The Open Road Overdrive and Truetone Clean Boost are useful, affordable tools that play well together.

Click here to download a jam recorded by the reviewer using both pedals.
Hard gigging pros who live on the road know that good tone can come and go with the wind. Venues change, back lines rotate, and equipment that breaks gets replaced or repaired, sometimes with unintended results. The idea of carting around expensive or irreplaceable boutique amps begins to take on a questionable logic. For all but a few players, it is the pedalboard, not the amplifier, that becomes the reliable backbone of a signature sound. Second only to a few trusted guitars, the pedalboard is your sound. And even the most renowned players, who can afford to carry road cases full of one-off handwired amps, still largely rely on the pedalboard to define their sound.

The folks at Visual Sound have an uncanny understanding of the road warrior musician, and what makes him tick. They seem to really get the degree to which guitarists lean on their pedals for their signature tone. Visual Sound’s latest salvo into the extremely competitive stompbox market is their Truetone Clean Boost and Open Road Overdrive pedals. Let’s hit the road, and put the pedal to the metal—and the pedals to the test.


Download Example 1
Open Road Overdrive
Visual Sound’s newest overdrive unit is a refinement of the company’s earlier Route 808 Overdrive, which itself was a wellcrafted clone of the classic Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer. The Open Road Overdrive is a new animal entirely, primarily because it addresses the shortcomings in its predecessors. One of the most frequent gripes about stompbox overdrives is their overabundance of midrange frequencies. The midrange spike can really build up in the studio come mix time, and it can take its toll on stage, even though lots of mids are a natural outgrowth of the way an overdrive clips the incoming signal.

The Open Road does well to preserve the fundamental frequencies—the bottom end—while delivering the flavor up top, and the Tone knob adds sparkle to the top end when turned clockwise, but without adding an overabundance of midrange. At no time did the tone become obnoxious or overbearing. The engineers at Visual Sound have done a nice job here, making this dial more than just the sonic equivalent of choosing between a fine or coarse cheese grater.

With the Drive dial cranked, the Open Road oozed with plexi goodness, especially when goaded by a Les Paul Custom loaded with humbuckers. With an American Strat packing traditional single coils and the Drive knob set less aggressively, we found ourselves squarely in classic Fender Twin territory. The one thing the Open Road doesn’t do is the over-the-top shred fest; if you’re looking for a box to deliver apocalyptic metal mayhem, this is not it.

The Volume knob allows you to control how hard you hit the amplifier’s preamp stage, and thus further invites you to dial in more tone. I tested the Open Road with a Line 6 Spider Valve 1x12” amp, which has a tube preamp, a tube power amp, and 12 digital amp models. We set it on the “plain Jane” vanilla clean setting, the least forgiving setting for a unit like this (in fact, the sound clips were recorded entirely from the Line 6’s high-Z line out and the clean amp model). The Volume control helped beef up the output nicely.

Larger boxes, like the Visual Sound housing, do take up more space on the pedalboard,and if they’re made with the requisite robustness that roadwork requires (this one is), they’re also heavier. I favor the larger boxes for their ruggedness. Moreover, the Visual Sound Open Road has a substantially wider button, which looks like mil-spec hardware left over from the Soviet space program.

Above all else, I came away with the sense that the Open Road was more of an amp simulator than a distortion box. The Tone knob took on many characteristics of a tube amp’s presence control, while the Drive knob acted like an amp’s hot channel preamp gain stage. Lower settings produced the smokey sounding onset of clipping that is normally heard from a tube amp on the brink of breakup. It was easy and fun to flirt with that edge with some dynamic picking, or by rolling into the guitar’s volume control. The Open Road Overdrive has a fat, ballsy tone that doesn’t shortchange the often-neglected bottom end. It’s got a presence that shimmers up top, without sounding plastic or transistorized. It’s going to give you a reliable, organic, authentic tube-amp tone from even the cheesiest solid-state ’80s amp.
Buy if...
you're looking for a well-rounded, organic tube-amp-style overdrive.
Skip if...
death metal is your thing, and you consider yourself the spawn of Satan.
Rating...
4.0 

MSRP $119 - Visual Sound - visualsound.net





Download Example 2
Truetone Clean Boost
The Visual Sound Truetone Clean Boost pedal is deceptively simple: two knobs, and an On/Off button. That’s it. It’s like a supercharger bolted to an already healthy V-8 engine. It will boost everything by a factor that can be set with the Volume knob. Whatever tonal nuances you bestow to your incoming signal will be amplified or accentuated. In point of fact, the Truetone Clean Boost is two tools in one. In its simplest guise, it’s a high-gain preamp. In a world of complex digital effects with computers running algorithms, the Clean Boost might seem a bit of a throwback, but for the vast majority of road-going bands, there’s no monitor engineer, or even a mix engineer. If you need to step up for a solo, you need to be able to just hit the gas and go.

