Friday, May 1, 2015

Boss Legend Series FBM-1, FDR-1, and FRV-1 Review

The Boss Legend Series pedals are modelling pedals which are made in the spirit of three classic Fender amps and effects, a 1959 tweed Bassman Amp, a 1965 blackface DeluxeReverb Amp, and a 1963 brownface Fender Reverb Unit. Note that of the three pedals, Boss has discontinued the Bassman and Deluxe Reverb pedals while the Reverb pedal still seems to be available through the usual retail channels. It is pretty easy to pickup the amp pedals on Ebay or Craigslist, as I did recently with the Deluxe Reverb pedal. Boss used modelling technology to produce these pedals so they are a bit of a black box in terms of how the sound of the originals is reproduced. The pedals themselves are typical Boss pedals, ruggedly built, buffered, with JFET switches, with both a 9 volt  battery and 9 volt jack. The chassis for each pedal are painted and logoed in the style of the original amps and effect which is a nice touch.

I have been playing these pedals for a few months now and, as many board threads have suggested, the pedals don't replicate the sound and feel of the original tube amps, however they are fun and useful pedals in their own right. Since I don't own a Bassman amp, Deluxe Reverb amp, or Reverb unit, I have not attempted to A/B the pedals with their original tube inspirations. Instead, I have used them separately and in combination with a couple different amps, a Fender Champion 600, a 5E3 clone, a Fender Deluxe 85 (a solid state amp from the red-knob era), as well as direct into an audio interface and with IK Multimedia Amplitude products through studio monitors.

As I am sure is true of many people trying pedals, I first tried each pedal with all controls set midway to get a sense of the base characteristics of the pedal. With each amp pedal I tried to set the controls so that there was no noticeable change in either the tonal characteristics, overdrive, and level with the pedal on or off. Both the Bassman and Deluxe Reverb pedals have gain and level controls, unlike the original amps, which allow a wide range of overdrive and level settings. For a clean setting set the gain low, say at 9 o'clock, and level at 12 o'clock. For higher overdrive/distortion levels the gain control can be turned up to levels that go well beyond the distortion that the original amps were capable of. There are numerous videos, including original demos produced by Boss that show guitarists using these pedals at levels similar to a fully cranked Bassman or Deluxe Reverb. I have found, however, that both pedals produce digital artifacts at higher gain levels, especially with the guitar volume control at 10 and with a harder hard finger or pick attack. Of course distortion is what you are looking for with a tube amp, but not digital distortion. These artifacts are noticeable even with relatively low output vintage Stratocaster pickups that are not raised especially close to strings. These artifacts typically produce a sound like the note is out of tune with itself, especially with bent notes. If you back off the guitar volume, to 8 or 7 the artifacts generally are less noticeable. Another characteristic of the artifacts is that once you start to hear them, it seems like they be eliminated by turning the pedal off and then back on again. It's almost as if the software algorithms can't handle high input levels and the pedal produces artifacts until it is "rebooted."

The other significant characteristic of both the Bassman and the Deluxe Reverb pedals is their characteristic tone. The Bassman pedal imparts rich, deep mid and bass tone typical of Fender tweed amps. The tonal character is highly tweakable as the pedal, like the original amp, has separate controls for treble, bass, middle, and presence. The Deluxe Reverb pedal, by contrast, imparts a throaty tone with noticeably stronger mids and includes separate controls for treble and bass. Here it's important to remember that the original blackface Deluxe Reverb had a tone stack that included a fixed resistor for mids rather than a tone pot, thus giving the amp it characteristic tone. Of course all of this is tempered by one's guitar, playing style, pedal use, speaker choice, etc.  It's also important to to remember that the amp that you are using imparts its own tone to the amp. The manuals that Boss provides with the pedals suggest that if one is using a solid state amp (such as the Roland JC-120, 'natch) that you boost the treble control slightly (1 o'clock) while if you are using a Fender amp that you boost the mids slightly (2 o'clock). Of course a tweed, brownface, blackface, or solid state amp is going to impart its own tonal characteristics to the signal coming from the pedal. Fender tweed amps have a pretty flat tonal spectrum while Fender blackface amps have a typical scooped midrange tone. What this means is that you really have to tweak these pedals according to the tonal characteristics of the amp that you are using, What sounds good with one amp could sound like complete ass with another amp. It takes time to find the setting that work best with the particular amp that you are using. After a bunch of experimenting I was able to get a pretty flat tonal and gain response from the Deluxe Reverb pedal with Gain 9 (o'clock), Level 1-2, Treble 1-2, Bass Max, and from the Bassman pedal with Gain 9, Level 1-2, Presence 9, Mid 12, Bass Max and Treble 1-2. YRMV.

