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.
PG’s head honcho gets all teary-eyed about the stomps whose tones have lodged in his head from years of gear reviews.
Every year at this time, Premier Guitar raises a collective toast to the mighty stompbox. Sure, throughout the preceding months we’re still rolling out a steady stream of videos, reviews, sound clips, and news about all sorts of pedals. But our annual Pedal Issue is the one “October surprise” that those on the left, right, middle, and everywhere in between can unabashedly agree flat-out rules. Invariably, it’s a mighty collection of 30+ reviews whose diversity and depth of analysis and testing is never matched. Other outlets try, but if you look closely, it’s always a pale imitation. That’s not so much a knock on them as it is an acknowledgement that putting together something like our Pedal Issue, year in and year out—and doing it with such style and insight—requires a lot more time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail than most places can muster.
I’m not here to boast, though. Mostly, I just want to, first, acknowledge the Herculean efforts put forth by PG gear editor Charles Saufley (as well as our diverse crew of freelance and staff stompbox experts) during the months leading up to the compendium of gluttony we roll out at this time of year. Second, I’d like to pause and celebrate what being part of the process means to me, personally.
It goes without saying that one of the coolest aspects of working in guitar journalism is getting to check out killer new gear from all over the world pretty much as soon as it’s available. Every time the mail arrives, it’s like ol’ St. Nick is tromping through the door with big-ass boxes full of tone toys. You get giddy just thinking about what must-haves might be lurking behind the layers of cardboard and bubble wrap.
But it’s way, way more than just fun self-indulgence. Getting to play through just a fraction of the incomparable variety of obscure-to-mainstream stomps we review has enabled me to assemble a rich, vibrant palette I couldn’t have even dreamed of on my own. It has shaped my evolution as a guitarist, musician, and songwriter, and I’m truly grateful for that.
I’m not one of those players with an air-traffic-control board at my feet, but there are a few stomps that are absolutely indispensible to my repertoire. Many of my longtime go-tos are boxes I never would’ve heard of, let alone gotten the chance to play, if not for my gig here. These pedals are now so integral to my music that I almost can’t imagine playing without them.
Of the seven stomps currently on my board, five are units I reviewed and loved so much that I couldn’t not buy them. My go-to delay, the Ibanez ES-2 Echo Shifter (which I demoed for our 2013 review), is obviously mainstream, but its tweak-friendly format and old-school tones are pretty unusual nonetheless. My pick for most gorgeous vintage-style vibrato is the DryBell Vibe Machine from Croatia, whose simplicity and expression-pedal friendliness I gushed about in a 2016 review.
When it comes to dirt, the J. Rockett Audio Archer that Joe Gore reviewed in 2015 was an always-on part of my board for years, but the op-amp glory and flick-of-a-switch flexibility of the dual-channel DrVa stomp from Sweden’s SoundBrut (which I reviewed early this year) has since replaced it—the MkII version that came out this summer is one of two stomps on my board that’s never off. Meanwhile, the fantastically despicable Jordan Fuzztite I reviewed in 2015 remains my favorite mayhem machine—although I haven’t been able to get the remarkably responsive Toe Bender MkII from Canada’s Toetags Electronics out of my head since I took it for a spin in our 2016 Pedal Issue. I’ll have ordered one of those by the time you read this.
Similarly, my time with Malekko’s delectably demented Charlie Foxtrot in 2016 was an experience I couldn’t forget, and over the ensuing couple of years I kicked myself for not immediately snapping it up. Luckily I finally nabbed one this spring.
Those who know me know that I am, perhaps above all else, a reverb junkie. Charles Saufley and John Bohlinger’s 2016 Pedal Issue take sold me on the MXR Reverb. It’s the other never-off pedal on my board, thanks to its lush, spacey “epic” mode, as well as the fact that it’s so easy to use, compact, and expression-pedal controllable.
The only pedal on my board now that hasn’t seen any PG review action is the delightfully small and shockingly great-sounding Mooer Trelicopter tremolo I picked up four years ago. That said, it’s only a matter of time before I finally send Robert Keeley payment so I can once more thrill to the addictive dynamics of his awesome DynaTrem, which I reviewed in our 2015 Pedal Issue.
