We explore an almost infinite distortion generator that beckons you to experiment.
(Note: occasional pops and crackles are the sound of real-time switching between diode pairings and are normal.)
If you check out Joe Gore’s web site, joegore.com, it’s hard to not come away infected with his spirit of irreverence and adventure. It’s peppered with videos of songs disassembled and rebuilt in unlikely styles, unconventional studio advice, and, above all, perverse guidance about how to mangle your tone to creative ends. Disclosure: Gore is a contributing editor to PG and his gear reviews and expertise in studio techniques are regularly featured in our content.
Gore’s independent sensibilities manifest themselves in the pedals he designs and sells under his name. (They are built in Michigan by Cusack Music.) In the case of the Gross Distortion reviewed here, Gore’s irreverence results in a very flexible distortion with an unusual control set. And while it won’t be immediately intuitive for every player, it’s ultimately a very satisfying tool for chasing specific or elusive overdrive, distortion, and fuzz sounds.
Enter the Infinite
When I say the Gross is less than intuitive at first, that doesn’t mean it’s unapproachable. On the contrary, the Gross invites uncomplicated, impulsive sound shaping as much as it enables surgical tone sculpture. It’s hard to make a bad sound. And while it takes time to understand the myriad ways the controls interact with your guitar and affect your tone, it’s easy to find pleasing tones—or radical ones—through casual twists of the six knobs.
The most critical of these controls are the two 12-position radial switches. These enable you to tap into the defining quirk of the Gross—a network of 25 clipping diodes (most fuzz and distortion pedals have just a few) that color distortion depending on how you combine them. A small toggle between the two-diode selector knobs adds a third diode to whatever pair you select, to lend asymmetric distortion sounds to the already expansive tone palette.
The potential of these controls isn’t always immediately apparent. Small adjustments can result in tone differences so minutely incremental that some ears won’t hear the difference. Monitor your amp in headphones, however, and you’ll hear small shifts that can be critical when shaping tones and pinpointing frequencies in a studio. Gore added one simple but thoughtful detail that makes the labyrinthine possibilities easier to navigate: One knob is labeled with numbers, the other with letters, which facilitates logging settings or using mnemonic devices to recall them. I only wish he’d reversed the left-right orientation of the “letter” and “number” knobs—most players that checked out the pedal thought bingo-style letter-then-number designations were easier to remember. Players that spend a lot of time in parking garages may have a different opinion.
The tone and gain controls are extremely transformative and interactive. Both controls are active, which means less tone strangulation if you want to aggressively roll back the bass or treble. They also have acres of range, which makes fine-tuning a joy. The gain control has impressive range and sensitivity, too. At one extreme it’s relatively transparent. At the other it generates fuzzy textures that are focused, complex, and responsive to adjustments from the tone controls. (I found trebly, high-gain sounds especially satisfying.)
Purrs Like a 156-Pound Kitty
As I said, it’s easy to get great sounds out of the Gross. Getting exactly the tone you want takes a little work, but we’ll get to that. Gross’ single-transistor design is loosely inspired by the Electra distortion, a super-simple circuit that arguably sounded great because of its simplicity, but which is also ideal for circuit tweaking downstream from the transistor. That design philosophy is at the heart of the Gross.
You can easily hear how nice the basic distortion architecture is in the Gross—and how clearly it communicates the voice of your guitar—by dialing in low-to-mid gain distortion, setting the tone controls at noon, and cooking up a relatively transparent diode setting (my Stratocaster, humbucker-equipped Telecaster Deluxe, and Jaguar all sounded very much themselves at the “8-G” setting, among others). The distortion tones have a rich, growling, and even-tempered essence that can be re-shaped easily with guitar volume and tone attenuation. This is a strength of Gross at much more radical settings as well.
From there, how you proceed is really down to personal preference. I got the best results by setting up a clipping scheme that sounded like a natural fit for my guitar and the musical environment, then moving through clipping variations. While different clipping schemes may not radically alter the voice of your guitar, they can have a pronounced boosting effect or thin the frequency bandwidth in extreme ways. Gross’ tone controls are so versatile, however, that they profoundly re-shape a given clipping scheme. Even with narrow-bandwidth clipping setups and tone profiles, I could add corpulent bass and stinging top end by maxing the bass and treble controls.
I could probably spend another 1,000 words describing possible tone permutations from these tweaks. The point is that the Gross is highly responsive—to modifications from its own control set, from your guitar, or from your pick attack. Gore may have aimed for 156 tone “colors” from the Gross. In fact, the real number of available tone shades is exponentially more.
I’d guess resolutely minimalist players, the kind that scorn devices apart from their guitar and a Fender Deluxe, won’t have much time for Gore’s Gross. For just about everyone else, Gross is a potential tone feast. Do those tone combinations also make it tricky to use? I suppose that depends on your appetite for adventure. If you welcome the open-ended, semi-chaotic nature of modular synths and deep, multi-function pedals, you’ll love every twist and turn the Gross throws at you. I’m not sure that I’d risk radical changes on stage without a cheat sheet. But for chasing tones in the more relaxed confines of a studio, Gross is a distortion-tone buffet without parallel. It’s pretty expensive, even if the $279 price is understandable given the R&D, labor-intensive circuitry, and high-quality U.S.-build. But now that I’ve tried it, I almost get anxious thinking about doing a recording session without it, and it’s hard putting a price tag on that kind of versatility.