The trio of Blackstar's HT effects pedals; the HT-Reverb, HT-Delay, and HT-Modulation. (Click images to enlarge.)
Blackstar is a British manufacturer that specializes in high-quality tube amps, and has carved out a niche for itself serving gain-cranking guitarists of many genres, such as Richie Sambora; Neal Schon; Boz Boorer of Morrissey; Leslie West; and Luke Bryan, Jason “Slim” Gambill, and Clint Chandler of Lady Antebellum. After solidly establishing themselves in the amplification arena, Blackstar turned their attentions to small-scale tone-shapers, releasing a series of seven overdrive pedals and three effects pedals.
The central theme to all the pedals is that they run on high voltage (300V) and include an onboard preamp tube in the front end of the gain stage. The three effects pedals combine this with a digital stage to produce a best-of-both-worlds digital/analog hybrid sound. In addition to sharing common features (color, identical switch on knob layout, I/O configuration), the three effects pedals are built like tanks. They are heavy and rugged, and run on only AC power (no batteries). These are serious pedals built for industrial use.
All three pedals are identical in footprint and physical control layout, with the knobs and switches changing functions depending on the unit. Five solid-feeling knurled rotary controls occupy the top of the unit with two footswitches (each with status LEDs) on the lower edge. In the pedal’s center is a grille-protected window revealing the glowing glass ECC83 (12AX7) tube below, which of course is key to the analog drive part of the circuit.
There’s a single 1/4" input on the right side and two 1/4" output jacks (Right and Left/Mono) on the left. Around back is the jack for the power supply. Because the pedals operate using high voltage (300V), the pedals can be powered only through the plug-in power supply (no battery option). The supplied power supply is a nice line-lump design (preferable to the dreaded wall wart), with a detachable AC cord.
The pedals are big, heavy, and almost military in their aesthetic, with a straightforward, no-nonsense design. All three pedals are even the same color, a neutral beige/champagne scheme. Except for the small-ish labeling on the controls and surrounding the tube window, it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance.
The unified design works very well for accommodating the controls of these three different effects. The right-most two knobs control are the drive and output level, which is crucial to the heart of the sound. The control named “Saturation” on the Delay and Modulation, and “Dwell” on the Reverb, determines whether or not the tube is included in the sound. A helpful LED lights up, in a graduated fashion, as you turn up the Saturation/Dwell control and the tube is engaged.
Besides the two rightmost controls that balance the tube drive and level, there are the three effect-specific knobs. At the far left is the program select knob, an 8-position encoder that selects the basic algorithm. Here are the eight choices for each of the three pedals.
HT-Reverb: Room, Hall, Bright Hall, Plate, Spring, Arena, Reverse, Gate
HT-Delay: Linear, Analogue, Multihead 1, Multihead 2, Tape, Space, Loop 1, Loop 2
HT-Modulation: Flanger, Phaser 1, Phaser 2, Vintage Chorus 1, Vintage Chorus 2, Multi Chorus, Tremolo, Rotary
The two footswitches cover effect on/off and either Mode (Short/Long for the Reverb and Modulation) or Tap/Loop (Delay). Again, the uniform treatment of the switches works well for the three pedals. I used all of them in series (along with other pedals in my chain, to create a realistic playing environment) and had no trouble switching among them, despite their near-identical appearance. (Technically, there is a color variation in the badge lettering, but it’s pretty subtle, at least compared with the fairly gargantuan cases the pedals are housed in.)
I started with the subtlest of the pedals, the HT-Reverb (see Fig. 1). The eight algorithms are well chosen, and all have a wide musical range. If anything, I wish the Time values started a little lower in the minimum range. For example, the Room Time, at its lowest level, was not as small and dry as I’m used to hearing in other reverbs. But throughout the algorithms and the sweep of their parameters—and even with the controls in their maxed-out positions—all eight programs created realistic guitar-based ambient spaces, and were much more versatile than could be dialed in on the front panel of any amp. In the HT-Reverb, the tube stage is especially nice, as it softens the tendency for the reverbs to be a little hard-edged. The tube creates the subtlest of all influences here, but it is very effective.
Fig. 1. HT-Reverb. Use the tube drive to soften the ambient effect. (Note the glowing tube in the center.)
I found the tube-saturation circuit to behave consistently among all three pedals. Up to about 9:00 it’s hard to get the LED to flicker. Then between 9:00 and 3:00, the LED activates easily and glows red (its maximum illumination state). Then from 3:00 to maximum, it’s on all the time. That’s expected behavior in the control range, but the sonic effect is much subtler. Don’t get these HT effects pedals thinking they can stand in for a dedicated overdrive pedal. That’s not their function. What they do really well is to add dimension and warmth to the effected sound. There’s really not that big a difference in the Saturation control from off to max, but in an exposed part, it’s a nice added dimension of warmth and tube character.
The Saturation control works much more effectively in the Delay pedal (see Figure 2), simply because of the nature of a delay is to separate more distinctly, and in time, the straight and effected sounds. To test the effected sound against the straight sound, I created a long-delay patch that kept the straight signal clean and maxed out the Saturation control. Since the straight and effected sound were widely separated—a single repeat one full second later in time—I could really hear the difference of the two treatments in isolation. The repeated sound was warm and furry, but not indistinguishable from the source sound that appeared one second earlier.
Fig. 2. HT-Delay. Here, you can clearly hear the tube sound in longer delay times.
I liked the Saturation effect in the Modulation pedal too (see Fig. 3). If you really want to fatten up a processed sound, consider reaching for the Saturation control before you make it soupier with just effects alone. Saturation used in the Flanger, Vintage Chorus 2, and Rotary effects lent a great vintage quality to the sound.
Fig. 3. HT-Modulation. The tube effect really adds to the vintage quality.
Many effects manufacturers include a tube as a gimmick, and don’t really pass high enough voltage through it to make a significant contribution to the sound. Not so with the Blackstar’s HT Effects series. You can’t run these on batteries because the voltage requirements are so high. While some guitarists might consider a non-battery option an inconvenience, the plug-in power supply is imperative to deliver the necessary voltage that is the core of the HT pedals’ sound. The second aspect is that the tube’s effect is subtle—just as it should be. It’s still trying its hardest to produce a good, clean signal; it’s just that when it can’t, it fails in such a warm, subtle, and sweet way. That’s the key quality of the HT line: the effects are real and any warmth is good, honest tube warmth.
If weight and size aren’t an issue for you for storage and transport, you will love the HT series’ mammoth size and indestructible build. All three pedals exhibit great sound and design in the effects, and the tube is just the extra little bit of musicality many guitarists will need to create sounds that not only have the required effects treatments, but add a little extra musicality besides.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).