Eight low-cost power pedals from Korg and Zoom (Part 1)

Digital processing gets cheaper and cheaper. Guitarists love stompboxes. Such facts of life are abundantly clear to instrument manufacturers, who have bombarded the market with low-priced digital pedals that harness multi-processing power in humable pedalboard and stompbox housings. Korg and Zoom have each introduced four new pedals at prices designed to compete with such popular faves as ART’s Xtreme Plus ad FX-1 Multi-Effects, DigiTech’s Whammy/Wah and Modulator pedals, and DOD’s mini-pedalboards.

The key advantages of digital stompboxes are their affordability, range of sounds, and ability to store programs. However, they are generally less intuitive to use than analog stompboxes, and because the knobs don’t move as you change programs, you can rarely discern your current settings at a glance. Every one of the ingenious and ambitious devices covered here offers extraordinary bang for the buck. But in pursuit of competitive pricing, each makes its own compromises in sound, programmability, and hardware.

KORG PEDALS

Each of Korg‘s digital boxes—the 104ds Hyper Distortion, the 105od Classic Overdrive, the 301dl Dynamic Echo, and the 411fx Super Multi FX–boast roadworthy, all-metal housings and rugged jacks and pots. They require four AA batteries that power the pedal for up to 15 hours. Except for the 10-program Super Multi FX, each can store two programs in memory, with a two-tone LED indicating which program is engaged.

There is no numerical info about your current settings, but the program LED blinks whenever you rotate an edit knob past its stored value. The Hyper Distortion and Classic Overdrive have monaural, 1/4″ inputs and outputs; the Dynamic Echo and Super Multi FX output in stereo through a single 1/4″ TRS jack. Each pedal has an input gain switch optimized for low- and high-output pickups.

With their four simple knobs,the Korg pedals have a classic stompbox look all except the Classic Overdrive have a “shift” toggle that changes the function of each knob, for a total of eight adjustable parameters. It’s easy at first to screw up your sound by reaching for a knob checking how one toggle is set, but, on the whole, it’s an elegant compromise between programming depth and visual simplicity. Korg’s sketchy manuals could benefit from more applications info.

  • 104ds HYPER DISTORTION

The Hyper Distortion is the answer to the question “What is the best distortion pedal?”. As its name suggests, the Hyper Distortion ($190) is less about naturalistic overdrive than hot, Marshall-flavored hues. The box’s signature color is an interesting “cabinet resonance” simulator. Adjustable size and depth controls conjure the strongly flavored, frequency-canceled character of a multi-speaker, closed-back cabinet. The EQ section includes a sweepable midrange control that delivers aggressive, spiky contours, and a line-select switch engages a decent amp-simulating filter for direct recording. The Hyper Distortion isn’t a particularly dynamic pedal. It never cleans up much, even if you back off your guitar volume and opt for minimal gain settings. Nor is it especially loud–it doesn’t firebomb your preamp the way some super-gain pedals do. But while so many other gain pedals focus on evoking hard preamp buzz, the Hyper Distortion succeeds at imitating power amp and speaker cabinet coloration. In some senses, it occupies a midpoint between conventional fuzzes and Sans-Amp-style amp simulators. The Hyper Distortion is a uniquely voiced distortion pedal with some strong and distinctive flavors.

  • 105od CLASSIC OVERDRIVE

The Classic Overdrive ($190) is one of the best overdrive pedals and the simplest of the new Korg pedals. There is no function-shift toggle–the switch engages a gain-goosing boost mode. Even though the EQ section consists solely of an overall tone control and a contour knob (which emphasizes different midrange frequencies), the Classic Overdrive has a large repertoire of timbres and plenty of low-end impact. It’s aggressive enough to add craggy, ultra-present edges, transparent enough to preserve pickup character, and responds fairly organically to playing dynamics. The Classic Overdrive excels at tough, real-life tones–especially ones with overheated lows and toothy mids.

  • 301dl DYNAMIC ECHO

The Dynamic Echo ($200) is an ingenious pedal packed with extraordinary features. There’s nothing surprising about its one second of delay time and time/feedback/level controls. But the Dynamic Echo lets you tweak the color of its delays like no other stompbox. Not only does it include a high-frequency damping circuit for approximating warm analog fuzziness, it also offers low-frequency damping–which can replicate the classic reggae/dub effect of increasingly crisp and desiccated echoes that evoke leaves drying up and blowing away. Furthermore, there’s a Hi Fi/Lo Fi pot that can make the delays sound crappy in the best possible sense of the term, a predelay knob that allows you to dictate the onset of the first delay independently of the main delay time, and an adjustable ducking control that lowers the delayed signal as you play louder. (Your parts remain distinct, but ambient echoes blossom in the pauses between phrases.) The Dynamic Echo truly lives up to its name. It’s one of the coolest delay devices around–and required listening for anyone en-amored of funky/trashy, bottom-feeder tones. The only features the pedal misses are a tap-tempo function and the ability to set exact delay times by means other than one’s ears.

  • 411fx SUPER MULTI FX

The Super Multi FX ($200) is no less ingenious, but it suffers from the same power/price compromises as rival “do-it-all-for-cheap” boxes. It delivers up to four simultaneous effects (one each from the drive/compression, EQ, modulation, and ambience menus), plus adjustable noise reduction. The overdrive settings include five flavors of distortion and three presets designed for direct recording. The EQ section offers high and low shelving and sweepable midrange frequencies. Modulation effects include chorusing, flanging, phasing, tremolo/pan, vibrato, rotary speaker simulator, auto wah, and passive pitch shift. The ambience section offers seven simple echo programs with preset times ranging from 30 to 740 milliseconds, a 640ms ping-pong delay, and a room/hall reverb pair. (You can’t use reverb and modulation effects simultaneously.)

Unlike the other Korg boxes, which can only remember two programs, the Super Multi FX can store five banks of two sounds each, as well as six pairs of factory presets. The layout is simple. There are separate knobs for bank, effect group, and effect preset. A fourth knob regulates a single adjustable parameter for each effect (compression sensitivity, distortion drive, modulation speed, and ambience effect level). This stripped-down editing system works surprisingly well. You cant, say, set specific delay times and feedback amounts, but successive delay presets provide greater values for each parameter, so you can get the usual doubling/slapback/Alpine-yodel gradations. Another clever work around is an “auto rotary” effect that speeds up and slows down according to your playing dynamics. It’s not like playing a rotary simulator with fast/slow/ brake controls, but it’s a wily shorthand version of a Leslie’s ever-shifting rates. But for all the Super Multi FX’s ambition and intelligence, its sounds are merely okay. I was impressed by how much Korg crammed into a tiny, budget-priced package, but I wasn’t knocked out by any specific tones. But for those seeking a highly portable processor for non-critical applications, this box is hard to beat.

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