The Vick Audio 73 Ram’s Head—A Vintage Big Muff Repro I Can Love
It’s often debated whether the Big Muff circuit is distortion or fuzz. Although both distortion and fuzz are hard-clipping circuits, the Muff is definitely a fuzz. But it was the first step toward the distortion pedal.
The difference lies in bass and the clipping stage. A distortion pedal removes bass before the clipping stage and adds it back after. A fuzz clips the full signal.
That’s why fuzz pedals have a fat, buzzy low end and distortion pedals are tighter.
I’ve felt for a long time like I should love Big Muffs. Some of my favorite guitarists have made great use of them. Whenever I’ve bought one, however, it’s left me a little disappointed.
I’ve owned several Muff pedals over the past couple of decades. Each one sounded harsh and unflattering. The relationship between the Muff and amp always seemed strained. It definitely wasn’t the sound I was hearing from David Gilmour or my favorite grunge bands.
Last year I played an original Triangle Muff from the early ‘70s. I was quite surprised by its tone. Considerably different from the modern offerings I’ve tried from Electro-Harmonix.
Now that I knew I liked the tone of the original Muff, it was time to find one. I don’t like to tour with vintage pedals because they can be noisy and unreliable. I’d have to find a modern builder who could make a Muff in the vintage style.
So I tried the JHS Muffuletta. Not a bad pedal by any means. It was an improvement over other Muffs I have tried. But it still wasn’t there for me. At least not for my applications. I needed a Muff that wowed me.
My friend and gifted guitarist Nicky Barbato brought over a few pedals for a brunch pedal hang. He showed up with a Vick Audio 73 Ram’s Head.
I had heard many favorable things about this pedal. I was interested but still felt kinda burned on the Muff hunt.
When he plugged it in, it twisted my brain noodle. This pedal sounded amazing! Hello, wow factor. It was the first time I was blown away by a non-vintage Muff.
One thing needs to be mentioned about the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. They were inconsistent back in the day. There was a lot of allowance given to values. They weren’t that strict with production. Two Muffs off the same assembly line in ‘71 could sound totally different.
To be fair to other makers of Muff circuits, they could be copying a Muff that’s different from the one I like. So they’re not bad per se. They just copied the “green’ one instead of the “blue.” Know what I mean?
Vick Audio makes a Muff that I find sounds the most flattering and embodies what I found so appealing about the vintage Muff I tried.
I tend to be a stickler with vintage circuits. I’m not super into mods. I want the classic sound. But the addition of the mids switch on the 73 Ram’s Head is fantastic. That is a welcome mod!
It makes the Muff circuit so much more flexible. I find myself using the flat mode often. I’ve always found it sonically challenging to use a Muff with a blackface circuit. A mid-scooped amp with a mid-scooped pedal can be harsh.
With the mids switch, the Ram’s Head pairs better with certain amps. Way more flexible. It’s a great feature!
I was very excited to get the 73 Ram’s Head. Couldn’t wait to plug it in. Nicky quickly guarded his when he noticed how much I liked it. I saw him check his bag when he left, too. Sheesh, no trust? Well, I don’t blame him. I don’t have a good poker face.
There are a few classic pedal pairings with the Muff Circuit. These roads all lead back to David Gilmour. He would often place a Colorsound Power Boost after the Muff for more EQ control and gain staging.
Finding an old Power Boost can be an issue—and they’re rather large. Luckily there are a few builders making them. I’m partial to the Buffalo FX Power Booster. It runs at 18v (internally). I find voltage is an important ingredient for the correct Power Booster tone. Some copies only run at 9v.
I also put a few compressors after the Ram’s Head. My favorites are the Effectrode PC-2A and the Analog Man CompROSSor.
The 73 Ram’s Head excelled with each of these pairings. With other Muff circuits I would find myself constantly twiddling with the settings. On gigs, I’ve pretty much been good to go with the 73 Ram’s Head once I set it. Same when pairing it with pedals.
It’s quite a rush playing through the Vick Audio Ram’s Head at stage volume. It’s like you can feel the electricity running through your body. The sustain is very musical. It sings! It doesn’t have to be at stage volume to sound amazing. But it’s quite a thrill if you get the chance to open it up live.
Interview with Mike Vickery
I recently talked to Vick Audio’s Mike Vickery about his 73 Ram’s Head.
Me: Do you use NOS parts?
Mike: No. My philosophy is to match the part value as closely as possible but not necessarily exactly. Parts tolerances are a lot better nowadays, so I feel you get a more consistent product this way. For example, the old carbon film resistors used in the ‘70s have a listed 5% variance between their stated value and their actual value. I like to use new metal film resistors that have a 1% variance. If I can’t find the original value in a metal film resistor, I’ll use the part that’s the closest match to the original part value.
When people talk about NOS, what they usually care about is transistors or ICs [integrated circuits]. In the case of the 73 Ram’s Head, which is transistor-based, I use a modern transistor that has similar specs to the original.
