Rick Hamel is one half of the design team behind the SMF 15 Watter amplifier we reviewed in the April ’03 issue. And given his track record, the company he keeps (like tone legend Mark Sampson) and the fact that we greatly enjoyed the SMF, we had high hopes when we received a box Hamel’s latest creations.
The newest eminances from Hamel’s brain are three overdrive pedals; the Fatdrive, Varidrive, and Echodrive. All three are housed heavy-duty (the operative word being heavy) 7″ x 4.5″ x 2.5″ steel chassis with detachable IBM-style power power cords – no batteries or funky wallwarts here. Just good ol’ AC.
Connections are made via plastic 1/4″ chassis-mounted jacks (a plus in our book because they make less noise when swapping live cords) and each pedal features top-mounted controls with black Bakelite-style knobs, a classic stompswitch with LED indicator, and a side-mounted rocker switch (its use depends on the pedal). Inside each unit is a 12AX7 tube, cleanly wired PC board, and a power transformer (which accounts for much of the weight).
The pedals are covered in a black, red, or blue powdercoat finish with white silkscreen. And don’t forget the 1/8″ holes in the case – for ventilation, and a view of the tube!
After we quit gawking at the cool aesthetics of the SIBs, we grabbed a Fender ’57 reissue Strat, a Hamer Special, and a late-’70s Ibanez Artist, then wheeled out a Fender Twin Reverb and a Laney 2×12 all-tube combo.
We started by checking out the Fatdrive using the Strat through the Twin. This is, of course, a good-sounding rig, but when we engaged the Fatdrive with the tone controls (“Bass,” “Middle,” “Treble”) at 12:00 and the “Drive” knob at about 1:00, the rig responded with new life and a touch of overdrive. The musical voicing of the tone controls gave us a variety of usable tone options – from big, tight, thumpy low-end to thick, even mids and highs.
With the “Bright” switch engaged, the out-of-phase pickup position on the Strat had a sizzling shimmer to the high-end that was not harsh or brash – just lush and clear.
The Fatdrive does not generate any overdrive of its own unless you put a tall signal into it (like an active bass or a booster pedal running in line before it). Hamel says it was originally designed for the guitar to go direct to the board clean, but customers have reported using it use it for mics, drum machines, bass, or to fix effects loop deficiencies, etc.
For us, though, the Fatdrive delivered the same sweet class “A” highs with our P-90-loaded Hamer Special. With the highs turned up and the mids pulled back just a little, the middle position on the Hamer had an almost Strat-like tone, but fatter and with bigger low-end. The humbucker-loaded Ibanez coaxed the most drive from the unit; not a lot, but it worked well for pushing the dirty channel of the Laney into heavy distortion without getting mushy or uncontrollable.
The Varidrive, on the other hand, had an ample amount of available gain with all three guitars, especially with the gain switch in the on position. It could easily be used as a stand-alone distortion pedal, but it did get a little buzzy when we cranked the gain knob. The Varidrive and the Fatdrive shared the flexible, musical-sounding tone controls that offered a wide variety of sounds.
The Echodrive is not a combination delay/overdrive pedal, as the name might imply. Rather, it’s a delay with a little dirt mixed in. The unit offers the usual delay pedal controls – mix, volume, repeats, and delay time (a switch and a knob) with an added Echodrive control. The Echodrive knob added some overdrive to the delay and gave it an Echoplex kind of sound when we used short slapback delay times.
With the unit turned down, the pedal had a very analog sound with slightly muffled repeats that sounded good on longer delay times. Using the Echodrive and Fatdrive together pumped noticeable life into both amps – making already good-sounding heads sound even better.
Not only do SIB pedals intimidate the other pedals on your pedalboard with their physical size, but their superb tone and flexibility might just have your others tucking their wallwarts between their… rubber feet.
Type of pedals Overdrive/multi-function.
Features Detachable A/C power cords, flexible controls, superb tone and quality, tube circuit.
Price $399 (list, some discounting available).
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.