The Effectrode Blackbird SR-71 is a two-channel tube preamp pedal inspired by the “Blackface” Fender Twin Reverb and a certain highly sought after Dumble amp. Effectrode is regarded as the premier guitar pedal builder when it comes to implementing real vacuum tubes in their “audiophile pedals”. The Blackbird is one of the builder’s flagship pedals with a range of tonal options that allow it to be integrated with a guitar amp as an additional preamp. It can even act as your pedalboard based amp solution or tube tone recording solution when in both cases used in combination with your preferred method of speaker cab simulation. I had high hopes for this pedal, and it lived up in a big way. We’ll get to the details soon, but first, let me ask you this…
Is “Good Tone” Purely Subjective?
I’ve played a lot of pedals in recent years. (That’s somewhat of an understatement.) Yet while I have a lot of experience with guitar pedals, I generally don’t like to assume that I possess any more expertise on the subject than any other tone-chasing guitarist; I just know what I like and what sounds good to my ears. But I have noticed that I’ve become much more discriminating over time. Perhaps I have indeed acquired a greater ability to discern good tones from bad, as subjective as we may assume good tone to be. But I’d argue that there is an objectivity to good tone versus bad, just as you might claim that there is more artistic merit to a Rembrandt painting than a 4-year-old’s doodling. Some pieces of masterfully crafted gear stand out “tonally” with their sound quality expressing a sonic detail and universal appeal that transcend the crude efforts of lesser luthiers, although the reasons why may be difficult to communicate in language.
I won’t ramble down the rabbit hole of that point. I just brought up that musing for two reasons. First, it’s because the Effectrode Blackbird seems to be an immaculate creation. Within less than 10 minutes of plugging in to this pedal, I had already crowned it as one of my personal top 5 favorite pedals, and it’s since become a staple in my own guitar rig. That’s perhaps greater than any critical praise I could give. And that’s also a big deal to me because, like I said, I’ve play a lot of pedals. The other reason is that regardless of my personal opinion, I believe that the Blackbird has objectively good qualities that set it apart from most pedals. Frankly, I find this product so good that it’s intimidating to write about as I fear that I may not be able to express its merits accurately. It’s not about writing a “convincing” article or about whether or not my words “sell” you on the idea of this product. Yes, this is a very special instrument. Yes, I think every guitarist should experience it. And it’s the seemingly esoteric and ineffable qualities of the Blackbird I fear you may not get out of this article. Even watching a demo video won’t convey what you experience when playing it for yourself. Just keep that in mind going forward.
Two Truly Independent Channels: Add multiple channels to your vintage/boutique guitar amp! The clean channel is a replica of the classic ‘Blackface’ circuit Leo Fender created from the RCA Receiving Tube Manual and is beautifully warm and glassy sounding. The overdrive channel is an improvement on the hot-rodded tube circuitry found in Dumble amps and packs a huge degree of flexibility ranging from warm and fat blues drive tones, through classic rock crunch, to harmonically-saturated sounds.
Classic Tone Stacks: Each channel has it’s own dedicated Bass, Mid and Treble controls based on the interactive tonestacks found on the ‘Blackface’ amps.
Tube Buffered Output: For connection to guitar amplifier. This output is a low impedance tube cathode follower stage with +10dBu of gain and is capable of driving long cable runs with lowest possible tone loss.
Transformer Balanced Out: For superb professional quality direct recording. Triad transformer isolated balanced output (600Ω impedance) with +6dBu gain allowing direct connection to mixing desk, PC sound capture card or power amplifier. The transformer is driven by audiophile discrete class AB transistor circuitry (the only solid-state components in the entire signal path) and imparts some additional sweetness to the guitar signal – in fact, speaker emulation often isn’t even necessary when recording direct, just a some eq and a little reverb can create incredible, full-bodied tones.
