Boutique vs. commodity pedals
With the recent addition of my Visual Sound pedals I now have two complete sets of pedals. That raises the inevitable question: which set is better? How do you compare the Route 66 compressor to the Aphex Punch Factory, or the Route 66 overdrive to the Blackstone MOSFET Overdrive, or the H2O's echo to the Toadworks Redux, or the H2O's chorus to the DLS RotoSIM? Are those comparisons even fair, or valid?
The short answer is that the pedals are different. Not better or worse. Each has its strong and weak points.
Let's start with compressors.
The Aphex is much more subtle than the Route 66 comp; you have to practically max out the Aphex to get serious squish, while the Route 66 squishes throughout the upper half of its range.
The Aphex seems to do a better job of preserving attack transients. If you slam a chord into the Aphex you'll get a sense of having hit the strings hard and then you'll still get the extra sustain. The Route 66 comp, on the other hand, seems to choke the initial attack.
I've played a bunch of Dyna/Ross-style comps, and the Route 66 comp is the first one that hasn't made me say "thanks, but no thanks". It has, to my ear, a more musically-useful range than the other clones. The tone control is a really nice touch, too.
Onward to the overdrives... Again, different. Not better or worse.
The Route 66 OD is based upon a tubescreamer and has that signature midrange hump. It's a very familar sound, and the Route 66 does it well. The bass boost switch fills out the low end nicely and is very useful for low-volume playing.
The Blackstone's orange channel can be almost completely transparent. Lighten up on your pick attack and switch the Blackstone on and off; you probably won't be able to hear any EQ difference. (The red channel does affect the mids, however.) Hitting the Blackstone harder is more like pushing a tweed amp; you get more distortion and more volume.
The H2O's echo is less noisy than the Toadworks Redux, but sounds more "intrusive" and less "organic". Again, the key is that they're different, not better or worse.
The H2O's chorus doesn't really compete head-to-head with the DLS RotoSIM, although they both are "swirly" effects. The H2O chorus does a range of subtle through not-so-subtle chorus and vibrato effects and even flirts on the edge of flanging given certain control settings. The RotoSIM is a special-purpose effect: a Leslie simulator. It does that well, but it can't cover the territory of the H2O's chorus.
The Visual Sound pedals do sound different than my higher-priced pedals (Blackstone OD, Aphex Punch Factory, Toadworks Redux, DLS RotoSIM -- these are my "boutique" pedals which cover approximately the same ground as the Visual Sound Route 66 and H20). As I've emphasized above, it's not a better/worse kind of comparison. What other differences are there? How about cost? It's true that my boutique pedals cost (new) about three times as much as my commodity pedals. So is cheaper better? Only if you get what you need from the lower-priced product.
The real question is "what sound do you need"? This is a question I've been asking myself since I bought the Visual Sound pedals. Do I need the Visual Sound pedals and my boutique pedals, or can I get by with just one set?
Also, I'm always pushing to simplify my rig, and two pedals is certainly simpler than four.
Compared to the Visual Sound pedals, I'd have to say that my boutique pedals change to the sound of the guitar in more "subtle" ways. In other words, it's more likely that the boutique pedals will leave my guitar sounding just like my guitar with a little something extra added.
When you stomp on one of the Visual Sound pedals, it's very obvious that you've added an effect to the guitar sound. That's not necessarily a bad thing; when I used to play in bands I'd set up my effects to sound balanced and "refined" when I was playing alone; with those settings it was difficult to notice the effect at all when playing with the band.
At the moment, I'm kind of on the fence about my pedals. The Visual Sound pedals can get into the "refined" territory of the boutique pedals, although the adjustments are a bit finicky in that range. On the other hand, the boutique pedals have a harder time doing the "in your face" effects that come so easily to the Visual Sound pedals.
I'm planning to live with both sets of pedals for a few months before I make any rash decisions. The way I feel about it today, though, is that I could quite happily live with just the Visual Sound pedals (assuming, of course, that they hold up well under regular use).