“Smooth yet articulate’ is a description I’d like to hear about overdrives, because it is my ideal yet seems rather hard to achieve. To be articulate there must be a healthy dose of treble content, but it’s so easy to end up sounding harsh or strident. I became rather interested in Rockett Allan Holdsworth Overdrive because the descriptions and demos claimed it to be so. It seems to have thoughtful features and flexibility and they say someone who’s not remotely interested or unfamiliar with Mr. Holdsworth’s sound can still find their own sound. So when I saw that one of my favorite gear demoers, Mr. Pop into Chemist (Mike Hermans) was selling (what I’m assuming to be) the very pedal he used for the below demo, I jumped at the chance to try it out.
First, let me just say that this thing is heavy. No, I’m not talking about the sound, the physical weight. The metal enclosure has a serious heft to it, giving you great confidence about the quality/durability of the pedal.
The layout is somewhat counter-intuitive. The top four knobs concern the overdrive side — and they seem a good place to start. There is plenty of volume on tap, the gain is definitely in the low-gain range. I read that some people thought it was so low gain that they had a hard time noticing any dirt/grit at all with the gain cranked — I did use it with the gain all the way up most of the time, but I could hear the breakup all right. And I play single coils. The treble/bass EQ is very powerful, and I suspect they are placed before the gain — because when you turn it up, particularly the bass, so does the amount of gain. The breakup has a very thick quality to it, but you can also keep the articulation in check by dialing the treble knob, so you can always get it set to be thick yet articulate — if that’s what you want — or have it be totally thin and trebly or thick and muddy.
The boost side has controls in the middle, which has one knob for the boost amount, then one two-way toggle for low or high frequency emphasis and one three-way toggle for the kind of boost: treble, clean or fat. Here is where it can potentially be confusing at first. The former, the left two-way toggle — think of that as the EQ adjustment. You either brighten or thicken up the sound. There is a noticeable difference but it’s not too drastic. Useful without exaggerating — though flat setting may have been nice, or even some kind of a tilt knob that makes the boost go brighter or thicker.
The latter, the three-way toggle is really not an EQ adjustment. It totally changes the character of the boost. Think of it as the boost mode switch. The treble boost indeed boosts treble, and adds some gritty quality to the breakup. The clean boost is just that — whatever you had before, louder. The fat boost has a serious kick all around, but makes the whole thing sounds ballsier with beefier low-mids. The boost available among these three modes vary a great deal. The treble boost has the lowest amount of volume and it gets progressively louder — to the point that to get the same amount of boost you get from the treble boost set at 3 o’clock, you only need about 9 o’clock with the fat boost.
The footswitches engage the two side individually — boost is placed before the overdrive — and there is no way to turn both on or off at the same time, unless you either put the pedal sidways so the switches are facing your vertically, or you put your foot sideways and try to stomp on both switches at the same time.
The gut shot reveals that the pedal is using a JRC 4558D chip. But don’t jump to conclusions — I know that’s a Tube Screamer chip, but this pedal sounds nothing like a Tube Screamer. Whether the circuit has any resemblance to it or not, I don’t know, but the tone certainly has nothing to do with it.
The overdrive by itself is superb. It’s very dynamic and responsive, without feeling exaggerated or unnatural. The EQ knobs are powerful and can really alter your sound. You can make it quite bright but it never sounds harsh. I wouldn’t call it chimey either, though, as the pick attacks do have a cool sag to it — it doesn’t quite have the pick attack kerrang to make it chimey, but it can do bright all right. Soft attack yet you can adjust how articulate you want it to be. If you turn up the treble knob all the way, the brightness of the tone sort of take over the whole sound, even when you turn up the bass to compensate. It’s not a harsh, brittle treble, though. If you dial back the treble on the other hand, you can make it sound very muddy and have it sit quite far away in mix — it affects the 5k range which dominates our sense of distance — more and it sounds close and in-your-face, less and it sounds like it’s coming from farther away. The overdrive texture seems to really surround notes, as opposed to distorting from too much input — so in that sense it does sound like a pedal and not an amp. The pedal does respond to your touch pretty well — there is some compression but it all feels natural.
The boost sounds quite good on its own as well. The three kinds of boosts are very distinct, with the clean boost being appropriately clean and flat sounding, while the other two have a sense of grit and saturation to them, each in its respective range (high-end for the treble boost, low-mid girth for the fat boost). Because of the huge volume difference between the boosts, this is a situation where you first have to choose which type of boost you’re going to use, and tweak everything else accordingly.
Which is a good segue into the next topic — boosting the OD. Obviously this is meant to be stacked in that order, but the treble and fat boost do change your tone quite a bit. So when you have, say, your rhythm tone set on the OD side, and you decide what kind of boost you need to turn that rhythm tone into a lead tone — and tweak the volume and high/low emphasis accordingly. Once set, if you need to make a quick adjustment your best bet is the OD side’s EQ or boost’s high/low emphasis toggle. Changing the boost type will require significant settings change and you’ll need some time to dial it in.
One quirkiness I noticed is when the boost volume is quite high — either past 10 o’clock on the fat boost or past 1-2 o’clock on the clean boost — the pick attacks come through the sound in an unexpected way. If you hit a distorting amp with a boost, you expect the pick attack to distort the most, but in this case, gritty attacks poke through the overdrive — it results in a sound that’s almost like the boost and OD are mixed, instead of cascading (though the gain level definitely increases, too — so it doesn’t entirely sound like they’re mixed in parallel). Instead of reacting to the volume spike of uncompressed boost by overdriving more, it seems like the OD side simply lets the attacks pass through. Depending on your uses, this may be a good or a bad thing. If you’re using the boost+OD to play single-line leads, this helps the attacks stay articulate. If you were hoping to play heavier rhythm part, the feel of the pedal may seem a bit odd, if you’re expecting your pick attacks to result in more distortion and not louder attacks. This, of course, may be the result of Allan’s original intention to use this as more of a boost to an already cooking amp and not as a stand-alone overdrive. In that case you are relying on your amp to do the compressing/distorting of the pick attack so perhaps it makes more sense to let the attacks come through. As a stand-alone overdrive with single-coil pickups, even with boosts and OD both cranked this pedal doesn’t produce a ton of compression. So don’t expect it to do soaring rock leads by itself.
So in my mind this pedal can be looked at in two ways. As a stand-alone overdrive/boost, it really excels in jazz/fusion type music because of its smooth yet articulate sound. It doesn’t have tons of gain or compression, but there’s really enough to get nice, even saturation, particularly if you’re using humbuckers.
Or you can look at it as a versatile boost for an amp or another overdrive — one that really lets you dial in how you want the base tone boosted. Even if you are mainly looking for boost, leave in the OD side with clean gain so that you can take advantage of its powerful EQ controls.
Couple all the versatility with solid, heavy-duty construction and we have a winner here. Forget about its namesake — you can count on this to concoct a tone that suits your needs, rigs and situations. As long as you’re not needing metal-worthy gain, I imagine anybody can dial this thing in to make it work for their situations. The controls initially aren’t intuitive but as you get to know it you’ll figure out how to twiddle the knobs and switches to tweak the sounds to be just right.