A distortion pedal that thinks it’s a compressor. Or is it the other way around?
A quick look at Mid-Fi Electronics’ products page reveals that builder Doug Tuttle doesn’t do clones. All his pedals seem to have some clever and unique angle. His Magick i distortion is a great example. In fact, it’s such a unique distortion that you can’t explain it without talking about compressors.
Old-school optical compressors use an internal light bulb or LED that flashes in response to the input level. A nearby photoresistor (that is, a light-dependent resistor, or LDR) translates the brightness of the bulb into a signal that controls an amplifier. Result: Loud sounds get more heavily compressed than quiet ones.
Magick i employs a similar mechanism. But instead of setting the amount of gain reduction, the light controls the gain/distortion amount. Play louder, and the light flashes brightly, summoning more distortion. Play softer, and the distortion cleans up. Magick i’s controlling LED is internal, but a second LED serves as the pupil of the pedal’s eye graphic. It’s wired in parallel to the internal one, so you can observe its relative brightness while playing.
Tech-savvy players may be scratching their heads at this point, thinking, “Hey, distortion and overdrives already behave that way! Play harder, and you get heavier distortion. Why complicate things with an LED/LDR circuit?”
My best answer is, “It just feels different.”
Optical compressors have slow response relative to newer, non-optical designs. That’s probably the main reason people still use them. Here, that means notes maintain strong, percussive attack, even at fairly heavy settings. But once the distortion kicks in, notes seem to breathe and pump.
Notes decay less quickly, and they maintain peak distortion (and peak brightness) for longer than usual. It feels at times like you’re playing through a compressor. Are you? It’s a bit of a chicken/egg question, since distortion, by nature, compresses.
At maximum settings, Magick i coughs up a buzzy, full-frequency blat—an “ugly” sound that can work great in the right context. Yet the pedal can also be subtle, thanks to three tone-sculpting tools that compliment the expected gain and level controls.
There’s a bass-cut knob, situated upstream from the distortion portion of the circuit. But it doesn’t simply cut bass. Because low frequencies disproportionately drive distortion circuits, trimming bass changes the character of the distortion as well its frequency content. And you can get many useful tone variations via this knob alone.
Meanwhile, the treble-cut control is at the end of the circuit, where it can rein in that fierce treble response. Its range is relatively subtle—the pedal can still get squawky with the knob at its minimum position. But it can make the difference between “ouch” and “cool.”
Finally, a small switch toggles between 12-watt and 22-watt operation. The higher-wattage setting is louder and more distorted, but with a nice sense of clean headroom. (Despite the variable wattage, Magick i runs on standard 9-volt power. It has no battery compartment.)
The extra controls vastly expand Magick i’s range. In fact, it’s a pretty good “amp in a box,” as demonstrated in Doug Tuttle’s own demo video on his company’s website. The pedal’s treble energy is perfect for mimicking overheated tweeds. With both treble and bass pulled back, you get solid early Marshall sounds. You can dial in many characteristics here.
Still, Magick i doesn’t do “transparent.” You can get much tonal variation by setting your guitar’s volume knob at various spots in the upper-third of its range. But even at low settings, it never truly cleans up like, say, a Fuzz Face or a Klon-style overdrive. And since both compression and distortion add noise, aggressive settings get noisy. I find the noise levels manageable, but if low noise is a key feature for you, proceed with caution.
Like all Mid-Fi pedals, Magick i has a funky, homemade appearance, “decorated” with roughly applied spray paint and willfully inconsistent lettering. The interior is equally homemade. There’s no printed circuit board—components are arranged on a piece of generic through-hole board like you’d find in a DIY pedal project.
Adhesive foam tape covers the board’s top and bottom, steadying the otherwise unsecured board and preventing shorts. But the components, wiring, and assembly are all perfectly solid, and there’s no reason to think Magick i will have a shorter lifespan than a pedal assembled by robots. Four medium-gain 2N3904 silicon transistors and a network of germanium and silicon diodes provide the crunch.
Whether or not you dig its tones, Magick i represents a spark of creativity in a cosmos of clones. Much of the pedal’s character stems from its feel— especially the way notes sustain and decay. It’s hard to describe but easy to perceive, so I recommend trying before buying. At subtle settings it can mimic amps and help you sculpt tones in useful and expressive ways. Crank it, though, and it shrieks.I suspect that some guitarists who primarily play at home alone will recoil from Magick i’s innate brightness, while players with recording, production, and performance experience will grasp the utility of the pedal’s strong note-attack and treble-rich tones.