Living on the Frontline
Frontline pedals — More for Less?
Budget Bargains or Boxes for Bozos? IT tests Frontline's Series II FX Pedals.
Judging by the number of brands on the market, and the hundreds of thousands of effects pedals sold over the years, you really wouldn't think that there was anyone left who still needed to buy one. But somehow pedals remain eternally popular and are one of the most often demanded review subjects by IT readers. Time, then, to look at what are probably the biggest sellers in the budget end of the UK market: the Frontline range from Strings and Things.
We selected a handful of the ten available Frontlines to review from a range which comprises two Choruses (Mono at RRP £49.95 and Stereo at £62.95), a £63.95 Stereo Flanger, £89.95 Stereo Delay, £49.95 4-Stage Phaser, £37.95 Compressor and four different distortion types; Distortion (£34.95), Overdrive (£36.95), Heavy Overdrive (£38.95) and Heavy Metal (£39.95). For the record, there's also a mains powered pedal board which takes up to five units for a very reasonable RRP of £84.95 and an 8½ rack mountable stereo mixer from Frontline at the low RRP of £114.95.
Refreshingly (bearing in mind the growing use of plastic), the Japanese-made Frontline Series II units are housed in diecast metal boxes with non-slip rubber bases. They're not as heavy (or presumably as tough) as some of the top-priced makes, but, bearing in mind the low prices, they do look tough if a bit cheaply finished. In each case the units tested ran from standard PP3 batteries, access to which was, conveniently, through a clip-on plastic plate which fits on the pedal's top surface. Battery connection is made by pushing the battery down into its compartment so that the terminals rest against two springy metal strips. A cheap and simple way of doing things, this systems does have the disadvantage that you have to be careful to put the battery in the right way round, as there's not a specifically shaped receptacle to guide you.
On/off control, again in each case, is via the slightest pressure on a ribbed metal plate which operates silent switching circuitry. Each unit has an LED showing its status.
No figures were quoted for performance characteristics and none of the units came with a handbook. This latter aspect might have been an oversight, we're not sure.
STEREO CHORUS RRP £49.95
Three knobs — Width, Rate and Tone — control one of the Frontline units which impressed us the most. O.K., it isn't the quietest pedal we've tried, but it isn't obtrusively noisy either; in fact we'd suggest that our sample performed a fair bit above average for the price in this area. The range might be a little limited compared with some of today's Chorus units, but the sound is crisp and sparkling, well suiting the sort of applications to which Chorus is usually applied. This one, at its price looks like a good buy.
STEREO DELAY RRP £89.95
A stereo analogue unit, the blue Frontline delay offers three rotaries governing Repeat, Delay and Mix. This was one of the two Frontline units which impressed us most (the other being the Stereo Chorus). Noise levels were well suppressed, and even if the delay time wasn't exactly phenomenal, the delay was really quite clean and worked very well indeed.
Just for the record, we tried this pedal on a range of sounds, from a clean, Hank Marvin-ish Rock 'n Roll 'twang' to a minimum repeat (almost ADT) effect on overdriven guitar. The pedal worked well right across the range; very impressively so, in fact.
Again, this unit doesn't have the sort of exaggerated delay times that you find on some of the most expensive pedals, but it does offer a very acceptable range for the money and compares very favourably with the competition.
4-STAGE PHASER RRP £49.95
Phasers still appear on most effects makers' lists, but we sometimes wonder how they manage to sell when most pedal users seem to opt for flangers instead. Having said that, this isn't a bad phaser at all, and is only mildly noisy. Where it scores is through having a good basic sound and a very acceptable effect range.
The three controls on this beige coloured model provide the usual array of Width, Feedback and Rate and they work well. Unlike quite a few of the phasers on the market this one isn't a stereo unit, but does that really matter? How many of us ever make use of a stereo facility? More to the point is that you have a good range of phase sounds available here.
For the player who still likes phasers and is looking for a cheapo one which performs well, this Frontline effect looks like a good buy.
