I was that kid who didn’t like Disney World.
There was so much hype. My dad was talking to people at work and reading books on how to go to Disney World, and reporting back to my family daily with his latest strategy adjustments. My grandparents kept asking me what I was most excited about, and I felt compelled to come up with something, even though I barely knew who Mickey Mouse was. I still don’t really know…part time depression-era merchant mariner and occasional shitty wizard?
Mostly, I think I was fully convinced that I was about to experience actual magic. When it turned out to be an obvious human wearing a rubber mouse head, a forced-perspective gypsum castle, and rides that would be considered boring at the Burlington County Farm Fair, there was no way it could live up to my expectations. This is how I became a jaded first-grader.
I was recently considering why I haven’t let this go, and a long-lost memory of that trip popped into my head: there was a small crowd of people gawking at something beside a railing, and my family went over to see what it was. There was a flock of flamingos standing in a shallow marsh. Some lady in the crowd pointed at them and said, “Oh, look at the penguins!” My mom is extremely mild mannered and polite, but I assume that the stress of waiting in infinite lines in 98° with an overtly disappointed 7 year old just wore her down, and she snapped. My mom started openly mocking the woman in a comically poor approximation of her New York accent, going on and on about the penguins.
This was the best thing that happened to me at Disney World, and I still often call flamingos “penguins” to this day. Hence this pedal.
PENGUIN is a pedal in the style of a ProCo RAT, but with a few twists. It’s also quite different from another RAT-type pedal that I built previously, Cutie Cutie Cupcake. This one incorporates a RAT mod that is so common that it’s known by name: the Ruetz Mod. The following is all based on my armchair engineering, but my general understanding is that one of the fixed resistors in the high pass filter is replaced by a potentiometer (the “Presence” knob) to adjust how bass frequencies are attenuated before the clipping section, which changes the character of the distortion in fairly dramatic ways. PENGUIN also has a switch (the “Turbo” switch) that lets the user select between three different sets of clipping diodes: silicon, germanium, or LED. The RAT circuit is a hard-clipper, where the signal is pumped up by an op-amp and then the peaks are lopped off with diode pairs, which we hear as distortion. Different types of diodes will allow different amounts of signal to get by before they start clipping, and the point where they engage is known as the forward voltage (VF). The traditional RAT uses silicon diodes, which start clipping around 0.7VF. Some RAT variants use LEDs—light emitting diodes—in the clipping section, which are mostly intended to be lights and not great diodes and don’t start clipping until 1.7VF, resulting in a cleaner (though still distorted), louder signal. Germanium diodes clamp down the hardest, around 0.3VF or so, giving a really squashed, compressed sound. PENGUIN has all three, and is kind of a case study in how these different parts affect the tone.
The op-amp that initially boosts up the signal (and introduces its own distortion) is potentially a big deal in any RAT circuit. There is a sort of Great Chain of Being when it comes to RAT op-amps. Cutie Cutie Cupcake originally had a TL071 in it, which is considered to be among the worst options. I upgraded it to an OP07, expecting to have my mind blown like running into Goofy at Disney World (with a similarly limited understanding of what Goofy is or does), but it was largely identical sounding to me except for it having a better noise floor. Well, buckle up, because PENGUIN uses the rarest and most vaunted op-amp of them all: the LM308. This is more “Holy Grail” than the end of Indiana Jones 3, but in my experience, it won’t necessarily melt your face like the end of Indiana Jones 1. It’s fine. Like Indiana Jones 2. From what I understand, the LM308 is preferred mostly because it’s a terrible op-amp in terms of what op-amps are supposed to do. Guitar gear often goes against the grain of the technology that it borrows from in this way. There are almost no electronic components built specifically for musical instrument use. They’re designed for general purpose use, and there are lots of examples of things that are generally considered to be pretty bad that happen to be wonderful in musical applications, because musicians often want distortion and non-linearity and things to be slightly out of hand. I think the PENGUIN sounds great—better than Cutie Cutie Cupcake—but I don’t think it’s the op-amp alone (and they’re in sockets, so I confirmed this by swapping them). I think the circuit in PENGUIN (which is a BYOC Mouse) is just better overall. At least for my tastes.