Fender Effects Part 1
By Phil O'Keefe |
Fender Effects Part 1
In part one of this two part review we look at the Pugilist Distortion, Marine Layer Reverb and Level Set Buffer
by Phil O'Keefe
Fender has long been a major player when it comes to guitars and amps, but they've been a bit less consistent with their effects offerings. Sure, there are some knockouts in Fender effects history (such as the Fender Blender, Fuzz-Wah, and the legendary Fender 6G15 Reverb unit), but they haven't always offered a full line of effects pedals, and when they have, the pedals have often been somewhat uninspired and have met with lukewarm response from players. Stan Cotey, Fender's Vice President of Product Innovation, decided it was time for Fender to get serious about pedals, and he set out to put together a no-excuses line of all-original pedal designs that would be able to go the distance. The first six pedals in the new lineup has been followed with the announcement of an additional three pedals (Full Moon Distortion, The Pelt fuzz and Engager Boost) that are not part of this review - we'll be focusing on the initial six pedals released in the new lineup, and in order to consider each in a bit more detail, we're going to break the review up into two parts. We'll be looking at The Bends Compressor, Santa Ana Overdrive and Mirror Image Delay in part two, but for now, let's get things started by checking out the Level Set Buffer, Pugilist Distortion, and Marine Layer Reverb.
What You Need To Know
- The new line of effects pedals from Fender features all-new circuits that were designed in California; primarily by Stan Cotey (the Santa Ana Overdrive was designed by Alex Aguilar). While the input and feedback from a variety of notable live and studio musicians was sought, Cotey designed the pedals in the tradition of boutique builders everywhere - often working in his garage in his spare time, doing it for the love of designing, and in an effort to create the types of pedals that he himself always wanted.
- All of the pedals in the new lineup have some cool features in common that show some serious thought went into their design. Rather than repeat them, let's look at these before we get into the details of the individual pedals.
- Each pedal is packed into a lightweight yet tough anodized aluminum enclosure. Larger pedals in the series (like the Pugilist Distortion and Marine Layer Reverb) measure 3.75" W x 2.5" H x 4.9" L and weigh 1.2 lb, while The Bends Compressor and Level Set Buffer are packed into more compact enclosures that measure 2.75" W x 2.5" H x 4.9" L and weight .9 lb.
- The input and output jacks are side mounted and staggered in such a way as to minimize the space needed in between pedals for the plugs and wiring. The input impedance is 1M Ohm and the output impedance is >10k Ohm for all of the pedals in the series.
- Every pedal in the line has a smaller version of the classic Fender amp "jewel lamp" that serves as the "pedal on" indicator. The color of the jewel lamps varies from pedal to pedal, which makes identifying which ones are turned on much easier, even on a dark stage. The Pugilist Distortion has a orange-yellow lamp, the Level Set Buffer has a white jewel lamp, while the Marine Layer Reverb's jewel lamp is green.
- Fender wanted to make sure you could always see where the knobs are pointed, so they gave them LED illuminated indicators so they can be seen even in the darkest of stage or studio conditions. They remain lit, even when the pedal is bypassed.
- The LEDs on the knobs can be disabled with a LED on/off slider switch (located on the rear of the pedals near the power jack) to reduce the current draw when operating the pedals on battery power.
- All of the pedals can be powered by either a 9V battery or an external power supply (neither of which is included) - the power jack for each pedal is located at the end that faces away from you, and all of the pedals in Fender's new lineup use industry standard 2.1 mm center-negative power receptacles.
- The battery compartment is located at the opposite end of the pedals, and it's cleverly designed with a spring-loaded, hinged battery door that magnetically latches, so you don't need any tools to open it, and there's no screws or other parts to get lost. Depending on how you space your pedals on your board, you can usually access the battery compartments on these pedals without having to remove them from the board - a big advantage for those who prefer using batteries.
- Another nice detail is the small red LED on the battery compartment door of each pedal that lights up to let you know when the battery is getting weak and needs to be replaced.
- Power requirements vary by model, and whether or not you're using the LED illuminators on the knobs. The Pugilist draws 22 mA @ 9V DC, with 88 mA total current consumption when using the LEDs. The Marine Layer needs 71 mA @ 9V DC, with 115 mA total current consumption, while the Level Set Buffer draws 14 mA @ 9V DC, with 64 mA total current consumption. As you can see, turning off the LEDs does make a considerable difference in the power requirements.
- The Level Set Buffer is an interesting pedal. It was designed with three main purposes in mind. First, it's a buffer, so when you place it at the front of your pedal chain it helps reduce signal loss and high frequency rolloff when you're using longer cable runs and have several pedals chained together. As a buffer it works quite well, keeping the signal nice and robust. A Load toggle switch gives you the option of impedance loading your guitar pickups similarly to plugging straight into the front of a tube amp.
