One way to get a unique guitar sound is to buy a complicated and pricey device that models every possible combination of stompbox, amplifier, and cabinet, and spend your hours dialing in a few pleasing sounds. Another approach is to buy a few boutique pedals and use them to create a highly personalized palette of interesting and usable timbres. The ToadWorks Death Rattle ($144.95) works for the latter approach and offers plenty of flexibility from only a few controls.
Simplicity Is the Key
Roughly twice the size of the average stompbox, the Death Rattle offers three effects: Tweed (based on the Fender amp), Plexi (based on the Marshall amp), and Boost. Using the center footswitch, you can choose either the Tweed or the Plexi distortion circuit. The footswitch on the right activates the Boost circuit, which functions as a nonlinear level boost (with a bump in the low-mids) when activated on its own. When combined with one of the amp effects, it acts as a simple gain booster. The footswitch on the left is a true bypass. That gives you six sounds: unprocessed, Tweed, Plexi, Boost, Tweed/Boost, and Plexi/Boost.
Six large knobs give you control over the Tone and Level of each distortion circuit, the Boost level, and the overall output gain. The footswitches are smooth and sturdy, and the unit can be powered from a single 9V battery or a 9V (tip-negative) wall-wart adapter.
For this review, I ran a Fender Mustang and Gibson Les Paul through the Death Rattle before going to a Bedrock tube head with a 4×12 cabinet. With both guitars and in all pickup positions, I was able to dial up a number of tasty sounds.
As advertised, the Tweed circuit has the warm, crispy overdrive associated with Fender amps, and the Plexi has the beefy, gritty crunch that's associated with Marshalls. I'm more of a Fender-amp fan, but the Plexi circuit gave me great sustain and plenty of the metallic chunk you just can't get from a Fender amp alone. I was also impressed that the signal didn't sound processed, as it does through many amp emulators and pedals. The Plexi channel in particular sounded much more natural than I expected.
A couple of the combinations weren't so hot. For example, running the Mustang through the Plexi circuit sounded too washy for my taste, although turning up the Plexi's Tone control helped somewhat. In fact, the Death Rattle's tone controls are more usable and musical than the tone controls on similar pedals: they seem to do more than merely cut off the high end.
The boost circuit is the only part of this pedal I take issue with. When an input signal is present and you engage the Boost switch after adjusting the Boost knob, you get a loud pop. If you leave the Boost knob alone, you won't get the pop when you hit the Boost switch. ToadWorks knows about the problem, noting on its Web site that it's an artifact of the circuit design. Nonetheless, it makes on-the-fly adjustment of the control somewhat dicey.
A new version of the Death Rattle, which became available in January (after this review was completed), corrects the popping problem in the boost switch. It also adds individual Gain controls for each of the distortion circuits and increases the amount of volume boost in the distortion circuits. A wish-list item for me would be a button that engages both distortion circuits in tandem. But I don't want to seem too greedy.
The Death Rattle's sound, build quality, versatility, and price make this boutique pedal an incredible value. Needless to say, this stompbox is not leaving my studio.