The Big Review: Blackstar Dept. 10 Boost, Dual Drive & Dual Distortion

Pedalboard amp, guitar recording interface, distortion pedal, virtual speaker simulation suite, gig-saver… is there no end of the potential of Blackstar’s innovative new stompbox line?

Although world-renowned for delivering high-quality amplifiers used by such diverse luminaries as Jared James Nichols, Gus G, Neal Schon and Richard Hawley, the Blackstar design team are no strangers to the pedal scene, either. The Northampton company’s tube-loaded HT units were groundbreaking back in 2007 but now it’s time to meet the next generation of Blackstar stompboxes: the Dept. 10 Boost, Dual Drive and Dual Distortion.

Named after the company’s in-house team responsible for “blue-sky innovation”, each of this trifecta boasts a single ECC83 triode running at more than 200v at its sonic heart, along with a dizzying array of chunky control knobs and switches on the Dual models. The larger units also come loaded with Blackstar’s new Cab Rig speaker simulator technology, featuring over 250 mic and cab combinations, a choice of mic type and axis, room mics and master EQ for each virtual cabinet. With deep editing carried out via USB, each of the Dual pedals allows you to store three onboard Cab Rig presets accessible via a mini-toggle on the front of the unit.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Boost
Blackstar Dept. 10 Boost

We’ll dig into all this shortly but another feature worth flagging is that, unlike some other valve-driven pedals which require bulky power supplies to function and indeed their power-hungry HT forebears, each of this trio of tubular belles runs from a supplied nine-volt DC adaptor, which is greatly appreciated when it comes to pedalboard integration.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Boost
Blackstar Dept. 10 Boost

In use

By far the simplest and most affordable pedal in the Dept. 10 range, the Boost combines a class A gain stage with passive James-Baxandall-style EQ. In practice, this means that the dead-centre position gives us an unadulterated clean boost while deviation from that point will either cut or boost the low and high frequencies. The boost knob itself governs the amount of sting you apply to your amp and, with up to 25dB on tap, there is more than enough grunt here to either push your pedals harder at the start of your chain or levitate your solos into the realms of unfettered melodic communication.

If you’re boost-minded then this little beast deserves your immediate attention. However, while it pains us to skim over such a good pedal, we’re keen to get as in-depth as possible with its Dual siblings – and there’s a lot to get our teeth into.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion

Both Dept 10. Dual pedals offer twin channels in an angled, double-width chassis. Each channel sports level and gain knobs and a mini-toggle switch offering two voices of increasing grit. There is a master three-band EQ section, while Blackstar’s patented ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) gives a rolling continuum between British and American voicings. These knobs are gathered around a friendly ECC83 tube which pokes its head out of the top of the pedal and is protected from your rhinestone Crocs by a stout little roll-bar. Just below that is the aforementioned Cab Rig toggle.

Both pedals come festooned with ins and outs. There’s an internal effects loop, USB out, XLR line out, standard output jack and a separate Cab Rig/headphone out. Whether you plan to use one of these units as a home practice or recording rig, a pedalboard amp direct to the PA or a good old-fashioned dirtbox in front of your amplifier, the Dept. 10 Dual units have all the connectivity you need.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion

Blackstar’s Architect software is free to download and provides the gateway to controlling many of the more advanced features of the company’s products. Here, it’s all about Cab Rig. Once connected to a MacBook Pro via USB and selected in Logic, Cab Rig’s elegant monochrome GUI offers an experience close to that of industry standard recording solutions such as Universal Audio’s OX. We aren’t talking about impulse responses, though – Blackstar says Cab Rig “overcomes the shortcomings of IR ‘snapshots’ and uses state-of-the-art digital processing to reproduce the sound and feel of a mic’d up guitar cab in incredible detail”.

