The JHS Pedals Colour Box is a landmark release for the Kansas City based effects pedal builder and an equally noteworthy pedal in the realm of guitar effects in general. What makes it so special? Well, this bold undertaking seeks to deliver a studio-grade “channel-strip-in-a-box” in the vein of the iconic Neve 1073 microphone preamp/EQ module from the Neve 80 series analog mixing consoles, something never before so thoroughly attempted in a guitar pedal. The Colour Box was a concept so promising that this author even ranked it as the most impressive pedal at the Winter NAMM 2014 show, greatly adding to the initial hype surrounding this product (for better or worse). So did it live up? Is it the ultimate tool for achieving Neve 1073 style “direct-in” saturation and dirt in a guitar effects pedal? You’ll find out in our JHS Pedals Colour Box review.
- Neutrik ¼” / XLR Input allows guitar, bass, vocals, acoustic guitars, keyboards, etc., to be used live or in the studio
- Separate ¼” mono output & Neutrik XLR output are independent and allow you to run parallel outputs to two destinations
- ¼” / XLR switch lets you choose between ¼” or XLR input
- -20dB switch is a standard 20dB pad for use with the XLR input
- Master – The Master Gain (labeled “Master”) is what would typically be considered as a Volume control.
- Pre-Vol – The Pre Volume (labeled “Pre-Vol”) can be used the same as you would a Drive knob on an overdrive pedal.
- Step – The Step Gain (labeled “Step”) changes the gain of each preamp stage in five stages (from left to right: 1st is x 18dB, 2nd is x 23dB, 3rd is x 28dB, 4th is x 33dB, 5th is x 39dB).
- Hi Pass – The High-pass spans from 60Hz to 800Hz with a 6dB per octave slope. This control allows you to only let high frequencies pass.
- EQ Controls – The tone control section is a highly modified Baxandall type that is tuned for less control interaction and more boost/cut capability. The center frequencies are Treble 10kHz, Middle 1kHz, and Bass 12hZ, with +/- 17dB of control.
Power – 18VDC negative center power supply (included).
The Colour Box sports JHS Pedals’ characteristically minimalist appeal, packaged in a clean white enclosure (the prototypes were grey) with an attractive studio console inspired graphic on its surface.
The knobs will be familiar to anyone who’s seen other JHS Pedals releases, and they’re easy enough to grip with a moderate potentiometer resistance that yields a satisfying and smooth knob feel. The 3 blue Treble, Middle, & Bass tone controls also have a center indent at noon which allows easy placement to a neutral ‘flat’ tone position. A handy flip-switch allows you to activate the Hi Pass function, activating the dedicated knob for sweeping out the lows from 60Hz to 800Hz.
The foot-switch is located near the edge of the pedal which allows plenty of space away from the knobs, useful for avoiding the kicking of parameter knobs when the Colour Box is used on a pedalboard. The foot-switch is of the nice hearty variety that offers a satisfying ‘click’ when activating the pedal from true bypass although its pop bleeds through quite loudly, particularly when engaging the pedal. This may not be as noticeable in a loud band situation when you’re blasting into some thick saturated Colour Box distortion or when the pedal is placed in the loop of an effects switcher, but you’ll want to be mindful of the noisy foot-switch when kicking on the pedal during a quiet song transition.
The Neutrick jacks seem solid enough as expected and should provide years of reliable use. The Inst/XLR & -20dB switches are accessed from the right side via 2 small holes in the enclosure. You should be able to flip these with a small screwdriver or pen should you require the XLR input for a microphone or other XLR line audio signals. The -20dB pad will come in handy if you ever experience any clipping from running a hot signal into the Colour Box’s XLR input.
Sound & Performance:
We’re going to jump right in to the nitty gritty. The biggest selling points of the Colour Box are its saturated distortion and fuzz-like textures that come courtesy of the pedal’s 2 gain stages (the Neve 1073 has one) and a Lundahl transformer. The tones sound great whether you’re playing the Colour Box in front of an amp or plugging directly into a recording interface and jamming through studio monitors. There are plenty of bells ‘n whistles and other applications, but this is where the Colour Box shines its brightest.
With the Colour Box in front of a clean amp, start with the Master knob pretty low (around 9-10 o’clock), max the Pre-Vol, and sweep the Step knob through its 5 positions. You’ll notice at the 3rd position that there’s a noticeable amount of grit. The 4th position is pretty saturated, and this is a solid starting point for dialing in some classic drive tones reminiscent of those sounds achieved from plugging a guitar straight into a mixing console. The 5th Step position produces some buzzy fuzz that sounds pretty gnarly (watch your Master volume level; it gets loud!). To make the most out of this position, you’ll probably want to back off the Pre-Vol a bit to rein in the fuzz from the brink of full-blown saturated chaos as the signal can get choked off at the highest Pre-Vol levels. Pulling it back a bit farther towards 1-3 o’clock yields a range of great wooly overdriven tones. There are plenty of tasteful tones and textures to be found with a little exploration and careful pairing with your guitar, pickups, and amp.
