What a box of tricks the Boss ME-8 was. On paper, this Japanese-made multi-FX box from latter 1995 blew the earlier (and historically important) Boss ME-5’s ass out of the water, so to speak. The ME-8 boasted a massive increase in the number of effects, plus a wealth of valuable features which the ME-5 either predated or just didn’t have the room or budget to include in its day. And best of all? The ME-8 offered all these extras at a RRP of £359, which in comparison to the ME-5’s £550 of seven years earlier, was in real terms (taking into account the high inflation of the period) less than half the price. But was the ME-8 quite such a marvel in practice?…
The ME-8’s Overdrive/Distortion section almost warrants a retrospective in itself, and was beyond question the making of the product. There were four separate Boss drive / distortion ‘pedals’ incorporated, and to me, by and large they do sound like the actual stomp boxes. The ME-8’s Overdrive and Turbo Overdrive can be regarded as the two modes of an OD-2, which was the winner in my Classic Drive Stomp Box Shootout. Obviously, the digital surroundings of the compilation unit do mean it’s impossible to compare the effects like for like with a stomp box, but I’ve set up the ME-8’s overdrives alongside the pedal with the outputs tweaked to match, and I honestly can’t tell the difference. The Overdrive and Turbo Overdrive in the ME-8 are really, really good – no buts.
Next comes the Blues Driver, which follows the formula of the BD-2 pedal – another favourite with many guitarists. This is a less mid-focused drive which seeks to emulate the power amp (as opposed to pre-amp) breakup of an early ‘60s valve amp pushed hard. It’s got a strong bass and plenty of top end sting, and as an effect which retains the dynamic nuances very well, it’s (rather aptly) excellent for blues.
Click on the above stream to hear the Boss ME-8 in action. The guitar is a 1992 Fender MIJ '62 Strat Reissue. I made the recording using the ME-8's Compression and Overdrive, plus a touch of its EQ and a small amount of its Delay and Reverb. The signal is DI'd straight to a mixer via the ME-8's own speaker simulator (Small Box setting), and some mixer EQ is the only external processing used.
After that, there’s what Boss described in their manual as a standard Distortion. It does have the basic character of the DS-1, but to me it doesn’t inherently seem to have as much gain. However, you can build on the inherent gain with a very neat little feature I’ll come to shortly, regarding the EQ. Using various tweaks, you can get the ME-8’s Distortion to sound like a DS1.
Finally, there’s the Metal Zone, which follows the formula of the MT-2 – one of the most popular pedals Boss have made. It’s a hard and heavy distortion which doesn’t seem to care whether you’re using a Strat or a Les Paul, and blasts out hard rock- and metal-compatible dirt effortlessly. It’s very contrived, but it sounds massive both on rhythm and solos, and surely no one into heavy metal could dislike it.
The ME-8’s Overdrive/Distortion section also has two special tricks up its sleeve, the first of which allows the Equalizer to act as a sort of tone-shaping booster preamp. Normally, the EQ sits after the Overdrive in the FX chain, but the ME-8’s drive section allows the order to be reversed so the EQ comes first. This means users can feed a much fatter and louder signal into the Overdrive/Distortion, essentially turning a Strat single coil into a super-humbucker in terms of its tone and output (although not in terms of its hum reduction, obviously). It’s a very simple idea, but it works brilliantly, and it’s what allows the rather limited gain of the standard Distortion to be pushed to much higher levels.
The second special trick is an External re-router. This diverts the signal away from the internal Overdrive/Distortion, and into whichever drive effect you may choose to connect to the dedicated overdrive FX loop. It then returns the signal to the ME-8 at the next active effect in the chain. So you could, for example, use the ME-8 with a real valve overdrive (I sometimes do this with the Mesa V-Twin), and have the external drive not only patched in at exactly the right point in the chain, but also have it functioning as an ME-8 effect, organised and activated according to each individual patch. The external overdrive is only there if the digital instruction set calls it up, and will always be subject to the conditions within the ME-8. Again, very simple, but exceptionally useful.
