Overdrive Week: Engineers Joel Grind, Kevin Bernsten, Fluff, Glenn Fricker, and Chris Lucas Weigh In

You guys know that WE have opinions on overdrive pedals, but what about the guys who are down in the trenches, recording and playing in bands every day? We checked in with five of our favorite metal engineers to get the lowdown on what pedals they use, and why. Also be sure to check out our other interviews from this week on the same topic.

Chris Lucas – Rosen Sound Studio

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(Chris engineered our Ultimate Overdrive Shootout that premiered this week. I asked him to give his thoughts on how it turned out). 

Before I talk about which OD pedal I liked best, I want to talk about what the purpose of these pedals is, at least as far as how I use them in the world of metal production. There are generally three knobs on each of these pedals, and each of these functions plays an important role in the pedal improving your overall tone. The first of these is the drive knob, which is essentially the “gain knob” of the distortion section in the pedal. By adding gain, you add distortion. Distortion can have multiple effects, but in my experience it’s either used gently, to lightly even out the low end of the signal and clip the palm mutes slightly; or to add much more distortion to really crush the signal before the amp. The tone knob is essentially a tilt shift EQ that either boosts the highs and attenuates the lows (when turned clockwise) or boosts the lows and attenuates the highs when turned counter clockwise. The volume knob is typically an output volume trim, and can be used to add signal strength before the amp.

The magic of these pedals is how the tone knob works in conjunction with the volume, and the distortion of the amp, to help tighten up the low end while simultaneously adding a nice extra bit of shine to the top end. But how does a tilt shift EQ and volume knob achieve this? To explain, I’m going to have to first give an example: Imagine you have a low end source, like a bass guitar DI being sent into an amp without any distortion. Generally, the low end of the signal is going to be intact and not destroyed by distortion (as there is none). If you add heavy distortion (like a guitar amp) it can completely neuter the natural harmonics occurring and can both obscure the fundamental note as well as strip any punchy transient from the signal, as the low end would be squashed nearly the entire time by heavy distortion.

Now that’s bass, but the same applies to the low end of guitar as well. By turning the tone knob clockwise we’re reducing the level of low end, which in turn increases the amount of headroom the low frequency information has before hitting the distortion of the amplifier. This causes palm mutes and other bursts of punchy low end to breathe, and not be immediately crushed by distortion before they can form. This also helps to add sheen by effectively increasing the amount of distortion on the high end of the guitar signal (due to it now being louder, relative to the low end). Try this, plug your guitar through your OD of choice, into your amp. With the tone knob at noon, palm mute open strings and add gain until the low end starts to lose its impact and flatten out, now add a little more. Now while still chugging away, start to turn the tone knob on your OD clockwise (most are clockwise for brighter anyways). Listen to how the low end feels and how it starts to be able to breathe again. This is the magic of them, allowing you to use more gain while still retaining clarity and dynamics within the tone as a whole.

Now, how does the volume knob play into this? Admittedly, I originally thought that boosting the input gain into an amp was identical to turning up the gain knob, as far as the design was concerned, gain knobs are just input trim knobs in disguise. They’re not affecting the distortion, but merely the level of signal coming into the preamp. However, when I was playing with a 5150, I found that if I pushed the gain much past 5 it would crap out and lose some of its punch, but if I boosted the input a little with the pedal instead, it sounded great! I found that this is likely due to a stage of tube preamplification that occurs BEFORE the gain knob (which it turns out is common in tube amplifiers). This means that the only way to overdrive that stage is via input gain like our friendly overdrives.

Now that I’ve said my piece, which is my favorite, right? Well, I’m a man of distinct taste in high flexibility stuff, so I loved the EarthQuaker Palisades. Having the various tone shaping modes can be great especially when dealing with all kinds of guitar tunings, as not all guitars need the same EQ shift requirements. Especially since we’re getting into everything from 6 strings to 8 strings nowadays. It also sports 6 distinct distortion modes, which while I’d probably mostly use the default mode (4) most of the time, the others could be great on more heavily distorted material like the high end of bass guitar. Out of the lot of more standard screamer models, I liked the TS808DX, although ours was a bit noisy. It has a nice sag to the distortion, even when using a ton of drive.
As an added tidbit, if you’re doing guitar reamps with a DAW, you can craft your own custom tone shaping EQ by using a simple EQ on the DI before sending it out to the amp. This offers a ton of flexibility that sometimes can prove very useful.

Chris is the head engineer at Rosen Sound Studios (Sirion, Legal Tender) in Burbank, California.

Kevin Bernsten (Developing Nations)

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I typically go for overdriven amp tones, rather than relying too heavily on pedals for breakup. So, like a lot of people, I typically reach for an overdrive to shape an amp sound that isn’t quite there.

Here is a list of what I use most and why:

Tube Screamer: This is a fairly standard pedal, and its uses are documented to death. Used with drive on minimum, tone somewhere around noon, and output full blast, this little guy will give an amp a little extra kick and make the low end noticeably tighter. Great in front of high gain amps with tubby low end.

