Nobels ODR-1 is another one of those overdrive pedals with enigmatic reputations. It’s not hard to find debates online about which version is superior or not, whether the current production model is any good, and so on. Rarity does pique the interest of this guitar player, though, so when I read that equally elusive XTS Imperial Drive was based on the Nobels unit, I really had to get my hands on it.
It’s a fairly straight forward affair as far as features. Volume, Gain and Tone, with one two-way toggle switch for Dynamics. The up position is quieter and more compressed, the down position is slightly louder and more dynamic. The Tone seems to affect the upper-mids type range, a bit lower than the area traditionally sculpted by tone controls. There is plenty of gain on tap (quite a lot for an “overdrive” — you can almost do EVH when set high gain), and it doesn’t get completely clean even at the lowest setting of the Gain knob — on low-output pickups you may not detect any “dirt” but it still warms up your sound. A clean boost, this isn’t.
The most notable trait of this pedal is the perfectly balanced note attack. No matter how hard you hit you can’t make it sound harsh, nor will it go “boink” like when you do a completely clean, uncompressed electric guitar (and we know that some overdrive pedals tout its “dynamics” by simply not distorting very much at all). On the other hand, the note attacks aren’t so compressed that all notes turn to mush. You can play complex chords and they all blend together, but still can be heard. The reaction to picking strength is excellent, and there are no weird feel or sputtery handling of notes even when you turn down the volume of the guitar.
I would describe the tone as sweet and smooth, though on higher Tone settings there is a healthy amount of bite on top, too, again without being strident. The lower tone settings trade in some of that definition for a warm, thick vocal-like growl. But, one shortcoming here is that the pedal has a fairly thick low-end. Its lack of tightness can make things sound really woolly on dark guitars, amps or neck pickups, and there is no way to dial out that excessive low end.
The dynamics switch has the right amount of variance at the higher gain settings. The volume difference not too much, the compression is felt but not too drastic, and the tone really doesn’t change much. Some pedals use diode lift as a way to get cleaner, more dynamic response but it really changes the character of the pedal. Not so here, for better or worse.
While not the most transparent or flexible pedal thanks to its hefty low end, this pedal does offer plenty of charm in the areas of smooth saturation and good feel/response. Its tone is such that it steers clear of the predictable Tube Screamer arena, yet can find home in a variety of styles, from rock to country to blues to even some hard rock. It doesn’t emulate any particular amp’s voice. It’s got its own thing going (or one would say it’s carrying on the Nobels school of dirt, but I can’t say how similar it is to the original as I’ve never played it), and if that’s your thing, this pedal will serve you well. One downside is that it’s relatively hard to find (XTS doesn’t seem to have a larger dealer network, nor does it sell direct) and rather pricy at $255 — but Nobels sound isn’t exactly covered by a lot of vendors. So as long as you don’t mind paying a little more for the rareness/exotic-ness value, this pedal will deliver the goods in spades.