With their handmade ethos and offbeat designs, Portland-based Catalinbread has become one of the preeminent pedal manufacturers in the high-end range. The company is particularly well-known for its emulations of vintage amps and effects. They offer overdrives, distortions, delays, and modulation effects, all based on famous designs from earlier in guitar history.
Their Dirty Little Secret overdrive pedal belongs to that category. This stompbox compresses the legendary roar of a full Marshall stack into a minuscule enclosure that can fit easily on any pedalboard. It's a far more convenient and durable alternative to the massive amps — and it's certainly easier on your wallet as well!
Let's take a closer look at the features on the Dirty Little Secret Pedal. With all of the different tones it offers, it's definitely one of the best overdrive pedals that you'll find on the market.
The Dirty Little Secret comes equipped with five knobs. Three of them are tone knobs to help you tweak the pedal's response, while the other two control your volume and gain.
Those two dials are labeled “master” and “preamp,” respectively. These labels mimic the controls you'd find on a Marshall head from the 1970s. The “master” knob controls the volume of your output; it's based on an amplifier-style master volume to alter the noise without changing your tone as it moves from soft to loud. However, it will react with your guitar's volume knob. Catalinbread designed this pedal to always stay on no matter what you play — meaning that you can clean the pedal up by changing your volume from your guitar's knob. Depending on where you've set the master dial, you may hear a different sort of sound.
The “preamp” knob controls how much gain you feed into your sound. The Dirty Little Secret actually produces a bit more gain than most vintage Marshalls, but you can still find plenty of unique shades of overdrive as you play around with this control.
Finally, the three other knobs control your treble, mid, and bass output. Catalinbread emphasizes that they're “tone” knobs rather than “EQ” controls — rather than adjusting the level of one frequency in a vacuum, they react with each other as you turn them. That means each setting may have its own quirks. They're not difficult to control and certainly won't fight you, but they are definitely distinct animals from static EQ dials.
Like many other Catalinbread designs, the Dirty Little Secret is actually two pedals in one. The box ships from the factory in “Super Lead” mode, which emulates the classic screaming tones of Marshall's Super Lead series of amps. This category includes everything from incredible Plexi models to the later JCM800 heads favored by guitar legends like Slash.
If you dig into the back of the pedal, however, you'll find a voicing switch buried inside the enclosure. It can switch the pedal's response to “Super Bass” mode, which emulates the completely separate Marshall Super Bass circuit. This circuit offers a thicker, rounder response that works great as a platform for fuzz pedals (particularly models like a Fuzz Face). You'll need to remove the backplate to switch the mode, which means that you can't jump from one to the other with each song. However, the functionality still sets this pedal well apart from the competition.
Beyond the dual modes, the Dirty Little Secret incorporates a couple of other cool features as well. It can run on anywhere between 9 and 18 volts of power, which makes it outstandingly versatile no matter which power supply you run for your board. It's also housed in a rock-solid metal enclosure that can handle years of punishment. The intricate design is a nice touch, as well!
The Dirty Little Secret performs admirably across the board — if you couldn't see the pedal, it would be easy to confuse it for a genuine Marshall stack! It's a testament to Catalinbread's design and build quality that the Dirty Little Secret sounds so great yet retains so much flexibility. Because it's built to function as an “always-on” effect at the front of your rig, you can wring a ton of tonal variation out of this design.
With the gain lowered and the volume on your guitar dialed back, you can get some clean and edge-of-breakup tones with plenty of classic Marshall crunch. These sounds are great for classic rock and lighter styles, particularly when you need to play a cleaner rhythm guitar part. The voltage at which you run the pedal also plays a big part in this response — at 18 volts, it's much smoother and offers some extra clarity compared to the murkier 9-volt tone.
As you push the preamp knob further, the Dirty Little Secret edges closer to a distortion pedal. It's not the heaviest unit out there, and it certainly doesn't approach fuzz levels of gain, but it's easy to pull high distortion out of the pedal without shattering any windows.
If you love to play hard rock in the vein of AC/DC or Guns ‘N Roses, the Dirty Little Secret will get the job done and sound great doing it. It's also an outstanding pedal platform, which allows you to treat it exactly like you would a full-size Marshall amp in your signal chain.
Catalinbread's Dirty Little Secret serves a very specific purpose for hard rock fans. If you covet the saturated crunch of an overdriven Marshall, this pedal is the best way for you to get it. And while this unit may be on the more expensive side for a pedal, it's still far cheaper than the alternative!