Who doesn’t love Brian May’s beautiful creamy Treble-Boosted Vox tone? For me it is one of my two absolute favourite distortion tones alongside Eddie Van Halen’s so called Brown Sound. My first foray into this was courtesy of the rather good, but not quite good enough Catalinbread Galileo - which just lacked a little in the gain and level department to be fully satisfactory for me. I then jumped on the silver/silicon Bearfoot FX Emerald Green Distortion Machine (EGDM) which was just what I was looking for. In fact the Silicon Emerald Green puts you square into Vox and Plexi territory depending where you set the Voice and Treble dials in particular - it sounds dynamic, rich and articulate - and is actually one of two Vox-style sounds I currently utilise in my pedal-chain.
The other Vox-style voice as such comes courtesy of the Left / Valve Rectifier Channel side of the Origin Effects RevivalDrive. The RevivalDrive gives me 3 different versions of that tone courtesy of the additional footswitch, and I use those in combination with the Bearfoot EGDM (alternate) for a variety of scenarios.
Now in terms of a dedicated mini treble-boosted Vox pedal - there actually appears to be only one such dedicated that I’m aware of - the 004 Day Tripper from the Mooer Micro PreAmp range - which does the usual 2 channel thing - Blue/Red or Clea/Driven. I don’t find that particular pedal quite to my taste though, and actually prefer the not at all intended, but to my ears - the near matching Suhr Mini Shiba Drive Reloaded whose creamy distortion tones I really love. You need to make sure that the Smooth switch is set to the Bright side, and then anything beyond around 1 o’clock gets you bang into the right sort of territory.
Of course most of the options are to be found at the compact enclosure size, and for many the Catalinbread Galileo may be enough - I did an article on ’Vox Style Pedals’ at the start of the year - which outlines some of the key possibilities in that area. I still love my Bearfoot FX EGDM so I’m not looking to change that any day soon. Note that the EGDM is available in both Silicon and Germanium varieties, and it’s the Silver one you need to be a Killer Queen!
There are fewer options at the medium enclosure size, where I’ve grown to really like the Wampler Thirty Something (formerly Ace Thirty). This gives you a separate footswitch for the boosted mode, as well as the option of AC-15 and AC-30 Headroom Modes - so you can easily switch from Beatle-esque sparkly cleans to the more saturated Brian May style treble-boosted tone. The various Vox style pedals I have touched on have different degrees of ’guitar volume knob clean-up’ potential - it’s not really a key criteria for me as I’m really just after the more saturated tone. My core clean tone is actually set to closely match the chimey / sparkly default clean Vox tone.
Finally we have the somewhat over-sized and a touch unusual but ever classic Carl Martin AC-Tone which I have always felt could do with some shrinkage, but it does give you two different Gain setting channels plus a boosted mode - courtesy of three separate footswitches. Some players though are a touch disappointed with the lack of tone controls and feel that the solitary Treble Cut dial is somewhat insufficient. It could / should probably be paired with some sort of low-end control, as that is the occasional criticism levelled at this pedal. Generally though I find it delivers a sufficiently rounded tone, but it would be nice to have more overall frequency control. I feel this pedal is very much designed for the larger footed guitar player!
I personally have a number of boost pedals in my pedal-chain - both upstream and downstream, so I’m not so much in need of a pedal with a built-in booster - besides which my Revival Drive has that covered too - courtesy of its separate footswitch. That said, I’m really impressed with the Mini Shiba Drive Reloaded and will be adding one of those to the collection soon enough - really just for further variety and versatility.
Pedals are listed in order of enclosure size - from small to large.
As stated in the intro not an intentional match, but turns out to be something of a surprise package into getting you right into the ballpark of that lovely creamy saturated but not very high gain distortion sound! Shawn Tubbs' above demo really demonstrated how close you can get, and I have no hesitation in getting behind this for such purposes. I actually really like the sound of this pedal and will be acquiring one soon. The other significant demo - by Lari Basilio shows off the smoother and lower-gain side of the pedal which is a really interesting contrast. In any case, both the Suhr mini pedals released are stellar!
