REVIEW: Catalinbread Formula No. 5

Catalinbread first caught my eye when I stumbled across the Ottava Magus at Pony Music a few years ago. I’ve always been into the octave thang, and the Ottava Magus has got to be one of the coolest-looking pedals ever. The Formula No. 5 is inspired by vintage tweed amps including the Fender 5E3 Tweed Deluxe. The 5E3′s character is very unique: minimal power filtering, low plate voltages, simple tone stack, and next to nothing in the way of controlling the low end between gain stages. Combine that with an under-rated output transformer and speaker, and you’ve got one loose, dirty, greasy, edgy amp. The Formula No. 5 seeks to tap into that same sound because, as we all know, while descriptors such as ‘greasy,’ ‘inefficient’ and ‘grit’ may sound like bad things to the lay person, to the guitarist they can represent the holy grail.

The Formula No.5 has only three controls: Volume, Gain and Tone. The circuit itself is built around cascading JFET gain stages, which have a softer sound than MOSFETs and a more natural note envelope than diode clipped rings. I plugged my Ibanez RG550 with a Seymour Duncan Parallel Axis Trembucker into my Marshall DSL50 set to a clean sound (into my AxeTrak isolated speaker cabinet), and stomped. I recorded what happened:

Catalinbread Formula 5 by I Heart Guitar

High volume and low gain settings have a little bit of high-end ring to them but are mostly lo-fi – in the nicest possible way. This is really emphasised by some amp spring reverb. It’s interesting to explore the interaction between the tone and gain controls: higher settings on the Gain control and lower Tone excursions result in loose bass, gruff treble, and a fat midrange. It’s a strange mix of fine articulation and clumsy wallop, and the overtones are amazing, especially for those of us who like to Jeff Beck it and play fingerstyle.

The Formula No. 5 interacts with particular sensitivity to changes to pickup and tone settings. Switching to the neck pickup and rolling back the tone control brings out a flutey, fat honk with great sustain, while flipping to the bridge pickup with the tone opened back up has an almost ‘broken jangle’ sound. Again these probably sound like descriptions of something bad, but the result is actually extremely musical and interesting: it’s just not conventional in the way you might expect, say, a tube-style overdrive unit.

The vibe of the Formula No. 5 is fuzzy-but-not-fuzz, distorted-but-not-distortion. It pushes out a conglomeration of a whole bunch of frequencies you don’t expect to come out of your amp – but don’t let that put you off, because I can’t stress enough just how good it sounds. It’s great for blues, rock, avant garde, country and other styles most of us haven’t thought up yet, but most of all, it’s extremely fun.

LINK: Catalinbread Formula No.5