First Impressions: Mad Professor Super Black Preamp Pedal (Into The Front Of An Amp)

This photo shows a top-down view of the Mad Professor Super Black pedal. 

The pedal is rectangular; slightly taller than it is wide.

There are two rows of control knobs. Each row has four knobs.

The top row says: "Bass", "Middle", "Treble" and "Gain". These are all in white lettering.

The bottom row says "Volume" and "Presence" in white lettering. Then there are "Volume" and "Drive" in orange lettering.

Below these controls, there are two toggle switches. The switch on the left says 'Bass Cut' in white lettering. The switch on the right says 'Compression' in white lettering. 

There are two footswitches on this pedal. The foot switch on the left says 'ON/OFF' in white lettering. The foot switch on the right says 'ON/OFF' in orange lettering.

The controls in white lettering control the blackface side of the pedal. The controls in orange lettering control the Sweet Honey Overdrive side of the pedal.

Finally, we can see that this pedal has side jacks. The 'IN' jack is on the right of the pedal, and the 'OUT' jack is on the left of the pedal.
Mad Professor’s Super Black Preamp Pedal

I recently managed to tear myself away from my beloved Tweed Deluxe amp long enough to snag a second-hand Super Black pedal. And I swear that I didn’t realise this is (partially!) a tweed pedal when I bought it!

tl;dr

The Super Black is a preamp and overdrive pedal that gives you blackface-type clean tones. I think it sounds fantastic with single-coil guitars for this purpose.

Switch to a Les Paul, and/or slap an overdrive in front of it, and I’m not a fan of the results. I find the pedal’s own overdrive to be harsh and grainy, and it imparts that texture onto pedals that I put in front of it.

A lot of this seems to be down to the way that the pedal models amp-like compression. This is switchable, but I find that both settings are extremes, and so far I haven’t been able to find a sweet spot to make it sing with overdrive.

I’ve only tried it into the front of my Marshall DSL 20HR so far. The Super Black is designed to also go straight into a power amp. Look for that in a follow-up blog post!

Table of Contents

What Did You Buy?

I bought a second-hand Super Black preamp pedal. It’s one of the pedals put out by Mad Professor in the post-BJFe era.

Mad Professor market this as a recreation of the whole signal path of a blackface amp. Now, they don’t say exactly which Fender amp this is modelled on. Is it a Deluxe Reverb? Is it a Princeton? We don’t know for sure. And (given that this is a preamp pedal), I’m assuming they’ve only modelled the preamp of one of these iconic amps?

[Not quite: there’s a Compression control on the pedal, which seems to mimic power amp behaviour. It’s going to be featured heavily in this post – Ed]

What Makes The Blackface Sound Desirable?

If you play Stratocasters or Telecasters and you love clean tones, then you’ll probably love the sound of a Deluxe Reverb or Princeton amp from Fender’s “blackface” era. They’re famous for their frequency range (plenty of low-end, plenty of high-end) and scooped mids.

There’s just something about that tone stack that really suits single-coil guitars.

Both amps are also great for pedals (or so I’ve been told; I’ve never played a Princeton myself). My beloved Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 also has that blackface sound, and it’s such a great pedal platform amp.

Why Did You Buy It?

Opportunity and curiosity, I guess.

I’ve seen a few of these turn up on the second-hand marking this year (2021), just never at prices that I was willing to pay. (The second-hand market is a mess this year, with asking prices often close to or exceeding retail prices, due to the UK’s ongoing problems with import volumes.)

So why is this one cheaper? In the last few weeks, I’ve started to see people listing items out of desperation. At least, that’s my interpretation of it. They price their items cheap, and if they don’t sell within 24 hours or so, they lower the price. This is one such pedal; the LR Baggs Align Series Reverb I recently picked up was another.

I’m curious about this pedal because Mad Professor remains my favourite pedal manufacturer. I’ve tried most of their pedals over the years, and I’d love to try them all one day.

That, and it’s another blackface-in-a-box pedal (BIAB for short). As with tweed-tone pedals, my experience is that no two BIAB pedals sound the same. I’m very interested in hearing in how this one compares to the other BIAB pedals that I’ve already tried.

What Is Your Rig?

For this First Impressions, my signal chain is:

  • Fender American Deluxe Telecaster (known as Spot), fitted with Fender Custom Shop Twisted Tele pickups
  • into the Mad Professor Super Black
  • into a pair of Neunaber Slate pedals for digital tape delay and digital spring reverb
  • into the Marshall DSL 20HR
  • into a pair of 1×12 Victory cabs (16 ohm Celestion Blue and 16 ohm Celestion A-Type)

The pedals are in separate loops on my trusty Gigrig G2, which also allows me to bring in any other pedals – like a Klon klone – later on if I want.

Normally, I’m playing a Les Paul into my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 for these First Impressions posts. I’ve bought this pedal to use with single-coil guitars first and foremost – and I often describe Spot as the best Strat that I own (even though it’s a Telecaster). Don’t worry, I’ll grab the Les Paul later on to find out how well the Super Black works with it.

I can’t image all that many people with a Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 will want to try a blackface-in-a-box pedal with it; the amp itself already gets you close enough. I can imagine Marshall owners wanting to try one of these pedals for their clean tone.

That, and I’m very interested in hearing whether this pedal improves on the DSL20 HR’s clean tone or not. At the time of writing, I’m preferring Marshall cleans over Fender cleans for clean rhythm playing (more on that in my upcoming Marshall DSL20 HR review). That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon though!

What Does It Sound Like?

Note that I am running this into the front of the Marshall. Mad Professor’s own docs do say that this pedal can be run into the FX return of an amp. I’m not doing that here. That’ll be in a separate blog post!

I’ve got the pedal’s EQ controls roughly at noon. The gain is just below 2 o’clock. The Presence control is around 10 o’clock, and the volume is adjusted for unity. Both the bass cut and compression controls are switched to the right (more on those in a later section).

The first thing I notice is just how ice-picky the tone is. I’m on the neck pickup of my Tele, and while this is a bright guitar, it’s not normally that bright. Turning the pedal’s Presence control all the way down helps, but things only get comfortable when I roll down the tone control on my guitar as well.

If you’re someone who hates touching the tone control on your guitar, I’m not sure you’ll get on with this pedal – at least for clean tones.

There’s a lot of low-mids too, but that’s partly because I’ve got the Marshall dialled in for my Archer Ikon klone atm. (More on that in the next #CoffeeAndKlon). I’m mentioning this because if you’re using an amp that doesn’t make it easy to control the low-mids, you’ll probably want to stick an EQ pedal after the Super Black to help you out.

With those tamed … I think I’m in love. Compared to the Marshall’s own clean tone, it’s widening the frequency of the signal (more highs, more lows) and adding a pleasing mid-scoop too – all the blackface characteristics. And yet, I’ve still got the slightly harder, more aggressive note attack that I love about the Marshall sound.

This might just be the clean sound that I’ve been looking for.

Does It Sound Like A Blackface Amp?

Honestly, it’s been over two years since I last played a Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue (DRRI for short), and I don’t think I’ve ever played a blackface Fender Princeton at all. On top of that, I’m running it into the frontend of the Marshall, not directly into a power amp.

So I think I’m the wrong person to answer that question for you.

I’m definitely hearing the characteristics that I wanted. The wider frequency response is there. The mid-scoop is there. The top-end could be described as ‘glassy’.

There’s something else that’s important: the pedal’s got something about it. There are some pedals, like the Wampler Pantheon, that breathe life and mojo into the overall sound and feel. The Super Black has that too …

… at least for clean tones.

What’s The Sweet Honey Overdrive Section Like?

