Whether you’re a high-profile artist or a
guitar hobbyist, there’s a good chance
you’ve had reason to pay attention to the
work of Alex Aguilar. From his time building
bass amps at Aguilar Amplification to his
work as a guitar columnist, Aguilar has been
chasing great tone for more than 40 years.
His newest company, Alairex, is thus far
a fairly small outfit, with the H.A.L.O. overdrive
reviewed here being the company’s first
and only product so far. But what the Alairex
line may lack in quantity, it makes up for
in terms of thoughtful design and engineering,
because the H.A.L.O. is hardly another
run-of-the-mill overdrive. Aguilar designed
the H.A.L.O. to get natural amp overdrive
but with more touch sensitivity and response
than you typically get from a stompbox.
Impressively, the unit achieves many of those
aims, giving you tone-crafting power that
you don’t often get from an overdrive.
The robust little H.A.L.O. weighs in at
almost 1 1/2 pounds, and you’ll definitely
notice how sturdy and stage ready it feels.
But you’re more likely to be struck by the
myriad ways you can tweak its tones. The
all-analog circuit controls two footswitchable
gain modes, each with its own dedicated
gain and master volume controls. Three
smaller knobs at the top edge let you boost
or cut sub frequencies, midrange response,
and upper mids. There’s also a master tone
control that sweeps through a range of voicings
from super bright to dark and mellow.
You can also power the pedal with an 18V
power supply to increase headroom if the
tone is too congested for your liking.
The pedal’s 3-way shape toggle enables
you to switch between two diode-clipping
modes or a clean boost mode in the middle
position. Most analog overdrives use either
symmetrical (Ibanez Tube Screamerstyle)
or asymmetrical (Boss SD-1 Super
Overdrive-style) diode clipping, but the
H.A.L.O. attempts to give you the best of
both worlds by opening up access to the
smooth, natural response of even-order
harmonic distortion that’s a hallmark of
power-tube overdrive, or the more fluid and
compressed odd-order harmonic distortion
that’s common in gained-out preamp overdrive.
Its 3-way saturation toggle adds the
option of piling even more distortion and
compression on both gain modes, or on the
second gain mode exclusively.
The H.A.L.O.’s control layout looks daunting
at first, but it’s actually very intuitive
and responsive once you’ve done a little
homework.. There are a lot of different
tones on tap, and really the only hurdle
you’ll face is deciding which of the many
flavors works best.
With a Vox AC30 and a Stratocaster, I set
the H.A.L.O. for asymmetrical clipping and
the gain and tone-shaping controls at noon.
Even at these relatively conservative levels,
there was a very obvious jump in volume.
Turn the asymmetrical mode’s gain control
up to about 1 o’clock, and you get even more
volume, in addition to a thicker midrange and
more robust low end—perfect for Zeppelin
riffs and crunchy ’70s-rock staples. It’s not
unusual for a good overdrive to send an AC30
to Page-ian heights, but with the H.A.L.O.,
you also notice how much detail remains
intact within the snarl and grind. And the
bass, contour, and presence knobs are all very
effective for fine-tuning the distortion and tailoring
output to your guitar and amplifier.
At extreme levels, the gain control will
drive most amps into Van Halen-heavy
raunch that works as well for clear chords
as legato leads. But you can also use your
guitar’s volume to take advantage of the
pedal’s exceptional sensitivity—it cleans up
without obscuring picking dynamics.
Alairex doesn’t bill the H.A.L.O. as a
pedal for metal guitarists, but it works
beautifully for heavy rock in the second
gain mode, especially when you put highoutput
humbuckers at the front of the
signal chain. You’ll hear a lot of aggressive
mids, though the bass can lose some of its
stand-and-deliver tightness under barrages
of staccato picking or palm-muted triplets.
Backing off of the bass control brings back
some low-end foundation and a little more
softness in the bass attack, illustrating just
how vital the tone controls are to getting
the most out of the H.A.L.O.
Engaging the saturation switch makes
the second gain mode monstrous—capable
of grind that would turn the head of any
metal fanatic, as well as a broad range of
high-gain colors that you can transform
subtly or radically with your guitar’s volume
knob. You’ll also hear and feel a little sag
at this point, which is great for lower-gain
rhythm tones. Paired with the AC30, this
mode yielded a voice reminiscent of a
50-watt Marshall JCM800.
Alairex’s Alex Aguilar is a tone-shaping
veteran, and his new H.A.L.O. lives up
to the lofty expectations that come with
a resume like his. It’s a multifaceted overdrive
machine capable of everything from
velvety drive to raging distortion. But
what’s even cooler is the extent to which
the H.A.L.O. enables you to do much of
that work yourself with pick attack and
your guitar’s controls. This is the rare
pedal that can move between a strong personality
and a natural, near transparency,
depending on how you set it up. And that
makes it one of the most musical overdrives
you’ll find anywhere.