I think I can speak for just about all guitarists when I say that, if given the opportunity to play through a cranked Marshall amplifier, we would seize the opportunity.
Unfortunately, not all of us are going to have that opportunity.
However, the fine folks at Xotic Effects have created a pedal that gets us pretty darn close to that experience.
The Xotic SL Drive is miniature distortion pedal that emulates the legendary tones of Super Lead and Super Bass amplifiers Marshall put out in 1959.
- Closely voices SL/SB amps
- Cleans up with guitar’s volume
- Accessible price point
- Robust, miniature enclosure
- Flexible EQ with dip switches
- Drive control uniform past noon
“Amp in a Box” style guitar pedals have existed for some time now, emulating the overdrive tones of everything from a Blues Breaker to Silvertones. However, never before has there been a miniature overdrive pedal that emulates the sounds of not just one, but two specific tube amps from a specific point in time.
The SL Drive achieves its Super Lead and Super Bass tones through an all analog design and a simple control interface. Inside the pedal are a series of four dipswitches that allow you to voice the pedal to the style of amp you prefer (more on that shortly). The result is a pedal that will turn any halfway decent tube amp into a vintage British amp at the push of a button.
Every miniature pedal that Xotic currently offers is built like a tank, and the SL Drive is no exception. It is easily the heaviest and sturdiest feeling mini pedal that I have ever gotten my hands on, so I know that this thing is ready to hit the road.
The SL Drive can be powered with 9-18V DC, Center Negative Power or via a 9V battery, and draws only 5mA of current. It features true bypass and measures in at just 3.5 x 1.5 x 1.5” (W/D/H), making it a powerhouse pedal that can fit on any board.
You don’t have to be familiar with the controls of vintage British amplifiers to work the Xotic SL Drive. The parameters are simple and effective – Tone, Drive, and Volume. The Tone and Drive knobs are regular sized, while the Volume control is a mini sized dial.
In my opinion, utilizing these three controls lets you unlock about 85% of the pedal’s potential, and this is enough to cover most high gain situations amply (pun intended). However, if you really want to use the SL Drive to its fullest, it’s worth unscrewing the back plate and messing around with the four dipswitches.
The pedal’s default voicing is that of the Super Lead, and it is an awesome setting. These internal dipswitches let you voice the pedal to sound like either a Super Lead or Super Bass and to boost/cut specific frequencies.
The other thing I would recommend doing is to power the pedal with an Xotic XVD-1 Voltage Doubler, which turns any 9V power supply into an 18V supply. This adds extra headroom and dynamics that really let the pedal come alive.
The SL drive successfully recreates the woody tones that the Super Leads and Super Bass amps are famous for. While it may understandably be everyone’s instinct to dime the drive control and go for the cranked Marshall sound (and the pedal does this well), the SL Drive is capable of emulating many facets of the SL/SB amps.
To showcase this, I decided to offer my three favorite settings for this pedal that I thought might be useful of those looking for the perfect “Marshall in a Box” type pedal. I placed the pedal in front of an amp model of a small, clean combo amp, as I figured this would be the most common scenario most players would use this pedal in.
As a point of reference, I utilized the Xotic Voltage Doubler for all of these settings/sounds to provide additional headroom. I routed the SL Drive into one of the effects loops of my Line 6 Helix and paired it up with the US Deluxe Nrm amp model (based on a Fender Deluxe Reverb) and an Ownhammer impulse response of a 1×12 Deluxe Reverb cabinet for speaker simulation. I then played through my Suhr Classic Antique.
Always-On Amp Revoice
This first setting is one that illustrates how the extreme settings on the SL Drive are totally worth using. Start by turning the Tone up to around 3:00 (dial in to taste depending on your guitar). Then, completely roll off the Drive to where you hear just a little bit of bite. Set the Volume past unity, around 1-2:00. The Dipswitches can be set however you like, but I quite liked it in the Super Bass setting (1, 2, 3: Down. 4: Up).
Setting up the SL Drive in this way makes the pedal work more like an EQ rather than an overdrive pedal. It adds just a bit of hair to your clean amp and completely reshapes the midrange, making it a great setting for leaving on all the time to revoice your amplifier. From here, you can easily pair the SL Drive with an array of other overdrives and fuzzes to get high gain tones.
Mid Boost for Solos
The SL Drive is perfect for creating woody, mid forward boosts for solos. For this type of effect, I suggest pushing the Drive up to 10:00 and setting the tone around 2:00, with the Volume at 2:00. Then, set the dipswitches for a Mid-Boosted Super Bass sound (1,3: Down. 2,4: Up).
This setting gives you the 6db boost that’s perfect for solos, as well as some added highs to punch through the mix. If your amp already has some gain on it, the SL Drive will react to it and become really responsive. If you want more sustain, try pushing the Drive even further. You won’t get much more saturation, but the notes will hold out a bit longer.
This setting isn’t just awesome for solos. This can be used as an always on effect and then adjusted using your guitar’s volume control.
Let’s be real – if we’re going for Super Lead tones, then we have to set it up for high gain tones. To turn your clean amp into a roaring Marshall full stack, set the Tone around 1:00, Drive at 1:00, and the Volume at 2:00. To really get the high gain tones, I set the pedal in a Super Lead Mode with Highs/Mids cut (1,2,4: Up. 3: Down).
This type of setting will send you straight back to the 80’s hair metal days, but if that kind of reactive high gain sound isn’t your thing, try playing with your guitar’s tone control. By rolling off the tone you can practically turn the SL Drive into a functional Big Muff for a massive, wall of sound type effect.
Final Thoughts on the Xotic SL Drive
Whether you’re looking to revoice your clean, American voiced amp, or if you’re looking completely rock out with the highest gain that vintage Marshalls have to offer, the SL Drive is capable of delivering organic and dynamic gain no matter what rig you play through.
In doing my research on this pedal, I came across videos that compared the SL Drive to true Marshall Super Leads. The one thing that I think made the biggest difference in these videos and in my own playing was the speaker choice. If your goal is to emulate a 1959 Super Lead or Super Bass as closely as possible, then the best thing you can do for yourself is to use a speaker cabinet (or impulse response) that would typically be paired with these amps – Celestions and Scumbacks are a good starting point.
My only real complaints with the SL Drive are that the Drive control caps out around 12:00; it just adds some light sustain/compression beyond that. This is completely made up for by the fact that the Tone control is dynamic and can take you from warm and throaty to bright and volatile, and everywhere in between. While the dipswitches aren’t accessible on the fly, it’s nice knowing that your favorite setting will be protected by the pedals robust enclosure.
I don’t own a vintage Marshall amp and may never have the opportunity to do so, but until that day comes I’m perfectly happy to work with the SL Drive at a fraction of the price. This is possibly the most well-built miniature pedal I have ever played, and I am astounded at the humongous sound that it can produce.
It has more than earned its position on my pedalboard.
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.