This Extortion Begins With A Sonic Coercion
Ken Kantor of ZT Amplifiers creates tools for musicians that provoke a number of questions. The Lunchbox amplifier line (and now the Junior amp as well) prompted questions like, “Can you really push 200 watts through a tiny amp enclosure and have it sound good?” (the answer, by the way, is “yes you can”). With that in mind, it seems appropriate to begin this review with a question.
What is a radical pedal?
Ever since Link Wray poked holes in speakers and other players were pushing output stages of amplifiers to their breaking point, people have been seeking out new ways of creating distortion that have included both analog and digital solutions. But where other manufacturers resorted to ideas like housing multiple distortions in the same box (and all other manner of adding gain to gain) in search of timbral flexibility, Kantor had a different idea for his Expressive Distortion pedal (aka the Extortion) that involved an incredible range of tonal flexibility that uses analog and digital circuitry.
What makes this pedal radical is that while it’s sold under the label of an expressive distortion pedal – it’s really a mix of old-school analog distortion, newer-school digital signal processing and a complete rethinking of digital and analog EQ that takes the sum of its parts to an extreme.
How extreme you ask?
In the simplest possible terms, when attached to an optional expression pedal the Extortion can act as a wah for a distorted tone while leaving your original guitar tone unaffected.
It’s practically impossible to describe the seemingly 3-D distortion effect the unit produces but whether you’re a tonal purist or a sonic hooligan, this pedal has something for you.
The Pedal Housing
When you take the Extortion out of its box you are greeted with an all-metal chassis, a few knobs and a playful graphic reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (that also acts as a harbinger of things to come).
The Extortion is clearly made to withstand the rigors of gigging. While there’s a 9-volt option, the Extortion uses a lot of juice, so you’ll want to invest in a power supply if you have it on your pedal board. (Or maybe you don’t! I’ll talk about this at the end of the review.)
The Extortion features true bypass pedal so it’s transparent when it’s engaged but when you click the bypass switch to turn on the gain, the first stop the signal makes is at the tone knob. (The “Level” knob in this case refers to output level.) Yawn right?
Taking a cue from the Junior amp design, the single tone knob doesn’t just act as a high or low pass filter. The Extortion’s tone knob controls a series of independent cuts and boosts across the sonic spectrum. The 12 o’clock position is a flat eq. Moving the knob counter clockwise scoops the mids (while either boosting or cutting the highs and lows) and moving it clockwise boosts the mids. This changes the overall sound of the signal dramatically.
Next, the signal hits what Kantor has described as, “a pure analog, multi-diode, multi-feeback distortion circuit very similar to what you might find these days in a boutique analog overdrive pedal.”
Whatever it is – it’s dynamic, musical and responsive to different playing nuances. If you only have the analog distortion engaged the signal goes to the output and to the amp, but if clicking on the spectral DSP button on the left side of the pedal releases a aural apparition you haven’t experienced before.
This is where this pedal gets really wild! Engaging it with the switch on the left side of the pedal puts a sweepable filter before AND after the analog distortion (the sweep goes from about 80Hz to 2Khz) that work in a linked contrary motion. Kind of like having a wah and an anti-wah on the same signal – while keeping the undistorted signal the same. The DSP feature can be controlled with an optional expression pedal (which bypasses the knob) but I decided to try an alternate path to demoing this product.
Reviewing Gear And Life In The City
One thing about living in a city like Brooklyn is that regardless of your circumstances, your apartment is going to be expensive, small and have paper thin walls. In other words, when your neighbor listens to dance music all day it’s useless for anything that requires setting a microphone up to record.
I decided to try another option for testing this pedal and used the POD-HD 500 as an “amp” to see what would happen. For many players who are moving in the direction of using external gear and laptops as alternatives to pedal boards and amps, this seemed like an interesting real world test for seeing how the pedal would work in this ever growing field of analog + digital guitar rigs. For the clips below, I used their new SLO-Clean model as a starting point as it’s one of the most detailed models Line 6 has done.
For a signal path, I plugged my FnH Ultrasonic guitar into an Akai Headrush followed by the Extortion into the POD HD-500 which was connected to my Mac book via USB and recorded with AU LAB.
Here’s the initial loop:
With the loop playing back through the Headrush, I manipulated the controls in real time. First I changed the EQ to show the range of manipulations, then I added gain and then I added the DSP.
This is a LONG playthough of such a short loop with a lot of tweaking of controls but it does give you a sense of range in the pedal. Towards the very end of the sample I’m tweaking the DSP AND the Tone knob for some sonic burl.
The next clip features a straight distortion sound with an AC/DC-ish D-C-G progression. You can hear me roll off the volume early in the clip to hear how the pedal reacts to changes in dynamics.
The pedal is certainly capable of more extreme sounds as well. Here’s a dirge-metal type of tone.
Let’s hear it with a distorted model. In the clip below I’ve substituted the clean Soldano model with the overdrive model. Here’s the basic rhythm track.
And here’s the loop with gain added and then DSP manipulation. You can hear the almost ring mod type of effect towards the end of the clip.
And finally here’s some E Minor scale passages with some glitch-ish tones courtesy of the DSP.
The Extortion In Review
- If you want a pedal that will help you dial in a vast range of tones, this is a great pedal. The EQ shifts on the Extortion are so wide that it’s hard to imagine a sound you couldn’t get out of this pedal.
- The all-analog distortion sounds great and is musical. If you’re looking for boutique sounds (from overdriven clean to a dirty boost) - this pedal can handle it.
- The DSP feature adds a level of timbral sculpting that you will not find in any other pedal.
Truth be told, I really can’t find many faults with this pedal.
- The distortion doesn’t have much variance from the 3 o’clock to the 6 o’clock position. That being said, I found the 10 or 11 o’clock position of the pedal to be the one that I used the most, so I don’t know how much it will really matter.
- The price doesn’t include an external power supply. That’s nit picking, but given how quickly this unit eats batteries, you’ll want to factor that into your pedal budget.
Some people will dig the live flexibility of the expression pedal. Having tweaked the DSP knob with a loop for realtime parameter changes, I liked the sounds that I was getting, but my guess is that experienced players will start finding unique tone locations for the pedal and parking the DSP in various places for the needs that they have.
In the review of the ZT Amps Junior Model, I wrote:
“There are two design paths that have been employed by compact amp manufacturers. The first choice (and by far the most popular) is to make an amp with a number of different tones and effects that do each of those things so-so. The second option is make an amp that does one thing really well.”
This pedal somehow combines the best of both options in the quote above. It offers a large variety of different tones but it does so by doing a few things really well. The Extortion isn’t cheap (a $269 list / $199 street price makes it more expensive than a Junior amp) but given what it delivers, it’s a bargain instead of a shakedown.
Finally – An Extortion Sonic Hack
While some traditionalists probably won’t use the extreme sounds that this pedal can get, for those of you who want to go even further over the sonic cliff, here’s a pedal “hack” that I discovered.
You can ruin a pedal by using the wrong power adapter with it and ANY damage to a pedal as a result of a modification to the power supply will most assuredly void anything resembling a warrantee.
When I initially tested this pedal the battery was dying and the tones I got out of the unit were verging on some serious ring mod/glitch/bent circuit territory. Instead of waiting for your battery to run out of juice, you could use the external 9V input and put less than 9V into it by using a multi-pedal power regulator that has a variable power out.
Again Caveat emptor – but this trick saved me the $200 I would have spent on a pedal that only got that sound.