Hands-On Review:American Rock 'n' Roll Tone Machines
By Shep Chaney
They're everywhere - amp modelers, speaker modelers, pickup modelers, reverb modelers - the list goes on. Heck, some of the gizmos out there now even model other guitar players! (If a modeled guitar player got together with a super model, would their kids be analog or digital?)
It can happen to anyone
I was on that slippery slope for a while, always trying to get my guitar to sound like something else. I had a slick, expensive, multi-pedaled, multi-buttoned floor unit with knobs, displays, multiple outputs, MIDI, S/PDIF, reverb, chorus, distortion, and anything else the designers could program into the box. The manual weighed a ton, and was about as easy to read as a Japanese subway schedule.
And then one day, everything changed. I got to the gig on time, started to set up, and realized that I'd left my fancy MegaStomp Y2K sitting on the stairs at home - over an hour away! At first, I panicked. Although I have a nice amp, my "sound" needed that box to be complete. Unfortunately, there was no way to get it before the gig, but as they say, the show must go on. So I dialed some quick presets into my amp, kicked in the old spring reverb, hit the stage running - and much to my surprise, my guitar sounded great!
Over the course of the evening, I realized what I was grooving on was that my sound was not processed to death with digital simulations of reality. Since that night, it's been my quest to find great effects that don't suck the life out my tone. That's how I chanced upon the Visual Sound series of pedals.
I had the opportunity to try them out in my studio recently, and I've come to find that the Visual Sound guys are on a quest to provide honest-to-goodness analog pedals that have great sound, great flexibility, and great value. I'd say they've hit a home run with all three of their pedals - the H20 Liquid Chorus, Echo, Jekyll & Hyde, and Route 66. One of Visual Sound's coolest features is that each of their pedals houses two separate, complementary effects with their own individual controls and footswitches, set close enough together to allow you to switch both effects simultaneously! They are well-built, with heavy-gauge steel housing, solid stomp switches, metal jacks (not those cheap plastic jobs), and knobs that feel solid and smooth. They can use a nine-volt battery for power, but I'd recommend using their 1-Spot nine-volt adapter. It only takes one power-strip space, and will power more than a dozen pedals of any brand!
One of the things my old-fashioned tube amp doesn't do is chorus and echo, so I approached the H20 Liquid Chorus and Echo with great anticipation - and was not disappointed. Like all of the Visual Sound pedals, this one is sturdy, with the same pentagon shape, only deeper. It also features two outputs. Output 1 is the effected signal, while Output 2 is a dry signal. The directions explain how to change Output 2 to be a parallel effected signal with a simple re-soldering modification.
The left side of the pedal is devoted to the Liquid Chorus, so that's where I started. The electronics use NOS BBD chips, which means "New Old Stock Bucket Brigade Device" in human-speak. What that means to us is great sound! With just three basic controls - Speed, Width, and Delay Time - I was able to dial in some smooth, creamy tones that ranged from subtle, barely-there enhancement to a fast throbbing whirl, like a Leslie cabinet on steroids. One of the amazing things about this pedal is that no matter how extreme I made the settings, the output always remained musically useful. There are many pedals out there that sound great within a certain useable range. But push them too far, and they start to squawk, squeal, or otherwise mangle a perfectly good guitar sound. In the middle of a solo, the last thing you want is a fussy pedal!
The right side is devoted to the Echo. Like the Liquid Chorus, the Echo controls are simple - Time, Repeats, and Effects Level. There's also a Short/Long toggle switch that lets you switch between shorter, rock-a-billy or slap-back type sounds, and longer delays and echoes - up to 800ms. Unlike my MegaStomp, it was easy to grab the controls and "play" the echo in real time. Even better, the sound has that nice analog quality to it, grunging up a little more with each repeat.
Running the echo and chorus together was a real treat, too. Setting the echo for a medium delay with few repeats, and the chorus for a slow, deep sweep, I was able to layer harmonies that sounded like they were coming from three different guitars at once! I would have played with this one box for hours, but I had more to investigate.
Get your kicks
On Route 66 - American Overdrive, that is! This dual pedal powerhouse features the all-American stomp-box standards, Compression and Overdrive. In straight-up rock 'n' roll style, Route 66 delivers maximum tone with minimum tweak.
Built around the JRC4558 op-amp, the Overdrive side of the Route 66 stomp is built to sound like the original TS808 Tube Screamer, with added bottom end courtesy of the bass-boost switch. Drive, Tone, and Volume controls complete the control section of this effect. Although I've never owned a Tube Screamer, I've always enjoyed plugging into my neighbor's TS808 during jam sessions. I'm generally skeptical of advertising claims like this, but in fact, Route 66 overdrive section really delivered that TS sound! By judicious adjusting of the controls, I was able to go from a mellow crunch to funky blues, to all-out grunge. Smokin! Combined with the Compressor, the Route 66 American Overdrive is one smooth ride for the rock 'n' roll highway!
Jekyll & Hyde Ultimate Overdrive is the perfect name for this dual pedal. Its two channels of overdrive can give you anything from mild-mannered crunch to deeply psychotic distortion. With Jekyll, I found myself in familiar territory - it's the same circuit as the Overdrive side of Route 66, minus the bass boost. Just for kicks, I ran the Overdrive/Jekyll effects in series, and punished my amp pretty severely. But that was nothing compared to when Jekyll meets Hyde.
Hyde is the most versatile and control-heavy of all the Visual Sound effects, with four knobs - Drive, Tone, EQ, and Volume - plus a Sharp/Blunt switch. It was easy to call up the beast with a severe amount of Drive, scoop the mids with the EQ knob, and brighten up the sound with the Tone control. The Sharp/Blunt switch provides a very bright, hard distortion sound on the Sharp setting, and a warmer, more compressed overdrive using the Blunt side of the switch.
So what was it like to play? It was pure rock 'n' roll! I felt like a guitar hero the instant I invoked this pedal! This thing started snarling at the slightest provocation, with wicked distortion that even had my dog - an eighty-pound Doberman - running for cover! Piercing metal madness, deep bluesy crunch, and howling hard-rock ravings were all under my control! But I wasn't done yet.
The last paragraph on the one-page tip-sheet is a warning: "Beware using Jekyll & Hyde together with both Drive knobs all the way up as it may cause feedback." I took that as a dare, of course, dialed it in, and commenced to waling. The result? Pure, unadulterated sonic psychosis! I loved it! Searing licks rolled out from under my fingers, blistering paint, boiling water, and breaking glass. Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but you get the idea - this thing is insanity unleashed!
My poor MegaStomp Y2K. I left home without it, and as a result it was consigned to the want ads, sold cheap, never to mask my sound again. I've found some new friends to play with, courtesy of Visual Sound, and it'll be a sad day when they come to take these pedals away!