First Impression: Walrus Audio 385 Overdrive Pedal

This photo shows the Walrus Audio 385 Overdrive pedal on my pedal board.

It has a black enclosure, with yellow print on the top. The yellow print depicts an old cinema projector.

There are four block control knobs shown.

Next to the 385 is my Archer Ikon pedal. Side by side, the 385 looks a good 25% larger in all dimensions: width, height and depth.
Walrus Audio 385 Overdrive Pedal

A couple of days ago, I finally bought a Walrus Audio 385 Overdrive pedal. It’s my first Walrus Audio pedal, and I’ve been waiting a long time to get one.

I absolutely love it. Let me explain why …

What Did You Buy?

I bought a Walrus Audio 385 overdrive pedal. I bought it second-hand.

These are aiming to recreate the sound of an old Bell and Howell 385 Filmosound projector. As far as I know, these are old film projectors that have become surprisingly popular as mod projects to turn into guitar amps. I’m not clear on how close the projector’s circuit is to guitar amps that we know and love, but as you’ll hear shortly, it’s got its own thing going on.

Why Did You Buy It?

It’s a different premise to most other drive pedals out there. If I look at my pedal shelf, or all the YouTube gear demos I’ve watched over the years, I can’t think of anything else quite like it.

That made me curious.

Although I’ve watched a few demos of this pedal over the years, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a pedal that suited me. I can’t put my finger on why I felt like that. Price was an issue for sure (here in the UK, Walrus Audio have often been one of the more expensive pedal brands). Buying second-hand is a great way to try two or three pedals for the price of one.

It’s taken me a couple of years to find a second-hand example at a great price. These are pretty rare pedals here, and (in my experience) when they do crop up, they’re popular pedals for people to bid on.

I finally have one, and (spoiler alert) I think it was well worth the wait. Oh, and the timing played a huge part in that …

What Is Your Signal Chain?

Today, I’m using:

  • a couple of guitars
  • into the Axe FX 3 (mostly for the tuner)
  • out to my Gigrig G2
  • into the Walrus Audio 385 overdrive
  • back into the Axe FX 3 (for virtual amp, impulse responses, digital delay and reverb)
  • into my audio interface

I’m trying this pedal with two guitars:

  • Smokey, my 2012 Les Paul Classic Plus, fitted with OX4 Hot Duane humbuckers, and
  • Stripe, my 2015 Elite Stratocaster, fitted with Kinman noiseless pickups

On my pedal board, I’ve got the Walrus Audio 385 and a couple of different boost pedals (I’ll introduce those when I’m using them). Every pedal is in a separate loop on the Gigrig G2, to make sure that each pedal isn’t colouring the tone when it isn’t being used.

In the Axe FX 3, I’m using my own preset:

  • I’ve got two different amp models setup: one is a more modern sound, similar to the clean channel on my Marshall DSL20HR; the other is a more vintage sound, similar to my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6. Only one of these amp models is in use at any time.
  • I’m using stock impulse responses (IRs for short). With the ‘modern amp’ patch, I’m using IRs that sound pretty close to the pair of 1×12 cabs that I use with my Marshall DSL20HR. With the ‘vintage amp’ patch, I’ve gone with IRs that suit a Fender blackface-style sound.
  • I’ve got tape delay and spring reverb emulation running after the IRs. You’re going to hear some hiss on the recordings; this is (largely) caused by the overdrive I’ve added to the tape delay effect. It’s something I’m still refining.

There’s no post-processing at all in my DAW: no pre-amp emulation, no EQ, I’m not even boosting the signal for publishing. What you’re hearing is just guitar, pedal, and the effects of the Axe FX 3.

How Are You Running The 385 Overdrive?

After some experimenting, I’ve settled on running the 385 Overdrive with:

  • bass control around 10:30
  • treble control around 1:30
  • gain almost at noon
  • volume around 10 o’clock (which is a bit of a volume boost)

The bass and treble controls are active controls; they can both boost and cut. Unity seems to be about 12 noon on these, but I could be wrong!

Unless I state otherwise, I’m using these settings in all the audio clips in this blog post.

With The Les Paul, Into The ‘Modern Amp’ Patch

My go-to setup currently is a Les Paul into the ‘modern amp’ patch (that sounds similar to my Marshall DSL20HR), so that’s where I’m starting. If a pedal doesn’t work with my Les Paul, I’m probably not going to enjoy it.

Here’s what it sounds like, with my Les Paul in my favourite middle position (neck volume at 5, bridge volume at 9, both tone controls on 10):

Les Paul Middle > 385 OD > ‘Modern Amp’ patch

To my ears, it’s got that kind of mid-range push that I associate with tweed tone. That makes sense: the cinema projector was built in the 1950s. For lack of a better description, it barks more than it growls, which is a bit different to the tweed tone pedals that I normally seek out.

The thing that really catches my ear, though, is the nature of the note attack. It’s not rounded like a 5e3 tweed tone pedal would be, and it isn’t sharp like a Marshall-in-a-box plexi pedal would be. It sounds very blunt to me, and it also feels very hard when playing. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.

How do I feel about it? It’s … different. Even into this ‘modern’ style amp, it’s got a very vintage vibe going on. It’s not blowing my socks off, but it’s also not making me take the pedal off the board straight away.

Let’s try something else.

