Lightning Boy Op-2: This is an opto pedal that uses two 12AU7 tubes for gain, with no transistors or IC's involved. The output of the tubes also powers the optical component of the compression circuit.
As I mentioned in my earlier review of the Opti-Mu Prime, many tube pedals and preamps end up disappointing because their tube gain stages run at low voltage and are not designed to get good results that way. Lightning Boy's goal here is to beat that trend by optimizing the "starved plate" (low DC voltage) design for more clean gain and better noise performance, and I think it hits those marks neatly.
The noise floor is minimal, certainly lower than many other tube pedals, and it did not seem to pick up much interference from my electrically-noisy work room. There is zero loss of low end. The mids and high mids have a slight hump that peaks around 4 KHz, and the highs gradually roll off from there, with that drop becoming noticeable roughly around 7 or 8 KHz. This gives it a bit of darkness and helps remove distortion; it might not have the brightest tone, but I think this high frequency rolloff helps give the warm sound we tend to want from a tube pedal anyway.
It has a toggle labeled "Turbo" which increases the THD, compression, and volume of the tubes. With the Turbo switched off, the tone is fairly clean and uncolored, with some softness in the note character. Switched on, the tone becomes extra fat and energetic, a really sweet tubey (but not obviously distorted) sound. It adds subtle harmonics and beef, not buzzy overdrive. On some of the first units he produced, this toggle is labeled "on/off", but it is the same Turbo function.
The knob labeled Compression controls the sensitivity of the comp circuit, so it affects the ratio and threshold, but it is not a literal "ratio knob". There is no independent control over threshold or input level, so this pedal's response will largely depend on the output level of your instrument. It should not distort when you use a high-output bass, but your signal will be more squashed. There is no LED to indicate your signal crossing the threshold. With the Volume knob all the way up there is some boost, but this pedal isn't designed with as much extra gain as some other comps, mainly because the tubes are the only source of gain, and they run clean.
There's a toggle labeled "Knee" which selects either hard knee, where the full strength of the Compression knob setting is applied as soon as your signal crosses the threshold; or soft knee, where the effect ramps up across a range of your signal strength, so that smaller peaks get a lower ratio and taller peaks get a higher ratio. The soft knee setting is best for unobtrusive or light compression, while the hard knee is best for a more noticeable effect.
The attack time is fairly quick, and it changes a bit at different Compression settings. The release time is slowish, and program-dependent, with bigger peaks getting a slower release in the same manner as the old LA2A. The action is smooth and even, without big dips or squishy effects. It is not really suited to peak limiting or other "corrective" compression, it's more of a smoothing and thickening effect. With Turbo on and a hard knee, it can be a fairly strong flattener and sustainer. Much more subtle results can be achieved with a soft knee and turning down the Comp knob.
It runs on 12V DC, with a standard Boss-type plug, and it needs at least 300 mA current to perform properly. I used a Voodoo Labs ISO-5 and that worked well. Using a higher-voltage supply can damage the pedal. Originally he designed this pedal to run off 9V, like the Opti-Mu Prime, but after we discussed the tone and features further, he decided 12V would provide better results. It had such a very high current demand at 9V that it would have needed a dedicated wall wart anyway. The first several units he produced have "9V DC ONLY" printed on them, but they will actually run only on 12V, and this information is engraved on the base. Most of the production units will have the correct labeling.
The tubes stick out the top, with roll bars to protect them. The sockets that hold the tubes have a very strong grip, so it is not recommended for you to try to swap in other tubes. The ones that it comes with are high quality and very carefully selected for gain. A blue LED lights up the base of the tubes when the effect is engaged. The housing is the medium Barber/Diamond size, with a much more modern and professional appearance than his previous pedal. The construction quality is very good, with one caveat: the wiring is "point-to-point", which means each component is soldered directly to each other, with no board or frame for structure. This can look pretty crazy and messy, but L.Boy assures me they have taken pains to attach each piece securely, and they guarantee it to stand up to normal use. The footswitch is "true bypass".
Some comparisons: The Effectrode has a well established reputation for quality, but the Op-2 has more of a noticeable "tube tone" with the Turbo mode. The Markbass has more versatile and precise controls, especially over gain and threshold, but it is larger, and it doesn't have as strong of a tonal effect available. The EHX Black Finger is larger, noisier, and not particularly reliable. The Retrospec Squeezebox has better fidelity and versatility, but it's larger and costs hundreds more. All in all I think the Op-2 is a solid contender, and well worth your time!
Price in USD: $380 new. Too soon to say what the used market will do.
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