The boutique effects business has mushroomed in recent years, and there’s probably no more congested area than that of boosts and low-gain overdrives. Here, we’ve rounded up three new low-to-medium gain drive pedals that have been kicking up a storm recently and are testing them side by side.
Flying the flag for the Brits in this rundown is the new Peacekeeper from Swindon-based company ThorpyFX. 2015 was a very good year indeed for ThorpyFX mainman, explosive ordnance disposal specialist and British Army Major Adrian Thorpe. Regular G&B readers will have seen his Shotgun and Muffroom Cloud pedals draw plaudits in these very pages, with the Gunshot receiving a coveted Highly Commended award in the Best Effects category in our Gear Of The Year issue.
“The Peacekeeper is my response to people requesting I do a Klon clone, or something like the Analog Man King Of Tone, or the Paul Cochrane Timmy,” says Thorpe. “At this stage, I think there are plenty of great klones out there, so I decided it would be best to produce a low-gainer that is flexible enough to cover [the same ground as] all of the legends out there from one box.
“To achieve this, it was necessary to do something different with the EQ. The Peacekeeper has an active treble and bass that is positioned post-overdrive. This means that the overdriven sound never gets too shrill or oversaturated in bass. The Peacekeeper also has a pre-overdrive presence control. What this does is change the characteristic of the driven tone from smooth through to much more crunchy. It makes the Peacekeeper incredibly versatile and able to produce so many styles of low-gain tone, all from one box.”
Inside and out, the Peacekeeper is as neat, impressive and robust as Major Thorpe’s previous offerings, so you get metal film resistors with a one per cent tolerance, WIMA and Panasonic capacitors, a Burr-Brown op amp and a thick PCB with gold-plated component holes. The blue, powder-coated baseplate offers kick-protection for the control knobs, though the laser-etched stainless steel enclosure is so mirror-like that it makes it hard to see the control panel lettering from a standing position. That said, once you learn what each control knob is for this isn’t a problem.
As Thorpe suggests, there are indeed “plenty of great klones out there” these days, but each of the US-built pedals we’re looking at alongside the Peacekeeper is vying to be the most sonically authentic replica of Bill Finnegan’s Klon Centaur yet.
Given that the voicing of individual Klon units can vary in A/B comparison tests, it’s more about what works in the context of your rig than the search for some sort of definitive holy grail, but Colorado natives Chris Van Tassel and Jay Rockett, aka J Rockett Audio Designs, have some pedigree and experience in the field, having been involved in the production of the first 1,500 of Finnegan’s Klon KTR pedals.
The first, silver JRAD Archer was a real hit, which ended up on pedalboards across the globe and was the winner of the Best Effects category in our 2015 Gear Of The Year awards. The Archer Ikon is the follow-up, and it takes inspiration from the warmer-sounding gold incarnation of the Centaur.
Anatomically, the Ikon is essentially identical to the silver Archer, although when we dismantled the Ikon and compared it to a recent silver model we noticed that, while the Ikon has germanium diodes, J Rockett appears to have switched to silicon diodes in the same position on the board of its more recent silver units. The other important stuff – the internal 18-volt charge pump and buffered bypass – remains in situ, and it’s all powered by a nine-volt centre-negative PSU or battery.
The Wampler Tumnus – named after CS Lewis’s Mr Tumnus, a faun rather than a centaur, get it? – is manufactured in Paducah, Kentucky and is the highly-respected boutique effects company’s take on a Klon. Rather than seeking out `magic diodes’, Brian Wampler has concentrated on replicating the Centaur tone and is able to squeeze the necessary components into a much more pedalboard-friendly housing thanks to its exceedingly space-efficient SMT circuit board.
Inside the teeny-tiny Tumnus, there’s no room for a battery. It’s not an issue for those with power supplies integrated into their pedalboard set-up, but if you want to turn up to a recording session with just a boost and plug in to the house amp (something we’ve done on a few occasions lately), then having to worry about an external nine-volt adaptor and another trailing wire across the studio floor might be a headache. If a well-stocked pedalboard is a must, then it’s worth noting that the side-mounted jacks on mini pedals don’t actually save much width compared to top loaders such as the Ikon and Peacekeeper.
Let’s start with what the Klon is famed for delivering: a beautiful clean boost with a subtle dose of additional midrange and compression. It’s a thing of wonder and the ultimate `better switch’ that you’ll want to leave on all the time. In an attempt to emulate this, we first A/B the Archer Ikon and the Peacekeeper. Setting the Peacekeeper’s EQ and presence controls flat, we max the volume and roll the gain right back.
Similarly, we centre the Archer’s treble control and zero the gain. With the Archer’s output control maxed, it has a fair bit of extra level beyond the Peacekeeper and pushes our clean 6V6 combo into a wonderful tweedy breakup with bags of chime – it’s a fabulous sound for big power-pop chords that sits somewhere in the mid Atlantic, especially with our Alnico Blue test speaker and ES-335 bridge pickup.
The best bits of Vox and tweed in one voice? In the context of this rig, certainly, and it’s tough to switch off. Compared to the earlier silver Archer unit, as a clean boost the Ikon is a little smoother and more sophisticated.
Back to the Peacekeeper, and as a pure clean boost we find that its maxed volume level is equivalent to around one o’clock on the Archer Ikon’s output control. With the EQ flat and the Ikon’s output rolled back to match the Peacekeeper, neither pedal makes the amplifier sing quite as beautifully as the Ikon did when maxed out, but there’s a noticeable difference in the way each pedal pushes the amp, despite matched levels.