Cab Rig’s latency-free simulations cover a huge amount of ground from a simple DI and 10-inch combos, to 4×12 cabs with a choice of closed or open backs and alternative speakers. In addition, the organic goodness of the ECC83 can be tweaked to mimic the voice of a 6L6, EL34 or EL84 power amp with separate resonance, presence and drive controls. As if that wasn’t enough, the microphone models, room simulations and master EQ allow for further detailed tone-shaping. Sophisticated stuff indeed.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion

Of course, if you simply want to use the Dual units as standalone pedals in front of your amp, they do an excellent job – in this case pushing our Cornford Hurricane gleefully towards saturation. Both pedals offer a clean voice on channel one which works as an efficient boost, but the fun really starts when you dial in the filth. The Dual Overdrive brings out some excellent low-gain and classic rock sounds, while the Dual Distortion takes us firmly into fire-breathing territory. It’s the sort of relentless heavy aggression that has us wondering whether chalking a protective pentacle on the floor might not be a bad idea.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive

However, it’s in conjunction with the Cab Rig software that these pedals really shine. Anyone who has dedicated time to the sometimes frustrating art of recording electric guitars will find the latency-free response and immediately useable sounds a welcome relief. Yes, there may be potential for option paralysis as you scroll through the menus auditioning sounds but if you start off with a target timbre in mind, it’s a quick and simple process.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive

As well as offering a remarkable amount of flexibility for the price point, the virtual playing experience here is very convincing – not only do these pedals offer an organic valve sound but they also respond to your touch and dynamics in ways that many plugins just can’t. When compared with dedicated guitar-recording software, both Dual pedals perform very well indeed – the distorted sounds in particular coming across with a vitality and power that is very impressive.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive
Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive

The process of finding a good core sound before fine-tuning it with Cab Rig is engaging and the UX is well thought-out. If we were to judge these pedals purely on their potential as standalone units they would score well, but the functionality offered by Cab Rig takes them to another level. As an all-rounder, the Dual Drive is our pick of the bunch. For just £249, it’s one of the best examples of a no-brainer purchase in recent times.

Blackstar Dept. 10 Cab Rig Software
Blackstar Dept. 10 Cab Rig Software

Key Features

Dept 10. Boost – 8/10

  • PRICE £159
  • DESCRIPTION Valve boost pedal, made in China
  • CONTROLS Boost, low, high
  • FEATURES 1x ECC83 triode valve, 9v DC mains power
  • DIMENSIONS 108 x 74 x 68mm
  • VERDICT A great little boost that brings tube power to the table

Dept 10. Dual Drive – 9/10 (Editor’s Choice)

  • PRICE £249
  • DESCRIPTION Twin-channel valve overdrive pedal, made in China
  • CONTROLS Gain 1, level 1, channel 1 voice switch, bass, middle, treble, ISF, gain 2, level 2, channel 2 voice switch. 3-way Cab Rig mini-toggle
  • CONNECTIONS Instrument input, effects send/return, USB, XLR line out, instrument output, Cab Rig output
  • FEATURES 1x ECC83 triode valve, 9V 500mA DC mains power, Cab Rig speaker emulation
  • DIMENSIONS 118 x 74 x 149mm
  • VERDICT Supreme versatility and some fantastic chewy amp tones in conjunction with the Cab Rig emulation

Dept 10. Dual Distortion – 9/10 (Editor’s Choice)

  • PRICE £249
  • DESCRIPTION Twin-channel valve distortion pedal, made in China
  • CONTROLS Gain 1, level 1, channel 1 voice switch, bass, middle, treble, ISF, gain 2, level 2, channel 2 voice switch. 3-way Cab Rig mini-toggle
  • CONNECTIONS Instrument input, effects send/return, USB, XLR line out, instrument output, Cab Rig output
  • FEATURES 1x ECC83 triode valve, 9V 500mA DC mains power, Cab Rig speaker emulation
  • DIMENSIONS 118 x 74 x 149mm
  • VERDICT Need heavy? Here it is! Aggressive tones that translate into powerful recordings
  • CONTACT blackstaramps.com

Like this? Try these

Dept 10. Boost

Dept 10. Dual Drive

Dept 10. Dual Distortion