Maxon’s Elegant Spin on the TS808

The father of the Tube Screamer dishes a refined take on the pedal that propelled an overdrive revolution with the Apex 808.


Fender Telecaster > black panel Fender Tremolux > Universal Audio OX with AC30 cabinet simulation > Apple Logic.
Rhythm track is Maxon with drive at 11 o'clock, level at 1 o'clock, and tone at one o'clock.
Lead guitar retains level at one o' clock, but cycles through drive levels at 7 o'clock, noon. 3 o'clock, and maximum gain.
Tone adjustments range from 11 o'clock to maximum.
 

Ratings

Pros:
Does all the things a great TS does with warmth and detail. Not overly compressed or nasal-sounding. Nice range in controls.

Cons:
Pricey. Still very midrange focused, if that’s not your thing.

Street:
$300

Maxon Apex 808
maxonfx.com


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It would be silly to call the Tube Screamer underrated. But the ubiquity of TS circuits—and the periodic rise of super-hyped, flavor-of-the-month rivals—sometimes seems to conspire to make this pedal the Honda Accord of overdrives: reliable, readily available, a known quantity that, just perhaps, doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

The Maxon Apex 808, however, is a reminder of all that’s distinctive—even sorta swaggeringly cool—about the Tube Screamer circuit. It highlights the most famous and useful attributes: strong midrange and that touch of compression that glues everything together. But unlike lesser, inexpensive variations of the TS that can turn that recipe thin and harsh sounding, the Maxon Apex 808 leaves room for notes and chords to breathe, accenting the virtues of its soft, symmetric clipping circuit.

Meet Your Father, Mr. Green
The Apex 808 design was shepherded by Susumu Tamura, the father of the Ibanez TS808. Tamura says that much of the magic in the vintage TS808s he used for reference is attributable to a specific op amp that appeared in the best of those reference pedals. NOS versions of this op amp also drive the Apex 808, though we weren’t able to easily remove the back of the pedal to confirm its identity.

It’s difficult to say precisely how much effect a specific op amp has on the overall sound of a TS circuit, unless it’s a really bad one. And many TS spotters insist that the clipping diodes and the way they are situated in the negative feedback circuit is the more critical part of the TS formula. That said, a pedal’s sound is very much the sum of its parts, and you get the distinct sense that Tamura and his team considered every component with care. It feels like a very high-quality pedal, which helps justify the high $300 asking price—not too bad when you consider that good vintage Ibanez TS808s are climbing ever closer to the thousand-dollar mark.

A More Magical Middle
Discerning the qualities that make a good TS pedal can take concentration at times. In certain situations, like playing a simple first-position A chord, for instance, the differences are more apparent. Compared to a 1981 Ibanez TS9—a very similar, but more mid-forward and compressed circuit—the Maxon sounds much more open and less cluttered with fizzy, harsh overtones in the upper-midrange. And while it’s still very mid-focused, the Maxon seems to nudge the high-mids less aggressively than the TS9, leaving more room for the very warm and growly low-mid sections of the spectrum to breathe and snarl, and for the top end to sing a bit more distinctly and smoothly.

Rootsier players trying to goose a Fender combo at lower volumes are likely to love the more spacious and airy distortion.

The profile makes chords sound much more like the product of natural amp gain, and give leads a rounder, warmer, less metallic edge. That may make the Apex a little less appealing to some shredders and metal players that use TS pedals to make already-screaming tube amps screamier for leads. But rootsier players trying to goose a Fender combo at lower volumes are likely to love the more spacious and airy distortion. This tone profile also gives you more leeway to shape output with the tone control, which is not only sensitive, but has lots of range and is a lot less sizzly at maxed-out settings than a TS9.

The TS’s capabilities as a near-clean boost have been largely overshadowed since the widespread emergence of Klon clones, which excel at that task. But while the Maxon is discernibly more compressed and dirtier than a Klon at the lowest gain settings, the balance of transparency, midrange color, compression, and grit can really thicken up a signal without teetering too completely over into the full-on overdrive zone. The extra midrange and lower midrange body will likely delight players that like more color and tone variation when moving between clean and near-clean tones.

The Maxon’s midrange focus—which isn’t nearly as intense as the Tube Screamer legend might lead you to expect—obviously makes it better suited for certain amp and speaker types. Mid-scooped, black-panel Fenders tend to love the extra mid energy, of course. Tweed-style circuits, with their bright and compressed qualities, are a less ideal fit, to my ear. But I also found that higher-wattage speakers with a little more headroom, as well as Celestion-type speakers with smooth, detailed top end, flatter the ringing high-mids that the Maxon coaxes from an amp.

The Verdict
The Apex 808 is a first-class TS-style pedal. And depending on what you’re looking for, it might be a top-of-the-heap contender. It’s still very much a TS, and that midrange focus might not be the right fit for your style. But with its capacity for adding body, energy, and beautiful, purring mid-gain overdrive texture, it’s a pedal worth auditioning if you want to see what a good TS can really do. Just don’t be surprised if you have a hard time settling for anything less once you’ve heard it.


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