Hands-on review: DrNo-Effects Madfly Heavy Distortion

(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-08-06)

Hands-on review: DrNo-Effects Madfly Heavy Distortion

Talk about a distorted picture: The terms ‘distortion, ‘overdrive’ and ‘fuzz’ sometimes and incorrectly are used interchangeably. But any guitarist with a pedalboard knows that there are differences in how each affects a guitar’s tone.

Overdrive produces warm overtones as though an amplifier is turned up very loud and the components and speaker(s) are ‘breaking up.’ In other words, the amp is being driven toward its full potential and the outcome is a change in the sound and harmonics it produces because of those added overtones. This could be compared to operating a car and the sounds it makes as you shift into higher gears, moving from street to Indy speeds. Fuzz is a very different effect, which I will address in my review on DrNo-Effect’s Kafuzz!!, in that it alters the audio signal in a very particular way to achieve that grainy ‘sizzle’ tone like a bee buzzzzzzz-ing.

What most modern guitarists look for, however, is distortion (although sometimes with a mix of overdrive and/or fuzz for good measure). Distortion is a quality that remains the same at any volume (you don’t have to overdrive your amp to achieve it), and which degree of ‘grind’ is relative to how much distortion you want from an effect unit. That’s how I like to describe distortion, as a dirty grinding tone, which likely existed first with the Hurdy-Gurdy, aka ‘wheel fiddle’ about 1,000 years ago – those droning strings certainly had an element of resonating distortion or ‘dirt.’

A brief history of distortion
The idea of distortion certainly was born from the overdrive effect of pushing amps to the limit, although, as stated, the characteristics are different than that of overdrive. Early amps were relatively low-fidelity and often produced distortion automatically when turned up excessively or when the amp’s ‘gain’ was increased.

But the most obvious early example of distortion occurred in 1951 when guitarist Willie Kizart cranked out a ‘dirty’ riff using a damaged amplifier in the song Rocket 88 (also considered the first Rock ‘n Roll song). This got other musicians thinking, and 1956 Paul Burlison of the Johnny Burnette Trio did just that when he dislodged a vacuum tube in his amplifier to record The Train Kept A-Rollin. (Fred Lincoln) Link Wray Jr. did something similar and is known for creating unique electric guitar sounds, particular with his song Rumble.

Other guitarists opted to increase amp gain beyond intended levels to get that ‘warm’ grimy sound, and this can be heard through various recordings of Howlin’ Wolf (with Willie Johnson) and Chuck Berry’s 1955 classic Maybellene (this usually meant using smaller amps than what was appropriate for large venues to warrant turning them up full volume).

Distortion gained popularity in the 60s with The Kinks (Dave Davies slashed his speaker to record You Really Got Me), and Jim Marshall, of Marshall Amplification, began modifying the circuitry in his amps to achieve a brighter and louder sound with controllable distortion capabilities. From then on, distortion was a mainstay in rock music, and even found its way into other genres, including country and some areas of jazz.

The key strategy for the effects industry was to get that sound without relying on cranked up amps and while keeping the extent of distortion constant no matter the amplifier’s volume. In other words, musicians wanted a dirty sound they could control in degree, but without, necessarily, the break-up tonal characteristics.

Just say 'Yes' to DrNo,br> With dozens of distortion boxes available, the most authentic I have heard – the one that does not sound thin or artificial – comes from a company that specializes in vintage tones, DrNo-Effects. Most people may not be familiar with this company, which hails from the Netherlands, and as a result does not have the press or notoriety of bigger name brands, but the quality of what DrNo-Effects produces is uncompromised. The distortion I wanted to try was the MadFly Heavy Distortion, and the name says it all. This was the second stompbox made by DrNo-Effects, and it emulates the tone of old Black Sabbath, Kyuss, and Fu Manchu... heavy and dirty! It’s that tone you think about when hearing psychedelic stoner rock right up to the doom metal genre, like Ataraxie, Draconian, Elegion and Estatic Fear. What makes the MadFly Heavy Distortion unique is that there is a hint of fuzz in the mix so that the dirt sizzles with an added bottom end.

