Big Sound, Small Spaces: 4 Overdrive Pedals for Apartment Rigs

At sixteen, my bedroom consisted mostly of a Marshall 6100 half-stack and a bartered drum kit. The carpet in between was a minefield of stompboxes and trip lines of patch cords. Now I’m twice that age, with a fraction of the gear. Time to rebuild.

The challenge for the retired teenage rocker turned lifelong home musician is rebuilding a rig that captures the essence of the set-up back then but fits life now. With the right overdrive/distortion pedal, a ten-watt in a tiny space can give the impression of huge sound without risking relations with sound-sensitive neighbors or housemates. In a market full of options, here are four prime choices for an apartment-size rig rebuild.

Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret MKIII

The Dirty Little Secret is the solution for creating a Marshall-like classic drive or sonic modern crunch through even an embarrassingly small amp. The pedal produces big sound from a small package and has a brilliant way of expanding your small rehearsal space. Toying with different combinations of its three-band EQ, gain preamp, and master volume yield both the feel and sound of a Marshall’s responsive drive structures. While a little inconveniently tucked away inside the pedal casing, the internal switch between “super lead” and “super bass” modes opens even more territory to explore.

In each mode, the sound breaks up nicely at low gain levels. From there on up, the Dirty Little Secret’s drive develops with impressive stability. Despite its complex overdrive profiles, each sound, note, and string maintains its own integrity. Nothing is lost coming out the other side of the pedal, which is a real plus when playing where volume is at a premium. But be warned: the turn of the master volume gets pretty loud pretty fast, and the impulse to crank it to what feels like eleven is hard to resist. Just wait until your neighbors aren’t home.

Ideal for: Those with a soft spot for the hard rock sounds of Marshall tube overdrives through the ages and (like me) have a Marshall-stack-shaped hole in their heart from the sale of gear past.


JHS Superbolt V2

Among the headliners of the now diverse and innovative pedals out of the JHS shop is the Superbolt V2. This deceptively plain stompbox was inspired by the short-lived but now highly sought-after tube gain sound of ‘60s-era Supro amplifiers.

The range of gain and tone combinations possible spans from light warmth to saggy overdrive with a characteristic fuzzy texture. Because the gain control behaves like the crescendoing distortion achieved by the climbing volume of vintage Supro amps, the pedal can deliver that same breadth of overdrive but reined in for loudness by a separate volume knob. Its tube amp-esque behavior is felt most by rolling back the guitar’s volume, wrapping even the twangiest bridge pickup with a subtle-edged glow. All of these functions are twinned by a toggle switch from low to high gain, which lifts the ceiling and mid-range grit. These can be controlled by the JHS Red Remote external footswitch, which gives the feel of two-channel functionality.

For the small space and tiny amp, the Superbolt V2 is a win on all fronts. It can fill the room without feeling loud, yet its broad range of sounds doesn’t lose depth and body even through a ten-watt box dialed down to two.

Ideal for: The musician who feels like recent stompbox history has been offering variations of the same old distortion sound. This Supro-inspired pedal is both a reborn classic and pioneer in the path of new aural possibility.

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Electro-Harmonix EHXTortion JFET Overdrive

Dubbed the “flagship pedal” of the established Electro-Harmonix distortion/overdrive collection, the EHXTortion is a perfect stompbox to start a rebuild. Its versatility stares you right in the face with a three-band EQ and no less than four categories of pre-gain, ranging from low vintage tones to bass-forward modern crunch. Clicking through the pre-gain options opens up a massive scope of distinct overdrive possibilities. Each is tailored further with the almost 360 degree turn of the nearby gain knob.

Hitting the onboard boost footswitch kicks the pedal into a compressed overdrive setting, boasting its own independent gain and master volume control. This functionality is ideal for the small set-up. Now, your modest rig is transformed into a reasonably customizable two-channel operation, with each channel tailored to your musical wants and environmental constraints.

In the event of the occasional stage performance, the balanced XLR direct out that simulates a 4x12 cabinet keeps live music prospects on the table. The EHXTortion behaves and sounds close to a vacuum tube amp across the spectrum at any volume level. When this sound range is paired with its versatile control layout, the pedal is a strong contender in the race for real estate on your growing floorboard.

Ideal for: Those who want the freedom to create distortion of all shapes and sizes—blues, classic rock, ‘90s alt-rock, and metal—without buying multiple pedals or losing quality through a small amp.


Fulltone OCD

The OCD has a close, more defined range of distortion that feels like home for lovers of the gain style of a quality solid state amp. Because of this, the pedal maintains consistent levels of biting gain goodness in almost any configuration of its dials. Scaling back the gain knob and guitar’s volume allows for a boost with a complementary edge that won’t rob your amp of its existing clean profile.

The scope of clean to high gain tones is extended by a toggle switch for two tiers of distortion: aggressive “high peak (HP)” and subtler “low peak (LP).” The noticeable jump in volume that comes with the switch to HP, however, may not be ideal for the small space set up around the clock. While this leap feels just right in the mid to high volume range, the sudden dynamic change at low levels might not have your neighbors clapping for an encore after late-night bouts of “Back in Black.”

Ideal for: The blues/rock player looking for a simple solution to more gain that performs well on its own or in a tag-team with the built-in overdrive options of a favorite amp or another pedal.

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While there is momentary satisfaction in playing to the metronome of your upstairs neighbor banging a broom handle on the floor, in the long haul, it’s absolutely worth evading the eviction notice by designing a rig that performs well within your own four walls. Positioning the right overdrive/distortion pedal between your guitar and amp is a big part of that strategy. In a tiny space with a small amp, a pedal that doesn’t compromise tone, gain structure, and diversity of sound when dialed down to a modest volume is your best bet.

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