This pedal is best with an amp with lots of headroom. A boost to the incoming signal isn’t going to be terribly effective if the power amp is sending out a clipped signal. In recent years, there has been a trend towards using very clean tube power amps with all of the tone sculpting coming from pedals and other outboard gear. Players who value dynamics get the maximum benefit, and the tube saturation of the amp is still an integral part of the sound.

When used as a quasi-overdrive, the Clean Boost excels, provided it’s hitting the “right” preamp. The Clean Boost provides a fat, mostly unadulterated signal (depending on the tone setting). If you’ve got vintage tweed, a plexi, or any type of warm, multistage tube amp, the Clean Boost is going to catapult you into the pleasure zone without making your ears bleed. The simple Tone knob works best when conceptualized in the classic sense of an equalizer—tamping down a high end that’s too strident, or adding some sharpness to a dull, swampy signal. When positioned between a Stratocaster and the Line 6 Spider Valve combo amp, the Clean Boost beefed up the bottom end, hitting the preamp hard for some authentic, old-time overdrive. In this situation, the tone control allowed me to roll off some extra high end which was having an undesirable effect on the natural overdrive of the amp. When the Strat was switched out for the Les Paul Custom, I needed some extra high-end boost.

Like the Open Road Overdrive, the Truetone Clean Boost also gets the benefit of Visual Sound’s formidable housing and robust foot switch. But the aluminum shell of  the Truetone’s volume knob had come unglued from its plastic core. The metal knobs are cosmetic caps that are glued onto the plastic core, into which the  metal shaft of the pot is locked. According to Visual Sound, this is a rare problem that occurs during shipping, and they will replace any defective  knobs.
Buy if...
your amp or overdrive unit needs an extra kick in the pants at just the right time.
Skip if...
you've got a channel-switching tube amp with great gain staging options.
Rating...
3.0 

Street $99 - Visual Sound visualsound.net  

The Final Mojo
Armed with just the Open Road Overdrive and the Truetone Clean Boost, I’d feel confident walking into any joint, plugging them in to any random guitar amp and laying down some righteous jams. With the Open Road Overdrive punching up the bottom (while keeping the top sizzling along), it all promises to be a fun-packed, high-speed road trip. The Truetone Clean Boost likewise will provide serious passing power on your musical highway when you need it the most. In the studio, we were rewarded with inspiring tone right out of the box—even when our test units were placed at a tonal disadvantage. These are workhorse pieces at a terrific price, and if you’re the kind of guitarist who likes to toneshape with foot pedals, both of these will provide rewarding jams.

Editor’s note: the print version of this  review originally contained incorrect information regarding the Volume knob  of the Truetone Clean Boost, the aluminum shell of which came unglued from  its plastic core during shipping. The html version of the review has been  corrected. We regret the error.
 

The Fuzzy Drive goes way beyond fuzz as a versatile box of effects

Download Example 1
The big question to answer when reviewing a new fuzz box like the EWS FD-1 Fuzzy Drive pedal is, do you gauge it on its ability to faithfully recreate a tone that, in its classic form, borders on shrill, or do you judge it on what it adds to the equation in the form of warmth, nuance, and flexibility? Understandably, this author was a little nervous. Notwithstanding, we were intrigued about EWS itself, and the fact that this new player in the pedal game is a sister brand to the Xotic brand of boutique effects—a big check in the plus column before we even started. Both Xotic and EWS are owned by Prosound Communications, which is based in the US out of San Fernando, CA.

The FD-1 Fuzzy Drive is the first pedal produced by EWS (which stands for Engineering Work Store). The EWS name is not well known in the U.S., but has a fairly large following in Japan, where they specialize in guitar repairs and pedal modifications, their most well known being the Arion Chorus modification. Besides its foray into effect pedals, EWS is also introducing a line of tube-powered micro amps for the Japanese market. Like Xotic, EWS has a boutique aura about its products and service—at least in Japan where they are better known.

When you think of fuzz boxes, the first thing that comes to my mind is the theme song for Green Acres, or perhaps the Rolling Stones classic, “Satisfaction.” These early fuzz boxes had a raspy, edgy sound that, for a lot of guys, is a take-it-or-leave-it tone proposition. I'm not making this point to judge good or bad tone, but simply acknowledging that there is a pretty narrow interpretation of traditional fuzz box tones that one would rightfully expect out of something with the word “fuzz” in its name. So imagine my surprise when I plugged into the EWS Fuzzy Drive and got a range of tones from warm overdrive, to almost buzz saw. I was expecting a one-trick pony like an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi or an Arbiter Fuzz Face, but found that the EWS Fuzzy Drive is a whole lot more.

