I was reading through some earlier reviews of overdrive pedals such as the Keeley Luna Overdrive and the TC Electronic MojoMojo Overdrive, and in one review I wrote, “…I came to realize [is] that more than any other pedal I’ve tested and reviewed, overdrive pedals are the most challenging to get to work in a rig…”
I got to thinking on why that is, and looking back on how I evaluate overdrives, I came to the conclusion that overdrives are challenging to evaluate because like tube amps, they all respond a little differently to what you throw in front of and in back of them.
And it’s not just the TubeScreamer vs. non-TubeScreamer distinction that makes them different. Builders use different tone stacks or purpose-build their pedals to mimic the tone and response of classic amps or amplify the voltage – all sorts of things! All these differences make me a nut for overdrives. Whenever I get a chance to play a new one, I jump at it because I never know what I’ll get!
In light of these differences, I’ve come up with a fairly uniform system to evaluate overdrives that helps me find an OD’s sweet spot that I’ll share here.
Dialing In EQ
More than anything, getting EQ dialed in is ultra-important, as that determines the color – if any – that the pedal adds. Some pedals, like the Tim and Timmy, are built as transparent overdrives, but in some cases you have to add a bit of EQ color to make them sound good. So here’s how I dial in EQ:
- First, set the amp clean, to maximum headroom. Pedal disengaged.
- Set the amp’s EQ’s to flat response. Note that that doesn’t mean that you turn everything to noon. It means you set the EQ’s to where you have as close to an even distribution of lows, mids and highs for the gear that you’re using. For my standard rig, that means cutting the bass and mids a bit and adding some highs.
- On the pedal, set gain/drive to 0, volume to unity, and tone controls to manufacturer-specified flat response.
- Engage the pedal. What did that do to the sound? Is it brighter? Muffled? This gives you an idea where in the EQ spectrum the pedal sits. Some pedals are on the brighter side, others darker.
- Make adjustments to where the tone is pleasing to you. For me, I usually like a bit of brightness when I have an overdrive engaged to get a bit of a treble boost.
- Now, progressively add gain/drive to the point where the pedal gets to the edge of breakup; that is, if you play lightly, the tone cleans up, but if you attack the strings, you’ll get distortion. How does that sound? Adjust EQ accordingly. This step is typically where I’ve found that adding a bit more highs works best for my rig because when I set my amp to where I like it for a gig, the highs of the pedal will offset the bottom end of my speaker and give me a more scooped tone.
Don’t be concerned if you spend an hour or so getting it right. EQ is tough.
Now The Fun Starts…
Now that you have EQ dialed in, it’s time to have some fun with volume and drive. But before you start twiddling volume and gain knobs, you have to consider how you’re going to use the overdrive. Remember, an overdrive isn’t just a soft-clipping device. It’s also a booster which can boost the input gain on your amp to where your pre-amp tubes break up. Furthermore, as I mentioned above some overdrives are meant to specifically mimic classic amps in tone and dynamics. You have to consider these things when playing with volume and gain. I think the reason some people don’t like particular overdrives is because they may not have considered what the builder’s intent was with the pedal – if any – and tried to set it up the way they’ve “normally” set up an overdrive. For instance, I tried out an overdrive from a builder who created a pedal to mimic a Marshall stack. But I tried to use it as a gain stage. Didn’t work at all. I had a converse issue at first with my Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire trying to use it as a simulated amp stack, but it’s better used an extra gain stage. The point to this is that some pedals work better as pure overdrivers, while some pedals work great as standalone clipping devices.
This is the easiest thing to test. Just set your amp up to maximum clean headroom, set the volume on the pedal to around unity gain or slightly above, then crank the gain/drive, slowly dialing it back until you’ve got the right amount of dirt or crunch. This is also the most boring to me, and frankly, there have been few pedals that I’ve tested that actually work well this way – at least that sound pleasing to me.
The Hybrid Solution
My favorite way of using an overdrive – even it was meant to be an amp stack – is to use it in a “hybrid” way. That is, making it push my pre-amp into saturation and thus overdrive. Here’s how I set it up:
- First, I get the EQ dialed in, then I set the amp to where it’s just at the edge of breakup (with the pedal off), where rolling on volume (with my volume knob set in the middle) or attacking harder will cause my amp to break up.
- Next, I’ll switch the overdrive on and set the the volume to a bit past unity gain, so I get a volume boost, plus it’ll make my amp break up a bit.
- Then I add gain to get more crunch. I might have to back off the volume a tad as gain also adds a bit of boost.
What that gives me is a great lead tone plus a solo boost, and it’s how I use my Timmy pedal to great effect. But with the Timmy, I use a bit more boost to completely saturate my pre-amp, so I get some power tube breakup as well (typically, my master volume is dimed). Granted, this is quite loud which is why it’s such a blessing to have a great attenuator like my Aracom PRX150-Pro to keep the output volume down. Note that with the hybrid solution you have twiddle knobs to find the right balance between pedal distortion and amp distortion. Some pedals are better at adding just a touch of distortion to the signal like my Timmy, whereas others, like the TC Electronic MojoMojo are better at providing most of the distortion with just a little gain boost. You have to play…
We’re Not Finished Just Yet…
Doing a one-to-one eval against your amp is one thing, but invariably, you’re going to use an overdrive with other pedals, specifically modulation pedals. For years, I used to have all my pedals in front of my amp. I was playing a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe whose dirty tone was UGLY, so even though I had a loop, I just put all the pedals in front of the amp because I just played the amp clean. Accordingly at the time, I used OD pedals that worked well as standalone clipping devices, and it wasn’t an issue running my modulation pedals right after my overdrives. But then I started using amps that had great tube distortion, and the game changed. I was now putting modulation pedals in my effects loop and overdrive and distortion pedals in front of my amp. That called for different types of overdrives.
But especially within the context of using overdrives with modulation pedals. Once you’ve dialed in the overdrive on a one-to-on basis, you may have to make further adjustments once you introduce modulation pedals. For instance, I normally add a touch of spring reverb to my signal, plus a little slap-back analog delay. Doing that has a tendency to darken my tone a bit, so I adjust EQ on the amp, and also adjust EQ on my overdrive pedals in response.
This is sort of the tedious part of adding new gear to your chain: Every new addition changes your signal and you have to make appropriate adjustments – I’ve found especially with drive pedals – to accommodate the other pedals.
What I’ve presented here is NOT hard and fast by any means, but it should provide you a good backdrop for testing out overdrive pedals in the future.