Second Bite: Fender MTG:LA Overdrive Pedal, Through The Marshall DSL20HR

The photo shows Fender's MTG:LA pedal sat on my pedal board, next to an MXR Sugar Drive pedal.

This photo really brings out the brushed copper look of the MTG:LA, as well as the LED pipes that light up each of the adjustable control knobs.

The settings shown in the photo are the ones that I ended up settling on by the end of this blog post.

Top row: Tone at max, Treble at max, Bass at 12 o'clock, Tight at just after 3 o'clock.
Bottom row: Level just under 9 o'clock, Boost Level 12 o'clock, Boost Boost 12 o'clock, and Gain at 9 o'clock.
Fender’s MTG:LA pedal, sat on my board at home

I’ve had Fender’s MTG:LA overdrive pedal for coming up on two years now, and it’s fair to say that it’s largely spent most of that time sat in its box on the pedal shelf. It’s a pedal for Strats and Teles, but I play my Les Paul most of the time.

Last July, I had a go at using additional pedals to shape the tone of the MTG:LA, to try and make it work better with my Les Paul. While I liked the results, nothing really stuck, so the pedal went back onto the shelf.

Let’s give the MTG:LA another go, this time by trying my new secret weapon: the Marshall DSL20HR.

Stiffer Competition Than Ever!

This time around, the stakes are even higher for the MTG:LA. Since I last wrote about the MTG:LA, not one, not two but three new options have come along to satisfy my love of tweed-tone:

  • I picked up my new all-time favourite tweed-tone pedal, the Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive Deluxe (SHOD Deluxe for short), to go with my original SHOD and the SHOD Custom. That’s three flavours of my #1 tweed-tone pedal to compete against; and the SHOD is probably the world’s best-selling tweed-tone pedal. It’s certainly been in continuous production the longest now. (Aaaaand I’ve just realised that I’ve never actually blogged about the SHOD Deluxe. I will put that right soon, I promise!)
  • I also got the Brantone Electronics Vintage Tweed pedal. This pedal’s so good, I picked it out of a blind test a friend of mine did with me at the start of the year – and I didn’t even know there was a tweed-tone pedal in his line-up! It’s the first pedal I reach for when I want a break from the SHODs.
  • Oh, and I have a freakin’ genuine Fender Tweed Deluxe amp too now!

Frankly, my MTG:LA is more than surplus to requirements now. If I’m going to keep it, it’s got to give me options that the others don’t.

So What’s Different This Time Around?

This time, I’m going to run the MTG:LA through my new secret weapon: the Marshall DSL20HR and it’s frankly amazing tone-shaping EQ.

Even though I’ve had this amp a couple of years now, I call this my new secret weapon because I’ve only just started to realise how good it is for pedals. Used right, the DSL20HR has six controls (Treble, Middle, Bass; Presence, Resonance; and the Gain control) that allow me to dial this amp in to suit any pedal that I’ve tried with it (so far, at any rate!)

As much as I love my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6, it has just the one tone control that’s best set once and then left untouched. It’s great for checking out pedals, because the pedals have nowhere to hide.

But this summer, I’ve been learning that if I want to get the very best out of a pedal, the Marshall DSL20HR simply has far more tools to work with.

My Signal Chain For Today

I’m using the following:

  • vintage-voiced Les Paul
  • into the MTG:LA
  • into a pair of Neunaber Slates for digital tape delay and digital spring reverb
  • into the front of the Marshall DSL20HR
  • and out to a pair of Victory 1×12 cabs, fitted with 16 ohm Celestion Blue and Celestion A-Type speakers

All the pedals are in separate loops on my Gigrig G2, so that I can make sure they’re not colouring the sound when they’re not in use. That’s very handy for any guest pedals that I bring in later on, such as a Klon klone or another tweed-tone pedal for comparison.

My Les Paul is mostly in the middle position, with the neck pickup rolled down to 4 and the bridge pickup either wide open or rolled down to taste. Both tone controls are on 10.

I appreciate this rig, and how I use it, is probably a little different to what you have. I can only write about my experiences trying to get the sounds that suit me out of my signal chain.

What’s My Main Challenge With The MTG:LA?

To my ears, the MTG:LA is voiced for the brighter, thinner single-coil bridge pickups of Telecasters and Stratocasters. With those guitars, the MTG:LA produces those solid low-mids that I adore about tweed-tone, and plenty of beef to the tone to fatten up the sound of a classic Fender guitar.

Switch over to a Les Paul, though, and my experience is a bit different. Suddenly, all the things that the MTG:LA does to help a Fender guitar get in the way of the Les Paul’s naturally fatter tone. The low-end becomes overpowering, and there just isn’t the clarity and string-separation that I’m personally after.

This is where things got a bit gnarly for me last time.

No matter what I tried, I didn’t find the MTG:LA’s onboard EQ controls to be much help here. Unity bass seems to be around 3 o’clock, with little usable range either side of that. And I’ve already got the tone and treble dimed to overcome how dark the MTG:LA seems to be with a Les Paul

So let’s throw the DSL20HR’s EQ controls at the problem, and see how we get on.

Let’s Sort Out The Low-End First

I reckon that, if I can clean up the low-end first, that’ll bring out a lot of the clarity that I’m missing. So I’m going to start there.

This is one of the areas where the Marshall DSL20HR excels. It gives me three separate controls to manage the low-end. I can use the Bass and Resonance controls to handle low-end range and thump … and I can use the Gain control to adjust the low-mids and clean up some of the mud.

