These new pedals model celebrated guitar tones, including those of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, in unprecedented detail.
We're all pretty much used to the concept of physical modelling, where digital algorithms are used to replicate the behaviour of analogue synths, vintage effects, or specific guitar amplifiers. Digitech have taken the process one step further by attempting to model specific guitar sounds from classic tracks, including emulations of original effects, amp, speaker, and mix processing.
The result of their work is packaged as three stomp box-style pedals. All can be used with a regular guitar amp or can be DI'd into a mixer, and each comes with a mains adaptor to save on batteries. Clearly you need to use the same guitar as the original artist (and the same pickup settings) for the best results, but the pedals have a number of controls which can help compensate for your own guitar or amplifier if necessary. With the controls in their central positions you get the most authentic recreation, provided that you're using the right guitar and pickup.
Rather than aiming to review these three pedals in great subjective depth, my aim is to explore the potential of this approach to modelling and to comment on what I feel to be its strengths and failings. Clearly the biggest limitation, though no fault of the designers, is that part of the authentic sound of any player is the way they play — and that goes some way beyond just picking the correct notes. This is particularly pertinent given that two of the pedals have been dedicated to legends Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix! The third artist is Dan Donegan, and while he may be less well known than Eric or Jimi, he was the first to be modelled — at his request, because he wanted a practical way to take his studio sound on the road. The strengths of this approach are that some of the modelled effects are not available elsewhere, and the development of the sounds was done in collaboration either with the artist or with an engineer who worked on their records. The biggest coup here was the collaboration of engineer Eddie Kramer in recreating some of the classic Hendrix sounds.
Dan Donegan is a member of the band Disturbed, a name which pretty well sums up some of the wonderfully aggressive tones his signature pedal The Weapon creates — basically death metal with an extra side-portion of death! Supplied with a soft zip gig bag and a heavy-gauge Dan Donegan pick, The Weapon also comes with a power adaptor, though battery operation is available. This dual powering arrangement is the same for the Eric Clapton pedal, while the Jimi Hendrix pedal is adaptor powered only, due to it's greater current consumption.
The Weapon offers mono processing, with one output jack for DI'ing and another voiced to feed a guitar amplifier. Two recessed pins form the pedal-switch pivot, and these can be pressed in to release the pedal and expose the battery compartment, which takes a regular 9V PP3 cell. By way of controls, there are knobs for Level, Control 1, and Control 2, followed by a rotary selector switch that picks one of seven modelled signature tones. The songs used to model these sounds are 'Stupify', 'Mistress', 'Voices', 'Bound', 'Rise', and 'Intoxication'. Most of the presets feature distortion, but many are composite effects where we're also treated to reverb, phaser, autowah, and Whammy octave pitching. Control 1 and Control 2 perform different functions depending on the preset, generally by adjusting whatever the two most important parameters are for the preset in question.
The Eric Clapton Crossroads pedal follows a similar physical format, but the pedal is painted a friendly shade of yellow in contrast to The Weapon's metallic finish. The modelling chain encompasses the speaker cabinets, microphones, effects, and the processing applied in the recording, mixing, and mastering paths. Again there are seven signature tones, including the rotary speaker effect used in the middle section of 'Badge' as well as an electric-to-acoustic simulation for those who care to have a crack at 'Layla' from the Unplugged album. Then there's that 'you'll get fined for playing that in this store!' classic 'Sunshine Of Your Love' with its silky 'woman tone', and of course the sprawling blues epic 'Crossroads'. We also get the original electric 'Layla' sound, the almost rockabilly 'Lay Down Sally', and 'Reptile', so there's a good selection of classic Clapton sounds here.
The jewel of the collection for most players has to be the Jimi Hendrix Experience pedal, which again has four knobs, but comes built into a wah-wah-style pedal. An additional switch pedal input allows you to change to the different sections of the song during performance without having to use the heel and toe switches beneath the pedal. The first three rotary controls are dual concentric in order to offer additional parameters.
Thanks to the Hendrix family, the sounds in this pedal were referenced against the original master tapes, as recorded at Electric Lady Studios by Eddie Kramer. There's so much going on inside this pedal that it uses two of Digitech's Audio DNA chips rather than the single chip used in the other two pedals. In the process of voicing this pedal, the designers had to model the plate reverb originally used by Jimi Hendrix, as well as an array of vintage effects pedals such as the Fuzz Face and the Roger Mayer Octavia. They also modelled Jimi's 100W Marshall Super Lead amp, a vintage EMT plate reverb, and a home-built rotary speaker from Olympic studio.
Again the pedal has amp and DI outputs, but there are additional switch modes detailed on the bottom of the unit that enable the pedal to be set up for stereo use, and that's how it sounds best. However, if you set it for stereo mode and then use just one output, the channels seem to get summed and the result is rather phasey and unpleasant, so you need to ensure the pedal is set up correctly for your intended use.
