I’ll start with the bottom line: the T-Rex HOBO DRIVE is one of the best sounding, most flexible distortion pedals I’ve ever come across. That said, calling this pedal a distortion pedal is a little misleading; it’s less a distortion pedal, and more of a preamp.
Manufactured in Denmark and assembled in Taiwan, the HOBO DRIVE (yes, their website capitalizes both words entirely), is a solidly built, dual-function “overdrive amplifier simulator”. The enclosure is cleanly finished, the controls have a very smooth, professional feel, and the layout is spacious and intuitive.
The HOBO DRIVE features two sections: a three-knob (gain/ tone/ master volume) style preamp, and a clean boost capable of delivering substantial gain. Two foot switches engage or bypass the preamp/distortion and boost circuits (labeled “on/off” and “boost” respectively). While the pedal is buffered, not true-bypass, I did not notice any tone-sucking effects of pickup loading, either on humbuckers or single coil pickups. Enough space exists between the dual foot switches to not worry too much about footwork accuracy.
The two audio circuit blocks in the HOBO DRIVE are independent of one another, so regardless of the state of the preamp section, the boost section is always available. This wasn’t immediately clear to me given the left switch is named “on/off”, however, that only refers to the preamp section.
A unique twist to the pedal is a small toggle switch that places the boost circuit either before or after the preamp circuit. This means that by setting the toggle to “post” you can use the boost control as a typical signal booster a’la the MXR Linear Power Booster, or by setting the toggle switch to “pre”, you can feed higher signal level into the preamp, thus increasing the distortion produced. If you do this, be careful: when you turn off the preamp section, the boosted level continues to go through the pedal, without the level-limiting effect of the overdrive circuit.
I’ve been using the pedal in a variety of contexts over the past couple weeks, and it has fit in well in each time. The character of the distortion is smooth and well defined–this is about as far away from a Big Muff or Rat as you can get. It reminds me of well balanced, high-gain tube distortion. Think ‘Soldano-esque’. Even with high input gain and a lot of boost before the preamp, note definition never seems to suffer much, even on open chords.
According to the research I did on the pedal (and confirmed by measuring internal op-amp voltages), the HOBO DRIVE uses an internal voltage booster to increase the headroom of the unit. Over the course of testing, I realized this pedal is capable of producing surprisingly high output levels, and the thought occurred that the pedal might work as a preamp for direct recording. To test this theory, I recorded my ’83 Fender P bass via the HOBO DRIVE direct into the line-level inputs on my RME Fireface 800. I kept the preamp side of the pedal off, and used just the boost circuit to drive the RME. Surprisingly, the HOBO DRIVE was able drive the inputs into clipping when the RME was set to -10dBV input level. The output signal of the HOBO DRIVE began to clip a few dB before the RME went into clipping, so this is at the outside edge of the unit’s capabilities, but when kept at a reasonable level (averaging around -12dBfs), I thought the HOBO DRIVE actually makes a decent preamp/ DI in a pinch. On bass, the sound was clean, but a touch lacking in the low end. This makes perfect sense to me given it’s not voiced for bass.
Similarly, running the output of the HOBO DRIVE directly into a guitar amp’s power-amp-in jack was satisfying. For fun, I tried this on my old Dean Markley RM-80-DR 1×12 combo amp. It’s a mid-’80s, tube-preamp-solid-state-power-section amplifier, 80 watts, loaded with an EV speaker of the same era. More than enough output level was available between the preamp and boost sections of the pedal to get the combo louder than I needed, and it sounded better to my ear than either the tube or solid state preamp sections of the Dean Markley. It actually sounded distinct enough from the combo’s preamps that it was like a different amp. This struck me as a potentially very useful trick for recording situations.
I brought the HOBO DRIVE in with me to a couple rehearsals with my bands. The first is a 3-piece Americana / Jam band called Spidermeow. In this band I play bass, so I let the guitarist use this between his P-90 equipped Les Paul and Peavey Ultra+ on the clean channel. The HOBO DRIVE worked great in this application, and let him get a good variety of tones well suited for alt-country work as well as for heavier music. He was running the pre/post toggle in the post position, and the switchable extra level worked nicely to emphasize leads, as well as kick the energy of choruses up a notch.
In a less-than-well-lit rehearsal space, we discovered the knobs’ lack of paint on the pointers made it difficult to see where the controls were set, and that the ultra-bright blue LEDs were retina-scorchers. I should confess here that I personally hate blue LEDs, and will be happy when they fall out of favor: they’re painful to my eyes, and tend to visually swamp out nearby controls.
The other band I play in is called Gentlemen, and is firmly in Stone Roses/ Verve/ Cure territory. The lead player in this band is a bit of an effects junkie, and really loved the HOBO DRIVE. He’d put the boost function into “pre” mode, and was using it to take solos over the top of the effects-drenched atmosphere coming from the rest of the band. In this context the pedal was going into a Line6 M13 into stereo Peavey classic 30s, and sounded perfect in the mix. He described the pedal as transparent, responsive, and smooth. Even the drummer kept talking about how much he loved the sound.
The HOBO DRIVE is a great pedal for anyone looking for smooth, well defined, controlled high-gain distortion coupled with a very clean booster circuit.
Simple to use
Flexible variety of tones in the preamp section
Extremely clean boost
Very smooth distortion
Tremendous amount of gain available from both stages
At $279 street price, not the cheapest of boxes.
Very short battery life (the manual quotes 1 hour, and the battery compartment says ‘for emergency use only’)
No indicator hash marks on the knobs. Hard to see settings in typical club lighting
Too-bright blue LEDs for status indication.
Ron Guensche is a bassist, guitarist, and audio engineer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.