First Impressions: Catalinbread Formula 55 Overdrive

I recently picked up another tweed-tone pedal: Catalinbread’s Formula 55 overdrive pedal.

The Catalinbread Formula 55 Overdrive Pedal

Is this going to be the 5e3-in-a-box pedal that I can recommend to anyone who wants the sound of a Tweed Deluxe without having to buy one of these expensive amps? Or is it going to be three out of three for disappointment with Catalinbread pedals?

Read on for my First Impressions.

What Did You Buy?

I bought a Catalinbread Formula 55 overdrive pedal. It’s a tweed-tone pedal that chases the sound of the 5e3 amp circuit – an amp that’s known as the Tweed Deluxe.

I got this second-hand.

Why Did You Buy It?

I got this for a couple of reasons:

  1. I collect tweed-tone pedals, and this is one that was missing from my collection.
  2. It’s one of the very few tweed-tone pedals that’s remained in continuous production for several years. I think that makes it an important pedal to explore.

Why Did You Buy It Second Hand?

This is the third Catalinbread pedal that I’ve tried so far. I didn’t like either the Dirty Little Secret or the 5F6. The main problem with both of those pedals is that I prefer to play Les Pauls, and neither of those pedals seem to work well with my favourite guitars.

I didn’t see the point of spending the extra money to get a brand new Formula 55 pedal. It just seemed too much of a risk.

Sure, I could have just sent it back if it also doesn’t work with my Les Paul. While I’m happy to send something back if it’s broken, I don’t want to be one of those people who buys things online just to send it back after trying it.

By getting a second-hand example, I can keep it for my collection even if I don’t like it. Even the worst pedals can produce good results in time.

What Is Your Signal Chain?

I’m playing:

  • various guitars
  • straight into the Formula 55
  • into my rack mount FX processor for digital tape delay and digital spring reverb
  • into the front of my Marshall DSL 20HR
  • into my Two Notes Captor for -20 db attenuation
  • out to a pair of Victory 1×12 open-backed cabs, fitted with Celestion Blue and Celestion A-Type speakers

For reasons that will become apparent shortly, today I’ve gone with several different guitars:

  1. Stripe, my Fender American Deluxe Telecaster fitted with Twisted Tele pickups
  2. Spot, my Fender American Elite Stratocaster fitted with Kinman noiseless pickups
  3. The Other Red Special (TORS for short), my Gibson Les Paul Custom Special fitted with stock Gibson P90 pickups
  4. The 59, my Gibson Les Paul R9 fitted with stock Custombuckers

There’s no Gigrig G2 today; that’s currently on its way back from being serviced.

I’ve recorded each guitar through this rig using a pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones. It’s a pretty good representation of the sound that I hear in the room. The only thing you can’t hear on the recording is the extra low-end that is filling the room out the back of these open-backed cabs.

The Formula 55 Rocks With A Telecaster

Arguably, the sweet spot for a real Tweed Deluxe amp comes from pairing it with a Telecaster. I grabbed Spot for this, and used the bridge pickup.

The Formula 55 and a Telecaster

I really like what I’m hearing here.

First off, I think that’s a really good tweed tone. It’s got that mid-range focus, plenty of bite while still having a rounded attack, and (in the room) plenty of foundational low-mids too.

Compare that to the recording of my Tweed Deluxe amp that I did for the recent Little Tweedy Drive blog post. Even though the gain settings are different, and I used a different guitar, hopefully you can hear that the Formula 55 is in the ballpark:

Tweed Deluxe Amp and a PRS McCarty 594

Secondly, I don’t think the pedal is too noisy. Granted, there’s not a huge amount of gain going on here, but even with single coils, I don’t think it’s a problem at all.

A Good Choice For Stratocasters Too

I have friends who prefer a Strat over a Tele, so this is for you. Again, this is all bridge pickup:

Formula 55 and a Stratocaster

I don’t normally use the bridge pickup on my Strat, but the Formula 55 might just convince me otherwise. I think it’s done a great job of taming the treble on that bridge pickup, and of filling in some low-end too.

I can easily see myself using this pedal with both my Strat and my Tele for double-tracking guitar parts.

But what about the guitars that I normally play – Les Pauls? They have pickups that are both hotter and push out more low-end than my Strat or Tele. Are they going to work with the Formula 55, or is it going to be a third disappointment from Catalinbread?

P90s Work Too

I thought I’d ease into this gently, by using a Les Paul fitted with P90s. These Gibson P90s are what you might call very vintage-voiced. They’re not the fire-breathing mid-range monsters that many people think about when they think of P90s.

This is how the bridge pickup sounds, using the same settings on the pedal that I used for both the Telecaster and Stratocaster:

Formula 55 with a P90 Les Paul

To my ears, the Formula 55 is right on the edge of overloading here. Instead of more saturation, this is starting to distort. For me, it’s too harsh a sound.

