MXR Distortion II
Part of curating this whole shebang is appreciating the heavy hitters, sure, but as you delve into the nuts and bolts, you tend to appreciate not only great sounds but uniqueness as well. And since this is my stuff and I am very much that nuts-and-bolts delver, the distinctiveness appeals greatly to me. I’ve been building pedals for almost 20 years, and I’ve seen and read it all. I’ve tweaked the same circuits as everyone else and so when something unique comes down the pipe, I have no choice but to take notice. And when that unique circuit has a place in modern rock tonal history, that’s something I want in my Cabinet. That pedal is the MXR Distortion II.
When MXR released the Distortion III in the mid 2000s, people assumed it was the successor to the Distortion+. Why, I’m not exactly sure, I certainly didn’t remember a Distortion “II.” Neither did many of us—reviews and ad copy for the III appeared to gloss over the II as if it never existed. Back in my early days of pedal fanaticism, I accepted the omitted entry much like the nonexistent Boss DD-4 or Final Fantasy 4, 5 and 6. It wasn’t until I decided to join a gear forum that my knowledge truly blossomed. I had previously thought (and made sales on the idea) that Billy Corgan used a Big Muff for his entire dirt section on Siamese Dream. The forums quickly taught me otherwise: the Muff was used in tandem with a pedal I never knew existed, a phantom in the timeline.
Having never heard of this, I ran to whatever DIY forum I could in order to learn more. And what I found truly shocked me. I know it’s a little dramatic, but I wasn’t prepared for the trajectory of an unknown pedal from a very well known company that ended up a component of one of the most iconic tones of the ‘90s. What’s even more surprising is that the Distortion II parallels a popular DIY project of that time as well.
Inadvertently or not, Craig Anderton’s iconic Electronic Projects for Musicians were released only a couple years after the Distortion II. One project in it was well known to DIYers before the Distortion II was traced was the Quadrafuzz. Outside of the Tube Sound Fuzz and Super Tone Control projects, the Quadrafuzz might be among the most recognizable project in Anderton’s book. This book asserted that transistorized, discrete circuits were on their way out and that ICs, more specifically op-amps, were here to stay. While that circuit was a four-channel multiband affair, the Distortion II was similarly structured, with two different types of clipping mixable in parallel. MXR labeled this control “Resonance;” the idea behind the control was a band-pass filter that provided a hump at 55Hz, with a little clipping. The hitch was that 55Hz just so happened to be the resonant frequency of the Celestion G12-M speakers that were loaded in many Marshall cabinets of that time period. This is a completely unique selling point the likes of which I’ve not seen since, and there’s a chance that the specifics coupled with the otherwise milquetoast sound of the thing combined to keep sales low. While many people claim that the Distortion II is “nothing special,” they’re often missing that important piece of context, which is probably why Corgan was able to make it work so well.
As a DIYer at heart, the Distortion II offered a forgotten appendix to the well-trodden circuit design annals. I’d modified Fuzz Faze circuits until they were unrecognizable, tweaked every Muff circuit around and played with the Tube Screamer until exhaustion. The transcribing of the Distortion II circuit fueled or rekindled a lot of passion within a community that thought it had seen everything.
While many of us grew up lusting over the tones of Page, Hendrix or Jeff Beck, a whole new generation was raised thinking Siamese Dream was the pinnacle of guitar tone and are bound to chase it as time goes on. Part of museum curation is acquiring pieces that will mean something to future generations, and the Distortion II is a prime example.