Friday, November 14, 2014

The Tide - The looney Tremulus Lune super tremolo

The Tide - A Tremulus Lune adaptation
It seems that every pedal fiend on the planet has dozens of overdrive, fuzz and other noise making pedals. The ratio of overdrives and fuzzes to that of other effects is on the asymptotic curve towards infinity. There's no doubt that other sound manipulators are important, and are regarded as crucial components of some legendary guitar tones but there is no comparison when you start digging deeper in the numbers. If you combine all the phasers, choruses, tremolos, envelope generators, filters, delays and compressors together you wouldn't reach the plethora of noise pedals available on the market, and there's a good reason. While the modern guitarist uses about 4 overdrives/distortion/fuzz pedals on his board, he usually has only one of each of the above mentioned modulators. A good delay, a good phaser and a good chorus would suffice the average pedal board. Wahs are an exception as people like to have two of those to get the versatility of having a wah either before or after a fuzz without pulling out patch chords every time.

So, after this lengthy introduction it is obvious that this post is gonna tackle a non fuzz/overdrive pedal. This blog had seen some non noise pedals in the past. Recall the incredible Mutron III clone a while back which is still a fantastic sounding envelope filter in every sense and the Tri-Vibe from Runoffgroove which is one of the most versatile vibratos you could imagine.

The 1948 Gibson GA-50T (above) and the
1947 Multivox Premier "66" add (below).
A great addition to any fuzz, and certainly to some 60's relics is the tremolo which used to be a very common addition on some classic Fender amps. These used to sit at the end of the amplification stage right next to the reverb (if there was a reverb) and with the fuzz on (or off for that matter), you could get that surf-rock sound identified so well with Dick Dale, The Ventures and the likes.

As far as I understand, tremolo was first used in classical music during the 16th century. The effect was used either as a way to sustain notes, chords or intervals (trill was a sustain between adjacent notes) by percussive repeating or by alternating notes to create tension and all kinds of psycho-acoustic effects. Vocals, organs, bowed instruments all used this effect to great extent.
The DeArmond Co. from Ohio owns the patent for the original design from 1946 which was the model used for the Story & Clark electric pianos. It was the first stand alone effect unit ever created (16 years before the Maestro Fuzz Tone !!!) and was based on an electro-mechanical motor shaking a conductive liquid in a canister with each shake it grounded the instrument's signal so that it was damped in a soft watery manner before reaching the amp. Sounds quite unbelievable. While Hammond had tremolo units in their organs since the 1930's, Danelectro in 1947 were the first to really stick them on a guitar amplifier. The effect was originally meant to get the guitar to sound like the modulation effect heard on the Storytone electric pianos which came out in 1941. During 1947 Multivox issued the Premimer "66" (Gibson joined in 1948 with the GA-50T) which also featured this early style of tremolo. Later in 1955 Leo Fender issued a Tremolux amp and then quickly changed it to Vibrolux in 1956. Magnatone also issued their model in 1955 featuring a tremolo unit.

Although we all call this amplitude modulation effect a tremolo, it seems strange today that Fender coined the name Vibrato on their early amps. There was a big mix-up over the years between pitch modulations and amplitude modulations both called vibratos at some point. Today the vibratos are known as pitch modulators while tremolos - volume/amplitude.

The 1956 Vibrolux with it's simple electronic design
The first tremolo recorded on a guitar was probably made by Big Bill Broonzy on some Roosavelt Sykes recordings (it is assumed that these recordings were made using organ tremolo units). In the mid 50's it was Muddy Water (Flood) and Bo Diddley (Bo Diddley and Pretty Thing) who were using the mechanical DeArmond 601 Tremolo to shape their bluesy sound. It was only in the late 50's that the tremolo became a staple sound for surf rock and country rock. A major change in the tremolo design appeared in 1963 with the Fender Blackface amps which featured a photocell (opto-coupler) to modulate the voltage instead of modulating the bias of a vacuum tube (Link Wray's 1964 hit Rumble, Doors' Riders on the Storm). Nancy Sinatra recorded a lean version of the song Bang Bang in 1966 featuring a duet with a mandolin-like guitar and vocals. The song became an instant hit. The eruption of psychedelia around 1966 took the tremolo a step further from mere dynamic enhancement to a complete tripped out mind blowing effect. It complemented very well the vibrato/tremolo effect which was already a big part of the Hammond, Vox and Farfisa organs sound. Take for example the garage psych classics like The Electric Prunes with I Had Too Much To Dream, The Standells - Medication, Codine Blues by The Charlatans, Q65's Ridin' on a Slow Train, The Velvet Underground on Train Round the Bend, 13th Floor elevators with Earthquake. The southern sound of CCR also got it's share of surf sound as heard on Born on The Bayou. Many riffs are stuck in the back of my mind and I can't recollect their names. Bummer! Tremolo was also used a lot on vocals, as on Plastic Factory by Captain Beefheart (Harmonica) or on the Hurdy Gurdy Man version by The Butthole Surfers. Far out...The tremolo sound sort of faded away during the 70's and became a niche sound for those seeking either country or retro-surf psychedelic sounds. During the 80's the tremolo made a comeback with shoegazing bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride (listen to Polar Bear).

The complexity of these circuits are usually intimidating for the average DIYer so people didn't experiment with these circuits too much, although the basic effect is pretty simple and straightforward. It's only during the past two decade that tremolo regained its popularity thanks to some enhanced designs that transformed the pedal from a simple modulation effect to a full blown variable envelope shaping tool. Take for example the Tremvelope by Pigtronix and the Pulsar by EHX, Pentavocal Trem by Red Witch. All excellent pedals with some serious synth-like manipulation capabilities. The digital age of sound enabled most big companies to issue some serious tremolos all of which look highly interesting but very pricey, too.