The songs Digitech have chosen to model are all classics and serve to display the range of tones Jimi used across a wide range of material. These range from the gentle 'Little Wing' and 'Wind Cries Mary' to the aggressive 'Purple Haze', taking in 'Foxy Lady', 'Star Spangled Banner', 'Machine Gun', 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)', and the seminal 'All Along The Watchtower', which is in my opinion one of the greatest singles of all time — despite Jimi cocking up the lyrics in the second verse and not bothering to fix them...
A couple of the effects that have been modelled here initially sound rather rough and unfriendly, especially the Fuzz Face and Octavia, but that's pretty much how the originals sounded, and used in context they work very well for conjuring up those signature tones. Some things are more accurate than others though. As you might expect, the acoustic emulation for the rhythm part of 'All Along The Watchtower' doesn't get that close to the 12-string used on the original recording! On the other hand, the lead line for 'All Along The Watchtower' has the right overdrive and delay to get very close to the original, and it's no surprise that the wah-wah effects are also very authentic. Personally I found the rather stiff heel and toe switches a bit stubborn, so I'd probably cop out and buy the optional footswitch if I decided to use one of these.
I'm not overly familiar with Dan Donegan's output, but I enjoyed the throaty, aggressive sound The Weapon produced, and it seems well suited to death-related music in general, not just covers of Disturbed songs. If death isn't your thing, you can always try the intros to 'Norwegian Wood' and 'Hole In My Shoe' using the sitar preset instead! I found the Hendrix pedal to be a lot of fun once I'd worked out the switching between the various rhythm and lead parts. However, as I said at the outset, if you can't play in Jimi's style, no amount of processing is going to be able to help you sound like him.
I felt the 'Purple Haze' fuzz sound could have had a bit more angst, but then part of the problem is that these things sound different depending on who's playing. I loved the 'All Along The Watchtower' lead sound, and the tonality of the 'Little Wing' preset was also very reminiscent of the original. Certainly these pedals have won a lot of praise from guitar players who are far better able to emulate these classic players than I am, and I've always been impressed with how authentic these pedals sound when demonstrated by good players at the various trade shows where they've been shown.
Most of my tests were conducted simply by DI'ing the pedals into a mixer, but they also sound good through a guitar combo set to clean if you take the time to set up the amp tone controls appropriately. In my mind, there's no doubt that Jimi Hendrix playing through a £50 practise amp would have sounded far more like Jimi Hendrix than anyone else on the planet playing through this pedal. On the other hand, if you do have a few Jimi licks up your sleeve, this pedal does give them the ring of authenticity — and wah-wah is a lot of fun whichever way you look at it!
The only pedal I felt personally disappointed by was the Eric Clapton Crossroads model, but again that could be down to the sound in my head not being the sound on the record. I've always felt that Eric Clapton used fairly conventional sounds and that the magic came from what he played, and I feel much more comfortable playing his licks using my Line 6 PodXT. Come to think of it, comfort and feel might be part of it, because I thought the sounds created by this particular pedal felt a little stiff — guitar players will know what I mean by that. My impression was that I could hear a lot of aggressive filtering going on to turn my sow's-ear playing into a sonic silk purse — for magic to be effective, it shouldn't give away how it works. Then again, when I heard the pedal being demoed at the music shows, it sounded surprisingly authentic.
Debating the authenticity of these pedals is only part of the story, as there's a lot more to this concept than being able to play seven clone songs per rock hero! The real point is that these tones also work for your own music, and, because everyone plays in a distinctive way, you can make the sounds your own by using them in your own songs. Different players are likely to feel very different about how effective these pedals are and the way they translate into playing feel is a very important part of that. It's probably fair to say that those who already like the better modelling guitar preamps are likely to be equally impressed by Digitech's new pedals, as they're really extensions of the same idea.
Now that we've got this far, I'd like to see this technology in a more traditional multi-effects/preamp format able to recreate all the elements that a specific artist uses as the basis of his or her sound — the amp model would have all the usual controls, as would the vintage effects boxes. Just imagine a complete George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, or David Gilmour stage setup in a fully programmable box, possibly with optional 'player personalities' that could be added later. You could still have song-based presets, but the user would also be able to set up custom sounds to recreate the guitar sound from virtually any song the artist had ever recorded, not to mention combining elements from different players.
So it's hats off to Digitech for taking the first steps — now we have to see where they, and others, will follow.
- The first pedals to try to model the entire production chain, not just the amps and pedal effects.
- Straightforward user controls.
- Mainly good emulations of the original sounds.
- Some players are bound to be disappointed when they discover that the pedals only model the sound, and don't necessarily make your playing sound the way you'd like it!
This is a potentially exciting evolution of amp modelling, and I expect we'll be seeing a lot more of this technology over the next year or two.
Dan Donegan The Weapon, £149; Eric Clapton Crossroads, £149; Jimi Hendrix Experience, £199. Prices include VAT.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.
+44 (0)1462 480800.