Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion Pedal Review
Standard Retail Price: $84.99
Typical Used Price: $40 to $70
Controls: Level, Tone, Dist, Turbo (modes I or II)
Power: 9-volt battery or Boss PSA adapter (not included)
Famous Users: Kurt Cobain (Nirvana); Dave Navarro (Jane's Addiction); Prince (solo)
Further Information: The Official Boss Website; BossArea.com
Growing up and learning to play electric guitar in the mid-1990s, it's pretty much a given that the Boss DS-2 was my first distortion pedal. They were everywhere at the time, having been popularized by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana who famously used one for his buzzsaw dirty sounds on the squillion-selling Nevermind album. Back in the day, we all wanted that tone--switching from a pristine clean sound to a frighteningly loud, super-saturated distortion.
As with all Boss pedals, the DS-2 is built like a proverbial tank. As with its younger sibling, the DS-1 Distortion, the DS-2 comes in the same questionable orange color. In fact, it even sounds similar in its default "I" mode but the reason for releasing a sequel (of sorts) was Boss's addition of a "II" or Turbo mode. It must have come to Boss's attention that some players were using other pedals to boost or thicken the sound of the DS-1, and rather than lose business, they wisely added the Turbo option to the DS-2 to allow players to switch to a secondary sound using the same pedal. Turbo mode basically activates a bigger, nastier distorted tone that is not unlike the Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal.
Also, presumably learning from the mistake that had them re-releasing the OD-2 Turbo Overdrive as the OD-2R (which introduced the option to connect an FS-5U to toggle between normal and Turbo modes using one's foot instead of having to lean over and turn a knob), Boss cut to the chase and baked this option into the DS-2 right from the get-go.
Ease of Use
Like all Boss pedals, one area where the DS-2 excels is in terms of operation, which couldn't be simpler. There's also an LED at the top of the control panel that brightens when the effect is on, and darkens when it's off.
Aside from the wide on/off footswitch that takes up the bottom 2/3 of the pedal, the DS-2 has four control knobs:
- The "Level" knob adjusts how much volume is present when the effect is activated. Turn it to the left to lower the volume; turn it to the right to raise the dBs.
- The "Tone" knob controls the EQ when the pedal is turned on. Turn it to the left to raise the bass frequencies and lower the treble; turn it to the right to mix in more treble and remove some bass.
- The "Dist" knob decides how much distortion is present in the processed signal when the pedal is on. Turn it to the left to clean up the sound; turn it to the right to add more gain and saturation.
- The "Turbo" knob has only two settings, I and II. When in mode I, the DS-2 produces a basic, fairly aggressive distortion sound not unlike that of Boss's DS-1. (Some people insist they're the same; I personally find them a little different, with the DS-1 being a little thicker in terms of tone.) On mode II, the character of the effect changes and acquires a more distorted, almost scooped-mid-range sound common to a lot of 80s metal and 90s alternative rock.
Additionally, there's a second input that allows for the connection of an optional Boss FS-5U that allows a player to toggle between the I and II Turbo mode by stepping on the footswitch. If you don't have the footswitch, then the only way to move between Turbo modes is by manually turning the knob.
As Frugal readers will probably know by now, I always like to consider a piece of gear's usefulness in the three main scenarios in which a musician will find him/herself: solo practice/writing, recording, and recording.
So let's look at solo writing and rehearsing first. The DS-2 is a lot of fun to incorporate into your practice, although there's more volume and gain on tap than you'll ever use at bedroom levels so it may be overkill for this kind of situation. Unless you have a dedicated rehearsal studio where you can crank the levels, you're unlikely to ever encounter the full range of sounds possible with this unit and it's probably not going to add much value to your practice time or writing. However, if you can let it rip a little bit, you may find that the Turbo Distortion's nasty tones inspire you to write certain kinds of riffs that sound a whole lot cooler when played a) loud and b) with this pedal exclusively.
In terms of recording, as I noted in my review of the Boss DS-1 Distortion, the DS-2 can be a little tricky to capture for all of the same reasons that make it a great live pedal. Unless you calibrate your microphones and gear toward the big, bold, ripped tones you'll undoubtedly be using the DS-2 to achieve, it's spectacularly easy to get a terrible sound when switching from clean to distortion. Additionally, this little orange pedal has a huge amount of headroom in terms of volume and gain, so while it can be tempting to crank it the way you would when playing live, in the studio, it's often best to back off just a bit. Don't worry, it'll still sound nasty but you won't lose articulation of your notes and chords. Unless that's what you're looking for--in which case, dial the Level and Dist knobs high for a super-saturated, sludgy mess of a sound. (It's kind of glorious.)
If you haven't guessed by now, I'm going to advocate for the live forum as the DS-2's most logical application. The contrast between cleaner, quieter sounds and cranked, wildly distorted grind was a huge component of 90s alt. rock, which was gestated in small, sweaty clubs and theaters in the Pacific Northwest. So it makes sense that this pedal found a home among the grunge set: being able to blow an audience away by suddenly hitting a footswitch is a powerful tool indeed. And when you don't have to worry as much about just how much distortion is too much--the heat of the moment is what counts in live music, right?--it's just too much fun to crank the Turbo Distortion and unleash the beast.
Mode I, as noted previously, closely resembles the DS-1 and if you like that pedal, in truth owning a DS-2 is like having one of these plus another pedal. Mode II is, however, where the magic lies and I know several players who exclusively use this pedal in Turbo mode. It's a very unique sound that I haven't really been able to duplicate with any other pedal or combination of other effects.
The Turbo Distortion definitely sounds best through tube amplifiers, as solid state amps don't seem to be able to properly handle it's highest-gain settings and just wind up sounding tinny and digitized. Hybrid amp owners will probably find moderately more success, although there's still some of that "fizz" in the treble end of the spectrum (probably caused by the solid state components that surround most hybrid amps' single tube).
Hotter pickups also work better with the DS-2. Stock Fender single-coils were a little too weak to really take advantage of anything the "Dist" knob has available past 12 o'clock; the tones were just too thin and plinky-sounding. However, on a Strat with a DiMarzio FS-1 in the bridge position, the Turbo Distortion sounded fantastically huge. Likewise with virtually any humbucker, even some of the stock models found in lower-end instruments. I personally found that there was more low-end available on the DS-2 than there was with the DS-1.
The Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion's only real drawbacks are the qualities that some players will view as strengths: the ability to dial in an extreme distortion sound that will cost you a bit in terms of note articulation, but make up for that with a very powerful, saturated buzzsaw grind.
I always felt that the lack of an included FS-5U was a shortcoming on Boss's part, but given that this would likely have raised the price $20 to $40, I can see why they kept this optional. It's a minor quibble at the end of the day, but going from a distorted sound to really distorted sound is one of the great joys this pedal will bring into your life. At least Boss didn't make the same mistake they made with the OD-2, and added the option to connect a footswitch right from day one.
All in all, though, the DS-2 is highly recommended for anyone playing punk, alternative or hard rock just because the pedal facilitates the sculpting of huge, gnarly tones with ease.