DOD overdrive 250: I had this pedal for years and always overlooked it until I saw Unsane. Never thought this crappy yellow pedal could make a tele through a silverface fender sound so huge! I reach for this, like the tube screamer, when I need a little more. Only this is for when i want a little extra drive but don’t want the low cut of the tube screamer. Great in front of a jcm800, or anytime single coils are involved.

Sanford and Sonny Bluebeard: More of a fuzz than anything. This nondescript silver box will punish anything in the chain after it. Great to slam the front of a V4 when I’m looking for maximum big.

Bass is a totally different story. I’m Usually looking for good pedal tone into a clean or slightly overdriven amp.  Bluebeard, Green Big Muff, Rat, Rusty box and even the Boss ODB-3 all get regular use.

Kevin Bernsten owns and operates Developing Nations Recording Studio in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s manned the boards for records by Mutilation Rites, Noisem, Pianos Become the Teeth, Meek is Murder, and more.

Joel Grind (Audiosiege, Toxic Holocaust)

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My favorite overdrive pedals I use are the Maxon OD808, Boss OD-3 and the MXR Distortion +. I use the Maxon as my main go to and it works great on Marshall type amps as well as Mesa’s but really anywhere you need more push to the front end of amp. It gives a nice midrange bump to the signal while at the same time filtering out a lot of low end mud. I wouldn’t use this in applications such as doom where you want a lot of that thickness intact but it is great for styles that need more note articulation.

My next in line go to is the Boss. This is brighter than the Maxon with less low end roll off and less mid range bump. This is definitely sharper sounding and cutting, not as round but I love it for darker amps or speakers.

Next up is the MXR. Even though the name is Distortion + I still consider this an overdrive since it’s basically the same circuit as a DOD 250. (I think the Rat pedal is similar too if I’m not mistaken) I use this when I want a fuzzier tone but not quite into full on Distortion/Fuzz territory if that makes any sense at all. These are great for in front of an old non master volume Marshall….think “Balls to the Wall” by Accept!

A cool trick I’ve found is combining symmetrical and asymmetrical clipping together for leads. Have the Maxon dialed in the way you like for your rhythm then when leads come in kick on the Boss OD-3 set to where the overdrive is barely even on. The combination of the two makes the leads really have a cool sound and a lot of sustain.

One pedal I tried to love was the OCD, for some reason I haven’t had much luck with it but I’ve heard other people use it and loved their tone.

Joel Grind engineers and mixes records at Audiosiege Studios in Portland, Oregon, and rips in Toxic Holocaust.

Fluff

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Hello, my name is Ryan ‘Fluff’ Bruce. You may remember me from such videos as ‘EMG Pickup Shootout‘, ‘Orange Jim Root Terror‘ and ‘Binary Metal‘.

I like to use overdrive pedals as clean boosts in front of an already distorted tube amp. I actually do not like overdrives that ‘preserve’ your tone. Overdrive pedals that take away some of the muddy frequencies (typically the lower midrange area) are ideal for me to get the tones all the metal kids like these days.

My favorite overdrives/boosts include the VFE Focus, Maxon ST9 Pro+ and the Maxon OD808X. Honorable mentions include the MXR CAE Boost/Overdrive and Airis Effects Savage Drive.

Get more Fluff on his YouTube channel or on Facebook.

Glenn Fricker – Spectre Sound Studios

I’ve gotta thank James Murphy for turning me onto Overdrive pedals. It was his post on the Andy Sneap forum way back in ‘05 or ‘06 that really peaked my interest. I was forever having trouble with the bottom end of my 5150 and Rectifier. ….and Overdrive went a long way into clearing that issue up as I could turn down the gain on my amp & rely on the pedal for a clean boost.

As it was explained to me, it gives a bit of compression, a slight EQ tweak, and a volume boost to the amp. The first one I got was the Ibanez TS­9, but I’ve got the most use out of the Maxon OD­808, which is the original. I thought it had more balls than the TS­9. I’ve got a Boss SD­1 that never gets used, and an MXR ZW­44 that gets used even less.

Lasse Lammert turned me onto the Maxon OD­820. I’ve been a huge fan of his guitar tones for years & he recommended that pedal for giving guitars a bit more girth. Very cool for 6 string guitars, but it’s a little too sludgy for 7 strings, IMO. One pedal I’m really loving is the SviSound overdrive. It’s great on lead tones (check my video demo of it) and my personal favourite is the Aris Effects brutal drive. It’s just fucking killer on heavy rhythm tone. I absolutely love it!

Interestingly enough, SviSound is sending me a “GF edition” booster pedal. Not much in the way for “gain” but a clean boost, with only one knob: LOUD. It’s the coolest looking pedal I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to try it out! 

Glenn is a recording engineer, videographer, and talking head as the Angriest Man in Canada, personifying the suppressed rage of the Canadian people. Check out his videos on YouTube for proof of all of these things.

Written by

Max is a senior editor and producer of Gear Gods and member of the collective Party Smasher Inc. He studies jazz composition and improvisation in New York City.