The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
I have some strong opinions about distortion. When it comes to overdrive I feel like your amp should get it done, for the most part. These days, you’ll find amps built for every style of music, even extreme, high-gain metal. It’s not like days of yore when you had to rely on a pedal if you wanted a significant amount of distortion.
Even so, I still love stompboxes. Maybe it’s a throwback to my teenage years when I had to do something to get my crummy Crate combo to sound halfway decent. Or, maybe it is just something in the DNA of most rock guitar players.
I like messing with distortion and overdrive pedals, and seeing what they can do to change my sound. I’ll even put a Tube Screamer in front of my Marshall on occasion, even though I have a Peavey amp perfectly capable of face-melting high gain.
The Dark Matter Distortion by TC Electronic is a pedal that got my attention, not just because the demos I heard sounded amazing, but because, at a price of about $50, it was a downright steal. With a little money burning a hole in my pocket, I decided to grab one.
In this review, I’ll talk about what I like and don’t like about this pedal, and try to give you a good idea of what to expect if you decide to grab one yourself. Like all pedals, the Dark Matter has its own identity, one which will work well for some guitarists, and not others.
Construction and Controls
Out of the box, the first thing I noticed is the solid construction. This is a sturdy little unit with quality switches and knobs. There's no cheap plastic or flimsy components to be found, and the pedal has some nice weight to it.
The case is rugged metal all around, with four little rubber feet on the bottom. The 9-volt battery compartment is on the bottom too, accessible by a single screw you can open with a coin. There is also a jack on the front for connecting a power supply, if you need it.
The controls here are pretty simple: Gain, Level, Bass, and Treble, all of which ought to be self-explanatory at least in their primary function. There is also a Voice switch which, according to TC Electronic, takes the sound from vintage to modern.
The switch to activate the pedal is a single button. It not only has a cool design to it but also appears (and has proven to be, so far) quite durable. Remember, this is a pedal with a street price of about $50, as of this writing. I expected it to be much wimpier, and the attention to detail here is a pleasant surprise.
Sound is what matters, though. Four high-quality knobs in a sturdy case don't get you very far if the tone is lacking. So, let’s move on to what you can do with those knobs, and what happens when you step on that cool, shiny switch.
This is a pretty versatile pedal. Instead of trying to describe the sounds overall, I’m going to go through the controls one by one and tell you how they impact tone.
- Gain: A lot of pedals do one distortion sound. You either dial in more or less of it, but that’s what you get. This one feels a little different. Something like a tube amp, the character changes a bit as you bring the Gain knob past noon. At lower settings it’s bluesy and crunchy; at higher settings, you’ll get a more saturated sustain. The Dark Matter can do metal with the Gain cranked, but I personally think it shines between the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock settings.
- Level: Set to taste, of course. I’ve experimented with using this pedal with the distortion turned down and the volume on ten, to cook the front end of my tube amp a little hotter. More on that later.
- Voice Switch: Frankly, not a huge difference, aside from maybe a bit of a mid-shift. I find myself flipping it back and forth, but really I can’t decide that one position is any better than the other. Considering how good this pedal is otherwise, I’m not concerned about it.
- Bass and Treble: These controls are very dynamic. It’s an active EQ, so you get a nice boost or cut on either side of noon. There’s a notch to mark the middle. I leave these controls flat most of the time and do my EQ shaping with my amp, but they are quite responsive if you need them.
There is a lot going on here, and frankly, it took me some time with the Dark Matter before I had it all figured out. Once you get the hang of it you can pile on some seriously tube-like overdrive.
TC Electronic's Dark Matter Official Demo
How I Use the Dark Matter
Usually, if I use a distortion pedal it’s to drive my Marshall tube amp a little harder. For that, I use my Ibanez Tube Screamer, and it works fine. I set it up as a boost, or I crank the Drive and use it for a little extra gain.
I tried that with the Dark Matter. It works well enough, but I felt like I was missing out on the point of this pedal. This isn’t meant to accent your distortion sound. This pedal will serve you well as your main distortion sound.
Lined up with a clean tube amp, this pedal seems right at home. The overdrive, to me, sounds quite British, with a nice approximation of the EL34 tube tone. Even used through a solid-state amp, it has that same kind of bounce and drive, though I do think it sounded much better through a tube amp.
Again, I like the settings somewhere in the middle. With the gain cranked up too high it gets just a touch fuzzy on the low end.
I think the Dark Matter Distortion is an outstanding choice for rock players, especially those into that Marshall kind of sound. Blues and country players will find it useful as well, but they’ll need to back off on the gain just a bit.
For metal, I don’t know. It will get the job done, but I feel like metal players would be better served with something else. This pedal lives in the classic-hard-rock-tube-overdrive zone.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine $50 better spent on a guitar pedal. The quality is much better than I expected, as is the sound. The Dark Matter isn’t an everyday pedal for me, but that’s only because I’m a hobby player and most often prefer to just plug in and play. I feel like it does everything my Marshall does, but my Marshall does it better. You know, because it’s a Marshall.
However, Marshall or not, if I were in a band I would definitely find a place for this unit on my pedalboard. One thing I have yet to mention here is that this pedal is true bypass. That means your signal zips right on through when the pedal is disengaged, with no coloring of your tone. That might sound like a simple thing, but far too many pedals, especially in this price range, mess around with your signal even when they are off.
So, you really have nothing to lose by including the Dark Matter Distortion in your signal chain. Except $50, which I have a feeling you’ll be glad you spent.
On a final note, I have to say that every time I publish a review it occurs to me that my opinions might change in the future. As a guitar player, I have always felt like being married to my opinions and theories would limit my growth. I think that’s true of anything in life.
I have an especially strong feeling my opinions of this pedal will change over the coming months. Every time I plug it in I notice something a little different about how it affects my sound. So, I’ll update this when necessary.
Until then, check out the Dark Matter Distortion for yourself.