Hands-on review: SolidGoldFX Nitro booster

(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-08-25)

Hands-on review: SolidGoldFX Nitro booster

The idea of a booster is to boost, or make louder, the sound of the guitar – pretty straightforward. This is required when an amplifier may not be loud enough and added headroom is required to better match the volume of the rest of the band. At other times, and in a more specific context, it may be to increase a guitar's volume only momentarily, such as during a lead and in order to be the predominate tone that floats higher into the stratosphere.

In the latter instance, this can be done if the remainder of the band was to turn down the volume, but it can be challenging for everyone to remain at approximately the same volume in either instance. Rather, if the guitarist alone were to manipulate volume and punch, then the issue is less complicated, and that is where a booster comes in. What makes boost pedals desirable, as well, is that they help coax amps to ring out with better distortion and breakup even at lower levels, thus allowing a person to get full-bore sounds from an amp at only half-level, but as though cranked to the breaking point.

In essence, you can achieve a similar effect of a fully driven amp at more comfortable listening levels and without having to drive an amp as hard (similar to why some people choose to use distortion and drive boxes). And in doing so, a quality boost pedal will enhance an amp's characteristics rather than coloring it to any significant degree. And so, we have a second reason for using a booster, besides the added volume: they can provide that extra dimension without any significant alteration of the original timbre and tonal qualities of a raw guitar through its partnering amp.

There are various pedals that do offer a boost effect(for instance, some EQ pedals even offer this feature), but it's not always an issue of being louder. Usually when you want to stand out, with more boisterous authority, you also want to add some dazzle in the process. SolidGoldFX realized this concern when it developed Nitro, a multi-faceted, hand-made, hand-numbered boost-in-a-box that offers versatility beyond the typical boost one would expect in a 'one-trick-pony' pedal. I do consider this among the higher echelon of booster pedals as it does more than boost, adding a transparent, yet lively and melodious quality to a pre-existing tone without coloring it and while keeping noise to a minimum.

First for the boring stuff: The Nitro offers a high-brightness clear LED, which indicates whether the effect is bypassed or engaged. Snoooozzzeee… and now, as the cast of Monty Python would say, "for something completely different."

I used two primary guitars for testing purposes, and recently recorded with a third. The test guitars included two from opposite ends of the spectrum, a gutsy Les Paul Custom (Slash model) and a very thin and clean sounding Greg Bennett Royale hollowbody (it has humbuckers, but they are far from kick-ass and only a bit ballsier than single-coils). I later recorded with an Eastwood Airline `59, which has an older vintage sound, and falls somewhere between the Gibson and Bennett in terms of aggression and tone. These were worked through the clean channel of two amps, an Egnater Rebel-30 and a Peavey Mini Colossal. The Egnater has more bottom end, whereas the Peavey has more of a clear singing character to its tone.

With humbucking pickups, the Nitro is most effective; however, I did plug in a `79 American Strat and the Nitro fattened up the sound enough that it transformed into a passive humbucker with that single-coil Strat zing!

Next, my amp offers a potential mix in tube integration – all of EL84 tube sound, which is a heavier British response... or all of 6v6 tube sound, which is more of a cleaner American tube sound... or you can have a mix of both in any ratio. I turned the knob to the max in both instances. With the EL84s, there is a significant amount of added breakup and a lot more saturation – and without having to crank the amp. With the 6V6s, the tone remains smooth with less of that British rumble and tone fullness, but the fuzzy drive associated with that tube type, reminiscent of American metal, becomes more pronounced. That was my general observation, and so here are more specifics.

On the level
One obvious feature to this quality metal-construction-true-bypass pedal includes a Level control, which cuts or increases the boost, from very subtle to 'will you turn that down!' As you turn up the level you hear greater clarity, besides more volume, but the result is coupled with a slight edge or kick that avoids over-distortion – just enough to make its presence known and apparent. Music rings out clearer, which might suggest reducing amp volume, cranking the Nitro and achieving a more luminous tone in general without consideration for boosting in the first place!

