Ibanez PT999 Phase Tone

February 28th, 2015

Ibanez-PT999-PhaseTone

What is it?
Ibanez PT999 Phase Tone. Made in japan by Maxon around 1976.

These units apparently are not as rare as i thought. I suspect that the number manufactured was very high as there seems to be several units available in shops and auction sites even right now. Apparently the units sold very well back in the day. I had a hunch i was not going to buy one of these, since the prices around were looking quite ridiculous. Ranging from around 200 to nearly 500 euros. But, as it turned out, someone had one in a very condition and was willing to pass it over to me with reasonable price tag. The unit was and is in very good, slightly used condition with only small chip on the side panel.  Apparently someone has made it to squeeze the battery snap adapter for the power supply.. This is shown in the photo.

Ibanez-PT999-PhaseTone-guts

The board is fixed inside a plastic container. Since there is nothing wrong with my unit, i didn’t feel like forcing it open. What comes to electronic design, we have quite standard four stage JFET-based phaser. Dirk Hendrik has a schematic up on his site. The schematic shows a modern Maxon reissue, but i’m pretty sure the main circuit is the same. I’m sure that these originals from mid-70’s did not have dc jacks or indicator LEDs in them coming out of the factory at all. No other surprises, but overall feel is still stronger and prettier than what we find in similar designs. And then for the most important part.

How does it sound?
Amazing. Great soft analog feel that doesn’t spoil the tone of your guitar. While there are similarities with MXR Phase 90, the sound here is just better. Well balanced depth and sufficient speed control are basically everything that you would need. Additional dc jack and more modern switching could be in order, but those do not affect the tone. Which is just sweet as honey. Praised classic and for a good reason. Recommended phaser.

Seymour Duncan SFX-02 Tweak Fuzz

February 26th, 2015

SeymourDuncan-SFX-02-Tweak Fuzz

What is it?
Seymour Duncan SFX-02 Tweak Fuzz from the first Seymour Duncan effect series. Possibly from mid 00’s.

The  first series of stompboxes from highly regarded pickup manufacturer? Sure i wanted to see what was going on for myself. I believe the number of manufactured units is rather high and since most of the designs in this first series were priced neatly, they were bound to sell some. But my guess is still – not enough. As we’ve seen with various brands, if a design is a hit, it will stay in production for ages. Wonder if we’ll see a reissue of this at some point. Chances are, no, but still. It would be interesting.  Once i got mine, i took it out for a spin. And tore it open, as usual.

SeymourDuncan-SFX-02-Tweak Fuzz-guts1

There’s two small boards stacked inside. Other for controls and other for the main circuit. Boards are fastened to the box with  pots and jacks. Not a bad thing to see. There’s true bypass switching in place with industry standard three pole switch. Neatly done either way. The battery slot isn’t too easy to access and requires one to remove the bottom plate and its four screws to reach it. But then again. Who uses batteries anyway..

There’s been a traced schematic around for years. Couldn’t find it right of the bat, but one should be able to find it through internet archives with little detective work. It’s Analogguru’s work (and truly amazing work indeed) and it shows us what this thing is made of. The “tweak” control is the key. This control simply changes the value of the input cap from thin sounding small value to fat sounding, larger value. Rest of the circuit is slightly tweaked Fuzz Face.

SeymourDuncan-SFX-02-Tweak Fuzz-guts2

And since it is nothing more but a silicon Fuzz Face, it suffers from the same culprits this classic circuit has always suffered. This being the mediocre output level capability with modern output guitar pickups. But that’s at least partly, compensated with sturdy feel and decent looks. Switchable input cap for a classic circuit may not be enough to create an individual hit.

How does it sound?
Really good. The classic Fuzz Face sound with six different tone settings from thin and nasal to big and fat. Actually, i hear no difference between this unit and quite a few higher end/boutique FF derivatives. And the tone of that blue Dunlop reissue is in tact. This truly shines with single coils or humbuckers with vintage output (less than 10K). For the availability and price, this is very tempting alternative for current big boxed FF reissues. My guess is that these will have their reputation and price  going up in the future. Or this could be one of many slightly tweaked derivatives that will simply be forgotten. Only time will tell.

EHX Big Muff Pi Nano

February 22nd, 2015

EHX-BMP-nano

What is it?
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi Nano. Made in NYC, 2013.

