Mark Zaim is several galaxies distant from the VauxFlores concept. Zaim’s goal appears to be getting his overdrive pedals to sound as natural and organic as a tube amp as possible. Nothing shocking or bizarre, and no pedals “playing themselves”–just warm grit and a stout punch. Well, with one exception. His Obscene Fuzz actually flies quite close to something VauxFlores’ Travis Johns might dig: It just goes to show that there are few absolutes in the realm of musical artistry and engineering.
At this early stage in his pedal-producing career, Zaim makes every stompbox by himself in the USA, and definitely goes for the “DIY boutique” vibe. With fairly standard powder-coated chassis and knobs (although the Marshall-like controls on the Tubelicious OD and Hot Rod Metal Tubelicious OD are pretty trick), and the look of hand-lettered text on the front panels, the Zaim line could have been produced in my grandpa’s tinkerer’s shack. This is not a criticism, by the way. I dig homegrown pedals just as much as I appreciate the fantastic industrial design of the Ogre line. Both options can look cool and stunning on your pedalboard.
Every Zaim pedal features true-bypass switching, and can operate with either AC or DC power supplies, as well as 9-volt batteries. Each pedal is also shielded against RF noise, protected against incorrect power-supply polarity, and offers battery cable strain relief. Test guitars included a Les Paul, Stratocaster, Telecaster, and a Danelectro with lipstick tube pickups, and the amps were a Vox AC30, a Marshall JCM 900, and an Orange Tiny Terror.
The Harmonic Pump ($199 direct) is an excellent “more better” pedal. I’d also call it a “boost with benefits,” as it does double duty as a near transparent signal booster and an organic yet gritty overdrive. It’s rather amazing how much the Harmonic Pump lets you be you, until you decide you want a ruder you. What I mean is, the boost feature maintains the tonal character of your setup– as well as the dynamics of your fingers and pick against the strings–but clarifies them, as if you could afford a superstar guitar tech to mod your gear until it delivers every ounce of glorious sound available within. And then, you demand more growl and funkiness and raunch from that tech because you’ve turned into some power-mad guitar demon, and, voila, there it is. Except, in this instance, all you have to do is peg the Drive knob.
Of course, to accomplish this trick, the Harmonic Pump can’t overly compress input signals or get spiky at higher settings, and it doesn’t. It’s full-bandwidth boost and crunch here with no frequencies that appear to be hyped to goose attack or increase/decrease low end. The Harmonic Pump is also a very quiet pedal. Everything sounds as natural as you please, so this isn’t an appropriate choice for transforming your guitar tone. But, hey, if you really dig what ya got, but would love a touch more bliss, the Harmonic Pump will make you very happy indeed.
HOT ROD “METAL” TUBELICIOUS OD
We’re in alphabetical order here, so the Hot Rod “Metal” ($209 direct) comes before the Zaim pedal that it is based on, which is the Tubelicious OD. I’m pretty sure we’ll all be able to keep things straight, but, if you’re nervous about it in any way, please feel free to skip down to the Tubelicious OD review and then pop back to this evaluation. Okay?
Basically, Mark Zaim decided to mod his own pedal, and punch up the character of the Tubelicious OD by incorporating three stages of complex clipping to offer more extreme, high-gain distortion tones. One of the trade-offs of his mod is a little less output than what is offered by the TOD, but you still get enough of a level boost to help solos cut through the band when playing onstage. Thanks to Mark’s organic nature, however, we’re still a few miles from Recto territory, and traveling in the land of “Old School Metal.” This is not a complaint, as the thick and soaring distortion tones are very amp-like and natural. It’s as if you just cranked up a vintage, non-master-volume Marshall to get that thrilling power and near-endless sustain, but didn’t have to blow out all the windows of your house to get there.
I didn’t so much drop a category on this pedal, as much as I simply enjoyed the un-hyped, organic distortion that made it tons of fun to play aggressive solos and bombastic riffs. The excitement factor always upped itself a notch or two when I kicked in the Hot Rod “Metal,” and, somehow, this box always snuck onto my pedalboard for gigs and sessions. Funny, huh?
Sometimes, I guess even “Mr. Organic” Mark Zaim has to go a little nutty, and the Obscene Fuzz ($179 direct) is his wild hair. But although his fuzz produces all the buzzes, sizzles, and searing sustain one would expect from a good fuzz pedal, he also managed to keep the tone very articulate and grounded. Go figure. So while the Obscene Fuzz certainly does not sound amplike, it also doesn’t totally obliterate note definition. You get all that cool, nasty, in-your-face fizzle, but when you play complex chords and arpeggios, you can hear exactly what you’re fingering. Along with the Volume and Fuzz controls, there’s also an Obscene switch that is supposed to unleash all manner of horrific nastiness, and, after playing with the VauxFlores fuzzes, I wondered how Zaim interpreted “nasty.” Well, flipping that switch does bring on a little more burn, sizzle, and compression, but again, you can still hear your note choices loud and clear. The Obscene Fuzz is a fabulous choice for when you want a part to get a little weird and buzzy, but can’t abide the spitting, sputtering, and dying-battery death throes produced by more feral fuzzes.
The Tubelicious OD ($199 direct) is kind of like Zaim’s “epic tone poem” of his commitment to delivering accurate amp sounds in a best overdrive pedal. It is brilliantly organic and transparent with no hyped mids or any sense of brittleness. When I did some punk-like muted downstrokes, the chunk was solid and punchy–no midrange pings, overly bright note attacks, or annoying string noises made the scene at all. It was as if I had plugged my guitar right into my Marshall or Vox AC30. Sexy! Note definition is excellent, even when you crank the Dirt knob. The Girth (or tone) control is very amp-like, as well, and sounds very natural across its spectrum. There’s just enough mids and low mids to refine your drive without sounding as if some over-exuberant recording engineer got obsessed with EQ tweaks in the studio. Like all four Zaim pedals, operation is fairly quiet. Audible hiss was never anywhere near objectionable.