Have you ever played a pedal that stuck with you forever, even though you knew in your heart it was totally weird, and nobody famous ever used it? For me, yeah, tons of them. But if I had to pick one that best fit these criteria, this one would be it. This is the Systech Overdrive. Before we dive in, let’s talk a little about where it was made.
There was a time when, of all places, Kalamazoo Michigan was an epicenter for musically related things. Apart from being a city referenced by Looney Tunes and the hometown of Glen Miller’s gal, Kalamazoo had the Sound Factory, which was a collective of sorts that featured guitar luthiery, a recording studio and electronic gear manufacturing. The facility sat front and center on Kalamazoo Avenue, smack dab in the middle of the city, and attracted visitors from all over.
Of course, if it was some random outpost of nobodies, the name wouldn’t carry any weight. However, the Sound Factory was shored up by three relatively heavy hitters of the early ‘70s. One such was Greg Hochman, Keith Emerson’s Moog technician. He was joined by Bryce Roberson, otherwise known as Uncle Dirty of Chess Records fame and a relatively unknown person named Charlie Wicks. If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you’ll recognize him as the man behind ProCo—the Ratfather.
Together, these three developed Systech, which itself was short for “Systems & Technology in Music, Inc.” That mouthful of a company was responsible for the Harmonic Energizer, a little-known yet highly influential effect that provided a deep filtered sound in addition to some crunchy drive and sharp resonant peaks. You might know it as one of Frank Zappa’s signature pieces. And while this Overdrive effect wasn’t that, it was derived from the Harmonic Energizer and shares a handful of characteristics.
Basically, if dialed in just the right way, the Harmonic Energizer will make short work of an entire speaker cabinet and anyone in the audience. This is because it was designed to provide a staggering gain of 55dB, enough to cause serious damage to your gear or hearing. The Overdrive was created to get some of those tones at non speaker-shredding levels.
If you’re thinking this unit is some kind of proto-Tube Screamer, think again. Because this was the early ‘70s, nobody had really decided exactly what “overdrive” meant. And though Maestro (coincidentally, also in Kalamazoo) had created one of almost every effect under the sun, pedal fever wasn’t quite here just yet, so Systech was essentially “winging it.” With that said, the Overdrive is actually a pretty aggressive fuzz sound. And to that end, the fuzz circuit is pretty unique. The entire affair contains two transistors—one a JFET input buffer—and one dual op-amp with a handful of other components. Even the topology is relatively simple, but the simplicity ends with the schematic.
The EQ control works unlike pretty much any EQ control you’ve ever fiddled with; as much an EQ as the whole unit is an overdrive. Instead of a simple tonal adjustment, the EQ control is actually an active bandpass filter, in the same family as a wah circuit. With a simple twist of a knob, you can adjust this filter from 122Hz to 900Hz. As you might imagine, the EQ control sounds relatively cocked-wah-esque, but the sound is much more aggressive than any wah on the market before or since. The reason has to do with the Q factor, essentially a bandwidth control. A wah’s Q is set by its 33K resistor and is much wider than that of the Overdrive, so the tone is a little more rounded. While a wah’s filter is a rubber mallet, the Systech Overdrive’s is a tack hammer. While the sound is curious, the thing really comes to life when you crank the EQ control, as it gives you a nice punch in the mids. You lose a little definition when you get to the bottom third, but man is it fun to play with.
“Distortion” is just what it sounds like, but curiously enough, “Gain” is about as close to a volume knob as you’re going to get. Much like Distortion, if you turn it all the way down it kills the entire signal, but it sits behind a final gain stage. If you have the guts to crank both Distortion and Gain, you’re richly rewarded with gobs of gooey sustain, but the flipside is that your amp is likely screaming “uncle.” Worth it? Your call. I say go for it.
Many people say Zappa used a Systech Overdrive, but alas, he did not. However, when you play it, you can definitely see the similarities between this unit and the fabled Harmonic Energizer. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s close enough for rock and roll.