The Boss ME-5 was a superb quality, pioneering guitar FX unit, with a very simple layout and, chiefly, analogue processing. It incorporated some of the finest pedal effect technology of its day (1988), but its factory preset patches were unsophisticated, and did not exploit the unit's architecture to the full, or anywhere near.
Quite a few people have expressed an interest in better patches for the ME-5, but I've hesitated on the format of the post. That's partly because I believe it’s more beneficial to understand each component in the unit and be able to integrate it into patches, than simply to load in a bank of ready-made sounds. But it's also because I wanted to give an insight into programming good patches for ALL guitar processors of this type. So I'm going to break down some secrets of good programming within a digitally-controlled multi-FX unit. There will, however, be some ME-5 example settings. Let's start with the Compressor...
The ME-5’s Compressor is very powerful. The amount of actual compression is controlled by the Sustain parameter, but the fact that the Sustain only steps up to a value of 7 can perhaps persuade some users that the effect doesn’t have much in reserve. These, however, are BIG steps, and 7.0 of Sustain will be way too much for most users, in most circumstances.
Before considering any exact settings, remember that playing loud adds natural compression with many setups, so the optimum Sustain setting may differ depending on the volume of your amp.
The optimum Sustain setting will also depend on the strength of the input signal. If you’re playing a guitar with higher output humbuckers, you’ll want a lower Sustain setting than if you’re playing a low output guitar with single coil pickups. For a traditional Strat at practice volume, I think a Sustain setting of 4.0 gives a great feel. I’d take that down to 3.5 for a vintage output Telecaster, 3.0 for a vintage output Les Paul. But with that said, I’d usually be reluctant to use any compression on a Les Paul clean sound, because Les Pauls tend to be considerably less dynamically responsive than Fenders, and adding compression can make them sound a bit asphyxiated.
The Attack value controls the compressor’s ‘pop’. Set it high for a more exaggerated impact, and lower to let the original dynamics of the string pluck come through.
I find the Compressor’s Tone control superfluous with most clean sounds, but it can be useful when you’re also using the Distortion or Overdrive. You can cut the Compressor’s Tone value to thicken a distortion/drive sound, or increase it to boost definition in milder overdrive. The latter is very useful when playing stinging blues with a neck pickup, or palm-damping an overdriven bridge pickup sound. I’d whack the Compressor’s Tone up to 6 for both of those applications, using Overdrive Mode 1 - there's an example of that coming up.
Finally, the Compressor has a Level control to compensate for any volume discrepancies caused by the setting of the other parameters. However, when using the Compressor with Distortion or Overdrive, this Level control can be used to push the amount of drive harder and gain greater saturation than would otherwise be available. I consider the Compressor an indispensable part of the overdrive-creation facilities within the ME-5. You’ll see some practical settings for the Compressor in the next section…
The ME-5’s Distortion (Mode 3 from the OD/Dist group) provides a hi-gain rock saturation. Plug the guitar in, crank the drive up high, and you get a thick late ‘70s sound. If you’re using humbuckers you should have more than enough gain. Here's a highly saturated distortion sound...
If you’re using a trad single coil Strat you can boost the Distortion’s input signal by adding in the Compressor, set as follows…
The only real function of that is to increase the amount of drive and get a higher level of saturation. It’s not really adding much compression with a low output guitar.
If you want more of an ‘80s rock sound, bring in the Equalizer, with a starting point somewhere in this vicinity...
Notice how these EQ settings completely change the character of the distortion. It sounds almost like you're using a different effect. It looks at first glance like you’re sccoping out the midrange, but because you’re also cutting the low frequencies by the same amount, what you’re really doing is flattening the upper midrange spike whilst making the whole thing considerably brighter - for more definition and crunchiness. The volume naturally drops because more components of the sound were subtracted than added, so the Total Level (whose default value is zero) is increased to compensate.
If you do want more of a scooped sound, cut the Mid Level further.
I usually consider the Compressor, the Dist/Overdrive and the EQ as one effect when creating drive sounds, and with milder overdrive that becomes more true than ever.
If you’ve read what I wrote about overdrive in Why Your Overdrive/Distortion Doesn't Sound Right, you’ll know that at lower volumes, I don’t consider a standalone overdrive effect capable of creating a classic, moderately overdriven guitar sound in itself. With the ME-5, I suggest that you build mild overdrive sounds from all of the first three effects in line: Compressor, Overdrive, and Equalizer. It’s important to note that I’m using a vintage type Fender Strat here. If you’re using something with hotter pickups, you’ll need to reduce the Sustain and perhaps the Level on the Compressor. And if you have a bright amp, you may want to reduce the Hi Level on the EQ. But for an ordinary, single coil Strat with a warm valve combo, try this…
Remember, that whole group of settings is really just knocking the overdrive sound into shape. The Compressor is simulating the dynamic squeezing that happens with a hard driven power amp and speaker, so before the sound even reaches the Overdrive it’s got the feel and character of a loud setup. Notice also how I've maxed up the Compressor's Tone to sharpen the sting and definition of the overdrive. The Overdrive clips the waveform, with some extra help from the Compressor’s slight volume boost, and then the Equalizer focuses what's already there into a highly present and vital drive.
