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The overdriven sound of a valve power amplifier is highly desirable, with many different output stage designs to produce the variety of trademark sounds heard on modern recordings. The only problem is that a valve power amplifier is only capable of producing this sound at one volume (usually, fairly loud!).

Dummy speaker loads (the good ones are not just resistive, they need to simulate the reactive load of a speaker) allow a player to use one amplifier in a variety of playing situations and styles by running the amplifier at the desired level, and using the dummy load to regulate the volume level. Another option for the playing musician is to use a variety of amplifiers, however, this approach appeals only to rare wealthy musicians.

There are probably 3 distinctly identifiable types of valve power amplifiers used:

Leo Fender's classic early designs used 6V6 tubes, and later, the higher powered 6L6's. This gave a characteristic full and punchy sound, suitable for many styles of the day, and later. Steel and country players like the chime like clean sounds, and blues players were quick to discover the classic way it breaks up when pushed hard. At really high overdrive, though, the sound becomes quite dirty, with bass in particular sounding flabby.

Marshall designs started as Fender copies, but soon switched to EL34 output tubes, possibly for local supply reasons. Anyway, the rest is history. These tubes exhibit a softer overdrive transition, and maintain clarity even at high overdrive levels. They also have a limited middle response, giving rise to the famous Marshall crunch sound. The lower powered EL84 tubes have similar characteristics.

Vox AC30 (and the more popular top boost model) uses a Class AB power amplifier design, with the valves biased "hot", so while this operates in class A at lower levels, it is really a class AB design. There's no negative feedback in the power amp either, so this gives a different sound, often described as a sweeter overdrive. Listen to Brian May's sounds for plenty of good examples.

The Fender and Marshall designs use class AB for their output designs, biased with the valves almost off with no signal. This is more efficient (more watts per tube), and better for tube life. When you play, tubes take turns handling each half of the signal. This leads to some minor distortion as the tubes cross over which is all but eliminated with the negative feedback. Class A designs are rare in medium to high power guitar amps, but true class A has the tubes operating at half power with no signal applied. When you play, the tube fluctuates between full and no power, so there is no switching to add unwanted distortion. This is a very superficial explanation; please read elsewhere on the Internet for more detailed descriptions.

Boutique amplifier builders offer composite designs, offering characteristics of all designs. This can be done dynamically (by responding to picking strength and volume settings), or with various switching schemes. Mesa Boogie has built it excellent reputation for tube preamp overdrive and

tone sh aping design s, used in c o njunction w ith high qua lity tube po w er amplifie r s. For most of us, we can u se a wide r ange of effe c tive stomp boxes for o u r overdrive a nd distortio n sounds.

CLIPPIN G TOP : The re is much h istory on the attempts t o recreate t h e desirable overdrive so unds with var ious nonlin e ar preampl ifier designs . When a pla yer tests on e of these d e vices, the f irst impress ion is usuall y formed on the type of o verdrive ch aracter and tone produ c ed, and play ers will be looki ng for suffic ient flexibili t y in the con t rols to tailo r this to thei r personal t astes. The b a sic types o f overdrive a re generally classified as soft and ha r d clipping.

Soft Cli p ping: This is usually mar keted as "o v erdrive", w here the gai n is inversely proportion a l to the input sig nal level. T h is is typicall y produced e ither with b ack to back silicon signa l diodes in t he negativ e feedback p ath of an o p amp, or wit h germaniu m diodes or LEDs back t o back in a s h unt to ground.

m diodes or LEDs back t o back in a s h unt to ground. Hard

Hard C lipping: Us u ally market e d as "distor t ion", where the signal l e vel is restri c ted within a range. This is typically pr o duced with silicon diod e s back to b a ck in a shu n t to ground. This is the s ame as the cir c uit above, u sing silicon instead of g ermanium/L ED diodes. H ere's a pict u re of what s oft and hard clippin g do to your guitar signa l:

of g ermanium/L ED diodes. H ere's a pict u re of what s oft and

There are some other criteria which players will notice (not necessarily immediately) when using these designs:

The ability to retain timbre: Different guitar pickup combinations produce recognisable signature sounds of the instrument used. By its nature, overdrive will mask this timbre to some extent, however, many musical styles prefer to retain as much of the original character as possible.

Intermodulation distortion: Again, by its nature, overdrive will produce inter modulation distortion when two or more notes are played together. For just two notes played, inter modulation distortion produces an additional note with a frequency of the difference between the original two notes. For chords, where up to 6 notes are played, the combinations of note pairs can produce an unrecognisable mess of distortion.

On the other hand, this is actually desirable in musical styles which use mainly power chords, because in this case, the intermodulation distortion adds a note which is tune with the chord. For other styles, where a player may want to hold one note and bend (change the pitch of) another, a slurring bass note occurs which is generally quite undesirable. This can be minimised to some extent by limiting bass response.

Sustain v/s Dynamics: One of the key desirable features of overdrive is the sustain produced, however, too much sustain will destroy the dynamics. Players will also want to use the overdrive sound for single note solo work, and be able to turn down their guitar volume (effectively reducing the gain of the overdrive preamplifier) to clean up the sound for chord work. Some designs are better than others in this ability to compromise sustain and dynamics. Designs that give the impression of 'switching' from overdrive to clean as a note fades are usually perceived as sounding unnatural.

Frequency compensation: Because preamplifiers are generally connected between the guitar and the amplifier tone circuit, there is no pickup equalisation to compensate for reduced treble response. Consequently, it is usual to limit the bass response before the overdrive section. While it would be logical to boost it after the circuit, this makes the inter modulation distortion more noticeable, so this is often not done.

The overdrive circuit itself adds higher frequency components to the sound simply because the overdrive circuit is non linear. These must be cut to preserve some tone similarity with the unprocessed sound, and to also remove unwanted high frequency components. Most players prefer this to be adjustable, to suit their own tastes.


Facts an d opinions

In writin g these pag e s, I have tri ed hard to a void giving my opinions; instead I've tried to giv e you just the facts so you can draw y o ur own con c lusions. I'll let you decid e how succ e ssful I've be en. In talking a bout some c lassic overd rive pedals, though, I th ink I can add some valu e by giving y o u my impress ions of how these pedal s sound to m e. I've also s hown porti o ns of the sc hematics of these pedals t o explain th e ir unique fe atures. The s e schematic s are not co mplete; the y show only t he effect si gnal path, a nd not all co mponent va lues are sho wn. Please d on't email m e asking fo r these values, b ecause I do n't know wh at they are. Of course, i f you do kno w and want to tell me

MXR Di s tortion +: A lthough lab e lled as dist o rtion, this is a soft clipp i ng device, u sing german ium diodes. It's a good e x ample of h o w little you need for a g ood basic s o und. You c o uld easily s wap (or switch) t hese diode s to silicon t y pes for har d clipping.

t hese diode s to silicon t y pes for har d clipping. ProCo R at

ProCo R at Distortio n : Not nece s sarily the n e xt pedal ch ronologicall y , but look a t how simila r this design i s. It uses 2 si licon diodes for symmet rical hard cl i pping. I wo u ld also exp e ct that at hi gh gain settings , the IC also clips to the s upply rails

symmet rical hard cl i pping. I wo u ld also exp e ct that at

Ibanez T ube Screa m er : No disc u ssion on o v erdrive ped a ls is comple te without l o oking at th e Ibanez Tube Sc reamer. The re have bee n several mi nor variatio n s of the ped al released b y Ibanez, a nd a larger n u mber of va r iations sold by boutiqu e pedal man u facturers. A s our guitar heroes die, it seems the equ ipment they used somet imes takes o n a mythica l status. In m y opinion, t his is the ca se with the gen u inely legen d ary Stevie R ay Vaugha n and the Tu b e Screamer . This result s in some sill y prices for origi nal pedals, a nd a lively m arket to co n vert differ e nt pedals to Stevie's mo del.

Neverth eless, the gr een Ibanez box is a very smooth sou nding pedal that retains the guitar t i mbre well, an d for that re ason works well with sin gle coil guit a rs. There is not an enor m ous amou n t of drive av ailable, and the tone co ntrol is subtl e. Like many overdrive p edals, there is some mid dle boost, c aused by th e bass cut be fore overdr ive, and treb le cut after w ards.

Anothe r common u s e for these pedals is as a middle bo o ster to driv e a valve am plifier hard e r. This is done by setting littl e or no drive , but with t h e level set h igh.

In the sc hematic, yo u can see t w o silicon dio des, back t o back, in the negative fe edback pat h of an op amp . This arrang ement give s symmetric a l soft clippi ng.

in the negative fe edback pat h of an op ‐ amp . This arrang ement

Boss Su p er Overdri ve SD 1 : Th e se were ori g inally sold w ithout the t one control . The design is nearly identica l to the Iban ez Tube Scr e amer with 2 important c hanges. Mo re boost is a vailable, bu t is partly o f fset by usin g 2 diodes i n one directi o n and only one in the o t her. This pr oduces asymm e trical soft cl ipping, mea n ing that on e side of the waveform i s clipped m o re severely t han the other. A more comm on implem e ntation of a symmetrica l clipping is t o use 2 silic o n diodes, w ith a german ium diode in series with one of them .

There is lively debat e on the Int e rnet about w hether thi s sounds mo re natural, a nd whether it better emulat e s some asy mmetric valv e phase spli t ter designs. In any case, I think it do es add a littl e charact e r, and there fore suits h umbucker gu itars well.

e r, and there fore suits h umbucker gu itars well. Marsha ll Pedals: Bl u

Marsha ll Pedals: Bl u es Breaker, Drive Mast e r & Shred M aster Thes e three peda ls were rele ased in the earl y 90's, and u se different clipping and tone shapi n g technique s to deliver different so u nds.

The Blu es Breaker u ses silicon d iodes in ser ies with a re sistor, in th opamp fe e dback path for very soft cli pping. It's t h erefore a v e ry subtle pe dal, with wa rm sounds a t low to me d ium overd r ive, but ca n sound a lit tle fuzzy at h igh gain. Re tention of g uitar timbre and dynam ics is good, a nd int e rmodulatio n (read abo v e) is accept a ble.

igh gain. Re tention of g uitar timbre and dynam ics is good, a nd int

The Dri v e Master u s es LEDs shu nting to gro u nd for sym metrical soft clipping. I li ke this peda l for its howling Marshall st acklike qual ities with si n gle note sol os and pow e r chords. D y namics are good at high dri v e levels, re t ention of ti m bre is exce llent, but int ermodulatio n is a proble m for anyth ing but simple c hord work.

n is a probl e m for anyth ing but simple c hord work. The Shr

The Shr e d Master i s not quite t h e animal its name impli e s. It uses sil icon diodes shunting th e signal to groun nd, for sym m etrical hard clipping. Ba ss and trebl e controls, a nd a contou r control off e ring middle boost and c u t sounds giv e a wide ra n ge of usable sounds, alt hough I'm n o t convince d shred is one of t hem. Retent ion of dyna m ics is good, intermodul ation is OK, a nd retentio n of timbre is good at low d rive setting s .

ion of dyna m ics is good, intermodul ation is OK, a nd retenti o n

Do It Yourself!

Here's a circuit that combines many desirable features. Feel free to experiment with the component values. For example, using lower value capacitors around the tone control will give a brighter sound, and vice versa. The capacitor on the left sets the tone at fully clockwise, while the one on the right sets the minimum tone sound.

This circuit has been updated for 2002. A buffer mode switch has been added see the notes below (normally you would just wire this permanently the way you want to use it. Also, thanks to Todd Modjeski who pointed a correction required for the input overvoltage protection.

The circuit features are:

Battery power is connected by inserting a mono guitar plug into the input socket This power supply uses a voltage divider to provide halfsupply voltage bias to the circuit

Input overvoltage protection (the 1K resistor and 2 x rectifier diodes)

High impedance unity gain buffer (the BC549 transistor) to interface the high output impedance of a guitar with the following circuitry

High pass filter (the 2.2K resistor and 0.15uF capacitor) to compensate for the natural low middle emphasis of guitar pickups

Soft clipping non linear amplifier (the 1st half of the TL072 and the 4 diodes in the feedback path) with variable gain control

A switch to use soft clipping (overdrive), or apply hard clipping (distortion, with the 2 diodes to ground)

Low pass filter to compensate for the high harmonics added in the clipping stages (the 6.8nF capacitor)

The Tone control is a variable low pass filter (50K pot and a second capacitor) to allow you to customise the amount of treble cut

An output buffer with 6dB of gain to provide a low impedance output

A Level control to allow you to use the pedal to boost or match normal guitar levels (or use as a middle booster with low gain and high level settings)

A footswitch to use or bypass the circuit

When bypassed, the overdrive effect is shorted, so no background "fizz" bleeds into the clean signal

LED indication to show when the effect is on, used with a Zener diode to restrict available voltage to the LED to give early indication of battery failure

Bypass mode switch use hard bypass to preserve original tone (and for bypass to work even if the battery is dead), or use buffer mode to drive long leads without treble loss, or to drive other effects such as volume pedals without tone loss.

Notes: The Op Amp should be any dual low noise d e vice, such a


The Op Amp should be any dual low noise d e vice, such a s a TL072. T he 1N4148 d iodes can b e any small si g nal silicon d iodes. The 1 N4004 diod es can be an y 1 amp rec t ifier diodes (eg. 1N4007 is OK also). T h e input buf f er transisto r should be a ny high gain low noise d evice, such a s a BC549.

The top left portion of this circu it supplies 9 V power and 4.5V bias t o the rest of the circuit. C onnect all the 9 V points tog ether, and c onnect all t h e 4.5V poin t s together.