A meticulously designed, quiet black box that churns out an impressive palette of amp-like overdrive.
Clip 1: Gain at 9 o’clock, treble at 1 o’clock, bass at 1 o’clock, mix at 100 percent overdrive, level at 11 o’clock, boost disengaged.
Clip 2: Gain at 3 o’clock, treble at 12 o’clock, bass at 12 o’clock, mix at 3 o’clock, level at 10 o’clock, boost disengaged.
Clip 3: Gain at 1 o’clock, treble at 1 o’clock, bass at 2 o’clock, mix at 2 o’clock, level at 11 o’clock. Boost engaged with pre-boost at 12 o’clock and post-boost at 11 o’clock.
Very well built. Very quiet. Very versatile.
Free the Tone Black Vehicle BV-1V
Ease of Use:
“Free the Tone” is a phrase borrowed from Pete Cornish, the legendary British builder of top-grade guitar gear. It’s a fitting name for this company, since Free the Tone walks the same trail Cornish blazed by making robust equipment of the highest quality. The company designs and builds everything in the land of meticulousness—Japan—and their newest offering for bassists is the Black Vehicle overdrive, part of Free the Tone’s Integrated Series project to celebrate their 15th anniversary.
The first thing that caught my attention when I pulled the Black Vehicle out of the box is that it’s dense. It’s not a huge pedal, but it weighs in at a hefty pound-and-a-half. The switches are solid and the 9V input is a completely plastic-free affair. Even the knobs are custom made from brass to, in the company’s words, “reduce vibrations in the shaft and wiper of the semi-fixed resistor used for each control and suppress harmonic components that might adversely affect sound.” How many times have you heard a distortion-loving, punk-rock bassist complain about the vibrations in his semi-fixed resistor suppressing his harmonic components? I haven’t, but I can vouch that this pedal feels incredibly well built, with highest-quality parts all around.
Thankfully, it’s a simple layout and easy to understand. Everything is where you’d expect it to be, easy to get to, and functions intuitively. There’s an on/off footswitch for engaging the effect, and a boost footswitch that kicks in another level of distortion.
The controls consist of gain, treble, bass, a mix for blending the dry and affected tones, and level, which controls the volume of the output. There is also a pair of small knobs for pre-boost and post-boost, which allow a player to set the amount of distortion and overall level when the boost is activated. The pedal does not use a 9V battery, but Free the Tone includes a 9V adapter.
I pulled out a Fender American Original P bass and ran it through the Black Vehicle straight into my Universal Audio Apollo with an SVT plug-in. I was immediately struck by how quiet the pedal is. Even at extreme levels of distortion, it’s pretty much silent. (Check out the pause at :06 in the beginning of audio Clip 3.)
The Black Vehicle responded nicely to the volume control on my P. Rolling it back just a bit, the tone cleaned right up. I’ve found it difficult to secure a pedal that offers a good, understated, slightly overdriven, amp-like tone, but the Black Vehicle delivers in that department. Cranking the gain instigates some intense overdrive, and then kicking in the boost with the pre-boost cranked can really take it even further into super-saturated distorto land. All the while, however, the foundation of my bass tone held together, even with the mix cranked all the way to 100 percent drive.
I found the tone dials to be quite musical and usable. The bass control is somewhat subtle but adds some nice punch without getting blurry or tubby. The treble adds some edge, but without getting harsh. With both controls dialed all the way down, you can get a pretty cool, midrange-y and boxy sound that’s very utilizable. The only small complaint I’d have is that the dry side of the mix can get distorted when the boost is engaged. This reality isn’t necessarily a problem, since the low end stays together so nicely anyway, but it’s a reality nonetheless.
The Black Vehicle is a top-notch grind machine, which a player should expect at a price approaching $400. Free the Tone has considered how every aspect of the pedal’s design, down to the case, affects the tone and noise floor. I think the Black Vehicle could be a great always-on pedal set at a minimal level of crunch for amp-like-grit, with the boost set for more drive to be kicked in when needed. It delivers quite a range of tones and levels of distortion, from just a hair to oversaturated madness. No matter how extreme I twisted the controls, however, it always sounded good, and the foundation of my bass was always there. So despite the price tag, don’t forget to consider the extremely low signal-to-noise ratio.