Step inside Premier Guitar’s magical, miraculous time machine and revisit the gear that stood head and shoulders above the rest as Premier Gear Award winners in 2018.
Koll Super Cub
Saul Koll’s latest creation is an upscale tribute to down-market American guitars of the 1960s, but unlike its ’60s inspirations, the Super Cub is an exceedingly high-performance instrument. Equipped with custom Curtis Novak silver-foil pickups, the guitar offers surprisingly versatile tones ranging from authoritative cleans to brash chunk. Light and ridiculously fun to play, the Super Cub will appeal to guitarists who like svelte instruments and appreciate fine hand-workmanship.
A multifaceted Muff clone offers brutalizing and beautiful sides of the Sovtek coin.
Beautiful variations on Sovtek-style tones. Copious tone-shaping options. Very nice boost circuit.
Mid-forward settings can sound too dense.
Wren and Cuff Super Russian
Ease of Use:
With little fanfare, Wren and Cuff has evolved into one of most reliably excellent small pedal makers in the world. The last few years have seen the company diversify beyond their fuzz roots to build an imaginatively executed germanium compressor and chorus/vibrato pedals, among others. But their reputation was built on Big Muff clones. And as the new Super Russian makes plain, the Southern California company’s Muff-style pedals still rank among the best.
The Super Russian marks a departure in some ways. Rather than recreate an existing Muff circuit to some exacting standard, Matthew Holl’s used his version of the classic Tall Font Russian circuit as a jumping off point, leveraging his fluency in Muff circuitry to add new inflections to familiar mods and to the Tall Font circuit itself. It’s among the most flexible Sovtek-inspired pedals I’ve ever played.
Built to Bully
The fit, finish, and design that goes into Wren and Cuff pedals is always apparent. And though the inverted circuit board means you don’t see what components populate it, you do see ample evidence of careful construction. Jacks are chassis-mounted. And while I didn’t confirm it with Holl, I suspect even the selection of the included Sunbeam 9V battery, which reads “Super Heavy Duty” on the side, was carefully considered.
Topside, things are busier than your average Muff. The three rightmost knobs, volume, tone and distortion, are typical Big Muff stuff. The two sturdy mini toggles, however, activate two “mods” that transform the Tall Font circuit. The switch on the right shifts the EQ profile from the classic scooped Sovtek sound to what Wren and Cuff calls a flat EQ setting. The left toggle activates Holl’s version of the famous (if somewhat controversial) “Creamy Dreamer” mod. The left footswitch activates the pedal’s germanium boost circuit—a very nice, transparent boost, controlled by the “push” knob that works seamlessly with the Tall Font Russian circuit.
On balance, the Tall Font side is buzzier and airier than my Sovtek or any of my favorite Sovtek clones—a very cool thing. You hear a lot more detail and articulation, and there’s less of the dynamics-blurring compression that can make even the best Muffs sound muddy for certain leads and complex chords.
Flat mode changes the Super Russian’s personality considerably. The additional midrange makes the basic tone much more heavy metal. That will please players that lament the way a Muff can go missing in a loud band. It may be less popular with Sovtek traditionalists that like the gauzy, hazy mystery of the mid-scooped profile. One super-cool possibility opened up by the flat mode is the filter-y, cocked-wah-style lead sounds you can get when you advance the distortion and tone. It’s killer for twisted, monstrous variations on psych-punk biker fuzz tones.
Creamy mode is a nod to the famous/infamous Creamy Dreamer mod that many Smashing Pumpkins fans adopted to replicate Billy Corgan’s Siamese Dream tones. (All for naught, it turns out: Corgan used an OpAmp Big Muff rather than a silicon-transistor variant.) To my ears, the high-gain creamy mode is less flattering to the old-school scooped setting—rendering dynamics and note detail less distinct and robbing the distortion profile of much needed oxygen. Using it with the flat setting helps offset the muddiness with extra high-mid presence, though this setting, too, gives the pedal a brick-walled, everything-in-the-red feel. Whether this is good or bad is very subjective. I thought it sounded awesome for gnarly, mid-focused single-note lead tones, but enjoyed it much less for chords and dense note clusters, where I wanted to hear the growling harmonic rainbow of the Tall Font circuit.
My favorite tones came by way of marrying the very effective germanium boost to the traditional, scooped Tall Font setting. They’re a great match, and the germanium boost lends vibrancy to the Tall Font circuit’s already very pretty distortion colors. The boost circuit also shifts the more aggressive flat and creamy modes from stun to kill. It can be an amazing tool for putting a lead out in front of a band, though it also highlights the creamy mode’s wall-of-sound intensity.
