These valve‑based pedals offer DSP speaker emulation, USB audio interfacing and comprehensive EQ.
The Dept. 10 Dual Drive and the Dept. 10 Dual Distortion both originated within UK company Blackstar’s Dept. 10, which is a section of the company dedicated to exploring new and innovative design approaches. In a nutshell, these are dual‑channel overdrive/distortion pedals that combine full‑voltage valve circuity with some additional analogue circuitry, plus digital speaker‑cabinet emulation. The reason that I’m reviewing both together is that the pedals are identical in format, and differ only in colour and voicing. Conceptually, they appear to build on the ideas that have been explored in the company’s existing HT valve pedal range.
Housed in tough steel cases with dual footswitches, the pedals require 500mA of 9V DC power, and a suitable PSU is included. Internal circuitry then multiplies this voltage to over 200V to drive the valve, so that it functions in the same way as it would if in a traditional valve amplifier. There are two jack outputs on the left of the case, one a stereo headphone jack with speaker emulation, and the other a mono jack with no emulation — the latter is the one you’d use to plug into a guitar amp. On the rear of the case is a balanced XLR line output, again with speaker emulation, but a pair of send/return jacks allow an external effect to be inserted between the overdrive and the speaker emulator. There’s also a USB port, to allow the output to be recorded directly into a computer.
Each channel has its own set of Gain and Volume controls plus a two‑way voicing switch. All the other controls are common to both channels: a three‑way cabinet emulation selector for three different cabinet types and a bass, mid, treble EQ augmented by Blackstar’s ISF control, which morphs the EQ voicing from a more edgy US style to smoother, more reserved UK tonality.
On the Dual Distortion model, the voicing switch on Channel One selects between CL (Clean) and CR (Crunch), while on Channel Two it selects between two flavours of overdrive, the second option having slightly more edge. The stock cabinet switch settings provide a bright‑sounding cab to the left, a scooped metal‑style voicing in the middle and a warmer, fatter sound to the right. For the Dual Drive model, the first channel again has a choice of clean or crunch voicing while Channel Two offers Crunch or Overdrive.
The Dual Distortion’s clean setting can be pushed to add a little ‘hair’ to the sound, while the Crunch setting gets you into blues and classic rock territory. For more raunchy rock or for more aggressive contemporary rock sounds, the Overdrive settings of channel two fit the bill nicely, so this pedal covers a lot of ground. Importantly, it imparts the right feel to the guitar, with just the right degree of touch‑responsiveness. The pedal’s EQ section behaves in a very amp‑like way, while that ISF control really does make a big difference when you are searching for exactly the right tonality; it seems to shift the character of the whole EQ section. Overall, the experience feels very much like playing through a proper valve amp, even when the pedal is plugged into a solid‑state amplifier set to clean.
There aren’t many pedals you can plug into a computer that just make you want to sit and play, but these certainly do.
Plug in the Dual Distortion to your computer, either feeding the speaker‑emulated analogue output into an audio interface or directly over USB, and those three speaker emulation settings provide even more variety. Choose the middle setting, set the ISF control anti‑clockwise and use Channel Two with plenty of gain and you have instant metal, with the familiar hollow mid and edgy top. However, using the third cab option with the ISF control clockwise and the gain backed off a little brings you back to a familiar UK rock sound.
The Dual Drive pedal sounds to me like a slightly warmer, cuddlier version. The clean setting ranges from very clean to a nice jangle that’s well‑suited to ’60s and ’70s pop — great for where a Kinks/Who/Beatles range of sounds is needed. Shifting over to crunch can move you from slightly murky blues into ZZ Top and even Gary Moore territory. In Overdrive mode, there’s more gain on tap, so at lower settings there’s some overlap with what you can do in Crunch mode, but wind up the drive and you can cover all the classic rock genres, ending up with a Black Sabbath meets Deep Purple kind of angst. Again the EQ and ISF controls provide a lot of scope for shaping the sounds, and the speaker emulations are again extremely convincing. The Dual Drive should cover pretty much all your needs unless you’re into Scandi Death Metal — and if you are, then maybe the Dual Distortion is for you.
In the studio, you can either use the straight output in conjunction with one of your own speaker emulator plug‑ins or work with the emulated output. I don’t know precisely what DSP techniques Blackstar have used to recreate these cabinet sounds — they say their approach goes beyond IRs — but they’re decent, and I didn’t feel the need to switch them out for something else. There aren’t many pedals you can plug into a computer that just make you want to sit and play, but these certainly do, and I think it’s the way these recreate the experience of playing through a valve amplifier that makes them so comfortable to work with.
Yet, there’s more. If you still don’t find enough variety in these pedals as shipped, you can download the free Blackstar Architect Mac/Windows app and this offers a much wider choice of speaker cabinets, microphones and on/off‑axis mic positions, as well as extra EQ options. There’s also power‑amp emulation that’s handled by the DSP, so you can choose between EL84, EL34 or 6L6 output valves, as well as adjusting resonance, drive and presence. You can also add in a little emulated room mic ambience with a choice of the three room sizes in both damped and undamped variants. Any of the three Cab Rig presets in the pedal can be overwritten by your edited version, and you can also back up favourite setups on your computer.
You may not get the additional effects that some of the all‑digital platforms offer but my guess is that most players would want to use their own effect pedals when playing live, and in the studio we already have plug‑ins that can add anything from delay and reverb to the seriously outlandish.
In summary, then, whatever your guitar style, one of these pedals should meet your needs: each covers a lot of tonal ground, while also providing a gratifyingly touch‑sensitive playing experience. For live use, the ability to set up two channels, or to bypass them to give you your unadulterated amp sound, means you now have three sounds available, and the ability to customise them using software is an unexpected bonus. The speaker emulations are effective and mean you can send an oven‑ready feed to the PA for gigs, and the insert means you can place more pedals after the preamp but before the speaker emulator — so you can get all your effects running in the order you want them. These are very well thought‑out, tonally versatile and attractively-priced pedals.
- Flexible two‑channel design.
- High‑voltage valve circuitry.
- Effective DSP speaker emulation.
- Free editing software.
- At this price? Nothing.
While there are many all‑digital, and some solid‑state, analogue amp emulators, this one is unusual in combining full‑voltage valve circuitry and analogue EQ with DSP speaker and power‑amp emulation.