Catalinbread CB Series Fuzz, Distortion, and Overdrive Review
Take a straight line to stompbox satisfaction.
Tough, cutting, silicon fuzz tone with warmth and character. Satisfyingly simple to use. Super-solid build quality.
One-knob design comes with some tone-shaping limitations
A lot of Catalinbread’s best pedals, like the Echorec, Adineko, Belle Epoch, and Topanga, emulate the sounds and function of quirky and unruly electromechanical devices. Designing and building digital stompbox versions of these machines is not easy. The R&D can be intense. And you can imagine the obsessive traps one would encounter chasing a magical ghost tone lurking in the arcane workings of a drum delay or an oil can echo. Catalinbread’s new CB Series pedals, however, are a pivot in the direction of pure simplicity. For the company’s engineering department, developing these pedals must have been a bit like a summer art retreat.
Each of the CB Series pedals—the Fuzz, Overdrive, and Distortion—are a 1-knob design. They forego the company’s usual stylish, multicolored enclosures for uniform, almost austere art that is more than a little evocative of 1980s skateboard graphics. A sense of design economy is evident under the hood, too. Each pedal is built around a circuit board not much bigger than a few postage stamps.
Though they are simple, the U.S.-built CB Series pedals are very high quality. The circuit boards utilize through-hole construction. Input, output, and 9V jacks are enclosure mounted. And the single knob on each pedal is mated to a smooth potentiometer with useful detents that prevent errant adjustments and facilitate precise ones. Simplicity does not mean cheap and chintzy here. And a big part of the CB Series’ utility is in their genuine roadworthiness. These are burly little units.
The CB Fuzz takes some of the guesswork out of fuzz crafting by effectively fixing the gain at a hot, high level and making the single knob a master output control. In some ways, this control configuration imitates the technique embraced by many germanium Fuzz Face users: crank the fuzz knob, adjust output volume to taste (preferably something pretty aggressive), and let the guitar volume do the business of gain regulation. The CB Fuzz uses silicon rather than germanium transistors, which reduces its sensitivity to volume dynamics, but it still works pretty effectively using this operational guideline. The overdrive tones you get at lower guitar volumes also aren’t quite as pretty or complex as those from a pedal like a germanium Fuzz Face. They’re typically colored by a snorkely midrange emphasis. But there are still plenty of cool rhythm tones here, with lots of attitude and the capacity to cut.
In tone terms, the CB Fuzz has a lot in common with a silicon Fuzzrite. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it shared DNA with Catalinbread’s own excellent silicon Fuzzrite. It’s aggressively buzzy, but articulate. And individual notes in chords shine through quite clearly, which is not always the case in simpler silicon fuzzes.
“Individual notes in chords shine through quite clearly.”
Using humbuckers, the CB Fuzz achieves unity gain right around the 11-o’clock-to-noon mark. Single-coils tend to need a little more gas from the pedal. But in both cases, you’re left with a lot of extra volume if you want to set up the CB to scream and soar above your no-fuzz tone. The CB Fuzz is hellaciously loud, and it gives you a lot of options for dramatic texture shifts. It’s tempting to think that a lot of the volume, headroom, and clarity in the CB Fuzz is attributable to the simplicity of the circuit. But that simplicity also makes the CB Fuzz loads of fun. And while the minimal controls may make the $150 price tag look steep, the CB Fuzz rips.
Of the three CB Series pedals, the Distortion is best suited to the ’80s skate-shop graphics that adorn the enclosures. Wide open, it snarls with brash, punky swagger. But it also excels at throaty, wrecking-ball-heavy ’70s-rock voices, managing to suggest everything from warhorse units like the MXR Distortion+ and DOD 250 to a Marshall plexi let off its leash.
Plugging in the CB Distortion next to the CB Fuzz is a great case study in what differentiates the two pedal types and what makes a good distortion pedal work. The Distortion dishes lots of midrange, and clarity from the high strings makes chords feel and sound articulate. Like the CB Fuzz, the CB Distortion is loud, and there is a ton of volume beyond unity gain that you can use to dramatic dynamic effect—provided you don’t drive your amp to heavy compression.
While you might not associate distortion pedals with touch, volume, or tone-attenuation dynamics, the CB Distortion is pretty responsive. Guitar tone adjustments, in particular, can recast the Distortion’s voice without totally defanging it, making the omission of a tone knob on the pedal much less consequential. And while using the CB Distortion at lower guitar volume will never stand in for, say, a clean Fender Twin Reverb, the range of dirty-to-less-dirty tones is surprisingly considerable.
“Guitar tone adjustments can recast the Distortion’s voice without totally defanging it.”
The CB Distortion’s heavy midrange makes it an ideal match for scooped Fender amps, and it’s a great way to extract more flexibility and Marshall growl from your old black- or silver-panel unit. Your preferences may vary. But any player that wants fast access to raw, sometimes blistering, and often very cultivated distortion tones will thrill to the sounds accessible via this simple device.
For an effect intended to replicate the simple formula of a guitar and a loud tube amplifier, overdrive pedals can often be awfully precious and complex. For tone crafters deep into precision, these mutant overdrive/EQ/preamp solutions can be a boon. But for players that succumb to option fatigue fast, or are more interested in performance spontaneity and energy than specific tones, the CB Overdrive’s stupidly simple functionality may represent an ideal.
The fixed gain on the CB Overdrive works in a more limiting way than it does on the CB Fuzz and Distortion. You can get some pretty great clean and low-gain tones via guitar volume adjustments. But if you’re more inclined to work from a baseline closer to a clean boost, like many overdrive users do, the CB Overdrive might feel a little hot.
“It feels more muscular and throatier than a vintage TS9.”
In general, the CB Overdrive is very midrange-forward, and as such has much in common with a Tube Screamer. But it is a potent variation on that theme. It feels more muscular and throatier than a vintage TS9. And even though it can feel limited by comparison, there is complexity and a roughneck purity in the CB Overdrive that is surprisingly balanced. Control freaks may take one look at the CB Overdrive and run. Players that like things streamlined and direct, however, are likely to be thrilled at how seamlessly and effortlessly this pedal can add edge and excitement to a baseline tone.