Part of a series of meandering, tedious posts about the effects I use to make music. Other posts in this series concern the Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.
In addition to the obvious sonic convolution, a good pedal delivers a kind of emotional kick when activated. It comes from a combination of the cultural context associated with the sound (the 70's swagger of a wah, the jazz-club cool of a chorus), the short thrill of sudden change from one sound to another, and the intrinsic appeal of the effect itself on an individual. Everyone has one kind of effect to which they respond strongly. For me, that's distortion. There's something about the sharp, rich, aggressive roar of a high-gain fuzz pedal that puts a huge grin on my face every time I switch it on.
As usual, unfortunately, bass players face particular challenges when looking for a good distortion. Not only do effects designers seem to see the instrument as unworthy (or unprofitable) compared to the guitar, but bass frequencies often don't play nice with stompboxes: either the results are muddy and indistinct, or all the low end is hollowed out--or, in the case of distortion pedals, possibly both. Some bassists, like Amy Humphrey from Clatter, get around this by splitting the signal between an overdriven guitar amp and a clean bass amp. Sadly, for budgetary and volume reasons, this is not an option for most of us.
I've tried a lot of guitar-oriented distortion pedals, looking for the kind of "assault by wrathful deity" quality that makes me happy, and often came up short. The worst, by far, was a DOD Grunge pedal that made my bass vanish in the mix completely. I'm not alone in hating this pedal. Kurt Cobain is rumored to have been given one as a joke, and he loathed it so much that he lobbed it into the crowd at a show. At the other end of the spectrum, the ProCo Rat had a decent bass sound--literally, a decent sound. The Rat is not known for versatility, and while I'm not a fanatic about flexibility in my pedals, it's nice to be able to tweak things at least a little.
I've had better luck with the relatively few distortion pedals made specifically for bassists. What's different? In general, these units add a blend control, so players can mix in the original bass signal, thus replacing the low frequencies and transients missing from the distorted signal path. As a strategy, this is often a mixed success. One of the first distortion pedals I was actually happy using, the Digitech Bass Driver, somehow managed to produce a "blend" that sounded more like a clean bass and a very fuzzy bass playing side-by-side, perhaps due to a very sterile-sounding digital mixing bus (although Boss's all-analog OD-3 bass distortion shares this problem, in my opinion). Bass distortion pedals may also tune the distortion differently, hoping to add an edge without fuzzing the sound out completely.
The distortion pedal I use now, an MXR M-80, is a good example of success via attrition. It's still not quite my platonic distortion ideal, but it's been better than the other contenders so far. The fuzz is brash but controllable, thanks to a workable blend and a noise gate that tames some of the inevitable hum at the super-high gain settings I like. I'd prefer a parametric EQ, but the existing controls--with the mid boost centered at around 800Hz--do an effective job in getting different sounds, or adapting to different acoustic spaces. All in all, a decent distortion that does what I need it to do.
That said, the killer feature of the M-80 is that it's a two-channel unit: in addition to the distortion, there's a "clean" setting that runs the bass through the pedal's preamp and EQ system. If you press the "color" button next to the clean volume knob, it adds a preset EQ scoop that (to my ears at least) turns my single-coil jazz bass into something more like a Stingray or Sterling humbucker, perfect for slap bass and percussive looping. I could make do without that preset--loop-based musicians soon learn to pull different tones out of the instrument with just their hands--but it does make my life a lot easier. Any distortion pedal that takes over from the M-80 will have to be truly fearsome to make up for the loss of that second channel.
Still, like I said, I think everyone has one kind of pedal that appeals to them on a deep, irrational level, so I don't expect that I'll ever stop looking--or, as with the virtual pedalboard experiment I tried about a year ago, attempting to mix my own. I imagine it's something like what drives hot pepper fanatics, always on the lookout for a new capsaicin thrill. It's hard to explain to non-addicts--either of the pedal or the pepper variety--but maybe for these kinds of simple pleasures, it's best not to try.