Overdrive Week: The 85% Rule – with Eyal Levi of UKM / Unstoppable Recording Machine – OD Pedals

There’s no magical piece of audio equipment that works the same way for every situation 100% of the time. It just doesn’t exist. And you can take that further by saying that there’s no approach to recording and mixing audio that works 100% of the time. You have to be willing to try different things. And you have to work very hard to kill your preconceived notions that a certain piece of gear is going to be “the one.”

I have noticed that there is some gear that works out most of the time. I call it my 85% gear pile. It’s taken me 15 years to really refine what’s in my 85% pile but I gotta say, it really works. 85% of the time the stuff in this pile gets the job done well for whatever record I’m working on.

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Some random reamping session. Notice all the pedals I’m not using.

Why are there so many overdrive pedals and what difference does it make which you use? Well, there’s a couple of reasons for why I think there’s so many:

1. It’s a cash grab. Everyone wants the latest shiny gadget.
2. Same reason there’s so many spices in a spice rack. You always need flavor, right?

OD pedals can range from being crappy tone destroyers all the way to providing that last 10% your guitar tone really needed. There’s thousands out there and they all do something slightly different. Some neuter your low end, while some keep it under control. Some give your highs the right amount of extra harmonics while some just add a layer of noise. Some give your clean tone the perfect grit that helps it blend with the mix. Out of all the good ones I’ve tried I find that it’s more about the subtle differences. Do you like Kosher salt or Sea salt? The bottom line is that there’s thousands to choose from, but when it comes down to it, only a chosen few will get the job done. Just remember, a classic is a classic for a good reason. That said, in this blog, I’ve covered both new and crushing as well as tried and true.

In my career I have tried out more OD Pedals than I can remember, but for some reason I always find myself coming back to the same 4. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other great ones out there, just that for some reason these keep winning the tone battle for me. Also, let me just add that these are all very similar to my ears. Any one of these four pedals will sound great, if you use it properly. It’s hard to talk about sonic differences when they’re ever so slight but here goes anyways. Here are my 4 desert island overdrive pedals… and in no particular order.

1. Pro Tone Pedals Keith Merrow Overdrive – Discontinued

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Reamping into a Kemper, sometime, somewhere.

You could call this a Tube Screamer with teeth. Or you could call it a more precision oriented Dead Horse. This one is refined for the high gain guitarist. You know, kind of like Keith Merrow, the guy it’s named after. This is my favorite OD to put in front of a Kemper Profiling amp. Something about it seems to take to the profiles very well. Sometimes things can get funky when you combine OD pedals and the Kemper, but this pedal handles itself well. You have a ton of drive control thanks to where the break up point is. Even when driven super hard it gives you a lot of useable distortion, rather than a ridiculous amount of life ending noise. Just like the Dead Horse, it’s low end roll off is a bit higher than a Tube Screamer which is why it sounds fatter. Unfortunately you’re going to have to find this one on Ebay or my personal favorite Reverb.com. Sounds great on anything but it’s particularly good with Kempers and Axe Fx.

2. Ibanez Hand Wired Tube Screamer

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I know this is a pic of an original tube screamer, but I couldn’t find one of my hand wired. Sorry.

This is the Tube Screamer for the guitarist who won’t use something if it isn’t “custom” or “boutique.” Definitely over priced and kinda hard to find but I like it better than the original tube screamer which to me is just a little bit too brutal on the low end. However, when you have a track that sounds great but is maybe just a bit flabby, then this might just be the ultimate overdrive. The reason people tend to like tube screamers is that they really hold that low end together, in a classic sounding sort of way, while keeping all the bite in tact. The knee is at around 7.5 hz and it can completely murder, or perfect the low end if you let it.

3. Maxon OD808

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Right there among a million other things, the Maxon OD808.

The tube screamer for people that are too cool for a tube screamer. It must be noted that this company was started by people who worked on Tube Screamers. So it’s no surprise that this kinda sounds like a better version of one. Much like G&L and Fender. Anyhow, in my opinion, this provides nicer harmonics and for some reason it’s a bit more pleasing to my ears than a Tube Screamer. To my ears, this is like a sweeter sounding Tube Screamer. I’m sure you can get a good reissue at Maxon’s website, though If you want one that has the same board as the ts808 you need to get a pre 2000 model. Re-issues are always weird, so proceed at your own risk.

4. Pro Tone Pedals Dead Horse Overdrive

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Reamping the other night, with a Dead Horse.

You can order this one right off the Pro Tone Pedals website. It’s still in production thankfully. Like most popular overdrive pedals, this one is also based on the Tube Screamer, but is not quite as low end taming. Tones definitely sound fatter on this one. This is the first pedal I reach for when I know that I want a little bit more in the harmonics, but I don’t want total low end control. The knee is up near 1.5k which helps you keep more of the low end intact. End of the day, it’s just a sick sounding pedal. This is just as good as the KM version with Axe Fx and Kempers but it’s equally as cool on high gain tube amps.

5. Honorable Mention – B.K. Butler Tube Driver

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I love this pedal.

I only put this as an honorable mention because I don’t get to use it as frequently as I would like. It’s far too dominant a pedal. This isn’t an overdrive you use to tweak a tone, you use it to create a tone. This pedal is perfect for you elitist assholes out there because think about it, there’s real tubes in it, and it’s hand made. But all that aside, use this when you want your guitar to sound like butter. Plain and simple. I hate the term “warm” because I feel like it’s one of the most overused cliches in audio, but this one really does help get you a warm tone. Combine this pedal with a tasteful guitarist, a rolled off tone knob, a PRS, and some cool combo amp and you’ve got a winner.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are plenty of other great pedals out there that I’ve used, and will continue to use. These just feel like an All Star team to me. I know that if I have these pedals with me I’ll be able to get through any high gain situation.

I’d like to hear what your desert island overdrive pedals are.

Do you hate my choices?

Have you tried my choices?

What do you prefer?

You can follow and learn more about Eyal and his work at the following places:

You can also hear some of these ODs in action in our Ultimate Overdrive Shootout.
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