If you’ve played guitar, recorded a band, or even listened to more than a handful of songs in your life, chances are very good that you’ve heard a Tube Screamer in one form or another. They’re the standard for many guitarists when it comes to overdrive pedals, and collectors have spent hours debating the nuances of what makes a Tube Screamer unique.
There are even constant threads posted to online forums comparing different iterations of the pedal that’s been around since the 70s. Their arguments are that based on the components used and the way the pedals are powered, the tonal characteristics change in a drastic way. There’s also a lot of debate over who’s current variant of the Tube Screamer is better: Maxon (who made the original model for Ibanez in the 70s) or Ibanez, who’s been refining the design ever since.
All of this begs the question – with so many different variations what is the sound of a Tube Screamer?
The tonal characteristics of a Tube Screamer are hard to mistake for anything else – they break up much like a good tube amplifier despite not actually having any tubes in their circuitry. With only three controls – Drive, Tone & Output – there’s not a whole lot a player can do to change the pedals sound, just the amount of overdrive created. Luckily, in that regard, there are plenty of tones between 0% - 100% on the Drive knob which are very responsive to the volume of the guitar signal they’re being fed.
Probably most notably, the Tube Screamers all share a mid-range boost when enabled that add a slightly more present sound to the instrument running through them. This is a favorite for rock guitarists where the boost is need to help them cut through especially dense mixes. If the boost is too apparent, the tone knob can be dialed in to help shape something more fitting to the song.
The Tube Screamer has such a huge fan base, it’s not surprising to see that it’s found its way into the setups of artists across all genres from heavy metal to pop. The long list of players with a Tube Screamer on their pedalboard includes names like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kirk Hammett, Carlos Santana, Steve Vai & many, many more.
Tweaking the Tube Screamer
I’m sure there are a few purists out there that might strongly disagree with this statement, but I’m going to make it anyway: all good things can be improved on.
The Tube Screamer is no exception to this – especially in its current configuration. Over the years, the focus on improving the Tube Screamer has been largely to use more affordable components and introduce some modern manufacturing techniques. This resulted in small tonal changes and perhaps less noise thanks to better shielding/component quality, but none of the revisions have really changed the tone of the pedal in a significant way. The folks at Ibanez and Maxon have largely stuck to reissues that kept the heart and soul of the Tube Screamer intact.
Where the pedal manufacturers have taken missteps, the modding community has been quick to answer. The Ibanez Tube Screamer has been one of the most modded pedals of all time, with small adjustments like replacing the chipsets in a revision with the original chips one of the most common.
More recently, there have been newer and more complex mods that completely change the way a Tube Screamer handles incoming signal. Resistors have been swapped and diodes have been added for more aggressive distortion than the original was capable of. It’s gotten to the point where players will pick up a cheap Tube Screamer and put 2 or 3 times as much as they spent on the pedal into modding it for a modern sound.
The New Standard
Many times, modding pedals comes with a risk of quality control. We’re talking about soldering new components into place which creates wear & tear on the circuit board and runs the risk of component failure that many new pedals would cover with a warranty. But there are new options built from the original Tube Screamer design and custom tailored for modern amps and players.
The Horizon Devices Precision Drive, designed by Misha Mansoor, is the perfect rebuild from the ground up of what a Tube Screamer would be if it were built today. Hundreds of hours of research went into figuring out a better way to boost high gain amps while retaining bass responsiveness and removing the noisiness of the overdrive. They added a Noise Gate to help clean up your signal before it ever reaches the pedal, and an Attack knob to control the contour of the drive as the signal starts to clip the circuit (creating the overdrive sound).
To top it all off – the Precision Drive can be pushed harder in almost any direction than a standard Tube Screamer since it’s got more headroom on the Volume knob and a Bright knob replacing the traditional Tone knob which acts as more of a top boost.
A Modern Tube Screamer Deserves a Modern Amp
The Precision Drive’s bass responsiveness and extended controls only go so far if they’re not paired with the right guitar amp. It’s the whole reason we’ve included an exact replica of the pedal in the Toneforge Misha Mansoor plugin. The virtual guitar rig we’ve designed is perfect for aggressive, low-end heavy guitars. Djent, metal, hard rock… you name it.
For more information on finding your perfect tone for any song, make sure to check out all of the resources available in the JST VIP section of the site!