When most of us think of Boss effects, the image that comes to mind is the brilliantly flexible and sonically endless series of compact effect pedals the company pioneered more than forty years ago. However, in the early 1990s while pedals were still catching on, Boss was busy exploring other frontiers that went all in with multi-effects options.
As the era of glam rock gave way to the days of grunge, by the early 1990s the dynasty of rack effects was slowly starting to crumble. With an army of compact effects sieged at the doorstep, the world of guitar players were caught between the deep engineering possibilities of rack units and the plug-and-play simplicity of compact pedals. It’s around this time that the idea of multi-effect units starts to take shape.
It’s tough to tell who struck first with this innovation. By mid-decade, several companies such as DOD and Digitech were already establishing their place in the emerging multi-effect game. Then Line 6 showed up with their kidney bean-esque Pod that revolutionized live and studio sounds for a generation. Boss, however, was undoubtedly one of the earliest to innovate in this domain with the release of the Boss ME series, which, as you probably guessed, stands for “Multiple Effects.”
In truth, this is one of the longest lasting series in the entire Boss catalogue. Today, if you stroll into a music shop you’ll find the modern and advanced Boss ME-80. But if you take a tour down the road to a pawn shop, you just might find the Boss ME-5, which was one of the first in the series to make a splash back in the early 1990s.
These days, we probably take the form and function of multi-effect units for granted. But in this era, their design and tonal capabilities were ground breaking. So what made the Boss ME-5 such a game changer? I’d argue it was three key things.
First, not only did you have multiple effects on board, you had the sudden ability to establish and manipulate your signal chain. The Boss ME-5 is one of the first pedals to present a user interface on a grid-like system. You could select your effects in order (the rows) and then customize their parameters of each selected sound (the columns).
Second, the Boss ME-5 enabled users to switch between up to four customized sounds and signal chains on the fly. The typology of multi-effects with an upper panel of tools for sound design and lower region of large format buttons for effects was arguably set within the first few years of this release. Thirty years later, and this design has proved its worth and lasting power.
Third, pedals like the Boss ME-5 are among the first to include a volume pedal within the same housing as the effects unit itself. Here again, this seems like a no brainer in our time. Yet back then, the idea of real time control and expression over gear on the floor was revolutionary. If you run the term Boss ME- through the Google machine, you’ll find a few decades worth of multi-effects heritage. Yet for all the advancements and improvements under the hood, you’ll still see these three core features persist throughout their designs. Sometimes, when you get it right, you get it right.