Premier guitar has some great info about tremolos history:
For me, as a fuzz freak, I knew I had to have a good tremolo for some classic tones but I am also a big synth lover and I love weird psychedelia all together, so getting a regular tremolo was somewhat of an underwhelming experience. I then decided to tackle a serious, creative and a more mature tremolo to give me some artistic freedom.
Some of the tremolo effects available today on the market
(well, not the DeArmond 601 Tremolo).
Again, I took on a long web research to understand the tremolo world. Seems that every pedal company on the planet has a tremolo, either a simple DEPTH, SPEED, VOLUME unit which is very very simple, sometimes with the addition of a shape switch/knob or a pompous design with many knobs and switches to enable every possible amplitude modulation known to the human ear.
As opposed to the great selection of names of fuzz/drive pedals, tremolo pedals have pretty lame names, usually just Tremolo or some other take-off on the trem word (Pulsar and Shape Shifter are great names, though). After a year of reading, listening, playing and estimating circuits I narrowed down the options and focused on a little-known circuit called the Tremulus Lune by Dann Green. The circuit is available on the web from Commonsound and TonePad which are known to many DIY builders. I couldn't find too much info on the circuit origins but it seems that many have experimented with it and had very good results. Another version of that circuit was Culture Jam's Shoot The Moon design which became very popular over the years and seemed like a good candidate. A simpler version from Runoffgroove - the EA Tremolo - was also considered.

Some basic periodic modulation functions
From my experience and listening it seems that two major factors should be considered when picking up a tremolo, either for building or buying. The most important is the modulation smoothness. Amplitude modulation can be as sharp as a square wave, linear as a triangle or smooth as a sine wave. Getting real sine wave smoothness is not trivial and most pedal will offer the shape variability. The modulation circuit usually considered as having the purest sound would be an optical LFO (low frequency osicllator) which affects the circuit via a light dependent resistivity (LDR) which mean the modulation circuit is electronically isolated from the signal path and thus offer a cleaner, pristine tone. I don't know how correct this statement is, but building the Mutron envelope filter I learned a few things and the idea of doing my own LDR this time got me excited. The second factor was versatility. Sure I wanted a round vintage trembling effect, but getting more shaping options is very interesting, and inspires creativity. I knew I wanted a wide frequency range, a way of getting both sharp and smooth modulations, sawtooth shapes and some live playing mods.

The Tide artwork with other name candidates
and my knob scheme
And the build report, right. The Tremulus Lune, in its full complexity offers all these and more. It even offers "duty-cycle" controls affecting the off time between periods which could get you a very unique pulsing effect at low speed levels. After going through some of the layouts and mods available I took the complete 5 knob version shown on the GuitarFXLayouts blog and modded it some more to add a 6th knob for the FINE speed, and two momentary switches for extra action during live playing scenario. The circuit basically employs the regular DEPTH, RATE configuration but adds much more versatility through the SMOOTH, SYMMETRY and SPACING pots. The basic idea of the design is to create to signal paths, one for the passing audio signal, and one for the LFO (low frequency oscillator) which is the modulator. The modulator generates an oscillating voltage which modulates a red LED. The LED is hooked up face to face with an LDR which is in series on on the audio path. This way the modulated LED modulates the LDR and this modulates the audio signal in a clean isolated manner through light. I covered the optocoupler/photocell/optoisolator, call it whatever you like (LED-LDR) with a heat shrink and it was really a piece of cake, and sounded great on first fire-up. The LDR I used was 5k-500k and was very cheap too.

The Tide complete
It took me some playing to figure how everything works but I think I've got it and it is a super able pedal:
DEPTH - Modulation depth, from zero to full 100%. That's the ratio between the ON and OFF levels.
SMOOTH - From sharp rectangular modulation to smooth linear slopes. Between these two there is a pseudo sine-like area.
RATE - This is the speed knob which ranges on a very large range.
FINE - Fine tuning the speed for easier tweaking - I though I didn't need it, but playing for 2 hours on the circuit made me understand how much I needed it.
SYMMETRY - This is one useful mod that enables some unique versatility but it's very interactive with other knobs so it takes time to understand how to use it. With the SMOOTH at minimum the SYMMETRY behaves like a duty cycle control, meaning that it can take you from a long ON and a short OFF to a pulsing ON and a long OFF. This effect is stronger at low RATE settings and with the SPACING knob at max. With the SMOOTH at max it shifts the envelope from a triangular shape to sawtooth. At minimum SYMMETRY the shape is a positive sawtooth (slow rise) and at max it's a negative one (slow fall). The middle positions are symmetric slopes. This is an interesting knob because it dramatically changes the sound, giving fast and slow attacks and can get you that pulsing sound which normal tremolos are not supposed to have. It really take the pedal into new territories.
SPACING - This is also a tricky mod and while it really just changes the OFF time between periods, and hence the duty cycle, it also affects the RATE, because the period is made up of the ON + OFF times, and thus it is also very interactive with other knobs. I found this knob extremely useful for either getting really nice pulsing sounds and also to get the modulation depth all the way to complete silence between periods.
Now let's go to the fun part:
Gut shot - Inside the Tide...
BYPASS switch - I added this momentary SPST stomp switch for hooking up the FINE lug 3 to ground which enables you during live playing to quickly move between bypass and non-bypass so that you can actually step on it while playing without using the hard latch 3PDT. It's great and makes tremolo a great fun pedal which you want to bypass during riffs.
DOUBLE switch - This is another very useful SPST stomp momentary switch which changes the RATE to half speed (not double....I know). During live playing any changes to the tremolo speed is a great addition. Tapping my feet for the slow/high rate and the bypass give the tremolo a whole new dimension of playability. The mod can be done by hooking up a cap from SMOOTH lug 3 to ground through the switch. Only problem is that the cap value changes the speed ratio. While 100uF was originally recommended, I got the half rate using a 10uF cap. You can change the ratio according to the cap but I couldn't find a value that gave me actual double speed. Just slower.

Another issue I had with the build is the use of the RATE/FINE pot. While the layout recommends 10k/1k respectively, the results on the range of speeds I got with a 100k/10k pair were much better. Don't know why. I used the schematic on the Commonsound page and it looked OK and par with the layout on the GuitarFXLayouts except for some really minor changes. Though my build is definitely along the layout shown on GFXL.

Anyway, a really amazing circuit for anyone seeking a great sounding tremolo and wants to play with it more than the occasional CCR Bayou rhythm guitar. Experiment and adapt, let the pedal lead you on. I could really live without a GAIN knob and set the trimmer slightly above unity to give the pedal the extra meat it needs when it's engaged to overcome the volume drop from the less RMS of the amplitude modulation. Other than that each control here means the world.

Get the layouts for the various versions on:

Get the schematic here:

The 4ms schematic upon which the GFXL layout is from:

And the entire info page on:

Also verified and always trustable is the Sabrotone layout:

Notice that the LFO monitoring LED is hooked up in a way that keeps the light blinking even when the pedal is OFF. Sort of to let you set the pedal before you fire it up. You could change that by getting the (-) soldered from the 3PDT instead. Also notice that the SPACING is backwards. Longer spacing is with the pot at CCW. I switched the lugs so that CW is longer spacing.

So if you want a really really great sounding, flexible, versatile don't look any further. Once you start playing around with the controls getting from sweet, vintage country blues trippy vibe to hard, spiky, futuristic retro pulsations - You'll ask yourself 'How come I never got more into this?'.

The hardest part here was really the artwork and name choice.  I wanted an original name for this one which doesn't have the word Tremolo in it and I had to give some respect to the original Lune so I was looking for something that has to do with the moon. It seemed good to use the idea around the tides, waves, oceans because the pedal is so watery (as they described the original 1941 mechanical DeArmond 601), and the tides and tidal waves are, in nature, a lunar based phenomenon. I dropped all the technical terms like amplitude, oscillations, pulsations and modulations, and I didn't even go for the cool idea of the word waves with a 'z' like WaveZ. In the end I went for The Tide as simple as it is great. Once I decided on the name I started looking for tides and waves art on the web. I came across this famous Japanese image of 'The Great Wave Off of Kanagawa' which I really love (and my wife does too) and tried to paint it using my, almost dried out, set of ceramic paint bottles. With blue, black and whit, and a hint of yellow I started mixing colors on my palette and got these beautiful tones for the great wave and the night skies. I really started liking my artwork as a really important thing lately and I think it really got some of that painter artist hiding in me from my very early childhood. Who knew?  

So before you start, if you wanna listen to it, there are a few clips over the web. And below are 4 which I recorded on my MIM Tele through The TIDE with some pedals and amps. You get a clean vintage style on track 1, A more fuzzy clip with some really classic riffs on track 2. Track 3 is to demonstrate the great live options with the real-time foot switches. Track 4 blew me away. I don't know how many people tried that before but the idea of the tremolo going into the Nu-Tone (Mu-tron III clone) is simply brilliant, I think, and the fact that it's a 15 minute clip just shows how much fun I had with it.

Enjoy! and comment if you gotta something to say.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Maestro..., master Your Fuzz and You Shall Get...Your Satisfaction"

Ladies and Gentlemen, silicons and germs, the moment we have all been waiting for. For the first time on the list of successful projects after laying on the operation table for nearly a year of searching and digging all over the ethereal cyber space. The psych monster, the acid master, the fuzz maister, the fuzz-a-delic, satisfuzzy, buzziest, Maestro Fuzz Tone.

probably the first stomp box that was designed to sound like a distorted amp, or in that specific case, a burned-out recording channel. It's funny that this pedal was promoted as a novel sound technique to imitate the timbres of reed, wood and brass wind instruments like a sax, a tuba or a clarinet, string instruments like a cello or a violin, and could also create a new never-before-heard "Fuzz Tone" sound.

The Fuzz Tone Patent (1965)
The story goes that it took 3 people to invent this crazy world-shattering sound during a recording in Nashville back in 1960. Country artist Marty Robbins recorded a song called "Don't worry" which featured a solo part played by Grady Martin on a 6-string bass. Grady Martin was known for playing guitar country music like crazy through amps, often reaching high level of distortion. Other blues artists did that as well probably much earlier. Nevertheless, Grady was lucky enough to play the bass solo on Robbin's recording into a busted recording channel which was operated by a session engineer called Glen Snoddy. The solo recording came out heavily distorted (and imagine that on a peaceful country prairie love song), but quite miraculously it was kept and released as is. I can't help thinking that it was Grady who liked the way it sounded and convinced the producers to keep it. And what a distorted sound it was. It was a sweet reedy buzzy solo that proved to be a good gamble as the song became an immediate hit. Snoddy decided to keep the busted channel on the mixing board and recorded more tunes using it. Realizing the potential of the sound technique he goes to the Gibson Guitar Corp. and sells them his idea of a Fuzz Tone effect unit. They probably investigated the busted channel and two years later, in 1962, the Fuzz Tone was available as the first Fuzz or Distortion effect box. So it too three people to discover the fuzz, really, and then a forth dude, Revis Hobbs, the co-author and co-inventor who shared the patent with Glen Snoddy, applied for in 1962, probably, and approved by 1965.

The original Fuzz-Tone
The story also goes that in spite of its early success in country music, it took something else to turn this tone shaping monster into a world-wide fuzz mania. By 1962 over 3000 units were manufactured By Gibson through the Maestro brand in Kalamazoo, MI. By 1965 only a few hundreds were sold and it seemed it was over for the Fuzz era. Only they didn't know that the British invasion, which started a year earlier, brought the one and only Rolling Stones' Keith Richards to Los Angeles, to record a second version for the Stones' new single, Satisfaction. Richards was looking for something new to flavor his guitar tone and the session technician ran over the corner to get a new little box which would make his guitar sound like a brass section which they planned to include later in the recording. He came back with a Maestro Fuzz Tone in his hand and they forgot all about the brass section they planned....When Satisfaction hit the streets the entire Maestro Fuzz Tone stock was sold in a few months. It quickly became the staple tone of the garage scene in the US, rock'n roll on both sides of the Atlantic and then the defining tone of psychedelic, acid and hard rock around the world.

Already in 1965 manufacturers like Sola Sound (Macari's Ltd.) Baldwin-Burns, Sam Ash and Mosrite started issuing their own versions of a fuzz pedal, each using different architecture to achieve fuzz sweetness. The Tone Bender MKI from Sola-Sound is probably the only one which really relies on a similar design. The Fuzz-Tone was also known as the FZ-1 using 3V and soon afterwards was relased again as FZ-1A using only 1.5V on a single AA battery. Other variants followed like the FZ-1B and the Maestro MFZ fuzz , but they were already different beasts operating on 9V batteries and sounded quite different than their predecessors. 

Relying on germanium transistors, 3V batteries (1.5VX2) and a very tricky design which was heavily dependent on the transistors' unique characteristics, it is no surprise that the design soon proved to be inefficient in producing a massive rocking sound, and new versions quickly topped the original, leaving the original design in the shadows for decades. The story behind the evolution of the Tone Bender is another interesting story.... but, we'll leave it to the Tone Bender post.

Check out the YouTube video below for the original Fuzz Tone commercial which actually makes more use of a bass guitar for fuzz tone than for the electric guitar.

The great story of country music and the Fuzz Tone, as well as many sound clips of country tunes incorporating fuzz guitar can be found here:

John Lennon with the Maestro at his feet
While 1962 was not the year that marked the birth of the Fuzz era rock, 1965 indeed marked the birth of evolution from rock'n roll to all out rock. After the Stones it was the Beatles turn to stick the Maestro fuzz (and other fuzz pedals too) on Paul's bass line on the 1965 hit "Think For Yourself" from the Rubber Soul album. 1965 saw other bands like the Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) put the fuzz to good use (although it was a Tone Bender usually). From 1966 it was a race to the top as almost every band on both sides of the Atlantic used a fuzz on guitar or boss or both. The Doors used the Maestro FZ-1 exclusively into an acoustic amp to get their unique splattering trumpet-like sound (Hello I love you, When the Music's Over, Spanish Caravan and many others), and even Hendrix used it on Voodoo Chile slight return. In fact, it seems that the whole garage psych revolution was heavily based on the Maestro beast and bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds, The United States of America, Strawberry Alarm Clock and others had their staple sound based heavily on the Maestro Fuzz Tone, though many think that some of those sounds were achieved using fuzz guitars like the Vox teardrop. The debates about who used what are still goin' on these days and the mystery will probably never be completely revealed.     

Now, when I started Fuzz Quest this was what I wanted. I got shivers listening to The Seeds, Roky Erickson, Strawberry Alarm Clocks, Ennio Morricone spaghetti western classics, and I couldn't understand what was so different about these tracks that made me loose sleep over. Later on I also realized that prog legends like Hackett and Howe also used the FZ-1. After building the Fuzzrite I was pretty happy but I knew my mission would not be complete without a true piece of germanium history. The Balwdin Burn Buzzaround was a fantastic build and a true gem but it was really modern sounding circuit and didn't have that delicate muffled buzz so typical of the Maestro Fuzz Tone. Maybe the closest is the Tone Bender MK1 which shares similar architecture but this one was even harder build, bias and tweak without having the right germs. 

A typical stock FZ-1 schematic
The circuit in itself is no secret and many schematics are available, most of them correct nowadays. The only magic going on in the circuit are the germanium trannies. It seems that they got to be leaky and low gain and I had a bunch of AC128 running around the table from my early builds (Fuzz Face, Fuzz Factory, Buzzaround etc.) and after measuring them I had a pretty good idea which ones would fit the circuit. My first attempt was building a circuit with many trimmers for biasing all the germs and I did get it to sound pretty good but it was just to hard to bias right so I ditched it. I researched the forums some more and waited until the DIY community shared some more info and after a while I went and did it again. This time I didn't have any trimmers at all. Just the right germs. Well, almost. I guess the leakage of my germs were a little out of spec, cause it didn't work...AT ALL.

So I went in again and dug little deeper and found out that it was Q2 that didn't open up right. I added a trimmer on the 1k5 biasing resistor and once I lowered the value down to about a hundred Ohms.....VOILA.... I heard what my ears so longed to hear....Fuzz heaven. I tried a lot of amps, reverbs and pickup scenarios and indeed this pedal is the psychedelic time capsule. It is sweet and aggressive at the same time, it's soft and mean, buzzy and smooth, opened and compressed, clean and dirty and all the contradictions you want in a single pedal. The ATTACK pot goes from almost clean but a little gated to smooth and mean. The VOLUME gets you above unity but not a whole lot more. The VOLUME also has some effect on the sound itself with a fuller body as you dime it. I really wanted to use a 9V power supply so I added the TagboardFX layout for the inverter from 9V to 3.3V and then to -3.3V. I added a STARVE knob to get the voltage tweaked between -2V and -3.3V. At -3V and above the sound is better, stronger, fuller. Below -3V you start getting that nasal buzzy compressed sound that made me build it in the first place.

So the recipe is - build the pedal add a 2k trimmer for Q2. Pick out germs that have above 400uA of leakage. and gain between 60-90. Actually I have Q2 at 600uA leakage and it sure increases the hiss noise but the biasing can really help clean it a lot. was time to box it.

There aren't many fuzz pedals with boring names. FZ-1 or Fuzz Tone is probably one of the most boring uninspiring names in pedal history. The graphics of the pedal is also quite lame. It is all negligible next to the awesome wedged enclosure.....which I don't have. I have a regular 125B enclosure which is small and straight. So I had to have a good name and good graphics. A long time ago I decided to name it Chocolate Fuzz ( it?) and now that the space is so small I shortened it to Choc'late Fuzz. Good name, I think. I changed ATTACK to TASTE in light of the chocolate thing. For the graphics, I tried to completely recolor the black enclosure to chocolate brown. It came out so bad so I wanted it off. I used a rought sand paper to wear it down and the effect was so great that I left it as it is. Amazing vintage look. When I painted it I added some glitter sparkle to the color which didn't look good at all. After the sandpaper work the glitter became so vintage looking and so inspiring that I just completely fell for the design. I really have to thank my wife for helping me out with this one. She's a designer and all and she knew that the vanilla white with the pale turquoise would work perfectly with the rusty vintage brownish background. She also gave me the glitter powder. 

So to sum things up, I never actually played an authentic Fuzz Tone FZ-1 before and I probably never will. Thanks to the invention of stereo recording and mixing in the 1930's and the first LP in stereophonic sound, released in 1958, many records in the 60's were released with a hard stereo panning which enables one to completely isolate certain tracks by playing only one channel. Check out the Doors as a great example for that (Hello I Love You has the fuzz guitar only on the right channel). After many hours of listening to separated stereo channels I've been able to find setups which sound very similar to many of my favorite recordings.

The pedal has 3 knobs, VOLUME, ATTACK and STARVE. The ATTACK goes from very mild boost which sounds amazingly similar to the "clean" punchy sound on Roky Erickson's early albums (Tried to hide comes to mind) to full on fuzz-a-delic mayhem. The STARVE is what really gives the pedal it's distinct tone. With the STARVE maxxed out the sound is very full and modern-like but not very garage-psych like. As the STARVE is decreased the pedal comes alive. The VOLUME is straightforward except it does change the sound a bit. The pedal is not very strong in volume and I usually have the VOLUME dimed or close to dimed. I bet that part of my experience and mods were a result of the AC128 germs I used. Obviously, others might get different results with different germs.

So that's yourself a favor and build this one. If you are a garage psych fiend build this one, a Fuzzrite and the Orpheum. If you are a complete lunatic add the Buzzaround and a Tone Bender to the bunch. And this is only assuming you already have a germy Fuzz Face, of course. Did I say lunatic?

A real milestone on my part here. I think I would slow down my fuzz builds now....ha ha, not really.

Anyway, a great layout with a lot of feedback can be found on the TagboardFX blog:

Below are some clips taken with single coils Tele and ES335-style humbuckers. You'll hear many riffs and pieces from known classic tracks by Captain Beefheart, The Doors, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Stones, Beatles and Ennio Morricone. I loved this pedal so much that I did 5 demos with it. 2 with bass guitar on a Bassman style amp and an old Ampeg amp (all emulations). The two guitar demos are played through the Brittania VOX AC30 pedal emulation and a cabinet emulation. For classic mid 60's psychedelia the pedal works best with the VOX style amps and Fender twin reverb style. The Man with a Harmonica is from the Ennio Morricone's classic soundtrack. I think that the pedal, nails the sound perfectly if played on the right setup.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Super GroundHogs Fuzz

During my last few years hunting for that "one fuzz to rule them all" perfect fuzz sound, I investigated literally hundreds and hundreds of albums, setups, schematics and actual pedals looking for those magical sounds that we all know and love so much. It's no secret that most of the fuzz hype and plethora of versions come from the seed designs of the early Fuzz Tone, Fuzz Rite, Fuzz Face, Big Muff etc. Once you hear a sound that you think you never heard before, and like it, you start digging in deeper, trying to understand what was going on during that recording that made the guitar sound so damn good. Over the years I've had some success tracking several epic guitar sounds which I truly admire like those created by legendary players like Dave Allen, Dick Dale, Robbie Krieger, Harrison, Clapton, Hendrix, Fripp, Gilmour, Page, Blackmore, Allman, Lee, Howe, Hackett, May, Barre, Iommi, Corgan, and many others. Each one with his own playing style, modified amps and the insane voodoo stories around the use of secret arsenal of fuzz and booster pedals.

Townshend using his Super-Fuzz
into the legendary Hi Watt stack
A few years ago I ran into the Groundhogs. I didn't know anything about them or about Tony TS McPhee the guitarist-vocalist-bluesist mastermind behind the band. What started out as mild appreciation quickly grew to hard core admiration. The sound produced by McPhee on albums like Split and the live albums completely blew me away and this was after I thought I heard it all. Boy was I wrong. McPhee's bluesy finger-picking style along with his massive use of fuzz, octave-fuzz, wah-fuzz, and modified amps is a demonstration of true hard rock personality: Inventive, powerful and lean. And I didn't say the word 'punk' yet. I tried everything from vintage fuzzes, octave fuzzes and different amp combinations and couldn't get anywhere near this crazy tone of his. He founded the Groundhogs after a song by John Lee Hooker. In 1965 they were his backup band during his English tour. Imagine that! 
Anyway, running around the web and trying to mimic his incredibly extreme and experimental sound I ran into a few interviews and forums suggesting that much like Pete Townshend, his setup included a few fuzz pedals. One which seemed most interesting, most over-the-top and most promising, was the Japanese Univox Super Fuzz. Definitely the most intense sound I've ever heard.

TS McPhee finger style on a Strat
TS McPhee finger style on an SG

Without offending any Townshend and Who fans I must admit that Tony McPhee, although maybe not as huge as Townshend, does a much better job ripping apart your ears and guts with his playing and sound techniques. His got a very bluesy fingerpicking style that shows how deep his playing is connected to traditional blues.

The Super-Fuzz controls
The circuit was designed in the late 1960s by the Japanese company Shin-ei, (who also produced another well known fuzz box, the Shin-ei Companion FY-2 and manufactured in Japan by Unicord. The first Super-Fuzzes were made in 1968, and production continued until the late 70s. The original Super fuzz had two knobs and a Tone switch, apart from the huge bypass switch. The BALANCE knob is a Master volume knob and the EXPANDER knob is like your regular FUZZ GAIN knob. The TONE control is a mid scoop switch which adds a whole new dimension to the pedal. Most of the layouts and schematics I found suggested several mods to the circuit for some added functionality and versatility.

And so, even though the circuit looks too big for a fuzz, I decided that once I get a chance, I'll build it. For a year or so I was just eyeballing the circuit not knowing if I was capable of the task, and it took me a long time to go through all the possible versions, layouts and schematics until I decided to go for the layout suggested by Mark at TagboardFX layouts which which was verified by numerous builders. However, as always, I could not resist the suggested mods which aimed to enhance the sound and versatility of the pedal.

I used old layouts by Derringer and by Mike Livesly which suggested a mod for reducing the clipping effect on the clipping OA-90 germanium diodes and even completely replace them. I added a switch to change the clipping from stock to mild and named it "SAT". When clipping is suppressed the volume of the pedal increases and the saturation is reduced. Overall this means less compression, a trimmer on a switch gives you a better control over the sound.

Another mod suggested by Derringer was to add a trimpot which can bias Q4 and Q5 to get a better matching of the trannies so that the octave effect is better controlled.

Also suggested by Derringer and others was a TONE pot which replaces the TONE switch. This switch is designed to give a mid-scoop tone option and using a switch and a pot you can actually move from natural to mid-scoop using a switch and with the pot you can move continuously between full mid-scoop and no mid-scoop. The only reason I kept both switch and pot is that the no-scoop mode doesn't sound exactly like the mid-scoop with knob fully CW. They do sound alike but not exactly the same.

All these mods really give the pedal a new life and with such a large scale circuit it only serves it right.

The Super Fuzz - gut shot.
Notice the switch connected to Q5.
And last but not least is the choice of NPN transistors. I went and ordered the 2SC828 with the twisted pinout and had to go through twisting the ECB to fit in the CBE layout. I also tried various combinations with 2N222A, 2N5088, MPSA18 and even BC108. The differences were not really significant and not worth the time. Super saturation, nasally, slightly gated and mean was the character no matter what I stuck in there. It even sounded less nasally and more crunchy without Q4 at all !!!! The Q4-Q5 giving you that octave sound can be defeated by taking Q4 out and leaving the circuit pure. A cool mod for the future. I also tested single coils and humbuckers. With different amps and different playing techniques.

I don't think this circuit is for everyone. It is really one for the fuzzoholics, fuzznatics and fuzzophiles. I might name this one Fuzz-o-phile instead too. But after 3 months of trying out different settings and different styles of playing I think I understood what was missing....

Super Fuzz with some added tweaks
The Q4-Q5 pair is really the essence of this pedal, and tweaking the 10k pot between them is really what gives it that nasal octave effect which is so unique to this pedal. So after trying various configurations I decided to drop the SATURATION switch and use it for toggling Q5 emitter (could have been Q4 instead) in and out the circuit. The SAT control is not an OCTAVE switch. This did miracles to the pedal because it gave me that fuzzy crunch without the rich harmonics which, although sounds good on riffs and solos, i.e. single notes, did not sound good but actually too muddy on chords and arpeggios. The back to back diode pair which was on the SAT switch are no hardwired as per stock. It is worth noting that when Q5 is disengaged, no SAT, the EXPANDER control is less effective.

McPhuzz - what a name!
Now it was time for the pedal's name:
Super Fuzz, Fuzz-o-holic, Groundhog Fuzz, McPhuzz. I had to decide. I think this pedal is closer to the TS McPhee's sound rather than the Pete Townsend sound. Being such an underrated player as he was and probably still is, I decided to name the fuzz - McPhuzz after TS McPhee. Really proud of that name...

Anyway, you can get the schematic of this pedal with the added controls on:
The original schematic on:
The Layout I used for 2SC828 trannys is that on:
And if you use regular transistors, use:
You can also use the layout from Derringer:
Or that by Mike Livesley:

All of the above layouts and schematics are confirmed. :)

So here's a sizable clip (24 min. long!) demonstrating all the Yings and the Yangs of this pedal with and without the Q5, with the SCOOP tone switch off and with the switch on and the accompanying scoop TONE control. The Q5 switch can be named OCTAVE or SUPER or something like that. The demo is played on a MIM Telecaster through a simulated amp.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Britannia - The new British Channel by Runoffgroove

In 2004 the Runoffgroove team released their famous "English Channel" pedal version for the VOX AC30 Top Boost amplifier. Their acclaimed JFET take on the tube overdrive sound was a big part of the amp-in-a-pedal mania that soon flooded the guitar world with boutique vendors releasing pedal versions of every amp known to man. What started as a unique way to generate the tube gain stage using silicon transistors was slowly replaced by new techniques which replicated the tube sound better but was not necessarily based on the original amp schematics. Using the new technique, Runoffgroove updated their schematics starting with the fabulous "Azabache" circuit to replace the "Professor Tweed" as the Fender style circuit. "Britannia" is their new approach to achieving the famous sound of the VOX AC30 Top Boost. The "English Channel" was a very good overdrive in my opinion. I built it in 2011 and I was quite happy with the results. I even compared it several times with a software version of the amp and I was always satisfied.

When the "Azabache"came out, I built it right away ("Tweed Palette" on this blog). Immediately it was obvious that the ROG team has made great progress in understanding the overdrive character of the tube amp, so it was no surprise that when they released Britannia, it instantly reached the top of my list.

I decided to go with the 1776 Effects PCB this time just to check out this path as I usually build the circuits on pref-board or vero. I was really pleased with the PCB because it was built so well, with so many small features to ease the work of the builder. I highly recommend these PCB layouts for everyone who is interested in building his pedals faster and safer. The features I really liked about the PCB:

  • Clear and logical layout.
  • Clear printing for each part, including pots, trimmers, grounds in/out and 9V supply.
  • Tips on the drain voltage for each transistor with the voltage values printed next to the biasing trimmers.
  • Location for soldering test points.
  • Great value

  • So, back to the VOX AC30 Top Boost story (from wikipedia):

    "The Vox AC30 was originally introduced in 1958 as “big brother” for the 15W AC15 model at Hank Marvin's (The Shadows) request because the AC15 was not loud enough with the screaming fans at Cliff Richard's concerts. Vox's original flagship amplifier. The Original first generation AC30, or AC30/4, had only a single 12" Goodman's 60W speaker in a "TV Front" cabinet, as opposed to the later, conventional twin 12" speaker configuration. The AC30/4 sported two channels with two inputs – hence the “4” in the model name. The amplifier used a GZ34 tube rectifier, three ECC83s (12AX7) for the Normal channel and it had EL34 tubes in the power amplifier circuit.

    In 1961 the "Top Boost" (or "Brilliance") feature became available as Vox's optional addition of a circuit that introduced an extra gain stage and tone controls for bass and treble (as opposed to the single "tone" control of earlier AC30s). The unit became so popular that its features were soon incorporated in newer AC30/6 models, and the controls moved from the rear panel to the control panel.
    The classic VOX AC30 Top Boost

    Vox AC30/6 amplifiers from around 1963 had already implemented the top boost, and therefore had 3 tone controls. People began to refer to these amplifiers as AC30TBs. In addition to the "Normal" version without the Top Boost, and the Top Boost version (which was a Normal version with the "Brilliance" unit added), Vox, with slight circuit modifications, created two more versions that were “voiced” in Brilliant (Treble), and Bass styles. Of all the different models that came around many consider the AC30 "Super Twin" to be the ultimate AC30, with a "trapezoid" shaped head and separate speaker mounted on a trolly."
    Brian May and his VOX wall of AC30 amps

    Those early 60's TB models became the tone of choice for many legendary musicians and bands. To name just a few, we are talking about The Beatles, The Byrds, Hank Marvin (The Shadows), Brian May (Queen), Vic Flick (James Bond theme), Rory Gallagher, Tom Petty, Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Johnny Greenwood and Thom York (Radiohead), The Cure, The smiths, Muse, R.E.M and almost every band who wanted that sweet British crunch. Vox was quite an amazing music company which developed many solutions for musicians and had VOX organs, VOX wah pedals, Vox guitars, VOX PA systems and each one of those lines became a legend of its own.

    More info can be found on the VOX website:

    Inside the original VOX AC30

    The front panel and tubes of the AC30
    All I can say is that this amp-in-a-box completely blew me away and it rocks soft and hard at the same time. I love the range of the GAIN pot which really goes from completely clean to jangly crunch to ooomph power drive. The TONE controls are BASS and TREBLE which are super effective. With high GAIN settings and high BASS you can really rock hard a la Brian May, while low BASS gets and mid GAIN gets you to Rory Gallagher territory. Guitar volume is effective too. Putting a Treble Boost in front or a fuzz will give you ultra tonal flexibility. An additional overdrive on wither side will be super cool also. The coolest sound I got so far was with my Tele in neck pickup, volume knob on the guitar backed off a little and GAIN at noon. What a sweet smack in the face. I used my former ENGLISH CHANNEL enclosure and changed the knobs so the pedal looks quite similar, but underneath the hood it's a whole new beast.

    All this magic in a small PCB - The Britannia on the "1776 Effects" PCB 

    And the amazing pedal in a unique enclosure which used to house my English Channel

    The Runoffgroove page with all necessary info is found here:

    The 1776 Effects website:

    Below is a long demo of the pedal with my MIM Telecaster through a Dr. Z MAZ 18 cabinet.
    Just listen to the vast amount of sounds obtained by tweaking the guitar's volume knob, the GAIN level and the TONE controls. Just dime that GAIN knob and start those Tom Petty chords or those open arpeggios. Add a fuzz in front and you are in 60's heaven. 

    Don't miss out this great pedal. It quickly became on my top 5 all-time overdrive/tone pedals.

    Friday, March 21, 2014

    King Watt - The HiWatt grinder king

    The WIIO clone - KING WATT
    When the fuzz era began in the early sixties most players hooked up their fuzz pedals to the amps which were available at the time. The best names on the market were Fender, Marshall, Vox, Gibson and maybe a few small boutique companies. The combinations of the guitars, fuzz pedals and amps defined what we all know today as the sound of the 60's. By the end of the decade new sounds started emerging due to the demand of leading players trying to extract more juice, grind and power from their amps. Live shows of super bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin were all about modified amplifiers which made their shows thrilling and ear piercing as ever.

    The 70's started off with a totally different sound with Marshall issuing their powerful JCM-800 amps and Orange amplifiers infiltrating the heavier rock scene. Fuzz pedals still remained very popular but now it was more about overdrive and smooth distortion and less about buzzy fuzzy noises. One name on the British scene stood out as the amp for high power rock with a very distinctive tone and grit which had incredible dynamics and picking sensitivity as opposed to the compressed Marshall stacks so popular with heavy metal.

