Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Classic Drive Stomp Boxes Shootout

A pretty tough contest, one might imagine, when three giants from overdrive/distortion history go head to head. Pro Co, Marshall and Boss are renowned and revered names in the stomp box stakes. But this is not a non-committal burst of sycophancy towards one and all. There will be a clear and distinguished winner at the end of this…

But that doesn’t mean there’s any commercial focus to the piece. Not all the pedals are available new anyway. It’s just a comparison of the different features and points of interest. I’ve selected three units which cover similar territory. The Pro Co Rat 2, Marshall Drivemaster and Boss OD-2R were/are all aimed at the guitarist who needs a good range of drive settings, from mild overdrive up to fully-saturated distortion. I did the test using a 1993 Gibson Les Paul Classic, and a Fender ’63 Vibroverb reissue 2x10 combo amp from the same year.

The Rat 2 is the most straightforward of the three pedals. A single Filter (tone) control, plus a Distortion and an overall Volume provide the only variables. But that’s not a problem. Provided the pedal sounds inherently good, the standard three controls are all that’s needed. When I bought the Rat many years back I did so on the strength of some very heavy hype. Sadly, it was one of those occasions where the hype was just too powerful for any product of this type to live up to, and I was disappointed. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good distortion unit. It is. The fact that I’ve kept it for more than 20 years attests to that. But it’s a product I’d describe as “arguably better than the typical distortion pedal”, and not as “far and away the best distortion pedal ever made”, which was the kind of rhetoric I was hearing and reading from vendors. The Filter is powerful, and allows wide variation of the tone, from silky smooth up to aggressively bright. In fact in every technical respect the capability of the Rat 2 is impressive. On the rotation of a single knob, the distortion ranges between virtually non-existent and roaringly saturated. However, when it comes down to the playing, the technical factors are not always of primary importance. With these things it’s all about the feel. I find the feel of the Rat satisfactory. Not overwhelmingly exciting.

The Marshall Drivemaster has two USPs among these three pedals. Firstly, it aims to repoduce a very specific type of distortion sound – that of a Marshall amplification system. And secondly, it incorporates a full, three-band tone control section, featuring Bass, Middle and Treble. This provides much more scope for shaping the sound than the other two pedals. You can, for example, dial out the middle for a ‘scooped’ distortion sound, or roll off the treble if you’re looking for a more American sound. The actual amount of saturation available is less than one might expect in a distortion pedal (if indeed it is a distortion, and not an overdrive). But the pedal does look to be aiming for a more natural drive, consistent with an unaided valve amp, which probably explains the lack of ‘supersat’. The personality of the sound is strong, and it certainly encourages you to play classic rock tracks. The envelope attack is very good, and but for a slight lack of in-ya-face fidelity, the feel is akin to using a Marshall valve amp. It should be noted that the Rat 2 facilitates higher saturation than the Drivemaster, and in fact provides the most distorted distortion of the three units. I also feel the Rat outranks the Drivemaster for technical fidelity. It just doesn't have the 'feel'.

The Boss OD-2R was/is described as a Turbo Overdrive, but it’s really a two-in-one device giving a basic, mild overdrive in the first mode (Turbo Off), and a distortion in the second (Turbo On). The ‘R’ suffix in the model name simply denotes the fact that there’s a remote control socket so the user can pedal switch from ‘standard’ into Turbo mode and vice versa. The two modes have different voicings, and I actually think this is a really good system. Mild overdrive tends to be used by those who want to capture the tone of a vintage type valve amp, without a separate gain stage, whereas distortion is more the preserve of those who want the sound of a more modern amp with significant preamp gain. These drive variants are, in reality, voiced differently – it’s not just a simple matter of one having more saturation than the other. So, plaudits to Boss for the idea. Even if they have long since stopped making this pedal, they do still use the concept in a contemporary unit.

Incidentally, there’s no reference to ‘distortion’ as such on the Turbo Overdrive, but I would very much regard Turbo mode as distortion, based on the amount of saturation available. The implementation of the ‘twin-channel’ idea is extremely good too. The mild overdrive mode is a very nice effect to have. It’s not a million miles from the sound of Marshall’s original Blues Breaker, and that’s a great accolade. The drive on the OD-2R is greater, so you have to adjust the Drive knob way closer to its minimum to get that ‘clean with a bit of detail and edge’ sound. But it’s there, and this is a difficult area of the drive spectrum for a transistorised pedal to get right, so again, well done Boss.

Going into Turbo mode and taking the gain (Drive) up to full, I got a really impressive all-round distortion with the Les Paul’s bridge pickup. Palm-damping works well, and this setting I feel will suit rhythm players better than the Rat, which will saturate more heavily, but can’t get the same crunchy ‘chug’ with palm-damped passages. The Tone control offers more than enough scope to tailor the top end to suit the amp, and the Level control adjusts the overall volume.

LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE...

Picking a favourite from these three was easier than I expected. Much as the Rat offers wide-ranging scope for different tones and levels of drive, and the sound quality is undeniably high, it doesn’t do that much for me as a rhythm player. I do play lead too of course, but no player who’s active within a band or recording situation can play lead all the time. The bulk of most songs is made up of rhythm playing, and for that reason the attack of chords and their crispness at higher levels of saturation is something I take seriously. The Rat’s attack isn’t that special. It sounds like the attack of a fuzz pedal rather than a valve amp, although the actual type of distortion is valve-like, and not fuzz. At lower levels of distortion, that fuzz pedal envelope becomes even more obvious, and for this reason I wouldn’t recommend the Rat 2 to someone looking for mild, vintage type overdrive. In fairness, that’s not what it’s meant to do I don’t think, but its dials cover the territory, so it’s an issue worth being aware of.

You have to respect the Drivemaster for the way it captures the Marshall amp tonality. The inherent tone of a Fender Vibroverb is about as far removed as a guitar amp can get from that of a Marshall stack, but the all-important three-band EQ still allowed me to force the lore of Marshall upon the 2x10 combo. I do look for personality in a pedal, and there’s no question that the Drivemaster exudes that. If you’re specifically looking for a Marshall sound, then this can really be your only option from these three pedals. If you specifically don’t want a Marshall sound, the tone controls will allow you to take the sound into other areas, but to be sensible about things, this is a pedal for Marshall fans. Those who are not into that type of sound should look elsewhere.

As an all-round pedal covering the bases from virtually clean to rich distortion, for me the Boss OD-2R wins this convincingly. The split-voicing system with the potential to pedal-switch from clean to crunch to lead was/is not offered by either of the other pedals, and although tone is subject to personal taste, I can’t imagine anyone but the most ardent shred merchants (in need of very high saturation) having any complaints about this unit. The OD-2R is quite unlike the DS-1, which I do like, but which I feel sits at the more synthetic end of the distortion range. If you like Boss pedals but want a more natural distortion than the DS-1 produces, with the added bonus of mild, vintage-type overdrive, it would be worth tracking down one of these. They were only made for a few years in the 1990s, but for the kind of money I’ve seen them sell for on ebay (£50 to £60 boxed), they are, in my view, an extremely good buy.

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt