The Boss MZ-2 Digital Metalizer

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 18 September 2012 |

The late 1980s couldn’t be accused of over-simplicity when it came to professional rock guitar setups. If the audience could see the back wall of the venue when your band took to the stage, then simply, you didn’t have enough cabs, you hadn’t chained up enough amp heads, and your effects rack was way too small. Building a rock guitarist’s rack back then required the supervision of a qualified architect, and possibly even planning permission. Well, almost.

How funny it was, then, when effects pedal manufacturer Boss took things to the other extreme, and packed the essence of the late ‘80s heavy metal guitar sound into a box smaller than an outstretched human hand. Arriving at the end of 1987, the MZ-2 Digital Metalizer pedal was aimed squarely at heavy metal and hard rock musicians. Notably, Boss used the word ‘musicians’ as opposed to ‘guitarists’, indicating that they saw it being employed on other instruments too – both bass and keyboards, according to the July 1988 catalogue (Boss Pocket Dictionary Vol. 5).

Although the MZ-2 was called the Digital Metalizer, it wasn’t all digital. The distortion was produced with analogue circuitry, and only the ‘complementary’ effects were driven by ones and zeros. Of course, in later times, the pedal would, I’m sure, have been named the Analogue Metalizer, but this was 1987 – ‘digital’ was still very much the buzzword.

Boss MZ-2 Digital Metalizer advert - UK 1988
Original UK ad for the Boss Digital Metalizer (early 1988).
"Putting the Metal to the Pedal!".
The MZ-2 took a highly-saturated and heavily-processed distortion sound, of the type which would require multiple gain stages and maybe some custom EQ options to produce in a valve amp, and amalgamated it with additional digital delay/modualtion processing, in stereo, for an archetypal late ‘80s metal sound with spatial characteristics. At the outset of 1988, the Boss Digital Metalizer was selling in the UK shops at over £80, which was expensive for a distortion pedal (Boss’s former flagship HM-2 Heavy Metal was around £50 at the time). But taking into account the fact that the pedal also provided stereo double-tracking and chorus options, it could be regarded as a considerable saving on the alternative route of separate pedals. True, the Metalizer’s doubling and chorus effect modes were preset and non-adjustable, but that could also be said about the Boss Dimension C pedal, which was purely a chorus and cost about £120. Lack of adjustability wasn’t any problem if the preset sounds were desirable.

So did the Metalizer fulfil its brief and pack a rock god’s whole sound into a tiny box? Well, you’d need two amps, or a stereo amp with two speakers in order to gain the unit’s full stereo effect. But with a couple of smallish guitar combos connected to the pedal’s stereo outputs there was no denying the uncanny ability of the MZ-2 to simulate the sound of a much bigger and more expensive setup.

The controls onboard allowed adjustment of the effect level, the tone, and of course the amount of saturation for the distortion. There was then a six position rotary pot which engaged or disengaged the spatial effects. Position 1 gave straight distortion, although the distortion in itself had a processed aura, as I mentioned earlier. Positions 2, 3 and 4 engaged the doubling delay effect with increasing delay times for a progressively ‘bigger’ feel to the sound. As with all doubling, though, the delay time was always short. The variation ranged between extremely short and very short, but Boss picked the preset times well for the type of sounds metal guitarists wanted. Finally, Positions 5 and 6 on the rotary brought in the chorus effect, with two separate depth levels. Running the pedal in stereo did make a difference, and really brought out the extra dimension in the more pronounced delay/mod effects.

DEMISE

The MZ-2 Digital Metalizer didn’t last long on the market. It appears that by 1991 Boss had stopped making the pedal, but there was no great rush to buy up the last of the stock. UK Mail order specialists Tempo were still advertising the Digital Metalizer as new stock in 1994 editions of Guitarist magazine, by that time at a price of £99.

As to why Boss stopped making the pedal, or perhaps more pertinently, why people weren’t buying it in sufficient number for production to continue, the answer was probably just fashion. Like a lot of things which came in the mid to late ‘80s and went in the early to mid ‘90s, the Metalizer was built around a number of pretty trend-driven idiosyncrasies. The ‘80s was all about using technology to excess, and ensuring that the listener damn well knew it. Someone came up with a processing technique – everyone used it to the point where you couldn’t hear anything else, then the public got bored, and then smoeone else came up with something else. The whole decade was a series of fads really. In the ‘90s, musicians re-discovered subtlety, and rather than trying to come up with a new tech process every five minutes, they increasingly began to recognise and cherry pick the past. That made a lot of the ‘new toy’ sounds of the ‘80s seem rather tacky and ill-judged.

When introduced, the Digital Metalizer did make the kind of sounds a lot of hard rock guitarists wanted. Indeed, it sold phenomenally well in the UK during 1988, making it into the top five best selling effects by the spring (Making Music dealer feedback ratings), and making the top three by the autumn. It was placed as the sixth best selling effect of any type for the whole year of '88, but it quickly dropped out of the chart in 1989 as tastes started to change. Because the distortion was geared towards a particular moment in time, and the additional effects were all preset, there really wasn’t a lot of room for manoeuvre on changing tastes. As soon as the pros started twiddling the knobs on their racks and tweaking their amp stacks, the MZ-2 would inevitably fall by the wayside as a dated pastiche of 1987 hard rock. That was the point at which you realised the fatal flaw in trying to pack a whole rig into a small box.

Additionally, Boss improved the smoothness of their heavy distortion going into the 1990s, so effects like the Digital Metalizer, and indeed the Heavy Metal, were always going to find it difficult to survive regardless of their versatility. I still think the MZ-2 is an interesting pedal, and given the short-lived nature of its tenure on the market it’s become highly synonymous with the late 1980s. In practical terms it's probably not the most worthwhile acquisition you can make in 2012, but as a lesser visited piece of Boss history, if the price was right, it would be quite a fun addition to the collection.

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 Guitar Reviews and Retrospectives page.

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