Uncle Larry Was Right: Meet The Nobels ODR Mini!

This isn't going to be a real review because I get the feeling that this pedal has already been reviewed to death. Besides: three knobs, two jacks, and power. How complicated could that be? Instead, perhaps we'll let this serve as more of a "proof-of-concept" discovery journey as seen from my perspective.

Most of us have spent at least some time on the quest of getting a basic sound with just one guitar and one amp. Many of us have ended up frustrated in that quest, finding that at moderate levels, one guitar into one amp ends up with an unfinished, undeveloped, unpolished sound. The next step in the journey is one guitar, one pedal, and one amp. The big pitfall to that scheme is that so many of the available pedal overdrive sound... well.. exactly like that: a pedal overdrive, with ratty, fizzy, insect-attracting overtones or weird EQ curves spoiling the brew. That leaves us sniffing around to find a drive that doesn't connive... as it were.

Of late, I have casually followewd the "Homeskoolin'" YouTube Channel of "Uncle Larry," aka studio session guy Tom Bukovak, because we share the same line of work. I've belatedly found out that for years, Tom has been singng the praises of that little marvel of German guitar pedal engineering, the Nobels ODR-1 Drive. In his eyes (ears?), when the Nobels is run in front of a Fendery amp, it doesn't sound like a pedal at all, but like an overdriven amp. given my proclivities, that impression piqued my interest! Did I mention that I hate fizzy, pedal-sounding overdrives? Tom also likes the fact that the Nobels doesn't have a midrange bump like "that other green pedal," the Tube Screamer. He notes that a midrange bump as you find in the Tube Screamer makes multiple guitars hard to stack in a recording. That is a fact that I have experienced as well. Years ago, Tom fell in love with the Nobels so much that he started giving them away. The U.S. distributor sent him a box of 100 and he literally gave them to everyone he knew. He is credited with single-handedly making the Nobels ODR-1 a "thing" in the Nashville studio community. Sooo...

After seeing the above overdrive shootout episode on his channel, I decided to take a chance on the Nobels. Now, it wasn't really a FAT chance because the ODR-1 only costs $119 and the ODR-Mini $80. They call it "boutique sound at a non-boutique price." We shall see!

Tom starts out blindly comparing a group of "unobtanium" vintage overdrives through his original Blackface Princeton Reverb. He quickly sniffs out his favorite, the classic Nobels ODR-1. He then tries out a group of newer, non-boutique drives. Finally at 33:33, he blindly compares a group of four Nobels ODRs of different vintages, including their new ODR-Mini. Even though in one of his previous videos he had said he didn't much like the Mini when compared to the ODR-1, in this blind shootout he couldn't tell the Mini from three ODR-1s of various vintages... and he liked it! Very cool. So that's how I came to consider an ODR-Mini. There are a couple of reasons why I chose to try the Mini rather than the full-size ODR-1: the pedal specialists that Tom was working with on the video above have re-housed literally hundreds of the classic ODR-1s because their main footswitches failed. They have to rehouse the pedals because the Boss-style footswitch design on the classic is expensive to rebuild or replace. By contrast, the Mini has a standard footswitch that wears better and CAN be replaced. The Mini also features true bypass while the original has buffered bypass, and true bypass fits my application better.

I thought I'd try to replicate the sound from Tom's demo as closely as I could so I started out my testing of the pedal with a modern Fender '68 Custom Princeton Reverb Amp. Yes, it sounds a bit different from his classic, more like a Bassman, but it is as close as I can get. And yep, with the "Drive" knob down around ten o'clock and the amp barely clean, the pedal does take a relatively clean Princeton into gentle overdrive with lots of pretty, shimmery overtones. As advertised, the "Spectrum" control is pretty much neutral with the knob at the detented twelve o'clock position. As you go clockwise from the detent it adds both bass and treble and it removes them as you go counter-clockwise. As Tom described, the pedal really doesn't sound like a pedal at the lower drive positions. Now, as you push the Drive above about one o'clock it can start to get some of that nasty razz, but you can reel it back in with the "Spectrum" control, rolling it back counter-clockwise. As you can see from the frequency curve, the Spectrum control combines a peak/dip bass EQ at 300hz with another peak/dip EQ at around 2.5khz.

From the Nobel's Website. Click to embiggen

Rotating the knob counter-clockwise lowers the bass and treble peak/dip sections' amplitude. That makes for a very useful tool in this application to control razz and boom as the gain goes up. The pedal allows you to take the amp from "nearly there," as it were, to a nicely developed driven sound. It is also possible to get a very usable lead sound as well.

Next I tried a Bugera v22 Infinium, 22 watt, 12" combo amp. With the amp's clean channel set just below distortion and the Nobel's "Drive" control set at ten o'clock, the sonic effect was to go directly to crunch. I was quickly made aware of just how scooped and bright the amp's basic sound is. Reviews describe it as somewhere between Vox and Matchless. Yup. While the Nobels gave a smoother drive than the Bugera EQ it was still pretty bright. I'll have to work on pulling back the high-end on this amp.

EDIT: Since writing this review I've discovered that simply plugging into the "Normal" channel of the Bugera takes the "hair" off both the Nobel's drive and that of the Bugera itself, yielding a smooth pleasant drive.

Click to embiggen

The next subjects for my trials were a Fender '71 Silverface Champ (speaker replaced with a 10") and a completely original '63 Gretsch 6150T amp that I keep at the studio. The Champ acted like a miniature version of the Princeton Reverb with less volume and bass but more willingness to to be driven into compression. The Nobels made it get rattier quicker than then Princeton did, until I pulled back the amp's treble a bit. The rattiness was probably due to it being a single-ended amp. I was quickly able to reproduce the rhythm sound from the recorded version of the Doobie Brothers' song, "Rockin' Down the Highway," from the 1972 album Toulouse Street, with a tiny bit of Nobels drive into the Champ set at the edge of distortion. Pushed further, I got that song's lead sound as well.

Now, the Gretsch 6150T is another beast entirely. With its increased mids (much more than in the typical carved-out Blackface Fender) it is more like a '50s tweed Champ. With the amp's volume and treble set about halfway up, still reasonably clean, and with the Nobels Drive control set at twelve noon, the result sounded just like Joe Walsh's recorded rhythm sound on "Rocky Mountain Way." Very cool indeed. With a little more Nobels Drive and Volume you could push off into a nice compressed lead sound. The Gretsch seemed especially like a perfect pairing with the Nobels to get many classic sounds.

Though it sounds great when powered at the standard 9v DC, the ODR Mini can be powered with 18v DC for extra headroom. The instructions speak of it as a incidental thing rather than a planned application. I haven't tried it yet. Something Tom Bukovac didn't mention in his description is that if you DO have a drive pedal with a mid hump, say the Tube Screamer, if you stack the drives, the mid hump of the Screamer likely falls right into the scooped mid trough of the Nobels pedal, yeilding a really thick, powerful lead sound. As a result, the two pedals can then offer three different contours. The newest full-sized ODR-1 (not included in the shootout) has an added feature: a bass cut switch hidden in the battery compartment for those times when the bass is too thick. While the Mini doesn't have that switch, it was instead provided with a tighter lower-end overall. It never got too chunky or flabby in my tests.

I can see that this pedal is going to make an important contribution to my analog rigs. With it and a low-to-mid gain amp I can achieve a basic driven rhythm sound and a very useful lead sound. It also brings out the individual characters of the various amps I may choose rather than making them all smear into one sound determinded by the pedal.

So there you go! That's a lot of words for a non-review, huh?