To Oliver Ackermann, "Death by Audio" means a lot more than meeting one's demise by sonic annihilation, though that does indeed seem to be part of the deal, judging by the sounds his pedals emit. Ackermann, who is known for the Williamsburg Brooklyn performance space that shares the same name as his stompbox company, as well as his work with noise bands Skywave and A Place to Bury Strangers, has been building effects since 2002 and counts among his customers The Edge, Trent Reznor and Kevin Shields.
There are many choices when it comes to boutique effects these days, so it's worth noting that DBA doesn't seem interested in being "all things to all people." No, as far as I can tell, Ackermann knows his market and is happy to supply it with the distortion needed to deliver the brutality. With names like Fuzz War, Soundwave Breakdown, and Apocalypse, let's just say he's not really in need of a Mission Statement.
I played around with three effects using a Standard Telecaster, an SG loaded with P-90 pickups, and an American Jazzmaster - all played through both an Orange Tiny Terror and a Simms-Watts 100 into open and closed-back 1x12 cabinets.
First up is the Supersonic Fuzz Gun. Unlike traditional fuzzes, which are each identified with a particular sound, many modern units provide versatility by offering tone shaping with bias and filtering. The Fuzz Gun falls into this category. A toggle switches between gate and oscillator modes. There are five knobs that allow the player to adjust the sound from a thick overdrive to fuzz so heavy that the signal is choked - obviously the work of the gate. "Fuzz" means different things to different people, so it should be made clear that this is not a modern interpretation of the groovy "bees in a can" sound of the '60s, but rather the darker, heavier fuzz of the '70s, which has influenced contemporary stoner rock - more Brassmaster than Tone Bender.
Because of the gate, I found it hard to get usable, controllable feedback, or really any at all, but with so much gain kept under control, I found it possible to get TV Eye and American Woman tones at high volumes without any squeal during pauses. When not pushed too far, a good rhythm sound can be obtained. Anyone familiar with the playing style of Brian Case of Disappears has a good reference point. Pushed further, the sound is destroyed to a hilarious level that I didn't find unusable, but would lend itself to experimentation.
On the subject, when switched into the Osc mode, the Fuzz Gun becomes something different altogether. The effect becomes hard to control at times, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, unless the player has a little room for unpredictability, I see this as more of a studio effect in this mode, as consistency over multiple performances may present a problem. A pitch can be set using the Density control, which will kick in during pauses in playing. This can create interesting drone options, especially if the player has a moment to tune the underlying pitch before playing. A little creativity can yield some very interesting results, especially in the studio. I also found I could use the Density control to wildly and actively pitch my guitar if I let it feedback first. Playing in Gate mode, then throwing it into Osc mode during the performance, and then adjusting the Density knob on the fly will create striking effects if you're willing to accept some unpredictability as part of the bargain.
Next on deck is the Octave Clang, which could be described as the next generation of octave fuzz - the heir apparent to the Octavia. Whereas traditional octave fuzzes add a singing quality during leads, the appropriately named Octave Clang tends to be less musical and even has some ring-modulator qualities. An acid rock oenologist might describe it as "harsh, with hints of smashing springs, chainsawed piano, and a crumpled sheet metal finish." I was able to use this to my advantage and set up bell and sitar-like tones that sounded pretty cool, but for the most part, I found the usability-to-price-point ratio for this effect to be out of sync. A peek inside shows a pair of germanium transistors and a few other bits, but nothing I could see to justify such a high price tag. Also related to this is the question of why they used such a large enclosure. With only three knobs and minimal guts, perhaps this could have been put in a smaller box? Owing to price and size, I can't see giving up real estate on even a large pedalboard to gain what this pedal offers. It's extremely fun, but I think its place is in the studio as an experimentation catalyst or "secret weapon", assuming your stompbox budget allows it.
By comparison, the Interstellar Overdriver's name is relatively tame by DBA standards, but sonically, it occupies the same space as its brethren. Don't expect any The Piper at the Gates of Dawn sounds from it. Offered as both a single overdrive box, and as a dual unit in the Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe, these boxes offer a unique type of thick overdrive. My tester unit was the latter, which combines into one housing an Interstellar Overdriver on the right side, with another variable overdrive unit on the left. Each has its own bypass switch, and both can be used at once. The right side is pretty straightforward, with just Drive and Master controls. You'll either like what it does or you won't. Personally, I find it to have a very good sound. "Good", however, doesn't always translate to "right for everyone", and I think DBA could bring a lot more players to this pedal by adding a tone knob. I absolutely loved it with the Jazzmaster, but the only way I could get it right for me with the SG was with an outboard EQ pedal, which I normally don't use. The left side of the unit also has Drive and Master controls, plus a switch that offers six different modes: Thin Drive, Matched Interstellar Overdrive, Bass Overdrive (or "Stonerdrive", as I like to call it), Octafuzz, Oscillating Fuzz, and Voltage Controlled Tremolo/Fuzz. With the absence of a tone control, I found dumping the right side overdrive into the Thin Drive created a great rhythm sound. So good, in fact, that I took this unit on the road with me. Just having the Thin Drive and the Thin/Interstellar combination as options made the pedal seem well worth the price, even more so when you consider five other modes were available. Regarding those, you get quite a lot to play with on this box. In fact, much of what I liked about the Fuzz Gun can be essentially achieved with this unit. I wasn't sure what to make of the controlled tremolo/fuzz though. Rate isn't really settable and the effect is only useful if you don't mind randomness. I did strike gold, though, when I engaged both sides of the unit, thereby dumping the right side overdrive into the Tremolo Fuzz. During the natural attack and decay of the note that occurs while playing, the rate sped up and slowed down somewhat uncontrollably. My guess is one could learn to "play" this effectively, given time. Once again, I'm not sure what the live application would be, except during improvisational moments, but in the studio this could be a lot of fun. My overall impression with the Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe is it's a great bang for your boutique buck. Live or in the studio, you get a lot of tonal flexibility while still being able to recall your favorite sounds quickly - a damn good, usable overdrive, and like the rest of DBA's products, build quality that is, well, stellar. I found both it and the Fuzz Gun to be excellent with bass guitar as well.
All of these pedals respond to your guitar's controls, have true bypass, are all analog, look great, have rugged components, and should be used with no worries regarding reliability. Should that ever be an issue, the word around town is DBA stands behind their products and aims to please, which is worth a lot. Each box comes with a no questions asked, lifetime warranty. The price point on all DBA products is high, but the quality speaks for itself. The product names may be violent, but they are clearly built with love, and who can put a price on that? (Supersonic Fuzz Gun $270 street, Octave Clang $270, Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe $320; www.deathbyaudio.net)
-Alex Maiolo <email@example.com>