    The Sound City amp prior to the HiWatt brand
    Hylight Electronics issuing the first HiWatt amps

    HiWatt was started by Dave Reeves in 1966 building amps for Ivor Arbiter's store Sound City (yeah, the same Arbiter who sold Fuzz Face pedals). In 1968 Reeves started building his own designs with 50W (DR-504), 100W (DR-103) and 200W (DR-201) amps which gained huge popularity.

    First users of the HiWatts - The Who
    The HiWatt golden age began when Pete Townshend (and bassist Entwistle), responsible for promoting the Marshall 100W Superlead (created for him in 1965 in order to get a Fender sound with higher power), started using Sound City amps around 1967 because they were cleaner and sounded better. Reeves modified the Sound City amps under his own brand called Hylight and the Hiwatt line was born. By 1970 leading guitarists like Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), Robert Fripp and Townshend himself redefined the British sound by moving to HiWatt amplifiers. Even Hendrix added a Hiwatt stack next to his sacred Marshall stack to get bigger sound. Many others were spotted using HiWatt amps like Steve Hackett of Genesis (1971), Manfred Mann's Mick Vickers, Peter Banks (Yes, Flash) and the list is probably much longer.

    The Classic Custom HiWatt 100W head, similar to the DR-103

    My Favorite HiWatter - Mr. Fripp
    When it came to the sound everybody had their own noise box hooked up and a booster of some sort (Echoplex, Rangemaster, etc.). Pete hooked up his HiWatt with a Univox Superfuzz and got the most powerful tone in guitar history. Gilmour with a silicon Fuzz Face (after giving up on the germanium version) and later with a Big Muff ruled the scene with his melodic, smooth, compelling and irresistible force. Jimmy Page used a Tone Bender mkII and had the best riffs in town. Fripp allegedly used a Baldwain Burn Buzzaround re-invented prog metal and avantgarde prog. And then there's Hendrix....well with Hendrix there was no place left to walk on, and his sound was like a train and a jet colliding at full speed while an army of alien robots in the jungle are trying to destroy the galaxy. I think that's pretty close.

    The legendary Crimson line-up. Even Wetton is using a HiWatt

    The best Jethro Tull incarnation (1969) had Martin Barre and Glenn Cornick using HiWatts 

    Gilmour and his HiWatt.
    He had 6 in parallel
    Page bowing away his Gibson on a pair of HiWatts
    With an iconic piece of history like that you can't really rest your mind until you played one of these monsters. Well buying one is not an option and a software simulation is not really good for a live band situation. So I thought I would build an overdrive pedal which would get me near that sound. Turns out that Catalinbread had 2 pedals to get the job done. A modified Hiwatt version of the amp Page was using during the Royal Albert Hall concert in 1970 (RAH) and a classic HiWatt DR-103 version (WIIO). Aiming more for that classic DR-103 tone I started getting parts to build the WIIO circuit using a schematic I found on the forum and the great layouts by GuitarFX Layouts ( and Mike Livesly's.

    Hendrix using a Sound City stack next to his Marshall one
    Catalinbread is a great boutique pedal company and they have some great designs for fuzz, overdrives, boosters and what not. Probably their most revered designs are the amp emulation pedals and the Dirty Little Secret (DLS) Marshall-in-a-box pedal is probably their best. When it comes to fuzz pedals I really enjoy getting close to the original designs. With amp-like pedals I really dig the Runoffgroove designs. It was in the HiWatt that I first realized that I had no where to go but Catalinbread.

    Being such a big circuit I knew I didn't want to make mistakes and I spent hours reading and listening to demos before I decided to build the WIIO clone. I knew that Townshend's sound was not very interesting for me and was just plain loud. On the other hand, Robert Fripp and Martin Barre are exactly the sort of sound which I like. Barre for its great tone and Fripp for its complexity and dynamics. For me that was enough and I went ahead and got everything I needed.
    Whenever special resistor values are in shortage I get two in parallel or series and get the desired value spot on. same goes for capacitors although I try to avoid ceramics for anything above 1nF and use mylar or polypropylene types. For the 9.1V Zener I used 1N4739A which are excellent and for the BS170 I just bought them from Mammoth. Although I don't like the vero-board designs I trusted the layout and used a regular pref-board and soldered the parts like it was a vero-board.

    The WIIO board on the bottom (right) and on the top side (left).
    The soldering is actually point to point and no connection.
    I love when I hook up the pedal's pots and switches and it works on the first attempt with no audio quirkiness. The first chop with the GAIN cranked and I knew  this was it. That rich complexity and sharp grit. Really is different than any other pedal I ever played. None of that smooth Vox and Marshall and none of the Fender sagginess. Sheer raw power. Not easy to comprehend. Now, after a few hours of playing and trying all sort of nasty combinations, I am starting to get the hang of it. Playing it clean isn't all that interesting. With the GAIN high and TREBLE above noon you really start enjoying it. This is a definite keeper for me and highly recommended for any prog fanatic. Sounds better IMO with humbuckers than with single coils but once you fire up a fuzz in front - it really doesn't matter what pickups you play.

    Enclosure covered in masking tape,
    and sketched on
    When boxing the unit I used my successful method of covering the enclosure with a paper masking tape which really facilitates the drilling process giving clean and smooth holes. I also draw some designs on the tape to decide what hole configuration I should use.

    After that I mount the circuit with the knobs, jacks and switches and then I start thinking about the how it should really look. For this pedal I really didn't want to use the original WIIO name because I just think it's not a very good name and because I built this pedal thinking about Robert Fripp, David Gilmour and Martin Barre rather than Pete Townshend. I thought of 10 names until I decided to stick with KING WATT. Pretty good, I guess.

    The finished pedal after painting and testing

    So that's it. Hope you build it and enjoy it,

    Get the schematics and layouts on:

    A nice video demo from Bobby Devito
    and the Gearmanndude WIIO demo:

    and my own clone with ES humbuggies and singies: