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This article was originally published in issue #19
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So new it was making its international début just as this issue went live, TC Electronic's latest pedal is a smaller version of the hugely successful Spark Boost. Yes, it's the Spark Boost Mini and Michael Casswell was one of the first to test one. Apparently he'll be one of the last to give it back!
Booster pedals can be a real secret weapon towards great tone, and are often overlooked when a young player is starting out. Often a distortion or overdrive pedal comes higher on the shopping list, as it did on mine, before I learnt about tone, gain stages, valve amps and stacking pedals into each other. But one day, a very long time ago, I discovered a mysterious and little known pedal called an MXR micro amp. Back before the days of true bypass and wireless systems, name guitar players were using the micro amp to boost their guitar signal through long signal cables to restore the tone of their pick ups and add a little life to the valve amp of their choice. When I was a teenager, I tried the MXR into my late '70s 50 Watt Marshall combo using my '63 Strat (affordable back then!), and a whole new world of guitar sound opened up to me! The MXR came in handy over the years and gave loyal service both in front of my amps and in the effects loop. It wasn't a permanent fixture in my pedal board, but it was always to hand for certain situations and guitar set-ups.
But time moves on, and guitarists are now very discerning about pedals. Design, tone, noise levels, digital or analogue and true bypass are all factors manufacturers have to get right if they are going to have a pedal that sells. TC Electronic has always been up there among the very best you can get and, to be perfectly honest, the company just doesn't make a bad product, or even an average one, it seems! Across the whole range, TC is always up there with the best, so I was very interested in this Spark Booster Mini. The full size Spark Booster has clean, mid and fat modes, with a gain pot and bass and treble pots and was reviewed by Rick Graham back in Issue 12 but, so new it was just out of the oven when we received our sample, there's this 'mini' version, which has just one knob. You set it where you like it and leave it. Easy! I like that fact, because sometimes simple can be the best option. Where and how you use it are the factors you have to think about.
So what does it do? Well firstly, it will give you up to a massive 26db boost to your signal. It's true bypass, with an all analogue design, and it is following the new trend of taking up a tiny footprint on your board. Manufacturers have realised that most pro players use a 9 volt power supply for their pedals, so the need to make a pedal big enough to put a 9 volt battery inside isn't a priority any more.
There are various ways to use this new TC pedal. Firstly you could use it as a clean boost; running your amp dead clean, you could place it first in the effects loop and kick it in to lift the volume of whatever you are playing, or for lifting your solos in the overall mix. I use a volume pedal to do this so that's not for me. Or you can put it in front of your channel switching valve amp, to push your clean channel into a nice singing snap, and your dirty channel into a Lukather-esque gain that still keeps the attack at the front of the note (essential for high gain playing). All of it is very controllable via your guitar volume pot. Even if your amp and guitar are fairly average, this pedal will bring it all to life. Or (evil laugh), you can use it to push your other pedals. I took this pedal home with me so I could try it with my own gear at a couple of gigs. I generally use various older Marshalls, and on this occasion used my 1994 JCM900 dual reverb loaded with 6L6 tubes. I slotted the Spark Boost Mini into my board along with the other pedals that I use in front of my amps, which currently consists of a Boss CS2, a Klon Centaur, an Xotic EP booster and a Keeley modded Boss blues driver. By slamming the front end of my Marshall with the Spark Boost Mini set around 2 o'clock, or by using it to push any of the other pedals, I got some great guitar sounds on both the clean and dirty channels. The sort of sounds that just 'hit the spot'. The trick to this mix and match style pedal usage is to back the gain down on your amp so that it is controllable via your guitar, and build up the gain stages with your pedals. Once you are on top of the options, your range of tones are huge.
So I was very impressed indeed with this TC newcomer and didn't really want to take it out of my board to film this review. But I did, and I am now going to have to buy this very pedal so I can put it straight back in there. I don't know how they do it but like all the TC Electronic products I've tried, this pedal is just brilliant. It is also extremely well priced. I'm keeping it!
Editor's note: It seems the good news goes on getting better! After Mr Casswell's filming session and even after we'd extracted his written copy from him, a new function came to light on the Spark Mini. If you depress and hold the switch for more than a few seconds, you get what the boffins at TC call its 'Prime Time' function. While your foot remains jammed to the floor, you get boost. Lift it off and you're straight back to bypass operation. This will be great for highlighting a riff, or that magic lick you're worked so hard on.