It’s a very versatile patch. The compression ensures good sustain for lead lines, and rhythm parts will really push with crisp definition. Complex chords sound great too. You won’t have to worry about restricting yourself to power chords.
Mode 2 is a more powerful overdrive (like a 'Turbo'), which covers vintage rock territory. Don't be afraid to tweak it with the EQ, boost the treble with EQ Hi Level or whatever.
But Mode 2 can also be used for an excellent old style amp-on-the-limit sound with just a touch of gritty edge. I've matched this with a Les Paul neck pickup...
You're really just softening and adding grit/character to a clean sound, but I find it very effective. It's similar to what the old Marshall Blues Breaker pedal does so well. The Overdrive's Drive is literally on zero, and the Compressor is being used to control the exact amount of grit. For a Strat, leave the Overdrive and EQ as is, but take up the Compressor's Sustain to 3.5 or 4.0, and notch the Compressor's effect Level up to 3.5.
The ME-5’s Equalizer is pretty self-explanatory. Hi Level is treble, Lo Level is bass, Mid Freq selects the band of midrange to be boosted or cut, and Mid Level boots or cuts it.
I find myself commonly cutting the 2 KHz band (that’s the 2.0 value), or boosting the 500 Hz band (that’s the 0.5 value). The former is good for removing any nasal characteristics; the latter is good for fattening up thin and clanky clean sounds. The overdrive and distortion sounds are fat by default, so probably won’t need a mid boost. Unfortunately, the EQ only works on one selectable mid band, so you can’t both cut and boost multiple mid frequency bands at the same time.
The ME-5 has a great chorus effect, but the art of getting the best out of it is in moderating the Rate, and controlling the mix of wet and dry signals. Try this…
Most users tend to whack the effect Level (essentially the wet/dry mix) up full, and then set the Depth to taste. But in doing that you’ll either get too much detune, or not enough ripeness in the effect. So instead, set the Depth relatively high, and heavily reduce the Level to overpower the excess detune with the dry signal. This is a classic ‘80s chorus sound. Add a long delay and some compression (using the suggestions provided elsewhere in the post), then EQ to taste for a seminal ‘80s clean setup you won’t want to stop playing with.
If you want to increase the chorus Rate, you’ll probably need to take down the Depth. Like this…
Notice that I’ve still got the effect Level heavily reduced so the dry signal keeps any excess detune in check.
The ME-5’s Flanger is very versatile, with four modes of operation. I’m not convinced it was necessary to include quite as many modes as four, but they’re there if you want them. Mode 5 is where the most spectacular stuff lies, and it offers a great alternative to regular chorus when used without any Resonance. Try this…
That’s a lovely chorus type effect for a clean guitar. You can amend that to a Pino Palladino-style bass effect by taking the Rate up to about 4.3 and increasing the effect Level slightly…
Put that on a fretless bass, add a very short doubling delay, and I’m sure you’ll promptly be wanting to lay your hat somewhere and call it your home.
Still using Mode 5, you can take the Rate down and cut the Level, but slam up the Resonance for a more obvious flanging effect…
The other flanging modes become increasingly shallow as you drop down from 4 to 2. They’re particularly useful when added to overdrive or distortion sounds, because distortion makes the sweep element of flanging sound more dramatic. The setting above does work pretty well with heavy distortion, but you could also try…
DIGITAL REVERB / DELAY
In its day this was a really cool section, and it still does the business getting on for three decades later. Reverb is pretty straightforward, but if you want ‘80s sophistication, use Modes 4 and 5, which offer, respectively, the Plate and Gated Plate Reverbs. Keep the Tone up high, and you’ll be thinking you’ve walked straight back into a 1986 recording studio. These are reverbs you can dollop on liberally and get away with, although it’ll depend on the style of music as to whether or not you they’ll suit the sound. Personally I like to keep the effect Level down at about 3.0 for most applications, like this…
Seriously though, if you want much bigger ‘verb, go for it.
Digital Delay can be quite clinical sounding, but when coupled with a series of warm analogue effects within the ME-5, you don’t really get that sense. I probably don’t need to say much about the Delay, because it’s more or less as flexible as you are. The only major thing you can’t do is sync it to a tempo, but here are a couple of things I think it does particularly well:
Classic slapback (rockabilly style)…
The Time sets a quick, ‘slapback’ repeat. The zero Delay value ensures that the sound only repeats once, and then cuts dead. The value of 3 for Tone takes some of the bright egde off the repeat, to soften the slapback. The Level, set at max, renders the repeat as loud and bold as it will go.
Classic mid ‘80s long digital delay…
This is great for filling out melodic lines with a busy and ethereal undercurrent of harmony. If you want it even more ethereal increase the Delay and FX Level values. For clean sounds, you may want to add the chorus effect from the settings example I gave earlier, and perhaps some compression.
Whilst the Boss ME-5 looks pretty simple, you can see from all of the above that getting the best out of it takes some knowledge and tricks. Obviously, this is only a single blog post, and it would take a book to explain all of the great things the unit can do. But hopefully you're now seeing each composite effect as an interactive element, and you're ready to experiment with your own patch-creation ideas.