Even with the distortion turned on lowest, it still is audible and omnipresent. It gives a warm heavy tube distortion, but with a dark and sinister quality. But as intense and as heavy as it is, it could find its home with music of Cream and Hendrix. And as you turn the distortion up, it becomes fatter and thicker without causing any excess noise, muddiness or lack of clarity, staying true to a guitarist’s demands to stand out front and center of the band. The tone does not get lost in the mix.

The tone control is dramatic and dynamic, and as you turn it all the way toward bass, it still remains clear, but very deep, as though you would think a bass guitar is plugged into the unit, thus giving it an incredible full bodied sound. Moving the dial toward treble, it gives a cleaner cut without sounding trebly or weak, still remaining full of life. Many distortion pedals sound artificial because of that treble effect, almost tinny, but not with the MadFly Heavy Distortion. Rather, the more treble you give it, the more it cuts through the mix without any harshness that destroys the ambience you’re trying to achieve.

With several guitars at my disposal, the general consensus I came to is that maximum thickness was achieved with humbuckers, but there still remains an added and surprisingly good amount of thickness to single-coil pickups. In fact, the tone is so thick that it sounds as though you have added some type of doubler or harmonizer to your guitar, but without the octave aspect. Again, compared to other pedals, this is the thickest and richest distortion pedal I have experienced.

As with most musicians, I have a limited palette of amps from which to work, and so I use an amp simulator (Line6 Pod X3 Live) to achieve different ‘speaker/amp’ tones. I don’t care for the distortions on the Line6 unit (they sound weak), and when I add other party distortions it is a hit or miss (sometimes it sounds noisy or messy). The DrNo-Effects MadFly Heavy Distortion works incredibly well with this amp simulator as it makes the tones sound more authentic and lively as opposed to overly processed and thin – an analog pedal that literally alters digital interfaces. In fact, although it does work well when using a regular amp or amp simulator with the gain turned up, the distortion of the MadFly sounds very thick and kick-ass all on its own through clean amps.

And leave it to Roel Aben, a mad scientist in his own right and founder of DrNo-Effects, to dig into the past to apply old circuit technology with high quality and equivalent parts that previously have set the standard in rock music. Most companies use germanium transitions, but Roel opted for silicone transistors, which are more compact and reliable, and produce superior and brighter sound – making the past even better for today’s music. As well, the PCBs (printed circuit boards) Roel integrates come from a small company in Holland that uses the highest quality epoxy and the thickest copper layer to integrate the components.

And so, what we have are two small companies harmonized to produce a product that has met and exceeded the quality of the big name brands, and which has exceeded what was done with vintage gear. This certainly isn’t a new story, as it now seems an industry standard that the small boutique specialists (many of whom are practicing musicians) are developing product that can stimulate the senses better than their highly mass-produced counterparts who simply spend more on advertising to spread the word. The housing to this metal box is very high quality, powder coated to endure mechanical damage and rough use for touring musicians. Most companies can claim the same, but I thorough enjoy the looks of DrNo-Effects, with retro silkscreened logos that are as much fun to look as to play.

Even the company logo is retro-cool. You can tell the designer of this box enjoys making them from start to finish, from the inward components to the outward appearance, as well as the image of his company.

the Bottom Line
I always wanted that bottom-heavy distortion sound for many of my songs, and now I have found it. If it was any more bottom end, I would have to take up bass. I encourage you to visit DrNo-Effects to hear samples of the MadFly Heavy Distortion. I think the sound samples not only speak for themselves (and I get the same ‘in your face’ sound on my equipment), but they are among the most dramatic I have heard, which encouraged me to contact the company initially. If you want modest distortion, then look elsewhere, including other DrNo-Effects, but for that heavy-hitting punch in the crotch distorted sound, the MadFly stompbox is a must!

The DRNo Madfly can be purchased directly from DrNo for 199 Euro or from www. GuitarEffectsPedals.com, the exclusive US dealer, for $226.16.

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