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ZT built its reputation on a line of solid-state amplifiers, ranging from the pint-sized-(but still stage-ready) Club and Lunchbox to the even smaller Junior. They’re amps that tend to defy and reshape expectations about how small, solid-state amps can sound. And whether you’re a light-travelling touring player or just hurting for space they are seriously impressive—so much so that ZT counts Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, and Lee Ranaldo among its customers.
Having made a resolute and successful stand in the amp department, ZT is extending its reach into the stompbox game with the new Extortion Expressive Distortion. With both analog- and a DSP-driven distortion voices, the Extortion—in quintessential ZT style—ventures into unexpectedly cool and varied musical territories.
The Extortion’s circuit is nestled in a rather unassuming box that’s about the size of the most recent Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe. The faceplate is screened with a stylized version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream looming over the ZT logo. Input and output jacks are located on the sides of the unit and a 9V barrel adaptor can be plugged into the crown, or a 9V battery can be installed via the undercarriage trapdoor.
In keeping with the company’s less-is-more philosophy, ZT adopted a four-control design for manipulating the distortion voice. But though the knobs are few in number, they help the Extortion traverse more ground than many run-of-the-mill stompboxes. Level controls the overall output, and the drive knob functions with the same general range you’d expect in any distortion gain control. The single tone control, however, moves through an impressive array of EQ curves that can really transform the distortion tone. With the tone dialed at noon, you’ll have a flat EQ. As tone is rolled to the left, you’ll hear a progressively more scooped midrange, while a clockwise turn gives you a mid boost that’s very useful for adding definition and presence to leads. Spectral DSP, the fourth knob, is arguably the essence of what this pedal does differently, and by blending analog and DSP distortion flavors it can significantly alter the tone of the distortion. Below noon, spectral DSP gives you a sludgier, heavier distortion, and moving clockwise produces more compression and a biting, fiery top end. Spectral DSP is engaged with the left footswitch, and it can only be activated if the effect is engaged via the right-hand footswitch. You can leave spectral DSP on so it will be ready next time you hit the overdrive bypass, and an LED will flash indicating that it’s ready to go. A 1/4" jack next to the input also allows you to hook up an expression pedal to control the sweep of spectral DSP.
Screaming Lows and Highs
Throughout my test of the Extortion, I spent a lot of time manipulating the tone control, which is really the key to unlocking the pedal’s potential. Whether you’re playing with explosive DSP-fueled distortion or dealing overdriven blues riffs, the tone knob is a virtual Rolodex of distortion colors.
The flat EQ response that you get at noon is best for generating authentic overdriven-amp tones at lower volumes. Hooking up a Telecaster and a ’68 Bassman and setting the Extortion’s drive around 8 o’clock dusts the output with a touch of grit. Rolling the drive up to 1 o’clock, though, had the Bassman exhaling serious dirt—similar to what the amp alone would generate with its volume around 6 or 7.
Pulling back tone to 7 o’clock darkens the prevailing shade of that overdrive setting significantly, and the resultant scooped mids and boosted bass frequencies, paired with the Bassman’s darkish 6L6 circuit, delivered the grinding, high-and-dry desert rock rhythms you hear in Queens of the Stone Age’s “If Only.” On the opposite end of the tone spectrum, positioning tone at 2 o’clock gave me a nice midrange bite, with a very distinct top end that cut through the clamor of a 5-piece rock band. Dialing back the drive in this setting also enabled a simple volume boost that’s a perfect match for mid-spiked tones—especially if you need to generate force behind a lead with a clean amp. The Extortion has the wonderful capacity for conjuring grit while remaining fairly transparent. I was also surprised by the lack of background noise with the distortion engaged, and you’re rarely subject to the hayride of feedback that you get from many pedals with this gain capacity.
But let’s get back to the spectral DSP knob and its impressive ability to shape the Extortion’s distortion tones—even into extreme fuzz territories. Switching to a Les Paul, I dropped DSP and tone to 11 o’clock and pushed drive up to 4 o’clock. Surprisingly, this put me squarely in “Satisfaction”-style Maestro Fuzz Tone regions.
With the higher headroom of an Orange OR50 in the mix, spectral DSP demonstrated even greater range. With DSP rolled completely clockwise, the output was very compressed, lent a nice heft to the low end, and generated some pretty sizzling trebles—perfect for aggressive metal, especially galloping, palm-muted riffs. Because the tone control continues to affect the signal with spectral DSP on, you essentially have two EQ forces shaping your signal. And when my Les Paul’s neck humbucker became muddied with scooped mids, a clockwise turn of tone helped lend definition without sacrificing an ounce of crunch.
The ZT Extortion Expressive Distortion is an exceptional overdrive/distortion combo that gives you a ton of tone combinations under one roof. It’s a great foundation for dirtying up a clean amp or driving high-gain output, but the DSP distortion also makes it capable of fuzzy sustain or high-gain growl that still sits well with the analog distortion. It’s surprising how much ground this thing can cover—and cover it well. The Extortion is certainly no one-trick pony. The $199 street price isn’t terrible, considering that two distortions of comparable quality—which you might need to achieve the breadth of tones you get from the standard distortion and spectral DSP running together—could run significantly more. If you’re feeling as though your dirt box is a bit one-dimensional, the varied, transparent, and huge-sounding Extortion is highly recommended.