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I love overdrive pedals. I have a bunch of them. But I realized that part of why I have so many has a lot to do with not really understanding how to set them up properly. I’d get an overdrive pedal because a demo I heard sounded great, or I loved how it was voiced. But when I’d get it home, it just wouldn’t sound quite right, so I’d put it in my “storage” area.

But as I got more experienced with setting up my amps, I similarly got to understand how to set up my overdrive pedals. And now that I have a bunch, I’ve got a variety of pedals to choose from to get the sound I want depending on my sets or my mood – okay, I admit it: It’s mostly due to my mood. 🙂

Admittedly, I did a lot of forum lurking as well to gain insights on setting up an overdrive, so a lot of what I’ll be sharing here comes from the things I’ve learned from others in addition to the stuff I’ve learned on my own.

What actually motivated me to write this was a conversation that I had with a friend. I asked him what he thought of a particular overdrive pedal, and he said he didn’t like the way it sounded. I looked at him a little puzzled and said, “Maybe you didn’t set it up right.” And that led me to say that not all overdrives are created equal, and you have to set them up according to how they work best. Truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him since that conversation, so I have no idea if he tried what I suggested. But in light of that, I decided to share my thoughts.


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Types of Overdrives – Not Necessarily What You Might Think

Before we get into the actual setup of an overdrive, I thought I’d go into a discussion about types of overdrives because how you set up an overdrive has a lot to do with the type of overdrive it is. No, this isn’t a discussion about circuit types or transparency. I suppose this could be related to the circuit type on which an overdrive is based, but I’m not that electrically savvy, so I’ll discuss this in more practical terms.

From my experience with having played several overdrives, I’ve found that they fall into roughly two different categories (mind you, these are my own terms): Interactive and Standalone. Interactive overdrives are meant to interact with the preamp of your amp, and together they produce the overdrive sound.

Standalone overdrives are typically purpose-built to mimic an amplifier, and though they can certainly be set up to be interactive, they can function just fine on their own in front of a clean amp.

Notice that I haven’t named any specific overdrive models. The reason why is that overdrives sound different with different amps. For instance, the EHX Soul Food sounds great as a standalone overdrive in front of my Fender amp. But it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a standalone overdrive in front of my Plexi-style amps, so I set it up as an interactive overdrive for those amps.

So the idea behind interactive vs. standalone has little to do with a specific type or model of overdrive; rather, it has to do with how the overdrive sounds with your amp.

Setting Up an Overdrive

I have two processes that I go through to set up an overdrive. At this point, I know all my pedals and whether they’re standalone or interactive, but I still follow the same processes for my different pedals when I set them up on my board. Also, if I come across or get a new overdrive, I first assume that it can be a standalone overdrive, then if I find it doesn’t work well that way, I’ll then set it up to be interactive. Here are the step-by-step processes I follow:

Setting Up a Standalone Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp:
    1. Clean
    2. Set EQ to work with your guitar
  2. Set guitar volume to the middle
  3. Guitar EQ where you want it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs to the middle.
  5. Engage the overdrive and get it to unity gain (so that when you engage it, your volume doesn’t change), or to just get a small volume bump when the pedal’s engaged.
  6. Set the EQ on the overdrive
  7. Adjust the overdrive/gain knob to get your desired amount of distortion from the pedal.
    1. You will probably have to make adjustments to the level knob to maintain unity gain.
  8. Evaluate the sound and feel by playing around with chord progressions and licks.
    1. All the while, raise and lower your guitar volume to see how the pedal responds.
  9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you dial in the right volume/sound/feel.
    1. If the volume, sound, and feel are fine for you, then you’re all set and ready to gig and the overdrive pedal will work fine as a standalone device.
    2. If the sound doesn’t feel “right,” chances are you’ll have to do some interaction with the preamp of your amp, so continue to the next section.

Setting Up an Interactive Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp
    1. Set Gain/Volume so the amp is at the edge of breakup.
      1. You’ll know it’s there when you turn up the guitar’s volume and the amp begins to distort, then cleans up when you turn it down. Also, if the guitar’s volume is set to the middle, if you strum hard it will break up.
    2. Set EQ on the amp
  2. Set your guitar volume to the middle
  3. Set guitar EQ when you like it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs at their middle positions
  5. Engage the overdrive
    1. More likely than not, you’ll get a big volume boost when you engage at this level, so you’ll have to adjust both the overdrive’s level and amp’s volume/master knobs to get to the right volume.
      1. If you don’t have a master volume, turn down the overdrive’s volume/level knob to get to a management volume.
    2. Because you want to get both overdrive AND amp distortion, you’ll want to get a small volume bump when you engage the pedal as you want the amp to go over the edge of breakup.
  6. Now, play around.
    1. See how the combination responds to volume swells on your guitar.
    2. Make adjustments to the overdrive gain to get the right combination of pedal and amp distortion.

The Importance of EQ

Notice that I mention setting EQ on the amp, guitar, and overdrive pedal. Setting EQ is extremely important because it can be the difference-maker in your overall tone. There’s no “ideal” EQ setting. But for me as a rule of thumb, I want to get a rich, slightly bright tone that sits well in the mix and isn’t so warm that compared to the other instruments, won’t get washed out when we’re all playing together.

Also, for live gigs, I usually don’t touch my amp or pedal EQ once I get them set up. I use my guitar’s tone knob to adjust how warm or bright my sound to be.

Amp/Pedal Combinations

All that said, if you’ve followed the steps for setting up an interactive overdrive, and it still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do, then the pedal sucks. Just kidding. 🙂 Truth be told, I’ve found some overdrives work better with different amps. If you have another amp, then try the pedal out in front of it.

For instance, Paul Cochrane of “Tim” and “Timmy” pedal fame recommends not using the pedal in front of a Fender Blackface amp. I don’t have a blackface amp, so I had to take him at his word, but the Timmy works great in front of all my amps. For me, I will not use my venerable Ibanez TS-808 TubeScreamer in front of my vintage Marshall-style amps. It just doesn’t sound good to me, no matter how I set it up.

I think it’s because the TS produces a big midrange bump when engaged, and my amps are voiced bright, so it ends up sounding piercing like little ice picks on my eardrums. Even EQ adjustments don’t work for me. But in front of my Fender Hot Rod, the TS truly screams! My Hot Rod has the classic Fender “scooped” tone, so the predominant midrange of the TS fills in the mids.

What About Stacking Overdrives?

That gets a bit more complicated, but I’d follow the basic procedures above, treating the trailing pedal as the amp. In this case, I’d tend to set up the amp as clean and have the trailing pedal always on. There lots of ways to approach this as well. I know one guitarist that uses three at once to get his “sound.” More power to him! 🙂

But truth be told, I hate to dance on my board, so even though I will use a couple of overdrives, I only use one at a time depending on the kind of voicing I want. I also, don’t like complicate my sound finding the right balance of multiple overdrives. I just want to play. Granted, I could do a lot of pre-gig work to get that, but for me, employing the KISS theory works best.

Many people like to stack, and that’s great. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to use two TubeScreamers stacked together; one as an overdrive and one as a booster.

Wah-wah and Overdrive

If you don’t use a wah-wah pedal, then you can ignore this section. But I thought it would be important to add this to the mix, mainly because I’ve found that certain overdrives work better depending on where the wah-wah pedal is placed. Admittedly, my personal preference is to place the wah pedal after my overdrives. But there are a few boutique overdrive pedals that I have that work much better when the wah pedal is in front of them. Not sure why this is. Luckily, I only have a couple of pedals that act this way, so I know not to use a wah pedal with them if I have it set up after my overdrives.

Exploration

To close this out, I have to admit that I’m a bit of an overdrive junkie. I may not buy every single one that piques my interest, but I do check out new overdrives when I run across them. The great thing about overdrives is that they really are all different, even the knock-offs, so I’ll continue to explore overdrives. I never know what I might find. 🙂

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Though I’m pretty satisfied with my current rig – actually, I’m pretty settled now as far as pedals are concerned – that doesn’t mean that I don’t look to see what’s out there. While surfing this morning before going off to work, I came across the new Voodoo TC line of pedals from Roger Mayer. These pedals feature huge knobs for changing the main pedal parameters, and they’re meant to be changed with your foot!

What a cool concept! No more bending over to change the drive on a drive pedal or the intensity or pulse of a vibe. Not only that, the Voodoo TC line has this retro, art-deco look, and sporting colors that were apparently inspired by 1950’s Chevy’s!

There are nine pedals in the line thus far, and from what I can tell from the descriptions, they’re heavily inspired by Jimi Hendrix tones, with a few drive pedals, a vibe, and an octavia. But there is one specifically geared towards bass distortion.

For more information, check out the Roger Mayer TC Series page. There are a couple of videos on the page from the Japan Music Fair, with one of the videos being an interview with Roger Mayer, explaining the motivation behind the pedals.

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I get lots of press releases, but there are some that compel me to share. This is one of them:

Pigtronix announces release of the Class A Boost – Elegance In Tone

Pigtronix Class A Boost is the final word in high performance guitar preamps. This pedal’s elegant exterior and single knob layout cloth an ingenious “Class A” J-FET design that will fatten up the sound of any instrument or sound source.

Featuring discreet transistor topology (no opamps) this device can boost passive or active pickups and even line level signals up to 20db without ever clipping. Perfectly flat frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz ensures that your instrument’s tone and expressive character remain intact as signal power is increased.

The Class A Boost’s noise free performance allows you to put the effect anywhere in your pedal chain. It adds punch and extra output when placed after a classic overdrive or will happily push your gain pedals into new levels of saturation. The Class A Boost is also ideal for hitting the front end of a tube amp to achieve an added layer of sweetness and fat tone without unwanted clipping or noise.

The Class A Boost runs fine on a standard 9-volt supply, but ships with a Pigtronix 18-volt adapter in order to achieve superior headroom and maximum punch. Make your sound 1 louder with this handsomely dressed, J-FET masterpiece from Pigtronix.

“Pigtronix Class A Boost is crucial to my sound because it makes my guitar tone clearer and louder, without adding distortion.”  – Eric Krasno (Soulive)

Pigtronix Class A Boost carries a list price of $149 and is available now at Pigtronix dealers everywhere.  Check out the Class A Boost and the whole line of 2011 Pigtronix effects at http://www.pigtronix.com.

I’m a big proponent of boost pedals, especially when used to slam the front end of a tube amp to push it into full-on overdrive. What’s attractive about this particular pedal is that it is Class A – at least from an audiophile’s perspective – which means that it will not clip throughout its operating range. Don’t confuse this with the definition of Class A for an amplifier. They’re two different things. Here’s a great explanation of Class A operation with respect to amps.

In any case, this could be a VERY cool pedal to have…

For more information, visit the Pigtronix Class A Boost page!

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AH! HA-HA-HA HAHAHA! <manic laughter>

I guess my love affair with overdrive pedals hasn’t waned one bit – even with getting my Timmy. Don’t get me wrong, my Timmy will NEVER leave my board, but this totally cool, ultra-compact “Little Brute Drive” from EWS Japan is nothing short of amazing to me. Lots of overdrive/distortion on tap, right out of the box! And look at the bottom of the picture to the left: It ain’t much bigger than a freakin’ 9V battery! Amazing!

The way I envision using this particular pedal is for when I need heavier distortion than my Timmy, which is a light- to medium-gain device. The Little Brute has a much wider range of distortion; from fairly light to searing. And like the Timmy, the distortion is fairly open and uncompressed from what I could tell from clips. But even more important is that like the Timmy, it’s fairly transparent. I couldn’t detect much tone alteration from the clips I heard. So awesome!

You can fine-tune the output level and tone from inside the box – see the two blue adjustment screws in the picture? But from what I could tell, the factory settings are perfect.

Here are a couple of video clips:

Cost? $129, which is as much as a Timmy, but unlike the Timmy, you can get this online. Here’s a link where you can buy the pedal.

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How can anyone complain about a great-sounding boutique pedal at mainstream prices? Taking its design cues from industry-veteran Gary Hoey who wanted to ensure a great-sounding, built-for-the-road but affordable pedal, HBE has created just that. This is a simple, road-worthy standalone overdrive that costs just $99. Nice!

Not much media on this pedal yet since it’s so new, and I’ve only seen one video of this so far, which was okay, but the demonstrator only used a single guitar, and only made a few adjustments; frankly, to me not enough to give a good representation of the pedal’s capabilities. But based upon what I heard in that video, this pedal is more standalone distortion than overdrive, but really a better test will determine that.

In any case, you can find a bit more information at ProGuitarShop.com. Andy hasn’t done a demo video of it yet, but since he praises it, I’m sure he’ll produce something soon.

Myself, I think this pedal is going to be worth a serious look just based upon the principle of it being so affordable. Damn! I’m GAS-ing again! 🙂

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One of my biggest problems with Strats in the past is that while I loved their tone, the stock pickups never really satisfied me; being a bit too bright and not powerful enough. Plus, the Strat is not a guitar that sustains very well. With my new Strat, I’ve solved the brightness problem, and most of the power problem with the Kinman pickups that came with the guitar. But the sustain issue still exists. Mind you, this particular guitar has some very nice inherent sustain and resonance; still not as much as a Les Paul, but more than what I’ve experienced with other Strats in the past.

Among those in the know, a Strat really needs help in the sustain area, which is why overdrive pedals will never go away. They provide extra gain yes, but more importantly, they provide sustain. For me, as the title states, the Timmy overdrive has completely changed the game for me. Being a transparent overdrive, it retains my tone then gives me more of it, as well as giving me some extra sustain. Oy vay!!! I love this pedal! The note definition and separation is incredible with the Timmy. There’s nothing washed out at all.

There’s a song I recorded a couple of years back called “In the Vibe.” I liked the tune itself, but I was never happy with the guitar tone. I was using my old MIM Strat with a Tube Screamer, plus a cranked up Reason SM25. I just felt that the guitar didn’t have enough bite, and no amount of EQ was going to get me that. I even re-recorded the song using my Les Pauls, but the song was made for a Strat. So I just let it sit in limbo.

But last night, I thought I’d revisit the song and use the Timmy with my Strat, and I WAS BLOWN AWAY!!! The guitar parts have the bite I want, and the Timmy just adds tons of balls to my tone. Here’s what I recorded last night:

The first guitar part is played in the neck pickup. I love that pickup on this guitar as it has the real vowelly-like tone. The second part is in the bridge pickup that has a lovely drive and a Les Paul-like honk to it. Yummy! For that song, I set the pedal with volume at about 11 am, gain at 1pm, bass at noon, and roll off just some of the highs with the treble at 9am. My Aracom VRX22 was set with both Master and Volume at 1pm, which is on the edge of breakup for the guitar cranked up. I gotta tell you: The Timmy is absolutely marvelous!

What about the Dano TOD?

There has been lots of discussion about the Dano Transparent Overdrive being a ripoff of the Timmy circuit. From demos that I’ve heard, it’s close, but to me, the Dano doesn’t have near the amount of clarity that the Timmy does. Conceivably, you could get it close, and in a performance situation it may not matter. But in a studio situation, where  you want as much clarity as possible, I don’t think I’d ever use a Dano. Yeah, I paid three times as much for the Timmy and waited for 6 months. But at $129 it is so well-worth the wait, and at that price it’s near the cost of a BOSS pedal.

So in my mind, the Timmy wins hands down, and as I’ve mentioned in the past, it will never leave my board.

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Paul Cochrane Timmy Overdrive

Summary: Others boast transparency, but the Paul Cochrane Timmy overdrive is one of the very few transparent overdrives I’ve ever used, and to me it is the best OD I’ve ever owned!

Pros: Super-simple to dial in a great tone for the guitar you’re using. Bass and Treble cut knobs make all the difference in the world with respect to dialing in your tone!

Cons: None.

Features:

  • Separate Bass (pre-distortion) and Treble (post-distortion) cut dials
  • Gain knob to control amount of clipping
  • Volume/Boost to control output gain
  • Three-way clipping switch to choose between two types of symmetrical clipping (up, middle) and asymmetrical clipping (down)

Price: $129 direct (twice as much on ebay if you don’t want to wait 6 months)

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ I’ve only played with this for a little over an hour this evening, and already I’m in love with this OD pedal! You know me, I love OD pedals, but this one was well worth the wait. I can confidently say that this will NEVER leave my board.

