november 2010

A lot of fuzz flavors in one box

Download Example 1
Volume: 10 o'clock, Vig: 2 o'clock
Download Example 2
Volume: 3 o'clock, Vig 10 o'clock
All tracks recorded with a humbucker-equipped Gibson Les Paul and a 1966 Fender Bassman.
The guitar-playing citizens of Portland, Oregon, may know Jack Deville as the man who can fix their amp in a pinch. But elsewhere in the world, this esteemed Northwest amp repairman is fast making a name for himself as designer of two unique-sounding pedals, the Dark Echo delay and the all-germanium Buzzmaster fuzz reviewed here.

All Business
The Buzzmaster’s bold, gold text and matte black box has a utilitarian, let’s-get-down-the-biz-of-heavy-rocking look—something Lord Vader would have in his rig, perhaps. The control set couldn’t be much simpler— at least on the face of the pedal. There’s a Volume knob and a gain labeled Vig, which is short for "vigor." The latter is appropriate, given the pedal’s potential energy and range, but maybe not quite as suggestive of the evil this dial can introduce to your tone. Inside the casing, there’s a miniscule bias trim knob that helps you fine-tune the pedal’s first stage and can assist in overcoming the inherent instability of germanium transistors in varying climates.

The footswitch is a clickless, true-bypass switch of Deville’s design (you can also buy it as an aftermarket product for retrofitting other boxes) that eliminates popping—particularly at super high-gain settings—when you kick the pedal on.

A Rangy Voice

For a pedal that looks so straightforward, the Buzzmaster has a very complex personality. I got to know the Buzzmaster using a blackface Fender Bassman driving a 2x12 cab, a 50-watt Ampeg SuperJet 1x12 combo, a Marshall 1987 Plexi, a Fender Jaguar, Rickenbacker 330, and a Guild Starfire with DeArmond humbuckers.

With the Vig control rolled almost entirely off and the Volume kicked up a bit past unity, the Buzzmaster was gritty, but not buzzingly overdriven. It inhabited a bluesy territory, but a plot much more akin to Cream-era Clapton making a Marshall sing than SRV and a Tube Screamer. Though the Buzzmaster gave the Bassman a nasty, cutting quality on top of its rubbery low-end signature—particularly with the semi-hollow Rickenbacker and Guild—I sensed the pedal wasn’t quite in its comfort zone.

But with a twist of the gain knob, now set just short of noon, I felt the Buzzmaster was working in the manner its creator intended.

The Jaguar’s neck and bridge pickup took on a nasty, nasally snarl with detectable low-octave tones that flirted with octave fuzz territory and sustained mightily with the help of some aggressive finger vibrato. The harmonic spectrum was even wider when using the semi-hollowbodies. The Rick’s top-end detail remained intact and floating above the burly, low-mid growl and heavy low-octave traces that offered more than a hint of vintage Univox Super Fuzz. The Guild’s DeArmonds drove the Buzzmaster further into the ice pick zone on high single-note lines, but with the same traces of low octave booty, and first-position chords roared almost like a vintage Big Muff with a dry, high-end bump.

The Buzzmaster can get delightfully unruly too. Maxing the gain knob and dialing up the volume induced a very useful, killing-my-amp kind of breakup where high end decayed chaotically over a bed of sustained low-end grumble. And while it isn’t a setting that’s suited to sustained Townshendian power chords, it works well for faster single-note picking, enabling you to relay a lot of melodic data without too much mud.

The Verdict

The Buzzmaster packs a lot of fuzz flavors in a single box. Fans of vintage Big Muffs, Super Fuzzes, and even the crispy, crackling sounds of Mark I Tone Benders and old Maestros will find familiar and friendly tones within. The biggest surprise, and perhaps the pedal’s strongest point, is the heavy octave sound that emerges in the Buzzmaster’s fuzz voice at high-gain settings. The pedal is likely to work best in front of a clean amp (things can get hectic fast in front of hotter Marshall circuits). But if you need the kind of fuzz that can punish with personality and cut through any mix, the Buzzmaster is more than up to the task.

Buy if...
you like a bossy, multi-voiced fuzz.
Skip if...
you’ve begun to embrace subtlety in your ripping leads.

Street $250 - Jack Deville Electronics -

Tone Games 2010: 30 Stompboxes Reviewed
Next in DIRTIER: Stomp Under Foot Ram's Head

Power supply for small to medium rigs

Feel the Power
At the 2010 NAMM show, in Anaheim, California, Voodoo Lab unveiled their Pedal Power ISO-5. The little brother of Voodoo Lab’s Pedal Power 2 Plus, the ISO-5 is intended to power small to medium rigs.

The ISO-5’s dimensions are 9" x 3.4" x 1.8"—perfect to drop into a pedalboard or rack-mounted rig. It weighs in at 1.24 pounds and has a sturdy metal chassis that would hold up well against the inevitable and inadvertent foot stomping. And with its grey-black box and white-and-red labeling, this power supply looks pretty sharp.

