Maxon OD808 Overdrive

Maxon OD808 OverdriveTo those who were “in the know”, Maxon’s OD808 was identical to the famous Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer in nearly all but name when it was initially put on the market in the late ‘70s and early ’80s. In fact, Maxon was the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for Ibanez and actually made both the Ibanez pedals as well as its own under the Maxon name.

When Ibanez reissued its TS-9 Tube Screamer in 1996 (circuit still manufactured by Maxon), some wondered why they didn’t choose to reissue its TS-808 model instead. Thankfully though, modifications were easy enough to perform to turn the TS-9 reissue into a genuine TS-808 and many offer that service today.

For lovers of the 808 sound that don’t want to deal with modification hassles, Maxon under its own name has reissued its own OD808 pedal based on the same circuit of its more-famous Ibanez TS-808 cousin. The “808” sound overall is famous for its bluesy transparency, touch-sensitivity, and smooth overdrive tone. As tone-lovers, we were anxious to take the OD808 for test spin.

Features

The Maxon OD808’s features are simple enough with controls for Overdrive, Balance and Tone. The unit houses one 9-volt battery accessible by removing four screws on the base of the unit, which itself is approximately the same size as a typical MXR effect pedal. An AC adapter jack is provided as well as individual quarter inch input and output jacks. The OD808 uses a standard, but smoother-switching “stompbox-style” SPDT footswitch and also includes an LED status indicator.

A big selling point to the OD808 is its inclusion of the famous JRC4558D chip, the chip used in the original 808 designs. In comparison, the TS-9 reissue incorporates a chip made by Toshiba that hinders the smoothness of its own tone. It will be interesting to see how the recent-issue JRC4558D chips sound in this circuit compared to earlier production varieties..

The manual that accompanies the OD808 is particularly useful as it includes not only basic operational directions, but sample settings also for use with both single and humbucking-equipped guitars. The manual provides excellent direction in using the OD808 both as a standalone overdrive and as a clean-boost type effect in order to drive an amplifier into further natural distortion. A warranty card is also included and the OD808 is backed by a limited 3-year warranty on all non-moving parts such as transistors, while potentiometers and jacks are covered by a 1-year warranty.




Construction

Housed in a heavy-gauge metal enclosure, the OD808 certainly feels rugged. I also have a preference for the older-style stompbox switches as used in the OD808 as they seem to hold up well to long-term abuse and are easy to replace if they do go down. While I have not experienced problems with the Ibanez 9-series style footswitches personally, I have heard some complaints regarding reliability issues with some of them.

Maxon’s OD808 is manufactured in Japan and overall internal build quality is very high. While the pots are mounted to a PCB “daughter board” which then mates to the main board, the footswitch and jacks are not directly PCB-mounted and are indeed also quality components. The circuit uses 1/8 watt carbon filament resistors to fit within the unit’s overall small enclosure. Soldering quality control is high and consistent and it is obvious that the Maxon OD808 will offer years of trouble-free operation.

As with the Ibanez TS-9 reissue, Maxon needs to be applauded for taking the time to produce a finely-built unit that is obviously made to last.

Sound Quality

The first question that came to my mind was, “How will this sound next to an original 808?” I’m happy to report that the tone is virtually identical. I say “virtually”, because there are conditions inherent with comparing any pedal that is many years old with one that is a new production model. Old stock JRC4558D chips from the ‘80s do sound a bit different from the new production variety as used in the OD808, but I cannot explain why that is. When talking to an engineer at New Japan Radio Corporation, he speculated that it may have been a specific “cut-off” point was used in different varieties or years of the 4558D chips regarding tolerances and measurements. I tried to gain more information on what these points may have been, but unfortunately no such material exists on chips made 20 years ago. As he stated, a production chip with a given date code that is even three years old is considered “very old” and is usually destroyed by that time if it is in a supply warehouse somewhere.

Another consideration is that as parts get older, component values will drift somewhat and therefore tone can be affected to a small degree. According to Godlyke (distributors of the Maxon OD-808), the circuit is identical to the original units produced in the ’70s that are also identical to the Ibanez TS-808. It may be fair to say then that the reissue Maxon OD808 sounds closest to what the original OD808 and Ibanez TS-808 units did when they were first released in the ’70s. (**12/23/01 EDITOR’s NOTE: I’ve examined the OD-808 and discovered that the output resistors are truly the same as those found in the TS-9: therefore the circuit matches the original and reissue TS-9 except for inclusion of the JRC4558D chip rather than the TS-9 reissue’s Toshiba chip**).

