Bitters Out Now!

Boss FA-1 FET Amplifier

Boss FA-1 FET

As evidenced with my piece on the Speak & Spell, musicians will look at anything and everything in the pursuit of their dream tones. Link Wray and the Kinks used to cut their speakers to wring more distortion from their amps. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys uses a power supply that costs more than some automobiles. And I can say for certain that I’ve been to a show where the guitar player plugged a modified Big Mouth Billy Bass into his pedalboard.

Admittedly, that’s a bit of a stretch. But there is certainly something to be said for those that can extract desirable tones from items thought of as playthings or more pointedly, “beginner gear.” While this has happened far more in the guitar and amp worlds, pedals are far different. Compared to amps and guitars, there are tens of thousands more pedals out there, and the caste system is strong. Myself, I’ve never been a snob, having authored many pieces on getting on with lesser gear. One former chorus-thirsty coworker of mine turned his nose up at the Peavey Companded Chorus I had for sale. Oh well, his loss.

Back in 1984, the pedal business was booming. The titans of the industry traded blows in the marketplace by way of innovation and standardization, with many companies releasing tons of pedals that were the exact same shape, and pedalboards engineered to accommodate vast swaths of them. MXR had released 31 pedals. Boss had released 25. It’s safe to say that effects use was in full swing.

When Boss’s 1984 product catalog came out, two new and very un-standard items graced its pages. These two items were part of a new Boss product line—the “Pocket Series.” the goal was to give players a chance to play on the go, but was also geared towards people who didn’t have a place to play, or lived in a place that was volume-prohibitive. In other words, while the Pocket Series may have been marketed towards new parents with cranky babies, it was a low-cost rock machine; just add instrument. This whole series started with two units: the MA-1 Mascot Amplifier and its preamp, the FA-1 FET Preamp. It ended with the same two units.

The MA-1 was fine, but the FA-1 was and is a complete gem that holds its own with pretty much every preamp pedal ever made. It was meant to plug straight into the MA-1 with a patch cable, with both units clipped to your belt loop or… pocket, as it were. The clip was included and attached right to the back of the box. The FA-1 contained nothing resembling a bypass switch. Just plug one into the other, turn on the amp and let the music flow through you.

Boss FA-1 FET

There’s just one thing: The FA-1 sounds seriously good. For as much of a peculiar air as the FA-1 had surrounding it, perhaps the strangest part is that the FET part only comprises an input buffer, something that Boss pedals already had. What followed was an expertly curated and biased op-amp gain stage and an active Baxandall EQ.

The only non-standard options on the FA-1 engages an RC network that increases treble response before the gain stage. Most volume controls dump signal to ground right at the end of the circuit, but the FA-1 Volume control is actually a variable feedback resistor in one of the two op-amp gates, the first one. While the second acts as a mixer for the EQ, you can use the Volume control to overload it a bit, rewarding those that would crank it to its limit. And because the FA-1 wasn’t designed to connect to a real amp in any useful way, you essentially had to take Boss’s word for it, lest you slam the front end of the puny MA-1 Mascot and immediately write off the entire series.

One player did not write it off: the Edge. The FA-1 has been a staple of his pedalboards for some time. You see, a true bypass looper solves every problem that the FA-1 ever had with interfacing and turning the darn thing on and off. The mere mention of the Edge in the same breath as any esoteric piece of gear does wonders for its reputation, and as for the FA-1, it is the reason they’re more than a footnote in Boss’s storied history. But in the words of Ferris Bueller, it is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.