Adjustable Bias: External switch allows biasing to be selected for 12AX7, 12AU7 or 12AY7 tubes installed in the overdrive channel. Internal bias trim pot allows further adjustment for other types of dual stage miniature B9A tube such as 12AV7, 12AT7, etc. Swapping tubes allows the fundamental character of the drive channel to be altered to replicate a wide range of vintage guitar amps and create new sounds too.
Tube swapping: The tone and gain characteristics of the Blackbird pedal can be fine-tuned by interchanging tubes – the pedal is designed for easy access to the tubes for this purpose. In the time it takes to change a light-bulb the core tone of the overdrive channel can be tailored to your exact requirements – from subtle break-up, to mellow blues and vintage or saturated modern rock distortion, this pedal has wide versatility and all by simply removing a tube and replacing it with a different type.
All Tube: The Blackbird is an entire tube preamp section in a pedal format. The signal path is 100% pure analogue built with vacuum tubes operating at amp plate voltages. D.C. powered tube heaters ensure absolute quietest possible operation.
Audiophile Components: Absolutely no skimping on the quality of the components – polyester capacitors and instrumentation grade metal-film resistors are used throughout the audio signal path. Find out more about the Effectrode engineering ethos on component quality here!
Dakaware Knobs: Authentic phenolic Dakaware, Chicago 1510 knobs custom manufactured for Effectrode in the U.S.A using the original 1940s moulds.
Extremely compact: The Blackbird is small enough to carry in a gig bag with your cables, tuner and other tools of the trade. You’ll be sure of unparalleled tone wherever you roam and it makes a great backup as a spare rig. No guitarist should leave home (or be at home!) without it!
Housed in a real metal box: The Blackbird is built to last and for rigorous touring – each preamp pedal is housed in an aluminum alloy enclosure which powder-coated with a stoved epoxy silkscreen.
True Bypass Switching: With Effectrode’s unique ‘anti-pop’ or ‘thump’ footswitching circuitry utilizing sealed, gold-contact relay to eliminate the possibility of dirty contacts degrading the sound and minimal internal audio path.
Includes 12V Wall-wart Power Supply: High quality low-noise switched mode 12VDC at 1.5A wall-wart compatible with all our pedals. Accepts 100V to 240VAC mains input and comes with different mains outlet adaptor plugs, so there is always a plug that fits the country that you are playing in.
Named after the coolest plane ever built!: The Blackbird SR-71 operated at Mach3+ to allow the pilot to outrun ground-to-air missiles! Like it’s counterpart the Blackbird vacuum tube preamp puts you in control of your core drive sound.
I’ll give most of my commentary about the Blackbird’s features in the next section where I’ll discuss them in relation to the sounds this pedal produces. I just want to touch briefly on the design of this elegant instrument. Effectrode pedals generally have a functional, understated appearance, and that’s the case with the Blackbird. The enclosure is a bit wide, so it’ll need some accommodation on a tight pedalboard. Fortunately, all the jacks are top-mounted for convenient access and to ensure there’s no potential wasted ‘board real estate on each side of the pedal. The face of the pedal is packed tightly; control knobs and foot-switches are densely spread a bit past the left two thirds of the pedal’s surface. On the right side is a roll-bar protected trio of glowing JJ Electronic 12AX7 tubes protruding up from within. My only area of concern with the layout is that the 2 foot-switches are a bit close to the classy looking Dakaware knobs of the clean channel. Restrained performers won’t mind, but rowdy showmen will need to step a bit more carefully or consider using an external TRS 2-button foot-switch for channel switching/bypassing if the close proximity is an issue.
Opening the pedal doesn’t offer a view of the components, but be assured that what’s on the other side of the PCB is as densely packed as possible to keep what’s basically an actual “amp-in-a-box” (at least the pre-amp anyway) in as small of an enclosure as possible. You will discover the Bias trimpot, a Volume trimpot, and a jumper for changing switching functions. We’ll discuss the details of these internal options as we go.
