Roland Boss Pedals
Test on the Best?
Roland's Boss effects range is widely regarded as the market leader. Gary Cooper assesses two of their latest pedals (the PH-2 and DF-2) plus the hugely popular HM-2, and asks, 'Can you better the Boss?'
However good a sound your product makes, you don't get to be as popular as Roland's Boss range by offering unreliable or poorly made products. Certainly these three pedals, the DF-2 'Super Distortion & Feedbacker", HM-2 'Heavy Metal Distortion' and PH-2 'Super Phaser' all conform to the expected Boss high build standard.
Housed in diecast metal cases with rubber non-slip bases, and having strongly hinged, rubber covered kick-flaps for on/off action, these three look to be as well made as ever. Battery access is beautifully simple; you just remove a thumb-screw from the front and raise the operating flap - inside lurks the PP3. This is a convenient arrangement, much better than having to remove an entire baseplate. LEDs on all the units show on/off status and also battery condition, and silent FET switching provides click-free on/off in each case. All three samples could take stepped-down mains power, but Roland do urge you to use their own adaptors. Among Pro players, the Boss range as a whole has a good reliability record and these three will do nothing but help enhance this.
Probably Britain's most popular effect of 1984, the Boss 'Heavy Metal' pedal has a colour scheme to match its dishonourable intentions - a jet black box with bright orange controls - tiger colours for a growling menace, perhaps?
The HM-2's controls are small rotary types governing Level, Low Frequency Boost, H.F. Boost and Distortion. Just 'another fuzz box?' Is a tiger 'just a big pussycat?' No, the HM-2 is an object lesson in assault from batteries!
The distortion control winds in or out a real 'raw meat and dumplings' chord sound - red-blooded, filling, and heavy as lead! Tuning the mayhem to suit your tastes with the two tone controls lets you pick whether to crunch your audience up against the back wall and roll right over them, out through the foyer, or split their eardrums with wails and shrieks like a banshee on a bed of nails. Even better, it seems to work with almost any guitar. I tried it with my Gibson SG and Tokai 'Strat, as well as a borrowed Cort headless, a Hondo, a Westone Concord - it boosted them all, and seemed to work effectively with amps as far apart as the fabulous Laney AOR-30 valve combo, an aged Carlsbro trannie Hornet, Custom Sound Cub - it liked them all.
Most definitely a device to be discussed at the next Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, Roland ought to issue a licence with this pedal - it's a sonic shotgun! Versatile in sound, well made and not at all expensive for the quality, it deserves its success!
Despite having been the 'holy grail' for effects unit designers ever since the mid-1960s (they couldn't find a way of electronically altering the phase relationship between two parts of the same input signal at a price much less than that of Concord!), the actual popularity lifespan of phasing units has been relatively short - killed, some would have it, almost stone dead by the more complex Flanger. Similar in electronic workings to a phaser, the flanger provides a more obvious 'pitch shifting/effect, as well as having the variable phase relationship (which is what gives the whooshing sound of a phaser) and has, today, outgunned it in popularity to a large extent.
Boss, however, have now provided us with their advanced, 12 stage PH-2 'Super Phaser' a green painted unit with green capped rotary controls for rate, depth, resonance and 'mode' (of which two are provided). Rate adjusts the speed of frequency range travelled (from 14s to 100ms - a particularly wide range), Depth controls the sweep width. Resonance adjusts the amount of feedback.
In use, you first have to select which of the two modes you desire. These are quite different in sound. Mode I being more of a full frequency range of travel from low to high, a more mellow phasing sound. Mode II being harder, perhaps a sharper or edgier phase.
Noise levels from the Boss are pretty reasonable, but, like all phasers and flangers, there is some degree of both hiss and filtering noise. In these respects it's better than most phasers though, and whether it bothers you will almost certainly depend on where and when you want to use it.
Phasing is a hard effect to be sure about these days. As Phasers go this is certainly a very versatile one, offering more phase effects than any that I've previously sampled. The trouble is that the Boss flangers are just as good and have a more fashionable sound. However, if phasing is what you want, check this pedal out and you'll almost certainly find that it will do whatever you want a phaser to be capable of. Only you can decide whether you'd perhaps rather have a Boss flanger instead.
This unit, if it achieved nothing else, would confirm that there are some distinctly creative brains in the Roland Boss design team. In essence it's a distortion pedal - and a very good one. The creative angle, however, comes in with the 'Feedback' function - a Boss 'first", and a sound which countless guitarists will be certain to rush out and buy, just from a description of what it does.
The 'Feedback' effect is very much what it suggests - an ability to take a note and select an oscillating harmonic overtone from it which can then be held virtually indefinitely. To achieve this, you have a double-action footplate on the DF-2. Press it once and the basic effect (ie the distortion element) is activated, press it again and hold the pedal down, and the note you've been playing swoops off into an electronic simulation of the effect produced when an overdriven amp runs from a note into feedback, the oscillation (in that case) being because of odd phase relationships, the harmonics being dependent on the interaction of your speakers, acoustic environment, strings, pickups and countless other factors. On stage, getting that sort of feedback can be one of the most frustratingly hit-and-miss businesses in Rock guitar. You can get it perfectly on gig after gig and then (due to some peculiarity of the venue itself) find yourself struggling to get it. Not a lot of fun if your solo style depends on it!
As such, the DF-2's a fine idea, and, in some ways, works well - but more of that anon.
The controls on the DF-2 comprise level, tone, distortion and overtone. The quality of the distortion sound itself (governed by the first three pots) is excellent - not (perhaps) as versatile as that from the 'Heavy Metal' but still head and shoulders better than most - and not that far off the HM-2.
The overtone pot allows you to select which harmonic relative to the note you're playing will be picked-up and held in what is a reasonably accurate approximation of a real feedback sound. The range here is good, from high to fairly full-sounding harmonics. When you've got the overtone you want, however, how does the feedback itself come across? For me the answer has to be 'rather synthetically' - not necessarily poorly, in fact it could be a very useful sound, but it's not identical to that from a Marshall stack and a Gibson. For one thing, once the DF-2 has selected the harmonic overtone, you lose the sweet controllability which you get when the real thing is happening. You can't waggle the string to bend the feedback note, nor can you use techniques like varying your body/guitar angle to the speakers or monitors to alter the sound. 'Tricks' (like bending the string behind the nut) don't work, either. In fact, what you've got is all that you'll get.
The oscillation of the note, too, is really excessively artificially regular to be an exact duplicate. For example, try listening to Robin Trowel's perhaps definitive use of feedback in a live situation on the track Daydream from the album 'Robin Trower Live'. Then try the DF-2 - you'll see (hear) the difference.
BUT - and this is a vital 'but' - try getting usable and (more importantly) controllable feedback with a small practice amp, a cheap guitar with whistling pickups, or without having learned the hard way how to do it! Here the Boss pedal is a boon - and ideal for rehearsals at low volumes, when you're stuck with less than the ultimate gear, when home recording - the list is almost endless.
In these situations the Boss DF-2 is invaluable and can certainly be recommended. It can even have uses for the very differences it offers over the established way of 'doing it' - and that's something you'll have to develop for yourselves. Providing you don't let yourself be denied the pleasure/skill of learning how to use real feedback when you can, then the Boss DF-2 is a great idea, well executed. Heavy Rock players are going to love it - especially the younger ones, and I can well understand why!
More info from Roland U.K. Ltd., Gt. West Trading Estate, (Contact Details).
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Review by Gary Cooper
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