Guitar Player Magazine November 2001

Bench Tests
Analog Elegance ­ Maxon Vintage Series Stompboxes
By Joe Gore

Snapshot ­ The five pedals in Maxon's Vintage Series ($289 - $450) are all-analog renditions of classic, 70's era effects. These hand-assembled pedals offer sterling sound, stellar workmanship, and designer price tags. The AD900 Analog Delay, CS550 Stereo Chorus, and DS830 Distortion Master receive Editor's Pick Awards.

It it's true that there's virtue in simplicity, then Maxon's Vintage Series effects are candidates for stompbox sainthood. There's nothing freaky or particularly innovative about these pedals, but each makes a serious stab at being the best-ever of its type.

The Maxon name is storied in Stompbox lore. The Japanese company, which shared corporate parenthood with Ibanez, produced some of the cooler analog pedals of the late 70's (in fact, the two companies sometimes made near-identical pedals under different names). But the Vintage Series boxes, hand-assembled in Japan, and marketed in the states by Godlyke, are best thought of as boutique analog pedals ­ and they have the price tags to prove it.

The new pedals are gorgeous, with 6" x 4" cast-metal housings finished in cool metallic-pastel colors (Maxon says the larger-than-usual casings reduce noise, and the pedals are, in fact, dead quiet). All include power supplies ­ an important detail given that the delay, chorus and phaser pedals require AC power.

AD900 ANALOG DELAY

The AD900 ($450) sports out-of-production Panasonic "bucket brigade" IC's ­ the components used in some of the most treasured analog delays. Thanks to this combination of vintage circuitry and modern construction, the AD900 may be the best-sounding non-tape analog delay ever. The ultra-smooth echoes and warm delays envelop you like a cashmere comforter, and sit demurely behind your direct signal, adding depth and texture without obscuring the straight sound.

The AD900 offers only Delay Time, Repeat, and Delay Level knobs. There are no modulation options or tone controls. You only get one basic sound, but damn, it's a great one. And like all delays of its type, the AD900 has limited delay time (600 mS in this case). The device uses an unorthodox 12-volt power supply, so bear this in mind if you want to power your pedalboard with a multi-jack 9-volt unit. If you demand superb vintage-style analog delay, and are willing to pay premium dollars for it, your search ends here.

CS550 STEREO CHORUS

Like the AD900, the CS550 ($325) boasts NOS Panasonic IC's, and a straight-outta-1979 chorus sound. Unlike many 80's and 90's chorus effects, the CS550 isn't excessively cushy ­ the chorusing has a resonant, almost grainy quality that keeps your tone from washing out. There's nothing cold about the effect, it simply has a bit more edge than most of its ilk. A Delay Time control provides a wider range of tones that the three-knob layout might suggest, and even though there is no feedback control, the CS550 can venture into flanger/phaser territory (you also get a rear-mounted effect mix control). All settings are transparent and spacious, fat without being vague. In fact, it's almost impossible to find a bad sound here. The deep-sweep settings manage to be extreme without inducing nausea, and the stereo effect through dual amps is wide-screen spacious. Here again, if you want the real analog deal, the CS550 is tops.

DS830 DISTORTION MASTER

Despite its modest array of Gain, Level, Bass, and Treble controls, the DS830 ($289) is one of the most flexible distortion boxes I've encountered. It can generate insane amounts of gain. Want to invoke the feedback of the Gods? Start here. But the Ds830 offers more than brute force. The dual tone controls are surgically effective. The Bass knob contributes low-end muscle that can make a munchkin amp sound like a stack, or turn a true stack into a wrecking ball. The Treble control dials in just the right amount of shark-toothed slice. Between the two, you can get everything from penetrating sizzle to an obese, square-wave hum. There's no midrange control, so the pedal isn't great to scooped-mid chunk, but when it comes to full-frequency grind, the DS830 kills.

Clarity and punch may seem like self-canceling traits, yet the DS830 provides both. Even in full-assault mode, the pedal achieves remarkable evenness and transparency. It's definitely not a psycho-fuzz machine in the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory or Prescription Electronics Experience veins. The high-gain settings don't force a particular color on your tone ­ a great trait if you're pleased with your particular guitar/amp combination. The DS830 may also be the most dynamic distortion pedal I've ever played. At lower gain settings, it delivers lightly overdriven, blues-approved sounds. In fact, at minimum-gain/high-output settings the pedal provides a lovely, clean-toned solo boost ­ the only high-gain pedal I know of that can manage that trick. The DS830 is pricey for a distortion pedal, yet it's practically unrivalled in its sonic range.

OD820 OVEDRIVE PRO

As you might have guessed, the OD820 ($299) is a variation on the Ibanez Tube Screamer theme (Maxon's old OD808 was a near-identical twin of Ibanez's TS808). Like the DS830 Distortion Master, the OD820 offers plenty of gain, a super-musical tone circuit, and an uncommon transparency that lets you hot-wire your tone without desecrating it. There's some sonic overlap between the two pedals: The DS830 ventures farther into clean-toned territory than most distortion pedals, and the OD820 is capable of heavier-than-usual overdrive. The single Tone control also has more range than a Tube Screamer's. There are highs to spare ­ even a dark-hued Les Paul can sizzle with the right settings. The clean-toned solo boosts are stunning, as are the buttery, light overdrive flavors. Again, the dynamic response is amazing. Even at maximum gain settings, you can coax a clean tone simply by rolling back your guitar's volume control. The OD820 is the only pedal in the Vintage Series to feature true bypass switching.

PH350 ROTARY PHASER

The PH350 ($350) is the most complex of the Vintage Series pedals. In addition to the usual Speed and Depth controls, there are a 4-/6-/10-stage toggle and a center-detent Feedback control that swings both ways, positive and negative. The 4-stage setting suggests early phasers such as the Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, and the 6- and 10-stage settings invoke newer units. The basic sound is full ­ even a bit dense. For better or worse, you don't get as much cancelled-mid hollowness as you do from other phaser pedals. The tones ­ especially the negative-feedback ones ­ are subtle. If you like phasing, but find most phasers too "effecty" you'll dig the PH350.

Like the other Vintage Series pedals, the PH350 is almost incapable of generating a bad tone. But it doesn't necessarily sound better than any number of lower-priced pedals from the likes of Boss, Guyatone, and Ibanez. And aside from some touches of Uni-Vibe-type color, there's nothing particularly "rotary" about the PH350. Even in stereo its spatial imaging is less dramatic than that of the CS550. As good as the PH350 sounds; I find it difficult to justify its price.

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