Electro-Harmonix EHX Tortion JFET Overdrive Review
EHX Tortion Features
The EHX Tortion is Electro-Harmonix’s latest flagship overdrive/distortion pedal. The fact that they’re calling it their flagship overdrive/distortion pedal should immediately give you a good indication on the quality and features it boasts. I was incredibly impressed with their B9 Organ Machine pedal so I was really excited to give the EHX Tortion pedal a test run when one of my students impulse bought it.
Here are the main features worth mentioning:
The EHX Totion basically takes a tube pre-amp and replaces the vacuum tubes with a transistor. JFET stands for Junction Gate Field-Effect Transistor. It is a simple transistor that is meant to deliver similar characteristics of vacuum tubes on your tone.
The Boost footswitch turns the EHX Tortion into a two channel pedal. Indicated with a blue LED and controlled by the two white knobs. The Volume and Gain knobs are completely independent from the rest of the pedal’s controls so it allows you to basically add extra gain or change the volume of the boost channel without affecting your normal tone. It’s even possible to connect an external footswitch to turn the boost on and off momentarily.
The 4-way pre-gain knob is a great way to change between a modern or vintage style sound. What it does is allow you to adjust the level and tone of your input. You will see ‘F T F T’ printed on the pedal with LOW and HIGH printed above them. The far left F T delivers a more vintage sound as it uses a lower input level. The far right F T uses a higher gain on the input for a more modern sound. F stands for Full which gives you more bass for a bigger sound. T stands for Tight which basically, well, tightens up the bass frequencies.
Balanced XLR output with amp/cabinet simulation
I was surprised to see this feature as it seemed unnecessary for an overdrive pedal. Right next to the standard output jack there is a balanced XLR output which delivers a line level sound (controlled by the volume knob) to a mixer or PA system. To achieve that they built in an amp/cabinet simulator which simulates the sound of a 4×12 cabinet. The simulator is active even in bypass mode which means it will still simulate a real amp and cabinet with your clean sound.
Three band EQ
As if the above features didn’t give you enough flexibility there are three knobs built in for your low, mid and high EQ.
After reading the above features you might be surprised to find out that the EHX Tortion is all analog. Even the amp/cabinet simulator uses analog circuitry which was a surprise. The pedal uses a buffered bypass (find out more about this here)
Ease of use
It’s pretty easy to get started with this pedal. First, choose your pre-gain option based on what type of sound you want (eg: vintage or modern, tight or full). Then you can adjust your gain, volume and adjust the EQ to your liking. Once you’re happy with your tone if you want you can then adjust the Boost options. While it might seem overwhelming at first with all the knobs, it’s pretty straight forward.
One feature I’d like to mention is that it’s possible to use both the DI output and the line output at the same time. That could be really handy for a live situation as it could remove the need to mic up your amp. Simply connect the EHX Tortion to the mixer and run your normal line out to your amp. Great feature for those who play live.
Now remember that this is an analog pedal so you might notice it behaves differently to a digital pedal. As one example, if you turn the gain all the way down to zero while in the low pre-gain setting, you will notice there’s no output at all. A digital pedal on the other hand would have a quiet signal but because this is analog is operates differently. It’s not necessarily bad (unless you don’t realize you turned the gain down completely and can’t figure out why you have no sound!), it just shows how analog devices work differently.
A lot of guitarists would use the Boost setting as a way to boost their signal to cut through for a solo for example, but that’s not the only way you could use it. The EHX Tortion can deliver really crystal clean tones as well as distorted tones so one thing I played around with was using the normal mode to create a warm clean sound. Then use the white gain knob to dial in some distortion and use the Boost setting for a dirty sound. Alternatively you could create a light crunch in normal mode then use the Boost to keep the volume level the same but dial in more gain. Having two channels like this can give you a lot of flexibility in a live setting or just jamming along to a song.
The 4-way pre-gain knob delivers a great range of tones. I used my 7 string to see how well the high gain Tight setting would compare against the Full setting and it definitely helped deliver a nice tight sound needed when riffing in the low range. In my opinion it’s the 4-way pre-gain that turns this pedal from good to great. Without it you wouldn’t have anywhere near the flexibility.
To get an idea of the range of different tones available with the EHX Tortion, check out this video:
Notice that the sound you’re hearing is from the line out to an amp and not the DI output. It’s a shame they didn’t showcase the analog amp emulation of the DI output as it’s really great quality. Perhaps not as good as the emulation in something like the Line 6 POD HD500X, but it does a great job at a feature you wouldn’t normally expect in an overdrive pedal.
I had a lot of fun with the EHX Tortion. One thing I like to do when testing out a pedal is to pick a random song from my music collection and try to match the guitar tone as closely as possible and see how quickly and closely I can match the tone. It was so good to start with a fuzzy Hendrix tone then, change to a Pink Floyd lead tone then have to switch to a thick Dream Theater tone or a low and tight metal tone. The pedal even nailed the muddy St. Anger tone, although that’s not exactly a good thing, right!? The point here is that while some pedals are claimed to be versatile, this pedal really is. I jumped from song to song for about an hour and it was incredibly easy to match the wide range of tones. Sometimes all I would need to do was change the 4-way pre-gain setting and adjust the EQ. Riffing on my 7 string felt really punchy thanks to the Tight pre-gain option. I’ve often struggled with some pedals to produce punchy tone with low tuned guitars and this one did a great job.
Compared to other distortion/overdrive pedals I’ve played around with over the years, this one is really clean and rich. When cranked up it never became muddy or broke down as I’ve noticed other pedals often do. The sustain really draws you in while still giving you plenty of dynamics. What I noticed the most compared to other pedals is the way it responds to the way you attack the strings. Accenting notes or digging into the strings for pinch harmonics felt really satisfying. With single coils you really hear the sparkle in each note.
The EHX Tortion is housed in a die-cast chassis and feels really secure. It is a fairly large pedal so keep this in mind if you already have a large pedal rig. If you’re thinking of upgrading your Soul Food pedal with this one, remember it will take up a lot more space.
I’m often cautious about the knobs placed on pedals as they’re often made of cheap plastic and feel like they could snap with a single slip of the foot. The knobs on this pedal feel a lot more secure and part of the reason is the way they are positioned. Having two rows and closely positioning the knobs together actually increases their strength. So I would definitely feel comfortable using this in a live situation without worrying about damage.
I’ve been really impressed with Electro-Harmonix’s pedals lately. The B9 Organ Machine they recently released absolutely floored me with its quality and flexibility. The company seem to be creating a lot of pedals lately and the two I’ve managed to try out so far have been incredibly impressive.
Overall I have to say I’ve never enjoyed using a pedal so much (apart from the B9 which was an absolute joy). Overdrive/distortion is such a personal thing and can make or break your tone. The EHX Tortion really inspired me and my hour long jam became three hours simply because I really enjoyed listening to how the pedal would respond to the way I played. This is one of the best guitar products I’ve ever tried so far and I highly recommend it.
- 4-way pre-gain knob gives you so much flexibility
- The Boost feature turns this into a two channel pedal
- The DI output would be handy for some people
- The versatility means this should be the last overdrive pedal you buy
- Takes up a lot of valuable pedalboard space
Who is it for?
My student is thrilled with this pedal and I’m even tempted to buy one for myself (I already have too much gear so trying to hold back on purchases!). But I’m hesitant in saying everybody should get one because it will suit some guitarists more than others.
If you play a wide range of styles, this pedal will be able to do a great job at all of them. As mentioned above this pedal could easily match the tones in a wide range of songs across different styles. This pedal works well in both the ‘vintage’ and ‘modern’ aspects of tone so you’re going to get the most out of it if you enjoy music that fits both of those labels.
Who isn’t it for?
As mentioned above, the versatility this pedal offers is fantastic. But not everybody needs versatility when it comes to tone. If you mainly only play one genre of style (there’s nothing wrong about that!), then there will be better choices out there for you. The EHX Tortion may suit your needs fine, but consider whether you’re going to use the flexibility or features or whether a simpler/cheaper/smaller pedal will suit your needs better.
How to get the most out of the EHX Tortion
If you buy the EHX Tortion, your goal should be to learn how to control your tone as quickly as possible. Here are the steps I recommend to doing just that:
- Start with everything set at 12 o’clock
- Choose one of the 4 pre-gain options
- Start jamming
- Adjust the gain knob up and down and get a feel for how it changes your tone (use the volume knob to keep your volume level consistent)
- Set the gain at a level you’re happy with then adjust the EQ knobs to get a feel for how they change your tone
- Set the EQ knobs so they enhance your tone (only adjust them if you really think they enhance your tone, otherwise leave them)
- Turn on the Boost and play around with the gain and volume knobs
- Go back to step 2 and choose a different pre-gain setting. Go through the steps again
This process will teach you how to use each setting and each knob to control your tone. This is a skill not many guitarists bother to learn but I highly recommend it. It only takes five to ten minutes. Once you learn how to completely control your tone, test yourself out by picking random songs and trying to match your tone as closely as possible to the tone you hear in the song. How quickly and closely you can match your tone will tell you how well you know your pedal.
Here are a few different ideas you can play around with:
- Try to create three completely different tones using the bypassed, normal and boost modes as your three channels
- Use the boost mode to give you a different sounding distortion without changing the volume level
- Change back and forth between the Full and Tight settings to hear how they change your bass frequencies
- Use the normal mode for a clean sound and the boost mode for a dirty sound
If you come up with other interesting ways to use the EHX Tortion, please share them in the comments below.
Alternatives to the EHX Tortion
There are so many overdrive and distortion pedals on the market today. A ridiculous amount really. The right pedal for you depends on what features you want to have. The chances are whatever features you’re looking for are possible with at least one pedal out there. I’m hesitant to offer alternatives for this pedal because distortion and overdrive is a very personal thing and every person will want different things. If you don’t think the EHX Tortion is for you, then think about what you do want. Once you figure out what features you want, it will be easier to sort through the crowd of pedals out there.
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