So, I swear to you that I didn’t know this when I bought the pedal. As well as the blackface-in-a-box aspect, the Super Black also includes Mad Professor’s Sweet Honey Overdrive (SHOD) too.

Well … almost.

We only get two controls: Volume and Gain. We don’t get the Focus control from the original SHOD and Custom SHOD, and we certainly don’t get the 3-band EQ from the Deluxe SHOD. That’s going to be interesting, for sure. Without the Focus control, we can’t dial in the SHOD side of the Super Black for different guitars. (That’s a theme we’re going to return to later on …)

(On a blog that practically’s a shrine to the SHOD, that paragraph might just have more SHODs in it than any other!)

If I run the SHOD into the Super Black side of the pedal – without touching any of the controls – we’re instantly back into ice-pick-tone territory. Only now, I’ve run out of ways to tame it. Frankly, I think it sounds horrible, and not at all how I remember the SHOD sounding into a real blackface amp.

All is not lost, though. This pedal has a couple of tricks left up its sleeve.

Can You Run The SHOD Side On Its Own?

Yes, we can. The two sides of the Super Black are independent. We can turn on the SHOD side, and leave the blackface side off. And what a difference it makes.

It’s still a little bright, but nowhere near as fatiguing as running the SHOD side into the blackface side.

I think it’s a nice touch, to give the pedal a little more versatility than it might otherwise have had. Plus, this does mean that I now own four SHOD versions. I’m going to have to try them all side-by-side at some point soon … 🙂

What Does The Compression Toggle Switch Do?

Ah ha. Here we have the second trick that the Super Black has up its sleeve.

First, a bit of an explanation about the ON/OFF switch positions, because this sure did catch me out. The Compression switch is OFF when it points to the right, and ON when it points to the left. That’s the exact opposite of the Bass Cut switch.

Until now, I’ve been playing with the Compression switch to the right – the OFF position. Moving it to the ON position radically changes the sound of the blackface side of the pedal.

The blackface side is now much darker; we’ve gone from ice-pick to downright dull. I was not expecting that. I can compensate by turning the pedal’s Presence control up above 9 o’clock, but I don’t think it sounds quite the same. To my ears, the frequency range has been narrowed quite a bit. That ‘glassy’ top end just isn’t there any more, and using the pedal’s EQ controls to compensate feels like stretching the signal rather than restoring it.

More importantly to me, the mojo I talked about earlier? Well, I think it’s gone when the pedal’s Compression switch is set to OFF. For clean tones, it just doesn’t have any life to it at all. It’s more than just the dynamics being heavily squashed. (We’ll come back to that when we talk about overdrive.)

For me, this is unexpected. Compression is typically used to improve clean tones, not strangle the life out of them. This must be emulating amp compression rather than your favourite studio-compressor-in-a-box – and amp compression does indeed squash frequencies too. Amp compression, though, is frankly pretty glorious; it’s one of the reasons why a cranked amp sounds much better than a tamed one. The Compression on the Super Black? No, I can’t use the word ‘glorious’ to describe it.

Part of my frustration is that the Compression switch takes the pedal from one extreme to another. I found myself checking for a middle setting, but alas this isn’t a 3-way toggle switch. Just in case, I did pop the back of the pedal off. No, there’s no accessible trim pot inside to adjust the Compression setting either.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There is a good reason to turn off the Compression. Let’s rerun the test: both sides of the pedal on, only this time with Compression off.

With Compression Off, The SHOD Into the Blackface Sounds Much Better

The ice-pick tone is pretty much gone, and the SHOD sounds a lot more usable now.

I did find that I had to adjust the pedal’s EQ controls too; I turned the Presence down to below 8 o’clock and turned the Treble up past noon. Without these changes, the Super Black sound harsh and nasally; two characteristics that aren’t for me.

But yeah, with these changes made, it’s quite a nice overdrive in the room. I’m not sure I’d pick this over a full-fat SHOD pedal straight into the amp, but it’s definitely usable.

