As multi-effect modeling pedals become more ‘realistic’ in terms of both sound and responsiveness, the interfaces through which we control them become even more important. Of course the ultimate interface is the guitar itself. ‘Digital’ processing is ironically making the ‘analog’ aspects of the guitar, its nuanced tones and feel, that much more important because of the accuracy of how each aspect is translated.
The same goes for a modeler’s peripheral controllers such as expression pedals. My current go-to floor box is the Boss GT-1000CORE (stay tuned for my upcoming review in Tapeop Magazine). These new generation of ultra-portable modelers benefit greatly from outboard controllers to untap key functionality: Instead of just controlling volume and/or wah for instance, we can now assign expression pedals to organically tweak any function in real-time such as drive, tremolo, eq, delay, pitch, or a combination of these simultaneously.
In this way an expression pedal is now an integral part of making unique sounds. And the addition of the classic toe-switch we typically find in a wah pedal is key in compact modelers with understandably limited switches.
The quadcore Boss GT1000CORE: a computer in a stompbox
For this reason, I became laser-focused on finding the best option out there: a smooth operating, ergonomic, well-constructed companion to the computational prowess housed inside the GT1000CORE… Much to my dismay, I could only find 2 options that incorporated toe switches – one made by Mission Engineering and the other by HeadRush (the latter marketed for their own gear but with spec’s compatible with Boss floorboards). Both sell for exactly the same price: $149 on the Mission Engineering site and Amazon respectively. These numbers might be steep for what’s just a potentiometer and momentary switch housed in a fancy wrapper. Then again, what could possibly go wrong when investing in such a simple device? Turns out a lot depending on which model. Read on to see how I ranked each pedal through 4 essential categories (summarized in a chart at the end).
OVERALL FORM FACTOR AND BUILD QUALITY COMPARISON
Mission Engineering SP1-RB Form Factor and Build Quality
L: 253 mm | W: 100mm (widest point) | H: 73mm (toe down) | 1.44 kg
Because of its familiar form-factor (a clone of the ubiquitous Crybaby wah), I initially opted for the Mission Engineering SP1-RB. Although their expression pedals are all essentially similar, they cleverly (or deviously?) market a slew of sub-versions for many popular pedal boards. With this in mind, maybe they customized the components of the SP1-RB specifically for modern Boss gear?
…Or maybe not. It was my fault for remembering my old Crybaby through rose-colored glasses. Not only does the SP1 look like it, it repeats its original flawed details to the core. Those flaws were charming in a vintage design, but not so in a modern rendition. Case in point: my initial eagerness soon wore through when straight out of the box, I found one of the SP1’s rubber feet had fallen off. (The sub-par packaging from Mission wasn’t enough to take the shocks on the trip from Cali to Seoul).
Sure it was easy to remove the bottom panel screw and pop the foot back on, but upon doing so, I got a vivid PTSD flashback to 25 years ago when my Crybaby turned into a wobbly tripod because one of its feet went missing right before a gig… Just like everything else in the SP1, its rubber feet are old-skool off-the-shelf components that were mediocre then and badly in need of an update now.
Most folks know what a Crybaby’s like so I’ll keep this section short. My major gripe with this familiar form is that it’s heavy but doesn’t balance its center-of-mass well because it’s also narrow. Just like its forefather, the SP1 can easily tip over when miss-stepped on – and since it is a foot pedal after this will happen on a dark stage (remember that loud crackle when you accidently tipped your Crybaby onto its plugs?). Fast-forward to the modern day: Mission could still have kept a vintage design vibe, but should have met new performance standards with better center of gravity and updated details and components.
SP1-RB Form Factor and Build Quality Score: 2 out of 5
OK, I do like that rubber tread (minus the logo). Especially for barefoot or sockfoot playing.
HeadRush Expression Pedal Form Factor and Build Quality
L: 257 mm | W: 123mm (widest point) | H: 64mm (toe down) | 1.58 kg
To treat my ‘vintage PTSD’ from Mission’s product, I became curious enough to purchase the decidedly ‘un-vintage’ looking offering from HeadRush. Immediately upon using it, I realized that its bad-arse coffin-like footprint is not all show but carefully thought-out engineering. Although it’s as heavy as the SP1, its weight is distributed to give a wicked-low center of gravity. This is augmented by getting significantly wider under the ball of your foot where most of the pressure will be. The result is a tank-like pedal that not only stays put, but can’t get tipped over.
