Valve preamp pedals are not a new concept – and Blackstar should know. It was there at the vanguard with its HT range back in the year of its launch in 2007. The company’s late co-founder and technical director Bruce Keir played a key role in the design and development of pedals that harnessed valve technology in a compact, floor-based enclosure. It’s a testament to his legacy that the company has named its new range after the team tasked with continuing the innovative work Keir helped start: Department 10.
The elephant in the room is that the appeal of valve preamp pedals has been relatively niche in the guitar world. Perhaps because so few have been truly valve-driven like these pedals are. Meanwhile, the development and popularity of digital effects and boutique overdrive pedals have exploded, along with cab and amp modelling units.
But are the stakes getting higher? Floor-based amps are on the rise, both digital and analogue. Flexibility and mobility for guitar rigs are more important than ever and these kind of units can deliver practice, recording and gigging solutions without a traditional ‘amp’ in sight. Blackstar might have timed its return to the format perfectly.
We know from the past 14 years that Blackstar can deliver world class valve-based amplification, but here the company is pairing that engineering reputation with its more recently developed cab modelling technology. The Dept 10 Dual Drive and Dual Distortion represent a meeting of those worlds – each running at more than 200V internally like a full valve amp and packing an ECC83 triode, and yet powered by a 9V power supply.
Both offer three crunch and overdrive voices alongside clean, across two switchable channels. Alongside an effects loop and an XLR-out and USB, players can choose one of two outputs depending on whether they want to use the Cab Sim technology or bypass it. There’s huge potential here.
In a market of good-looking pedals, these are classy and sleek, boasting a matte finish on aluminium casing with clear controls. A curved bar protects the valve within and beneath it lies the small switch to choose between three onboard Cab Rig DI presets. These can be refined and uploaded via Blackstar’s Architect software.
We tested both pedals as part of a pedalboard using the effects loop through a solid-state combo’s clean channel, but also into a full-range, flat-response powered cab and recording directly with a DAW via an interface. That says a lot about the versatility these pedals offer out of the box.
Though it’s accurate to describe the Dual Drive as an all-rounder and the Dual Distortion delivering for heavier needs, it undersells the wide range of gain tones both deliver. The Drive can do heavy on the second channel and there are some hugely satisfying lighter crunch tones to be had from the Distortion’s Channel 1 Crunch voice.
Blackstar has given you some effective, user-friendly tools to control your gain. The Infinite Shape Feature control will be familiar to existing Blackstar owners: a single knob that shifts between the extremes of a UK and American-style amp sound. This directly affects the frequency peak of the mid control. We found the independent gain and levels were relatively simple to balance when it comes to crunch and distortion.
The sheer range of gain and dynamic response here may put your existing drive pedals on notice – it's a great showcase of Blackstar to newcomers and a highly usable gain station for players. Both pedals are a timely reminder that there is something special about quality valve-driven gain when it comes to clarity and definition for our guitar sounds.
The Dual Distortion is the one more likely to turn heads: it can do huge scooped slabs of metal, searing lead and tight percussive chunk on Channel 2. But for the classic side of rock, it will be simply too spicy in the gain department for some so the Dual Drive offers Swiss Army Knife musicality. Consider your needs and choose accordingly.
We’re pleased to report how well both perform at home levels, and placing all the control on your pedalboard encourages a hands-on approach to tweaking. But it’s the Cab Rig DI features that makes the asking price here an especially sweet spot. Both pedals sound at their brightest and most harmonically detailed when using Blackstar’s onboard Cab Rig technology.
There are three onboard models to switch between and the ability to edit and upload your own with a huge range of parameters – from virtual power amp valves to mics, room character and EQ – thanks to the company’s Architect software.
It’s a showcase of valve technology and modelling working together as a versatile solution for players, with a superb range of tube tones that we found transferred equally well to stage and studio.