Sunday, October 30, 2011

Distortion Pedal Shootout: Amptweaker TightMetal vs. MXR Fullbore Distortion

Spending as much time on music-related message forums as I do, one of the most common questions I see posted is this: "Which distortion pedal should I buy?"  The person asking this often simply states that they want to "play metal" with it, sometimes giving examples of their favorite bands but likely to provide such a wide range that it really doesn't help to narrow down a specific tone.  Furthermore, until some helpful person offers suggestions and asks about the prospective buyer's budget, the price range isn't determined.  What is quickly determined is that musicians are very opinionated when the topic turns to distortion pedals, because for most of us, a distortion pedal (usually a cheap one plugged into a practice amp) was our first entry into the wonderful world of metal guitar tone.  Distortion pedals have come a long way over the years, but there are still some tried-and-true classics on the market that are readily available.  As in so many other areas of the music gear world, the established top dogs enjoy a huge market share for no other reason than name recognition, even if far better products are available. 

I want discuss those better products, two specifically, one around the popular $100 price point and another that costs a bit more.  I also wanted to include a couple of essential features (a decent EQ and an integrated noise gate) and a few "luxuries" (true bypass, analog circuit and metal construction) that there's really no reason not to include in a proper distortion pedal.  My search led me to the Amptweaker TightMetal and the MXR Fullbore Metal, which I've had the opportunity to sit down and spend some time with.  The stated specs and features for each pedal include the items I mentioned above.

The Amptweaker TightMetal is a very solid chunk of black metal (ha ha) with orange markings that may recall a certain distortion pedal many of us have used in the past.  It has a bigger footprint than most stomp boxes, and while it can run off a 9V battery or adapter, an 18-volt power supply is recommended for the best results.  In addition to the controls visible in the picture, there are also Mid (Thrash) and Gate (Chomp) switches.  There is also an effects loop with pre-/post-distortion controls for other pedals to run in conjunction with the TightMetal itself.  It's available direct from the Amptweaker website (www.amptweaker.com) for $180.





On the smaller, less expensive end of the spectrum, but with many similar features is the MXR Fullbore Metal.  On first glance, it's obvious that a lot of functionality has been crammed into a very compact box.  MXR has a history of making very efficient use of space to the benefit of those of us with limited pedalboard real estate, without abandoning a familiar format.  A full three-band parametric with midrange frequency sweep is present, along with a Scoop button.  A similar button activates the internal noise gate.  A standard 9V battery or adapter will power the Fullbore.  More info is available at www.jimdunlop.com (MXR's parent company) and the street price is $100.


I've put together some clips in the video below, which consist of the following setup: Jackson Dinky (basswood body) w\ Seymour Duncan Full Shred bridge pickup > distortion pedal > Randall tube power amp > 2x12 cab w\ Celestion V30s miked up with an Audix i5 microphone; no additional EQ or noise gate here.  I played the same riff each time (getting a little lazy on the third clip) in the following order: 1) TightMetal w\o scoop, 2) TightMetal w\ scoop, 3) Fullbore w\o scoop and 4) Fullbore w\ scoop.  For the sake of simplicity and my own convenience, I dialed in what I thought were suitably "brutal" settings, not straying too far from the 12 o'clock position in most cases.  To be clear, I did not use the same settings on each pedal, as the results weren't even in the same ballpark - each pedal has its own voice.

video

The first thing that's apparent is that both of these pedals have ridiculous capacities for metal distortion.  The TightMetal immediately has an amp-like *feel* in the way that it responds to pick attack.  I'll let other people debate the merits of solid state and tube amps, but regardless of your preference in that regard, there is definitely something that separates true high-gain amps from those that need a separate distortion source to sound suitable for metal . . . and the TightMetal more or less harnesses that vibe in a pedal.  Running it directly into a power amp (or into the effects loop of a guitar amp) best captures what it can do.  Although the noise gate is always on, the Chomp switch really tightens it, which will be great for seriously crushing rhythms, but if you need to play some leads or just hold out some notes for more than a couple of seconds, just go with the regular un-Chomped mode.  Moving the Mid switch to the Thrash position gives a more exaggerated, scooped version of the base sound.  Be advised that since the TightMetal eschews the traditional high/mid/low EQ configuration in favor of Tone and Tight knobs, all of the controls need to be adjusted accordingly to really nail specific tones.  (For those of you familiar with the old Peavey VTM tube heads, you know what I'm talking about!)