How do you keep the price point so fair? You’re not gouging with the price of your pedals. They’re affordable but obviously have the quality of much higher-priced pedals.
I’m a small, one-man shop, and with the exception of bookkeeping, I do everything myself, which keeps our fixed costs low. I struggle with some of the graphic design-related parts of running Vick Audio like designing the web site and the pedal enclosure graphics, but I’ve stuck with this philosophy. And I don't advertise, with the exception of a few low-cost Google ads. I count on word of mouth from customers to promote my products.
How long does it take to build a 73 Rams Head?
It’s hard to say, exactly. I usually build pedals in small batches of two to four at a time. I hand-solder through-hole components, so the parts count is the biggest factor in how long it takes to build. The 73 Ram’s Head is one of the larger circuits I build—I’d estimate a little over an hour per unit.
What interested you in Big Muffs?
The Big Muff circuit has something alive about it that’s different from most other pedals. The combination of distortion/fuzz and the unreal sustain takes on a life of its own. I like to think of it as not making music but shaping and managing the music that it’s producing. Plus, some of my all-time favorite albums through different generations have featured the Big Muff. I started playing in the early ‘90s by jamming along with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish.”
Did you base the 73 on a specific Electro Harmonix Ram’s Head you owned? I know they tended to vary quite a bit from pedal to pedal back in the day.
No—the 73 Ram's Head isn’t based on a pedal I’ve owned. The site http://www.bigmuffpage.com/ run by Kit Rae is to me the definitive source on Big Muff information, history, and schematics. And the 73 Ram's Head is based on a schematic from his site.
I built my first 73 Ram's Head using Veroboard several years before I officially started Vick Audio. The very first time I fired it up, I fell in love—and it’s been my favorite pedal ever since. It’s the original one I made almost a decade ago
What do you think is most misunderstood about Muffs?
All the classic Muffs use the exact same circuit. I can make any of the reproductions that I produce using the same circuit board. The only difference on those early transistor-based Muffs were the parts values used in certain positions. The earlier the version, the more variance in the values. By the time they moved production to Russia—the Sovtek era of muffs—they were pretty consistent and had very little variance. So all the classic Muffs sound about 90% the same with a little different flavor to them. There is no one Ram's Head or Triangle model—there are dozens of variations, but they’re all going to sound very similar.
What are your favorite pedals to pair with the 73 Ram’s Head?
Most of the time I use it with just my R-Comp, which is a reproduction of the old Ross Compressor. Other than that, I will pair it with time or modulation effects, but if I’m going for a straight distortion/fuzz sound, it’s just the R-Comp.
How many people work in your shop?
Just me. I’m a one-man shop. It’s funny—anyone that knows me in real life thinks my pedal business is a lot smaller than it is, but anyone that knows Vick Audio from the internet assumes it is a lot bigger than it is. Most people would be thoroughly underwhelmed with my shop. One of the great things about hand-soldering through-hole component pedals is, it doesn’t require any special equipment. A soldering iron, a fume extractor, and a couple basic tools is all you need.
What led you to add the glorious mid switch?
The mid switch isn’t something I came up with. It’s been around the DIY community for a long time. Most pedal tone stacks use a single-band pass filter to either cut the highs or the lows from the signal. The Big Muff has a little more complicated tone stack, with both a high-pass and a low-pass filter.
The main issue most people have with the Big Muff is the scooped mids profile, which is part of the high-pass filter. There are a couple of solutions the DIY community has been using for years. One popular method is to add a potentiometer to the high-pass section of the tone stack, which allows you to control the mids with a knob. I personally like the switch instead of a knob to control the mids because I like the ability to reproduce the exact configuration of the classic pedal. Usually I run my 73 at the flat mids setting.
This pedal is perfectly sized for pedalboards. I wish more pedals were sized like this. Compact without feeling too small. Although I like the idea of mini pedals, they always feel a little wobbly on pedalboards.
This isn’t a mini pedal. But it’s a size I wish many would strive for.
Let’s listen to some audio examples. All were recorded using an American Standard Strat with FSC Instruments S ‘59 pickups, DR Stings Pure Blues pure nickel strings, Headstrong Lil’ King Reverb, AEA A840 ribbon mic, and a UAD Apollo.
Let’s listen to some examples of the Vick Audio 73 Ram’s Head. all examples were recorded using a Fender American Stratocaster with FSC Instruments 59 Pickups, a Headstrong Lil King Reverb amp, an AEA A 840 ribbon mic into a UAD Apollo using the Neve 1073 preamp plugin in the Unison slot.
In the next example I used the UAD Korg SD-3000 delay and UAD EMT 140 plugin for more space.
Remember earlier when I mentioned pairing a Power Boost with the 73 Ram’s Head?
Let’s hear what stacking the 73 Ram’s Head with the Effectrode PC-2A sounds like.