A Short Guide to Internally Stackable Drive Pedals

The concept of stacking up gain sources is a well-worn strategy for enhancing the tonal texture and overdrive structure of your sound. The resulting signals are collaborative, conversive, creative, and somehow more than the sum of their parts.

Until relatively recently, this approach to creating a wall of gain, drive, or crunch took more than one gear item: a pair of pedals or a stompbox running headlong into an amp already on the breakup. A number of pedal makers, however, have distilled this concept down into single pedal formats housing tandem overdrive circuits with multidirectional stacking capabilities.

Keeley Electronics D&M Drive

I know it’s almost the weekend when Friday morning is signaled by the ping of my YouTube subscription alerting me that there’s a new episode of "That Pedal Show" on deck. Dan and Mick—the hosts and creatives behind the show—are unapologetic about their preferred types of gain.

The former prefers a crunchy grit (à la the Boss Blues Driver) the latter a boosted, bluesy lift (akin to the Ibanez Tube Screamer). Two players, two styles, two pedals. At least, that was the case until they teamed up with Robert Keeley to wed the two sounds in a single pedal, aptly named the D&M Drive.

Over on the left you’ll find a sound inspired by Dan’s style: loads of defined gain on board, ranging from low, grunting overdrive to saturated, high-headroom distortion. Next door on the right is a gain boost section channeling Mick’s style. Here the midrange EQ and grit offer up warm, sustained, overdriven sounds. With independent tone, level, and gain controls, each side is more than capable of a full range of independent overdrives to any liking.

Yet the prospects of the pedal are exponential when the dual-direction gain stack switch is engaged. This mid-pedal switch allows you to select from "gain first" or "boost first" modes for creating complex edifices of gain. This functionality is also ideal for dialing in a rocky rhythm sound that sits just fine in the mix yet can be nudged out front by engaging the other half of the pedal.

The EQ sculpting and mix possibilities within the stack extend further by experimenting with different amounts of level and tone from either side of the effect pedal.

Strymon Sunset

The masterminds at Strymon responsible for some of the most meticulously crafted and high-caliber delay, reverb, and modulation gear out there ventured into the realm of distortion pedals this year with the launch of the multistage, cascading gain Strymon Riverside. In short order, they planted another flag in the territory of overdrive stompboxes with the release of the Strymon Sunset, a self-acclaimed dual overdrive.

The Sunset consists of two analog gain stages brought to life by digital overdrive algorithms for endless independent and collaborative gain sounds. The algorithms capture sought-after and timeless sounds of a total of six overdrive and boost pedals. Strymon’s take on "Germanium" diode drive, "Texas" clipped gain, and a low-cut "Treble" boost reside over on the left.

The right side is home to a "Two-Stage" soft-clip plus hard-clip gain, a heavy hitting "Hard" drive on the verge of fuzz, and a JFET-style clean boost for added dynamics. Like an amp that goes to 11, if two gain options is good, three would naturally be better. Linking up with a Strymon Favorite switch allows for instant recall of a saved sound to complete your trifecta of curated overdrives.

Via a switch on the top of the pedal, the Sunset also allows for stacking the gain stages in either direction (A into B, or B into A). What is truly incredible about the Sunset, is its extended functionality for a third option: running both sides in parallel. This groundbreaking routing innovation captures the best of both worlds without making one circuit subservient to the other.

Chase Bliss Audio Brothers

The Brothers is nothing short of a gain stage playground. And it’s gold, so that’s awesome. At its heart are two solo all-analog, digitally controlled channels with access to six different gain types, from boost, to drive, to fuzz. The left side is managed by a JFET and the right by an IC channel. This means each side retains its own character. Sides "A" and "B" come equipped with their own tone and gain settings, which are negotiated together via shared mix and master controls.

In addition to stellar gain sounds on either side of the box, the Brothers is also a highly versatile stacking gain pedal. It includes both multi-directional and parallel routing options for a layered overdrive effect.

However, the maniacs at Chase Bliss did what they're known to do by expanding this functionality with that mohawk of top-mounted dip-switches for expanded expression options over almost any parameter of the pedal. This opens up an entirely unexpected set of sounds from gated fuzzes to pristine boosts.

Once you’ve engineered your top sounds from the Brothers, you can keep them close to hand by accessing go-to stored settings via the MIDI-controlled Chase Bliss Faves switch.

Boss JB-2 JHS Angry Driver

In their forty years of compact pedals, Boss truly broke new ground this year in the form of a collaboration. The partnership with JHS was also a way of coming full circle for that company, as Josh Scott’s first foray into pedal tinkering was a tune-up for a dilapidated Blues Driver. Meet the road rager that is the Boss/JHS Angry Driver.

As its name suggests, the Angry Driver is a union between two firmly established sounds in the overdrive world: the Boss Blues Driver BD-2 and the JHS Angry Charlie. Under the hood, the pedal has an all-new combined circuit that brings these two designs together.

On the surface, the pedal is housed in a classic white Boss-style box with noticeably JHS-inspired red knobs. Those little knobs, however, are not just for controlling parameters, like tone, level, and gain. Each of these are concentric controls, with the lower section dialed in for the Blues Driver and the upper for the Angry Charlie.

As with the pedals above, the Angry Charlie also has tone stack prospects. A final multi-mode knob controls routing options, enabling playing either circuit independently, in succession, series, or parallel modes.

The multi-color LED light coordinates with this routing switch, signaling if you’re in Boss (blue), JHS (red), or tandem (purple) modes. Tucked in below the input jack is a ¼" input for a remote switch, like the Boss FS-5L or JHS Red Remote, which adds further options for switching between two predetermined series, parallel, and cascading options.

The term "stacking pedals" used to refer to a strategy of doubling up on drive with separate effects. As of 2017, it now points to a particular type of pedal with multi-dimensional routing options on board.

If you’re looking to capture classic sounds, create entirely new ones, or simply free up some precious real estate on your board, it might be time to downsize to a stackable drive. Ironically, with the pedals above, this downsizing opens up even more options for your overdrive needs.

Learn more about effects pedals on our Effects Pedals: What Do They Do? | The Basics homepage.

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