MXR Duke of Tone Review
An impressive taste of what lurks in the King’s chambers for players on a budget.
Thick, smooth boost and overdrive tones that don’t obscure guitar and amplifier voices. Highly dynamic and touch sensitive. Crazily versatile. Great value.
Distortion voice can feel significantly less dynamic and more compressed.
MXR Duke of Tone
The first time I understood the magic of Analog Man’s King of Tone was in a casual conversation with Luther Dickinson. Luther is a warm, enthusiastic guy who can light up talking about a tree, a drum machine, or an old car. But even Luther waxed a little extra rhapsodically when he talked about the King of Tone—and this was from a guy that, given his druthers, would probably, quite happily, never use a boost or overdrive pedal at all.
Luther is far from the only player to be moved by the King of Tone and its little brother, the Prince of Tone. Both pedals often show up among professional players’ stomp arrays. But as just about any dedicated reader knows, the waiting list for either pedal is almost as legendary as the devices themselves. So, the fact that the Analog Man himself, Mike Piera, teamed up with MXR and their own resident genius, Jeorge Tripps, to distill the essence and functionality of the Analog Man’s Prince of Tone into a mini pedal will be very sweet news to a lot of impatient Prince-customers-in-waiting.
Heir to the Throne
The original King of Tone is built around a really excellent overdrive and boost that are controlled independently and can be reconfigured so the boost drives the overdrive and vice versa. MXR’s Duke of Tone mimics the more streamlined layout of the Analog Man’s Prince of Tone. Like that pedal, it can be switched between overdrive, boost, and distortion modes, and features volume, tone, and drive controls. And like the Prince of Tone, it also features an internal pot for boosting or cutting treble. The only real differences between the control layouts is that the Duke of Tone lacks two DIP switches that, on the Prince of Tone, offer the option for a low-mid frequency lift and a little extra compression and crunch..
Inside, the Duke of Tone provides more than a few hints of Mike Piera’s stickler-for-quality influence. A lot of mini pedals I see—for reasons related to economy of space and cost—look churned out by robots bought at a Star Wars-style used-droid auction. The Duke of Tone reveals no such signs of cutting corners. The through-hole-board construction is flawless, and the circuit is built around a 4580D op amp, just as you would find in the King of Tone. Some pedal scientists argue the significance of differences between op amps. Many, however—Mike Piera among them—insist there are real, audible differences. Personally, I’m inclined to defer to the Analog Man. And whether the 4580D here is a primary driver of the Duke of Tone’s personality or a smaller part of the sum, there is no arguing that the whole sounds pretty awesome.
Three Flavors of Smooth, Delicious Chocolate
The first King of Tone pedal originated in a tone chase that began with a broken TS808 Tube Screamer and detoured through a Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal before arriving—via many significant mutations—at its final destination. So, it is not a surprise, perhaps, that in some ways the overdrive mode in the Duke of Tone sounds a little like an aerated TS circuit: scooped in the middle, softened in the high harmonics where the sizzle lives, and allowed to breathe to the point of sounding discernibly more dimensional. The Duke’s overdrive can handle a lot more treble without becoming strident, which gives you plenty of room to explore picking nuance—an attribute that shines in all three of the Duke of Tone’s drive modes. It also means guitar-volume-attenuated tones feel much livelier and more detailed, which translates to more touch dynamics. In a purely tactile sense, the Duke of Tone just plain feels more awake than a TS and more akin to a Klon, a circuit that shares a similar sense of dynamic range. While unmistakably rich, big chords from the Duke of Tone still sound a touch grindy and narrow compared to the meaty, full-frequency bellow of a good Klon-style circuit. But I found the Duke’s chord tones no less appealing—just different.
The Duke’s boost mode is easily my favorite of the three voices. It is almost certainly the loudest. But it is also the most nuanced and the most responsive to dynamics, whether from guitar volume attenuation or variation in touch and picking intensity. On the latter count, the boost is often revelatory. The variations in texture and volume you can achieve by way of touch intensity—indeed, just with a change of attitude—is beautiful stuff. And I suspect much of the original King of Tone’s legend was made here. Klon fans, particularly those who utilize that pedal’s capacity for touch sensitivity, will find much to love in this mode. But there is something special about the way this boost operates at advanced volume, drive, and tone settings. It’s thick, massive, and, yes, transparent. But it also feels exceptionally electric and alive. Situated on either the up- or down-river side of another overdrive, it can make your same old OD tone into something mammoth and nuanced. Downstream from a fuzz, it’s positively deadly.
The distortion mode may be the voice that appeals least to folks inclined to chase a King or Prince of Tone to the ends of the Earth. At many settings it sounds like a more compressed and less complex version of the overdrive, with more gain. At others, though, there’s more than a trace of organic and almost Marshall-like tonalities. And guitar volume reductions can yield cool, sparkling semi-clean sounds.
I had the good fortune to receive the Duke of Tone in time for a show that required moving between very soft-and-quiet and searing Neil Young-style lead sounds. What impressed me was how much of that dynamism I was able to achieve with just my fingers, guitar volume, and the Duke of Tone. This is a pedal with few shortcomings. Overdrive and distortion sounds can seem slightly compressed compared to certain overdrives and boosts—a good Klon-style pedal for example. Then again, the boost voice offers just as much meat and oxygen as those pedals at many levels, and the touch response is every bit as good. At 149 bucks, the Duke of Tone is a real value and the very picture of boost and overdrive versatility. Given the price and quality, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it ends up with wait lists of its own.
MXR Duke of Tone Demo | First Look
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