What if we dial back the volume control on the Formula 55? (The volume control acts as a gain control on this pedal.)

Formula 55 dialed in for a P90 Les Paul

I think that’s better. To my ears, that brings the Formula 55 back into overdrive territory. It’s giving me a thicker sound than I got with the Telecaster, which gives me options. I also like how it’s producing that raspy top-end – something that’s the Achilles’ heel for the Little Tweedy Drive.

It’s definitely a very usable sound.

Humbuckers? Hrm.

I can’t put it off any longer. Let’s hear how the Formula 55 sounds with the bridge pickup of my Les Paul, using the same settings that I used for the Tele and Strat.

Formula 55 and a Les Paul

I don’t know if that’s a sound that you’d find useful. It’s not a sound that I would use. It sounds harsh, brittle, and badly distorted. I promise you, that’s the pedal distorting, not my audio interface preamps.

This is with a Les Paul that’s fitted with low output, vintage-voiced pickups. Most Gibson Les Pauls come with hotter pickups than this; so do most other guitars that have bridge humbuckers.

Okay, so I can’t get amp-like saturation out of this pedal with my Les Paul. If I dial back the pedal’s volume control, can I get it back into overdrive territory?

This is what the Formula 55 sounds like with the volume control dialled back to its lowest setting that still produces a sound. I also dialled back the volume control on the Les Paul to help out:

Formula 55 on lowest volume with a Les Paul

This recording sounds harsher than what I hear in the room. Maybe the mic needs moving away from the cab a little bit to tame things, I don’t know.

I think there’s a usable tone to be had here, if I was to put in a lot more time. The thing is, there are plenty of other tweed-tone pedals that just work with humbuckers without much effort.

Hi vs Low Mode

Up until now, I’ve been using the ‘Hi’ mode of the Formula 55. Catalinbread describe this as “like hot rodding your amp by swapping in higher gain tubes”. There’s also a ‘Lo’ mode, which they say is “the cleaner response of a vintage tweed”.

My Tweed Deluxe amp (which is completely stock) has more gain than the Formula 55’s ‘Hi’ mode. It also has a lot more saturation than I’ve been able to get out of the Formula 55 so far.

For me, the marketing doesn’t match my experience.

Does The ‘Lo’ Mode Help With Humbuckers?

To finish off, here’s how the same Les Paul sounds through the Formula 55 in its ‘Lo’ mode:

Formula 55 in Low Mode with a Les Paul

To get this amount of overdrive in ‘Lo’ mode, I had to crank the volume control on the Formula 55 up to around the 3 o’clock mark. The good news is that the pedal isn’t producing lots of noise even with the volume cranked.

Again, the recording sounds a little harsher than what I hear in the room. I’m sure I could get a better recorded tone by moving the mics around a bit. Something for me to experiment with another time.

I think the raspiness is still a little too strong here, but otherwise it’s definitely producing that 5e3 vibe and tone.

Is it possible to tame that raspiness at all? To find out, I’ve dialled down the Presence control on the Formula 55 to about 9 o’clock, cranked the Tone control up to about 3 o’clock, dropped the Volume back to around 2 o’clock, and also dialled back the volume control on my Les Paul.

Formula 55 dialled in for my Les Paul

I’m going to call that ‘mixed results’:

  • On the one hand, I think the recorded tone sounds pretty good. It’s full, fat, and very tweedy. The raspiness has been tamed.
  • On the other hand, in the room, the attack sounded so rounded I was struggling to play well. I need to hear more note definition. Or maybe I just need to get used to this?

It’s just a lot easier for me to grab my Brantone Vintage Tweed Overdrive and use that instead:

The Brantone Vintage Tweed Overdrive and a PRS McCarty 594

I think that’s a good point to stop for today.

Final Thoughts

Of the three Catalinbread pedals I’ve tried to date, I’ve enjoyed this one the most. That’s a relief, for sure: I was very worried that this would be another waste of my money.

I think it sounds killer with both Telecasters and Stratocasters. The 5e3 thing is definitely there. It’s got a real chance of becoming my goto tweed-tone pedal for both of those guitars.

When it comes to P90s and humbuckers … I’m not quite there with it yet. It’s definitely usable; something I couldn’t say about the other Catalinbread pedals I’ve tried. I think it does sound better in the room than it does in my recordings. I just haven’t managed to find the tone that I’m after. It just falls a little short.

That said … did you hear how close the Formula 55 got to the Brantone Vintage Tweed Overdrive? That’s impressive. They don’t make Vintage Tweed Overdrives any more (Brantone has closed down), but they still make Formula 55 pedals.

If you’re after a Tweed-Deluxe-in-a-box, this is probably the best one you can find in shops today.

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