Barber Direct Drive

Sunday, December 6, 2009| by Jeff Baker

I had initially planned on reviewing the Barber Direct Drive as part of our Marshall-in-a-Box Roundup. Sometimes things in the industry can get hectic, and their generally quite affordable pricing relative to the boutique market means that the economic downturn meant even more attention than usual for the good folks at Barber Electronics. The timing of everything just didn't work out to include the Direct Drive in that lineup. Perhaps that was for the best, though. I've been putting this pedal through the paces for several weeks now, and I don't think it really belongs in the Marshall-in-a-Box roundup. While it can pull off some convincing British-flavored tones, it doesn't seem to be aimed at capturing the well-known qualities of those amps specifically so much as giving you a flexible tool to nail your own sound.

I can understand why a lot of users say that the Direct Drive gets them a Marshall-like sound, and why Barber Electronics' page on the pedal draws on the ever-popular description “amp-like.” This is definitely one of the better overdrive to distortion pedals I've used, with a remarkably dynamic feel even at higher gain settings. It's no mystery that some guitarists plug into it and the first thing they think of is a cranked-up classic amp. All the same, I think there are a lot of clever features that make it a subtle and complex pedal. Some of them look you right in the eye, and some of them are under the hood. Having adjustable settings on the inside of the enclosure, I have found, is something of a staple in Barber pedals; I imagine users might have mixed feelings, some appreciating the “set it and forget it” interior controls, others wishing they could tweak the internals as easily as the external knobs. I fall reservedly in the first camp. Normally I would want all of the controls out on the front, but David Barber is a very smart designer and he has done a good job of making sure you've got the important things out front without sacrificing quality, usability, and space by loading down the exterior.

This is definitely one of the better overdrive to distortion pedals I've used, with a remarkably dynamic feel even at higher gain settings. It's no mystery that some guitarists plug into it and the first thing they think of is a cranked-up classic amp.

In the case of the Direct Drive, the outside gives you the classic three knobs, Volume, Tone, and Drive, one of which – the tone knob – is also a push-pull pot to switch between two different styles of drive. Inside, two trimpots control Bass and Presence. If the external Tone control were less effective, you might wish for those two on the outside, but in my usage I found that the external Tone really does a fine job of getting the sound you're after, and the internal controls are best used to give the pedal an initial setup for your particular rig. Once you have the overall bass and high-frequency characters dialed in to match your amp and cabinet, chances are you will have all of the adjustment you need out of the Tone control alone. Volume does exactly what it says, and there is plenty of output on this pedal. I tested it with a range of guitars and even with high-output active pickups, reaching unity gain was well below its maximum Volume. All the boost available is a handy feature in conjunction with the impressive versatility of its actual overdrive options.

I mentioned before that there is a push-pull pot to switch between two styles of drive, one more open and midrange-heavy and the other more compressed and rich in upper harmonics. The instruction sheet which ships with the pedal refers to these as being more British and more California in sound, respectively, and that's a fair ballpark assessment. In either mode, there isn't a spot on the Drive knob that sounds bad. Considering the amount of Volume output available, you could easily use this pedal as a traditional overdrive (with more tonal flexibility than most) to push an amp over the edge. Start turning up the Drive, though, and the pedal shows itself to be a powerful and responsive distortion pedal, easily capable of making your clean channel (or clean amp) roar. Any trick you can pull with a ripping amp can be done with the Direct Drive, from fat chords to liquid lead, from hot harmonics to controllable feedback, provided your amp is up to the task! And as you should expect from a high-quality dirt pedal, the Direct Drive is extremely responsive to volume knob changes and playing dynamics.

Barber's build quality is legendary among enthusiasts who scrutinize the internals of any pedal they come across, and the Direct Drive is no exception. I hesitate to use some of the common descriptions like “military spec,” because frankly I'm not sure how a guitar pedal relates to military matters, but I can say with certainty that the build quality of this pedal is such that it will be around for a long time to come. To top it off, at $119 its price compares favorably with many other boutique builders and big companies alike. It is a very frugal choice for the discerning guitarist.

Price: $119.99 USD direct
Pros: Excellent construction and tonal versatility
Cons: Some users will wish the internal adjustments werer top mounted