this space intentionally left blank

May 28, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Consider the Mammoth

Part of an ongoing series obsessing over effects pedals. Other posts in this series concern the Line 6 PodXT Live, MXR M80 Bass DI+, Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

Whenever I talk about distortion, the Wooly Mammoth has almost always surfaced at some point. I've wanted one for years--it had a near-legendary status among the fuzz addicts in the Lowdown forums when I first started learning bass. I salivated over the demo video. But I didn't actually get a chance to try it out until I was in Portland, and I ended up buying the Loop Junky instead. Luckily, it turns out there's a thing called the Internet that lets you order pedals from far-away locations, so eventually I picked up a Mammoth as well.

The Wooly Mammoth is, no kidding, basically the greatest bass distortion of all time. It's also kind of an oddball pedal. When Bass Player did a big effects issue a while back, they called the Mammoth an "archetypal boutique stompbox" with an "eccentric" circuit, and they weren't kidding. It doesn't like hot or low-impedence inputs (read: active basses), it lacks a blend function, and two of the knobs are labeled "pinch" and "wool." Chords may emerge mangled, especially triple-stops. Crank the wool too high, and it actually begins to feed back on itself somehow, self-compressing and adding weird harmonics. In short, the Mammoth, like the Loop Junky, has character.

Still: all is forgiven for a fuzz like this. It nails the bass sound from 'Hysteria' by Muse: that thick, chainsaw-like roar, but with each note perfectly distinct. The gating comes partly from the Pinch knob, which does something unholy to the distortion harmonics and eventually turns the fuzz into a square-wave synth. It's also immediately obvious why the Mammoth doesn't have a blend function: you don't need it. This is the first distortion pedal I've ever seen where the signal emerges with more low-end, possibly due to some kind of octaver/synth effect. I'm not sure how it happens, frankly--like I said, it's a weird circuit--but I'm glad it does.

This is becoming uncomfortably fawning. Perhaps it's appropriate to raise the question of cost: of course it sounds good, it's a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment. But is it really that much better? Is there an excuse for spending so much money for a single pedal? Indeed, these questions expose three facts you may want to take into consideration. First, I'm a distortion nut, so I can justify a lot in the name of a good fuzz. Second, I mostly play solo, so I don't have a lot of sonic competition or cover. Finally, anything this expensive often provokes a defensive attachment that's out of proportion to its actual worth.

More importantly, the above questions highlight a real conceit for many modern musicians: the idea that we're buying these gadgets for anything but our own satisfaction. With a very few rare exceptions (Bootsy's envelope filter, the ping-pong delays of the Edge), chances are the audience can't tell the difference, or bring themselves to care (those that do care are usually musicians themselves, and that way madness--or Steve Vai--lies). It's not to say that nice gear is a bad purchase, but it is a reminder of a truth that many of us sometimes forget: in the end, it's really about the song and not about the gear.

I like the Mammoth very much, and I'm glad I picked it up. It's far more fun than my MXR fuzz, although I miss the M-80's clean channel. But I'm under no illusions here--I know that it's on my pedalboard just for me. And at some point, I've got to start writing some new tunes, instead of just playing the old ones through new equipment, because that--and not the contents of a signal chain--is the real measure of a musician.

Future - Present - Past