Lovetone breathe new life into some old favourites. But can their all-analogue handmade pedals still compete with digital multi-effects and software plug-ins?
Lovetone are a small English company who, since 1995, have been hand-building their own unique range of analogue effects pedals for use as both studio processors and guitarist stomp boxes. They have never sold their products through shops, preferring to do business via mail order, and for the most part they have relied on word of mouth rather than advertising.
Lovetone's confidence in their eccentric and colourful processors has proved well founded, as evidenced by the ever-growing list of famous producers, engineers, and artists who use them on their records. When the company ceased manufacturing a few years ago, they found that there was still a huge demand for their most popular products, hence the re-release of three favourites: the Big Cheese fuzz, the Brown Source overdrive, and the Meatball dynamic filter. The Meatball's design hasn't changed, but the Big Cheese and Brown Source have been bundled together into one box, and are now known as the Cheese Source. Internally, the pedal circuitry is still separate, though, so the fuzz and overdrive can still be considered as two separate effects processors.
Although The Meatball and Cheese Source are sold separately, Lovetone are pushing the pair as a symbiotic production combination. It's suggested that the Cheese Source can be used as an insert effect within the Meatball's effects loop, for example, so it makes sense to look at both products together in this review.
The Source overdrive section is quite a subtle effect, providing the sort of soft psychedelic amp distortion reminiscent of Canned Heat in their more bluesy moments, or early Neil Young during his Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere period. Using it moderately, you find yourself wondering if the pedal is doing anything at all until you click its bypass switch and find that your guitar sounds weak and naked without it.
To tweak the sound you're given rotary knobs for Drive, Tone, and Volume. How the drive behaves is fairly dependent on the level of the input source, and by balancing these two factors a wide variety of driven sounds can be created. The Tone control interacts with a three-position chicken-head switch which acts a little bit like a preset EQ control. The switch actually only affects the top end of the signal, so with the Tone control set low very little difference between the three settings can be heard. Conversely, as you turn up the Tone, and the balance of high to low frequencies changes, the settings have a greater effect.
I found the Source processing capable of livening up my solid-state guitar amp and giving it the sort of presence and tonal depth I'd otherwise expect from my valve amp. The Source also had a pleasingly beneficial effect when used to process other audio signals, including drum tracks, vocal lines, and keyboard parts.
The Cheese section has a similar set of controls to the Source section: Curds is a gain control, Whey is for volume, and the Tone control interacts with another three-position switch. This time the switch is labelled with a drawing of a segment of cheese for the third position! The three switch positions offer different EQ curves: position one is a scooped sound, whereas position two boosts mid-frequencies. The 'cheese segment' setting is the same basic setting as position two, but when the Curds control is turned high the signal overloads and breaks up as if it were being slightly gated.
The Cheese fuzz seems to make almost anything played through it sound powerful and aggressive, so it really is one of those instant-gratification effects. At times I longed for a control to clean up the sound a little, but the desired result could also be had by backing off the input instrument's level slightly.
I personally found the Cheese section to be less universally useful than the Source section, as the latter offered a subtler range of tones that were applicable to more material. Nevertheless, one of the reasons the Source and Cheese have been married in the same box is that they actually work very well together, providing many interesting tonal combinations. By default the internal routing means that the Cheese output feeds the Source input, but an extra lead patched from the box's main output to its input can reverse this order — in this configuration the jack labelled Source In operates as the main input and the Cheese Out jack becomes the main output. Once reversed, the pedals interact with one another differently, and generally provide guitars with a slightly more synthy sound. I found this configuration just as viable as the standard routing, and worth exploring. It's also possible to use the Cheese and Source as independent processors by using the main input and the Cheese Out for the Cheese section and the Source In and main output for the Source section.
Both the Meatball and Cheese Source can run on 9V PP3 batteries, although the pedals will also thrive off a 12V supply. Lovetone recommend using a decent external power adaptor (which is not included with either pedal), partly because it provides extra headroom and therefore reduces distortion, and partly because the pedals consume batteries pretty quickly. Inserting or removing a battery couldn't be easier though — a hinge allows the colourful control panel to be swung upwards to reveal the battery compartment. Once closed, the panel is held firm by two pimples, which click into the frame's corresponding dimples!
The pedal casings are very solidly made using pressed metal, into which all the control pots and input jacks are bolted. The pedal's control knobs and switches are mounted directly onto a single circuit board, which is wired to the various jacks and the metal bypass footswitch.
The Meatball is a dynamic filter controlled by an in-built trigger, although turning the bottom left-hand switch to its Off position disengages the trigger so that the Meatball can be used as a static filter. The same switch also sets the trigger to react to either the full bandwidth of the triggering signal, or to only half. In the Half position, bass frequencies roll off at 150Hz, so that random bass rumbles won't trouble the trigger. However the setting is purely for the trigger's benefit and does not actually attenuate the audio. Most of the other controls adjust the various filter parameters, apart from the Sensitivity knob, which sets the trigger threshold.