As the comparison pics show, the SP1 and the Headrush’s overall form are completely different: The former has a stamped metal aesthetic from a bygone era and even ‘clangs’ like a cheap tin can. The latter has a precisely machined aluminum body and pedal. The overall build of the HeadRush instills a sense of stability, confidence, and durability. Exemplified in the beveled and buffed machined edges, there’s an architectural logic to its form that belies an overall philosophy about how the pedal ultimately functions: Where the SP1 is a re-hashing of old mistakes the HeadRush is a studied evolution.
I only have two small gripes: I would prefer rubber over the skateboard-grip-tape pedal surface that quickly wears holes in your sock (for us home-studio sock-rock-stars). Also, there seems to be no way to open the pedal up for servicing and/or cleaning without ripping off its firmly attached rubber base pads.
HeadRush Form Factor and Build Quality Score: 4 out of 5
This is not your vintage ancestor. Chamfered brushed metal edges are straight out of the modern architecture playbook.
Ultra-stable geometry and center-of-mass: “Yeah, go ahead and try flipping me over…”
PEDAL ACTION COMPARISON
Mission Engineering SP1-RB Pedal Action
Again, a criticism of the SP1 is that it merely reiterates the shortcomings of the original Crybaby. One thing to note is that the fulcrum of the pedal is far too back towards the heel: A simple way to understand this is to just look where the center of rotation for your foot is in comparison to the pivot point. You basically have to be standing on top of the pedal for fluid, detailed action which makes it tough for players that sit down or place their expression pedal on the 2nd tier of a larger board.
Related to the fulcrum point, the biggest problem with the moving part of the pedal is that it’s heavy with lots of inertia. Detailed, small-scale movements were never really a forte of the original Crybaby and the SP1 is no different. With drastic wah-style playing this isn’t an issue, but if you assign your expression to let’s say a subtle delay speed or pitch-shift parameter, the action is frustrating and leads to small-muscle fatigue.
Worse yet, tightening the hard-to-reach friction fit with an extra-long allen wrench (supplied, but do you really want to carry this around?) only helps for a while. After a long recording session, the action became loose again and no amount of tightening would remedy it. It’s front-heavy balance (that misplaced fulcrum) tends to pull the toe side down exacerbating the problem. Basically the SP1 by default of its ‘retro’ cloning is designed for an era where ‘wah-wahing’ was the norm, not subtle expression tweaking. Again, Mission Engineering isn’t thinking outside of the box to address current-day needs.
Mission SP1-RB pedal action score: 2 out of 5
Pivot point is too far back for your foot’s center of rotation… And what’s with that disingenuous blank jack plug? I thought this was ‘customized’ for my modeler.
Tighten it all you want…
HeadRush Expression Pedal Action
The pedal action on the HeadRush is oh so smooth and precise for a number of reasons: First off, the pivot point is a good 85mm from the heel as opposed to 55mm on the SP1. 30mm doesn’t seem like all that much but in ergonomic terms it’s a world apart. Just think of how small the tolerances are between a good mouse and one that hurts your hand. Compared to your hand and wrist, your foot and ankle are not that different in scale.
Secondly, even with its heavy overall weight, the moving pedal portion is relatively light and has no momentum on its own to speak of. That means it becomes attached to your sole for super comfortable and detailed tweaking. If you do want to adjust the resistance, the easy-to-reach hex bolt is right there to adjust with a standard allen key (supplied).
Finally, where the SP1 has the old gear-against-potentiometer action that eventually jams up with gunk and gets derailed (let’s all take a break now to clean our old Crybabies), the HeadRush has a mysterious lever arm that disappears into the body. Again, I wish there was an easy way to open this beast to see what kind of magic is in there, but regardless: The way the potentiometer action is more sealed off and gearless feels much smoother and more precise.
All this adds up to a pedal that works from any posture. It’s just as easy to tweak standing as seated. And if you need to place it at the far-end of your second tier of pedals, no problem.
HeadRush pedal action score: 5 out of 5
Easy to adjust and comes out of the box well-balanced.
TOE SWITCH COMPARISON
Mission Engineering SP1-RB Toe Switch
Upon plugging in the SP1 to my GT1000core, I immediately noticed the toe-switch was glitchy, causing parameters to rapidly blink on and off even with a firm stomp (see video showing the flickering ‘FX’ parameter). After adjusting the old-skool switch’s height to no avail, I noticed the even older-skool components that work to trigger it: A cheapo sticky-back felt bumper, the kind you put on the feet of your furniture, pushes down on and activates the switch from the underside of the pedal.
Don’t get me wrong, felt is an incredible material with an ancient legacy, but it is not a material designed for repeated compression because it doesn’t spring back to its original form (nor is it supposed to) like silicone. Instead, its qualities are ranked through the SAE (automotive industry) for tensile strength and wicking. It’s telling that Mission ships an extra felt pad as if they know this is an issue.
Upon replacing the sluggish felt with silicone, the glitch was markedly improved but still there. Not an anxiety you want hanging over a performance when 1 out of 5 times the button will flicker. Opening up the SP1, its run-of-the-mill components were revealed in full light including the cheapo ‘radio shack’ hobbyist switch. To put this in context, the foot switches on the GT1000CORE merely take on the appearance of the buttons on your classic analog pedals to aesthetically blend in. But the similarity is only skin deep: They are actually highly engineered momentary switches with a precision ‘click’ within their engage-path that pairs with the unit’s ultra-fast processor.
At this price, the SP1 should at the very least come with one of these updated momentary switches. Today’s modelers are ultra-fast processors that ‘look’ for more events at even higher nanosecond intervals. The SP1’s cheapo switch, sloppily framed with surrounding cushions and components, causes the GT1000’s computer to read rapid-fire jitter. This time, Mission Engineering’s regressive analog thinking in a digital ecosystem is a complete fail.
Mission Engineering SP1-RB Toe Switch Score: 1 out of 5
Yes, I cropped ‘engineering’ out the pic on purpose…
That sloppy old-skool momentary switch is no match for the super-fast GT1000’s micro-processor.
A felt bumper on sticky back? Lesson 101: check under the hood of the car before buying…
Replacing felt with silicone alleviated the glitch somewhat. Lesson 102: always use materials for what they were designed for, in this case compression.
Opening up the bottom to see… a flashback to radio shack.
HeadRush Expression Pedal Toe Switch
If it wasn’t for the toe switch there would be many other expression pedals out there to choose from. Since the SP1 was a flat fail in that department however, I prayed to the guitar gods for HeadRush to deliver. All I can say now is: Halleluiah!
First things first, the HeadRush toe switch works flawlessly with the Boss GT1000CORE (see video). Instead of the outdated generic momentary, its switch is an engineering wonder: As in, I wonder how the heck this thing actually works… There’s no moving parts in the switch itself, just a heavy duty metal pin that contacts a heavy duty metal surface. The very satisfying and precise toe-down ‘click’ is produced by ingenuously designed rubber bumpers. Tapered for a comfortable amount of give, at just the right amount of pressure, they suddenly lean over producing a satisfying thud-like contact.
This is nextgen stuff. For us archi-geeks, the way the switch is flush mounted to the top of the metal body is stunning. Altogether, the entire action of the pedal and switch is unified. The HeadRush really does feel like an instrument itself, a visceral extension of the body…
HeadRush Toe Switch Score: 5 out of 5
Yes, I cropped ‘engineering’ out the pic on purpose…
Now that is a solid momentary switch!
JACK LOCATION COMPARISON
Mission Engineering SP1-RB Jack Location
…And the problem with cloning a design that’s for another purpose continues to the unfortunate end… Yes, the original Crybaby has jacks on its side. No, an expression pedal is not connected in-line to the next effect!
On an analog pedalboard, jacks on the side obviously make sense when effects connect in series. But with expression pedals we need jacks formatted so they can easily be wired directly to the modeler – That’s why putting their connectors at the front is the best option… Or if they have to be on the side, closer to the toe (to clear adjacent pedals) as well as spaced further apart. How about using L-cables you might ask? On the SP1, the jacks are so close together that they will stick up if you want to send both cables forward. Not a great option since you can step on the cables when operating the pedal.
Again form and function are in conflict on the Mission SP1. Sure we can use special low-profile L cables, but why force us into needing them? Where thin TS L-cables are pretty common, the required TRS version for the expression function is not, and purchasing it is another added nuisance to accommodate a lazy design attitude upstream.
In noteworthy irony, even the manufacturer of the Crybaby makes a mini expression pedal, the Dunlop DVP4 where they cram the heck out of the components just to put the jacks in the front. If it can be done in that compact format, then Mission can engineer a way. Either that or drop ‘Engineering’ from their name.
Mission Engineering SP1-RB jack location score: 2 out of 5
“Gimme some elbow room, I’m an expression pedal and I’m better than you’z guys!”
I’m confused: This is an expression pedal. not an inline effect, right?
One problem leads to another: working the pedal should not include stepping on the cables.
HeadRush Expression Pedal Jack Location
Yes. This is what we want. This is what we need: Jacks at the front of the pedal to easily feed into the modeler. Now was that really that hard? Even the spacing between the 2 jacks is great. If you want to use L-cables you can without them crashing into each other when sending them off to one side.
This is what’s called integrated design. Everything led to this moment. The placing of the toe switch, the lever arm attached to the potentiometer, and finally the jacks were considered as one piece of gear where the result is greater than the sum of the parts. In the Mission version on the other hand, the components compromise each other.
HeadRush expression jack location score: 5 out of 5
Fits like it was meant to be…
Seems obvious to put the jacks here. That’s because it is obvious.
Final Tally. And the winner is…
Headrush Expression Pedal
Form factor and build quality
Mission Engineering Expression Pedal
Form factor and build quality
Long story short: Buy the HeadRush Expression Pedal.
The difference between the HeadRush and Mission pedals is like night and day. The HeadRush is a piece of engineering. It’s construction quality easily makes it worth its price and then some. At first it’s a joy to use, and then you forget it about it. That’s the best compliment for any interface, it become a seamless part of your playing.
The Mission ‘Engineering’ SP1 is a backwards-gazing piece of gear that’s not up to par with the new generation of modelers. At $150 it is totally overpriced, especially compared to the quality of the similarly-priced HeadRush. At every turn, Mission seems satisfied with the mediocre status quo. Upon writing their tech support, they replied with a statement that both revealed their regressive thinking as well as their stuck-up attitude toward their customers. Instead of trying to address or even understand my issues, they went into full-on defensive brag-a-log. Here’s an actual quote from their rep:
“Sorry to hear that you had problems. We have shipped hundreds of thousands of units over more than ten years that use the exact same switch and felt pad assembly. We have not had this reported by anyone else for any of the models so far. It’s also the same part as used in countless wah pedals from other manufacturers… We do test and measure the switch function on each pedal before it’s shipped. This includes an experienced player actually operating the switch.“
There’s so many things wrong with this kind of passive-aggressive ‘apology’ especially toward enthusiast-level customers. Most importantly, an expression pedal is not a wah! That’s the whole point of this write-up that Mission fails to understand. And the fact that they’ve been doing this for ‘over ten years’ is testament to the fact that they’re not keeping up with the times. Finally, what is this about ‘experienced players’ testing their gear? This is basically telling their average customer they aren’t experienced ‘so shut up.’
Mission Engineering’s ‘success’ is that they had the smarts to initially serve a niche market: They produce these kind of specific-use pedals and now FRFR amps for modelers. But as the market gets more crowded, their use of ‘time-tested’ obsolete components will come back to haunt them. They are high on their initial success and now resting on their laurels.
What they don’t understand is they are not creating the innovation, but feeding off it with ‘vampire products’ that depend on others making the tech advances such as the actual modelers. What happens when the leading companies they serve continue to improve? The SP1 expression pedal is what happens: It’s basically a regressive product made from inferior components that doesn’t work well with the advanced modeler it was designed for.
On the other hand, HeadRush is the actual innovator in that they make the modelers themselves. Thus, their expression pedal is an extension of their advanced technology. It’s designed from the ground-up for a new digital ecosystem. Sure I might be waxing poetic about ‘just’ an expression pedal, but the philosophical genesis of their product stems from two forward-looking questions:
1. How can we go beyond our current assumptions of what works?
2. How can we create a better connection between human and digital realms?
When making our broader choices, I would much rather support a company that has the future in mind rather than a company that chooses to dumpster-dive into the past.
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