With its three knobs, the FD-1 is deceptively simple. The Gain knob on the upper right determines how hard the incoming signal gets clipped; as this dial is turned clockwise, the more “fuzz” you’ll get. Up to about half way (straight up), the overall sound is like a tube amp breaking up. The sound is warm, and invites dynamic picking. At modest settings, soft strumming and light picking—even with the guitar’s volume up all the way—keeps the signal just under the clip threshold. Pick aggressively, and it goes right into sweet overdrive. Put the Gain knob at 5 o’clock (all the way up), however, and you’re almost into Green Acres territory—only the sound is creamier.

While the Gain control on the FD-1 controls the overall character, the Tone control gives it “edge.” To the extent that the purpose of a fuzz box is to clip the signal to the point that it effectively becomes a square wave, this introduces lots of high, jagged harmonics. The Tone control burnishes this nicely, and can leave all the buzziness in tact, or smooth it out almost entirely for a pure, synth-like tone. There’s plenty of range, and I found myself keeping it between halfway, and maxed out most of the time.

The last knob in the signal chain is the Volume dial, which determines how much signal the front of the amp sees. It was fun to experiment with how hard to hit the amp—which in this case was a Line 6 Spider Valve 112 tube amp. This amp is a hybrid that combines on-board digital effects and amp models with a classic tube power amp, but for this evaluation, we ran the amp on the cleanest setting. What we found was that even with no help from the on-board amp models, the EWS Fuzzy Drive had enough balls to hit the preamp really hard. With just a modest amount of gain on the FD-1, and a moderate dose of the volume knob (2 o’clock), the Line 6’s tubes were in a really happy place.

Physically, the FD-1 is a solid, tank-like piece of equipment. The cast aluminum box is brushed, then clear coated; a black retro-style graphic and white lettering is silk-screened on the box. Three black Bakelite knobs are solidly attached to the pots with brass set screws. Power comes from an on-board 9-volt battery, or external adapter. Since the FD-1 has a true bypass switch, when it’s turned off, there is no battery drain or output variance due to battery strength. We did notice, however, that at higher stage volumes, there was a noticeable click from the switch when the unit is turned on.

Inside, a simple circuit board carries 14 resistors, 13 capacitors, one diode, and one each of a dual op-amp and a single op-amp. The board is well protected by a foam cushion sandwiched between the board and the three potentiometers. Unlike classic fuzz boxes, no discrete transistors are used, which may be a deal breaker for some. (If you’re looking for germanium transistors, you’ll need to buy an antique, since mass-produced germanium-equipped fuzz boxes aren’t made any more.)

 

The pots themselves have a nice damped, quality feel to their movement, and you get the impression that this is a sturdy piece of gear that’s going to handle the road nicely. The Tone control also features a slight detent in the middle.

Although the FD-1’s claim to fame is as a fuzz box, using it only for only that is a little like saying that Angelina Jolie does a good job of playing Lara Croft. The fact of the matter is that the FD-1 is more like a distortion toolbox, capable of the full range of overdrive tones, from a slight break-up, to total metal mayhem. Truthfully, at many settings, it’s more “drive” than “fuzz,” and that’s what pushes it over the top for this reviewer. In a world where I could have only one box to do a whole range of overdrive sounds, I would really have to seriously consider the EWS Fuzzy Drive FD-1.

Ironically, the weakest point in the Fuzzy Drive’s repertoire is the classic mid-’60s buzz tone that can only come from discrete germanium transistors. We’re talking about the cheesiest tones in the speaker-slit-by-a-razor-blade category. Try as we might, we could not coax an ice-pick buzz-saw sound out of the FD-1. It came close, but always maintained a decidedly warm nuance. That’s just as well, because that’s a sound this reviewer would never try to find unless paid to.

The EWS box offers a lot of versatility, good build quality, and a boutique tone. Yet with a suggested retail price of $149, it’s squarely in average Joe territory. It’s interesting to note that sister company, Xotic, offers no fuzz pedals, so by entering the market first with the Fuzzy Drive, EWS is carving out a nice niche for itself that has little risk of impacting Xotic sales. We imagine some guys will be searching for a classic Tone Bender sound, and will try out the Fuzzy Drive, only to find that it’s more flexible, and a whole lot warmer. If it hits them like it hit us, the FD-1 will surely stoke the fires of creativity. We can’t wait to see what EWS comes out with next.
Buy if...
you're looking for a distortion toolbox that will kick your creativity with overdrive.
Skip if...
you're the guy they hired to create the soundtrack for Green Acres, the movie. Only an old Vox Tone Bender will do.
Rating...
4.5 

MSRP $149 - EWS - ews-us.com

The Tremol-No changes up the design of the traditional trem for added sustain and tuning stability

Tremol-no Installed
Download Example 1
Most Strat players have a love-hate relationship with their guitars, that is, they love virtually everything about the Strat, except the stock tremolo. By way of clarification, the Stratocaster’s tremolo is, in strict musical terms, a vibrato, since it’s the pitch that changes, not the amplitude. It’s been my experience that Stratocasters don’t like to stay in tune when their tremolos are used aggressively. In some cases, the tremolo mechanism causes tuning problems when used modestly, or even when it’s not used at all. So locking it down, even temporarily, provides benefits.

