Suffering a shortage when it comes to pedalboard real estate? Marcus Leadley tries out some itty-bitty pedals with a big sound…
Description: Tremolo, Chorus and Distortion pedals. Made in China. 9V external power only
– Spark Chorus – Price: £69.99 – Controls: Depth, Deep, Speed
– Spark Tremolo – Price: £69.99 – Controls: Depth, Shape, Speed
– Spark Distortion – Price: £69.99 – Controls: Level, Boost, Tone, Gain
– Micro Power Supply – Price: £74.99
Contact: Strings & Things – +44 (0) 01273 440442 – www.mooeraudio.com
In case you hadn’t noticed, mini pedals are currently all the rage; once you stop trying to squeeze a 9V battery in, you can go way smaller. The logic is simple: power supplies have become cheaper and more widely available, pedalboards are a standard bit of kit and, fuzzes aside, battery use is dropping. You can get away with batteries for one or two non-digital pedals, but most are seeing the benefits of a proper power supply.
While there are already 40-plus pedals in Mooer’s Micro series, the company is now adding a second Spark series. Originally designed for Guitar Center in the USA, they’re now being made generally available. The plan is to keep the Spark series to a dozen or so variations on classic pedal themes.
This month we’re looking at the Chorus, Tremolo and Distortion. Each unit arrives in a sexy grey box of the type a posh watch might be shipped in, and despite their budget price tag everything about the look and feel of these pedals riffs on a boutique theme. Finished in bright, solid colours, each pedal is just 60mm square and 35mm deep. The only things on the top are the switch, model name and control legend.
All audio in/out and power connections are on the forward facing edge, as are the controls. These are either mini-rotaries or push-buttons, and the benefits of such a small format comes at a price. The buttons are fine, but the rotaries are fiddly; there are reference marks on the dials but they’re difficult to see. The situation becomes even more cramped when the units are cabled up. Straight jacks are best, as side-angle ones can twist to completely obscure controls unless everything is tied down.
None of this is a big issue if you’re the sort of player with a set-and-forget attitude to pedals, but anyone who likes to tweak, especially while playing, will find the Spark pedals quite challenging. One thing that goes a long way to smoothing player interaction, however, is the fact that when you kick the unit on the whole ring around the switch lights up. This looks great and allows you to read the text easily on a dark stage, so at least you won’t find yourself tweaking the wrong knob.
On a practical level the Sparks slot into an existing pedalboard extremely easily. Side by side, two units take up considerably less room than a single Boss-style pedal and they’re also small enough to fit into otherwise unused voids, or you could always create your own mini-board. Mooer’s £74.99 Micro Power unit, which consists of a wall-wart and a separate compact distribution box is the obvious addition. The outputs are individually regulated but non-isolated, despite what it says on the top, and it will run up to eight pedals. Alternatively, the centre-negative design of the pedals means you can use most 9V power solutions.
While the Spark Chorus can create some extreme, seasick wobbles, it’s best at creating subtle, tuneful undercurrents. This is a good thing because it makes the Spark feel contemporary; its output is a lot less soupy and predictable than the classic Boss CS-3, though players who want a thicker chorus sound just need to press the Deep switch. The Depth and Speed controls feel highly interactive and it’s possible to nuance the effect in many ways. The basic output is clean, and the brightness of the guitar sound is preserved.
I especially like the most minimal setting where you can barely hear the chorusing effect; this adds a nice shimmer to clean chords and melodic runs. Increasing the Depth setting brings on more of the pseudo 12-string effect that people often refer to when talking about chorus. Maxing out the Depth works best for single strikes when chords are left hanging in the air, adding the appearance of harmonic richness to a mix.
Bringing up the Speed control accesses more traditional chorus tones and again the unit’s overall clarity gives it a real sense of class. If you want vintage Cure or Japan-style rhythm/bass sounds you’ll find them located around the last third of the Speed rotary’s travel in combination with a good slug of Depth. Just add some distortion for all sorts of ’80s/’90s lead sounds.
Tremolo can be used subtlety to enhance underlying rhythms or create vicious, gated effects, and the application of different geometric waveforms – sine, triangle or square – to modulate the amplitude creates different sonic effects. The Mooer Spark Tremolo has Depth and Speed controls plus a Shape control which suggests you can adjust the waveform.
With minimum depth and the slowest speed the effect is pleasingly in the background, so there’s plenty of scope to adjust its speed to sync with a song. At full Speed and minimum Depth there’s a pleasing flutter that can be added to chords and melodies but doesn’t get in the way of the playing. The influence of the Shape control is quite subtle with the Depth control set low and, musically, it seems to act more like a tone control.
Close to maximum there’s a minor gain boost, which can add an edge of distortion to the tremolo peak if your amp is already close to the break-up point. Intentional or otherwise, this can be used to great effect, especially for swampy blues. At higher Depth settings the transition to square wave modulation is more pronounced and a harder-cut, more arpeggiated performance is the result. If your timing’s good you can use this effect to take the pick attack out of staccato chords, which gives an almost keyboard-like vibe.
This is one hot little box. Even with Gain set to minimum and Level adjusted to match the guitar’s operating level, a significant amount of grit hits the sound. Tonally the unit errs on the dark side, and to maintain your guitar’s uneffected brightness you’ll need to max out the Tone control. Backing it off gives a fine mellow blues tone with single-coil pickups, but it’s surprising that you can’t dial in more biting treble.
At higher gain settings the distortion is quite explosive and the clipping can sound harsh. Backing the tone off is good for boogie rhythm, but the distortion gets progressively more ragged as you bring up the gain, so there isn’t really a smooth, singing lead voice with single coils. What it excels at is sort of punky, alt. rock rhythm sound.
The situation is quite different with humbuckers: this pedal definitely responds well to a hotter signal. Now we’re getting huge, crunchy power chords and an aggressive lead tone that you can really dig into. The boost switch is useful in a situation where you just need a little more of everything – but switching it in and out by hand during a song isn’t especially practical.
The tiny Mooers are great, value-for-money pedals that can add an extra sound to an already well-populated pedalboard or free up some space. The controls are somewhat cramped, mind, so think about your needs concerning miniaturisation and tweakability. All three perform very well, and we particularly like the Tremolo as the Shape control can create some very subtle effects.
The Chorus has a nice contemporary sound but can also offer more retro flavours if required. The Distortion isn’t especially flexible, but it’s a serviceable, practical piece of kit that’s best for aggressive, humbucker-driven chords.