Ok. This took them long enough. The massive Big Muff enclosure is sort of an visual trade mark for this obviously classic fuzz/distortion, but there’s been Little Big Muff out for a long time. Little BMP being the same circuit, but just in a 1590BB-sized box and with mostly SMD construction. We all know the circuit doesn’t require the huge box, even with through hole parts since dozens of other brands and boutiquers have been offering their tweaked clones ages. And usually in a smaller, 1590B, or 125B sized enclosure. In my opinion, the size form factor does matter to a degree. B-box always trumps the bigger ones (but if we go smaller than that, my interest drops lower than hell). So, in a sense, EHX releasing a BMP in a smaller form was just a matter of time. Chinese cloners are currently selling similar circuits in A-sized boxes, but i do hope that EHX doesn’t go there. Ever.

EHX-BMP-nano-guts

Looking at the circuit and checking out the treasure cove for BMP information, The KitRae’s Big Muff Page, the design for this one is the same as for current huge box reissue and Little BMP. Our basic four gain stage design with the middle ones having diodes for clipping. Exactly like all the other discrete semiconductor BMP versions. Circuit is actually very close to Little BMP with through hole transistors, diodes and a few key capacitors. And since this is electronically the same as current ones in bigger boxes…

How does it sound?
It sounds exactly like the others. Big and creamy with decent output levels. As with all BMPs, the  sound is at its greatest with clean amps and medium to low output pickups. The design and the sound it represents has endured time extremely well. There have been some changes in the design over the decades with all of them having a lot in common, while still sounding different. This and all the others post-2000 units sound more or less the same. With a few exceptions. Still, no surprises. Just the classic tones in a extremely usable format.

Digitech XTF Turbo Flanger

February 19th, 2015

Digitech-XTF-TurboFlanger

What is it?
Digitech XTF Turbo Flanger from X-series. Made in china around late 00’s.

Saw this going for a decent price and just couldn’t let it go. Played around with it for a while and i was ready to call it before opening the bottom. Not an exception to the rule, but simply yet another Digitech board shared with the rest of the series. Opening it confirmed my suspicion. As with almost all X-series pedals, this too has the same board with same chip as the others. The PCI-style interface pins on the lower right corner is a dead giveaway.

Digitech-XTF-TurboFlanger-guts1

So the design is nothing to write about since i’ll be just repeating myself over and over again. The code, box color and the labels are the only thing separating this from all the other boxes from X-series with a switch as a right hand side knob. So instead of going through the general idea of digital effects again, let’s just focus on the features instead.

Digitech-XTF-TurboFlanger-guts2

For controls, the Speed, Depth and Regen (a.k.a. feedback) are quite the standard. For analog designs, the additional controls usually affect the delay time and therefore alter the overall tone. After all, all the flangers are effects that have a LFO (low frequency oscillator) controlling the delay line time in sync with the LFO. Turbo Flange here doesn’t say anything about the delay times, but it has seven modes to go with. Voices 1-3 are pretty standard flangers, and same could be stated about the rise/fall and trigger up/down modes. For most interesting part, the 7th mode is 7-step which randomly (at least it seems random) selects the next step frequency in the LFO pulse. This would have blown my socks off if i hadn’t seen similar feature before. That’ll be Boss PH-3.

How does it sound?
If this wasn’t so sterile in its tone, i’d rank this very high. I could see myself using this for parallel guitar loops when recording. Maybe even for a bass with similar application. The seven modes offer quite a nice set of different digital flanger modes. My gut feeling is that this sounds very decent for an all digital unit. However, it’s not even close to the greatness of Ibanez DFL, which has nice digital design that springs from the analog world. This one here is simply a digital software effect in a stompbox form, with relatively low power consumption. Good, but maybe still not good enough. The 7-step mode is great thing to have on a flanger and it’s not every unit that you’ll come across to have this feature. Probably most of the VST-plugins will carry this feature, but you most likely will not carry VST-plugins in your pedal board. I like it, but not enough to call it great or a favourite.

DiMavery EPDL-50 Delay

February 17th, 2015

DiMavery-EPDL50

What is it?
DiMavery EPDL-50 Delay. Made by Daphon in china around late 00’s or early 10’s.

I was on the hunt for the original Daphon branded E20DL as it’s apparently the same circuit as for Daphon E10AD. The reason for hunting down a low end brand’s delay unit? The schematic for E10AD on Dirk Hendrik’s archives suggest that the design is actually very close to certain Maxon developed analog delays. And since this chinese manufacturer was responsible for producing the plastic Ibanez soundtanks, my interest raised too high to resist getting one. Daphon branded units are pretty scarce here in europe, so i just couldn’t find one. What i did find was a DiMavery branded version of the E20DL from a german retailer. And the price was decent enough too. The shipping cost wasn’t cheap, but that’s mainly due to the unit weighting a ton. Once the parcel arrived, it was time for a test run and to see how the unit was made. First thing that caught my eye was the horrid “quick fix” (TM) on the boards dc jack side. As the number of solder joints shows, there will be a lot of components in there.

