Ask any player exactly why they use a particular effect pedal, and aside from tone, they’ll probably say versatility and simplicity. For bassists, one effect pedal that should demonstrate all these qualities is the DI/driver box. A number of companies have offered their take on these tone-sculpting pedals over the years, which are meant to provide bassists a simple EQ to fine-tune their sound, the ability to gnarl up their tone, and a way to send their signal directly into a soundboard. One of the latest entries into the club of these practical pedals is the Sparrow from Dr. J. It contains features reminiscent of some popular DI/driver boxes of old, but it’s smaller in stature and price.
To the uninitiated, the Sparrow’s layout is logical and inviting. Anyone who has used DI/driver pedals in the past should feel right at home with the Sparrow’s functions. The smooth, solid knobs are arranged with the EQ and driver effects on the top of the face, with the volume and mix knobs positioned in the middle. Tucked into the left side is a tiny ground/lift switch, essential for XLR use.
Checking out the interior, I saw that the Sparrow would probably best be used with a 9V adaptor instead of a battery. There is a 9V snap connector inside the pedal, but there isn’t enough room for the battery to be secured somewhere around the circuit board. A thin, plastic tray is positioned over the circuit board, but there is nothing to hold the tray in place, and an unsecured battery could cause damage to the circuit board or other essential parts of the pedal. Beyond my concern about the battery placement, the interior was otherwise clean with well-installed components.
I took my initial flight with the Sparrow by placing the pedal between a Nash P-style bass and an Epifani AL112 combo. With a click of the footswitch, a blue LED lit up to confirm operation. The responsive volume, low, and high knobs made it very easy to balance the output levels, and with just slight adjustments, I was able to get pretty close to the uneffected sound of the Nash, meaning very little to no coloration. For additional EQ enhancement, the low and high knobs are nicely voiced, providing low-end warmth and an airy presence that was never harsh.
Through the trio of the drive, harmonics, and blend dials, I was able to arrive at different dimensions of distortion, from doomy dirt to a pseudo-square-wave sound. The harmonics knob nicely enhanced the higher frequencies, which, depending on the desired tone, could benefit a fingerstyle player with an added edge or presence to their sound. And pick players will dig the attack and snarl that can be achieved with the Sparrow.
Using both a 1964 Fender Jazz and a Brubaker Brute MJX-5, I continued experimenting. The EQ knobs gave the slap-friendly 5-string some extra brightness and booty, and through the drive section I was able to create a tone ferocious enough to satisfy Failure fans. The Sparrow’s EQ nicely pumped up the pickups on the ’64, and when I was in drive mode, I could closely emulate a hive of giant bees. With its user-friendly interface and well designed effects, the Sparrow really made it effortless to sculpt both clean tones and burly bass sounds.
Live Sound and a Rig-less Existence
When hitting the stage, I had a couple of questions for the Sparrow. How would the tones I’d previously gleaned from the device work in a live setting through an amp? And how well would the pedal perform without an amp if I sent my signal from the Sparrow’s XLR straight to the board?
The first question was answered right away at a gig with a rockin’ cover band. I ran the Nash into the Sparrow, plugged the pair into an Epifani UL 501 amp above a Glockenklang Quattro 4x10, and went straight into drive mode. With a boost to the low end (courtesy of the Sparrow), what was once a clean, boutique rig delivered a sound that could only be described as a herd of buffalo running over razor blades. And this meaty tone worked great for tunes from “Running with the Devil” to “Bulls on Parade.”
Wielding the Brubaker and the same rig on a horn-band gig, the effectiveness of the EQ section was confirmed while doing some slapping. The low and high knobs provided just the right enhancement to craft a modern, Marcus Miller-like sound. And with a slight boost of the drive and harmonics dials, I copped a tone akin to Larry Graham’s bass on “Dance to the Music.”
For the DI test, I brought only the Nash and the Sparrow to a gig with a blues trio—no amp, nada. With the help of a decent monitor system (and a savvy soundman), I was able to hear the bass on stage with plenty of low-end foundation. Whether it was just out of puzzlement that there was no bass rig, or shock that he could hear my bass lines, the typically loud guitarist in the group actually tempered his volume, which established a pleasing balance onstage.
After the gig, the soundman remarked that the Sparrow performed quite well, especially so when considering its modest price. Depending on just an instrument and a DI for most gigs isn’t a likely scenario for this bassist, but in those unfortunate situations where an amp dies mid-show, having the Sparrow in your corner would be a quick and effective solution. That said, it was pretty awesome packing up in less than a minute. Hmm.
Don’t let the Sparrow’s size fool you. This pedal is packed with a tasty EQ, flexible overdrive, and a handy DI. As its name might suggest, its small footprint will easily fit on a pedalboard or in the smallest pocket of a gig bag. Compared to other DI/driver pedals out there, the Sparrow is functionally quite similar, but it also lacks the often hefty price tag. Whether you’re a bassist on a budget or a tone connoisseur, Dr. J has created a simple-to-use pedal that just could become a permanent fixture in your nest of effects.