You know the sound this onomatopoeia represents. You’ve not just heard it, you’ve felt it. You’ve been in this room before, paced behind the writhing mass of human titillation generated before this claustrophobic rush of air a thousand times before now, but to say that each time was the same would be a disservice not just to tone, but to yourself and yes, music everywhere. And it is everywhere. Sometimes it’s an amplifier’s searing breakup, sometimes it’s a studio engineer’s worst nightmare. Every time, it is an aggressive whetstone made for sharpening your instrument’s killing edge.
Tube or Pedal, TS9 or Rat, Klon or Big Muff, it’s impossible to escape the sound of those juicy, overloaded diodes. There are endless iterations of overdrive and fuzz by endless boutique and amateur builders, and in 2017, those looking to create something new in the gain family must be sure to dig deep and create a piece that is truly innovative, lest their work be cast aside as one more buzz box in someone’s dad’s basement.
Oddly enough, in January, we first got word from Chase Bliss Audio that they were working on just such a thing: an original Analog Gainstage Pedal, replete with all the functionality and ear candy we’ve come to expect from the tonally generous and dedicated Joel Korte. The way this latest release would differ from Chase Bliss’s usual outings, however, is that this piece was a collaboration with Peter Bregman and his company Resonant Electronic Design, another (slightly-more-obscure-but-still-doing-awesome-stuff) builder steadfastly dedicated/addicted to the infinite craft of pedal design. Their combined take on overdrive/fuzz/boost is a total gain changer, and I’m humbled to get the chance to put it through its paces.
- Two channels (JFET and IC) with a total of six distinct voicings
- Six Parameters:
Gain A: Controls the Gain of Channel A
Tone A: Tone control with an emphasis on transparency
Gain B: Controls the Gain on Channel B
Tone B: Tone control with a mid-range boost
Mix/Stack: Controls the level of signal coming from each voice in parallel, and acts as volume attenuator for the first voice in series.
Master: Master volume attenuator
- 3 Routing modes: A > B, B>A, and Parallel
- 33 total routing configurations
- Full MIDI functionality
- True/Buffered Bypass switch
- All-Analog Signal Path
- Expression/CV in
- 16 back-mounted dip switches control Expressed parameters and bypass method
- Small footprint
Nuts and Bolts
If you’ve never seen a fresh Chase Bliss Audio pedal in the flesh, you’ll be stoked to know that the Brothers (and all CBA pedals) comes in a wood-burned, beautifully crafted and thematically stained goddamn wooden box, which, if nothing else, speaks to Chase Bliss’ sincere attention to detail and commitment to best serving the finished product.
The Brothers itself, while beefy in terms of stability, is also deceptively small compared to the expectation I built in my head stalking its release on the internet; it is the same size as its CBA cousins (Spectre, Tonal Recall, Gravitas, etc.), or, for a contemporary comparison, an EarthQuaker Device.
The power input takes a standard 9V center-negative power supply, and only draws 60mA thanks to its all-analog signal path, which is unprecedented for a pedal with this much tweakability outside of the CBA family.
In addition to the ¼” I/O mono jacks, there are two ¼” TRS jacks on either side of the Brothers. The left jack is a MIDI input that can be used as a bypass for Channel A with a separate normally-open momentary switch, to recall up to 6 presets with the new Chase-Bliss Faves switch (more on this in a second,) or in conjunction with a Chase-Bliss MIDI Box and your own MIDI controller for the standard 128 MIDI presets. The LED in the center indicates which preset bank is active by illuminating green, red, or not-at-all. On the right there is an Expression/CV in for your standard expression pedal or for a control voltage module. CBA recommends Mission Engineering expression pedals, but I’m testing Brothers with a Moog EP-3 which works as well. Even if you hate MIDI and all things peripheral: dudes and dudettes, use an expression pedal with this thing. The lowest-hanging fruit is setting the expression to control the master to fade in gritty violin swells, but that’s child’s play compared to what’s possible.