The EQ controls help dial in the sound and offer great flexibility for crafting a tone that’ll sit in the mix well. It’s also the EQ section in conjunction with the Lundahl LL1578 input transformer that give the Colour Box its “color”. At noon the Baxandall style EQ produces a generally balanced sound, but you can easily tame any unruly frequencies (like reducing the high-end of your fuzz when playing a bright sounding guitar) or add a little boost where needed. The EQ knobs function independently of each other and are designed to leave the other frequencies unchanged when a particular band is altered. The Colour Box’s EQ should also be the strongest consideration for choosing this pedal over JHS Pedals’ recently released Crayon, a stripped down version of the Colour Box that claims to offer a similar style of saturated crunch and fuzz but with a single knob tilt style EQ instead of the 3 knob Baxandall arrangement. (More about the “Crayon vs Colour Box” below. Also, see the Diamond Compressor for well-executed example of a pedal featuring a tilt EQ.)
The Hi Pass is definitely worth exploring as this can provide some great lo-fi, treble-focused sounds. Raising the Hi Pass knob up clockwise reduces more and more of the lower frequencies. You can make it sound very brittle (in a good way) by also reducing the Bass and Middle, or you can perfectly define your top-focused tone by carefully sculpting the EQ knobs to achieve your desired sound, maybe with some additional bass or midrange presence.
A Lundahl Transformer… in a pedal?
One of the most hyped selling points of the JHS Pedals Colour Box is its Lundahl branded microphone input transformer. The pedal even has the “Lundahl Transformers” logo emblazoned on the bottom side of the pedal next to the JHS logo. This might mistakenly lead some guitarists to believe that the very inclusion of a transformer from such a highly regarded company as Lundahl means that this is an ultra-high fidelity studio-grade pedal. The XLR I/O options and mixing console artwork also add to this “studio-grade” impression. But all Lundahl transformers aren’t the same nor are their applications or implementation in the products that may feature them.
I happened to first spend some with and hear a production Colour Box shortly after I reviewed the Origin Effects Cali76-TX-LP (a compressor pedal), with that unit and the similar Cali76-TX-L being the only other guitar pedals I’m currently aware of that contain Lundahl transformers. My initial lack of a deeper understanding about the differences in the transformers used and their differing functions in the Colour Box and the Cali76-TX-LP led to severe disappointment with the Colour Box when I first played it and searched for so-called “studio grade” clean tones when playing it in front of a clean amp.
Essentially, while the Cali76-TX-LP maintains a very respectable low-noise signal integrity when placed in front of a guitar amp, the same can’t be said for activating a Colour Box in your guitar signal chain. Even at the lowest Pre-Vol levels with Step set to the 1st position, you’ll hear an obvious noise added to your signal whenever the Colour Box is engaged. (Noise isn’t color; noise is noise.) It’s not overly intrusive while you’re playing and probably wouldn’t be noticeably bothersome in a band setting (or if you’ve never heard the other pedal I’m referencing in person or side-by-side with the Colour Box). But the Colour Box’s lack of pristine signal clarity when placed in front of an amp might be off-putting for those considering the pedal for end-of-signal-chain preamp use or general EQ’ing and tone-shaping duties. While the Colour Box may appear misleading if you’re looking for a pristine “modern” studio-grade preamp pedal, the higher than expected noise floor does add to the “old vintage gear” vibe, which may be appealing if you’re looking for that sort of thing. It’s also worth remembering that the pedal is based on Neve 1073 microphone preamplifier modules which were originally made over 40 years ago at a time when the noise floor standards were obviously less stringent than they are today. Ultimately, having a proper perspective on what the Colour Box is rather than what it isn’t will help you avoid similar initial disappointment.
Getting back to those transformer specifics, the Colour Box contains a Lundahl LL1578 Microphone Input Transformer while the Origin Effects Cali76-TX-L & LP both contain the LL1517 Audio Output Transformer. Without going further down the rabbit hole of comparison, just know that these are different transformers for different audio applications, and they’ve been applied in these products by builders with drastically different backgrounds (i.e. stompbox builder vs studio equipment engineer). The transformers play different roles and functionality purposes in their respective circuits. Also, while the Lundahl equipped Cali76 pedals are meant to be studio grade in all areas of operation and audio fidelity, the Colour Box, first and foremost, is a tool meant to help you achieve “direct-in” saturated guitar tones, and at that the pedal greatly excels. Bearing all this in mind, it’s not fair to make comparisons to other pedals as there really isn’t anything else out there that does what this pedal does.