The MXR Fullbore offers more of a traditional distortion pedal experience.  Although I still recommend running it through a power amp or guitar amp's power section for the best response to your playing dynamics, only do so if there is some sort of presence control, as there is a certain grainy quality here that is typical of most distortion pedals.  However, this isn't a show stopper, as the Fullbore's full three-band EQ and - in my opinion essential - mid-freq control allow for a ton of flexibility.  Finding the "sweet spot" in the midrange frequencies is key to cutting through in the mix, so I was glad to see that MXR made room on such a compact pedal to include it.  The midrange Scoop might prove useful for those guitarists who want a slightly different flavor when recording separate guitar tracks without changing the core tone, but it's really not necessary given the overall EQ capabilities.  The integrated gate achieves near-perfect silence without butchering the playing dynamics; although I didn't pop the pedal open to try this, there is an internal sensitivity control to further tighten or loosen the gate response.  Basically, the Fullbore provides instant gratification, being close enough to anything you've used in the past to get good results without having to tweak a lot of knobs or settings with less-than-descriptive names.

After playing through both pedals extensively, I don't feel that it's beneficial to declare one a winner, because for all their similarities, the TightMetal and Fullbore each have different things going for them that could appeal to metal guitarists.  As I mentioned earlier, the TightMetal responds like a high-gain amp, and its features especially cater to the current breed of palm-muting, chugging rhythm guitarists who need exactly what the name implies: tight metal distortion.  It's definitely promoted as a guitar preamp, as is further reinforced by its integrated loop, effects loop and 18V power option.  This is the kind of pedal you can build your rig around, and would be perfect if you find yourself in a situation where you'll be sharing gear with other bands that may not share your tonal preferences.  The only thing that seems lacking in this $180 pedal is a proper EQ.  As much as it is possible to achieve excellent results using all of the TightMetal's controls in combination, those controls seem almost entirely focused around responsiveness to playing rather than the broader sound.  In contrast, the MXR Fullbore basically takes the standard role of a distortion pedal - giving proper distorted tones to amps that are lacking - and adds a gate and very flexible EQ without bumping up the price.  It's no less appropriate for the job of plugging into an unfamiliar or unsuitable amp without needing two other pedals (EQ and gate) alongside it, but at the end of the day, it's more about providing heavy distortion than really achieving a "signature" tone.

So, here's my verdict, at long last!  For the guitarist on a budget, who either needs to get by with a less-than-stellar amp or wants to go jam somewhere on whatever amp is available, the MXR Fullbore Distortion provides very capable distortion from subtle overdrive up to the blackest, thrashing death metal, without need for a separate EQ or noise gate.  If you have even the slightest bit of experience with distortion pedals, this is as close as you are going to get to an effortless experience.  Furthermore, the Fullbore can pretty easily provide distortion that is superior to similarly-priced competitors, whether analog or digital, and not be a noisy mess.  For the serious guitarist who absolutely must have an amp-like distortion pedal that can either be used as a backup or as the cornerstone of a pedal-based rig, the Amptweaker TightMetal exists as a true guitar preamp in pedal form.  The TightMetal takes more time to get dialed in, and at a higher price point is more in line with what gigging/recording guitarists look for from a solution that is going to react to their playing consistently regardless of what it's plugged into.

As a gear junkie who has recorded and gigged with pedal-based rigs in the past, I would absolutely not hesitate to build a rig around the Amptweaker TightMetal, while the MXR Fullbore Distortion is small and inexpensive enough to carry in a gig bag as a spare, as the go-to source of distortion for jam sessions, or part of a larger rig where $100 adds significant tone options in a simple package.

2 comments:

  1. Well, this was just the exact blog I was looking for . I bought the full bore when it first came out, but now I see that the guitarist for asphix is playing through the tight metal. His crunch is supurb on Deathhammer, some of the best crushing metal ive ever heard. So I wondered how it a b ed to thee full bore. Fact is you can almost get 2 full bores for the price of 1 tight metal. Think about that. You can set one tight noise reduction and one loose! No bending over. Just an example. Maybe get one of each. A b allthetime. Hmmm

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  2. Hello. Could you campare tight metal with triple wreck(wampler) at least in few words. And this tight metal is digital?

    Thank you

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