DiMavery-EPDL50-guts1

And there are. Most of the board design looks a lot like the ones we see in every Soundtank. So everything’s in order so far. The DDB is modern BL3208, a 2048-step BBD. The noise content for the delay line is tamed with a compander. In all, pretty straightforward analog design in a box that’s way sturdier than most others. Weighting in at about 700 grams, the box is definitely one of the sturdiest of all.

DiMavery-EPDL50-guts2

The enclosure may be great, but. What comes to build quality, i’m not too impressed. Insides are made with cheapest parts available, and while the workmanship beats most Danelectro mini series units, it’s still sub-par when compared to Ibanez Soundtanks. Which is pretty odd, since we are talking about the same factory. Maybe the profit margin for current OEM’d boxes is less than what it was with Ibanez. Either way. This represents the cheapest metal housed analog delay in existence. Sad thing, but low price point doesn’t usually add up to high quality. And. I’m afraid there’s more.

How does it sound?
If we start by playing around with slap back type delay times, set the feedback accordingly and dial the mix to suitable levels. Then, this is very nice effect with smooth and soft analog feel to its tone. I’d estimate the maximum delay time to be something like 300ms. But there’s an issue. If and when the delay time is set above half turn, there is distinct higher frequency distortion present. My guess is that this is due to slightly misbiased BBD. And since the board doesn’t have a trimmer, this can’t be remedied simply with a screwdriver. So as it is, the short delay times work well and sound good. Longer times are next to unusable. I bet this could be modded to work better, but i haven’t found it in me to do so. Maybe some day. On the other hand, the distortion on long times in addition to self-oscillating feedbacks do make this very reasonable and cheap analog delay unit for all you noise heads. Looking for a hifi analog delay? Look somewhere else.

Marshall RF-1 Reflector

February 15th, 2015

Marshall-RF1-Reflector

What is it?
Marshall FR-1 Reflector Reverb. Made in china around early 00’s.

Where all the dirt pedals in small metal series have board designs of their own, the digital ones are, well. Exactly what you’d expect from them. This fact makes the digital designs in this series the most dullest boards. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the pedals, it’s just that the boards give out a medium intensity meh-factor when you stumble across exactly the same board design in two or more separate effect models.

Marshall-RF1-Reflector-guts1

As for the Echohead i posted earlier, this one holds the same boards, same chips and same filtering and mixing. Meaning that the differences between the Reflector and the Echohead are in code, screen printing and label badge on the surface. The electronics are exactly the same. While the guts contribute to noticeable meh, this still doesn’t mean there anything wrong with the design.

Marshall-RF1-Reflector-guts2

But since the Texas Instruments DSP, Atmel and BSI controllers are in place with crystal oscillator for the clock, i find very little to say about this unit from the electronic point of view. Sure. I could repeat everything i stated on the Echohead post, but there is very little point in that.

Marshall-RF1-Reflector-guts3

Besides, the design is complex and since it shares the same principles as all the other digital effect with its switching, buffering, AD/DA and so on, there’s not much to say. The real topic rises when we start playing. Electronically and by box design, this is what it is supposed to be. A solid chinese made Marshall box. Even though the pedal is pretty much the same as Echohead, the code and the modes are great. As with Echohead, the basic controls are level, or mix, followed by damping and reverb time. There is stereo output and even a place for expression pedal (which i haven’t tried with this one yet). Then, the six modes…

How does it sound?
Here’s the thing. These modes do not disappoint. Hall, plate, room and two slightly different spring modelling modes are good. Decent amount of hifi is present, but not enough to reveal the horrid truth of those too high resolution rack mount reverbs. Those rack mount units are useful for vocals and possibly drum tracks, but for guitar use, too high resolution does not sound right. This can be explained by guitar’s frequency bandwidth isn’t the same as for the instruments mentioned above. Too high resolution usually results in too bright and sharp tone. With this pedal, the brightness is in perfect balance with your guitar’s tone. Sure, the digital versus spring tank. We could discuss this for hours and still end up by saying both are good. Digital will never be able to act as the actual springs, but the effect with this and similar digital reverbs  will suffice to almost everyone. But wait a minute. There’s one more mode we didn’t cover. The reverse. I’m not going to say a lot about it, but it is fun to have a pedal with reverse reverb.

Digitech XTD Tone Driver

February 12th, 2015

Digitech-XTD-ToneDriver

What is it?
Digitech XTD Tone Driver Overdrive from X-series. Made in china around late 00’s.