Colour Box: Direct In
Again, it’s the Colour Box’s saturated tones that are where the real fun happens. Cranking the Pre-Vol to higher levels and experimenting with Step settings 3-5 yield many shades of useable overdriven “direct-in” guitar tones. While you lose the pleasing filtered effect from miking a speaker cabinet directly, the EQ section does an adequate job of shaping your recorded guitar tone, especially curbing the high-end if needed. You can have more fun with the audio once it’s “in-the-box”, the box being your computer in this case, or you can use the Colour Box in a similar way to “re-amping” by sending a clean recorded guitar track out from your DAW (i.e. Ableton Live, Pro Tools, etc.) and into the pedal, then recording its output on another channel.
Surprisingly, when plugging the Colour Box directly into a recording interface via the ¼” output or XLR output, the pedal’s noise issues are less apparent than when using it in front of an amp, and it does a pretty solid job at getting reasonably clean guitar tones into your DAW. It’s still not entirely “studio grade” by modern standards, but the minor noise issues will be even less noticeable in a full mix with other instruments. And if you’re purposefully going for a classic, mildly-noisy, vintage vibe in a world of sterilized and overly pristine recording equipment and digital audio, the Colour Box’s drawbacks (let’s call it “analog character”) may indeed become a boon for your use.
Colour Box V2?
My main gripes with the pedal have been mostly mentioned throughout this review, but while The Colour Box remains a very bold and largely successful attempt at producing a Neve 1073 microphone preamp channel strip in a guitar pedal, there is room for improvement. Considering that other pedals inspired by famous studio gear like the audiophile grade Effectrode PC-2A (based on a Teletronix LA-2A) & Origin Effects Cali76-CD (based on an Urei 1176) are both immaculately quiet and pristine while offering unobtrusive silent-switching when activating/bypassing those pedals, I’d love to see JHS Pedals upgrade the Colour Box in the audio fidelity department (i.e. lower noise) and with quieter operation (i.e. silent switching). Also, while another pedal, Dr. Scientist’s The Elements, offers solid distortion with significantly quieter EQ’ing, tone shaping, and clean boosting capabilities (and is nearly half the price of a Colour Box), a little attention to the Colour Box’s noise floor could put the pedal at least on par with The Elements’ sound quality and tonal flexibility when it comes to clean tones and EQ’ing. Although, remember, the Colour Box’s main focus is achieving dirtier, saturated “direct-in” guitar tones, an area so far only pursued this thoroughly and effectively by JHS Pedals.
JHS Colour Box vs JHS Crayon?
As mentioned repeatedly, the Colour Box’s strongest points are in its saturated overdrive and fuzz tones, but the recently released JHS Pedals Crayon aims to capture a similar “direct-in” vibe at half the price. It mainly does this by getting rid of all the unnecessary XLR options, removing the transformer (while still aiming to achieve a similar saturation), replacing the 3-band EQ section with a single “tilt” EQ knob, and simplifying the Hi Pass section to a switch (with 2 internal voice options). Value isn’t usually a consideration when we’re grading pedals as sound quality and inspiration are priceless commodities, but the Crayon may be an equal or better option for achieving a “direct-in” style of saturation at a considerably smaller financial outlay that could better suit the needs of budget-minded guitarists. But if JHS Pedals can find a way to address the cleaner applications of the Colour Box without sacrificing the great saturated tonality of this pedal, we’ll look forward to re-evaluating any improvements to this unique concept.
Let’s see the final result.
The JHS Pedals Colour Box excels at producing “direct-in” style overdrive and fuzz tones similar to the countless guitar recordings that were made by recording a guitar directly into a Neve 1073 microphone channel strip. Whether you’re plugging the Colour Box directly into an audio mixer or recording interface or running it into your amp, the Colour Box adds a broad palette of pleasing saturation to your tonal toolbox. We’d like to see the signal noise addressed for cleaner tones & EQ’ing when used in an effects pedal signal chain or alone in front of an amp. This would also translate to a cleaner, more high-end and modern recording experience for other audio sources as well. And while the newly released JHS Pedals Crayon could cannibalize Colour Box sales since it aims to achieve similar direct-in style tones for half the price, the Colour Box’s greater EQ flexibility and individual mojo will ensure its lasting appeal among JHS Pedals fans and guitarists seeking a great “direct-in” tone solution from a guitar pedal.
That concludes our JHS Pedals Colour Box review. Thanks for reading.