The bottom right-hand switch offers low-pass, band-pass or high-pass filtering, while its neighbouring four-position switch (with simple Hi and Lo labels at its extreme positions) shifts the filter to different parts of the frequency spectrum in octave steps.
The switch labelled Up and Down sets the direction of the filter sweep, while the Attack and Decay knobs determine the filter's envelope shape. The Colour control adjusts the filter resonance and can be used to dial in synth-like tones which are harmonically related to the input signal. Depending on the other filter settings, the Colour control is capable of creating anything from wild swooping synth-bass notes to chirping high tones, so care is needed! The remaining Intensity control adjusts the depth of the filter envelope, and it can be made to create wah-wah-style sweeps when rapidly turned.
Besides the input and output jacks, the Meatball also has two pedal inputs (see the 'Meatball Pedal Inputs' box for details of how these work), plus send and return jacks so that other effects, such as the Cheese Source, can be inserted into the signal chain between the trigger and the filter. This patching scheme also allows the signal awaiting treatment to be input directly into the effects loop's return jack, so that a separate trigger signal can be used on the input. For example, I used this setup to rhythmically filter a harmonica line by feeding my drums to the input and my harmonica part to the effects return. Interestingly, although this configuration allows the trigger signal to be discarded, it can also be mixed into the signal path by turning the Blend control.
The Meatball is a little more complex than the Cheese Source. Getting it to work well is often a matter of matching the input material's frequency spectrum with the filter control settings, and then dialling in the desired Colour and Intensity. Setting the speed of the filter envelope sympathetically also pays dividends. For example, short attack and decay settings make the filter act more aggressively on staccato notes, whereas longer settings are far more subtle and only really show what they're capable of when longer notes are played.
Nevertheless, with a little material-specific customisation, the Meatball is capable of all sorts of wild and weird effects. Some will use it to create Mini Moog-style pulsing and wild synth burbling, while others will hook up an expression pedal to achieve a variety of auto-wah effects. The Meatball also offers some rather subtle real-time tonal filtering effects which could be applied to just about anything. Not forgetting its use as a static filter, and its inherent analogue warmth, the Meatball is a pretty useful tool to have around the studio. Inserting the Cheese Source into the Meatball's effects loop offers many more tonal variations, particularly as either the Source or Cheese can be bypassed or placed in reverse order.
The Meatball provides two pedal inputs for remote real-time filter adjustment. Each input will accept a quarter-inch jack from any passive expression pedal, although Lovetone strongly recommend using the Bespeco VM18L, (which is also available from their UK distributors Dinosaural), because its sweep range is compatible with the Meatball and their other devices.
The Pedal 1 input is wired in series with the Decay pot, allowing you to add extra decay time to the filter envelope as you sweep the pedal. With the pot turned to its zero position, the expression pedal effectively provides the pot's full decay range. In certain configurations — for example, when the Meatball is optimised for auto-wah — the pedal provides an extremely effective way of articulating the filter.
The Pedal 2 input is patched in parallel with the Intensity control, which basically determines the depth of the filter envelope. For the full effect, the Intensity control needs to be turned down so that the pedal performs the entire 'calm to raspy' filter sweep. Both pedal inputs are very useful, and together provide a far more varied and interesting set of tonal change options than a simple wah pedal is capable of offering.
The Lovetone pedals are not cheap here in the UK, and I'm sure some people will be wondering why they shouldn't just invest in a multi-effects box or software bundle and get a whole stack of high-quality effects for the same money. Psychologically speaking, there is something to be said for being able to physically grab a chunky control and turn it until it sounds right. Inevitably, there is no way to recall settings and there is no display showing the exact position of a pot, but hardware devices like these are intended to be judged by ear rather than being scientifically calibrated. Having said that, at times I found the labelling a little too cryptic, and I would have preferred some more intuitive control names, particularly where two controls interact. For example, the Source's three-position switch and Tone adjustment work subtly together, but their relationship is not made very clear on the front panel.
Sonically, these boxes provide the sort of colour, warmth, and immediacy that you'd expect from well-made hardware analogue devices, and I'm sure their ability to beef up elements in a digital mix is one of the main reasons they're a popular choice for many producers and bands. Both pedals are pretty noise-free, which makes them particularly well suited for studio signal processing, but their solid build quality also means that they can be taken on stage and stomped on like a typical guitar pedal. What's more, although they work extremely well with guitar signals, they are also just as relevant as processors for other instruments, and their flexible routing options help them in that respect. These pedals may not be the first thing on your shopping list, but if you can spare the cash you're unlikely to regret spending it on such universally useful processors.
The Lovetone pedals are beautifully made products which are likely to add something new to anyone's tone-shaping arsenal. Their enigmatically labelled controls and bold colourings are intended to encourage users to be playful and to experiment with sound, and their range of controls and routing options certainly offer many sonic possibilities.