Boss CS-3: When I first reviewed this pedal around 2007, I focused on a modified version sold by "Humphrey Mods" on Ebay. Honestly, an expectation bias convinced me that the stock one MUST be inadequate, and the modded one MUST sound much better. I'm re-writing my review now to correct this exaggeration. The key to getting good sounds from this pedal is to understand and utilize the narrow range of what it CAN do, and not to expect results it cannot provide. If you already like the effect you get from the stock CS-3, then modifying it really can improve the sound quality, and is worth the effort; but if you are not already sold on the CS-3's action and flavor, then modding is probably a waste of time and money.
So what's wrong with the normal CS-3, why does it have a bad reputation? It is an extreme high-ratio squasher, designed for increasing your sustain and flattening your levels--any other use is futile. Its make-up gain stage amplifies noise quite a lot, so more sustain means more hiss and hum. Also, the intense flattening will certainly kill your dynamics, and can muddy or dull your tone.
It has no input-level control, and with most instruments your whole signal will be over the threshold most of the time. Turning up the Sustain knob boosts your signal even more into the compression circuit, resulting in stronger squash and sustain. To get more moderate or gentle compression you have two options: set the Sustain knob to minimum (fully counterclockwise) or turn down the level of the signal you feed into the pedal. Feeding it a quieter input will give you a slightly wider useful range of the Sustain knob, but that often means you will also have to turn up the output volume, resulting in more noise. The most natural tone and action will be found by setting the Sustain near minimum, no higher than 9:00.
There is some noticeable loss of lows at the minimum end of the Sustain knob range. As you turn up the Sustain, the whole signal is boosted, raising the lows as well, while leveling everything out at the threshold. The low frequency range is strongest at around 10:30, and by this point all dynamics are pretty well crushed. This hard leveling also limits the big wave peaks that give bass its feeling of depth and heft, so even at the point where it is not losing lows, they will sound weak.
Around 10:30 is also the tipping point for noise (to my tastes anyway), where if you turn the Sustain up farther the noise becomes intolerable as it swells up on your note decay. This pedal is generally a bit noisy, not so bad at very low Sustain settings, but with some noticeable hiss even then.
The Tone knob boosts or cuts highs, in a long shallow slope. The point closest to "flat" is around 1:00. The Attack knob has a usefully wide range, allowing faster limiting or helping to bring back the pick/pluck articulation normally lost under heavy compression. If you have just gotten this pedal, a decent setting to start with is Sustain at 9:00, Tone at 1:00, and Attack at 12:00.
The construction and powering are typical Boss, rugged and no-nonsense. There is no LED for signal over the threshold. The footswitch is not true bypass, but the bypassed tone is fairly clear. If you are a guitarist looking for singing lead sustain, you will get better results using a distortion pedal, or a boost pedal driving a tube amp. If you want a clean undistorted tone, try a sustainer comp with quieter make-up gain such as the various Pigtronix Philosopher models.
So what about the modded versions? So far I have only owned and tested the Humphrey Mods one. I do intend to get my hands on the various others such as Monte Allums, but I haven't fit them into the budget just yet--especially since it will mean collecting and comparing probably six or more different versions. I felt that the Humphrey mod provided a bit less extreme squashing, a bit nicer tone, and a bit lower noise. Increasing the value of the input capacitor also improved the low end. Here is a link to one version of the mods. The ideal CS-3 mod in my opinion would be one that raised the threshold considerably, and lowers the noise; if you have personal experience with any particular mod on the market that does this well, please let me know, and I'll be sure to try it soon.
Price in USD: the stock ones are $99 new, $35-$65 used. The mods are available as kits, as modding services, and as pre-modded units for sale, at a wide range of prices.
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