Savvy students of rock guitar recording know that some classic tracks were played through a very expensive and specialized amp: the input channel of a vintage mixing console. From Zep’s “Black Dog” to many great Motown hits, the signal path was simply guitar/direct box/mixing desk.
But there are consequences to sidestepping a conventional guitar amp. We often forget how heavily guitar amps and speakers filter our signal, especially the highs. When you go direct, you capture your guitar’s full frequency range, including much fizzy high end. Direct-recorded clean parts sound blunt and authoritative, while studio-preamp distortion can yield blistering solid-state fuzz of a type we usually avoid. It can be the worst sound in the world, or the best. (Perfect example: the Beatles’ “Revolution.”)
JHS’s all-analog Colour Box is fashioned after perhaps the most beloved preamp ever, the Neve 1073. It also includes four EQ bands and both 1/4" and balanced XLR connectors. You can record direct with it, or place it in front of a conventional amp. The pedal requires 18V power, either via the included adapter, or any pedalboard power supply with an 18V option. Inside are a modern, auto-assembled circuit board and the marquee component: a spiffy Lundahl power transformer.
On the input side is a double-duty 1/4"/XLR connector, while the output has discrete 1/4" and balanced XLR jacks. When you're connected via the 1/4" input, the footswitch turns the effect on and off, but when using the XLR output in instrument mode, there’s no bypass (which makes sense if you’re using Colour Box as an always-on preamp). You can employ both outputs simultaneously, driving an amp while sending a direct signal to the board. You can also use Colour Box with a microphone, though there’s no phantom power—you must bring your own juice when using a condenser mic.
Direct to Desk
Recording direct, Colour Box provides a convincing Neve preamp sound with brilliant highs and portly lows. There’s great dynamic range and acres of headroom. Notes feel grounded, with rock-solid fundamentals. With the right EQ settings, you can get attractive and surprisingly amp-like clean tones. A rotary gain switch steps between five boost settings ranging from +18 dB to a bruising +39 dB. Higher settings provide corrosive, full-frequency distortion of the “Revolution” ilk. Maxed-out, you get anarchic pumping/gulping effects. For a hi-fi device, Colour Box can certainly provide raunchy lo-fi color.
I recorded the contrasting snippets in Clip 1 direct to DAW via an Apollo interface, using various Colour Box EQ settings, plus a touch of plate reverb to cushion the blows (a common strategy for direct-recorded guitars).
About that EQ: There are three fixed bands (±17 dB at 120 Hz, 1 kHz, and 10 kHz), plus a wide-ranging high-pass filter for trimming lows. The filters excel at softening those abrasive highs and adding bowel-rocking bottom-end. But bear in mind that you have only a fraction of the control you’d expect from a proper mixing board input channel. (A more versatile midrange control would make it even easier to sculpt amp-like sounds.) Just think of Colour Box as a pseudo-Neve preamp with handy EQ functions rather than a complete Neve channel strip.
Colour Box can also drive a guitar amp. That may seem counterintuitive—aren’t players likely to adopt this pedal precisely because they want something other than a conventional amp sound? But boosting, conditioning, and shaping your signal upstream from your amp is one of the most exciting ways to use this pedal.
Colour Box tends to provide relatively bright, percussive tones with remarkable string-to-string definition. (Of course, you can soften the edges via the pedal’s EQ.) It’s not a sound for all occasions—tones can become too clinical, like watching crisp HD video of something you’d prefer to view in soft focus. But placing a powerful active EQ stage in front of your amp can alter the amp’s fundamental character, unlocking otherwise unavailable colors. Clip 2, recorded with a Paul-like Hamer 20th Anniversary and a small Carr Skylark combo set to a clean sound, demonstrates some possible timbres.
Careful, though—this pedal serves up serious gain, more than enough to stun your amp. Don’t be surprised if you rarely move the master volume control above its lowest settings.The Verdict
Whether used for direct recording or altering the response of a traditional amp, Colour Box is a sly creative tool for sly creative guitarists. It excels at replicating classic DI guitar tones, from the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” to Chic’s “Le Freak,” but can also wring edgy new sounds from old-school amps. At $399, it’s a bit pricy, though in JHS’s defense, Colour Box includes several relatively expensive parts seldom seen in stompboxes. There’s much here to reward the patient tone seeker.
Watch the Review Demo: