John Walden examines Boss's latest entrant in the crowded guitar effects processor race and considers whether its COSM-based preamp might be just the thing to enhance his performance.
From pocket-money prices right through to the 'bank-loan-required' bracket, there is now tremendous choice in the guitar processor market and some fabulous value-for-money equipment at all price points. Indeed, given the level of competition between the leading manufacturers, some might wonder if the market isn't approaching saturation point. The stream of new products isn't showing much sign of slowing down, however, and while the feature sets on offer seem to keep getting fuller, prices also seem to be coming down. Good news for guitarists then, but the high level of competition means manufacturers have to offer something really special if a product is to get some attention and become a commercial success. The latest offering from the Roland stable is the Boss GT3, a floor-based guitar effects processor that offers many of the features of the older and more expensive GT5. So, with a feature list as long as Mr Tickle's arms and an equally attractive price tag, can the Boss GT3 take charge of the mid-priced guitar effects processor market?
Walk All Over The Boss
The GT3 comes in an attractive and eminently portable blue metal case measuring 49 x 22 x 10cm and weighing about 4kg. Like all the Boss floor pedals, it is designed with live use in mind. As with the GT5,
BOSS GT3 £349
Excellent range of features included given the price.
Some great guitar tones and special effects which sound good straight to tape.
Very solid construction.
Sound editing (as on many multi-effects units) is a little cumbersome compared to tweaking an amp.
Some presets arguably dosed too heavily in effects.
Manual could be improved.
The GT3 is another great Boss product. The range of features on offer and the quality and variety of sounds that can be coaxed from it are very impressive, whether through an amp or straight to tape. The GT3 also represents excellent value for money, so if £350 looks like your kind of price point, put the GT3 on your 'must demo' list.
Also like all Boss pedals, the GT3 is built very solidly. While I might not want to leave it unguarded in the same room as some drummers I know, it will certainly cope with the rigours of sensible stage use, including the usual stamping up and down in the dark. The relative calm of the studio should therefore pose no problems.
It has to be said that the feature list for the GT3 makes very impressive reading, especially given its 'mid-range' price. On the hardware front, most of the top surface is taken up with seven on/off-type footswitches plus an expression pedal. The top-left portion contains some 20 buttons, a large rotary knob and a 16-character, 2-line backlit LCD. As you would expect, the LCD displays information on the currently selected patch or, in combination with the various buttons, parameter information during editing. Each button is clearly labelled, and surrounding the editing buttons is a small amount of additional text that summarises the functions offered by each button.
Along the rear of the unit are the various inputs and outputs. From left to right, these start with a standard quarter-inch jack guitar input, a pair of similar left/mono and right outputs (with a level control to enable connections to either a guitar amplifier or directly to a recording device) and a mini-stereo jack for headphone use. This is followed by a pair of quarter-inch jacks for a send and return loop (both at -10dBm) to allow connection of an external effects processor. Finally, there's a quarter-inch TRS jack for connection of an additional expression pedal. The right-hand side of the rear panel is rounded off by MIDI In and Out sockets, a power switch and the socket for the AC adaptor (sigh -- another wall wart). Usefully, labels provided on the top surface show the location of each rear-panel socket, so even when floor-mounted, connecting up is not a problem. The manual states that the A-D conversion is 24-bit, D-A 20-bit and the sampling frequency is 44.1kHz, resulting in a theoretical dynamic range of greater than 100dB. For my subjective comment on the sound of the unit, see the 'Sound Per Pound' section below.
The effects are based on many of the highly regarded Boss standards. Some 32 effect types are available, and are organised into a number of basic types, the labels for which are above the 12 larger editing buttons (Reverb, Chorus, Delay, Modulation, Overdrive/Distortion -- or OD/DS as it is known here -- Comp/Lim, Wah and so on). More unusual (at this price point at least) are effects such as Pickup Simulator and Acoustic Guitar Simulator -- see the 'Full Effects List' box.
Equally handy for recording purposes is the COSM physical modelling preamp, which employs the same type of guitar amp modelling technology found in Roland's VG8 guitar system (reviewed in its original form by Paul White in the May 1995 issue of SOS) as well as in their more recent VS-series digital multitrackers and VM mixers. Some 14 amp types are modelled, along with their associated speaker cabinets. These include both 'vintage' and 'modern' amps, and their names give a good clue as to what is being attempted (eg. 'Voxy Drive'). The position of the virtual microphone relative to the speaker can also be adjusted in each model. Usefully (and essentially if you move between live and studio environments on a regular basis), the Utility button allows you to globally switch the preamp model on or off for all patches depending upon whether you are using the GT3 with or without a guitar amp. This setting is worth checking if you demo the unit via headphones.