Usable and quite frankly, decent sounding cheaper drive pedals are pretty common nowadays. This is one of those that you can score as used for peanuts. Or next to peanuts at least. Got the unit for cheap and after trying it out, i wanted to see what was inside. Screwed the bottom plate off and first thing to jump out was the PCI-style connection on the lower corner. No doubt about it. The circuit shares the same base with all the other X-series pedals with a pot as the right hand side knob instead of a switch.

Digitech-XTD-ToneDriver-guts1

As far as i can see, the board design is exactly the same as for the other driver pedals in the series. Only things that differ are the code inside, colour of the box and the printing on it.

Digitech-XTD-ToneDriver-guts2

We got our basic controls with volume, tone and gain. And the Digitech exclusive, the “Morph” which acts like a voicing control. Morph shifts the overall frequencysort of like a wah or parametric EQ would do. In essence the unit is pretty much digital equivalent of D-series Bad Monkey or Screaming Blues. Meaning that the D-series pedals act like analog effects do, while this one here…

How does it sound?
The first impression on the tone was pretty pleasing. But after a few short minutes i noticed the overtones had a pattern that just didn’t feel right. That was of course due to digital nature of the unit, making the tone just slightly duller than what we find in the most generic and dull Boss effects. I’m not deeming this unusable. Mainly because it’s not. It is quite boring without scent or taste, but it gets the job done. If the job is to slightly boost your tone, then you can’t go too wrong with this cheapo. Will this ever see much use in my possession? No. Like for all the drivers in this series, there is nothing you can’t get out of your post 2002 digital multieffect. For fusion jazz player, this is recommended unit. Use it for fusion jazz, and i don’t have to listen to its tone. Works and sounds decent, but not great in any way.

EHX Hot Tubes Nano

February 8th, 2015

EHX-HotTubes-Nano

What is it?
Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes Nano. Made in NYC, 2013.

Some time ago i stumbled on to a schematic of this CD4049 hex inverter based OD/Dist unit. Played around with the design and noticed it had some real potential. There are numerous drive designs with hex inverters on the wild and while the CD4049 distortion is quite distinct in its tone, most of the circuits still have their own kind of face. Since i had played around with the old version of the circuit and loved it, i had no choice but to get the modern original. Rare occasion, but since the new EHX nanos are priced very reasonably, i got this one as a new unit. For all you DIY’ers out there – get the original. It will be cheaper than building your own from the schematic.

EHX-HotTubes-Nano-guts

Quick eyeballin’ of the board shows that the circuit is the same as for the old, big boxed Hot Tubes units, just executed with SMD components. Everything from board design to the box scream “EHX” from miles away. Nothing special in the insides. There is a schematic up at Gauss Markov’s site. Plus a documentation for you to build your own. Like i said above, it may not be economically viable, but still. If we recap the design, there is JRC4558 after the input. Both channels of this chip are used to drive the first gain stage of the hex inverter. The gain of the design is set by simply placing a variable resistor between the dual opamp output and the first inverter input. This is followed by a second stage and next up is the switch for bypassing the tone stack. Both option outputs are driven by hex inverter stages, which means we have two of the inverters not in use. The tone control itself is pretty close to the variable high pass/low pass filter we see in all the Big Muffs and derivatives. It’s always a pleasure to look at an electronic design that makes sense.

How does it sound?
Vintage-like. Not too trebly in any way, but focusing on the lower frequencies for the overtones. It does sound very powerful. From mild boost to soaring distortion. I think some of the bass players will enjoy this more than average guitarist due to its relatively dark tone. Like stated, the tone focuses on lower frequencies, but i find this very usable nevertheless. The tone bypass is a novel idea too and will add to already high usability. Very good sounding unit. And since these come cheap, i can’t help myself but to recommend it to you all. It may not suit to everyone’s taste for a main overdrive, but it will have its use.

Marshall EH-1 Echohead

February 7th, 2015

Marshall-EH1-Echohead

What is it?
Marshall EH-1 Ehcohead delay/echo. Made in china around early 00’s.

My relationship with these effects isn’t anything too special. I just simply like them for their heavy construction and fine tones. Most of the units in this series (which i like to call “small metal series”) are relatively low on their price point and most of the designs are still available as new in 2015. I’ve already been inside a few boxes and may have pointed out that the chinese factory that manufactures these for one of the UK’s coolest brands may be the same shop that is responsible for Ibanez 7-series. At least the board manufacturing methods and and component placing do suggest that. I have absolutely zero evidence to back me up on this. It’s just a gut feeling. As it is a gut feeling to like these units. Well. A small form factor, good tones and box design that will be able to take a hit on a road.

