There’s not much more that really needs to be said about the Chase Bliss Audio Automatone Preamp MKII (Boost + EQ + Overdrive + Fuzz + Preamp) that hasn’t been said already - it’s every bit as good as everyone says it is. I though still felt that I had to touch on one of the best executed and innovative gain pedals of all time as it would be unforgivable for me not to do my own take on the subject. Obviously it’s a pricey proposition, a little large, and a little fragile and porous around the sliders - but those are very minor niggles within the scale and scope of everything this device delivers. A product engineer is already hard at work on a transparent latched lid add-on - which I will most definitely be getting when it’s finally released as a third party accessory.
I still get the occasional reader query/inquiry about this pedal - asking me if I think it’s worth it - and the short simple answer is if you can afford it then yes this should be top of your gain pedals acquisition list! And while very much based on Chris Benson’s Preamp Pedal - a transistorised version of his 30W Chimera Tube Amp - this is not exactly the same thing. It’s output frequency profile has been slightly tweaked as Joel decided to shelve some of the sub-bass frequencies to prevent unwanted sag and low-end muffle. So the original Benson Preamp Pedal is capable of a little more low-end depth. The Preamp MKII is often defined as the Benson Preamp Pedal + CBA Condor + CBA Faves + Fuzz - which of course fuels the above visual.
In terms of core voicing - I’ve described this before as sitting somewhere between a Fender Tweed Deluxe and Vox AC30 - while it doesn’t necessarily actually capture either of those tonalities exactly - but sits somewhere in-between, depending on how you apply the Bass control - i.e. more Bass equals more towards Tweed, and less Bass equals more towards Vox. I’ve used the True North Tweed Drive and Bearfoot FX Emerald Green Distortion Machine to indicate the two natural voicing tent-poles of the pedal, as the Preamp MKII definitely gets within touching distance of those.
The 5 pedals in the top right corner are directly from Dan and Mick’s That Pedal Show episode - as featured below, I’ve added the Dunlop Germanium Fuzz Face, EHX Linear Power Boost, Fulltone OCD, Paul Cochrane Timmy and the Buffalo FX Carrera to the reference selection too, as I feel all those are very indicative of the Low-to-Mid range gain overdrive territory that this pedal mostly inhabits / represents. In fact the only pedal this sort of kicked directly off my then pedal-chain/board was the Buffalo FX Carrera - as the first profile I coincidentally set up on the Preamp MKII sounded almost exactly like how I had set up the Carrera! Generally it handles that classic overdrive territory really well and would / could be an excellent alternative / stand-in for all those pedals featured and more. It doesn’t quite do my preferred Dumble voicing, and there are certain nuances in its breakup and harmonics which don’t quite match the preferred character of some of my other favourite drive pedals say like my Keeley Modded Blues Driver - but by and large it sounds consistently amazing - with superb dynamics, harmonics and definition - and an always appealing breakup texture / character.
Note that the Diode settings aren’t particularly distinct or apparent lower down the gain range - while with more Gain applied and particularly on the Fuzz voicings they add significant texture and character - also in combination with post-gain Mids - with Q adjustments. When applied lower down the gain scale the differences are so slight that they may be nigh impossible for many to distinguish.
What really makes this pedal so worth it is not just how great it sounds and how versatile it is - but also the overall usage experience - including the visual aspect of the sliders - and just how easy it is to save and recall presets. There really is no other pedal which operates quite as beautifully elegantly as this - it’s just an unrivalled joy to deploy in every way.
People ask me about the Fuzz voicings quite a lot, and I feel in general that the Fuzz Face comparison is the most apt - while with clever application of the EQ you can get into Tone Bender style voicings and even somewhat adjacent to a sort of Muff style tonality - while that’s not necessarily the Preamp MKII’s forte.
In terms of max gain, the pedal can touch on Plexi style tones when cranked - while the mids character is not exactly the same as your typical Marshall - so the OCD association here I feel is pretty suitable - in fact all those pedals pictured around the periphery of the Preamp MKII in the above visual really best indicate for me the ballpark that this pedal most comfortably operates within. It can of course touch on several more varieties - but those pedals pictured were very carefully selected to provide as accurate a guidance as possible - to pin-point where the Preamp II’s strengths align.
