What makes a distortion pedal a Marshall-in-a-Box,? Different manufacturers would answer the question differently. Some would insist that it's the sound that counts, and that a pedal is a Marshall-in-a-Box if it can make your amp sound like a Marshall. Some would say it has to be flexible, so that you can achieve a wide range of Marshall-inspired sounds. ProTone takes the approach that in order to make a Marshall-in-a-Box, you need to take a well-loved Marshall amp and, with the power of electronics wizardry, make it smaller and smaller until it will fit into a little box - and once you've got it in there, why not take it even further and make it a Marshall-in-a-Box driven by a good dirt pedal, and fed into a boost to give you the power to kick in for a solo? To do it right, maybe you have to get the input and ears of someone whose work with Marshalls is well-regarded and recognizable... Take those ingredients and bake them in Dennis from ProTone's brain until golden brown, and the end result will be the ProTone Jason Becker Distortion.
If you aren't aware of Jason Becker's story, I recommend heading over to the wikipedia entry on him so that you can learn more. In short, Jason Becker was an amazingly talented and very creative guitarist who was one half of Cacophany (with Marty Friedman), recorded the solo instrumental album Perpetual Burn, and replaced Steve Vai in David Lee Roth's band. After recording the guitar work for that album, however, he was diagnosed with ALS, and was unable to tour with Roth in support. It was not long until Jason became completely paralyzed. However, his strength of will and the dedicated, loving care he's received from his parents have enabled him to outlive doctors' expectations many times over, and true to his passions he continues to compose music using an eye-movement communication system that his father developed. Jason Becker has been inspirational to many guitarists, including Will Chen and myself. Though he supplies a network of dealers that span countries with his other products, Dennis sells the ProTone Jason Becker Distortion pedal directly from the ProTone web site so that a substantial portion of each sale goes to Jason and his family.
The Jason Becker Distortion is styled much like Jason's signature guitars over the years have been, with a playful, childlike rainbow color scheme for the controls, and a graphic provided by Jason Becker's father, a painter. This pedal, pictured, is one of the early runs; since then they have changed to a graphic which prominently features a stylized image of Jason Becker's favorite guitar. The circuit and controls are the same. There is also a limited edition, hand signed and numbered in a run of 250, which features the lower half of the painting pictured here.
...the Master Volume adds its own flavor to things...if you turn the Master Volume up, something interesting happens and the sound gets thicker and ballsier, much more than you'd expect from a traditional pedal level adjustment.
The look matters because it's special and uniquely Jason, but of course there's much more to a pedal than its appearance. The Jason Becker Distortion is actually two pedals in one: first, an amp emulator with added overdrive as though boosted by a good pedal, with six controls: Preamp, Drive, Master, and a three-band Hi/Mid/Lo EQ. The second half is a class-A boost with a very warm sound, capable of getting some nice grit going as you crank it up. The amp side of things is extremely authentic. As you'd expect you can get very Becker-like distortion characteristic with some settings, but there's plenty more than just Becker's tone from this pedal. I'll say it again, it really does configure and respond a heck of a lot like a real amp, as though behind the colorful face and knobs, you're somehow adjusting the settings on a Marshall stack from the golden days of guitar gods.
The interaction between the Preamp and Drive controls is responsible for tuning the majority of your distortion, but the Master Volume adds its own flavor to things. I wouldn't say it's exactly like a 100W tube amp, because you can get killer, authentic British distortion using Master settings as low as 9 o'clock. However, if you turn the Master Volume up, something interesting happens and the sound gets thicker and ballsier, much more than you'd expect from a traditional pedal level adjustment. At lower Preamp and Drive levels you can add substantial crunch and girth to your tone by cranking the Master. For my tastes, I prefer the Preamp and Drive quite high, with the Master adjusted mostly for the right level of output rather than for tone, but I have to stress that adjusting it is more like adjusting an amp than any other pedal I have used. Everything that adds crunch, adds volume up to a certain point, just as you'd expect from a tube amp. The Boost side is no exception. It comes after the amp emulation circuit, so the amp side's output level (the sum of its Preamp, Drive and Master controls) will overdrive the Boost side further, adding even more thickness and warmth to the tone. Just as with a master volume tube amp, you have to balance your dirt in the signal path; too much drive, preamp and master volume crunch will be muddy, and too little won't give you enough output or sustain. Treat it like an amp with a solo boost and you'll do just fine.
The ProTone Jason Becker Distortion can be picky in how it responds to different amps. However, in my testing I was able to dial it in to sound great with all of my amps, and many modeled ones as well. While the 3-band EQ gives you control over the tone, the pedal's voicing is brighter than neutral so you might take care with very bright amps. It has a great deal of midrange to punch through the mix, and the bass is never unreasonable and it is easy to get the right amount for your needs. The only thing that a frugal guitarist might balk at is the price. $289 for a distortion pedal is not a trivial expense in any sense of the word, though part of its price is due to the hefty cut that Jason Becker and his family receive from each sale. Its dual functionality adds value, since good boosts can run $100 or more, and you'll be hard pressed to find a more authentically amp-like experience in a pedal. Ultimately, the choice is yours. What would Jason do?
Price: $289 Direct ($319 for the Limited Edition, 250 hand-numbered and signed with a special graphic)
Pros: Very good response to playing dynamics and volume knob changes, Gain-staging is exceptionally amp-like,a good portion of the proceeds from each one sold goes to Jason Becker and his family
Cons: Brighter voicing limits compatibility with treble-heavy amps, High price compared to much of its competition puts it out of reach of some frugal guitarists