Friday, July 10, 2009

Gear Review: The Klon Centaur

While this is not a gear review blog, occasionally I will feel that there is a piece of gear in need of review that would actually create something worth talking about. The Klon Centaur is a hotly-debated pedal. Arguably, its inception around 1994 was one of the first droplets in the flood of high-end 'boutique' overdrive pedals that exist today. It is the subject of much passionate controversy, but when I was shopping for one, I found myself wanting a few more objective, even-handed, non-sponsored reviews of the unit.

First, the facts: The Klon Centaur a buffered-bypass clean boost and overdrive pedal. It is built in a rugged cast aluminum enclosure, and battery access is through two screws you can turn with a guitar pick or coin. If the bootleg schematics are to be trusted, it is a unique circuit which uses TL072 op amps in its design and germanium diodes for clipping-- though you wouldn't know this to open it up, as the circuit board is 'gooped' in epoxy to keep prying eyes away. There is a 'boost' section and an 'overdrive' section, controlled unobtrusively by means of a seamlessly-integrated dual-gang pot labeled "Gain." The "boost" side makes use of what is called a charge pump, which increases voltage, thereby increasing headroom (and eating batteries). There is a tone control, labeled "treble," and an "output" control, as well. There is an LED status indicator, and an old-school 1/8" TRS jack for 9v power-- non-BOSS style.

The business model of Klon begs some explaining as well, as it is unique from other pedal manufacturers and is the subject of a lot of the debate about this pedal. Klon is mostly one man, Bill Finnegan. Klon pedals are available only directly, and are not usually available through any retailers. They cannot be purchased online. To purchase a pedal, you must follow these steps:
  • Phone Mr. Finnegan to discuss the pedal and its suitability for your needs
  • Give Mr. Finnegan your order information
  • Snail-mail Mr. Finnegan a check or money order-- No credit cards or PayPal!
  • Supply Mr. Finnegan with a business address for shipping-- he WILL NOT, under any circumstances, ship the pedal to the same place where you sleep, even if that place is also your business.
  • Wait several weeks for your pedal to arrive.
The phone call is one of the hottest topics around this pedal. Mr. Finnegan has a headset which allows him to talk and take orders while working on pedals. When you call, before you place your order, he will ask you about your other gear, your playing style, and the capacity in which you perform (i.e., bedroom player, weekender, professional, etc). He will also answer any questions and concerns you have about the pedal. If and when he decides the pedal will be a good fit for you, he will take your order information. It is not an 'interview' per se--Finnegan is not ascertaining whether or not you 'deserve' the pedal, as is often mis-reported. From what I can tell, he is simply trying to determine whether or not the pedal will help you (and, I suspect, whether or not you intend to actually use it or to sell it for profit on eBay).

Once your order is placed, you are not placed in the queue until your payment is received. You will not receive any follow-up e-mails or calls. You will have no further contact with Mr. Finnegan unless you initiate it-- you will mail your check, and several weeks later your pedal will arrive.

When I ordered my pedal, the wait was specified as 12 weeks, and it was delivered in that time, as-promised. If the wait gets too much longer than that, Mr. Finnegan may briefly stop taking orders. Consequently, I had to wait a week to even place my order.

The website is a flash-based site that appears to not work on Macintosh computers--it does not detect the FLASH on my Mac machine or any others I have tried. However, beware, as the second Google result takes you through a back door into an obsolete site, complete with old pricing information, that was apparently never fully decommissioned.

Now, the opinions: Beginning with the Klon in its bypass state, you may notice that it has a great bypass buffer that is, in my opinion, superior to a true-bypass design, particularly if you use long cables or a lot of pedals in your chain. The buffer is transparent but can allow long cable runs, etc. and is therefore very handy.

The TL072 is hardly a glamorous op-amp, being a ubiquitous, inexpensive part with a reputation for being somewhat noisy and performing merely adequately. However, a pedal is the sum of its parts, and in this case, sonically, I don't feel anything lacking. There is a bit of noise, however, particularly if other distortion pedals are placed in the chain after the Klon. In most situations I do not find the slight hiss objectionable-- in many cases, it is not even detectable-- but in certain situations it does appear. One wonders whether this noise is attributable to the TL072, or whether it results from other aspects of the design.

As the "Gain" knob is advanced to the right through a clean or solid-state amplifier, you will notice an overdrive sound with a somewhat unique, slightly raspy character. With a clean amp, the overdrive is, in my opinion, rather unspectacular. However, when used in front of a good tube amp that is overdriven to even modest saturation, the Klon really begins to shine. Its overdrive dovetails beautifully with the natural overdrive of the amp and pushes it over the edge in a very appealing way. I do not perceive 'transparency,' as is claimed, but rather a sweetening, as the pedal's own character interacts with the amp's character. If a clean amp must be used, placing another distortion pedal after the Klon can yield suitably pleasing results, but it is most at-home driving an already-pushed tube amp even further.

Some perceive a midrange emphasis from the Klon, but I don't hear it. In my opinion, many other overdrive manufacturers (808 clones excepted) have a tendency to de-emphasize the midrange frequencies. The Klon does not--which is one of its best selling points. In a typical ensemble where distorted guitar would be used, the guitar's slice of the pie, spectrally, tends to live in the mid-band. The bass and bass drum's sustain typically occupy the lower frequencies, while the snare, cymbals and vocal sibilants occupy the upper midrange and treble frequencies. The fact that the Klon allows these mid-band frequencies to shine through, rather than attenuating them, places a natural amount of spectral information in the guitar's 'comfort zone,' allowing it to live naturally in the mix. For this reason, the Klon sounds its best to me in real-world scenarios.

The pedal is admirably constructed, looks beautiful, and battery access is a breeze. However, powering the pedal with a 9v supply is problematic. Mr. Finnegan neither supplies nor offers a proper power supply, supplying instead a pamphlet and a connector with instructions on modifying a BOSS supply. However, be careful, because installing the connector with inverted polarity will smoke the pedal-- and it will NOT be a warranty repair. Should you opt to use batteries, be advised that a low battery will cause a high-pitched squeal that comes on virtually without warning. In my opinion, powering the pedal could be dealt with more elegantly.

Finally, the ordering process is difficult and seemingly arbitrary. Mr. Finnegan is polite enough and pleasant to deal with over the phone, but I would prefer to just be able to place an online order. I typically, like many, do not even use personal checks anymore, and the snail-mail process added a few extra days to an already-long wait. As I work primarily from my home studio, I did not have a business address to ship to. I had to have the pedal shipped to a friend who owned a business across the Hudson, which made picking it up difficult and added extra expense in gas and tolls. Additionally, I did not need nor desire a conversation about my gear and pedal needs; as I have been doing this for a living my whole adult life, such hand-holding was not necessary in my case.

However, the pedal was worth all the hoops-jumped-through in the end. It is really a fantastic and unique overdrive unit. That said, there is clearly a reason the pedal routinely sells for at least $100 more than its $329 list price on eBay-- getting one takes a lot of time and is a fairly involved process. Is 12 weeks and one-click ordering (complete with online payment) worth an extra $100 (and minus a three year warranty) to you? For many it is.

Anyway, hope this sheds some light on this pedal, which in its roughly 15 years in existence has become almost as mythical as the centaur from whom it takes its name.

1 comment:

  1. Brad, this post is a couple of years old but I really enjoyed your take on this pedal. The power issue is a problem. 9v power is pretty simple and this is a standard negative ground circuit, right? Could I just switch out the power jack for a Boss style jack and use my standard leads from my power brick?