Review: Empress Multidrive - the kingdom of distortion has a new ruler

(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-07-11)

Review: Empress Multidrive - the kingdom of distortion has a new ruler

Any amp can do only so much when it comes to providing our personal "sound." That's why we invest in pedals, and more particularly those that give an edgy quality, such as the thickening of fuzz, the grinding crunch of distortion the and sharpness and definition of overdrive. To have all these things work simultaneously is a bit of crapshoot. I’ve been down that road, even when purchasing pedal units from the same company (thinking each would complement the other), but often there was a clash between the overdrive and distortion – you could use one or the other, but when combined it sounded a bit messy. And then when you add fuzz to some distortions or overdrives, there can be even more mess going on, depending on the quality and characteristics of any of the elements.

A further issue I have experienced with many non-tube-driven fuzz, distortion or overdrive pedals is that they have a thin, obvious digital or metallic sound, as opposed to the warmth given off by tube amps. I did like one tube-based distortion in general, but it wasn’t as diverse as the company suggested – the range of tones was somewhat limited and it became noisy when the ‘drive’ was turned up too much. There goes $200. And then I tried a multi-distortion/overdrive pedal by a leading manufacturer, but the tones sounded thin. The overall sound or tone of each selection was passable in one sense, but overall they were weak or artificial in quality, even when working with high-end guitars and tube amps. That pedal now sits in the corner collecting dust, $225 later.

In early 2011 I saw an Internet advertisement for an Empress Multidrive pedal. I think it was all the shiny knobs that first caught my attention, suggesting a lot of diversity in this little grey-sparkle metal box (it only measures 4.5” x 3.5” x 1.5”). And then I noticed it integrated all three of the favorites – fuzz, distortion, and overdrive. Now, that was interesting because for all three to be under one hood, they must be complimentary, which they are.

The overall sound is the best I have heard coming from a pedal of this type, and having a four-year warranty tells you something about the durability and company standards. Most notably, it sounds natural and flattering to a tube amp, as though it is part of the amp. Selecting a good tone is somewhat complicated, but worth the time experimenting with this all-analog pedal, only because there are so many options at your disposal. Each element (fuzz, distortion and overdrive) has a separate volume knob, so that you can mix a little, a lot or none of any of the three. And besides controlling the mix, you can adjust the gain for each; and so, imagine having the fuzz turned up to the max, but its volume/mix output being low. Or you can put a lot of distortion into the mix, but keep its bite to a minimum. And when you do turn up the volume and gain on all three, for a maximum tonal experience, the notes still ring clear.

Channeling Toni's Tone
The fuzz truly is a classic fuzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, giving plenty of sustain, gain and fatness to your tone. You can hear Toni Iommi as you crank it up. The overdrive is very vintage sounding and actually sounds like a tube amp breaking up: very smooth and not at all cheap or digital sounding. The degree of effect from this overdrive is sensitive to guitar dynamics, thus making it sound very natural to the ear. Distortion often can add mess to a mix, but this one does not. Whether using a little or a lot, the notes and sound coming from the amp remain tight, even on the heavy end. Usually playing low notes can sound muddy with too much distortion, but not with this pedal.

The quality of each aspect can be controlled with an optional high- or low-pass filter to give a bit more definition or creaminess if desired. The distortion has an added feature of how the element is delivered by way of mild (flat), crunch or lead options. The crunch option thickens up the tone, but maintains a tight low end, whereas the lead setting compresses the signal and offers a nice bite in the high end.

Which of the three aspects are on or off is controlled by a select footswitch, which means, for example, you can have fuzz and overdrive without distortion, and without having to turn the volume down on the distortion. What aspects are on and which are off (visible by way of bright multi-colored LEDs) can be customized via a dip-switch panel inside the unit. This allows you to select two preset combinations:

• only fuzz
• only distortion
• only overdrive
• fuzz + distortion
• fuzz + overdrive
• overdrive + distortion
• fuzz + distortion + overdrive

Another way to think about it is, what do you want applied to rhythm and what do you want for lead? Or if you play only rhythm or only lead, what one or two elements do you want in the mix? Of course, you can have all three switched on simultaneously and mixed according to your specs for a super fat tone.

All the above is further controlled through a master section on the pedal. One area allows you to control the mid-range frequency (since the guitar is a mid-range instrument that produces its best sound between 100Hz and 8kHz, give or take), with a 500Hz, 250Hz, and 2kHz option. This means getting a bit more punch by way of adding ‘body/thickness,’ or by adding ‘clarity/brightness.’ This ties nicely into a second area, the main EQ, which allows further control over the hi, mid and low ends for added tonal shaping.

No coloration in bypass mode
Many companies claim "true bypass," but a lot of the time you can hear how your tone is affected in the bypass mode – it’s not quite the same as if you were to remove the pedal from the chain completely. This pedal truly does have a true bypass, as though nothing is there. And when in use, the pedal is super quiet – with all elements turned up full (both volume and gain), the degree of hiss or hum is the lowest I have heard... almost negligible.

For the price you are getting a heck of a pedal, and it’s like having three pedals, but with a few differences: 1) with fuzz/distortion/drive combined it takes up little room on the pedal board and no more space than most pedals with far fewer options and control; 2) most importantly, all three aspects are complimentary – no worries if a fuzz you buy will mix well with the overdrive, or the overdrive with the distortion.

One other point of interest: if you have access to an amp simulator pedal/device (I have the Line6 Pod X3 Live), your tonal possibilities have just increased. Amp simulators come close to emulating amps from Fender, Mesa, Marshall, and many others, but one of the problems is that they sound digital (which they are) and thin, not warm and full like the real deal. What I do is select an amp/speaker combo I like, but turn down the gain/drive completely. I then use my Empress Multidrive for a superior sound, but in combination with my preferred amp characteristics. No need to invest in numerous amps for diverse sounds (or as you get bored with your gear); select the amp head and cabinet you want from the amp simulator, turn down any drive or gain so that it’s clean, then hear the far more natural nuances being delivered through the Multidrive. I can testify there is a big difference in doing this as opposed to using the drive and distortion/fuzz options that come with a digital amp simulator.

So far, so good, but there are few negatives with this pedal (hardly worth mentioning, but review readers always are looking for an Achilles Heel). One, you have to buy an adapter if you prefer powering it up that way, rather than using battery juice (and getting access to the battery requires the unscrewing of the bottom plate). Two, it would be nice if you could save pre-sets, but really that is non-sequitur with this pedal. The Empress Multidrive is an analog pedal, and to re-engineer it to save presets means changing its nature to digital. And when you do that you no longer get the great tones that are possible as they currently exists. And so, many consumers may unknowingly be giving up superior sound for a pre-set saving option, or to have a pedal that has numerous pre-sets to ‘emulate’ different types of fuzzes, overdrives and distortions. I’ll make the effort to turn a few knobs to retain the quality of the Multidrive.

The Empress Multidrive has a street price of $299 USD

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