The ISO-5 contains five isolated, regulated, and filtered outputs—three 9V, for pedals that run on 9-volt batteries and require 100 mA or less; a high-current 9V, for devices requiring up to 300 mA; a 12V, for those requiring 12 volts at 300 mA (or those that use an unregulated 9V adapter); and an 18V, for pedals requiring two 9-volt batteries, like the power-draining digital offerings of Eventide, Line 6, and TC Electronic. The ISO-5 includes enough cables for connecting a pedal to each output, and Voodoo Lab sells individual cables for all purposes.

I auditioned the ISO-5 with the same four pedals I used for the Chameleon—the Crybaby wah, the Frantone overdrive, the Boss delay, and the Pigtronix envelope phaser. While the Chameleon has more flexibility than the ISO-5, the latter is slightly more user-friendly and has a red LED light to indicate operation. Like the Chameleon, the ISO-5 in no way colored my tone, and the effects ran quietly, too. And costing a bit less than the Chameleon, the ISO-5 would be preferable for users with less complicated rigs.

Buy if...
you’ve got a small- to medium-sized rig with mixed voltage requirements.
Skip if...
you’ve only got a couple of 9V pedals.

Street $110 - Voodoo Lab -

Tone Games 2010: 30 Stompboxes Reviewed

Reissue of a lesser-known classic

Download Example 1
Download Example 2
Download Example 3
Phase shifters are rarely regarded as subtle effects. But if you count yourself among the phase averse because of the heavy handed, all-or-nothing textures some of them generate, MXR’s ’75 Vintage Phase 45 could change your mind.

MXR’s phasers are rightly regarded as classics. But while the Phase 100 became legendary at the feet of players like David Gilmour, and the Phase 90 colored Eddie Van Halen’s early work, their more sedate cousin the Phase 45 was something of a wallflower at the dance. With this beautiful reissue of the 45, MXR may coax this sweet-sounding pedal into the limelight yet.

As Simple as It Gets
The burnt-orange Phase 45 with its MXR script logo is the very picture of stompbox elegance. It has a single knob—Speed—that adjusts the rate of phase. And true to the original, the 45 is strictly battery powered, so there’s no AC jack. In other words, this is as clean and uncluttered an effect case as you’ll ever see.

MXR paid just as much attention to authenticity under the hood. The circuit board, which is padded by thin foam on either side, is handwired. The pedal also uses the Switchcraft jacks and Carling bypass switch that were used on the original. Period correct details cost you in one respect—there’s no light to tell you if the pedal is on or off. Thankfully, the audible clues to the operational state of the Phase 45 are unmistakable.

Subtly Swirled
Because of its simplicity and warm, toneful character, the Phase 45 is a pleasure to use from the second you plug it in. Setting the Speed to 9 o’clock colored simple arpeggios (played through a clean blackface Fender Tremolux) with a clear, sleepy psychedelic swirl that was rich with high-end harmonic detail.

Setting the Speed to midway gives you a deeper, slightly faster sonic swish that’s perfect for Stax-flavored, suspended chord-based ballads, as well as my own pass at the Rolling Stone’s slow burner from Tattoo You, “Heaven.”

Move the knob clockwise between 4 and 5 o’ clock, and the Phase 45 takes on an even stronger personality. Here the phase has more push and stronger pulses—taking on a character somewhere between a pulsing amplifier tremolo and a Uni-Vibe, but also inhabiting an ideal space between a phaser and a rotary speaker. It’s a beautiful and natural-sounding effect that can be worked in and out of a mix with crafty use of your guitar’s volume knob.

Interestingly, the Phase 45 is also very responsive to tweaks of a guitar’s tone knobs. And rolling off the bass and treble tone knobs on the Rickenbacker 330 used to test, the 45 was a quick way to reduce the amount and depth of the phase in the mix.

The Verdict
The Phase 45 is one of those pedals that can get you out of a rut. It’s warm, organic, and rarely harsh. And while you could wile hours away enjoying the lush and sometimes surreal textures it can lend to the simplest chords, the Phase 45 can also enliven funk grooves and add a tipsy swagger to Keith Richards-style leads.

The Phase 45 is certainly subtler and less capable of heavy interstellar warpage than a Small Stone or a cranked Phase 90. But if the stale riffs in your repertoire are crying for the kind of modulation that can flavor your playing without melting the minds of bandmates and your audience, you’ll dig what Phase 45 has to offer.

Buy if...
you’re on the hunt for colorful, lush, but not overbearing phase modulation.
Skip if...
full-on phase freaks you out, man.

Street $99 - Jim Dunlop Manufacturing -

Tone Games 2010: 30 Stompboxes Reviewed
Next in MODULATION: Radial Engineering Bones Vienna Chorus