They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that behind every great idea is a thousand failed experiments. These two precepts have arguably fuelled the vast majority of twists and turns that the history of the humble stompbox has taken.
Originally conceived as a way of mimicking the searing bristle of torn speakers and burnt out tubes without ruining expensive gear, that little box of rock has taken on so many personalities that today the possibilities are seemingly endless. With all that limitless option whirling around the head of every noisemaker, have we finally drunk the well of good ideas dry?
For the most part, Ernie Ball is a quiet achiever on the ground bound engineering front. A lot of their success comes from their extensive string menu and their guitars made in conjunction with the Music Man family. One nail they have hit clean on the head is their suite of expression and volume pedals; the VP JR and MVP are staples of players of just about every style and have little competition in that niche in the market. Never a company to rest on their laurels, Summer NAMM 2016 saw the unveiling of their latest innovation, the Expression Series of effects pedals. Housed in impressive rose and yellow gold metallic chassis, the first two cabs off the rank are the Ambient Delay and Overdrive. What’s so innovative about these two newbies is that the expression plate on both drives a potentiometer that rolls in either effect under your clean signal. This means gain and spatial texture swells are the order of the day in a way that no other pedal has managed before without displaying some fancy footwork with the toe of your boot.
The Overdrive is an interesting one to say the least. Simple tone and gain controls across the topside of the unit are augmented by a boost knob that works to shape the texture of the dirt tone that acts as bedrock for your dry signal. The tone shaping is a quite a shallow sweep through the upper spectrum, which works well to notch within the clean tone as opposed to muddying up proceedings. The boost works quite well on it’s own and I can see it being the most readily utilised feature as it allows you to really ride your own playing and dynamics on the fly. The drive itself is quite low gain in the grand scheme of things and is almost better suited to driving other dirt pedals later in your chain than on its own. Working on the premise of being able to lay a foundation of warmth underneath everything, almost in the way double tracking would work in recording, it has the potential to be a handy way to colour both bass and guitar without lugging around various preamps, comps and whatever else.
The Ambient Delay is, in my humble opinion, the more successful of the two in that it is just that little bit more versatile than its dirty brother, and offers a more useful, real world set of colours. The delay time and feedback rate offer everything from tape-style slap back to long, digital tails that are reminiscent of the MXR Carbon Copy without the low-end roll off. This works well enough on its own, but take the time to dial in some lush, almost dusty reverb and you’ll find yourself adrift in a sea of warm textures. Ignoring the tap tempo extension, it could’ve been a good option to switch from clean blend to delay time ramp if your heart desired. But who’s to say that’s not in the suggestion box for future updates?
So, we venture back to the dichotomy of necessity and good ideas. The one thing that maligns EBMM’s volume pedals is their size; taking up just about the same space as three regular stompboxes seems to be offset by their sheer usability. For their newest inventions the engineers have graciously reduced the foot print by about a third. This means that if you are going to replace tone stacks in favour of either of these two, you don’t lose out nearly as much as you would we’re you to insert, say, an MVP in your chain. This seems to be the genesis of the idea here. The Expression Series seeks to do the job of two or three pedals at a time with an eye on spatial economy, which is increasingly at a premium for a lot of players. Herein lies the crowning glory of the design. While they might not lay every possible option at your feet, they are doing enough heavy lifting to earn their place on the board.
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HITS . MISSES •
Hits and Misses
Smooth, unbridled sweeping
Clever application of a clever idea
Housed in a snazzy looking casing
Overdrive never gets to 100% dirt
Delay colour is a little limited