Like many, I had heard of the Tim and Timmy pedals from Paul Cochrane, but I had never played one. I had only heard accounts online, then heard one in action at a concert. After speaking with the guitarist (Dylan Brock of Luce), and hearing him rave about the pedal, I finally got around to ordering one from Paul Cochrane back in October 2010. I finally got the pedal today, and it is hands-down the best damn overdrive pedal I’ve ever played in my life – and I’ve played a lot of them.

I now have only two overdrive pedals on my board: My trusty Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2, and now, my Timmy pedal. They will never leave my board. The Abunai 2 is much more of a distortion pedal than an overdrive and I love the color and compression it adds to my signal. The Timmy, on the other hand, is truly transparent. It takes your tone and give you more of it. And while other pedals will give you a midrange hump or scoop your tone, the Timmy lets you dial in (actually cut out) the amount of bass or treble you want in your signal.

Volume and Gain are pretty standard, so no need to go into those features. What makes this pedal special are the EQ knobs. Both are cut knobs. Fully counter-clockwise, they let in all the bass or treble. As you turn the knobs clockwise, they cut out. It’s a little backwards, but it makes sense once you start messing with the pedals. Paul says he made these like that because of the taper of the pots and doing it in reverse avoided dead spots.

The bass knob functions pre-distortion or before the clipping circuit. Other pedals dial out bass at a fixed level to avoid the bass being too muddy. The Timmy allows you to dial in as much or as little bass as you want. The treble knob functions post-distortion. Again, other pedals have treble set at a fixed point after the circuit to avoid fuzziness. The Timmy lets you dial in as much or as little as you want. The net result is a finer level of EQ control than I’ve ever experienced with an OD pedal, and those two knobs make that pedal very special for me.

I thought I was done with Overdrive pedals…

I actually thought I was done with Overdrive pedals for the most part, and instead started relying on my clean boost and occasionally would fire up my Abunai 2 to add some color and compression to my tone. But that all changed when I got my latest Strat. Even though the Kinman pickups and the X-Bridge pickups have more gain than stock Strat pickups, even cranked, they don’t have enough gain to get my vintage Plexi-style amps into their sweet spot – even with the amp cranked. For instance, I had to use my clean boost and/or my Abunai 2 this past weekend to push my amp into its sweet spot.

The clean boost works great in giving me the gain I need, but it doesn’t give me much sustain. The Abunai 2 gives me sustain, but it colors my tone and adds compression (I like that only for certain situations). Enter the Timmy. With the Timmy, I can get the gain boost I need to push my amp into its sweet spot, and with its clipping circuit, I can get a bit of sustain – but without the compression, which is HUGE for me. Mind you, this is all for a Strat. It’s a completely different story with my Les Pauls, as they have plenty of gain on tap, and have LOTS more natural sustain than a Strat. With a Strat, you always need some help. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just it is what it is.

With the Timmy, I think I’m now all set for OD pedals for awhile. Notice I didn’t say I was done… 🙂

I know, I normally do some description of how it looks and how it’s built, but suffice it to say that the pedal’s built solidly, and the purple finish is cool. ‘Nuff said. It’s how it sounds that is important.

How it sounds…

As Paul explained to me six months ago, the Tim and Timmy were designed to be transparent overdrives; that is, they take your tone and give you more of it. Though the signal path does include a clipping circuit, unlike other OD pedals, the Tim/Timmy circuit doesn’t add any color. In any case, here are a couple of clips.

In both clips, I have my Aracom VRX22 set up in its drive channel with the master and and volume knobs set to about 1pm each. With a Les Paul, cranked up in its bridge pickup, this will give me a sweet overdrive tone with lots of harmonics. With a Strat, these gain positions set it at the edge of breakup, and I have to really dig in to get distortion out of the amp.

The first clip is just a raw recording switching between just the Strat cranked up in its bridge position, then playing the same thing with the Timmy engaged. I did add a bit of extra volume to the Timmy so I could make sure that the amp got pushed into its sweet spot. Give it a listen:

The next clip is a re-recording of the song that I used for my Strat review. This time, I play the first part with the raw Strat, then in the second part add the Timmy to finish the song:

Overall Impression

In my mind, there’s nothing not to like about the Timmy. When Dylan Brock said to me, “Man, I just love my Timmy pedal,” I really couldn’t understand what he was talking about at the time. I now understand, and I mentioned above, the Timmy will never leave my board.

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