Okay, so going purely on guesswork here, I’m backing off the MTG:LA’s bass control to 12 o’clock to start with. That really cuts out a lot of the bass signal, but I can make that up using the DSL20HR’s EQ stack. I just need to roll the Marshall’s Bass up towards noon (I normally run this closer to 9 o’clock), and then roll in a bit of Resonance to taste (it adds a bit of thump to the bass, to my ears).

That just leaves the low-mids, and here, all I need to do is to roll up the Marshall’s Gain control until I get both the sound and feel that I’m looking for. As I roll the amp’s Gain up, I do have to remember to roll the amp’s Volume back a little bit too, to keep the overall volume balanced.

Finally, I’m turning up the Tight control on the MTG:LA to fine-tune the overall clarity. I want to keep the solid low-mids, without it leaking all over the rest of the mid-range; and I’m finding that the Tight control is a great tool for that – at least with this signal chain.

All in all, that took me about 10-15 minutes to dial in. While it’s not an immediate out-the-box experience, I got there, and I’m pretty happy with the results.

Does The Mid-Range Need Boosting, Or Cutting?

Arguably, the mighty Les Paul is all about the mid-range, and with vintage-voiced ones like mine, we’re really talking about the upper mids in particular. That’s where the guitar’s energy is, and that’s where we want to get great results.

So far, I’ve been running the MTG:LA with its Tone control cranked. Let’s have a play, and see what happens if we try and let the mids breathe a little.

Alas, here I don’t seem to have much wriggle room.

  • When I turn down the MTG:LA’s Tone control, the energy of the Les Paul quickly falls away. And, by the time the Tone control is down to around 2 o’clock, it sounds like someone has thrown a blanket over my speaker cabs.
  • Adjusting the Middle control on the Marshall DSL20HR to compensate … doesn’t. The sweet spot seems to be around 1 o’clock. The Middle control seems to have quite a wide Q, and tweaking it quickly ends up boosting or smothering too wide a section of the overall signal.

I can’t find a better sweet spot than the MTG:LA’s Tone control on max, not with my Les Paul at any rate. That’s okay, because it’s still a good sound.

Can We Sweeten The Top-End A Little?

Not only do I have the MTG:LA’s Tone control cranked, I also have its Treble control cranked fully too. Is that really the best setting, or can I tweak things to make things sound sweeter still?

I’m not a big fan of trying to boost treble frequencies. It’s one thing to add a little air in a recorded mix; it’s quite another to try and make up for something that just isn’t there. As a result, I’d rather get the pedals sounding nice and bright, and then sweeten things by adjusting the amp.

I can hear quite a difference between the MTG:LA’s Treble control at 3 o’clock or when it’s maxed out. That’s partly because I’m playing in the middle position. If you only play on the bridge position, you’ll probably prefer the Treble control down around 4 o’clock or thereabouts.

Below 9 o’clock, and that blanket’s back over the speaker cabs very quickly indeed 😱 I’m going to leave the Treble control on max, and adjust things on the amp instead.

On the DSL20HR, the two main controls for this are the Presence and Treble controls. I find myself thinking of the Treble control as a harshness control, and the Presence control as the blanket-over-the-cabs control. For any guitar and pedal, both have a sweet spot, and it’s just a matter of tweaking until I get to where I’m happy.

And, once again, the DSL20HR doesn’t let me down. I’ve got the amp’s Treble control at around 1 o’clock, and the Presence just above 10 o’clock, and the MTG:LA’s sounding aggressive without sounding overly harsh.

For Comparison: Through The Blackstar Studio 10 6L6

I’m curious: what does the MTG:LA sound like through my regular pedal platform amp (the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6) … without changing the settings? Now that I’m happy with the sound, how much of it is down to the Marshall’s tone stack?

(This is definitely an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Studio 10 is a combo amp, with a Celestion Seventy-80 speaker iirc, while the Marshall is a standalone head going through a pair of 1×12 cabs. And yet … someone playing at home is far more likely to use the Studio 10 as their amp than my Marshall setup.)

Okay. Wow. That’s a world of difference.

Through the Studio 10 6L6, the MTG:LA sounds all mid-rangey and harsh. There’s very little low-end to speak of, and none of those low-mids that make tweed-tone so special to me.

And remember: the Studio 10 6L6 is a great-sounding amp, specifically designed by Blackstar to compete with / fill the gap that Fender’s own amp offerings leave. It’s got that blackface-style clean channel sound. It’s the quintessential pedal-platform amp for home players, imho.

But the MTG:LA needs the extra assistance of the Marshall’s tone stack to overcome its own nature.

Final Thoughts

It’s been a while since I sat down with a piece of gear to explore it like this. I’ve really enjoyed my afternoon with the MTG:LA through the Marshall DSL20HR. And it always helps when the end result is a tone in the room that I’m very happy with.

Based on my experiences, the MTG:LA really benefits from being run into an amp that’s got the adaptability of the Marshall DSL20HR. Normally, I’d talk about getting the best out of a pedal, but in this case I think the Marshall gives me the controls I need to overcome the MTG:LA’s inherent nature.

One thing I haven’t done today is answer the question: does the MTG:LA give me options that my other tweed-tone pedals do not? Unfortunately, a straight side-by-side comparison through the Marshall is difficult, as the amp needs dialling in for each pedal in turn.

As a result, I’m going to have to return that that question another day.

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