I had always thought that MI Audio Tube Zone was a high-gain distortion pedal. And it is. But then one day I learned that the Gain knob has a special taper, that allows you to finely tune in on its low-gain range. Intrigued — does that mean this pedal is an attempt at do-all? So I got my hands on one to try it out.
There are 4 versions of this pedal — the one I tried is v3, though I read that v4, the last version before it got discontinued in 2013, was only a layout change. It has 6 external knobs. Volume knob is the only one that doesn’t need any explanation here.
Gain knob apparently covers about 5% of its gain range in the left 50% of the knob. In practice, this pedal can get completely clean. On my single-coil equipped guitars, gain starts creeping in at about 10 o’clock. Tiny bit of movement between there and about 2 o’clock has a big impact on its gain. Once you go past there, it just stays in the high-gain land.
Presence knob is essentially a “hair” control. At all the way off the pedal is the smoothest (not dark) and then it adds more hair and sizzle as you turn it up. Character knob, on the other hand, is pre-gain bass — but even at all the way off, it doesn’t sound thin at all. As you turn it up, the low-end gets squished, giving an impression of a tube amp’s sag.
Mid and Tone are the EQs, but the Tone knob isn’t a traditional treble control. It’s a tilt control — turn it clockwise and it increases treble and reduces bass, and vice versa. Mid control seems the most straightforward — around noon mids seem normal, and you can cut or boost from there.
Phew! That’s not only a lot of knobs, but a lot of unorthodox knobs, each with a huge range. What that means in reality is that this pedal’s knobs are touchy and a little movement makes a noticeable difference. This is a deep pedal you need to learn, as you can make quite ugly and unbalanced sounds here.
Yes, so this pedal can do high-gain, no doubt about it. With as much hair or thump as you want, gobs and gobs of gain. You can scoop the mids or boost it, tighten the lows or make it fat. You name it. But the great thing is how responsive this pedal is. You’d have to turn the volume knob a lot to clean up the loads of gain available, but you can do it and it sounds very natural. In the higher half of its Gain sweep, the pedal has lots of sustain as well, and in return takes more turning down of the guitar’s volume knob to get it to clean up. In the lower half, this thing is very dynamic, with picking strength directly reflected in the amount of dirt produced. The trade-off is that there isn’t a lot of sustain in this range, so this pedals doesn’t make it easy for low-gain soloing.
The main tonal character is brash and brunt. But, while it takes judicious tweaking of the EQ (darker, with less mids, no presence) and careful setting of the Gain, you can get it to sound somewhat smoother. The saturation has a lot of upper-mid emphasis and when you try to dial it out, you end up sounding fairly woolly with a lot of low-end. The Gain knob has such huge change between the 10-2 o’clock that you have to carefully dial it in and then hope that you don’t bump the knob. The knobs on this version is nice and heavy-duty, so I don’t think it’ll turn drastically from just a little brush, but again, tiny movements in this range makes a difference.
So in my opinion this pedal excels as a highly tweakable mid to high gain modern rock/metal pedal and while you can get it to be politer and smoother, it’s not easy to dial in that way. The number of knobs don’t make it as un-intuitive as I’d feared, as both the Presence and Character knobs are set-them-once-and-forget kind of control, at least once per guitar/amp combination. You probably don’t need a lot of adjustments in the mids either, as turning it one way or another drastically has quite an extremely impact. Then you’re left with the tilt Tone knob, Gain knob and Volume. That being said, Tone and Gain knobs are touchy so I found myself turning them a small amount often when trying to dial in a sound in the mid-gain range. It’s easy to get totally clean or brutally distorted sound, but the magic middle, while available, is again touchy.
I think this pedal would have offered a lot more tonal shades if 1) it had either traditional 3-band EQ or pre-gain bass/post-gain treble roll-off, and 2) had a switch that put it in either low- or high- gain mode. Then you can dial in a tone with both treble and bass rolled off (resulting in mid-boost tone) and you can easily hone in on the exact amount of gain. As it is, this pedal gives me the similar impression that some Mesa/Boogie amps have — controls so powerful that you have to dial in carefully to get the exact sound you’re after. It’s in there, though, and again the range it offers from dynamic low-gain to brutal metal is really astonishing. If the range and responsiveness is attractive to you, you have a dark-ish setup that can use more sizzle, and your music is of the rawk kind, then I can highly recommend this pedal.