Hands-on review: Cloud 9's Fuzzbubble
(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-07-25)
The rollicking sound of The Who’s Pete Townshend exposed us to the idea of overdrive at its best – that grumble and tone breakup we hear when an amp is pushed to its limits. Today we take that ‘effect’ for granted, but back in the early 1960s, it was a rare thing to hear, and when you did it was like a madman wielding his axe and not just a typical guitar player. It was other-worldly compared to what existed before.
Townshend’s sound was very straightforward, in that he used as many Marshall amps and drove them as hard as his (and his fans’) ears could stand – fortunately we can get that overdriven sound artificially and without causing ear strain. It was Townshend who requested that Jim Marshall build him a huge cabinet that featured 8 speakers, but it was so large and heavy to move that Marshall divided the cabinet into two, together with a separate amp head, which was the birth of the ‘Marshall Stack.’
In the late 1960s Townshend moved onto customized 100-watt Hiwatt amplifiers and 4 x 12 cabs. These heads were boosted with an additional 10db and the middle and presence were removed, which left only treble and bass. Two additional volume controls were added to increase gain and flexibility at both the pre- and post-gain stages. The cabinets included some specially designed Fane 12” speakers that increased bass response. Now Townshend could really push the limits and get that heavy sound for which he became known. One other thing of note was his use of the Univox Fuzz Pedal to achieve that extra grind in his overdriven tone.
Jimi Hendrix was inspired by Townshend, having seen Pete perform with the big Marshall stacks and achieving feedback like none other before him. This set the stage for Hendrix, although Jimi was looking for his own signature tone as well. Besides driving his Marshalls to the limit, Hendrix included more pedals (and sometimes multiple of the same pedal!), such as the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, the Roger Mayer Octavia Fuzz/Octave, the UniVox UniVibe, and the Vox 847 Wah – all of which gave Hendrix that bass to mid-toned fuzz charm, besides that scratchy, gravelly overdriven spark that has yet to be duplicated (or has it?).
There are few effects companies that have tried to emulate the Townshend quality, regardless of how landmark it may have been, and which set the standard for that driven vintage tube tone of the 1960s and 70s. But that is where the Analog Alien FuzzBubble-45 was conceived, offering tube, lush overdrive with a character-rich fuzz.
Cloud 9 is a recording studio on Long Island, New York. And although they are relatively new to the effects business, they garner a ton of experience and reputation, including being chosen twice by Mix Magazine’s ‘class’ spotlight, which is an honor bestowed only to the country’s best studios. If anyone knows about the necessity and quality of effects units, it is the people behind such a recording studio.
Housed in a 5 3/4" x 4 3/4" x 1 1/2" purple-sparkle box with color-coded controls (cream for Pete and purple for Jimi), the FuzzBubble-45 (as in a ‘bubble in time’) does just that, transporting your tone to the sounds that have inspired so many guitarist since. And you don’t have to crank your amp to have Townsend and Hendrix attitudes, although doing so gives ruckus music even more of a ballsy edge.
It may seem that the sounds from this pedal would not set well with some modern players who like something at opposite ends of the spectrum, from crunchier metals to the more subdued ballads, but with the ability to tweak and mix just about any degree of influence, even ‘modern’ sounds with or without other pedals in the chain take on a whole new character – modern meets vintage is where the FuzzBubble-45 has landed.
OK, I’ll cover the basic concepts of the pedal then get into the specifics.
Pick your guitar god
With the Townshend section, you can achieve that desired vintage tube amp drive and to whatever extent you want in the blend. An interesting aspect is that when you manipulate the guitar’s volume control you achieve different tones and responses of the pedal. Together with the pedal’s ‘Output,’ there are varying degrees of overdrive. As good as that may be, there is a ‘Year’ knob that ranges from 1966 to 1977, and the more you turn it up the more ‘touch sensitive’ distortion/fuzz you produce, thus affecting the harmonic texture, although with sustained clarity of both single notes and chords. The designers also included a tone switch to roll back some of the lower frequencies for a harsher, high-end bite.
The Jimi section achieves vintage fuzz as though you were listening to the Legend live. Like the Pete section, your guitar’s volume control helps to shape the tone and to what degree, but there also is an output that further stimulates the senses. The Haze control is the real kicker, and this determines the intensity of the fuzz saturation. Most fuzz-based effects, including the FuzzFace, does not control the shaping of the sound, and this was resolved with the FuzzBubble-45 as the guitar’s Input and the pedal’s Haze control work in unison; even when turned down you don’t get a ‘thin’ sound. When worked together the combination allows you to achieve that chunky ‘Voodoo Chile’ sound and all the way down to a sweet sizzle.
And then there is the Tone control, similar to that on the Pete circuit, which allows even more tone shaping and flexibility. And as with any good pedal, there is a Bypass and Effect selector switch, which allow you to add in either side of the effect or remove it all together.
Now onto some specifics, starting with the Pete side and using an Ibanez JS2400 through a clean Egnater Rebel-30 amp head (Note: when working through a gain channel, with the knob around 12 o’clock, there was a reduction in ‘fuzz’ as the overdrive increased harmonics and crunchiness). The ‘Output’ pot produces a marked difference in the fatness and degree of crunch and fuzz added to the mix; and as an important side, there is no sudden drop-off when the ‘Output’ is turned down, but a smooth gradual reduction that I have not heard in many pedals.
With the ‘Output’ down, at around 9 o’clock, the degree of distortion is sufficient and clearly audible, and yet when playing chords all the notes remain distinct. At this level it provides a nice fat, yet clear tube sound for traditional blues lead and softer rock rhythm. As you crank the ‘Output’ to 10 the distortion is very fat and thick, and that’s with the ‘Year’ knob (the one responsible for even more distortion!) all the way down to 1967.
Turn the ‘Year’ knob up, with the ‘Output’ still down at 9 o’clock, and the mids ring clearer as the tone becomes more crunchy and fuzzed, all the way to rock arena 1977. Bring the ‘Output’ to the max as well, and you get a super-fat psychedelic rock sound that is warm, yet crisp.
An incredibly authentic cranked vintage tube sound, this side of the pedal can provide additional thick bass, or cut through the mix with more mids by way of the ‘Tone’ switch. Either way, pinch harmonics don’t sound overly piercing, but creamy and bright.
Jimi, with teeth
The Jimi side has more bite and sizzle than the Pete side, which does not make it better, but certainly different in what it offers. I find the Pete side lends itself more to rhythm, whereas Jimi works best for lead.
Jimi also is a bit more complex, in that it has an ‘In’ pot that allows greater variation in tonal qualities. With the ‘In’ and ‘Haze’ pots turned down, the ‘Output’ adjusts how much edge you give your tone, which has a more high-end and clearer response than the Pete side (which has more low end). If both the ‘Output’ and ‘Input’ are high, you get a super driving distortion even with the ‘Haze’ knob turned down all the way. Crank the ‘Haze’ knob full tilt and it almost seems too much! I have a Greg Bennett Royale Ltd guitar and I typically don’t use it because it has a very thin, clean and high end sound (whereas I like a thicker sound for my rock compositions) and even when using the neck pickup, but through this pedal it sounds like a rockin’ badass guitar. Consequently, if you have a guitar that sounds a bit weak, this pedal is a solution.
I want to revisit the Jimi ‘Input’ knob again, as it does have a nice effect on the tone you can achieve as it limits the signal strength affecting the fuzz. With the ‘Output’ and ‘Haze’ down, you get a very clean and sizzling fuzz; a mild agitation without the heavy bottom end – a ZZ Top type of vibe. And when you adjust the input down and the ‘Haze’ up, you get a classic, but fuller FuzzFace that punches you in the gut with super dark overdrive.
This isn’t the end of it. What makes this pedal shine even more, whether working with Pete or Jimi, is that it is touch sensitive, tracking your playing dynamics incredibly well. Play softly and it has certain characteristics, but play hard and different tonal and harmonic qualities ignite. As a result, each guitar I used through this pedal, after my initial run-through with my Ibanez, sounded different. This is not unusual with most quality pedals, particularly if they are analog, but the FuzzBubble-45 does not cover up the true tone of your guitar. Those with single-coil are brighter with more sizzle in the mids, whereas those with humbuckers become cultivated with thick bottom end and to the point of being comfortable (and intimidating) in the company of some heavy metal giants. Also, with higher gain humbuckers you need to ease off on the ‘Output’ slightly and use the tone switch to your advantage, to remove the ‘mud.’
I do think single-coil pickups worked best with this pedal since even with the guitar’s tone rolled down the bottom end notes were still clear and all notes in general transitioned well into harmonic feedback. Then again, humbuckers produced such a huge sound that pounding away on my Les Paul and Reverend ‘Unknown Hinson’ was somewhat addictive.
The Bottom Line
The FuzzBubble-45 offers a plethora of options that allows a guitarist to dial in various degrees of overdrive and fuzz options quickly, which is a requirement for both stage and studio musicians who need that unique and natural sounding flavor within their compositions. In no time you can achieve high-gain boogie rock tones of Johnny Winter, a Marshallesque drive of Jimmy Page, a fat fuzz that would make Toni Iommi envious, and with little effort the ability to dial into those Townsend and Hendrix signature sounds. Even at low levels the sound is full and not far off the mark as when it is turned up loud, which is a must for home recording musicians.
At first I thought it would have been a good idea if a person could merge the two sides, but because the pedal works on a single circuit, sharing similar characteristics – and because each side is so thick, like a wall of sound – I’m uncertain how apt or useful it would be to layer both sides. And remember, I was pumping this through a clean channel! And like Pete and Jimi, both sides of the pedal may share certain tonal elements and commonalities, but both remain unique in their own ways. If a virgin gear company can come up with a pedal this impressive on its first try (after a few prototypes I’m sure), I can only imagine what KO they can achieve next round.
The Fuzzbubble-45 has a street price of $180 USD.