What I do know however is that there is a world of difference in tone between the newly-issued JRC4558D chip and the Toshiba model as used in the TS-9 reissue. If you currently own a TS-9 reissue and even if you don’t necessarily want to convert it to TS-808 specifications, do yourself a favor and at least get a new-issue JRC4558D chip in there to hear a nice improvement. The OD808 sounded as it should with its proper JRC4558D chip and I’m happy to report that fans of the 808 sound will be very pleased with the sonic results of the OD808.

The OD808 when used as an overdrive, like the Ibanez Tube Screamer series, does tend to favor single-coil equipped guitars. Whether I used the OD808 into a plexi Marshall or a small blackface Fender Vibro Champ, the tone was consistently warm and bluesy. Light overdrive works well for chord work well and touch-sensitivity is superb.

Mixed results are had when using the OD808 for its overdrive with a humbucking guitar like a Les Paul. If you are using high-output pickups (DC resistance above 12k or so), you may not like the results of the OD-808 or any Tube Screamer for that matter when using it for overdrive. There is an inherent tonal “bleeding” that can occur that can sound almost like a clean and overdriven guitar are playing together. With standard humbucking pickups though, this problem does not occur (I experienced the effect with a Gibson Les Paul Classic equipped with a super hot 500T ceramic pickup – the hottest Gibson makes). When using a Paul with a ’59-style pickup, the tonal results are much more pleasing and warm.

The issue of transparency is an interesting one as we’ve been told time and time again that Tube Screamers are very sonically transparent. Yes, in one sense they certainly are, however I wouldn’t say that ANY Tube Screamer is truly and fully transparent – but this is not a bad thing. In fact, where the OD808 or a Tube Screamer really seems to shine is in bringing out some of the midrange in the tone. Where a Strat can naturally sound a bit thin on the bridge pickup, or a bit “bassy” when using the neck pickup, the OD808 helps bring out a much-needed dose of mids into the mix. This really helps leads project out in the front as well as offering a tonal balance with nice sustain and pleasant overdrive. It’s no wonder that this circuit was favored by Stevie Ray Vaughan!

Another way of using the OD-808 that is also illustrated in the manual is as a clean-boost. When setting the overdrive to a low, minimal degree and the volume (Balance control) up on full, the net effect is a stronger, more powerful signal is then sent to the front end of the amplifier and this helps it to naturally distort more. In this application, both Les Pauls and Stratocasters indeed benefited from the OD808’s clean-boosting effect. One of my favorite rock and roll tones in fact is when taking a guitar and then clean-boosting the front end of a ‘70s era master volume Marshall. A fantastic rock sound can be used and obtained at reasonable volume levels. For those players that like to play their amps “on the verge” of clipping, adding the OD808 as a clean-boost will push your amp over the top into full-on compression heaven.

A final note to “tech” guys that like to fool around with electronics: Because the OD808 incorporates an SDPT footswitch, converting it to true-bypass using a Fulltone 3DPT switch may be of interest to you. Where performing this mod to a 9-series Ibanez pedal would involve quite a bit of work with the addition of a separate switch that would have to be drilled through the top of the chassis, the OD808 would take to the conversion very easily.

Overall

As of this writing, the OD808 currently sells for approximately $139. Obviously cheaper overdrive pedals are available but the OD808 was clearly made for the connoisseurs of great blues and rock tone. I’m a believer that it’s good to spend a few extra dollars and be satisfied, then to continue to buy something because it is “cheap” and ultimately be dissatisfied either by its tone or worse yet having to deal with faulty operation/reliability issues due to bad quality control or design.

One of the final questions that some may ask is: Which is better, the reissue Ibanez TS-9 or the Maxon OD-808? To my ears, stock out of the box, the Maxon OD-808 is smoother in drive and has better bottom end over the TS-9. When modified to TS-808 specifications however, the Ibanez TS-9 reissue holds its own and perhaps has a touch more presence over the OD-808; then again this sonic difference was noticed when the TS-9 was modded with an older NOS JRC4558D chip. Again overall, we’re talking about subtle differences and both are excellent units in their own right. If you’re looking for the “808” sound, the Maxon is the clear choice. If you like a slightly edgier or aggressive sound, the reissue TS-9 may be the ticket.

All said, if you’re a collector and “have” to have an original Ibanez or Maxon 808, look to spend some serious dollars, most of which will have nothing to do with sonics but rather collectability. However, if you’re looking for the 808-sound in a newly manufactured pedal that also provides the peace of mind of a warranty, all delivered at a reasonable price, look no further than the Maxon OD808. For information about all of Maxon’s products, visit them on the web at www.maxonfx.com.