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Hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Circus Freak Effects is a relative newcomer to the pedal game. The pedals they build, however, reflect the musical experience amassed by cofounder A.J. Dunning, whose band the Verve Pipe was a staple of ’90s adult alternative radio.
Dunning’s experience as a performing guitarist means a lot of Circus Freak’s pedals have their roots in classic stompboxes. But while Circus Freak pedals may be inspired by a classic from Dunning’s collection, each is an original circuit built into a heavy-duty custom enclosure and dressed up in early 20th-century freak-show poster art. In the case of the analog Pickled Punk distortion, the company aimed at high-gain ’80s and ’90s tones, and the resulting pedal packs a serious punch.
Punked a Pickled Pepper
Given the glut of pedals built into the same old Hammond-style enclosure, Pickled Punk’s tough, lightweight aluminum housing is a refreshing change of pace. It’s molded from extruded die-cast aluminum that contains at least 50-percent recycled material, which makes it light without sacrificing durability, and a bit more eco-friendly than a typical stompbox.
The bottom of the enclosure is home to a unique mount design that enables you to lock the box onto rail-type pedalboards, like a Pedal Train, without using Velcro, but it also has plenty of flat space to attach Velcro if your board has a completely flat surface area.
The lithographed artwork is printed on a sheet of foil—a cool touch, to be sure, though there are also some slight bumps you can feel along its edges. But the colors are vibrant and the art itself is quite eye-catching. Yet for all the thought that Circus Freak put into the enclosure’s design, it’s a bit surprising that they didn’t throw in a battery door for replacing the 9V battery. The only way to get to it is by removing several hex screws and pulling off one of the side panels. That said, there’s a little extra versatility in the fact that the adapter jack can accommodate a 9–18V power source.
The Pickled Punk’s handbuilt, through-hole circuit is completely analog, and the simple control layout consists of three knobs: volume level, tone sweep, and distortion. Each control turns smoothly, with a comfortable amount of resistance, and the soft-touch footswitch feels sturdy underfoot. Instead of true-bypass switching, the Pickled Punk also uses buffered full-bypass circuitry to compensate for signal loss with longer cables.
No matter where the Pickled Punk’s gain control is set, its tones tend to be pretty meaty. There is an immense amount of volume on tap, which helps deliver its sounds with a powerful and uncompressed punch. While the Pickled Punk doesn’t generate the paint peeling levels of gain you’d get from a vintage ProCo Rat, the thick and weighty delivery of the pedal’s tone is impressive enough to make the Pickled Punk stand out among distortion peers.
The Pickled Punk is at home with the output from single-coils and humbuckers. But a good Stratocaster or Telecaster arguably does the better job of coaxing details out of the base distortion tone, like the prickly edge on its walloping, fat midrange, and the sharp attack in the high end.
With a Stratocaster bridge pickup engaged, the pedal’s gain up halfway, and an Orange TH100 providing amplification, the pedal dished a lush, sustaining overdrive. Digging into the strings brought brightness in the high end that works well with the Punk’s snappy responsiveness. Unlike most high-gain distortion pedals, maxing the gain control added chunkiness and punch in the mids and lows without drastically compressing and saturating the tone. And in this cranked setting, the level of distortion was more in line with what you hear when you set a Marshall JCM800’s gain control at around 2 o’clock—a healthy amount of gain for ’70s and ’80s hard rock, but not quite enough for copping the heavier ’90s-era tones forged by Jerry Cantrell or James Hetfield, at least with a clean-ish amp. Yet with a little grit dialed up on the Orange’s dirty channel, the Pickled Punk pushed the tone further into those more devilish territories.
The extra output from a humbucker-equipped Gibson Les Paul hit the pedal’s input harder and produced distortion with a rounder midrange and slightly looser lows. You can dial up thick bluesy lead tones by dropping the gain down to around 11 o’clock and switching to the neck pickup, or produce fat modern psychedelic rock tones by lowering the neck pickup’s tone control all the way, and diming the pedal’s tone and distortion knobs.
The pedal’s tone control sweeps through the distortion’s range with much smoother-sounding results with humbuckers too. After I set the distortion knob to 4 o’clock and brought the tone past 3 o’clock, the pedal unleashed a massive and thick wall of sound that had an uncanny resemblance to the raging opening riff from the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Quiet.” There was plenty of distortion at this point, but not so much that the lows and mids lost definition. Circus Freak was smart to not let the Pickled Punk fall into the tone-robbing trap of putting too much gain at your fingertips. Instead, there’s just enough to keep the tone relatively open-sounding and punchy throughout the range.
The Pickled Punk’s tough enclosure, simple and forgiving performance, and mammoth tone make it a force to be reckoned with, yet it’s still very musical. Even the most basic distortion tones are muscular, but this pedal is also a welcome change from the plethora of modern distortion devices that drown your guitar’s tone in ridiculously high levels of molten gain. Modern metal players will probably miss that extra bit of gain to cover heavier styles. But if you’re looking for a pedal with a sound that puts punch and organic body ahead of ungodly amounts of gain, the Pickled Punk may be just the ticket.