- Switching on the Level Set Buffer functions a bit differently than the other pedals in this series. Instead of kicking over to a true bypassed signal at the output jack when you step on the switch, the signal to the main output is muted completely. This allows you to use a tuner connected to the pedal's secondary tuner output jack (which remains active at all times) so you can tune while the signal is active, or silently, depending on whether you use the Mute footswitch or not.
- The Level Set Buffer has a third function. The onboard Level and Hi-Freq(ency) controls each offer up to 12 dB of boost or cut. This allows you to fine tune the output to compensate for the use of different instruments. For example, if you usually use a Telecaster but want to switch to an SG for a couple of songs in the set, you can reach down and adjust these controls to balance the levels and presence instead of having to adjust your amp and / or dirt pedal settings to compensate for the darker and hotter pickups in the SG. Here's where I would have designed the pedal a bit differently - I would have included a second footswitch (or even a toggle switch) to allow users to kick the Level and Hi-Freq. controls on and off without muting the pedal; this would allow you to pre-set the knobs for two different instruments, using the Mute footswitch when unplugging to switch between them (or when tuning), and the second footswitch (or toggle) to quickly turn the EQ and Level adjustment on or off without having to manually re-adjust the position of the knobs every time you switch instruments. It would also allow you to use the Level Set Buffer as a traditional footswitched lead or level boost too. Outside of that one wish list item, the Level Set Buffer is a solid pedal that works as advertised.
- The Pugilist Distortion is a highly versatile pedal with dual distortion circuits (labeled A and B) onboard. Each of these has its own separate Gain and Tone control. The dual Tone controls each use a low pass filter and allow you to roll off treble for each Distortion separately.
- Distortion A has less gain than Distortion B does, and can be used by itself for lower gain overdrive tones. This is accomplished by turning the pedal's Blend control all the way to the A position. Using the same knob, it's possible to use distortion B by itself, or to run them together in parallel, blending the two together in any ratio that you desire.
- A small Series toggle switch allows you to configure the two distortion engines so they're running in series, with the output of Distortion A feeding into Distortion B, instead of blending them in parallel. This allows you to get truly massive amounts of grind and dirt, yet still retain a surprising amount of clarity. This pedal can create a wider range of overdrive and distortion tones than most other dirt pedals, and it sounds great.
- A Bass Boost switch is also included. This lets you add lower midrange and bass to fatten up the signal when you're running into a cleaner amp and want more bottom, or you can turn it off when you're running into an amp that's already distorting on its own to prevent things from getting too muddy.
- A Level control allows you to adjust the overall output level of the Pugilist Distortion pedal. You can very easily exceed unity gain and slam the input of your amp with extra-hot levels if you want.
- The Marine Layer Reverb's name was likely inspired by a local weather condition that we Southern Californians experience in late spring each year, where a layer of ocean clouds, fog and moisture moves inland in the early morning and blankets the area in overcast until it burns off in the afternoon sun. The Marine Layer is a cool sounding digital reverb pedal that is less tenuous than the name might suggest, and I predict it will also have much better staying power.
- The Marine Layer's bypass footswitch works a bit differently than most of the pedals in the new lineup. Instead of killing the signal post-reverb, it mutes the signal going into the reverb processor and routes the dry signal directly to the output, but the reverb's output remains engaged too, allowing any sustaining tails to continue to ring out without being abruptly and unnaturally cut off.
- There are four knobs. A Pre Delay knob allows you to delay the onset of the reverb ever so slightly (we're talking about a matter of milliseconds here folks), putting a bit of space between your note and the start of the blooming reverb sound. Lower Pre Delay settings give you a more instantaneous onset of the reverb effect, while higher settings increase the gap between your note and the reverb's onset, giving the sound more definition and clarity.
- The Reverb Time knob lets you adjust the decay time of the reverb tail and how long the reverb will ring out. Minimum and maximum decay times will depend on which of the available reverb algorithms you select.
- Damping lets you adjust how the sound changes as it decays, with higher settings giving you more even decay across the frequency spectrum, while lower settings dampen the high frequencies and cause the reverb to get darker as it decays and helps keep subsequent notes from getting lost in the reverb tails from previous ones.
- The Level control lets you dial in how much or how little of the reverb you want to hear mixed in with your dry signal, from none at its lowest setting to a 50/50 mix when turned all the way up.
- You'll also find three toggle switches on the top of the Marine Layer Reverb. A Filter toggle switch cuts some of the treble in the reverb signal and makes any reverb sound warmer and less present. The three-position Reverb Type switch lets you choose between Hall, Room or Special reverb algorithms. A second Variation switch expands on those options, giving you two options for each of the Reverb types, for a total of six different effects: Hall 1/2, Room 1/2, and Special 1/2.
