Tech 21 Fly Rig 5

I’m a sucker for compact devices of all kinds and I’ve always been curious about SansAmp amp simulators, so ever since Tech 21 released a line of Fly Rig pedals, I’ve been wanting to get my hands on one of them. For starters, I got the main model that started the line, called “Fly Rig 5”. All models share the same concept – in the heart of it is the SansAmp amp simulator, tweaked for clean to mildly overdriven sounds with digital reverb added. At the front of the SansAmp, they we have a clean booster and a distortion pedal which varies for each model. Finally, at the end of the chain is a digital delay with an option to add “chorusy” modulation effect to the echoes.

On the “Fly Rig 5” model that I got, they inluded a Plexi-style distortion and SansAmp that is supposed to be pretty close to their Blonde (Fender sim) pedal with character knob set low. From what I hear, the SansAmp section was tweaked on each of the model to match the style it was going for.

Each effect, with the exception of the reverb can be switched on and off independently which gives plenty of combinations of sounds:

  • SansAmp alone for clean or mildly overdriven sounds
  • Booster (HOT) into SansAmp for crunchy sounds
  • Plexi into SansAmp for distorted “Marshally” sounds
  • Booster (HOT) into Plexi into SansAmp for high gain sounds

Stacking more than one pedal that produces distortion makes them interact with each other, so these combination of individual pedals can make a lot of different sounds. All those sounds can also be had without the SansAmp simulation and with or without the delay. All those combinations make it possible to have the “Fly Rig 5” plugged into either a clean amp or PA or audio interface and get decent sounds. That sounds promising on paper, but…

How Does It Sound In Reality?

SansAmp section sounds very, very nice. It can transform a bland sounding clean amplifier into a nice sounding “Fendery” kind of an amp. Gain ranges from super clean to mildly distorted and active EQ controls are very potent and can make drastic effect on the sound. Reverb is sounding great to my ears, even though it’s all digital. It adds space to the sound and sounds natural without adding any digital artifacts or noise. I use it to transform my super clean 3W tube power amp into a spanking little platform for pedals. It also takes distortion pedals and even tube preamps really well.

Plexi section is the biggest letdown for me. It just doesn’t sound like a good distortion pedal or like a good tube amplifier. It can sound decent for lead or for some crunchy rhythms with gain set below noon, but above that it gets too “boomy”, too compressed and lacks definition especially for rhythm sounds. I also found that it sounds best with Strat-style pickups that inherently lack bass, so they cannot push the Plexi circuit into mushy overdrive. I could get great plexi-style tones with my tube SLO preamp or Friedman BE-OD clone plugged into the SansAmp, but I couldn’t get anywhere near using the Plexi section.

Booster (HOT) section is fine on its own and does what it’s supposed to do, but it doesn’t help with making Plexi sounds any better, it just makes it sound even mushier. If it had a slight bass roll-off like a Tubescreamer or a dedicated “Bass” knob, maybe it would be able to push the Plexi harder without making the bass fall apart.

Delay sounds pretty decent to my ears, cannot find any faults there. It’s clean sounding with echoes that have just the right amount of warmth without sounding dark or shrill. Maximum delay time is around 1 sec, which covers all my uses for a delay pedal. A separate Drift (modulation) knob can add interesting dimension to the sound. Lower Drift settings can add tape-like warble effect. Higher settings are too much for distorted sounds, but may sound interesting on cleans.

How’s the Speaker Simulator

SansAmp section has a speaker simulator built in that allows Fly Rig to be connected straight into the PA and does a pretty decent job at it. However, when used direct (i.e. without a guitar cab), I still prefer to add impulse responses on top of the direct sound to add more depth. My preferred way is to have two different impulses panned hard with one of them delayed slightly (1-3ms) to add even more space to the sound. I choose impulses depending on the sound that I’m after in a given situation.

What Do I Like About It?
  • SansAmp simulator sounds really good.
  • Delay and reverb sound pretty good, no need for extra pedals there.
  • Great compact package with layout that makes sense.
  • It’s cool that all the knobs light up when the corresponding effect is engaged, so it’s easy to see where the knobs are set and which effects are on even in the dark.
  • Build quality is good and switches feel good when pressed. Of course, it’s all SMD technology, so it’s hard to mod or service for an average DIY-er.
What I Don’t Like About It?
  • I don’t like how the Plexi section sounds, either on its own or into the SansAmp.
  • Knobs are very small and feel awkward to operate. The four Level knobs have a factory installed rubber grippers which make them much more finger friendly, but I wonder why they stopped at 4 and not all 14 knobs. It’s possible to get a package of 10 extra grippers direct from Tech 21 for only $7, but I wonder why they decided against installing them by default. It would be much better.
How Do I Use It?

I’m not a gigging musician, so I’m not really using the Fly Rig for what it’s really intended to, it’s unlikely to fly with me any time soon. But I can still benefit from it greatly. I use it as an amp simulator with reverb and delay effects operating as a platform for tube preamps or distortion pedals. Tube preamps sound great but they do need a good clean amp (or power amp) to interact with and SansAmp does a great job there. It adds its own character and active EQ controls offer additional tone shaping. Output from the Fly Rig can go either to:

In this arrangement, the Plexi section doesn’t get used. Since booster (HOT) section now comes after most of the distortion happens, it can be used as a volume boost, rather than a pre-distortion boost, so it can be useful as a lead boost.

What Would I Add?
  • It would be really nice to have even a most basic tuner. Even something as simple as three LEDs showing if you are up, down or on pitch would mean a lot. On the bass version of Fly Rig they did include the tuner, so it’s definitely not a far fetched idea. Why not add it on the guitar models?
  • It would be nice if it would have a real headphone output. The user manual says that output should be able to drive headphones with moderate output, but I only get sound in one ear, as the output jack is mono. And it’s not loud enough to be usable. Having integrated headphone output would make it possible to have only device for late night practice.
  • I would be useful to have a daisy-chain DC output that can power a pedal that goes in front of the Fly Rig. Richie Kotzen had his unit modded to be able to supply phantom power through the input cable and power the wah. That’s super cool, but also requires wah (or any other pedal that goes in the front) to be modded. A standard DC barrel jack would be very useful and would simplify the wiring.
  • It would be nice to have an FX loop, but given that I don’t like the Plexi section, I won’t be needing that either.

Tech 21 are pioneers in solid state amp emulation and now they started a new trend with compact multi-effect pedals. Others have jumped onto this train and are now making similar pedals with even more features, e.g. Mooer Red Truck and Nux Cerberus. Tech 21 still has the edge with their SansAmp section, but it would be really great if they could improve the distortion part of the pedal to stay afloat in the competitive market. I do recommend checking the Fly Rig 5 out, it packs some good tones, especially when combined with a good distortion pedal.

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    The idea behind this site is to share my experience with Do It Yourself approach to guitars, amplifiers and pedals. Whether you want to save a couple of bucks by performing a mod or upgrade yourself instead of paying a tech, or want to build your own piece of gear from scratch, I'm sure you will find something interesting here. Also, this is the home of DIY Layout Creator, a free piece of software for drawing circuit layouts and schematics, written with DIY enthusiasts in mind.