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You Want It Darker: Getting Low and Slow with the Zander Circuitry Terra Firma

Posted by Andrew Ilgunas on

I've never been one for down tuning. Partly due to the fact that for most of my life as a guitar player I've only owned one electric guitar and could never really be bothered with down tuning to play a couple of songs before tuning it back up to standard. I would often drop the low e down to d to enable me to chug out some heavier sounding riffs but anything more than that and my motivation to bother with it evaporated. It's worth noting here that said guitar is a telecaster so not exactly your typical down tuned metal guitar. 

Laziness accounts for some of my reluctance but a much larger part comes down to what can only really be described as a bizarre form of snobbery; the blame for which I lay squarely at my father's feet. My Dad was kind of my gateway to music as a child, he had an eclectic record collection, much of which I now own and was a great pianist. Out of my sister and I, she's definitely the 'musician'. She can play multiple instruments and actually understands music (theory, key signatures, time signatures) in a way that I simply don't. So I always felt growing up that my musical endeavours played second fiddle (no pun intended, my sisters a violinist) to hers. Despite this my dad encouraged me endlessly to listen to and play music and I had piano lessons from the age of 7 to 14. Sadly 7 years of formal tuition, going through the rigmarole of learning to play for the purpose of passing an exam before moving on to the next pretty much killed any passion or enthusiasm I had for the instrument. I felt incredibly guilty giving up the piano as I knew my dad was disappointed in me for it. He had given up lessons at age 15 and regretted it bitterly, but so desperate was he for me not to do the same that it became a self fulfilling prophecy. He subjected me to an unforgiving practice regime, the same he had endured and then couldn't understand why, when I'd finally managed to play every scale, arpeggio and piece of music I was studying, three times through with no errors whatsoever, I didn't feel like staying at the piano and learning something new with him "just for fun"...

I think he was pleased when I started playing guitar; and pleasantly surprised that I managed to teach myself. However he had a strange view of things such as down tuning, capoing and using effects pedals; as somehow cheating. As if using any of the aforementioned methods somehow was indicative of a lack of ability. His biggest pet hate was bands who created sounds on record that they couldn't replicate live without a session musician to play the part. I remember a ridiculous argument that resulted after me playing him Radiohead's "Life in a Glass House" which I thought he'd appreciate due to its jazz stylings. He hated it and was particularly irate at the inclusion of a saxophone part played by a session musician. "If they can't play it themselves it shouldn't be on there! It's not Radiohead, it's Radiohead plus one!“ I think I responded that he was a mentalist and gave up trying to convince him. I lost the battle but won the war. A few months later we were watching a recording of Queen live at the Milton Keynes bowl. The look of horror in my dad's eyes as Freddie Mercury introduced a session player on rhythm guitar for one of the songs was priceless; kind of sad as well though as I don't think he was ever able to see his hero's in the same light again.

Although I didn't share my dad's view of down tuning etc... As being cheating, I guess I must have been influenced by his views as I shied away from experimenting with such things for a very long time.

However, my dad's weird snobbery aside, another influencing factor has undoubtedly been the bands and artists I've listened to and come to love the most over the years. My favourite album of all time is The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers. To call it dark would be the ultimate understatement. It's a pitch black abyss of despair and disgust that no death metal band could come close to and it's played entirely in standard tuning... Aside from the manics, artists like Mark Lanegan and countless others have proven time and time again that the heaviness and darkness of a track are far more about delivery than down tuning and distortion. I always kind of figured if the Manics can produce something so dark and heavy without tuning down then I don't need to. Its been a challenge to myself to make "heavy" music in standard tuning. 

I should clarify here that I absolutely love heavy music, particularly doom/stoner metal played low and slow. Sunn 0)))'s Life Metal is one of the best albums I've ever heard and I used to put my daughter to sleep to it every night. I just haven't evolved into a downtuned metal player. I like to think I have my own individual style of playing guitar and it's definitely blues based and punk influenced. I've also never really enjoyed the sound of any distortion pedals designed specifically for metal; the scooped Mids sound does nothing for me and I prefer loose, billowing fuzz to tight, high gain precision. The exception to this experience is the Danelectro Black Paisley pedal.

A true oddball; feature packed and highly versatile, it's a pedal crafted specifically for metal which I genuinely enjoyed plugging into and chugging away. Aside from that I've found the metal pedal market a bit of a wasteland for my own personal taste and on the occasions when I did want to channel my inner Napalm Death, it was the OCD V2 which I turned to for my high gain sound. A truly awesome and versatile pedal which actually lives up to its hype.

So now you've got the context; you'll understand why I approached the Terra Firma by Zander Circuitry with some trepidation; not because I for a second thought it would not perform but because it's something out of my comfort zone and I knew to get the most out of it I'd have to overcome my laziness and down tune properly. Also, I had to recognise I'd be using a guitar that no self respecting down tuned metal player is going to be using; a standard Mexican Telecaster with single coils.