- Hall 1 is more of a standard Hall verb, while Hall 2 sounds more like a brighter studio Plate reverb. Room 1 simulates larger rooms like recording studios and conference rooms, while Room 2 offers the tighter ambience that is more typical of smaller spaces. This can be used to simulate the early reflections that are so crucial to small space ambience, especially if you crank up the Pre Delay.
- The two Special reverb variations will be loved by dream-pop and more ambient, atmospheric and texturally oriented players, with Variation 1 giving you a modulated cathedral reverb effect, while Variation 2 offers a octave up "shimmer" type reverb. When Variation 1 is cranked up you get the aural equivalent of the Southern California "June Gloom" marine layer that the pedal itself is named after. Both Special effects sound very cool.
- On the rear of the Marine Layer Reverb (near the power jack and LED on/off switch) you'll find a second slider that isn't found on the other two pedals we're looking at this time around. When engaged, it does exactly what the Kill Dry label on the switch suggests - it kills the dry signal completely, leaving only the reverb signal present at the output jack. This can be very useful when using the Marine Layer Reverb in a parallel effects loop.
- The LED illuminated Jewel Lamp indicators on all of the pedals are silly-bright; they're actually brighter than the ones on my vintage Fender amps. So much so that they make it next to impossible to read the labels of the various controls on the pedals when the effects are active. You'll remember what the controls do fairly quickly, and the LED illuminated knobs are still visible through the glare, but it still wouldn't hurt if Fender cut back on the Jewel Lamp brightness a bit. However, the brightness does have the advantage of making the pedal status easier to see if you're doing an outdoor gig.
- The LEDs on two of the knobs (Tone A and Blend) on the Pugilist Distortion both simultaneously stopped working one day while I was testing the pedal, and never came back to life. In spite of extended and heavy use, the problem hasn't occurred on any of the other five pedals, nor have any of the other LEDs on the Pugilist developed any issues, and the controls themselves continue to work properly. Fender assures me that this is a very uncommon issue that has only been encountered a handful of times, and they offered to send another pedal for me to examine, but the review deadline prevented me from doing so. I'll definitely be buying one of these pedals for my own collection, so I'm obviously not too worried about it.
- There is no Spring reverb option available on the Marine Layer Reverb pedal, although since many players will already have one built into their amps, it may not be missed.
When I heard that Fender was coming out with a new line of effects pedals, I had memories of the previous Competition series in mind and wasn't really expecting great things. Boy was I wrong! These are some very well designed and thought-out pedals, and definitely not just a rehashing of what other companies have released. Of the three pedals under consideration here, I was surprised to find that I liked the Pugilist Distortion the most. I'm usually more of an overdrive kind of guy, but the Pugilist knocked me out with its great tone and impressive versatility. I'll definitely be adding one of these pedals to my personal pedal collection. The Marine Layer Reverb was a close second. With its nice selection of different reverb types and less than commonly-found features such as the Pre Delay, Damping and Dry Kill switch, it's easy to dial up just the type of reverb sound you're looking for - as long as you're not looking for a spring reverb emulation, that is. Then again, many amps already have a spring reverb built-in, so you may not miss it, and it probably makes more sense to offer players different algorithms for the sake of variety.
I was less enamored with the Level Set Buffer. Not because of its sound, but due to the way it operates. I would have preferred either a second footswitch or even a toggle switch so I could quickly turn the Level and High Frequency trim controls on or off when switching from a single coil to a humbucker-equipped guitar and back again. As it is now, you have to manually adjust those knobs when switching guitars. A footswitch would be faster and allow you to preset those controls and leave them set. Being able to switch the signal off completely for silent tuning (and the inclusion of a second tuner output that's always active) are nice features, and the pedal does let you use your tuner at any time, with or without muting your signal - your choice. The buffer itself does keep your signal nice and hot (and helps keep your high frequencies intact) even when using long chains of pedals, so if you need a good buffer, this is certainly a solid contender.
Fender said they wanted to get into the effects world and stay involved for the long haul, and this impressive and expanding series shows just how serious they are about that goal. These pedals have more in common sonically with their legendary pedals of the past than they do with some of the more disappointing releases in Fender's history, and I'm happy to report that the whole lineup is consistently good this time around. Overall, this series of pedals is the best lineup Fender has ever released, and by a considerable margin. They'll go toe to toe with just about anything else out there, and they're reasonably priced too. Be sure to check out part two of this review where we'll be looking at the Santa Ana Overdrive, The Bends Compressor and the Mirror Image Delay. -HC-
Want to discuss the new Fender Marine Layer, Level Set Buffer and Pugilist Distortion effects, or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Effects forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Fender Pugilist Distortion ($99.99 "street"), Fender Level Set Buffer ($99.99 "street") and Fender Marine Layer Reverb ($149.99 "street")
Fender's Pugilist Distortion product web page
Fender's Level Set Buffer product web page
Fender's Marine Layer Reverb product web page
You can also purchase the Fender effects pedals from:
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.