"Focus, young grasshopper, you must focus." What must you focus on? You must focus on dialing in the perfect mid-boosted lead tone. One that isn't nasal. One that is somehow thick yet cutting at the same time. Luckily, VFE Pedals created a pedal called the Focus that does just that. It's designed to hit the front end of your amp with a boosted midrange—a signal that won't just turn the front end to mush, but will get your power tubes cooking. It does that, but it does more.
Let's dig into the design and features of the pedal and then we can get into the sounds and versatility. One way to think of the focus is sort of like a Tube Screamer without the distortion. It rolls off the lows and highs of your guitar signal, leaving the juicy midrange frequencies behind. The Focus features six controls to help you dial in the precise sound you want with any combination of guitars, amps, and effects (more on that later). In the middle of the pedal, you will find a miniature black potentiometer titled Blend. Like the name implies, this allows you to blend your imputed guitar signal with the effected signal. This is the first place the Focus sets itself apart from other boost and EQ pedals. I found that the Mix control allowed me to easily adjust the pedal for multiple guitar and pickup types (Humbuckers, single-coils, solid-body, hollow, you name it).
I mentioned earlier that the Focus plays nice with other effects in your chain. I found compelling uses for it both boosting other pedals and with other pedals stacked into it. Running it after a Mad Professor Fire Red Fuzz (basically a Muff circuit), the Focus behaves the way David Gilmour used his Muffs and Tube Drivers. You get the classic timbre of a Muff, but without the fizzy highs and flubby lows. The Focus works equally (but differently) well going into the Fire Red Fuzz. In this way, it works more like some of the boutique Muff clones with midrange control and front end boost. This gives you a tighter, more full-frequencied Muff tone. The added mids of the Focus help to balance out the scooped nature of the Muff, but you still get the classic Muff lows and highs. And believe it or not, it makes the Muff much more touch sensitive and interactive with your volume knob—makes me want to visit the online VFE Custom Shop and arrange to have a Focus and Fiery Red Horse built in a single enclosure, but I digress.
One of my favorite lead tones of all time is acquired running a "clean" Tube Screamer or Fulltone Full-Drive II after a Fuzz Face. It's something I learned from researching the leads tones of Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. The resulting tone provides the touch and dynamics of a Fuzz Face but with the cut of a Tube Screamer. No more flubby lows. But no matter what, there's always something about the clipping of the overdrive that changes the sweetness of the fuzz. Because the Focus doesn't create any clipping (distortion) of its own, the timbre of the Fuzz Face remains intact. The Focus attenuates the lows, highs and sweetens and it emphasizes the juicy mids. Even at unity gain, stepping on the Focus brings your guitar forward in the mix. This might be my new solution for switching between rhythm and leads tones—it's pretty much magic.
So yes, the Focus is awesome paired with other pedals, but it's also great by itself driving the front end of an amp. I have a little 1965 Fender Vibro Champ. It's small and quiet enough that I can crank it up into overdrive without rattling the walls. But with a single eight-inch speaker, the low frequencies can get pretty sloppy pretty quickly. In this setting, I was able to use the Focus at unity gain, to maintain the natural overdrive character of the amp while tightening and attenuating the low end. Suddenly, I was able to play power chords and even full chords without just turning to mush.
What we like: What more can you say about the Focus? It's a Swiss Army boost. It's a booster, a cutter, and an all-around tone sweetener. The only downside is deciding where on your board to place it and how to use it, because there's an opportunity cost in every location.
Concerns: The controls are slightly confusing (if you don’t read the manual). The Tight control cuts bass as you turn it counter-clockwise, whereas the Smooth control cuts highs as you turn it clockwise. Likewise, Slope is also probably a new concept for most guitarists. In short, a higher Slope setting equals a sharper frequency roll-off. Aside from a small learning curve, we have no concerns with the Focus.