Sound & Performance:
Let’s talk about the general sounds the Blackbird offers when used as a pre-amp in front of a traditional amp. I generally prefer cleaner amp tones that are in Fender Bassman or Blackface territory, and I’m currently running through either a Rivera Venus 5 or Venus Recording with the amp’s EQ voicing set for a Blackface style sound. For testing I used an American Standard Strat with DiMarzio HS-3 in the bridge & a Gibson Flying V with Seymour Duncan ’59 (neck) and JB 35th Anniversary (bridge) pickups.
Activating the Blackbird over a neutral clean amp sound adds further to the distinct Blackface style characteristics I’m pretty accustomed to. There is a very nice shine to the sound, a brilliant “glassy” tone that reveals some of the best Fender Twin Reverb style tonality you’ll hear outside of a pristine specimen of the actual amp. The Blackbird’s Clean Channel boasts a familiar tonestack found in those classic amps, so veterans with experience playing the Fender originals will be at home here. In addition to the Bass, Middle, & Treble controls is a single Volume knob (no Gain needed) for matching levels or applying a little boost if you want to hit your amp a little harder to induce some overdrive.
What I find especially appealing is that the Blackbird doesn’t compound your clean tone into a muddy mess when stacking it with a clean amp foundation tone. It’s surprising how incredibly low the noise floor is, and I’ve found myself often using the Clean Channel “always on” as an essential component to my clean sound when playing the Blackbird in front of a tube amp. Also, if I’m switching from a humbucker to single coil equipped guitar, I may use the pedal to add or remove certain frequencies (particularly treble) while setting the Volume to a matched level to that of the other guitar. This adds a lot versatility for performing guitarists who use multiple guitars on stage or anyone who’d find an additional clean sound appealing. And it’s generally useful if your amp’s base clean sound needs a little extra sparkle.
There’s also a Presence flip-switch that can add some instant brightness to the Clean Channel. It applies to all of the pedal’s various channel voicings, so it may not be suitable to leave on in all situations. I’ll discuss its use in a moment.
The Crunch Channel is a hot-rodded Dumble flavoring (the Dumble amp it’s based on in particular being itself an evolved Blackface Fender). This channel adds a dedicated Gain knob to the control scheme and with it a range of saturated tones to explore. There are also 2 unique configurations for this channel: Classic & Creamy.
The Classic mode yields an appropriately “classic” range of drive tones. Go here for the types of saturation you’d associate with blues rock and classic rock guitar. The Creamy mode offers a more modern sounding saturation with heaps of gain on tap. It’s worth going into the nuanced differences between these modes in relation to settings. I expect the Classic mode to be a favorite for many guitarists, so let’s start there.
Classic: With the Gain set left of noon, the Classic mode gives you a great, alternate clean setting if you dial in the EQ a bit differently than the Clean channel. Pushing the Gain just past noon will give you a hint of bite when you dig in. Somewhere around the 1-2 o’clock area is perhaps my favorite setting for the Gain. You’ll get a nice grit that responds well to your playing dynamics; it’ll also clean up a bit when cutting your guitar’s volume knob. Background noise is relatively low around this area, too, and the sound is tight and punchy. As you push the Gain towards around 3 o’clock and higher, the sound becomes progressively louder and brighter. At this point it’s worth mentioning that this mode may come alive a bit more for humbuckers here as you’ll notice more treble bite and note articulation. You can tweak the Gain and Treble to get your top-end just right. It’s worth noting that these settings should be considered starting points as it’ll be essential to listen carefully to find the sweet spots in relation to the guitar(s) you’re using.
Creamy: This mode immediately became my personal favorite when I first played the Blackbird as I always seem to gravitate towards more heavily saturated tones. However, I came to discover that I find the Classic mode more suited to bringing out a single-coil like clarity from humbuckers, and the Creamy mode’s saturation really works well for adding a more humbucker-like thickness to single-coils. Regardless of what guitar and pickups you use, Creamy mode provides a more harmically rich saturation that contrasts the Classic mode’s more focused and tamer tones. This mode has more complexity and richness. It also has a looser feel that isn’t too spongey. The Gain is usable all the way up to maximum settings. Despite my confession to having a propensity for gain, I don’t typically advocate for turning the Gain “to eleven”, but the wide range of excellent gain tones extends throughout the knob’s sweep which is very rare in any amp or pedal. Just be mindful; while the background noise is pretty low until around 2 o’clock, if you’re going for full saturation, some background noise will creep in.
Before moving on I need to mention the Presence switch again. This is handy for tweaking the overall response of the Blackbird to a brighter or darker rig. If your amp is a bit too warm and dark or you’re playing some vintage humbuckers, this can add a little brilliance. If your single coils are already bright enough and/or you’re playing through a modern clean amp, leave the Presence off. While I sometimes enjoy a brighter and more full-range sound, I generally find myself keeping the Presence off as the Treble knobs can add a sufficient brightness if I need it. If anything, it might be nice if there were internal Presence dip-switches to further contrast the Classic & Creamy tones, but that’s hardly anything to complain about considering the flexibility of the EQ controls.
Integrating Blackbird Into Your Rig
The Blackbird has 2 operating modes that affect the way the bypassing and channel selection works. An internal jumper lets you choose from the default mode or an “always on” mode. Let’s discuss the differences.
Default Mode: The default mode lets the Bypass foot-switch activate & bypass the pedal. The Channel switch will select from the Clean & Crunch channels. In this mode you use the Classic/Creamy flip-switch to select the voicing of the Crunch channel. The Default mode is the standard mode of operation when using the Blackbird in a rig with a guitar amp that already has a sound you enjoy. The foot-switches will thus let you have the sound of your amp with the pedal bypassed, the Clean channel, and the Crunch sound with your preferred voicing selected.
“Always On” Mode: I’ve dubbed this “always on” mode because it allows you to keep the pedal on at all times and use the Blackbird as a permanent preamp in your guitar rig. In this configuration the Channel foot-switch will select from the Clean and Crunch channels as expected while the Bypass foot-switch lets you switch from Classic to Creamy. This gives you access to all 3 preamp sounds and is ideal if the Blackbird is to become a permanent fixture of your sound. It’s worth mentioning that the Classic/Creamy flip-switch is now a master power switch for activating/bypassing the pedal in case you still want to deactivate it without opening the pedal again. It may be useful to deactivate it in the studio if need arises; the flip-switch will act like a “standby” switch on an amp..
I’ve switched between both operating modes on occasion, and there’s one concern to be aware of for guitarists that expect to use the “always on” option for quick access to both the Classic & Creamy modes. It’s fine that the Classic & Creamy modes share EQ controls; however, the Gain knob produces significantly different volume levels between the two modes. This makes it challenging to match levels. I find that the Gain works best somewhere around 1-2 o’clock as the levels are somewhat comparable here before the Classic mode spikes in volume as you increase the Gain. This is also an ideal position for moderately high Gain with low noise. Surprisingly, there’s an internal Level trimmer that reduces the volume of the Creamy mode. While this trimmer seems to thin out the Creamy tone a little which could be useful to further augment the sound if you prefer the slight difference, I’d generally suggest keeping it at max for the highest output level. While I’ve tried to be open to another possible benefit of this function, I maintain a position that it would probably be more useful as a Level trimmer for the Classic mode to better match its volume to the Creamy setting. This would theoretically add greater flexibility for matching Classic & Creamy levels.
There’s an input labeled EXT. SELECT that allows you to plug in a TRS latching foot-switch to take control of the Blackbird’s foot-switch functions. This allows you to control the pedal remotely with an amp-style 2-button foot-switch. Some effects switchers also allow amp control functions. The Blackbird is ideal in these scenarios. I’ve been using a MIDI enabled effects switcher with a DAW (Ableton Live) to automate my effects changes. It’s nice that the Blackbird can be controlled this way for optimal performance use in a complex guitar rig, and this option has become indispensable for my own needs.
