The guitar and audio world seemed to be obsessed with the past, in my opinion. We live in our heads in a time where there was all the Brazilian rosewood we wanted, where the BC108 and JRC4558 chips for our fuzz faces and tubescreamers are easy to come by, and where ‘50’s wiring’ is just called ‘wiring’. In our heads, this historical place is tone nirvana. We can buy 50’s Les Pauls, 60’s Strats and 70’s Marshalls for a reasonable price. What we seem to have forgotten, however, is that our original pedals are robbing our guitar of high-end because of impedance mismatches, our tape echos are breaking all the time and our 100w tube heads and 4×12 cabs are too loud for the venues we are playing and not forgetting how incredibly heavy they are!
Universal Audio (UA) has been at the forefront of turning the old into new via their celebrated series of plugins, and with the release of their guitar pedals in recent times have been similarly celebrated in the guitar world. They have just released a trio of new pedals: the Max, a dual compressor and preamp pedal; the Galaxy, an emulation of the famed Roland RE-201 space echo and based on their plugin of the same name; and the Del-Verb, a so-called ‘‘ambience companion’, or in common terms, and delay and reverb.
The Max contains 2 compressors that can be run into each other, and on each of these, you can select from an emulation of the UA 1176 studio compressor or UA LA-2A studio compressor, or the famed MXR Dynacomp pedal compressor. On top of this, you also have the preamp section of the excellent UA LA-610 preamp. This gives you the option to just kick the front end of the compressors a bit, all the way through to really aggressive and crunchy drive tones that aren’t the same as your usual OD/dist pedals. The compressors sound truly magnificent and contain just the right amount of control (for example, the attack and release controls don’t operate on the ‘dyna’ setting because the original didn’t have these).
The UA Galaxy is a personal favorite plugin of mine, so to have it in pedal form is awesome. This thing sounds just like the original RE-201, and most importantly, has all the same quirks!
Things like the tape slow down/speed up doing the same things to your sound as the original, the fact that the delay time is shorter to the right and longer to the left (unlike most modern delay pedals, but like the original Roland unit), and the actual tone of the oscillation. Plus, the spring reverb in this unit sounds glorious without ever getting in the way.
The Del-Verb contains emulations of an Echoplex EP-III tape echo, an EHX Deluxe Memory Man, and UA’s modern Precision digital delay, as well as a 60’s Fender spring reverb unit, an EMT 140 plate reverb and the Lexicon 224 Hall reverb. The thing I loved about the reverbs in this was there was one control… simple! The delays also had all the charm of their original counterparts, including the control settings matching the originals and including things like the record level for the EP-III and the crazy modulation levels of the DMM.
What these pedals did have that the originals did not were features such as tap tempo, or the easy ability to plug in to your guitar without having to use a studio, or 9v power, or the ability to sit on a pedal board or be carried to a gig/session/on a plane. What they do not have is reliability issues, like changing the tubes or the tape or finding original parts (or modern equivalents) that might change the character slightly.
Most importantly, though, these pedals have all the tone of the originals, and then some… I’m sure I’m going to cop some flack for this, but I’m going to argue that they sounded as good as the original units, and they were almost impossible to get a bad sound out of! Personally, I would have loved the option to control these units via midi and save and recall presets like this, but this ‘negative’ also represented these pedals’ greatest positive: you have to be musical and use the controls to find the sound you want, which is a good part of where the mojo of the original units comes into play, too. Some of the greatest tonal discoveries in my life have been ‘accidents’, and if you’re exclusively relying on presets these accidents are harder to come by!
In the last 25 years, since the original Line 6 POD was released in 1999, the debate has raged among guitarists about whether analog versions can truly be superseded by their digital cousins. Admittedly, early on, the answer to this was a pretty comprehensive no, but the possibilities presented by that original POD definitely got people thinking about the tonal possibilities of having multiple amps and effects right there at your fingertips. As the technology has got exponentially better, so has the tone. So good, in fact, that most large touring acts these days are opting for axe-fx/neural/kemper/line 6 units over their original amps/effects. So good, in fact, that there is an entire generation of guitar players coming up who have never played through a real amp. So good, in fact, that we may have finally got to the point where old amps and effects are truly the second option that people choose in a studio setting, for both ease-of-use and tone reasons.
There was (and still is) a certain mojo that comes with plugging in an old piece of gear and wondering about what other guitars have been through this same unit (especially if you’re in some kind of hallowed ground studio like Abbey Road in London or Electric Ladyland in NYC or Sing Sing here in Melbourne). But for me, one of the drawbacks of the digital versions of old units was the way the controls worked. Turning knobs on a screen is not the same as touching the real thing. The way the controls of an amp interact with each other was always not exactly the same in digital and analog. The way my old EHX Memory Man would modulate the delayed signals, the visual spots the knob would be for certain delay lengths, the accidental discoveries I made by overloading the input control and turning the delay to down, the particular tone of that unit going into self-oscillation…
So with that verbose analysis, I am hereby pronouncing with, of course, virtually no real authority to do so that we have finally crossed the threshold: analog has been outdone by digital in terms of tone, reliability, price, ease-of-use, and features. As I duck for cover and run from the screaming hordes of gear page forum keyboard warriors, I’m going to go and enjoy the tones of these excellent pedals without all the headaches of running them their original counterparts suffered!