So, apart from what truly is a humdinger of an Overdrive/Distortion section, what does the ME-8 offer?… Well, it has a Compressor, Equalizer, Humanizer, Harmonist / Pitch Shifter (with trem arm simulation capabilities), Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Tremolo, Delay, Reverb, Pedal Wah, Feedbacker, Ring Mod, Slow Attack, Vibrato, and a Noise Gate. Some of these effects are pretty gimmicky, and I wouldn’t imagine they’ve all seen a great deal of use with the average guitarist over the years. But staples such as Compression, Chorus, Delay, Reverb and the popular modulation FX are important, as is the Noise Gate. Unlike with the ME-5, Delay and Reverb can be used simulateously, but with the Chorus/Flanger/Phaser/Tremolo setup it’s either/or. The Harmonist is borderline gimmicky, but I do quite like it. You preset the key of the song and the harmony values into the patch, and the effect adds up to two extra lines for a three (or if you prefer, two) part harmony lead. A sort of mock Thin Lizzy, which is pretty convincing provided you stick to single note lines.
As regards the quality of the non-overdrive effects, the Delay and the Reverb are good and up to Boss standards of quality, but I don’t rate the Compressor or the modulation group very highly. They’re very obviously inferior to the ME-5’s equivalents, and the ME-8’s Compressor seems to have an ever-present ‘spike’ on attack which means you can’t really use it with any potency for clean sounds. In short, the ME-5 has a very fine Compressor, Flanger and Chorus - the ME-8 doesn’t. The Reverb sounds better on the ME-5 too. The ME-8’s Equalizer works well enough, but like the one in the ME-5, only functions as a three-band processor with a shiftable mid band. A useful, but not vastly impressive EQ in either unit.
Of course, if you’re offering a product at half the price of a previous unit, and including more features, you’re going to have to cut some corners, and undeniably, corners were cut with the ME-8. The construction was less rugged than that of the ME-5. The ME-8 also had no MIDI, which meant you couldn’t automate patch changing, or bulk-dump the memory for safe keeping in case of backup battery failure. But, overdrives excepted, the downgrade in the quality of the ME-8’s effects was the most serious compromise.
I should mention that the ME-8 came with a built-in tuner, a built-in amp simulator, and a proper bypass mode – none of which were included on the ME-5. The ME-8’s amp simulator offers just two emulations: Large Box and Small Box. Large Box is, I suspect, an attempt to electronically replicate the character of a Marshall 4x12. It’s got a much stronger bottom end and a more scooped midrange than the Small Box, which sounds a bit like a little Session combo with a single speaker. I prefer the Small Box, with some additional EQ at the mixing desk to add some bass. The speaker simulator is good enough for DI recording, and indeed I often use the ME-8 for exactly that purpose – sometimes unaided by additional processors.
So was the ME-8 worth its original asking price? Well yes, I think it easily justified £359 in 1995, and a new, unused one in a box would still be worth that now I believe. The collection of overdrive and distortion pedals the ME-8 incorporated would alone have cost a good chunk of the RRP. And Boss digital delay and reverb pedals were expensive to buy too, so those few individual components purchased in stomp box form would have cost more than an ME-8. Add to that the vitally important programmability and patch storage facilities, plus the noise gating, amp simulation, etc, and the Boss ME-8 was undeniably a product packed with value – even discarding the poor compression and mod effects. I should maybe stress that the modulation effects are usable and they don’t have any inherent technical problems – they’re just not, in a musical sense, what I’d expect from a Boss pedal. Also, the problems with the Compressor don’t audibly manifest themselves when it’s used in conjunction with the Overdrive/Distortion, so it’ll really only be those who want good clean sounds that its flaws will affect.
Despite its rather inconsistent compilation of effects, the Boss ME-8 had everything many guitarists wanted or needed, and it was clearly well-built because mine's still in use after sixteen years of regular service. Given what ME-8s typically cost on the secondhand market at the moment, they represent a very easy and cheap way to amass the essence of four very important Boss Overdrive/Distortion pedals, with analogue circuitry and Japanese build. I don't think a lot of people realise what lurks beneath that blue facia, so if you're after a nice collection of Boss drive pedals, and want a load of other stuff thrown in besides, then ssshhhh... check out the ME-8.
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