A combination of these effects blocks and (if needed) a preamp model creates a patch. Patches are stored in banks of four, and a total of 85 banks are available (giving 340 patches in total). Banks 1 to 35 can be overwritten with your own patches, while banks 36 to 85 provide an extensive range of preset patches that cannot be overwritten. The purpose of six of the footswitches now becomes apparent: two move up and down between banks, and those numbered 1 to 4 are used to select the required patch within the current bank. A useful tuner facility is also included, and for live use this can be accessed from the remaining footswitch, which is labelled CTL.
Each patch contains information on the order of the effects processors (the equivalent of organising a series of standard guitar effects boxes into a different order in front of your amp), on/off settings for each effect type, settings for each effect, an output level setting and functions for the footpedals (both the one provided and the optional one which can be connected via the rear-panel socket).
The editing process itself can be tackled at three different levels. An 'EZ Edit' mode allows sound editing by adjusting just four basic parameters. Pressing the EZ Edit button changes the function of the upper six editing buttons (these alternative functions are clearly labelled underneath the buttons on a yellow background). Pressing the Type, Variation and Drive buttons allow the rotary knob to be used to select a basic sound type (clean, crunch, drive, and so on) while Tone, Mod and Delay then do pretty much what you would expect. In this mode the GT3 automatically adjusts a number of settings behind the scenes as you alter any of these main parameters. Even with this limited level of control, it is possible to produce some radical changes in the sounds generated.
The second editing mode uses Quick Settings. Here, you simply press the button corresponding to a particular effects group (eg. OD/DS) and then, using the rotary knob, dial through a series of presets for that particular effect type. The first four of these presets can be user-configured. If you have created a distortion effect by doing some more detailed editing, for example, you can save it as one of the four user presets within the OD/DS group, and then recall it easily for use in other patches. The remaining presets cannot be altered, but offer some sensible starting points for each effect group.
In the final mode, each effect type can be fully edited, and there is plenty to tweak here. For example, the compressor has sustain, attack, tone and level controls, and the OD/DS section allows you to select from 11 basic distortion or overdrive types and then adjust drive, bass, treble and level. The level of customisation for each effect type compares well with that available on many mid-priced general-purpose studio multi-effects units. This said, some guitarists will not even attempt patch editing on a multi-effects processor without the aid of a stiff drink, which is why I feel that the three-tier approach to editing adopted here is commendable, and allows users to pick how far they might want to go in customising and creating their own sounds. Even so, editing a basic tone on the GT3 is not like sitting in front of a row of individual foot pedals and your amp. When using the GT3 as a direct recording device, some might find it a COMP/LIM GROUP WAH GROUP OD/DS group PREAMP/SP SIM GROUP EQ GROUP MOD group DELAY group CHORUS group. REVERB group. MASTER group
Full Effects List
Acoustic Guitar Simulator.
PREAMP/SP SIM GROUP
There is an interesting contrast here with the editing approach adopted by Line 6 in their POD (reviewed by Paul White in SOS February '99), which is in the same general price bracket as the GT3. While POD offers nothing like the range or flexibility of effects that are available in the GT3 (or a footpedal controller as standard), POD's controls closely mimic the layout of a guitar amp -- an approach with which many guitarists, unsurprisingly, feel instantly comfortable. The Digitech 2120 Artist (which I reviewed in SOS December '98) is perhaps one of the few units that currently combines both of these approaches to sound editing, but it is considerably more expensive that either the GT3 or POD. Perhaps this will be the next feature to be offered in the cutthroat mid-price market?
The Sound Per Pound
After I'd spent just a few minutes with the manual, the GT3 was hooked up to my mixer (with the preamp set 'on' for all patches) and ready to roll. Three things struck me as I scrolled through the very generous number of factory-supplied patches. First, although the effects are of a very high quality, for my taste, the presets were rather too heavily effected. While this makes for some instantly dramatic sounds, it makes it less easy to get an impression of how good the basic preamp models are. Turning off the various effects for any patch is simple enough, so this was soon rectified. Second -- and again, this is a matter of personal taste -- some of the patches sounded a little bright and the distortion just a little fizzy to my ears. Again, a few minor tweaks soon set things up to my own preferred taste. Third, and most significantly, it was very clear that the GT3 could produce a huge variety of really excellent and useable guitar tones.
