Amp guru James Brown''s debut pedal is reviewed

Renowned amp builder James Brown is taking a 21st-century approach to designing gear for his new company, Amptweaker. Instead of guessing what products might be successful, Brown is connecting directly with players via e-mail, online forums, and social networking sites to gather ideas and suggestions on what they would most like to see in a new amp or pedal. Brown believes Amptweaker products will be stronger as a result of combining his ideas with those submitted by active members of the guitar community.

After receiving hundreds of product ideas online, Brown discovered that the overwhelming majority of guitarists were requesting overdrive/boost/distortion pedals with uncommon features. Brown incorporated a number of these into his first Amptweaker product—the TightDrive stompbox.

Lean, Green Machine
Handmade in the US and housed in a robust, 14-gauge steel chassis, the TightDrive looks sharp and feels solid. The pedal’s top is conveniently angled, allowing you to stomp on the forward-facing footswitch without hitting the control knobs. The latter slope toward the rear, so they’re visible yet out of the way.

The TightDrive boasts several unique features. For example, the battery is housed in a sliding drawer that’s secured with a magnetic latch. Cool—changing the 9-volt cell requires no tools. Also, a battery switch lets you turn off the juice when you’re not using the pedal, so there’s no need to unplug the input cable. LEDs illuminate the knobs (when you’re using a power adapter), so it’s easier to make sonic adjustments on a dark stage.

Download Example 1
Tight Knob
Download Example 2
Touch Sensitivity
Download Example 3
Download Example 4
FX Loop
Download Example 5

A handy effects loop lets you couple other pedals to the TightDrive, and with the loop’s Pre/Post switch you can place these effects either before or after the TightDrive in the signal path. When you bypass the TightDrive, effects in the loop are also bypassed. This feature is particularly useful if you use certain effects exclusively with the TightDrive, because you can turn them all on and off with one move—no tap dancing necessary. Brown points out another useful feature of the effects loop: “Although not the original design intent, an important surprise addition that the effects loop brings is the ability to further tweak the pedal by adding EQ or additional gain/boost pedals either before or after the TightDrive. Several artists who currently use the pedal have found this to be exciting since it puts the mod capability directly in their hands and lets them dial in their exact feel and tone with a single-button system—without getting out the soldering iron or understanding electronic circuitry.” Other goodies include a true-bypass footswitch and a DC adapter jack.

The TightDrive has four knobs: Volume, Tone, Gain, and Tight. The latter is a direct result of players telling Brown they wanted a way to tighten up the distortion to keep the low end from getting buzzy or floppy. Using the Tight control, you can adjust how smooth or aggressive the low end feels and sounds. We’ll see how this works in a moment.

Taking a Spin
You can use the TightDrive to coax crunch sounds from a clean channel or amp, or push a lead amp further into overdrive. Testing the TightDrive using a variety of guitars and amps, I found its response and sound differs from amp to amp.

For example, I routed a Charvel So-Cal with DiMarzio pickups through the TightDrive and into an Egnater Tourmaster 4212, and it added nice crunchy distortion to the clean channel and gave chords more attack when I played through the overdrive channel. It added highend sizzle even when I dialed the pedal’s Tone knob all the way back. To compensate, I had to substantially increase the bass on the amp.

Next, I plugged a soapbar-equipped Paul Reed Smith Starla X into a PRS 30 amp and dialed in a clean sound. By adjusting the TightDrive to deliver medium-gain tones, I was able to get a rich, classic-rock timbre that was just barely breaking up. When I dialed in a basic foundation of moderate distortion on the amp, I stomped on the TightDrive to give my power chords more definition. The PRS 30 has a classic EL34 tube sound, and tonally it lies more on the warm, dark side. With that amp, I found that, in addition to increasing the gain, the TightDrive again added brightness to my sound. Switching to my Strat, I discovered the pedal can easily raise the output of single-coils to humbucker levels.

Moving over to my Marshall half stack, I grabbed my Les Paul to test out the TightDrive with a heavier rock tone. I was able to get everything from grungy overdrive to aggressive, high-gain metal tones. My Marshall amp sounds pretty darn good on its own and I’m happy with its overdrive sounds, so in this configuration, I used the TightDrive more as a boost for playing leads. For this application, I turned up the pedal’s Volume knob instead of Gain.

As I explored different combinations of guitars and amps, I found I needed to adjust the amp settings, as well as the pedal’s parameters to really dial in the tone to my liking. The TightDrive is not a one-size-fits-all effect where a single setting works with different amps.

Turning the Tight knob to its lowest setting creates a thicker tone that, in some instances, can get a little muddy. Cranking the Tight knob all the way up delivers a sharper attack, but the tone thins out too much for my taste. It’s just a matter of finding that sweet spot somewhere in between the two extremes. I rarely turned the Tone knob past the halfway mark, because the TightDrive adds quite a bit of brightness and high-end boost. In fact, I often turned Tone down all the way for a smoother sound.

The Final Mojo
You can get quite a variety of distortion sounds with the Amptweaker TightDrive, whether you use it for a slight boost or a heavier, more aggressive distortion. It also has useful design features that enhance your playing experience. For example, if you’re adding the TightDrive’s distortion on top of an amp’s overdrive, you can take advantage of the pedal’s effects loop to add a noise gate to your signal path and control both pedals with the TightDrive’s footswitch. Considering these unique, customer-requested features and the TightDrive’s versatility, it’s definitely a pedal worth checking out.
Buy if...
you dig the unique, playerfriendly features and the ability to tighten up your distortion’s attack.
Skip if...
you prefer that your distortion has warmer overtones

Street $180 - Amptweaker -

Source Audio''s Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion, which features a number of famous distortion tones, is reviewed.

Download Example 1
7 mini-clips of distortion sounds: Tube Drive, Power Stage, Big Pi, Fuzz Facade, TS9000, Bender & Metal
Download Example 2
3 mini-clips of distortion sounds: Smooth Tube, Crunch Tube & El Raton
Download Example 3
Rhythms with Hothand sensor
Download Example 4
Octave Fuzz
Download Example 5
Clean Boost/Tone preset, sweeping through entire range of Tone knob
Unless otherwise specified, all clips recorded with Gibson Slash Appetite Les Paul through Marshall JCM 900 head with Marshall Lead 1960 cab, Shure SM57 and Digidesign Pro Tools.
With so many distortion pedals on the market today, how can you possibly pick one to call your own? How can you find that one distortion pedal to rule them all? Even narrowing down your choices to a select few can be a time-consuming and costly process. It can also be frustrating when you go to your favorite guitar store to try out a bunch of distortion pedals, only to be out-volumed by that kid playing the entire Metallica catalog.

But choosing that one distortion pedal is crucial. It can be your identity and your voice, the key to expressing yourself. Later you might discover that the pedal isn’t as great as you initially thought, and that can negatively affect your playing (as well as your wallet)—and you may even play less because you don’t like your tone.

If you play blues one night and hard rock the next—if you need a variety of distortion, from mild overdrive to high gain—it gets more complicated. Chances are, you’ll need a variety of pedals, everything from that vintage fuzz to the latest high gain distortion, to create that diverse sound palette.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have just one distortion pedal with a wide variety of modern and vintage sounds? The people at Source Audio think so. That’s why they created the Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion. The result of a five-year listening study, this compact, easy-to-use pedal offers distorted tones that are based on (but not exact copies of) more than 40 classic pedals. It features the company’s 56-bit proprietary SA601 digital signal processor and crystal-clear 24-bit converters, which serve up four tube-amp and eight fuzz-box/ overdrive tones, a Clean Boost mode, six user presets, a seven-band graphic EQ, and a MIDI input. It also features an active analog bypass, which is fully routed around the DSP.

Taking a Closer Look
The Pro Classic Distortion’s controls are simple and straightforward. The Effect knob selects between 11 types of distortion and a Clean Boost/EQ setting. Three other knobs—two Drives, Midrange, and Output—and the seven- band EQ deliver extreme versatility when programming custom sounds. You can save six of those as presets and recall them later via the three footswitches. The back panel features a 9-volt DC power jack, mono ¼" in and out jacks, an Expression Input for morphing between presets, a MIDI input for automation and parameter control, a Sensor In jack for the most fun and innovative feature of Source Audio Soundblox pedals—the Hot Hand—and a Sensor Out jack for daisy-chaining Hot Hand-enabled pedals.

If you’re not familiar with the Hot Hand motion sensor, you wear it on your picking hand and use it to control effects with, well, your hand motions. With the Classic Distortion pedal, the Hot Hand controls the amount of Drive, so you can experiment and control effects such as tremolo, volume swells, and other wild effects just by waving your hand around.

The various distortion settings are very similar to many popular distortion pedals of the past. Source Audio captures the spirit of each distorted sound instead of copying it exactly. The Tube Drive setting is similar to a Marshall sound, offering a nice, overdriven tube-amp effect. Smooth Tube is based on Mesa/Boogie preamp distortion. Power Stage is inspired by the Fulltone Distortion Pro pedal. Crunch Tube is Source Audio’s own aggressive tube-style distortion. The TS9000 setting is similar to the Ibanez Tube Screamer and has plenty of mid boost. If you are a fan of the vintage Electro- Harmonix Big Muff Pi pedal, you will love the Big Pi setting. El Raton captures the spirit of the classic ProCo Rat. And, since Source Audio includes the El Raton, it’s only natural that they include their version of the classic Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face sound—which is what inspired the creation of the Rat. This setting is called Fuzz Facade. The Bender setting is based on the Tone Bender MKII, which is most commonly associated with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The Metal setting is Source Audio’s scooped-mids sound for modern metal. The Octave Fuzz is a full-wave rectifier that mimics the classic Octavia effect. The last setting is Clean Boost/Tone, which bypasses the distortion but still allows the gain and tone controls to be used. It’s great for clean lead boosts or it can be used strictly as a tone control. Also, if you boost the level high enough you can get a really cool hard clipping sound, which is a unique distorted tone on its own.

