Blackstar DEPT 10 Review: Programmable Drive Pedals? Cool!

Blackstar DEPT 10 Review: Programmable Drive Pedals? Cool!
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The Blackstar DEPT 10 Series is comprised of three different pedals with a unique feature; You can plug them into your computer and they are powered by real tubes! Let’s take a look at what makes these so special!

Blackstar DEPT 10: Real Tubes AND Programmable?

I have always thought that Blackstar is an interesting and unique company. The company exists, because it is made up of ex-Marshall employees that had a different vision than what Marshall wanted to achieve. The biggest attraction to buying a Marshall amp, is the idea that it has barely changed design in the last 50 years. Buying a Marshall is like buying a piece of Rock N Roll history, and many famous players have used Marshall amps over the years. Marshall is iconic!

When engineers/ R&D guys Bruce Kier and Ian Robinson cut ties with Marshall, the two men had a vision for a new type of amplifier. These amps would be hybrids of “all tube” and solid state technology. Bruce and Ian also wanted to be able to get the British sound of a Marshall and the more American sounds like Mesa out of one single amplifier. The idea became what we know of today as Blackstar, and it’s ISF technology.

Blackstar amps are played by tons of artists at the professional level, but the real big sellers of it’s lineup are the more affordable HT Series, and the ID Core amplifiers meant for gigging guitarists. These amps blur the lines between tube amps and solid state, and they all feature the ISF knob that let’s you use the amp with a British tone, or American… or even a blend of the two!

I gigged with a Blackstar HT40 for years, and I absolutely loved that amp. It could do Metal, Clean, or dirty Blues. It had so many unique tones in it that I never had a problem dialing in my sound on stage. I played small shows, and extremely large venues with it. It took pedals well, and I never had an issue with it in the years it travelled with me. Which is rare in the world of tube amps! I think I took for granted how reliable and effective my Blackstar was.

Bruce Kier unfortunately passed this last year, but Blackstar has continued his legacy of making unique products for guitarists everywhere under his legacy. Blackstar first started making tube driven pedals about 9 years ago, and the original models sold extremely well. It would seem that the Blackstar DEPT 10 is the next incarnation of that idea, being tube-based in it’s design. But there is a twist this time, and it may be a not so great feature.

Let’s take a look at the Blackstar DEPT 10 Series, and see what it has to offer!

Great Tube Tones!
Blackstar Dept 10 Distortion Black

The Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Distortion effects pedal has four pro-quality clean and distortion voices running at 250V. Combining innovative design, premium components and the advanced Cab Rig D.I. technology, the Dept. 10 Dual Distortion is a powerful option for a valve distortion pedal and preamp.You can get some absolutely CRUSHING tones out of this little tube powered pedal.

Blackstar DEPT 10: Real Tube Tone In A Pedal, With A Twist!

Blackstar DEpt 10
All 3 Models of The Blackstar DEPT 10

There are three different models in the Blackstar DEPT 10 lineup, and each one does something a little different than the other. At the core, these all have the same idea behind them. Unfortunately, I only got to try the Black/high gain version, but it was enough to give me an idea of what Blackstar has to offer with this series.

The White Blackstar DEPT 10 acts as a clean boost, but with the power of two different tube-driven gain stages. This model does not have USB features, and is not programmable. But it is very cool all on it’s own, to have so much power and EQ at the tip of your fingers. This would be a great boost pedal for people that are tired of the usual overdrives in front of the amp (like a Tube Screamer, or Maxon OD). You can read more about the White drive here. I bet you could throw this in front of a 5150, and make it sing with tube responsive greatness.

But the basic White drive is not what we are here for. The Red and Black Blackstar DEPT 10 are entirely different beasts compared to the White OD, and we are going to be focusing on these today. Both have unique tonal options in both models, but the actual features remain the same. We should take a look at what they have in common first, before we break down the differences.

  • ECC83 valve driven
  • Runs at 250V like a valve amplifier
  • Overdrive pedal or pre-amp
  • Low latency USB for recording, XLR D.I. output
  • Effects Loop
  • Cab Rig simulator technology and Patented ISF control
  • Runs on 9V DC (PSU included)
  • Compact design, stunning boutique style

Both of these pedals are driven by a real tube, and the tone is there to back it up. Both units can also be used as a “backup amp” on your pedalboard since they are running enough power to do so. This could be a life saver at a gig where your actual amp decides to die, or break down on you. It’s also pretty cool that Blackstar throws in the power cable for you. That is one less DC adapter that I need to buy! You can still run it on a 9V if that is what you prefer.

For the sake of the rest of the review, we are going to be talking about the Black, high gain version of the Blackstar DEPT 10. The Red pedal has the same features, but it just has more vintage inspired tones. Both boxes work in the same way, when it comes to function. But I only got the opportunity to check out the Black one.

Blackstar DEPT 10: It Does… A Lot!

Blackstar DEPT 10 Review: Programmable Drive Pedals? Cool!
Look at the tube on top!

Blackstar is calling the DEPT 10 “The most advanced guitar pedal ever created”. Is that a bit of a stretch? We are going to find out, but if it is not the most advanced it is certainly the most versatile. The DEPT 10 pedal can be used several different ways, and I got to try each one out yesterday. I plugged the Blackstar DEPT 10 directly into the clean channel of a Marshall DSL40 and I kept it all pretty much at noon, EQ wise.

This first way, running the pedal straight into an amp, is the the way that you would use any overdrive pedal. The Blackstar DEPT 10 has two different gain stages, and a shared EQ system. The first is labeled “Clean” but it can definitely get dirty, and it has two modes. The second mode is the one I ended using the most. The tube sound is immediately apparent, and I got a nice AC/DC style crunch with the second channel. If you dial back the gain, it acts as a boost to your clean signal from your amp, and warms it up a little. But the crunchiness is where it’s at!

Channel 2 has two different overdrive modes, and each one is controlled by a tiny switch under the level knob. The first, is a more bassy/mid scooped distortion sound. The second has more mids, and is closer to a “Brown sound” Marshall to my ears. I preferred the second channel to the first, but if you are looking for scooped mids in your metal tone, the first channel is perfect! You could tell that the pedal was really pushing the amp with it’s tube power on the high gain setting. There is no fizz at all; this is just a warm, syrupy, beautifully tube saturated tone.

The ISF knob is more important than ever on this pedal. I noticed that the sound was just overall clearer with the knob at the 0 position (British). The more I turned the ISF up, the more woof I got out of the pedal, and I do not mean this in a good way. It was too bass heavy, and it muddied up the tone for me. So set at 0, the ISF was perfect. Oddly enough, this is how I use the ISF on all of my Blackstar products, and I usually do not blend the sounds.

The sound of the Blackstar DEPT 10 is so full and rich, that it’s almost like having another 2 channel amp on stage with you. Actually, it can be used that way! This can easily be a backup to your main amp rig, should something go wrong during the show. This thing runs at 250 volts, so you can easily use it as an emergency amp. But that is not where it shines, in my opinion. It belongs in front of the amp. Let me explain:

Running the Blackstar DEPT 10 straight into an amp sounds pretty damn amazing. You have two totally different gain sounds to flip back and forth through, along with your actual amp’s sounds. If you are a guitarist that shares rhythm and lead duties, this is an ideal setup. You can use the second channel as your over-the-top high gain solo sound, while keeping the first channel on the pedal a more subdued crunch… all while keeping your amplifier on a pristine clean channel. This gives you 3 totally unique sounds to work with, 3 impressive tube driven gain stages to use. As a distortion pedal, this thing is a 10 out of 10. 5 stars across the board. Get someone you love on the phone right now, and tell them that the Blackstar DEPT 10 just hit a home run as a distortion pedal.

Unfortunately, that is not all it does. I hate to be a downer, but…

Blackstar DEPT 10: USB Features And Recording

Blackstar DEPT 10 Review: Programmable Drive Pedals? Cool!
Houston, We Have A Problem.