The presets give a very good (if, on occasion, rather over the top) impression of what is available. On the clean side 'Clean JC120' (Bank 37, Patch 2) provides a really nice compressed and chorused tone which is great for both chords and picking, whereas 'MS Clean' (63-3) is a slightly warmer version of something similar with a tad more chorus that works well with funk-style chords. For something more up-country, 'Clean Twin' (65-1) and 'Tele Twang' (67-4) are closer to the mark, the latter having a nice bite to it.
If a little more drive is needed, 'Comp Blues' (55-4) and 'Blues BD2' (58-1) are good for both rhythm and lead work. For those who like to rock, 'Young UK' (53-4) is a simple start, but other patches up the distortion considerably, such as 'Thrash 5150' (50-1) or 'Grunge DS' (44-3) which demonstrate that the GT3 can produce all kinds of excellent distortion and overdrive sounds. And if you want that stadium sound solo, 'Smooth Lead' (50-3) has plenty of Gary Moore-style sustain and delay.
Then we come to the rather less conventional patches, many of which use the SFX and Modulation effect groups. These include patches that provide acoustic guitar simulation, such as 'AC Guitar' (38-2) which gives a nice jangle to a standard electric guitar. A number of patches use the pickup simulator to allow single-coil guitars to achieve a humbucker sound or vice versa, and the change in tone is pretty much what you would expect. All the usual fun can be had with the tremolo and panning effects, as illustrated by patches like 'Voxy Trem' (79-4). More extreme, but just as much fun, is the slicer, which offers rhythmical noise gate effects, and can introduce a really effective percussive element to chords. 'Slice Wah' (37-4) is a good example. There are 20 preset styles of 'slice' to choose from, although no user styles can be created and the tempo of each preset is fixed. Even so, it could form a great focal point for a particular song.
Among a good number of other special effects, three are worth a brief mention. The harmony effects are quite impressive, and '3Voice Harm' (76-4) provides some instant Brian May-style solos. A bit more difficult to control but producing instant gratification is the auto-riff effect (eg. 'Auto Riff', patch 36-4). Playing a single note triggers a speedy riff (created by pitch-shifting your single note in real time) so that even the slowest of the slowhands can sound something like Eddie Van Halen. The riff can be set to play once or to be looped, and the tempo of the riff can be controlled from the BPM setting (accessed either through the Master button or by configuring the CTL footswitch to act as a 'tap tempo' control). There are 30 preset riffs and 10 user patterns. The user patterns are highly configurable, as each semitone can have a different phrase assigned to it and each phrase can have up to 16 steps. Thus, playing a
A couple of very minor niggles must also be mentioned. While the auto-wah is quite effective (eg. 'Funk Master', 62-2), I think I'd still prefer to use a dedicated analogue wah over the manual wah controlled via the expression pedal used here, both in terms of sound and the sensitivity of the pedal over its full travel; there's rather too much alteration in the sound for too little movement of the pedal for it to feel truly under control for my liking. Secondly, the organisation of the preset patch banks seems a bit random. It would have been nice to see a little more grouping of similar sounds.
Along with the very good general effects it offers, this little blue box is capable of conjuring from your guitar all manner of weird and wonderful sounds. Direct to tape, it records well, and the COSM technology gives a convincing guitar tone without the need to mike up an amp. Despite the aforementioned minor niggles, at this price point, and given the extensive feature list, it is almost unfair to be too critical. The general effects are up to the usual Boss standard and the special effects are both inspirational and, at a more simple level, plain good fun.
As mentioned earlier, Line 6's POD is in the same basic price range as the GT3, but these are different beasts with very different aims. For me, many of the amp simulations of POD, when listened to dry, have the edge over the GT3 and if your emphasis is more focused on good basic guitar tones in the studio rather than extensive multi-effects, then you should do yourself the favour of trying both units. This said, the GT3 is capable of some wonderful sounds within which the effects form an integral part, and which POD cannot therefore match. If you both gig and work in a studio with your guitar, and need a versatile effects unit for £3-400, I can highly recommend the GT3. On a 'sounds per pound' basis it's difficult to fault.