Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: ZVex Mastotron

Review: ZVex Mastotron

Never has the name of a pedal more accurately described its sound. The Mastotron is a gigantic, prehistoric, hairy beast! And I mean that in the best way possible. With five knobs and one three-way switch, it has all of the tweakability of the Fuzz Factory without any of the unpredictability. It can go from a wall of fuzz to a quest of 8-bit video game synth sounds to a a medium overdrive to the meanest thickest bass fuzz you have ever heard.

The fuzz, tone, and volume knobs are self explanatory. It’s the other two knobs and the three-way  switch that hold the keys to the Mastotron magic. First, about that three-way switch, it’s labeled “subs,” and it controls the amount of low frequencies. Setting it on 3 will rattle the fillings out of your teeth, 2 is a nice middle ground, and 1 removes most of the low-frequencies and leaves you with a thin and cutting tone. The knob labeled “PW” stands for pulse width, all the way left is traditional square-wave fuzz, turned to the right is narrow pulses (the secret to those Nintendo tones). Finally, we have the knob for Relax/Push. This one adds source impedance to the incoming signal and “should be set fully clockwise when using passive pickups.”

Word on the street is that the circuit inside the Mastotron is very similar to the Wooly Mammoth. And I know that Jim James from My Morning Jacket is a big user of the Wooly Mammoth. I can tell you that using the settings in the picture above I was able to rock the lead part to Holdin’ On To Black Metal with a huge smile on my face. With these settings, you have a really rich and versatile fuzz tone that combines the best elements of a few classic fuzz pedals. It has the smoothness of a Muff, the wooliness of a good fuzz face and the attack and decay of a tonebender. Slight adjustments of the fuzz, PW, and tone knobs brings you varying degrees of those sounds.

Let me be clear though, it doesn’t sound like any one of those pedals. It’s more like throwing the three of them in a blender and playing through the results. Or maybe multi-tracking through each of them in parrallel and then blending the three together. It’s a best of all worlds fuzz tone.

But all of that is with the “normal” settings. Start moving the subs switch to the right or left and cranking the dial on the pulse width and you’re opening up a new world of fuzz tones. And that’s even before using (abusing?) the Relax/Push control.

I don’t know why the Mastotron brings out the dental analogies for me, but it does. Setting the subs at 1, the fuzz and tone full up, and the PW all the way to the right makes a sound that is like a dentist drill. It’s not a pretty sound, but it is effective for a part that you want to stand out in a mix. Leaving all settings the same and switching the subs to 3 brings us into serious video game territory. Using the neck pickup and rolling off the tone knob on my guitar had me rocking out to the Super Mario Bros. theme.

So there you have it, many flavors of fuzz in a small package at a pretty reasonable price. It's hard to go wrong with this one. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Cusack Effects Tap-a-Scream

Why does an overdrive pedal need tap tempo? That’s a question I can hardly answer. But I can say that the Cusack Effects Tap-a-Scream is a whole lot of fun.

What is it? It’s the mutant offspring of a tremolo and an overdrive pedal with variable fade in on the overdrive. It has tap tempo, 24 waveforms and controls for depth, color, and feedback.

The Controls:
Rather than detail them here, you should just read the descriptions in the manual on the Cusack website. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this thing can do.

The Sound:
For me, the beauty of this pedal lies in its uses as a song writing tool and for “ambient” and “sound collage” rhythm playing.  Here’s an example of how I used it. My band is working on our first album (I say that lightly - we're dad-rockers with day jobs). But on one of my songs, the ending is supposed to dissolve into chaos. It’s a straight ahead rock song and then in the coda, it sort of explodes. I recorded a few tracks of feedback, oscillating delay, and synth arpeggiator and slowly faded those in. The problem was that in the context of the song, they came out of nowhere. By doubling the main rhythm guitar part with the Tap-a-Scream doing an almost reverse tremolo sound, I was able to slowly build the chaos. I now have the Tap-a-Scream guitar entering at the start of the coda and then I slowly fade in the other tracks. It's perfect for segueing from the traditional rock sound of the verses and choruses into the noisier Sonic Youth/Wilco sound of the coda.

I'm also a big fan of the Sparkledrive and the Pork Loin where you can blend your clean and dirty sounds. With the Tap-a-Scream, you can have a clean sound with dirty tremolo pulses on top. I dialed in one sound that reminded me of How Soon is Now by the Smiths. I think I sat in my basement and played a four chord progression for about fifteen or twenty minutes just listening to how the pulses emphasized different notes. It's been a great songwriting tool in that way. Each time I dial in a new sound, I come up with an interesting part to go with it.

