Saturday, September 27, 2014
A Brief History of Crunch: The Tube Screamer (Part I)
Date: September 27th, 2014
The Ibanez “Tube Screamer” is like the iPhone of overdrive pedals; everyone you know has one, and those who don’t, want one – even if they tell you somewhat contemptuously otherwise. The Tube Screamer (especially its first two iterations, TS808 & TS9) is arguably the most venerated of stomp-box effects.
The reverence musicians hold for the Tube Screamer is due to the sort of sympathetic relationship it establishes with a tube amp: “As you increase the amplitude of an input signal to overload a tube amp’s preamp,” writes Lindsey Tucker for the Premier Guitar site, “it distorts the signal in a way that adds sustain, edge, and harmonic liveliness, while preserving the innate tonal characteristics of the guitar and amp-and without obscuring the player’s dynamics.” The reason for the pedal’s appeal is not unlike that of the Klon Centaur, which was discussed on this here blog a couple months back; if anything, boutique effects like the Centaur were very determined attempted to imitate or even out pace what the Tube Screamer had already done
Ironically enough, Ibanez and parent company, Hoshino, made a name for itself in the late 60s and early 70s for producing Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker knockoffs. Nisshin, the Japanese outfit that supplied pickups for some of Ibanez’s ersatz instruments, was in fact the company that manufactured the first Tube Screamer, and other effects, for Ibanez, but as result of an interesting if somewhat vague arrangement between Nisshin and Ibanez/Hoshino, “Nisshin was allowed to market its own line of effects, which were identical to those it made for Ibanez,” as Tucker writes. In 1979, the fist Tube Screamer, TS808, debuted and was quickly picked up by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and other guitar greats.
But the Tube Screamer wasn’t the only new kid on the block. Around the time of the TS808’s debut, the Roland company was producing the first overdrive by the now ubiquitous pedal brand, Boss. And to the dismay of the Tube Screamer’s circuitry designers, Roland/Boss had already obtained a patent for their overdrive pedal’s asymmetrical clipping system, and so Ibanez was prodded into going with a symmetrical clipping system for their overdrive design. In fact, the different clipping systems were really the only thing that set the two overdrives apart. Boss’s asymmetrical clip was designed to distort the top and bottom of the sound wave in a rather varied fashion, much like a tube amp would. This was a major selling point for Boss, because at the time, in the late 70s and early 80s, amp manufacturers were moving away from tubes toward solid-state designs, and a distortion effect that could really capture the desirable crunch of a tube amp while masking the then poor sound quality of solid-state amplification would almost surely sell like lemonade on a hot, humid day.
But the competition didn’t stymie Tube Screamer sales. The Tube Screamer was one of the first pedals to include the JRC 4558D integrated circuit chip, and as former Ibanez product manager John Lomas maintains in Tucker’s Premier Guitar article, “the sweet, vocal mid-range sound the TS808 is known for has everything to do with that JRC4558D IC chip-which explains why Lomas and many other overdrive aficionados prefer the sound of the original over other permutations of the pedal that have emerged over the years.”
It’s not hard to find internet guitar forums where commenters assert the superior sound of the original Tube Screamer design and that any position to the contrary would be indefensible, even reprehensible. And if this is an indication of anything at all, it’s that the Tube Screamer has left an indelible mark on the sound of contemporary rock music.
(More to come…)