuit was complete, I buttoned it all together in the enclosure (lovingly painted by PG’s own Rebecca Dirks) and gave it a test run with a 2008 Fender American Stratocaster into a Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue. Tonally, the results were very good. The familiar Tube Screamer bite and bark were both there, but with a little less gain and midrange. The transparency was unbelievable, and I didn’t expect to hear that from a simple kit that costs much less than a lot of boutique TS-type overdrives out there. All in all, I’m very pleased with the Retro Screamer. The sound is quite nice, certainly as nice as any actual Screamer-esque pedal that I’ve heard, and it was a very simple project to undertake. For those wondering if their skills are up to the task, I would rate the project at a low-intermediate level. If you’ve never built a guitar pedal before, I would start with a basic booster first, or maybe a Fuzz Face clone. Those circuits usually only have a few components and even fewer controls, and are good introductory assignments for the novice builder. If you’ve got some soldering skills and some effects repair under your belt, the Retro Screamer should be a piece of cake, and a fitting reward for the labor involved. —JW