Most aftermarket tremolos are geared to keep the guitar in tune while maneuvers are performed on the whammy bar. And while the Tremol-No can be used with systems such as the Floyd Rose, its purpose is quite different. The Tremol-No is designed to lock the tremolo in place, preventing it from moving entirely. In just seconds, the Tremol- No can convert any Strat-type tremolo bridge to a solid bridge. It does this with an ingenious yet simple arrangement of a claw/ shaft assembly, and a receiver tailpiece.

The two types of people who would want the Tremol-No are those who don’t use tremolo very often (they dislike the tuning artifacts it induces but love the Strat’s tone), and those who do use the wiggle stick, but not on every song. If that sounds like it covers pretty much everybody who plays a Strat, you’ve got the right idea. I consider myself in the first group, so when the Tremol-No came to my attention, I had to try one out. At just $70 from allparts. com, and with the promise of no permanent disfigurement to my Strat, it was an experiment I could justify.

How It Works
At the heart of the matter is the equilibrium between the strings and the tremolo springs. At times, tuning even one string can result in the rest of the instrument going out of tune. Consider a gig scenario where you need to quickly tune the low E to a drop D; working tremolos generally—locking or not—aren’t really designed to keep the instrument in tune. Another scenario is a unison bend, where the unbent string drops in pitch as the other is bent up. The usual solution is to crank the screws holding the spring claw in the tremolo cavity, bottoming the bridge plate on the guitar body and effectively making it a solid bridge.

The Tremol-No dispenses with this, allowing the player to change between vibrato enabled and a solid bridge at will via two thumbscrews on the unit. It takes just seconds to go from locked to unlocked, and the inventor’s intent is that it can be operated on stage. Additionally, a third set screw locks and unlocks a block—called “deep C” by the Tremol-No’s makers—that acts as a bridge hard stop. That gives the Tremol-No three modes: completely locked down with no wiggle-stick action, hard stopped for dive-bomb action only, and totally unlocked for pitch-up and pitchdown movement.

It was a pleasant surprise that the installation took just half an hour. If you’ve got the dexterity to play guitar, then you’re qualified to install the Tremol-No. On a scale of one to five, it gets a five for ease of installation. This involves removing the trem cavity cover, removing the trem springs, unscrewing the spring claw, and replacing it with the Tremol-No claw assembly. No drilling, routing, or cutting is required. All you need is a screwdriver and a soldering iron. The kit even includes the two Allen wrenches you need to finish the install. (You won’t need them to operate the Tremol-No.)


The Proof Is In the Playing
Our unit was installed on a Fender Kenny Wayne Shepherd Artist Series Strat, which is a straightforward copy of Shepherd’s ’61. The Tremol-No worked as advertised, stopping down the vibrato action when fully locked, and restoring motion when unlocked. The “deep-C” stop also worked as promised; both locked modes requiring way more force on the whammy bar to overcome than we could muster. The Tremol-No is mechanically tough, and can take abuse. One of the unanticipated benefits of the Tremol-No is more sustain (with the Tremol- No fully locked).

Three things prevent the Tremol-No from scoring higher. When unlocked, the small set knobs are loose, and can work their way out—especially if you play aggressively. (The Tremol-No kit actually includes an extra knob for this reason.) We also noticed a buzzing in the tremolo cavity, but only when the Tremol-No was unlocked, most likely from the loosened set screws. Lastly, the Tremol-No mechanism sticks out above the flat surface of the body, which isn’t a big deal, since the cover plate has to remain off if you expect to lock and unlock the Tremol-No. The problem is that the thumb screws are exposed to your clothing, which can inadvertently unscrew them when the Tremol-No is unlocked.

The Final Mojo
For this player, the Tremol-No is a strong recommendation. The rock-stable tuning, extra sustain, and the ability to rest my hand on the bridge without wobbly pitch artifacts was a plus. Being able to execute unison and double-stop bends without the detuning was also nice. If, however, you gig heavily and perform lots of on-stage acrobatics with the whammy bar, you might get frustrated by the loose thumb screws dropping out. Just buy a box of extra thumbscrews for the Tremol-No. Stick ‘em in your gig bag, and you’ll be set.
Buy if...
you want a stage-friendlier tremolo solution, or if you want more sustain.
Skip if...
you're a purist and prefer the tremolo cover on, and you dig the damped sustain of a stock Strat.
Rating...
4.0 

Street $70 - Tremol-No - tremol-no.com
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