The Mode switch selects between 'clean' and 'dirty' settings. The clean mode adds a quality that is reminiscent of Satriani or Vai, as the tone sparkles and is extremely responsive to playing, particularly with pinch harmonics. It adds a punch or fullness to the tone and yet remains true to the original signal. When on the 'dirty' setting, there is a bit more grain or grind, adding to a naturally compressed overdrive timbre (it does act as a formidable compressor, and the effect is obvious when compared to the clean setting that belts out the notes with more energetic intention). And like its counterpart, the SuperDrive, the Nitro is very responsive to a player's dynamics, as well as a guitar's pickup characteristics; the harder you play, the greater the wallop.

The more I use the Nitro, the more it reminds me of SolidGoldFx's SuperDrive, in that it is very 'amp-like,' enhancing what exists between pickups and amp without straying too far into left field. And when coupled with the SuperDrive, the Nitro acts as a close sibling, a twin that not only augments its birth partner, but compliments its every move.

The two-way Tone switch selects between bright and rich settings, the former being more treble whereas the latter is more mid-range with a good dose of bass. Some boosters are designed to enhance certain frequencies (usually treble) to help 'cut through the mix' (besides offering a general signal boost that has a similar amp-overdriving effect as is found on an amp and more linear-type boosters). The Nitro takes this one step further by allowing a guitarist to choose between a ‘bass-mid’ or a ‘mid-treble’ option. The first option offers more full-range qualities (getting you to that Clapton Cream response of a fat guitar), in that the treble is there, but the tone is more rich and diverse with a non-offending bottom end; the second option adds more bite or sizzling grime to the mix if you want to get down and dirty as the notes sear through the auditory canals.

Most pedals of this nature add noise to the eventual output, but the Nitro is surprisingly quiet considering what it offers to a guitarist's tone and volume. This is possible because it uses an ultra low noise JFET design (Junction Field Effect Transistor), which electronic composition results in very high input impedance with very low noise figures. Although more costly than bipolar transistors, JFET design technology is very suitable for extremely low level audio applications, as is found in quality audio preamplifiers, and SolidGoldFX applied this feature in the Nitro's sound architecture.

Where in the chain?
Like any booster, you can position the device at the front of a chain of effects to act as a buffer and line driver, or at the end a chain to boost levels after the signal drain of your pedals to achieve some unique distortion qualities. In that regard, depending on what you have going on (chorus, distortion, flange, etc.), the effect can be quite varied and the result can be surprising as the Nitro pushes your tone to extremes.

Preferring to play and compose moderate rock compositions (far from metal, usually), I fancy it at the beginning of the chain since it merely enhances and achieves a harmonic outcome that resonates the original guitar tone very beautifully – like breathing new life into what already exists – a fountain of youth for your tone, one could say. However, and it's easy to flip and flop with the Nitro, lead solos do sound quite engaging when it's at the end of the chain!

Regardless of where you place it, the Nitro fattens up notes and chords without compromising clarity of high- or low-end messaging, a necessity for guitarists looking for an added dimension without toddling through mud. Consequently, any hard rock and metalist will thoroughly enjoy the Nitro, even if it does allow blues and country players equally to sound as though they have stepped into a rollicking ‘road house’ for their next gig.

PLUSES: There certainly is enough tonal emphasis oozing from this pedal that it can act as a mild overdrive at the very least and without added drive pedals. The Nitro creates that element that is beyond what already exists, and when added to other pedals (having integrated it with five different drive and distortion pedals), it nudges them over the edge and makes them sound more lively. Consequently, if you ever wanted a distortion, fuzz or overdrive to have a little bit ‘more,’ of what it already has then this pedal enhances and delivers with versatility. MINUSES:None! The pedal delivers as promised; there is nothing missing in the message.

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