I just can’t call it a great sound. If I’m being picky, it’s a little harsh and grainy though. That’s something I can hear more clearly if I switch guitars.

Enter Player Two: The Mighty Les Paul

I’ve been fortunate enough to play my Les Paul through a real Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue (DRRI for short) – and it was a glorious sound. There’ll always be part of me that regrets not buying that DRRI when I had the chance.

Sadly – and not for the first time – glorious is not a word I can use about my Les Paul into the Super Black.

Even though it’s a vintage-voiced Les Paul, it pushes the Super Black instantly into overdrive. Fair enough. Unfortunately, to my ears, the Super Black sounds pretty harsh and grainy now. Turning down the Gain control on the pedal doesn’t help enough.

I just can’t find a sweet spot here.

I find that I’m not just fiddling with the Gain control. I’ve had to switch the Compression off, adjust the Presence and other EQ controls too – all in a fruitless hunt for a smoother sound. Maybe I just need to spend more time with the pedal here, I don’t know.

Switching between the Super Black and a different drive pedal really highlights the difference in the nature of the overdriven tone.

Does It Klon?

Instead of my beloved Klon KTR, I’ve got the JRAD Archer Ikon (the gold one) on the board for the moment. I’ve got the Archer Ikon setup as a drive pedal – more on that in the next #CoffeeAndKlon.

Switching back and forth between the two using G2 (so that any buffer in the Ikon doesn’t affect the comparison when the Ikon isn’t being used), there’s only one winner for me.

With the Archer Ikon, my Les Paul sounds sweet and fat and smooth. It’s a stark contrast to how the Super Black sounds with my Les Paul. Switching the Compression back on, cranking the Mids to 3 o’clock and adjusting the other EQ controls – all that does help, but I just can’t get the Super Black to sing with my Les Paul. Switching the Compression on does smooth out the drive sound a bit, but at the expense of strangling the overall sound again.

Strangling. That’s a very harsh word to use about a pedal. Unfortunately, I think that’s the most accurate term for what I’m experiencing.

As for the all-important Klon / klone test: does the Super Black have enough input headroom to stick a boost in front of it? It does, so that’s something.

Final Thoughts

An important reminder and caveat: I’ve only tried this pedal into the front of my Marshall amp. I reckon that this is how most people will try it first. Not everyone has an amp with an FX loop, and not everyone makes use of their FX loop at all.

I really wanted to love this pedal, and I think that’s shown in the length of this First Impressions blog post. I’m in love with this pedal for clean tones … but I’m frustrated with it too.

With my Telecaster, I’m getting clean tones that combine the best characteristics of both the fabled Fender blackface sound and the Marshall sound that I grew up with. For me, that’s worth the price I paid for this pedal.

If I’d paid full price for this pedal though, I wouldn’t be anywhere near as happy.

There’s been a running theme throughout this blog post: whenever I switch over what I’m using the pedal for, I have to adjust the controls of the pedal to make it sound great again. I love the clean sounds with the Compression set to OFF, but if I want to use overdrive with it, I have to change the Compression setting and the EQ controls too.

That frustrates me, because I can’t find a sweet spot on this pedal that suits both clean and overdrive sounds. The pedals I keep going back to over the years? They’re the ones that I can dial in and then just leave them alone. Fire and forget, if you like. The ones that I’ve got to constantly fiddle with and adjust? There’s normally an alternative pedal out there that sounds better without all that faff.

And I haven’t gotten a great overdrive sound of it yet.

The SHOD side is a nice addition. Mad Professor have made it independent, which is a welcome touch. There’ll be folks out there who find it a useful feature, and I’m sure there’ll be some folks who are inspired to seek out a full-fat SHOD or 3 to get the full experience.

I really do need to try this pedal straight into a power amp, to find out whether that’s where the Super Black is at its best or not. Watch out for a follow-up blog post soon!

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