The knobs on the Brothers are, parametrically, exactly what you might expect to see on an average overdrive or fuzz pedal, multiplied by 2. You have a Tone and Gain knob for each voicing and a master knob to attenuate the volume. There is also a dual-function Mix/Stack knob that controls the blend of the two voices in Parallel mode, and the strength of the signal going into the second voice in A > B and B > A modes, respectively. Each knob takes digital/optical control of a given parameter, allowing not just complete MIDI controllability across the board, but also providing a carefully calibrated range of tonal possibilities dialed in to naturally occurring sweet spots. In speculative theory, this should imply that in a vacuum there is nothing you can do with this pedal that sounds inherently bad, and I trust Joel and Peter tested the validity of these sweet spots to the moon and back.
Another mainstay of the Chase Bliss Audio brand are the familiar red dip switch panels on the top side of the pedal. There are 16 individual switches affecting nearly everything about the Brothers. The six dip switches furthest to the left will control whether the Master, Mix/Stack, Gain and Tone knobs are controllable via CV and Expression with a corresponding six dip switches on the center-right that determine which direction the expression will turn those parameters. Dip switches MoToByp A and MoToByp B will turn the corresponding bypass footswitch into a momentary bypass or engage switch, depending on what state the circuit was in. This is actually a super intuitive, potentially musical feature if you plan on using presets as the main means of engaging the Brothers, one that increases transition speed to create jagged dynamics in your songs. Speaking of intuitive features, on the end of the switch board we have the Sweep dip switch, which sets where on each knob the Expression/CV-enabled parameters’ range of manipulation sits. For example, with the Sweep set to up, the expression will only sweep up from where the knob is currently set, and it’ll sweep from the knob position to minimum when the switch is set to down. Just as great for in songs that go smoothly from quiet to sort of loud as it is for songs that go from loud to really loud. Finally, the Bypass dip switch sets the Brothers to either true-bypass of buffered bypass. Icing on a very rich cake.
Your New All-Time Fave(s)
Coming back to the Faves switch (sold separately): here we have a hilariously simple multivitamin of a peripheral device that consists of a soft-touch Engage footswitch and two Preset and Bank toggles. The footswitch can be set to toggle between the black-LED “Live” and red/green preset on either the Even (green) or Odd (red) setting, or between three presets on the Both setting, which cycles in order through black, red and green presets. Each bank can be accessed on the fly by holding the footswitch for a second, and will index indefinitely through each bank by holding the footswitch. To set a preset on the Brothers (and any other Chase Bliss pedal), simply hold down a footswitch for 3 seconds, then, without removing your foot/finger, hold the other footswitch for an additional 3 seconds. This will save either preset 1 (red) or preset two (green) depending on whether the first footswitch depressed was the right or the left respectively. With the Faves switch attached, you can do this twice for each of the three banks, giving you 6 stored presets plus the black “Live” mode which is just whatever happens to be on the face of the Brothers at the time, meaning there are 7 open slots to utilize. Keep in mind, though, that if you opt to use the Faves, you’ll need an additional 9V power supply lead, which might still be worth it for the sake of flexibility.
Sound & Performance:
Channel A is based on JFET circuits developed in conjunction with Resonant Electronic Design, while Channel B consists of integrated circuits that are all Chase Bliss. On both sides of the Brothers, we have a Boost, Drive, and Fuzz voicing. The ability to stack these contrasting drive voices in either direction or in parallel make the Brothers capable of accomplishing textures never before heard coming out of one box.
Resonant Electronic Design is responsible for developing Channel A’s JFET style input; this is the Brother that wears sweater vests and calls everyone “bud” unironically, but also works at a sawmill and practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He’s a warm, throaty boy that hugs your tone with thick arms of mid-rangey, never-creepy affection. The tonestack for this channel “emphasizes transparency,” allowing more of your pickups’ inherent tone to shine through the gain of the signal as the tone is cranked. A transparency boost is super important on such a warm, low-end heavy voice as it’s very easy to lose your notes in the thick of all the phat tone you’ll be thumping out.
If you haven’t watched the Mini-Doc/promo on the Brothers, first of all, do. Secondly, in said Mini-Doc, Resonant Electronic Design’s founder Peter Bregman mentions that the amp which was the basis for RED’s Graviton/Manifold/Acceleron Drive line was actually pieced together by an old projector power amp which clipped asymmetrically when pushed hard by an incoming signal. This would generate incredible harmonic overtones that contributed to the musicality of the drive. Those circuits later inspired the collaborative effort that grew into the JFET voicings in the Brothers overdrive.
Engaging the Boost at its lowest possible gain setting, I learned very quickly that this voicing was going to make me work to keep it clean. On the surface, that might sound like a chore, but the grit I experienced actually appears to be a function of the responsiveness to the volume of my guitar (especially on the hot DiMarzio Super Distortions I have in my bridge,) so we know off the bat we’re dealing with an intuitive piece of hardware. Dialing back my guitar’s volume knob and swapping over to the softer neck humbuckers, I was able to get a sultry, just-barely-pushing it clean boost. Tastefully pumping the gas on the Gain and Master pushed the front-end of my amp into a sweet zone between tube-saturation and JFET clip, so I wasted a good amount of time screwing with the dynamics I could get out of my guitar’s volume knob, then saved the preset for my own personal use later. The Drive voice is immediately huge and super musical, opening up the floodgates for juicy, explosive noodle fuel. The midrangey girth of the JFET circuit paired with warm humbuckers would be well served in the thrall of any bluesy player with a propensity for a chunkier, blues driver-esque tone and deep low end. The cleanup is nice too, freeing up the headroom for a subtler, creamier vibe, showing off the full power of its asymmetrical clipping pattern only when provoked with fuller chords. As is the case with most fuzzes, Channel A’s Fuzz voicing displayed a marked decrease in volume when engaged as a result of the signal being compressed; boosting the output compensates nicely.
Chase Bliss’s Channel B is the bitier, sassier twin, owing its aggressive pluck to a series of all original integrated circuits, 2 of them inspired by some classics. A tendency to lean toward the high-range frequencies gives off the feel of a treble-boosted overdrive, which is great for lead and soloing. The mid-centric tonestack also thickens up what the IC naturally lacks in mid-range meat, meaning that like its Brother, B is not just a one or even three-trick pony, but a scrappy multi-tool that knows its own weakness and defends it with ergonomical sonic padding. All-in-all, CBA’s side occupies a much more high-and-tight, uncompressed zone.
Cutting the Gain while pumping the Tone past 2 o’clock on Channel B’s Boost is a great way to get a clean volume boost with a neat little hump in the mid-range to beef it up, a sound reminiscent of the EHX Soul Food and its other Klone brethren. The Drive on Channel B lends itself to a much more modern-sounding “Tube Screamer evolved” overdrive tone, giving us the gift of melodious, mid-high grit that cleans up really well. It absolutely ripped when paired with the high-output of my bridge pickup, making it sit high and clear above a full band mix. When you switch to Channel B’s Fuzz circuit, be prepared for a brutal, stoner metal late 70’s Big Muff inspired Fuzz with a surprising amount of gain. With the tone knob rolled back, you get an evil sounding growl guaranteed to shake the foundation of your house, and dialed up you get an aggressive rip. I was pleased to hear that neither of the fuzz voices were afflicted by the sharp, twangy, pick-attack *p-chew* that some highly-compressed fuzzes suffer from in a misguided attempt to emulate a vintage fuzz tone. To some that sound is desirable, but for me it’s just a bit too much.
From Gain Stage to Main Stage
While all of the voices are perfectly valid and incredible on their own, the thing that’s kept me up at night since I first heard about the Brothers was its Routing switch, the very feature that makes the Brothers an “Analog Gainstage” pedal and not just an “Overdrive.” The center toggle can point the signal path from A to B, B to A, or run the twin tones in parallel. A > B and B > A benefit from a signal attenuator on the first circuit in the form of the Stack knob, allowing you to dictate how strongly the second circuit is hit. Obviously the higher you go on the Stack knob, the more compressed and gain-y the output becomes. Switching into parallel not only serves to fill any holes missing in the frequency spectrum from the individual voices, but also creates distinct, almost dual-amp-like textures. The amount of each voice that shines through is up to you, controllable with the Mix knob, formerly the stack knob.