Had the Blackstar DEPT 10 just been a 2 channel tube distortion pedal, I would say that it was one of the best on the market. It might even be the best of 2021, as far as innovative pedals go. There is so much you can do with the two gain stages mixed with your amp. But that is not all that Blackstar advertises, unfortunately. It can also be used to record with, and I think this is where it fails.

Used as a recording device, you can plug the Blackstar DEPT 10 pedal up to your computer, and access the Cab Rig DSP program. So basically, the pedal can be plugged directly into your computer interface and used as a stand alone amp rig with the built in cabinet IRs.

I tried this with the Blackstar DEPT 10, and I played with the Cab Rig DSP program for about an hour. The cabs that come preloaded in the unit are pretty bad, so I tried my hand at making my own impulse responses to load up. On paper, this sounds amazing since you have a tube powered preamp that has two different gain stages and your choice of 250 impulse responses. But alas, I just couldn’t get it to sound right.

After playing with it back and forth for a while, I managed to dial in a good crunch tone on the first channel. The high gain channel however, I couldn’t get to sound great no matter what I did. Which is a bummer, because there are tons of amp sims that nail this feature. Recently, I even converted to using amp sims to record with STL Tones. I never thought in a million years that I would ditch my Line 6 Helix, or my real amp for a sim, but I have! The software that the Blackstar DEPT 10 uses is very easy to use and intuitive, and it probably works great with the other product that it was designed for. But just not the DEPT 10, sadly.

Look, I tried everything. It’s not that the tones were complete garbage or anything, it’s just that I could not dial in a sound that I would personally use. The presets that it comes with, are pretty bad. But after some serious tweaking, I got it to sound acceptable. In a pinch, you could use this to finish the show if your rig went down and died on you. But as an everyday tool? It just doesn’t work very well.

Blackstar DEPT 10 Review: Programmable Drive Pedals? Cool!
Speaker Placement Cab Rig DSP

Blackstar DEPT 10: Final Verdict…

If you plan on using any of the Blackstar DEPT 10 models in front of your amp, as a drive pedal, then this is an amazing pedal to have in your arsenal. Having real tube tones right at your feet on your pedalboard is pretty awesome, and the sound is quite frankly, amazing. Both channels can be dialed in to add loads of tone and flavor to your amp’s natural sound. There is so much versatility here, and it is easy to dial in and get playing.

At the end of the day, the Blackstar DEPT 10 is a pedal version of the HT40/60 amp series. Considering how much I love that amp, I am very happy with this pedal’s features. But…

On the other hand… the USB features feel like a tacked on at the last minute idea. I think it is a cool idea to have an all tube preamp that can be plugged directly into the board/interface for recording guitar tracks. But the cab system is just not up to par. I’m not sure if you can load your own IRs into the unit, but I honestly don’t think it would have mattered. It just didn’t work for me on any level. You dropped the ball on this one, Blackstar.

So if you are looking for a super versatile high gain distortion pedal that is powered by a real tube, and sounds absolutely crushing, definitely get this! However, if you are looking for a recording solution, something like the Harley Benton DNAfx might be a better option, and it’s cheaper too! I am a big Blackstar fanboy, and I wish I could say this pedal does everything it says, but the standards for digital processing are pretty high these days, and it fell too short to be considered great, to my ears.

Is The Blackstar DEPT 10 Pedal Worth It?

If you are looking for a highly versatile distortion pedal to run into your amp, the the Blackstar DEPT 10 is an amazing pedal. You have two different and unique gain stages to switch between, and it can be blended with your amp’s sound.

Can I Record With The Blackstar DEPT 10 Pedal?

Yes, you can connect it via USB to your computer, or plug it directly into your interface. The pedal can be loaded with custom impulse responses from the Cab Rig software from Blackstar.

Is There An Actual Tube In The Blackstar DEPT 10 Pedal?

Yes! There is an actual ECC83 preamp tube inside the unit, that powers both channels of the pedal. This gives the pedal real tube tones, with a solid state power section. Acting as a hybrid, like many of Blackstar’s products.


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