Croatia’s masterful tone tailors use the Urei 1176 compressor and Dallas Rangemaster as inspiration for a super-flexible sound-sculpting machine.
Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster and Fender Jazz Bass through ‘68 Fender Bassman recorded via Apogee Duet and Rode NT2A
The rhythm guitar is recorded with a Vox UL730-style preamp pedal with Unit67 range, eq. and sustain controls all at noon. Boost is at about 30%. Lead guitar features no extra overdrive and starts with identical Unit67 settings—adding progressively more range, boost, sustain and high-band EQ until boost is ultimately at 75%, range at maximum, high EQ at about 70% and sustain at 70%. Bass is recorded with same levels at rhythm guitar.
Pretty, transparent compression that excites overall tone without excessive coloration. Very intuitive to use. Great range in all controls.
Fixed attack, release, and compression ratio settings diminish flexibility to some extent.
Ease of Use:
As capable and mission-specific as modern stompboxes are these days, it’s easy to lapse into quixotic quests to replicate sounds from records. It’s also easy to forget that many of those sounds were crafted with very basic guitar/amp setups and big assists from outboard studio gear.
To some extent, the Unit67, from Croatia’s DryBell, is built to address this simple truth. It’s a compound boost/compressor/EQ inspired by the Urei 1176—a gold-standard staple of outboard studio racks—and the Dallas Rangemaster, a treble booster that more than a few legends counted as the one pedal worthy of otherwise pedal-free rigs. There’s also a very nice booster, an effective 2-band EQ, and simple but useful EQ-bypass and input-level switches. That’s simple enough to sound pedestrian—even ordinary. But the Unit67 is, in fact, powerful enough to be the centerpiece of a very streamlined and flexible rig.
A Sound Concept
If you’re of a certain aesthetic alignment, the Unit67’s component parts probably sound like a no-brainer recipe. And these days, it’s not exactly unusual for a board to feature a Rangemaster clone and a vintage studio-style compressor. But while there are pedals that use the Urei 1176 circuit as inspiration (Origin’s superb Cali76 line comes to mind.) and an increasing number of fair-to-excellent Rangemaster clones, I can’t recall those circuits being combined—at least in the highly integrated way they are in the Unit67. And integrated is the operative term here. These are not just separate circuits stuffed together in a single enclosure that simply cascades one effect into another. The Unit67’s component parts function as a fluid, interactive, and cohesive whole.
The Unit67’s utilitarian bent is reflected in the relatively simple control layout. The boost knob is the biggest and most prominently placed, which is smart because you’ll likely fine-tune your tone with the compression and EQ controls and adjust the overall level and saturation on the fly. Knobs for range (the Rangemaster-inspired part of the EQ section), low and high frequency controls, and the sustain dial (which is essentially a wet/dry blend for the fixed parallel compression section) are tiny but sturdy. They turn with a firm resistance that ensures settings stay fixed from night to night. This is a good thing, given the considerable range, sensitivity, and interactivity of each of these controls. Two additional toggle switches provide options to boost the input signal (convenient when moving from instruments of varied output) and to bypass the EQ section.
Primed for Performance
It’s tempting to look at the Unit67 and wonder what a few less expensive pedals might do as well. But the Unit67 is much more than the sum of its parts, and the intuitive, adaptive way it functions in performance underscores the thought that went into achieving its more functional whole.
Skeptics will question the extent to which the compressor section truly emulates an 1176. Needless to say, a compact $289 stompbox will not completely replicate the functionality, componentry, or sound quality of an outboard compressor that costs thousands. But DryBell didn’t try to emulate every last function and control of the 1176 as much as it used the Urei’s transparency and utility as benchmarks. And while the circuit topology and FET-based design are certainly 1176-derived, the more important similarities are in the forgiving, nuanced way that the Unit67 affects your signal and how it feels to use the effect: Intuitive, responsive, and capable of subtle shading and more drastic transformations.
Attack, release, and ratio are fixed, so as far as compressors go, it’s not exactly the most versatile. But as anyone that has used a real outboard 1176 in the studio can tell you, it’s pretty easy to find a relatively unobtrusive setting and let the unit do its magic while making subtle adjustments. Using the Unit67 to massage a guitar tone is a very similar process.
Another similarity between the Unit67 and the 1176 is the careful way it walks the line between transparency and coloration. The 1176 became legend in large part because it’s transparent, fast, and less prone to the blunted, pumping dynamics you encounter in cheap compressors—even at super-squished levels. The Unit67 shares these attributes, too—adding oxygen, depth, dimension, and breadth to a basic guitar/amp while exciting and animating harmonics and other subtle tone shadings that your basic rig might typically just hint at. You rarely feel like you’re sacrificing picking dynamics for extra sustain. And the fixed attack and release of the compression are voiced so carefully that I almost never missed them. The boost control has great range and sensitivity. And though it will give a big amp a major kick in the pants and coax warm, low-gain growl at higher settings, the way it enables you to boost a given EQ and compression setting without adding significant coloration is very impressive—especially given the considerable heat and presence you can add with the range control.