Possibly the most important thing to emphasize about the Brothers’ tone is that it is ABSOLUTELY NOT secretly six variations on a fancy tube screamer, something that, if not objectively an advantage, is at least one more factor in a sea of factors that make it unique from a majority of the drives on the market today. There were times when, with only Channel B’s Drive engaged and the tonestack dialed back to just below 12 o’clock, I was getting some relatively Screamer-esque tones, but still never lost the IC’s obvious texture. This satisfies that common Tube Screamer need for a lot of guitarists, but when you get down to brass tacks, will also set your sound apart from the mobs of screaming mimis and their little green pedals out there. To me, that’s much more valuable.
I won’t say I had to fight to get mud, because any pedal will excrete some sour tones if not used judiciously, but working with the Brothers I really got the sense that Peter and Joel, with the help of some great engineers and testers, carefully and lovingly curated the range of expression contained within each knob to a neurotic fault. Both Channels complement not just each other, but themselves, proffering simple tools to help the guitarist to shore up any potential weakness inherent within. While I am a rabid features nut and was thoroughly satisfied on that front, I’m also impressed with how effectively the Brothers proves, perhaps paradoxically, the universally sensed truth that you don’t really need all that much to dial in a great drive tone. When it came to discussing the parameters I expected to go in a little disappointed, weakly bemoaning the lack of parametric EQ options and the missed tone-sculpting opportunities therein, but I’m happy to report that even with just the Transparency/Mid-Boost tone knobs, the Brothers’s flexibility in terms of frequency range is colossal. I don’t know why I ever doubted this collab.
Considering the incredibly wide amount of possible drive sounds and routing combinations the Brothers affords, the Faves foot-switch is an invaluable companion for helping you make the most of this pedal. It’s super handy to be able to recall a custom preset by tapping Faves and then individually activating the individual A & B channels from Brothers’ onboard footswitches. When recalling a preset, the Active/Bypass status of the 2 channels will also be recalled, and you can then choose among the different sounds available in a given preset. For example, say you recall a sound with just a Drive on channel B active. You might be running it series into channel A with a little extra Boost available if you tap the Brothers’ A footswitch. Then you could also tap the B footswitch to bypass the Drive and just use the Boost. Now imagine using Faves to access 6 preset templates.
The only real potential performance related issue for some guitarists might be the closeness of the Brothers’ 2 onboard foot-switches. On other Chase Bliss Audio pedals like Warped Vinyl MKII, Wombtone MKII, Gravitas, Spectre, & Tonal Recall, this was less of an issue because if you accidentally stomped on the Tap footswitch once while activating the pedal, you wouldn’t mistakenly change tap tempo rate since more than one tap is needed to assign a new tempo. With a drive pedal like Brothers, however, accidentally hitting a full gain fuzz when you just wanted that subtle boost could be a real issue in a live situation. If you step carefully you can avoid any potential ear carnage, and this could also be a consideration for using a MIDI enabled effects switcher to handle all preset changing and activating/bypassing duties.
In terms of what could be added to improve the Brothers, I can’t say I know of anything it lacks aside from my usual complaint, one I feel is particularly pointed in the case of the Brothers: the lack of stereo outs for the benefit of parallel routing. Perhaps, if pressed, I would suggest an effects loop to put another effect pedal or (call me crazy,) another overdrive for an extra stage of gain between the two voices, but that feels extreme and probably impractical for both the user on stage and an already jam-packed enclosure like the Brothers.
The Chase Bliss Audio Brothers stands up to the hype it generated upon its announcement and meets the CBA standard by delivering some of the best overdrive tones I’ve ever heard in an easier delivery system than I thought would ever exist in an analog based gain pedal. At $349 the Brothers is not necessarily what I’d call an “affordable” pedal, but with 6 amazing analog drive voices, presets, full MIDI/CV integration, and 33 independent routing options, it’s also not what I’d call a “pass.” On the contrary, if you need a drive (or two) and have the money, the Brothers has the potential to be the last drive investment you ever make. You won’t want for much if balanced variation is what you’re after, and you don’t need to look much further to know that the Brothers may be, presently, the best thing for it. There have been many dual overdrives in recent years, and a few parallel drives, but as far as I can tell, there’s only one other pedal that does both. All this, coupled with it’s unparalleled (ha!) tone push the Brothers into a category all its own, and you can expect the industry to follow the example it sets.
That concludes our Chase Bliss Audio Brothers review. Thanks for reading.