The Ikon has a little more presence and chime and a delicious sparkle, while the Peacekeeper is more coarse and muscular. Using either, we’re in really touch-sensitive, expressive territory here for lead and rhythm, and it makes us wonder if we’d need anything else other than a little reverb or slapback for ambience. Neither pedal is better or worse, just different, and of course there’s plenty of scope to tweak the controls to taste – but more on that shortly.
It’s time to introduce the Tumnus, and with its gain control rolled off and the treble centred, the Tumnus sounds almost identical to the Peacekeeper when playing lead licks and chiming arpeggios. Chords and low-register parts accentuate the Wampler unit’s big bass response, which sounds nicely full in isolation, but this isn’t necessarily helpful in a band mix alongside a bassist if you are using humbuckers. It is, however, a great thickener for thinner-sounding Strats and Teles.
The Tumnus also has a higher overall level than the Peacekeeper and pushes nearly as much air as the Archer. Using the two klones with their outputs at full tilt renders their voicing differences in bold type – you can really hear that extra fatness come through from the Wampler unit, while the Ikon literally and figuratively edges it thanks to a little extra sparkle that makes our ES-335 sing.
When it comes to EQ, the Peacekeeper’s powerful post-overdrive active treble and bass controls allow you to add or subtract highs or lows in a much more sophisticated and exaggerated way than either of the other units, so adding a little treble gets the Peacekeeper closer to the Ikon’s centered clean boost tone, though the latter still has a slightly sweeter midrange.
Similarly, adding some bass brings the Peacekeeper closer to the Tumnus, although there is something uniquely smoky and silky about the Wampler’s voicing that sounds great for a slow blues.
At this stage, if we were shopping purely for a boost we’d be taking the Archer Ikon home – it has the most headroom, the loudest voice and a nice widescreen sheen that we really like. It’s dead simple to use, runs on a battery if you need it to and doesn’t take up much space when plumbed in to a more complex set-up, thanks to top-loaded jacks. The buffer is handy in a simple set-up with long leads, too.
The Peacekeeper is a lot more than just a boost, of course, and we turn to it first when it’s time to wind up the dirt. With all three pedals’ gain controls now centered and their volume levels matched by ear (equality is found with the klones set at just past 9 o’clock and the Peacekeeper at noon), we roll the Peacekeeper’s pre-overdrive presence control right back; and of the three pedals, Thorpy’s is now immediately the most transparent, open and 3D-sounding.
While the Ikon was gloriously hi-fi with the gain rolled off, it now feels slightly constricted and boxy, and the Tumnus’ extra bass just makes it a warmer version of the same.
Turning up the treble control on either pedal improves matters, particularly in the case of the Wampler unit, which really begins to open up ± but of course, the Peacekeeper is only just getting started… from here you can wind up its presence control to add extra grit as well as top-end cut, and use the bass and treble to fine-tune it.
The Peacekeeper stacks excellently, too, and plays nicely in front of fuzzes, as it’s true bypass. Our favourite pairing here was achieved by running the Peacekeeper in medium-gain mode for rhythm then stepping on the Archer, set up in front as a clean boost, for lead.
Low-gainers they may be, but all of these pedals can get alt. rock dirty if you need them to. We tend to be of the opinion that Klons and their clones sound best at the extremes of their gain controls, and both the Tumnus and Archer Ikon reinforce this – with the slightly disappointing response of the 12 o’clock setting giving way into a throaty overdrive as you crank the gain.
The boxiness widens out into a bigger sound altogether on both pedals, though most of the action is in the final 15 per cent of the gain control’s travel as the overdrive ramps up fast. The Tumnus is thicker, while the Archer is more aggressive and vocal in the upper midrange, which again may be your preference for band use.
In comparison to both klones, the Peacekeeper’s mids are much less forward, the overall gain and sustain level is lower and there’s less willing feedback from our ES-335 – though it’s there if you want it.
The presence, bass and treble controls offer a much more dramatic sweep with the gain ramped, and it’s capable of some pretty aggressive, abrasive grit; but into a loud clean amp it doesn’t really deliver endless liquid sustain in the way that many Tube Screamer-derived circuits do. We found that pushing the presence up to around 2-3 o’clock and rolling back the treble a notch or two delivers the most fluid lead voice with the gain cranked.
When it comes to low-gainers, what they sound like in isolation isn’t really the point, as the whole intention for these circuits is to couple them with a valve amp and one or two other choice drives. And, in that context, all three of these pedals excel. If we were forced to pick just one, our favourite clean boost would be the Archer Ikon, our choice for mid-gain rhythm sounds would be the Peacekeeper, and our go-to unit for fattening up a Fender would be the Tumnus.
J Rockett Archer Ikon
Description Buffered bypass boost/overdrive pedal powered by 9v centre-negative power supply or battery, made in USA
Controls Output, gain, treble
Contact Zoom UK Distribution 08432 080 999 www.rockettpedals.com
Description True bypass boost/overdrive pedal powered by 9v centre-negative power supply or battery, made in UK
Controls Volume, gain, treble, bass, presence
Description Buffered bypass boost/overdrive pedal powered by 9v centre-negative power supply only, made in USA
Controls Gain, level, treble
Dimensions 35mm(w)x90mm(d)x 33mm(h)