STEREO FLANGER RRP £49.95
With a bright yellow case and a silver control panel, the Frontline stereo flanger offers the usual four flanger rotaries; Width, Rate, Feedback and Manual. In terms of noise levels, its filtering swishes and swirls were quite noticeable, especially at higher volume when the noise became quite a nuisance. Unfortunately, we weren't over-impressed with the flanger's range either. Whether we had a below-par sample is impossible to say, but we weren't too keen on the amount of swirl and filtering noise which was present, nor really on the sounds on offer.
Not the best flanger we've heard by quite a way, this model should be carefully auditioned by potential buyers to see if, as is possible, we had a less than perfect sample.
OVERDRIVE RRP £36.95 & HEAVY OVERDRIVE RRP £38.95
Only £2 separates these two units, and the extra couple of quid buys you two extra controls, Low and High Tone Boost, which are added to the cheaper model's complement of Level and Drive.
Neither of these two units could be called old-fashioned fuzz boxes by any standards. In fact they're really on the subtle side, and our testers were unanimous in the view that they liked them all the more for that. These are the sort of pedals that work best when used to roughen up a chord sound rather than to run a lead guitar into total overdrive, and Frontline offer two other units for that purpose.
For the player whose amp doesn't allow him or her to get a rasping chord sound on its clean channel (a failing on many quasi-twin channel combos), one of these two pedals would be ideal. Yes, the effect is subtle, but it's all the better for that. But which of the two should you go for? In our view (again, a unanimous one) the tone controls are worth much more than the £2 they add to the price. They work well and enable you to get just the right tonality in your guitar sound. Undoubtedly this is a very good pedal for those who realise the advantages of a subtle distortion effect for chord playing.
DISTORTION RRP £34.95 & HEAVY METAL DISTORTION RRP £39.95
Where we were certain that we rated the the value of Frontline's heavy overdrive as against their basic overdrive pedal, our views on the distortion and the heavy metal distortion were the other way round.
The distortion unit offers just two controls. Level and Distortion, but it added a very impressive edge and overdriven sound to our test guitars which, although not tonally variable, was one of the better overdrive/distortions we've come across — and that's regardless of price. In fact, the sound the Frontline distortion pedal produces is quite sophisticated, price notwithstanding. It's quite a smooth overload sound and even seems to work on slurred lead chords; something which you can't say about many distortions, can you?
The heavy metal pedal, however, was a bit of a let-down to our testers. Like its cheaper sibling it has controls for Level and Distortion (called 'Sensitivity'), but it also has tone controls for high and low frequency boost. Whatever other circuitry changes have taken place, though, the heavy metal model just didn't sound as good to our ears as did the cheaper distortion. Somehow it seemed too harsh and too discordant, although it could be that our testers prefer a more refined sort of overdrive. Either way, we can only say what we feel, and that means that for us the heavy metal model is one that we'd avoid, whereas the lower cost distortion seems like very good value for money to us.
You have to be very careful indeed when comparing effects pedal costs these days, because so many retailers offer discounts which can make nonsense of the recommended retail prices.
IN TUNE always quotes the RRP of anything that we review because this gives you the maximum that you can expect to pay, and from there you can assess the various discount offers for yourself. It can make reviewed goods look expensive, however, when compared with shops' advertised prices, so do take this into account when reading any reviews in our pages and making comparisons.
We've stressed this point because the RRPs of these Frontline pedals could make them look expensive against the often advertised rates for makes like Arion, Tokai and some of the lesser known makes. In fact, it's our guess that these pedals will probably sell for a fair bit below the RRP, making them one of the cheapest brands on the market. As such they all represent fair value, and are nicely made, comparing very well, for example, with Arion's use of plastic casings.
The units' sound quality and noise levels do vary, however, from one model to another. This is just as true, of course, of even the most expensive effects — they're all liked or disliked according to personal tastes and no single opinion should be regarded as law.
Overall, the Frontline range seems to offer good value for money, especially for the less well off customer. We weren't enthusiastic about every model in the array but, of the ones we tried, we'd certainly recommend the 4 Stage Phaser, Stereo Chorus, Stereo Delay, Heavy Overdrive and Distortion as being significantly above average performers for their price.
More details of Frontline products from Strings & Things Ltd., (Contact Details).
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