If you like lots of control over your compressor, the DryBell’s limited control set may compel you to look elsewhere. But the real power and elegance of the Unit67 is in how seamlessly and forgivingly its component parts work together—particularly in performance and studio situations where changing backlines and room dynamics challenge what you thought you knew about your rig. In scenarios like these, where economy of effort and pedal count can make life and music-making much simpler, the Unit67 is sweet medicine. And while $289 bucks isn’t pocket change, the power, flexibility, and compact convenience of this thoughtfully voiced stompbox make that sum a very fair price.
Take time to pick the strawberries.
With great relief, I'm wrapping up my 10th year as the bandleader and music director for the CMT Music Awards. Award shows, from a production standpoint, are terrifying. The network is hermorrhaging money as the meter runs at a frighteningly high union rate for an army of stagehands, camera operators, and lighting and sound people. Every tick of the clock costs thousands. To add to the chaos and expense, you have about 50 vocal mics, 20 sets of drums, maybe 70 guitars, and bass, keys, and percussion rigs—and enough XLR cabling to stretch to the moon and back. Then, there's all of the wireless RF from mics and in-ear monitors, and the tendency for tubes to die, strings to break, and shit to go wrong when you need it the most. Producing a show like this makes brain surgery seem relatively easy.
Because time is literally money, there's very little of it to dedicate to soundcheck and rehearsal. I leave every pre-show run-though wondering if there's a train wreck coming. It's as relaxing as landing a plane with both engines gone and one wing on fire. And yet, miraculously, it always works.
For example, two years in a row, Kristen Bell performed songs that were written that day with tweaks made right up until we went live, accompanied only by my guitar. Both times, we played an early version of the songs in the dressing room. I ran them over in my head during the dinner break. Then, about an hour into the broadcast, we performed them with her on a ramp in the center of Nashville's Bridgestone Arena and me 50 yards away on a side stage. I had horrible scenarios running through my head even after we started the performance: The distance might give us a time lag so we'd be out of sync, she or I might forget how the song goes, there could be a glitch with her video monitor and she might not know what to sing, RF could short out my guitar or her mic or pick up a walkie-talkie. Yet, it worked both years—probably because Kristen Bell is wildly talented and fearless, and the people tech-ing the show are ninjas of their craft.
In spite of this successful history, the pressure of 5 million viewers and a huge budget can totally undermine a performance. At times, my own personal Satan whispers in my ear, “You can ruin this for everybody." When that voice speaks, I take deep yoga breaths until my head is clear and I can focus on succeeding. You've probably seen people crumble under the pressure of a live performance. It's like they become drunk with anxiety: their eyes glaze over, their jaws go slack, and they make minimal movement, playing scared little notes or singing with a frightened tremor.
The previous CMT award show was a rough one for me. There were some tech issues and I was getting RF interference in my in-ear monitors that sounded like a jet taking off. Not only was it totally disorienting (like being hit by a foul ball when you're paying for a hot dog), but these hits were painful and probably destroying my already not-great hearing. Consequently, I had to turn my pack way down, nothing sounded right, and I was playing poorly and listening to the Devil. As time stood still, I was reminded of a parable told by Buddha that I read when I was 20.
“A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little, started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!"
So, in the midst of all that, I concentrated on the feel of the long, cool, new strings under my hands—the tension I felt when I dug into the chords for a Nile Rodgers-esque part on my old Strat. And I felt so good I had to smile.
Often we walk around in a daze—zombies, losing entire weeks without one memorable moment. Or we get so concerned about possible catastrophes before us or after us that we miss the beauty of right now. Try living live without a net. It's terrifying, exhilarating, good for you, bad for you, but definitely alive.
What’s smaller than a half-loaf of bread, runs on batteries, and just may inspire you to practice more?
Miked with Audio Technica ATM650 into Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface into GarageBand.
Clip 1: ‘70s Epiphone Scroll bass with both pickups engaged. Gain at 11:00 o’clock, level at 1:00 o’clock, tone at 1 o’clock, and tilt at 11 o’clock.
Small and light. Priced right. Aux in, headphone, and LSI jacks.
Can be touchy at higher volume/gain settings.
Ease of Use:
Laney Amplification knows a thing or two about designing amps for paint-peelin’ hard-rock tones. The tiny new Mini-Bass-NX that bears the company name isn’t going to peel anything, but it’s a nifty little desktop/travel bass amp that will provide some volume when and where you’re inspired to practice. The amp is powered by six AA batteries (or optional DC supply) and the 6 watts it musters drives a pair of 3" speakers.
Set flat, the three-pound amp has a somewhat boxy sound that favors the mids, but it houses tone and tilt dials for tone tweaking. No, you’re not going to gig with it, but it is plenty loud and clean for a jam with acoustic-toting friends, and light and small enough to throw in your bag and go wherever. I favored engaging the shape switch and setting the tilt around 10 or 11 o’clock to warm up and round out the tone. You can even dial up some overdrive thanks to the gain dial, but be mindful: Getting too enthusiastic, with the gain and volume past 2 to 3 o’clock, will cause the Mini to clip out. That’s not a knock: It’s a tiny amp! The Mini also houses Laney’s proprietary “LSI” jack, which allows you to interface with your smart device and preferred tone-generating app, and head down a rabbit hole of available digital bass sounds.
If you’re being real about what you can rightfully expect from a hundred-dollar bass amp with tiny speakers, the Mini-Bass-NX certainly does what it’s supposed to, and then some.
Test gear: Traveler CL-3BE, late-’70s Epiphone Scroll bass, Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, Audio-Technica ATM650