Even if you only use the traditional, scooped Tall Font circuit along with the boost, the Super Russian is a good value for a superb Sovtek-style pedal. And even though I love Sovtek-style scooped tones, I found that the flat and creamy modes could be tailored in cool ways using the very responsive tone control. For players that love mid-forward, wall-of-fuzz variations of the Muff voice, the Super Russian will be a tone bonanza.
Meet a Harmonic Percolator-inspired powerhouse that dazzles with dynamics, sonic complexity, and the clout of a heavyweight.
Copious unexpected and unusual distortion tones. Superb dynamics. Beautiful overtones.
Tones may be too edgy for some.
Joe Gore Porkolator
Ease of Use:
When you’re a kid, your first distortion, fuzz, or overdrive might as well be magical special sauce. These days though, I’m sometimes let down by distortion—by the way it can squash dynamics, and the way it can obscure the overtone interplay that makes electric guitar such a miraculous instrument.
So, I took heart when I started to run into pedals inspired by the original Interfax Harmonic Percolator. These make an uncommon racket. They’re fat, rich, and colorful, but simultaneously trashy and brimming with punky aggression. As thrilling as these revelations have been, few Harmonic Percolator-inspired pedals have felt as full of possibilities as Joe Gore’s Porkolator. The Porkolator satisfies distortion’s prime directive—generating super-adrenalized sonic filth—with aplomb and abandon. But it also happily lives in gaps that many distortions leave empty, adding dynamic range, character by the baleful, and a colorful, detailed overtone signature that makes guitars sound alive and thrilling, even when you’re not running the pedal wide open.
Rewired to Fire
The Porkolator, which is assembled in Michigan by Vintage King, is not a Harmonic Percolator clone. And its control set is the main reason that the Porkolator retains the Interfax pedal’s essence and spirit while expanding its sonic range. On the original Harmonic Percolator, a master volume knob regulated output while a volume pot at the front end regulated gain in the same way you would with guitar volume attenuation. The Porkolator, however, opens up new tone possibilities by adding a JFET gain section that can drastically reshape the distortion signature. Gore also eliminated the redundant volume control at the front end of the original Percolator, replacing it with a capacitance control that shifts the distorted signal from mid-focused and honky to a more full-spectrum growl.
One essential aspect of the original Interfax pedal’s design that Gore did retain is the unusual pairing of a positive ground germanium transistor and a negative ground silicon transistor. The odd but essential transistor tandem has much to do with the Porkolator’s thick yet grinding tone signature.
Sonically speaking, the Porkolator is full of paradoxes. While it can generate a full-spectrum panoply of distortion colors, few of them are conventionally “pretty”—at least in the way that, say, a Big Muff can take on the buttery smooth qualities of a cello. The Porkolator tends to have a raspy, dry voice that can evoke saxophone, bass clarinet, or analog synth depending on the register. And while it certainly sings, especially with a neck humbucker driving the pedal, sustained notes have a husky patina well suited to punchy phrases, powerchord riffage, and active, melodic chording.
But if the Porkolator doesn’t quite satisfy as a distortion in that silky, molasses, Gilmour-y kind of way, it has a knack for letting overtones breathe that makes even simple chords more than a sum of their parts. Such nuances can be enhanced and exploited through the Porkolator’s excellent touch sensitivity, which enables emphasis of individual notes or note clusters through variations in picking approach. The Porkolator’s succinct, harmonically even bark also sounds absolutely awesome when you strum with ferocity. You can play first-position folk chords at screaming gain levels without losing a trace of overtone detail. (Fans of early Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü, take note.) And when you attenuate your guitar volume just a bit, the same chords take on a brash, ringing quality that’s perfect for particularly potent power pop. Guitar volume attenuation works similar wonders for melodic lines, too, adding peaky top-end excitement that makes leads leap from a mix while leaving room for explosive, full-volume punctuation to solos.
Another byproduct of the Porkolator’s overtone profile is that it’s well suited to open and alternate tunings that derive complexity from doubles, octaves, and odd intervals. I used it with a few well-documented Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine tunings, and the Porkolator’s output sounded especially intricate.
It must be said that the Porkolator’s edgy sounds will not be everyone’s bag of biscuits. The tones are spiky and angular, and single-note lines in high registers can sound brittle at some settings. But the Porkolator’s ability to sum clusters of such tones into tough, colorful, and complex wholes is quite remarkable. And its dynamic range is a delight to work with. If you’ve grown weary of the overdrive, fuzz, and distortion flavors offered via most classic dirt circuits, you might end up re-energized by the many unexpected textures Porkolator puts at your fingertips.