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September 2014
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Spaceman Saturn V Harmonic Booster Pedal Review

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Spaceman Saturn V Harmonic Booster Pedal Review


Spaceman Harmonic Boost - Boost at Max, Gain at 1, then conrols at noon (Fender Jaguar & Fender Tremolux)

Boosters, despite seeming simple in function and intent, vary wildly when it comes to tone, purpose, and potential. Clean boosts (though rarely truly clean) can increase pickup output without adding too much distortion, or compensate for signal loss at the end of a pedal chain. Treble boosters, with their narrow focus, can create the perception of a clean boost, though you typically hear an increase in noise, too. It’s all confusing and abstract enough to scare off a lot of would-be users.

Spaceman’s Saturn V Harmonic Booster may not really clarify the overarching issue of what, definitively, a booster is supposed to be. But it’s a pedal with a lot of character that can enhance dynamics, transform an amp, and breathe life into a rig that may have started to sound one-dimensional.

Built for Orbit
There may be more colorful and sensational-looking devices than Spaceman’s wares, but precious few stompboxes are cooler or more elegant. And the pedals’ straight-from-an-Apollo-capsule-control-panel design accurately reflects the build quality.

The Saturn V is hefty and built to what NASA would call mission-critical standards of durability. Spaceman also invests a lot of time and effort in aspects that only the most curious tinkerers are likely to notice—things like the chrome-like coating on the circuit board, the super-exacting soldering work, and even cool touches like the little Saturn and stars logo on the battery contact sheath.

The control layout is as simple as can be. The boost knob adds up to 18 dB, and if you crank the drive knob, you can get a summed boost of 35 dB between the two.

Dirty Boost
Though the Saturn V isn’t complicated by any means, there is a great deal of complexity to the sounds and textures you can extract from it. Not surprisingly it takes a little trial and error to feel out how it works best with a given guitar-and-amp combination.

This pedal is very sensitive and interactive, and it rewards picking nuance and responds dynamically to varied input from a instrument’s volume and tone controls. It’s critical to keep this in mind because one of the first things you’ll discover is that with a guitar’s volume controls wide open, the Saturn V won’t really work as a clean boost. Even with the drive all the way back to zero, there’s a little extra grit, especially if you use humbuckers. But roll back your guitar’s tone knob just a touch and it’s like wiping your car window clean after a long interstate drive—you’re suddenly seeing detail and color in the landscape you’d missed through all the bug carcasses and grime.

Set up your rig this way, and the Saturn V becomes a superb clean boost. It does a beautiful job of exciting and coloring attenuated guitar output. And you get the sense of a very gentle taper in boost level as you roll back your volume knob. You can hear this aspect of the Spaceman’s dynamic potential with a cheap solid-state amplifier and budget electric with bottom-of-the-barrel potentiometers. But with a high-headroom tube amp, nice pickups, and wide-range pots, this simple interplay of boost and guitar volume control becomes a sweeping meadow dappled and bursting with spring color. It’s a great way to get back in touch with the lost art of volume-knob manipulation. It also means you may never switch the Saturn V off.

The Saturn V’s most natural and easy-to-manage clean boost tones tend to come when it sees a nice single-coil out front. Telecaster bridge pickups sound glorious, alive, and crystalline, and neck pickups are mellow and full of almost vocal detail. The humbucker output from a Les Paul isn’t as easy to manage. But if you get a feel for where the sweet spots are, you’ll likely get a fresh sense of how versatile those guitars can be.

When you crank your guitar’s volume back up, the Saturn V seems to assume a whole different persona. Even at the lowest drive levels, it exudes the tough aura of a leather-clad ruffian. It’s rowdy, twitchy, and—depending on how you pick or how high you set the drive—positively explosive. And just as the Saturn V can almost make a $100 Vox Pathfinder sparkle like an AC15 in a recorded mix, it can drastically recast the voice of a bigger amp.

Ratings

Pros:
Thoughtful, high-quality design and construction. Can open up whole new ranges of tone in even inexpensive rigs. Super-responsive to picking dynamics and volume- and tone-knob manipulation.

Cons:
Hard to get. On the expensive end of things.

Tones:

Ease of Use:

Build/Design:

Value:

Street:
$219

Company
spacemaneffects.com

At the highest drive settings, for example, you can transform a blackface Fender into something much closer to snarling a Marshall plexi. And the distinctly un-Zeppelin-esque recipe of a Jaguar and a brownface Vibroverb can deliver the crackling, midrange-y, and fanged aggression you more closely associate with Jimmy Page’s “Whole Lotta Love” lead tones.

When you crank gain and volume together, the Saturn V not only generates a wall of wide-spectrum, harmonically rich distortion, but also has a way of exciting frequencies that are often lost in distorted settings. In fact, depending on your pick attack, the Saturn V can almost work like a treble booster and really expand your sonic palette for leads.

If the Saturn V has a weakness, it’s in chordal settings where you want a little extra top-end bite, but don’t want to surrender clarity. And here, the same excitability that makes every single note a potential tone playground can work against the Spaceman. It generates a lot of harmonic content. That doesn’t mean that clear chord tones aren’t in there to find—they usually are, depending on where you set your guitar’s controls. But in situations where you’re holding down a steady, fast arpeggio rhythm, you probably have a lot less time and inclination to tinker with your volume knob and find the sweet spot.

The Verdict
If you have the curiosity and desire to really experiment with the Saturn V, it can be transformative to your guitar and amp—the difference between a bland, undercooked stew and a gumbo that’s simmered all Saturday and tickles every bud on your tongue. On the other hand, players who have to hold down rhythm guitar and vocals, or just savor the simple pleasures of a wide-open Les Paul Junior wired straight into a cranked Marshall might be frustrated by the tinkering—however minimal—it takes to make the Saturn V really work.

But for those who relish the profound shifts in color and mood that a little volume or tone knob tweak can provide, the Saturn V has the potential to be a very special, even indispensable piece of gear. Unfortunately, Spaceman won’t be making many of them. In this run, at least, there are barely 400 units. Should those disappear in a flash of rocket flame, let’s hope Spaceman sees the worth in another go ’round.

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