As stated in the intro I was a touch disappointed with the Catalinbread Galileo which seemed to be lacking somewhat in the range department. This was fully rectified by the acquisition of the super dynamic and super versatile Emerald Green Distortion Machine which with its clever Voice knob gives you both Boosted Vox and Plexi style flavours. You don't have to take my word for it though, this pedal is the secret weapon of many a pro player - who deploy it as their main pedal-board distortion as they so love its core characteristics and range / versatility. It's been a permanent fixture on my board since I got it, even though I have a not dissimilar voicing on the left channel of my RevivalDrive - they are still sufficiently different to justify inclusion of both - at least to my mind!
One of Brian Wampler's Deluxe pedals with a separate and essential in this instance - Boost switch. This pedal really gives you all the flavours of the Vox style amp - with dual AC-15 and AC-30 headroom modes and very dynamic and highly useful Bass, Treble and Top Cut controls. None of these sorts of pedals tend to have any sort of mids control, which seems surplus to needs here. Some players have complained that they find this pedal somewhat lifeless and not sparkly enough, while I reckon that's more a fault of their setup, as Brian spent a very long time tweaking this to ensure that it could replicate Beatles, Edge and Brian May style tones!
I find that Carl Martin AC-Tone somewhat over-sized really, while there's not doubting its amp-like characteristics and really very faithful replication of the core Vox amp tones. If you're more interested in its cleaner tones - you need to view Brett Kingman's other / clean demo - as the above video focuses on the cranked side of the pedal - where the Gain and Cut dials combine smartly and you add Boost to suit. There's no denying that this delivers a very faithful rendition of that core Vox sound, and the clean sparkly side in particular is stellar, while there are other pedals which give you more in the treble-boosted department. Still with its two channels plus boost approach, this will give most players a very reasonable Vox-like experience without needing to necessarily own that amp.
As stated in the intro, my concern and key focus here is always with the treble-boosted / saturated Brian May style tone / side of the equation. I'm not really concerned with trying to achieve Beatles-style chime or the in-between sound of U2's Edge. It must be said that these different pedals have differing strengths in those areas. I've yet to find anything that does exactly the Brian May thing in terms of the degree to which you can dial down from scream to clean. Lots of pedals get your sort of close, but kind of not necessarily close enough. So you have options with using different channels for Clean and Drive - as I usually do. In fact I cam easily dial down to the in-between states on most of these pedals, just usually not all the way back down to the sparkly cleans - and at least not at unity level. Often when you dial down to clean you suffer too great a loss in volume - so I guess that if you really want the full Brian May experience you need to equip yourself with those exact same components.
For my needs I get just what I need via my Bearfoot FX and Origin Effects RevivalDrive - those in combination give me all the Vox-style tones I personally need - although usually with these pedals - they are stronger in one particular department - either on the boosted / saturation side or on the sparkly clean side - it's kind of unicorn stats for finding a pedal that gives you the exact Vox experience. For sure the Wampler Thirty Something and Car Martin AC-Tone get you very close, but for many players that is just not quite close enough! Funnily enough most of the Queen cover bands I've seen in my life nowadays rely on digital technology - utilising more modelling-based solutions like the Line 6 Helix.
Do note though that this is about the 'boosted' style tone of the Vox amp, and there are several pedals that will give you very satisfactory results in that area. As always for me, I'm not usually looking for identical and authentic replication, but more the essence of that flavour. And just as I have my own take on the EVH Brown Sound - or several different versions actually, so I have my own take on the Brian May sound too. I am not in a cover band trying to replicate those tones exactly for particular Queen songs, rather I'm using those beautiful creamy distortion tones more for my own enjoyment. It depends really on how narrowly you define 'Treble-Boosted Vox Style' as to how satisfactory of a result any of these pedals can deliver...