I do have a Squier strat with a single high output humbucker in the bridge but I chose not to use it for 2 reasons. Firstly it's a very bad guitar. I love it, but it's definitely not a good guitar. I bought it for £40 and it's fantastic for thrashing about like a lunatic with, and the Iron Gear pickup in it is genuinely great, but it's got a lot of problems and even having had a pro set up there's only so much could be done with it. Secondly, the humbucker is coil tapped to a push pull volume pot. For whatever reason the little catch that holds it down is humped and so it keeps popping up and going into single coil mode. Which is really annoying and normally requires me getting the gaffer tape out to try and hold it down in place which works for a while but also means I can't adjust the volume so have to whack it up to full which for after hours playing isn't great. So the telecaster it is.

Tuned down a whole step to D with the low E dropped to C; it felt ridiculous to play with so little tension in the low strings but I got on with it and when just played clean into the amp the sound didn't horrify me and prompt me to abandon the plan and tune back up to standard. The Terra Firma bills itself as a Power Amp Distortion pedal and is specifically voiced for down tuning. It is essentially an amp in a box pedal, however unlike the countless Marshall in a box pedals on the market; along with the Victory V4 pedals with their amp through mode, is actually bringing something new and original to the table. The Terra Firma is aimed squarely at the Doom/Stoner/Sludge market and claims to replicate an amp popular in that genre. I don't know what that amp is but I'm guessing something like a Green Matamp or one of many Orange amps that you see in doomster rigs (Dual Dark; OR15; Rockerverb series). The signature Zander six way selector switch is what really sets the Terra Firma apart for the amp in a box crowd; as opposed to offering their usual six different clipping types a la the American Geek for example, here it provides six differing stages of power sag that would be experienced by said amplifier as it got pushed further and further into higher gain territory. This becomes more pronounced the louder the pedal is which for this review is a slight disadvantage. I generally get most time to play guitar and get work done for Funny Little Boxes on evenings where my wife is on a night shift and the kids are tucked up in bed. Meaning I don't normally start to get playing until gone 9pm once all the jobs around the house are done and I have to be conscious of pissing off the neighbours (even if the bastards aren't so considerate to us!). As such, ear splitting volumes aren't something I'm able to test out. However, I'm happy to report the Terra Firma produced quite enough aural destruction at neighbour friendly volume for me to be convinced that when the opportunity to make it loud arises it will perform with aplomb!

I tried to approach the pedal as if it were said amplifier that it's aiming to emulate so used the clean channel on my amp, no reverb and set all the eq to 12 oclock so as to be flat and neutral. I started in the logical place with the six way selector at 1 and the Body, Shift and Tone (Bass, Mid, Treble) at 12 oclock. Keeping Gain 2 disengaged in the first instance, I worked with the Gain 1 and tone controls to craft what would essentially be the "clean" tone of the amp. Although clean isn't really the right word, perhaps "less evil" would be more appropriate. It's a very pleasing sound, with the clarity of notes retained, a hefty bit of beefy low end supplied (which is good as it's kind of this pedals raison detre) with a bit of top end crackle in the upper registers. It's a really cool tone and accurately personifies the term "Gritty". Positioning Gain 1 at roughly 2 oclock, I then dimed Gain 2 and hit the switch, removing any pretence of a clean tone and beginning to unleash hell. It immediately sounds like a fuzz pedal being slammed into the dirty channel of a low end heavy amp. As this seems to be the set up of choice for many doomsters I'd say that's a pretty immediate, ringing endorsement of the Terra Firma. 

As you've probably worked out, progressing through the amp sag stages just increases the pedals capability for sonic chaos.. and means there's a hell of a lot of crushing, fuzzy fun to be had. Even on the neck pickup of my telecaster, the sounds on offer were truly titanic. I found my "sweet spot" with the sag selector at 4; gain levels as previously mentioned and Body, Shift and Tone at 12, 2 and 10 o'clock respectively.

Having found such an awesome sound I started to get into a full on doomy groove and churn out some seriously chunky, sub-snail paced riffage. To add some atmosphere I turned on the Line 6 Verbzilla set to the Cave mode which immediately expanded the already huge sound to a colossal one; creating a swirling wall of frequencies.

I also hooked up the Danelectro Cool Cat Tremelo, in soft mode with depth and speed controls set to low and slow.

What I achieved with this set up was a truly, doomy delight. The sound of a miserable, suffering soul. Stranded at the bottom of a well and crying out in a voice devoid of hope. Glorious.

So taken by the doomy elegance on offer from this pedal was I that I ended up playing it on that one setting for nearly two hours straight, and I haven't tuned my guitar back up to standard since; finding a new world of sonic pleasure in having it tuned down to D. 

If that's not a ringing endorsement of the Terra Firma's sonic prowess then I don't know what is.

Follow the link below to watch the accompanying video on the Funny Little Boxes YouTube channel.

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