There’s an ongoing revolution happening in the world of stompboxes for bassists. Companies are producing pedals that are getting ever so close to reproducing some of the overdriven DI bass sounds that have fueled the rock world for decades. Using several eras of these classic sounds for their inspiration, Darkglass Electronics is one such company. But they are challenging some of the conventional offerings with the introduction of their Microtubes Vintage pedal. It’s meant to deliver a wide spectrum of classic, overdriven bass tones from the ’70s up through the ’90s—not just emulating one particular amp model.
No Tube, No Problem
Designed in Finland, the rugged little Microtubes Vintage pedals are handbuilt in Seattle, Washington, by 3Leaf Audio owner and bass-pedal junkie Spencer Doren. The pedal’s housing is durable brushed aluminum, and its footprint is smaller than a standard tuner. When checking out the mechanics of the control knobs, they all felt smooth with just the right amount of resistance for minute adjustments. But right away, I thought their proximity to each other was too close for quick adjustments during gigs. That said, this probably shouldn’t be an issue for set-it-and-forget-it use.
Because of Darkglass’ commitment to environmental responsibility, battery power for this pedal is not an option, so keep in mind you’ll need to supply a 9V adapter. I like the fact that more pedal companies are making products without the battery option, as every battery we can keep out of a landfill is a good thing. I would have preferred to see, however, a more standard placement for the power supply input. The 1/4" input and output jacks are accessible enough, but the power jack is actually below the input jack on the right side of the pedal. I feel that the topside is always best and this placement seemed a little odd. I haven’t used the Microtubes Vintage’s predecessor—the B3K—but apparently the configuration is the same.
There are no “microtubes” in this pedal (or any tubes at all for that matter), so don’t let the name fool you. Its four controls include level, blend, drive, and what Darkglass calls an ERA knob. A tonal-time machine of sorts that acts as a filter and adds dynamic control at the same time, the ERA control is this stompbox’s secret sauce. This is probably why it’s accessibly located at the upper-right side of the pedal. If I were going to adjust only one knob during a gig, it turns out it would be this one.
Down to the Nitty Gritty
Using a vintage Ampeg B-15 while alternating between a Fender ’75 Jazz reissue and a ’78 Fender P, I plugged in the Microtubes Vintage to be greeted by the lighting up of a little blue LED. My startup settings had the drive and ERA knobs zeroed out, the blend set at noon, and I matched the level control to that of the Ampeg. Even with this minimalist setting, the Microtubes Vintage warmed my tone with a touch of darker shading on the overall EQ. Pushing the blend to 100 percent, the tone was nicely compressed and usable. I then pushed the ERA knob to 100 percent (still not touching the drive) and the tone stayed squashed, but got a little spanky with just a touch of dirt as I dug in above the 12th fret. I liked the tone right there, but this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Like most overdrive pedals, the Microtubes Vintage has the standard blend and drive controls, but its most important control is certainly the ERA. This control is kind of like an overdrive modeler, but not based on any one specific amp. After studying different time periods, amps of the day, and recording techniques, Darkglass set out to build in the attributes of a variety of vintage, overdrive sounds into this control. Set at its minimum, the ERA knob will boost the mids and add warmth to the overall tone. As you roll the ERA up, more definition is added, and the tone becomes more aggressive. And when combining the ERA control with the blend and drive, you can take your tone across a wide spectrum of possibilities, but within the vintage parameters. Yes, the Microtubes Vintage can take you to wonderfully warm, overdriven sounds with an edgy punch, but if you’re looking for ultra-modern, industrial-sounding overdrive, this isn’t your horse.
The versatility of this pedal really had me jumping from tone to tone in anticipation of the next, almost like a kid at a theme park trying to ride all the rides as quickly as possible. Keeping the blend at 75 percent, the drive at 50 percent, and the ERA knob at a minimum, the tone stayed slightly muffled, yet full, and maintained its grit and ’70s attitude. Taking the ERA control to the other extreme, I managed to turn my B-15 into more of an SVT, with all of the aggression and punch of a charging rhino. Taking the drive up even higher, my tone launched into almost lose-your-gig territory with a controlled, overdriven chaos, peppered with shimmery harmonics and extended sustain. Even with all the pedal’s dynamic controls really pushed, however, the tone maintained its functional usefulness.
More and more bassists are discovering that adding just a touch of dirt to their tone can make tracks come alive and give their live sound a little bump in aggressiveness. But when really pushing the signal with some other overdrive pedals on the market, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and move your bass tone into a place it shouldn’t be. Fortunately, the Microtubes Vintage won’t let you get too far off the beaten path. What’s really remarkable is that even without tubes, there are some first-rate tube tones in this little box—as close to authentic as I have heard at this price point and even beyond. Rock to pop to modern-country bassists will all appreciate what this pedal can do, because Darkglass stayed true to the vintage tones they set out to emulate. And that translates into a pedal very much worth its salt.