The Deluxe Reverb pedal also includes stacked controls for tremolo and reverb. The tremolo effect was standard on all Fender amps from the blackface and brownface eras (as well as a couple amps from the tweed era), and the tremolo on this pedal emulates the optoisolator circuit of the blackface Deluxe Reverb. This circuit was an off-on circuit rather than the gentler and richer tremolo of the brownface era. You can tap to set the tremolo rate or set it using the pot while pressing and holding the pedal footswitch. When not pressing the footswitch the pot controls tremolo level. The controls are a little wonky, but a descent compromise given the space limitations for controls on Boss pedals. The reverb control is singular, the same as on blackface Fender combo amps with reverb. As in the original blackface amps, this control works by adjusting the mix level of the "dry" and "wet" signals (more on this below in my discussion of the Reverb Unit pedal). This feature of the Deluxe Reverb pedal unfortunately also suffers from digital artifacts. It works well at lower levels, say up to 10 or 11 o'clock. Higher levels result in digital splashes and echoes that are often out of tune or glitchy. Better to keep the level of this effect lower. It is possible, however, after tweaking the gain, level, and tone controls as above to use the pedal as an almost transparent reverb and tremolo effect which is especially handy when using an amp that has neither, such as a tweed amp.

The Reverb unit pedal is another beast entirely. It is modeled on the original Fender tube Reverb unit which was produced before reverb became widely available on Fender blackface amps. As with the original unit, the pedal has three controls, dwell, tone, and mixer. For those unfamiliar with these controls, the dwell control originally drove a tube that sent the signal to the springs, the tone control is self explanatory, while the mixer control controlled the mix between wet and dry signals. Note that the reverb control on blackface amps (and the Deluxe Reverb) are the same as the mix control on the Reverb Unit, the dwell and tone controls set by a fixed resistor rather than a pot. With the Reverb Unit pedal, the dwell pot controls the amount of reverb, which ranges from off in the 7 o'clock position to full-on drippy surf twang. As has also been noted on several boards, the tone control seems to work best at a maximum of 1 o'clock or so. The mixer control, as with the original units mixes dry and wet signals. As with the Deluxe Reverb pedal digital artifacts are noticeable, but only at higher dwell levels. There is also a noticeably shorter tail compared to combo amp reverbs, but this is not a problem when playing in a group. The pedal also sounds slightly sterile, as I can get a slightly warmer reverb sound out my Fender Deluxe 85 which is a solid state amp. The key here is to adjust the tone control to warm up the sound once you are satisfied with the overall level of the reverb with the dwell and mix controls. Overall the pedal is amazing and several threads on the pedal have indicated that people using this pedal rather than their original or reissue Reverb units at gigs or as backups.

As an overall assessment of these pedals, they are good sounding. This is especially true with the FRV-1 Reverb unit pedal. It is comparable to spring reverb on a combo amp and comes close to the sound of the original Reverb unit. Rather than think of the FBM-1 and FRD-1 as replacements or substitutes for a Bassman amp or Deluxe Reverb amp, think of them as overdrive pedals with a lot of tonal flexibility that add character to whatever amp you are using. You can also use the Deluxe Reverb Pedal as a transparent reverb and tremolo pedal. If you really want the sound of a Bassman or Deluxe Reverb there is no substitute for tubes and speakers. These are certainly useful and fun pedals.

Fender Mustang Dynamic Vibrato Loose Trem Arm

One frustrating aspect of the design of the Mustang Dynamic Vibrato is how the trem arm is attached to the stop bar--the small grub screw tends to unwind itself and allows the trem arm to fall out. When this happens you have to find the right sized Allen key to tighten the screw, but this isn't always possible when you are playing. I've read about few different solutions to this problem, including modding the trem arm by filing down sides of the arm so that there is a flat surface for the grub screw to press against, filing or griding a circumferential groove in the trem arm for the grub screw, using locktite on the grub screw, or using a threaded Stratocaster trem arm which stays in the hole better. Another solution which seems to work pretty well is to remove the grub screw and use a different fastening device. Right now I am using a 10mm M5 bolt that is usually used for bicycle bottle cages or fender mounting. The diameter and thread pitch of the M5 bolt seems to be the same as the grub screw, but bear in mind that this is for a Japanese-produced Mustang Dynamic Vibrato which I assume is produced to metric standards. If you are using an original U.S.-made Mustang Dynamic Vibrato this solution might not work, although you may be able to find another bolt with English measurements that would do the job equally well. The advantage of the M5 bolt is that it has a knurled head that sticks out beyond the socket that allows you to tighten the bolt by hand whenever it starts to loosen. It also takes a 4mm Allen key is you really want to tighten it.