In my research I found a Blackbird review online from a typically reputable publication mentioning that the Blackbird has a “speaker-emulated” output. The Blackbird does not have a speaker-emulated output. The author also complained about the “harsh” distortion of the pedal in isolation. If you were to connect a standard distortion pedal or any tube amplifier’s distorted preamp directly into a mixer, you’ll hear a brash, unfiltered distortion. Same with the Blackbird. That’s just how amps sound before a speaker filters out the harsh frequencies.
What the Blackbird does have is an ultra low noise ¼” TRS transformer isolated balanced direct output. This allows direct connection to a mixing desk or audio interface for further processing of your audio signal. The Triad Magnetics audio transformer also imparts its own subtle characteristics to your tone while providing an additional +6dBu of volume output. Surprisingly, in one recent rig setup I found myself running the Blackbird from the Direct Out into the Strymon BigSky with that pedal’s Cab Filter enabled. The tones were excellent, certainly gig-worthy. It’s worth exploring both output options in your setup, just be mindful of the extra +6dBu volume boost on the Direct Out if you’re feeding it into other pedals.
As Effectrode states on their website, you may not even need “speaker emulation” when using the Direct Out, “just add some eq and a little reverb”. Speakers are essentially analog, mechanical filters, so if you’re recording in a pinch without access to a mic and speaker cab, recording from the Blackbird’s Direct Out and applying some EQ can yield results from solid to excellent, depending primarily on your mastery of EQ. Any fault in the recorded tones from the Direct Out are no fault of the pedal itself. Also, be aware that there’s something to be said about possibly noticing a lack of power amp feel by just running a preamp into a cab sim or EQ, but the tradeoff will often be a minor concern for the convenience the Blackbird offers.
Landing the Blackbird
As we wrap this up, it is with regret that I can’t give you any feedback about switching the Blackbird’s tubes as I didn’t have any on-hand to test it with. I very much enjoy the stock JJ Electronic 12AX7s, and I imagine few guitarists will find them necessary to replace. The pedal sounds incredible as is. I did, however, make a few small tweaks to the internal bias while listening just to make the pedal sound a little tastier to my ears. If you’re a tone chaser with a small collection of vintage amp tubes, you can try swapping tubes for various 12AX7, 12AU7, 12AY7 and even 12AV7 and 12AT7’s if you’ve got them. You might find a way to make a great thing even better.
My only real concern as stated previously is that I’d like to see an option implemented to better help with balancing the Classic & Creamy modes’ output levels when switching between them. Also, I’d imagine some guitarists might like different Gain settings between Classic & Creamy modes; I personally like upping the Creamy’s Gain sometimes. To get a bit more creative with my wish-list, since I love the Creamy side so much, it would be nice if I could select between two different Gain and/or Volume levels. I’m really reaching here, and that’s not a complaint by any means. Just for having access to the pristine Clean Channel and even only one of the excellent Crunch Channel sounds, the Blackbird is a can’t miss pedal.
The Effectrode Blackbird is in a class of its own when it comes to real all-tube preamp pedals. The Clean Channel is an immaculate rendition of Blackface Fender tones. The Dumble inspired Crunch Channel is excellent in either Classic or Creamy mode. There’s plenty of tonal options to perfectly integrate the Blackbird into a rig with your favorite guitar and amp. You may even be tempted to leave the amp at home and seek out a cab-simulated solution for your Blackbird centered pedalboard or home recording setup. The transformer isolated output isn’t a mere novelty and adds indispensable flexibility for recording or signal routing. As I write this final paragraph, I’m stretching my memory to ensure this last statement is still accurate, but it seems safe to say. The Effectrode Blackbird is one of my personal top 5 favorite guitar pedals and gets my highest possible recommendation for any connoisseur of great guitar tone.
That concludes our Effectrode Blackbird SR-71 review. Thanks for reading.