Every week I’ll present a little tip that’ll hopefully help improve your tone and technique. Please feel to comment and share your experience on the topic.
This is an updated version of the Buyer’s Gear Guide : Overdrive and Distortion posted October 5 2008.
Overdrive and distortion
One of the most frequent questions I get is “which overdrive and/or distortion pedal covers most of David’s tones?”. The answer greatly depends on what guitar and amp you’re using and how authentic you want to be but perhaps equally important – how will you be using the pedal? A big stage setup is one thing but playing at home with the volume barely above what your ear is capable of hearing require a whole different approach. In this article we’ll look at ways to improve your bedroom rig.
First of all I want to stress the importance of a good sounding guitar and amp. No pedal can “repair” what your guitar and amp can’t deliver and there’s nothing that kill your inspiration more than trying to force your gear to sound like something it isn’t. A good tone doesn’t require a whole lot of fancy stuff. Nor does it have to be too expensive. There are lots of great sounding guitars and amps well within even the tightest budget and this is also a segment that’s growing among the better-known brands. Regardless the size of your pocket book you should have some idea of what you’re looking for and do have an open mind as well! Perhaps the amp you thought would sound like crap is just what you’re looking for.
A typical Gilmourish bedroom amp should have as much headroom as possible, a classic mids scooped tone and about 15-30w output depending on how powerful the amp is. Tubes are of course preferable. See this review for some tips on great sounding amps under $700.
Use the clean channel – bass 50%, treble 50-60%, mids 40%, presence 50-60% and set the master to about 1/3 of the channel volume. See this article for tips on how to use the effects loop.
The average guitarist will perhaps tell you that the best option is to utilize the amp’s gain stage and place the delays and modulations in the effects loop. A great tip indeed and I often do it my self but what we really want is to get the feeling of playing at a huge arena with David’s larger that life tone. David’s classic Big Muff + Tube Driver setup is what got many of us into loving his tones but trying to replicate it can turn a patient guitarist insane.
The Big Muff and overdrives like the Colorsound Powerboost and Tube Driver was designed for loud powerful tube amps. This is important to understand. These pedals’ strength is also their weakness. On solid states and smaller amps they may sound quite the opposite of what you’d expect – thin and fuzzy with a choked sustain. A common reaction is to think that you either can’t find the right settings or that the pedal is crap. However, the hard fact is that the pedals aren’t designed for your setup or the way you use it. This might be hard to admit when you’ve blown all your savings on a vintage item.
For most bedroom setups, regardless amp and guitar, I recommend a versatile collection of pedals that’ll cover the tones you’re looking for without too much tweaking. These pedals might not be as unique sounding as a Big Muff or Tube Driver, but they’ll effortlessly handle even the most demanding setup.
There are mainly two different overdrives – the classic transparent mids scooped boosters and the creamy, mid boosted overdrives. Both have distinctly different characters and serve different purposes. I recommend having one of each in the setup for a versatile wide range of tones.
David’s Colorsound Powerboost (1972-1983) and Tube Driver (1993-present) are typical vintage style boosters/overdrives with a classic bright mids scooped tone similar to the early Marshalls. The pedals are designed for boosting a tube amp for more gain and distortion but they also have enough headroom for a transparent volume boost. On smaller amps and solid states in particular these overdrives tend to sound too bright with gain bleed due to the silicon transistors.
Better options for smaller amps and solid states are the Boss BD2 (preferably a Keeley model), Boss OD3 and Fulltone OCD. These are all very similar to the Powerboost and Tube Driver with a slightly warmer tone and a bit more compression. The BD2 in particular is an extremely versatile pedal ideal for transparent clean boost, dedicated overdrive and for boosting distortions. The OCD is based on a TS9 but the additional tone toggle switch adds more presence and mids scoop.
The Tube Screamer appeared in the late 70s and soon became the standard for most guitarists. Compared to the Powerboost and Tube Driver the TS have a smooth creamy tone with lots of mid range and compression. The pedal was designed to capture the sound of a cranked tube amp in combination with a booster or fuzz making it ideal for smaller amps and solid states in particular.
Perhaps not the typical Gilmour tone but the Tube Screamer is extremely versatile and allowing great tones on even the most demanding setup. If you’re having trouble with harsh distortions the TS can help smooth out the signal but its pronounced mid range will also colour the distortion and dominate the tone. In this case the BD2 is a better option.
Personally I prefer the slightly smoother Maxon OD808 but the Tube Screamer is available in countless forms and clones – Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, BYOC Overdrive, Jam Pedals Tube Dreamer etc. The Fulltone OCD is a hot rodded TS with slightly more gain and lower end as well as an additional tone toggle switch for more presence and mids scoop. A great choice if you have to choose just one overdrive unit for your setup.
As talked about above the Big Muff can be a tough challenge on smaller amps and solid states. Some models like the Jam Pedals Red Muck and the excellent Blackout Effectors Musket are some of the few Muffs I’ve come across that seems to handle even the most demanding amps but unless you’re very certain of how your amp behaves I’d go for something more versatile.
The RAT appeared in the late 70s along side the Tube Screamer. The idea was to capture the tone of a Marshall+fuzz+humbucker combo for smaller amps resulting in a warm, creamy distortion with a saturated tone and rich sustain. Not quite a fuzz nor a Big Muff but the RAT is capable of replicating convincing tones with its versatile tone control. It also has enough gain to be able to stand-alone without a booster allowing a cleaner and easier to tame signal.
The Rat was featured in David’s rig between 1988-1994 and the pedal was used on several Floyd songs and guest appearances during the period – perhaps most notably on What Do You Want From Me (Division Bell and PULSE).
Although the new stock RAT pedals are OK I strongly recommend a vintage model or the RAT II with the LM308 chip for a considerably smoother and warmer tone. There are also a wide range of great sounding clones like the Absolutely Analog Ratzo, BYOC Mouse (with additional clipping modes) and Heartman Distortion. My favorite clone is the excellent Retro-Sonic Distortion with three clipping modes for tonal variations and a bit more gain and lower end than the stock RAT. Adding the transparent Boss BD2 behind the RAT smooths out any harsh overtones and adds a bit more compression.
A good rule is to keep the setup as basic as possible. This not only ensures a clean noiseless signal but also saves you from a lot of unwanted feedback and trouble adjusting the gain. A loud cranked tube amp requires less gain from each pedal allowing a compressor+distortion+booster combo without screaming feedback and noise. A smaller setup and lower output volume on the other hand require more gain from each pedal but the trick then is to match the pedals and find the sweetspot between all. In most cases a compressor and EQ are quite redundant. A RAT works nicely alone but if you do want to add a booster be sure to roll off its gain almost all the way and set the volume to slightly above unity. This adds a warmer character and a bit more compression.