Whilst the Boss ME-5 guitar multi-effects unit has served me perfectly well since autumn 1988 when I acquired it brand new, I’ve built up a little resentment towards it over the years. No fault of the ME-5, however. The resentment is entirely based on the item I swapped for it back in those rash and easily influenced days of my early twenties… Namely (brace yourself), an all original 1966 Fender Jaguar in burgundy mist metallic, with a bound dot fingerboard. Very good condition too. Ouch! At the time, I was actually quite thrilled with the fact that the shop gave me the ME-5’s full purchase price against the Jaguar, which was £55 more than I’d paid for guitar. Never before had I bought an instrument, taken it back to a shop for a trade-in, and made a profit. What I didn’t take into account of course, was that the market for custom coloured Jaguars with cellulose finishes was on a dramatic up-and-up, whilst the market for the world’s first fully programmable guitar multi-effects unit (see my Aria APE-2 article for qualification of that billing) was at its peak and would only diminish as the years went by.
You’ve probably gathered that the ME-5 was quite a temptation when it was first introduced. I, along with most of the other local musicians I knew, loved Boss pedals, and the idea of having all the salient ones packed together in a single, programmable box, was extremely attractive. Indeed, it was the programmability, and the ability to switch instantly from one selection of settings to another (impossible with individual pedals), which gave this box a value far greater than the sum of its parts.
The effects chain starts with the Compressor, which sounds and ‘feels’ to me just like the CS-3 Compression Sustainer pedal which Boss substituted for the earlier CS-2. The only real difference in the pedals, other than the appearance/colour, was that the CS-3 incorporated a tone control, which was also present on the ME-5’s Compressor. The Compressor on the ME-5 differed from the pedals in that its parameters could only be tailored in fairly big, incremental steps. On the floor pedals you just turned a knob and got infinite variation between the minimum and maximum. But the ME-5’s effects would typically offer a very limited number of steps (in many cases as few as seven). If you wanted a setting in between two of the ME-5’s steps, you couldn’t get it, whereas with the pedals you could. Conversely, however, the pedals couldn’t store a parameter, so if you moved one of the knobs, finding that exact setting again could take a considerable amount of trial and error. Any compressor which is in keeping with the Boss CS-2 or CS-3 is of course a laudable effect. The ME-5’s Compressor pushes up well into the territory of country-style ‘popping’, but always operates musically – brilliant for clean funk too.
The Overdrive/Distortion is in fact three separate ‘pedals’, selectable via the buttons on the top panel and assignable to any given patch. Each of them has a very different character. The first (No. 1, Overdrive) is subtle, ranging from basically clean up to obviously overdriven but never obscuring the character of the guitar. It does colour the clean sound with a ‘valvey’ boost in the mids, which is fine if you’re using a thin tranny amp. But if you’re using a valve amp in the first place it may not be what you want. You can, however, use the onboard EQ to reduce the extra mids and get things closer to the untreated sound. The second (No.2, Overdrive) offers much greater saturation, and can perhaps best be described as a ‘70s heavy rock sound when pushed to its max. I’d bill the effect as more of a distortion than an overdrive, but it’s a natural-sounding and versatile distortion. The third (No. 3, Distortion) is meant for raging drive. It’s not a natural distortion. It’s musical, but the envelope on attack is synthetic and there’s a fizzy-ish top end which is best removed by taking down the treble a little on the Equalizer. It’s definitely distortion rather than ‘fuzz’, but it has a character in the midrange which you can’t really get rid of, and hence it sounds a bit contrived. I don’t really agree that this is a DS-1 in a multi-box (as some have suggested). But if you like a slightly synthetic DS-1 style distortion pedal sound you’ll be happy enough I think.