Now do you see what I’m talking about when I say this thing we do is pretty effing incredible? This is a tiny fraction of the pedal paradise we’ve covered. No matter what kind of tones you crave, we’ve reviewed all kinds of amazing gear that’ll get you there—and beyond.
Klone tones in a baby box with a teeny-tiny price.
Beautiful, open high-gain tones. Responsive, rangeful controls. Small size.
Klon traditionalists may lament trace elements of extra midrange.
MXR Sugar Drive
Ease of Use:
Remember when thinking about Klon tones was a bit like dreaming of touching the surface of Venus? These days, "klones" exist in such abundance that nerds go frothily into online combat disputing the perceived micro-differences between them. And that begs a question: Has the time arrived that a good klone can just be a really nice overdrive, judged on its own merits? MXR’s Sugar Drive deserves that treatment. It’s an excellent klone (at least when judged next to my own favorite klone, which sounds about 96.2 percent as excellent as the real Klon I compared it to). But the Sugar Drive is a versatile, easy-to-use, adaptable, and yes, sweet- and natural-sounding overdrive by any standard. (Isn’t that why folks liked the original Klon in the first place?) Plus, it’s small and cheap. Get the idea? This is an overdrive you should consider, no matter what tone you think you might be chasing.
Mighty Mite Meets Blue Meanie
If you’ve used a Klon, a klone—heck, if you’ve used any overdrive before—there’s little need to explain the three knobs on the topside. But there are differences under the hood that are key to the Sugar Drive’s makeup. Just as on a Klon, the drive control affects multiple facets of the pedal’s output by boosting clean signal, mids, bass, and voltage as you increase gain. This results in high-gain tones that are airier, less compressed, more responsive to pick dynamics and guitar-volume attenuation, and more rooted in the essential voice of a given instrument. Some players refer to this quality as transparency. I tend to hear it as multicolored. The tone control (which is really a treble control) has copious range and moves readily from mellow to searing. The volume control, too, is blessed with a lot of range, which enables you to hear complex overdrive tones at wrecking ball volumes. I don’t often hear folks sing the praises of the wide-open distortion capabilities of klones, but Sugar Drive excels at generating these rich and filthy sounds.
Kick to the Midsection
Sugar Drive has a little more mid- and high-midrange kick than the most exacting klones. This can create the illusion that the MXR’s frequency response is narrow for a pedal of this type. For some Klon fans, the extra midrange will reduce the sense of transparency that is partly responsible for Klon’s mythic status. But when I played the Sugar Drive by itself, I didn’t mind the extra presence at all. The very small extra bit of midrange almost gives the Sugar Drive the feel of a Klon that took a little Tube Screamer pill to start the day—no bad thing in my book. And for a player like myself who prefers squishier vintage Fender amplifiers (I primarily use an old Bassman and a blackface Tremolux), the extra midrange lends welcome liveliness to the output. The issue of extra midrange really comes into play when you stack the Sugar Drive with other pedals. If you have a Big Muff on either side of the Sugar Drive, the result is a full-spectrum wallop. Using a more scathing Tone Bender-style circuit alongside Sugar Drive can be less flattering to both pedals. But again, it bears mentioning that we’re discussing very small increments in variation. In general, the Sugar Drive is friendly and accommodating to other distortions, fuzzes, and overdrives.
You can’t discuss a pedal like the Sugar Drive, it seems, without talking about its capacity as a clean boost. This isn’t really my favorite part of the klone experience. I like boosts to add a little touch of flavor. Nevertheless, the Sugar Drive handles this task with aplomb—especially because you can use the effective tone control to hype hot-but-cleanish tones in a cool way.
Though they’re a bit late to the party, I’m glad MXR took the time to get their Klon klone right. It doesn’t bend over backward to slavishly imitate every last little detail of the original Klon, and it is a cooler pedal for the flexibility in design mindset. The ever-so-slight bump in midrange will be welcome to many vintage Fender-style amp users (particularly those working on the tweed end of the spectrum). And the aspects of great, classic Klon design that remain intact, especially the oxygenated high-gain settings, make the pedal feel remarkably responsive and complex for the price. Factor in the convenience of the miniscule size, and you have a price/performance championship contender on your hands.