The way you can hook up the different control parameters for expression control - as demonstrated in several of the videos below is also genius, and if you’re into MIDI - then you have an even greater number of functions to access - where you can turn the pedal into a pseudo-wah or oscillator even based on judicious deployment of the Mid Frequency and Q. Obviously Joel has announced the imminent retirement of his Condor EQ/Preamp/Filter pedal - which in most ways the Preamp MKII is a more full-featured replacement for.
I have this pedal actually as one of my several favourite drive flavours - this is the second most full-range pedal in the chain next to the Boss OD-200 - while there is some degree of overlap with several of my other favourites - where they deliver some slight and unique nuances not covered by the Preamp MKII.
I still have some very slight concerns about longer-term durability - which will no doubt be improved when the device gets a protective lid - but there are a lot of mechanical moving parts here which by their nature tend to wear out to some degree over an expended period. Unlike some, I do think this pedal can be well used in a live gigging situation - while I would not recommend it for smaller stages or pub-gigs as one spilled pint could undoubtedly cause catastrophic damage - you certainly need to be careful to a degree around this pedal.
In terms of usage though - it's so intuitive and easy to dial in - that it's really suitable for players of all ability. More experienced players will undoubtedly get more nuance out of it, but everyone should be able to dial in a plethora of fantastic tones.
There's a certain knack with deploying the Fuzz Voicings and Clipping Diodes which you soon get used to, while the interactive nature of dialling in the fuzz voicings may prove to be somewhat tricky for beginners - in particular the relative position of Gain to Bass and Volume! Here you just need to explore and experiment - and most should soon get the measure of it.
I have a number of larger all-rounder style pedals, and the Preamp MKII is just easily my most favourite of that type. It cannot really be readily compared to the Origin Effects RevivalDrive as that is a somewhat differently voiced engine - which does the Marshall and Vox thing with a little more authenticity in some ways - while that comes with a different level of learning curve and dial-in-ability (28 Controls!). Overall though the Preamp MKII is easier and generally more satisfactory to deploy - while in real terms these are complementary pedals each with their own strengths. Were it just a question of getting one over the other - it really depends what tones you are seeking - but overall you would have to award the win to the Preamp MKII - where the ability to easily set and recall presets via footswitch control is the essential element that nearly all equivalent pedals are missing!
This is the only pedal that combines the attributes it does to such a consistently high level - everything works as it should - with ease and obvious intuition, and everything sounds great - really lively, vibrant and dynamic - it genuinely does sound and feel more like a Tube amp then near any other equivalent.
As stated at the start. it's only deficiencies as such are its price, size and obvious vulnerabilities - I could add in the plastic slider tabs here too, but I really don't mind those. Other than those very minuscule niggles it really has no equal currently - and you can rationalise the whole size and price thing away when you consider how many different voicings this pedal has in its repertoire and just how many pedals it can stand in for.
There have been a number of ingenious next level pedals released this year - but all-round - this one is most definitely my current champ. Its combination of how it sounds and how beautifully it all works - saving and recalling presets in particular - makes it a total essential for me. Everyone who can should have one - more than 1,000 have already been sold and I don't see anyone wanting to get rid of theirs - this is definitely a forever keeper!
The first demo that really impressed me was Living Room Gear's Eirik Stordrange's take where he beautifully represented the range and breadth of the pedal in the least amount of moves as such (10 Riffs!). Next came Henning Pauly's usual very in-depth decipher and disection of the pedal - covering MIDI and Expression use in some detail. Then there was Dan and Mick's That Pedal Show episode where they compared the Preamp MKII to some of their favourite pedals - also as indicated in my above visual. After that came what I believe is the most succinct and definitive demo to date - which is Pete Thorn's typical masterclass. And finally there is Dennis Kayzer's really cool take on his favourite Preamp MKII sounds and features.
I've arranged the demos not in chronological order, but in order of my own preference and utility / usefulness. I've placed Henning's 5th here as that goes into the most detail in most ways and some may find that a touch dry - while of course ever-so-useful for those trying to get a complete overview of the pedal.
I feel that with these 5 demos you get a fully comprehensive overview of what the pedal is really about and what it can deliver - and if none of these float your boat, then I feel I can fairly certainly say this pedal is not for you - I would have to assume though that you would be in a very tiny minority. Obviously the pedal is expensive and will be practically out of reach for some, while I encourage people to scrimp and save and trade-up in any way possible to get your hands on one of these. I already feel this is a shoe-in for pedal-of-the-year - there are some other top tier contenders in the wings but I can't see anyone taking the top prize away from the Preamp MKII this year.