Next comes the Equalizer. This is not really good enough, and I feel it’s the big let-down on the unit. You get treble boost/cut, bass boost/cut, and a master volume. But where it all falls down is in the mid area. Ideally, there’d be multiple bands of control – maybe even shiftable bands. But what you get is one single band of mid boost or cut, selectable only between three preset frequencies. So effectively, you’re reduced to bass/middle/treble – with the middle serving just a single narrow band. In other words, not greatly different from the amount of control on a cheapish stereo, and certainly stretching the term ‘Equalizer’ on what was an expensive box aimed at serious musicians. The original RRP of £550 would amount to well over £1,200 in 2011 with inflation taken into account. The Boss ME-5 was not cheap on introduction!
The Chorus and Flanger are compartmentalised as one, so you can only engage one or the other. Not that anyone I’m aware of would use both Chorus and Flanger. Both effects are very nice indeed, and using the ME-5 kind of highlights how far downhill these modulation effects have gone in the interim. The sound doesn’t lose bass end or top with the ME-5’s modulation FX, or end up sounding like it’s gone through a practice amp. You get the same fidelity of sound, but with the effect, and that’s exactly what you want. Control is adequate, and with careful setting of the different parameters you can get some extremely high quality sounds. The Flanger used without resonance and judiciously mixed with the original tone is spectacular. To me, modulation effects sound pretty dated on guitars, but if you don’t mind that, these two are very hard to beat. They genuinely do sound like the highest quality pedals you could lay your hands on.
The Noise Gate is next in line, and is one of the most universally celebrated elements of the ME-5. There’s just one parameter for the threshold, and the unit takes care of everything else. Very simple. Set correctly it knocks out unwanted noise without the player really noticing it’s there.
The Reverb/Delay combination is apparently the only digital effect in the composition, and comes last in the chain, followed only by Master Volume. The delay is exactly what you’d expect from Boss digital circuitry. It sends back nicely sampled repeats, it’s not at all noisy, and you can roll off the tone on the repeats if you wish. I can’t fault it. The reverb is excellent too. You can choose the type of reverb from ‘room’, two ‘halls’, a ‘plate’ and a ‘gated’ – the ‘gated’ being a gated plate. The gated is my favourite. It’s very ‘80s (unsurprisingly), but in a ‘best-of’ rather than ‘fetch-my-therapist’ kind of way.
The ME-5 is undoubtedly a quality effects unit, but it does have its drawbacks, aside from that disappointing EQ section. It has no speaker simulator or amp modelling, so if you want a true guitar amp sound, you need to get an external amp simulator or go through a real amp. The ME-5 doesn’t give the user the wherewithal to loop out to an external overdrive or distortion at the correct point in the chain and patch the external effect into the programs, which is something later (and cheaper) Boss units of this type did. There’s no tuner built in, so you have to loop to an outboard unit. There’s no bypass per se either, so you have to set up a patch with no effects engaged, but even this isn’t the same as bypassing the circuitry completely. There are no Pitch-shifting or Tremolo effects. You can’t keep the Reverb active if you want to use Delay – it’s either or. You can’t sync the delay on-the-fly. There are no real-time, pedal-controlled effects such as wah-wah. And perhaps most surprisingly, there’s no phaser! No phaser on an ‘80s effects box? Mind you, this was the late ‘80s I suppose…
Interestingly, all of these issues had been resolved by the time the ME-8 unit hit the market in 1995 – at less than 2/3 of the price the ME-5 had been introduced at seven years earlier! The ME-8 admittedly didn’t have the ME-5’s MIDI interface, or the same level of sound fidelity in some of the 'clean' effects, but it did do a lot more, and I liked its Overdrive section better. That said, as a good combination of high quality and mostly analogue effects, the ME-5 is a nice piece of gear to own, and it’s certainly more important historically than later guitar multi-effects boxes. The ME-5 was the one that started it all. Was it worth an all-original mid 1960s Fender Jaguar in Burgundy Mist? No, definitely not.
There's now a full article on programming Boss ME-5 patches, with example settings, in this Guitar Processor Programming Secrets post.
You can find lots more retrospectives on Boss pedals (incorporating lesser known info) on this site. The Boss articles are grouped together under PICKUPS, GUITAR AMPS, FX AND GADGETS on the Music Making page.