I know I often end my reviews with a “go buy it” type line. For this one it’s not as cut and dry. I’m really enjoying this pedal. And it has led to me coming up with some really cool parts that I otherwise would not have written. As a songwriting and recording tool, it’s great. But I don’t know if I would use it in a live setting. If you’re a tinkerer and love to get to know the ins and outs of a pedal, this one will provide hours of fun for you. If you are a “set it and forget” type or a traditionalist, you might want to skip this one.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Battle of the Clean-blend Overdrives

Way Huge Pork Loin vs. T Rex Crunchy Frog

I spent some time this weekend rocking out and comparing the Way Huge Pork Loin and the T Rex Crunchy Frog. The reason I compared these two, is that they both offer the option of blending your clean sound with your overdrive. And silly names aside, both of these pedals offer up great tones. The Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive is in this camp as well, but since I traded mine (and regret it) it feels wrong to include it in the comparison.

I tested both pedals with my Reverend Roundhouse HB (LP) and my Malden Mozak (tele) through my Reverend Goblin (set just on the edge of breakup and with the schizo switch in the “UK” setting). Both pedals sound great and have plenty of volume on tap (the settings in the above picture show each pedal at unity gain). The Pork Loin is best described as dark and thick and smooth while the Crunchy Frog is more bright and gritty. The Pork Loin wins for being more “amp like.” It responds better to picking dynamics and the overdrive has less of a mid hump and a more natural decay. The Crunchy Frog wins for bang for buck.

Crunchy Frog:
I haven’t looked at the circuits in either of these pedals. But based on sound alone, I’d guess that the Crunchy Frog is yet another TS-based overdrive. As you can see in the picture, it has plenty of gain and brightness on tap. With these settings, I had a tone with plenty of grit and more than enough cut. Edging the tone beyond noon, things get a little ice-picky. And edging the gain beyond one o’clock, things start to lose definition. But it should be noted, I’m not a high gain kind of guy.

The Frog excels for lead work and the independent boost is a great feature. Unlike the Fulldrive, the boost function on the Crunchy Frog comes after the dirt and works with or without the dirt engaged. So rather than just adding gain and thickening the tone, this boost can increase your volume and even work as a clean boost.

The Frog doesn’t respond especially well to rolling off your guitar’s volume knob, but it lightens up a little if you back off on your pick attack. The clean blend is the real star on this pedal. Blending your clean signal into the overdrive makes for great definition and thickness. With just the od, the Crunchy Frog would be fine for lead but a little thin for rhythm work. With the clean added, your can dial in a great rhythm tone with just enough dirt and grit. If you are looking for a TS-style pedal or a good lead boost, the Crunchy Frog is a great choice.

Pork Loin:
The Pork Loin is a hard dish to perfect. With seven controls and a generally darker tone, it’s tough to dial in (at least with my rig). But once you get it setup, it really comes to life. Rather than just offering a blended clean signal, the Pork Loin runs your clean sound through a “Brittish-voiced preamp” and blends that in with the overdrive. What you get is a thick and boosted clean sound paired with a natural tube-like overdrive. There is also enough volume on tap to work as a serious clean boost if you turn down the overdrive.

I started by dialing in a nice overdrive tone and then adding clean signal to thicken it up and round out the sound. The tone that came out reminded me of some of Rich Robinson’s sounds on the first Black Crowes record. Distorted but still pretty clean. The Pork Loin works wonders with single coil pickups. It’s fattens them up without making them muddy. Pairing it with a bright tele bridge pickup creates a tone that is thick and cutting at the same time and that cleans up nicely when you back up on your attack.

With the Roundhouse, running the bridge pickup makes for a beefy tone that’s great for riffing, power chords, and leads alike. But I had a hard time using anything but the bridge pickup. Pairing the middle combination or the neck pickup alone with the Pork Loin left me with a tone that was too dark for my rig. But then I tried putting a Rangemaster (HBE Germania44) in front of the Pork Loin. And yes, I realize we’re cheating now since we’re only supposed to be comparing two pedals. Oh well. Hitting the Pork Loin with the Rangemaster created a sound I can only call “the closest I have come to a Vox AC30 simulator in a pedal.” It’s a sound that is rich, thick, and chimey. And thanks to the dynamics of both pedals, you can go from semi-clean to roaring with just picking and volume knob. If I were only doing roots-rock, alt/country, or blues, I could see getting by with just this setup.

The Verdict:
Both pedals are great. The Crunchy Frog wins for versatility. It has good base tones, offers a separate clean boost and should work well with any guitar/amp combination. The Pork Loin wins for “tone” though. It’s finicky for sure and takes some tweaking to unlock it’s potential. And with humbuckers and a darker amp, could be lost in a band mix. But with single coils, a brighter amp, or humbuckers and a treble booster, it is nothing but fun!