Chicago Shake Appeal
The vintage amp-in-a-box archivists at Catalinbread strike again with the new baby blue Valcoder stomper. Now, some of you Catalinbread fanatics out there will remember the original mini-pedal Valcoder that was billed as a simple Repeat Percussion-style tremolo effect. While maintaining the choppy, squarewave shake appeal of that previous variant, the new Valcoder adds some vintage amp mojo into the mix, by replicating the tube-like gritty goodness of a vintage Valco amp. For those not familiar with Valco, it was a Chicago-based instrument manufacturer that specialized in low-powered tube amps with crazy tremolo circuits. The new Valcoder keeps the spirit alive by cramming all of the hypnotic throb, hard choppy stutter and greasy gritty chime into a beautiful blue enclosure.
With the input set low and the output set to unity gain, one can analyze the sweep and intensity of the tremolo section of the circuit alone. At minimum speed settings, with the depth up past midnight, the discrete analog LFO undulates pure hypnosis. Clean minor chords are massaged out of the speakers in a seductive serpentine motion that would have Jessica Rabbit disrobed in a riff. Beautiful, but deadly tones ensue. Edging up the speed and the input drive reveals the more on-off choppy goodness the old Valco was known for. This is great for trippy garage dirges. Add a wah pedal and rip into Tommy James and the Shondells’s iconic “Crimson and Clover,” or ramp up the speed to ring modulator levels and let The Cramps’s “Human Fly” buzz round the room. Wicked.
Deep Dish Dynamics
Perhaps the coolest feature of the new Valcoder is the dynamic JFET preamp section. As the input and output are increased, grit, chime and compression are injected into the tone for a vintage style breakup that reminds me of a single-ended tube amp about to explode. This happens before the tremolo section of the circuit, so the choppy segments are not obscured by smears of gain. Rolling off the speed and depth controls completely turns the Valcoder into a smooth-yet-gritty booster that reacts to volume control and picking attack in an amp-like way. This allows the Valcoder to play simultaneous roles of foundation overdrive and modulation.
What we like: The Valcoder is a great way to add choppy garage goodness to any amp, but equally useful as an overdrive, or even a preamp section for recording into speaker simulators and DAWs. In true Catalinbread form, the graphics match the tone and build quality. I could picture myself licking the cool minty blue enclosure like an ice cream on a hot day. Vintage Valco amps are fetching ridiculous amounts of money and even the recently revamped Supro brand (which Valco used to build back in the day) commands boutique amp prices. The Valcoder is a great way to tap into the ‘60s spirit without having to pay a premium for what used to be something of a pawnshop prize.
Concerns: The only thing I would add to this pedal is a way to separately disengage the tremolo. Because the Valcoder is so useful as a boost and overdrive, some folks might want to keep it on all the time and ride their guitar volume knob. Whether it was an expression pedal input or simply another footswitch, this ability would tip an already awesome pedal over the edge.