On the Open Road
I tested the Classic Distortion using many guitars, including those with single-coil, soapbar, and humbucking pickups. I routing everything through a Marshall JCM900 half-stack, and I also went direct into Pro Tools to test through several amp models. I started out by cranking the pedal’s Drive control and putting the tone about 3/4 up. With those parameters set, I scrolled through the effects. With every guitar, pickup, or amp I used, the distortion was rich, thick, and clear on each setting. Everything from a milder overdrive to aggressive tube-style distortion can be found in this pedal. I could play with a bluesy rock tone and instantly switch to a high-gain metal tone. I didn’t find any distortion setting that I thought was too thin, too fuzzy, or unusable. And not once during my tests did I ever detect any sort of digital harshness or fizziness. Each distortion had its own unique sound, and guitarists will be happy to have that many different varieties of distortion at their fingertips. Source Audio definitely captured the spirit of the pedals that these sounds are based on, and even if they’re not exact copies, they’re pretty darn close. If you’re not familiar with a lot of the original distortion pedals that the Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion was inspired by, this pedal serves as a good introduction.

I spent quite some time jamming with each setting, and the variety of tones you can get within just one distortion setting was impressive. And that’s largely because the Tone and Drive parameters have such a wide range. For example, you can start off with Drive up pretty high and Tone up about halfway for a nice, saturated sound. Bring the tone up all the way while lowering Drive, and you get a completely different sound. You can then adjust the parameters and your pickup selections for tons of sounds. Multiply that by the 11 available distortion varieties, and you have an amazing distortion palette to choose from.

Selecting the Fuzz Facade setting, boosting the highs in the graphic EQ, rolling off Drive 1, and setting Drive 2 at about 11 o’clock resulted in a smooth, Brian May-kind of tone. Source Audio’s own Metal setting has plenty of highs and lows, and I was able to get a sound similar to the late Dimebag Darrell, who had one of my favorite high-gain tones. I also had fun playing around with the Octave Fuzz, which mimics the classic Octavia. I found that this effect works really well with my pickup in the neck position. Playing lead lines, you immediately get higher overtones and octaves that pop out on top of your melodies. Usually when you play sustained notes at a high volume through an amp, they feed back and morph into the higher octave. Unfortunately, to achieve that effect you have to crank your amp and stand in front of it. With the Octave Fuzz, you can get the same sound playing at a very low volume!

As if all of that tonal variety isn’t enough, you have additional effect options with the Hot Hand motion sensor. This wireless system consists of a lightweight, wireless motion-sensor ring and a small RF receiver that plugs directly into the Sensor In jack. The Hot Hand is a lot of fun to play with. I placed the sensor on the ring finger of my strumming hand, hit a chord, and waved my hand up and down. It controlled the amount of drive as if my hand was a volume pedal—it was a really cool tremolo effect. This is particularly useful if you want the ability to control tempo, from fast pulsing to longer volume swells. The Drive knob controls the maximum amount of drive you get when moving the sensor. In addition, the Pro Classic Distortion offers controls—including calibration, sensitivity, and axis selection—to help fine-tune Hot Hand functionality. Hot Hand control can even be turned on or off in a programmed preset using the HH Enable button.

Another unique feature of Soundblox Pro series pedals is their ability to morph between presets using an expression pedal. The six presets are arranged in two banks of three, and the expression pedal allows you to morph between adjacent presets (1 to 4, 2 to 5, and 3 to 6). That way you can, for instance, go from low- to high-gain sounds on the fly or smoothly blend one distortion type into another. For example, you could transition from a Big PI setting to an Octave Fuzz without a bunch of toe tapping.

The Final Mojo
Source Audio’s Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion puts a wide variety of distortion at your fingertips, and it’s great to have them all in one place to call up instantly. It’s like having 12 different pedals for the price of one. Guitarist Adrian Belew has called the Soundblox Pro Classic Distortion and Soundblox Pro Multiwave Distortion “the best distortion boxes ever made.” So if you’re looking for a little fuzz in your future, check out the Classic Distortion and see what other artists have been raving about.
Buy if...
you’d like a single distortion pedal with tons of modern and vintage sounds.
Skip if...
you don’t need a wide variety of distortion sounds.

Street $219 - Source Audio -