Colorless writings, part 1 – The Dark Ages

After each 10 or so pedal posts, i might try writing something different on the subject for a change. On this series of articles, i ask myself questions about some stuff i’ve been thinking. All these notes are based on my personal heresy and opinions. My articles should never be looked as hard facts. I try to keep these within or close to 1000 words, so you don’t get exhausted with my sub-standard english. Here’s the first article, taking a look at the “Dark Ages” of guitar effect pedals.

Why did we see a decline in effect sales and seemingly, in quality in the latter half of the 1980s?

I think the quality issue was never there. Of course some companies went with the money and their business sense instead of thinking things through musical perspective – but that’s the thing that is still happening every day. Now think what happen to the amplifiers after the ’70s. The solid state amplifiers were all the rage and shops just had to throw all their Voxes away, as no one would buy them. Have you ever played a pedal through solid state amp? Of course you have. Every guitar player has played with a solid state amp. No matter how well it is made, it will always (and i mean Always) lose the battle with tube amps. Don’t get me wrong. I’m using one solid state head quite often myself. Solid state still doesn’t capture the soft compression and the dynamics of the tubes. Digital modelling amplifiers may do that, but have you tried boosting the preamp of the digital modelling amplifier with DOD OD250 or ZVex Super Hard-On? There is a reason why all the guitarists playing a lot all still use vacuum tube amps. And all of them will, until the end of time. Debate on tube/solid state is not the issue here, but you can think for a second what your pedals sounds like with Marshall JCM800 in comparison to Marshall Valvestate, both from the same year, for the sake of argument, let’s say 1989. In this hypothesis, let’s take on some pedal that is not supposed to be any good. Ibanez TM5 Thrashmetal, for example. Some of you might have played your Epiphone Les Pauls with Valvestate amp and TM5. You will then know that the combination sucks ass. While valvestate is a hybrid, capable of taking higher/louder signals in, the distorted signal that hits the current amplifier after the preamp will still sound dull and not dynamic at all. Now, take the same guitar and the same pedal. Plug them into JCM800. With similar settings, you’ll hear the dynamics of the way you’re playing. The same dynamics that are completely lost in the Valvestate.

I do believe that many of the pedals from 80s to 90s went “undiscovered” for more than 20 years because of the amplifiers everyone had at home. Why would you buy a pedal that makes your otherwise reasonable sounding amplifier sound bad? No you wouldn’t. But the same pedal will sound amazing with proper amplifier.

Valvestate is a good amp in many ways when compared to what people really had back in those days. Marshall released small practice amps under Park brand, and every other brand had their small solid state amp for sale. All of them sounding like crap. Many manufacturers even lost their faces because of this development. Think of VOX Valvetronix hybrids that came out around year 2000.

When tube amps started their renaissance, people found out that the Marshall Bluesbreaker they had in their closet for 20 years sounded just amazing. They could have bought those for five euros back in 2001, or had one since they bought it new. Just couldn’t have sold it to anyone as everyone else had the same, bad sounding amplifier.

I believe that this was the cause of the decline. Not the quality. Not the choices pedal companies made back then. Not anything else. Just a pie chart showing how much more solid state amps were sold compared to tube amps.

But there were bad designs and breakable switches in that era!

Of course there were. But show me just one year when no company or no private builder released a pedal that was bad? Bigger companies release a lot of designs. Some of those will always be bad. Some of the designs i’ve come up with are bad. It’s been like that since forever. Stop and think of Hornby Skewes Shatterbox. Is that a good pedal design? How about Gretsch Controfuzz? There are many, many more. From the very first to the design that hits effectsdatabase today. There’s always been bad designs. The main reason why you affiliate 80s and 90s with bad designs doesn’t come from the designs. Broken footswitch? Oh boy. From day one, so many boxes have had switches that break with heavy use. And still do.

If all the 80s were only bad designs, why do we still have tons and tons of classic circuits from that era? Even a few hard commercial flops have found their way to be the rare gems and many of those can be heard on great albums of today. Some very cheap, mass produced boxes have already gathered value in hundreds of euros/dollars. Like many of the US made DODs. Damn i miss the days when you could score basically any of the most innovating DODs for pocket change. Even the worst box in original FX-series isn’t that bad (ok, there are exceptions…). Too bad the company was on its prime at the wrong time.

But why do you refer to that time as the Dark Ages if there’s no real reason for it?!

Yes there is. We lost original MXR, EHX went bankrupt, tens of others struggled with their designs and so on. Many manufacturers released cheaper and cheaper boxes to raise the profit margins.

May it be that i have never seen the pedals as a high profit business. Still the examples above tell you a story what happened. I know some people that still rely on their amplifiers dirt channels – the people who won’t never ever touch a pedal again. Their reason: The first encounters with pedals sucked.

In a nutshell. You think that 80’s boxes sound bad? They don’t. You’re just under that impression because you used those boxes with super sucky amplifiers back in the day.

The 80s did lots and lots of bad things to this world.

2 responses to “Colorless writings, part 1 – The Dark Ages”

  1. I respect your take on the past. You make some valid points. For what it’s worth (comeing from a 50 year old guitarist who gigged since the early 80″s) the 80’s also was a time of transition to digital formats in which I got caught up with for a time. When digitech and Art was at war with multi-effects racks and floor accsess, EVERY guitarist I knew (including myself) drooled at the prospect to rack up and ‘get with it’. We put our stomps in the closet and so did stomp companies and put more r&d in digital.
    It didnt take long to hear and feel the diffrences. By the time the 90’s came around and we realized that something was missing, it became ‘Retro’ to pull out your stomps. Just something I noticed at the time. Mike

    • True, and very much a valid point. For some reason i didn’t put enough thought on the rack revolution.. But then again, even though that is relevant part of stompbox history, it’s still something that i don’t see as equivalent. In a same manner i don’t have much love for current high end digital modelling that’s going on. Not sure where i’m stuck, but my main interest remains at analog electronic design. Thus, the stuff i write is from this point of view.

      Still, a valid point. Thanks Mike!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.