Hello Gearheads! Today I'd like speak about the use of gain pedals as a Preamp or Preamplifier, which can be a very helpful tool when using particular pedals in a system. Often, in this modern age of ultra quiet stages, guitarists are required to bring the same incredible tones that usually come with cranking an amplifier to get that sweet pushed and distorted or overdriven tone. It's a difficult paradox to exist in and it's the main reason the guitar effect pedal market is completely saturated with boost, overdrive, distortion and fuzz boxes --- we MUST get those huge and killer tones sometimes at a whisper. Enter the use of pedals as a Preamp.
One of the most common uses of a pedal as Preamp is to simulate an amplifier that's already overdriving, or close to the edge --- the all holy Edge Of Breakup, cue all the "Ooo's & Ahh's". Anyone familiar with the vernacular of the electric guitar has probably died trying to achieve the perfect Edge Of Breakup or "EOB" tones. These are tones that are not quite overdriven, not quite clean, but somewhere in the middle of this beautiful mess called rock guitar. Quite simply, it's hard to attain these "EOB" tones in a modern environment where quiet is the new loud and everything is getting smaller.
Another situation where it's helpful to have a Preamp for your system is if you run a clean amp with a lot of headroom. I often fall into this category where I'm using a 120 watt Blankenship Twinplex amplifier --- it's got a ton of clean headroom, and never distorts or overdrives on it's own. It's simply a loud, clean beast of an amplifier. Using a pedal as a Preamp can make other pedals sound and feel better when the amplifier itself is quite clean. This model is especially noticeable with fuzz pedals.
Finding the perfect pedal to act as a Preamp is simple in nature but does require a bit of time, testing and patience. I'm featuring three specific pedals that work really well for me and others for this purpose, but by all means, you can get the end result with different pedals. It's just about finding what pedals work best with each other. This is not necessarily the ideology of "stacking", where you combine two pedals for more gain and compression. It's actually about thinking of the pedal as a tone enhancer after all your other pedals. With this in mind, it helps to have pedals that are open in tonal nature, offer a varying amount of gain and EQ, and ultimately don't contain too much compression. This is where the trial, error and success come into play. I've been lucky to have great tonal guru's in my life and one of them is my friend David Phillips of LA Sound Design. David is constantly searching for the best in the world of guitar and system building and I've certainly learned incredible amounts of knowledge from him --- including this concept itself. Now, on to the pedals! All three pedals featured here are incredible on their own merit, but for the purpose of this Tone Tools post, I'm showcasing the Preamp potential of each pedal.
The Shin's Music Dumbloid ODS is an incredible overdrive pedal that offers a very open and uncompressed Preamp capability. It's essentially a simulation of a Howard Dumble modified Marshall amplifier. It acts and feels like an amplifier, which makes the Dumbloid ODS a fantastic choice for this purpose. The EQ controls allow for more or less mid-range and ultimately more or less presence. Hitting the Dumbloid ODS with another overdrive, distortion, boost or fuzz will give you a wide and fat tone, with a great amount of mid-range content... a lot like what you'd get from a really good Marshall. This is 70's rock and then some. Fuzz pedals sound very good through the Dumbloid ODS as do midgain overdrive pedals.
The Vemuram Jan Ray is admittedly reminiscent of a cranked and juicy Fender amplifier pushed into singing sustain. It's a fat and bold tone that works really well as a Preamp. With less edge or presence than the Dumbloid, the Jan Ray adds a beautiful warm character that is more mellow in nature, and still cuts through the mix. Fuzz and boost pedals sound great with the Jan Ray as it takes some of the piercing high end that can be present in those circuits, and just adds this wonderful warm and fat overdriven tone. For anyone looking to get the violin like sustain of Eric Johnson, combining a Fuzz Face into the Jan Ray will absolutely take you there and more.
The Xact Tone Effects Fuzzy Tube Driver, or now called Iridium Fuzz, is another really great voiced pedal that truly acts like an amplifier for your pedalboard. The Iridium Fuzz is based off a modified version of the Craig Anderton's Tube Sound Fuzz and the Way Huge Red Llama. While all those circuits are relative to each other they are definitely different in feel and tone. The Iridium Fuzz is a warm yet clear voice that works perfectly for the purpose of Preamping other pedals in a system. It's tonally somewhere in the middle of both the Dumbloid and the Jan Ray, offering a more neutral tonal bed to work with. I hear it as a slightly more dry tone, just adding that perfect amount of tonal and gain change to make your other pedals sound killer in any environment. The Iridium doesn't impart it's own tone as much as the others do and while all these pedals allow your other pedals and guitar to retain it's true voice, the Iridium might just be a little closer.
Here is a really informative video from David Phillips of LA Sound Design explaining this process with both the Vemuram Jan Ray and the XTS Iridium Fuzz on how to use a Berkos Third Stone Fuzz with a clean amplifier.
Here is another example of how to use the Vemuram Jan Ray with Fuzzes and Octavio type pedals from the incredible Doyle Bramhall II.
Lastly, here is a video from David Phillips demoing one of his recent pedalboard builds. The video clip primarily showcases the Dumbloid ODS. You can really hear how the other gain pedals sound with the Dumbloid acting as a Preamp.