To begin with this delay/echo unit, opening the bottom plate shows a board that reeks of digital design. This was to be expected. There is no way the design could have been analog with the set of features we have on the pedal.

Marshall-EH1-Echohead-guts1

The electronic design itself is rather complex. We have our Texas Instruments DSP chip, plus Atmel and BSI controllers. The motherboard is taking care of the AD/DA conversion and the effect itself, while the switching, buffering and mixing is handled on the second board.

Marshall-EH1-Echohead-guts2

With current, limited understanding of digital design, i have to leave with these photos and a notion that if someone wants to design a digital effect with SMD components, it surely should look something like this. In my opinion, at least.

Marshall-EH1-Echohead-guts3

But what about features? I said above that the amount of features made me think digital in the first place. For the connections, we have mono input  with stereo output and a jack for external momentary tap tempo switch.  In addition to DC jack, of course. The knobs are representing the basic controls required for a delay/echo. Level setting the balance between clean, or dry and processed, or wet signal. Feedback controls the amount of repeats and delay time is pretty self explanatory. And what’s more important, the delay time ranges from nothing to up to 2000ms.  2000 milliseconds in this price range is very, very respectable. Last knob is a switch for the effect type modes. I’ll say a few words about these in a second.

How does it sound?
Well. To begin with, great. Controls are well responding and the six modes offered all sound different. First mode, the HIFI, has its overall tone in Boss DD-7 direction, with still being pleasant and usable. Usually this type of pristine on digital delays ends up in emphasizing the high frequency content resulting in extremely cold and piercing repeats. This one here has great tone, even on HIFI mode. Next two are Analogue and Tape Echo modes. These have similarities, but both of them do a very decent job on modelling the types they represent. Multi-tap is next, and it’s a great feature. The repeats are handled in a different manner than on the previous modes. Sure, the mode doesn’t live up to all its potential since the controls are just basic. Nice addition still. Then we have the Reverse mode. To my ears, this reverse is better than the one we’ll find in Digitech’s Digidelay. Simpy put, usable reverse delay. The lasts mode is Mod Filter. So we do get a modulation delay in the mix too. The modulation, obviously lacking in controls, isn’t the best modulation delay i’ve heard, but still. A very good one.

This set of features with all the different digital delay tones. Usually cheap does not add up to good. This time is does. While the engineers have been forced to drop a few things out, they have still managed to squeeze a respectable amount of features in a such small package. I have very little negative to say about this pedal.

Digitech XHR Hot Rod

February 3rd, 2015

Digitech-XHR-HotRod

What is it?
Digitech XHR Hot Rod Rock Distortion from X-series. Made in china around mid 00’s.

It says Rock Distortion on the top. What to expect from its tone wasn’t anything short of obvious. But. The disappointments of shared digital board designs for the several other units of the series made me rather weary about what to expect designwise. Once the bottom plate was off, the sight was nothing close to those autowahs and reverb/delays. By the looks of the board it already looked like a digital design, but there’s no easy connection for the code burning anywhere. Just the 14 pads with nothing soldered to them.

Digitech-XHR-HotRod-guts1

So the board differs from modulation and echo effects from the series. Instead of Harman branded AudioDNA DSP chip, there is Texas Instruments processor accompanied by a oscillator crystal. Nevertheless, the design is all digital, except for the buffering and switching. Same as, well. All the digital effects.

Digitech-XHR-HotRod-guts2

For controls we have Level, Tone and Gain. But in addition to those standard controls we also have the “Morph” knob. While level/tone/gain are pretty self-explanatory, the morph isn’t. It’s sort of like scoop, depth and texture controls combined in one knob. Very effective and it discusses nicely with all the other controls. In essence, the morph adds a lot of variation to the pedal.

How does it sound?
From Marshallesque, fat OD/Dist to scooped near-metal distortion. And everything in between. Versatile and the digital code isn’t bad. The effect does not add emphasis on anything that sounds broken. Many digital distortions set the emphasis on modelling one feature of the tone the designer/programmer is after, resulting in useless one trick pony that does nothing more but walks on a pink tight rope. The biggest caveat comes from completely foreseeable behaviour. Meaning that drops in voltage or changes in guitar controls does not affect anything. At least not to the same digree we see and hear on analog designs. At worst, the tone is Ibanez MF5 resurrected as a Robocop. It’s not all bad, but it still is a Robocop. At best this shines as a squeeky clean, modern, solid distortion tone. Not clean as in “not-distorted”, but clean as is in “you won’t hear the shit storm inside the tone”. Or in other words, the overtones are just foreseeable.

Still. For the price, very decent digital rock distortion. Nothing you can’t get out of your Line 6 Pod 2.0, but still.