With The Les Paul, Into The ‘Vintage Amp’ Patch

Next up: same guitar, but this time I’m using the ‘vintage amp’ patch that I’ve built for my Axe FX 3. This has a similar sound and vibe to my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6. It’s got that Fender blackface thing going on.

I haven’t sat down and A/B matched this against the real amp; I’ve built this more by ear and memory than anything else. The patch was built earlier in the week, before I got this pedal, and I haven’t adjusted the patch specifically for this pedal. This is the patch’s debut on this blog 🙂

What difference does this make to the 385 overdrive? Hear for yourself:

Les Paul Middle > 385 OD > ‘Vintage Amp’ patch

I hope you can tell that I enjoyed this combination quite a bit. The blunt attack has been nicely rounded off, and the mids have a very nice smoothness to them. There’s also a nice foundational low-end creeping in that perhaps wasn’t there when I ran the pedal through the other patch.

I wouldn’t call that a tweed-tone any more. I think it sounds like a great Deluxe Reverb Re-issue (DRRI for short) that’s overdriving very nicely indeed. Perhaps it’s a little dull, but that could easily be fixed by adjusting the settings on the amp model.

So what does it sound like on the bridge humbucker?

Les Paul Bridge > 385 OD > ‘Vintage Amp’ patch

Hrm. That’s a little harsh and brittle in the top-end for me. And that’s going to be my first criticism of the 385 Overdrive: I haven’t find a sweet spot for the treble control yet. Dialling it in seems to be more of a compromise than anything else.

The answer is to just roll back the tone control on the guitar a bit. That’s what I’ve done for this next clip, and I think sweetens up the sound just right:

Les Paul Bridge w/ Tone roll-off > 385 OD > ‘Vintage Amp’ patch

While it’s very usable with a Les Paul, I think this pedal sounds absolutely magical with a Strat.

With A Strat, Into The ‘Vintage Amp’ Patch

I’ve switched over to my Strat, where I’m using the neck pickup. Everything else is untouched: same pedal settings, exact same ‘vintage amp’ patch that I used for the Les Paul demos above.

Take a listen to the difference:

Strat Neck > 385 OD > ‘Vintage Amp’ patch

Excuse the playing; I just don’t play Strats very much any more, and it clearly shows!

That’s probably the best Strat tone I’ve ever had. It’s lively, it’s full of dynamics, has great note definition, and it’s got wonderful clarity without any harshness or brittleness in the top-end. And this is with noise-cancelling pickups!

It’s not just me who thinks that. While I was dialling in the tones last night, Kristi stuck her head round the door, wanting to know what I was doing to get that sound. Normally, I have to go and ask her what she thought of a guitar tone I’m using; this time round, she loved what she was hearing so much she came over to tell me.

Does It Klon?

Yes, and no.

The good news is that it seems to have enough input headroom. I can stick a boost pedal in front of it, and it doesn’t overload and collapse immediately. The noise floor is also nice and low, which is good for stacking pedals.

For me, I’d need to adjust the settings on the 385 overdrive first, and then have a klon-style pedal before it as an always-on pedal. It’s already got pretty strong mids going on. I think the EQ shift that comes from a klone in particular … it’s a bit too much for me.

You, on the other hand, may find that you love it.

I’m just so happy with the pedal as-is that I don’t think it needs any help to sound utterly magical with a Strat’s neck pickup.

You Might Need Help To Replicate These Tones

To get all the tones you’ve heard in these demos, there’s one more thing I had to do: I starved the pedal’s input signal a little bit.

This is a trick I started using with fuzzes many years ago now, as a way to tame pedals that I found were a little too much at first. Back then, I did it by engaging and turning down the input preamp on my Gigrig G2. Today, I’m doing it by turning down the output that goes from the Axe FX 3 into the pedalboard.

I haven’t tried it, but you might be able to get the same effect by using a volume pedal in front of the 385 overdrive pedal?

Why am I doing this? I think the pedal sounds much nicer this way, even with the low-output pickups of a Strat. The 385’s gain control seems to adjust the EQ too, and after a lot of experimenting, I found that I preferred the tone with the gain control around 12 noon. There was just too much overdrive, though, for my tastes. Starving the pedal’s input signal sorted that out just right for me.

I couldn’t get the same effect just by turning down the volume control on my guitar. The guitars I’ve used today do not have a treble bleed circuit; they get dark pretty quickly when I turn down their volume controls.

It’s something to be aware of. As far as I know, none of the other demos online of the 385 overdrive have used the same input-starving trick.

Final Thoughts

It’s more than just a keeper. I am going to use this pedal to record music. What more do I need to say?

Alright, there is a bit more to say.

I do think that I got lucky by getting this pedal after I got the Axe FX 3. Like many American-designed boutique pedals, it does seem to suit Fender-voiced amps much more than Marshall-style amps. If I’d bought this last summer, when I switched over to using the Marshall DSL20HR regularly, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I have today.

That’s way it sometimes is. Pedals are part of an overall signal chain, and sometimes everything needs to line up just right for it to click. Planetary alignment, if you will.

Well, the planets have certainly aligned for me with this pedal. And it’s immediately jumped to the front of the queue as my number 1 pedal for my Strat’s neck pickup. I wonder how it sounds with a Strat bridge humbucker? I’ll have to explore that soon.

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