Tag Archives: distortion

Building a pedalboard

At the end of last year, I decided it really was time I put a pedalboard together, as I seemed to be absolutely the last guitarist in the world not to have one, and it was getting to be a little bit embarrasing being that guy at soundcheck taking precious minutes to plug all his pedals in.

I grew up in a time when pedalboards were still a rarity among non-pro guitarists. No one I knew used one – mainly because as teenagers we didn’t have the money for enough pedals to require a board. In fact, in my high school band, we didn’t even have a tuner pedal between us – just a distortion pedal each. (Our tuning was, naturally, rather approximate, but we were plenty distorted.) Then, for a while in the late 1990s, those early digital multi-effects pedals by Digitech and Zoom* were the big thing – again, no board required if a multi-effect unit is your only pedal.

Since most of the gigs I’ve done in the last few years have been playing guitar for James McKean, though, it made sense to have a small, lightweight and portable pedalboard for gigging, rather than carrying four or five pedals in a rucksack along with sundry cables, patch leads and a power supply, and then having to faff around with them between soundcheck and showtime.

Little did I know then that we’d only get to play one gig all year because of Covid-19. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have available, I suppose.

Anyway…

I settled on one of the smaller Pedaltrain boards, the Metro 20, as I decided I’d limit myself to five or six pedals: a tuner, a distortion or two, echo, modulation and reverb. For added portability and flexibility at gigs, I decided to go with Pedaltrain’s Volto rechargeable battery pack, which supplies more than enough current for six pedals, easily lasts the length of a long rehearsal and mounts on the underside of the board, saving space up top. It uses a USB charging cable but it comes with a wall adaptor, too – extra points for flexibility.

I also picked up some new pedals as I was lacking a reverb unit and a satisfactory compact distortion. I also just felt like freshening things up and having some new gear to get me excited about creating the pedalboard. Some of the pedals I settled on have been on the market a few years, and others are recent-ish releases.

First up, I needed reverb. My original choice was:

TC Electronic Skysurfer
This is a budget option I bought without trying out, thinking it would probably do well enough for live applications, since for recording I either use the spring reverb on my Vox AC15 or add reverb in the box when mixing. Unfortunately, the Skysurfer wasn’t the pedal for me. Even dialled right back, the reverb sounds were still over the top, with a clangy, metallic tail even on room settings – what’s the room made out of? Tin?

So, I decided to write that one off and replace with:

Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Neo
The EHX Holy Grail family of reverb pedals is extensive, but I decided to go with one of the nano-sized pedals, as they have such a small footprint, yet contain a lot of features.

It came down to a choice between the Holy Grail Nano and the Holy Grail Neo. The difference is that the Nano has hall, spring and Flerb settings, while the Neo ditches the Flerb and replaces it with plate reverb setting. Flerb is a flanged reverb – quite a cool sound, but not one you’d need often, so the Neo won the day for me. The sounds are very musical and refined, with the plate and spring ‘verbs sounding particularly good to my ear. I tend to use reverb subtly most of the time, so the hall setting probably won’t get much use, but in all it’s a really usable, good-sounding bit of kit.

I also needed some distortion. I used to get dirty sounds from a 120-watt all-valve Peavey head turned up loud, but sold that amp when I moved into a flat in London and replaced it with the AC15 I mentioned earlier. At that point, I bought a Blackstar HT Dual pedal for high-gain stuff, as even with the preamp and power sections dimed, you’ll barely get an AC15 into Keith Richards territory, let alone Jerry Cantrell land. Also, you’ll be completely deafened and find yourself beseiged by angry neighbours with pitchforks and flaming torches; for a 15-watter, the AC can go mighty loud when provoked.

The HT Dual is a fun, versatile pedal that sounds quite amp-like, and the dual-channel thing makes switching between crunchy overdrive and high-gain, super-saturated lead stuff easy peasy. Unfortunately, it weighs a metric ton, is the size of at least two ordinary pedals and needs a dedicated 22v supply. Its absence from the pedalboard left me needing two new pedals: an overdrive and a higher-gain distortion. The solutions I chose also came from Electro-Harmonix, as I’d been won over by the small footprint of their nano pedals. I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Soul Food is, EHX tell us, an emulation of the Klon Centaur overdrive, an example of which can easily set you back a couple of grand on reverb.com. Whether the Soul Food is that close to a Centaur, I’m not qualified to judge as I’ve never used one, but the economics are compelling: the Soul Food is around £70 new, which is not a lot for a very good overdrive. It’s refined enough with the drive turned down below midday that you can use it as an always-on tone shaper, it’s really responsive to dynamic playing, and if you turn the gain up full it will spit and snarl convincingly in a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of way. It allows the tone of the amp and guitar to shine through, so it feels surprisingly close to amp drive.

It is quite low gain, though, and won’t take you into proper distortion. For that I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
Sitting halfway between a fuzz and distortion, the Flatiron Fuzz is, EHX say, their take on the good old Proco Rat 2. To my ears, it’s not as throaty as a Rat, with more high end on tap if that’s what you’re after, but it’s a really fun, quite versatile pedal for ’90s-style rock guitar sounds. It’s also smaller and ligbter than a Proco Rat 2. Electro-Harmonix’s demo video has their dudes comparing it to the Rat (while of course saying they prefer the Flatiron), and showing it off by playing the riffs from Song 2, What’s the Frequency Kenneth? and Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, which pretty much sums up what this pedal does. Also, it has the Flatiron Building on it, so it’s the prettiest thing on my pedalboard by a distance.

I love a good modulation pedal, and fancied having something a bit unusual in the toolbox for the right occasion. I settled on:

TC Electronic Vibraclone
This is a take on the Fender Vibratone, a speaker cabinet from the late sixties that was essentially a Leslie 16 redesigned as a guitar cab; it had a guitar speaker and Leslie rotor rather than a horn and woofer with twin rotors, like the organ unit.

I’ve never heard a pedal that really nails that whooshy Leslie speaker thing; there’s something about the way the rotors disperse sound that’s hard to replicate when you’re playing through standard drivers. However, the Vibraclone is absurdly cheap (approximately £40) and while the sound is not particularly adaptable (there’s no depth/intensity control; just drive and speed), it’s a sound I happen to like very much. When I first sat down with it, I came up with the main riff for my song You Won’t Need to Cry, and it’s all over a bunch of songs from the upcoming Yo Zushi album I’m producing at the moment. For most gigs, I’d probably leave it off the board and sub in my old Marshall tremolo pedal, which is a lot more flexible, but it’s a fun one to have at home. One small negative: the TC boxes are rather big – bigger than a Boss pedal chassis.

So in full the pedalboard is: Boss TU-3, EHX Soul Food, EHX Flatiron Fuzz, Marshall EH1 Echohead Delay, TC Electronic Vibraclone and EHX Holy Grail Nano. At some point I might look to upgrade the delay to something more comprehensive, with a dotted eighth note setting in case I ever want to play Run Like Hell or Where the Streets Have No Name.

This post is not sponsored by Electro-Harmonix, and neither am I. I am open to offers, though, if they’re reading this.

*I still have somewhere in my cupboard of random audio crap a Zoom 509 – a late-1990s digital multi-effect pedal, with chorus, phasing, flanging, harmonising, ring modulation and a simple doubling effect, like a slowish slapback. The presets were all, of course, unusably heavy handed except for two: a relatively useful octave-down effect and a combination phaser and tremolo effect that I used to use on a few songs I played in old bands. Seemed pretty cool at the time, but I imagine it would make me cringe now.

The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.

So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.

But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).

By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.

Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.

One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.

 

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Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

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Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann