Boss DS-1 Review
Verdict and Summary
While a low price point has made it an extremely popular distortion pedal, the Boss DS-1's usefulness is pretty limited outside of a blues or classic rock context.
It's important to note up front that the Boss DS-1 distortion pedal can be useful, assuming a few scenarios. My review is not to discourage everyone from buying it, but it is meant to make clear my own experience with the pedal and why I don't believe it should be as widely used as it is. In my Boss DS-1 review I'll cover how I've tested and used the pedal, where it has worked and where it has failed.
To write this review, I'm drawing on testing of the DS-1 that included all of the following scenarios:
- Running through a battery-powered pedal chain into a tube combo amp (VOX AC15C1)
- Running through an isolated power supply (Voodoo Lab ISO 5) into a USB audio interface (Macbook)
- Used as a lead & rhythm guitar distortion in a high saturation environment (metal, rock, etc.)
- Used as a lead & rhythm guitar distortion in a low saturation environment (blues, jazz, etc.)
These scenarios took me through a number of tests with the DS-1, where it performed adequately in some areas, but seemed completely out of place in others. In this review I'll break down the strengths and weaknesses and talk about my overall impressions of the DS-1, in conjunction with its popularity.
To checkout other options we've reviewed, you can browse our best distortion pedal roundup page.
Boss DS-1 Alternatives and Comparison Tool
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver
Amptweaker TightMetal JR
TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion
Boss HM-2w Waza Craft Heavy Metal
Boss DS-1 Distortion
Boss DS-1 Review Card
IDEAL FOR: Recording, pedalboard consolidation, practice, living room jamming
My Up Front Verdict
The DS-1 does not perform well on high gain settings, and also tended to give me fits with trying to find an EQ that wasn't too harsh or biting. Especially when trying to play heavier songs, or anything I'd consider "high-saturation", the DS-1 was just not aggressive enough. It also doesn't give you a lot of bass or low-end punch in the EQ. I liked it for light jazz and blues riffing, and was even able to get some AC/DC riffs to come out sounding pretty good, similar to this clip:
However, my overall opinion about the DS-1 is that its usefulness is far too limited, and its popularity has been supported by the low price tag alone.
Gain Handling and Spectrum of Tone
The DS-1 uses three knobs to control tone, labeled as follows:
The DIST or "distortion" control is serving as the gain knob, while LEVEL controls the overall output of the pedal. Turning LEVEL down cuts the volume of your signal, and can also add a little more aggression to your distorted tone. The two knobs - DIST and LEVEL - behave similar to a gain and volume knob on an amplifier.
Higher Gain Settings
As LEVEL decreases and DIST increases, the distortion and saturation gets more aggressive.
The problem is that the DS-1 never really sounds aggressive. It gets louder and bigger, but it generally doesn't have that thicker quality you'd expect out of a good distortion pedal. High gain levels are certainly distorted, but they don't sound full and can easily lose sustain when holding out chords or lead notes.
I tested it using my PRS CE 24 going through a Line 6 Spider IV amplifier without any additional effects or reverb. I often found myself cutting the TONE knob on the DS-1 back to avoid the "biting" sound, then would follow by switching to only the bridge pickup position on my PRS, which seemed to balance out the tone a bit more.
Letting the DS-1 handle any of the treble in my EQ always seemed like a mistake.
However, this setting (photo below - from the video demo) sounds fairly good, despite keeping the DIST knob a little higher:
Lower Gain Settings
The DS-1 performs better at lower gain settings, with the DIST knob cut back to around 25 percent, and the LEVEL knob matched with the amp's output.
I also noticed that keeping the tone knob back to around the 50 percent threshold helped the distorted tone stay smooth and a little more tube friendly. Anything higher than the halfway point was just to harsh. I liked the settings in the above photo, particularly for rhythm and chord strumming.
If limited to this context, the DS-1 certainly has some value.
Features and Versatility
As we've already touched on, the control arrangement is just level, distortion and tone, where the tone is a linear EQ that only seems to be effective on the lower end.
The DIST knob has a wide range of saturation, going from a subtle overdriven breakup to grungy high-gain levels. While it does give you a broad amount of gain, the tonal difference between high and low gain on this pedal isn't significant, which severely caps its versatility score.
Many distortion pedals will have a vintage appeal on the lower-gain settings, which the DS-1 has. At the same time, versatile distortion pedals will also take on a more aggressive, perhaps modern appeal on the high gain levels, and the DS-1 just never gets there.
High gain modes are noisier, but they aren't heavy.
This demo video does a great job covering the full spectrum of the DS-1's tonal capabilities:
Best Application and Context
The DS-1's style fits are clearly blues, classic rock, early grunge and maybe even some jazz genres. In those contexts, it can certainly be valuable and useful, especially at such a low price tag. It could also be useful as a beginner's distortion pedal, for someone who just wants to experiment with the sound.
- Light Rock
- Early Grunge (Nirvana)
- Classic Rock (AC/DC)
Where I start to have a problem with the DS-1 is its branding as simply "distortion", which doesn't let on to the stylistic limitations while leaving a ton of room for speculation about where it's actually useful.
Because the term "distortion" can mean a lot of different things.
I'd rather see it marketed as a blues or overdrive, as it's far closer to those sounds than most other distortion pedals I've used. Even for those two sounds, Boss has the BD-2 Blues Driver and Super Overdrive pedals, both of which I'd recommend ahead of the DS-1.
Value of the Boss DS-1
Despite my hesitations, the Boss DS-1 is an extremely affordable pedal, coming in at the low two-figures and often below retail if you look at used options. This alone can give a pedal a decent amount of value, making the DS-1 a good buy-low candidate. I like the Boss warranty, the smoothness of the low-gain settings and sometimes a simpler control scheme can be nice.
If you like the tone, and you're comfortable in the styles that I've cited as being good fits for this pedal, then don't let my Boss DS-1 review scare you off.
Just keep in mind, there are other distortion pedals - even within the Boss lineup - that do a better job with a wider range of gain levels, for a reasonably higher price tag. I would still recommend these four pedals as better value than the DS-1:
Conclusion and an Effort to be Fair
I certainly want to be fair to the DS-1. After all, it has been in production since the late '70s, so it can't be all bad.
And it's not.
As you can tell from the clips and demo, the DS-1 definitely can sound good. Yet, I've known a lot of fellow guitarists who have bought one as a catch-all distortion solution, and that's just not what the Boss DS-1 is. It's a niche pedal with a great price tag, but limited in its application and real-world usefulness.
I like what it does well, but I'd like to see that made a little clearer in the product description and marketing material.
If You Have Questions
If you have questions about the DS-1, my review process or the alternatives I've recommended, give me a shout in the comments section below and I'll be happy to answer.