Chase Bliss Audio stands in a unique place among boutique guitar pedal companies. While there are a few other outlier builders that are doing some pretty exciting things, the innovative vision and expertise with which Mr. Joel Korte executes his one-of-a-kind creations puts this brand in a class of its own. In terms of unique sonic character, build quality, range of sounds, and features, Chase Bliss Audio pedals are inspirational instruments unlike anything the boutique pedal industry had seen until they arrived.
Chase Bliss Audio have also demonstrated in the short period of time they’ve been around that they strive to create the best possible product available regardless of the cost or difficulty of the undertaking. No effect type is too challenging not to tackle. And if an existing product can be made better, they’ll do it.
So along comes the Chase Bliss Audio Spectre, an analog through-zero flanger that nods to the classic FoxRox Electronics Paradox TZFz while venturing into new sonic territory. This is Chase Bliss Audio’s boldest release to date as quality analog through-zero flanger pedals are few and far between. And in the difficulty arena, analog TZ flangers are one of the hardest effects to pull off well.
I’m in a unique position to write this review as I’ve had extensive experience with Chase Bliss Audio’s previously released pedals including the Warped Vinyl MKII, Wombtone MKII, and Gravitas. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Spectre to size up how it compares to these other offerings while taking notes on how the brand’s releases are evolving. But the main point in my Spectre review is to assess how well the pedal stands on its own and whether or not it accomplishes the ultimate mission of becoming the best analog through zero flanger pedal available.
- Ramp knob can be set to control any of the 5 parameters (Zero, Regen, Rate, Width, Shift) individually or simultaneously via dip switches on the back of the pedal. Controls the ramp time in which this takes place.
- Mix (Ramp) knob functions as a wet/dry mix knob for the flanging effect when no Ramp dip-switches are in use.
- Zero knob sets the manual delay time on the flange effect. The “zero point” is somewhere between 1 o’clock & 3 o’clock.
- Regen knob increases the intensity of the flange effect, even to the point of self-oscillation.
- Rate knob controls the rate of the flange effect. Can be overridden by the tap tempo switch.
- 1 – 2 – 3 (3 – 6 – 8) toggle switch sets the tap division for tap tempo. A dip switch on the back accesses the “3 – 6 – 8” divisions.
- Depth knob controls how wide the flange can go. Crank it clockwise for crazy, deep flange tones.
- Shift control knob sets the center point of the modulation. Set it counterclockwise to make the wave ramp up quickly and down gradually. Set it clockwise to make the wave ramp up gradually and down quickly. Set it at noon for a perfectly symmetrical wave.
- Left Wave Shape toggle switch sets the first half of the wave modulation. Left for sine, middle for triangle, right for square.
- Right Wave Shape toggle switch sets the second half of the wave modulation. Left for square, middle for triangle, right for sine.
- Zero, Regen, Rate, Width, and Shift dip switches on the left side simply turn that parameter on or off for ramping or expression pedal capability.
- Zero, Regen, Rate, Width, and Shift dip switches on the right side control whether the parameters rise or fall in ramp mode. This also affects the direction of movement with an expression pedal.
- Bounce dip switch makes parameters go back and forth (i.e. modulate) or ramp and hold.
- Polarity dip switch changes between positive & negative flanging. Positive flanging has a more “musical” sweep, and has a deep tone with plenty of lowend. Negative flanging is seen as having a more “hollow” and intense sound.
- MoByp dip switch activates momentary bypass, activating pedal only when Bypass footswitch is pressed in.
- Tap Control dip switch allows tap tempo to modulate Ramp rate (r) or phaser Rate (p). Bounce needs to be on to modulate Ramp speed.
- Tap Division dip switch selects from “1, 2, 4” tap divisions (1) to “3, 6, 8” tap divisions (3).
- Sweep dip switch selects where Ramp sweeps. In “t” (top) the ramping (or expression control) will occur between the current Ramp knob position and the max position (fully clockwise). In “b” (bottom) the range is set between the current knob position and the minimum position (fully counterclockwise).
- All-analog signal path.
- Bypass footswitch activates or bypasses the effect via true relay bypass. Can by changed to a momentary bypass via a dip switch in the back of the pedal.
- Tap Tempo footswitch sets the tap tempo and always honors the last two stomps.
- Preset toggle switch recalls presets. Middle position reflects current knob positions, right position recalls right preset, and left position recalls left preset.
- Exp input jack allows expression pedal or CV control of parameters selected via dip switches on back of pedal. When no parameters are set to Ramp, it manually controls the phaser sweep.
- Tap/MIDI input jack can be used for tap input or output with a regular ¼” instrument cable.
- Powered by 9-volt battery or 9VDC power adapter (consumes ~50mA).
The Spectre follows in the familiar foot-steps of its forebears, coming in the instantly recognizable Chase Bliss Audio compact enclosure that houses its array of 6 knobs, 4 flip-switches, 2 foot-switches, and 16 top-mounted dip-switches. Mono Input & Output jacks, dedicated EXP/CV & TAP/MIDI jacks, and a power input jack round out the outside parameter control and I/O functionality. This set-up offers a range of parameter control and depth that eclipses any non-Chase Bliss Audio mono modulation pedal or just about any analog guitar pedal from any brand for that matter.
While the early production Warped Vinyl MKII, Wombtone MKII, & Gravitas had an adhesive sticker that displayed the dip-switch parameter functions, all current Chase Bliss Audio pedals including the Spectre now have this information screen-printed on the pedal. No stickers to worry about peeling off. It’s nice that CBA are always making these little improvements.
Upon opening the Spectre’s enclosure you’re greeted to one of the most densely packed pedals you’ll ever see. Chase Bliss Audio pedals are known for their efficient housing of components, and the Spectre is filled to the brim with transistors, resistors, 3207D chips, and more across both of its PCB’s, the analog board’s components being through-hole mounted & hand-populated. You’ll also notice several trimpots, but these aren’t for end-user adjustment. Part of the complexity of building the Spectres lies in carefully calibrating the pedal. Resist the temptation to fiddle around with these.
You’ll also notice something missing inside if you’ve ever peeked inside another CBA pedal. The Spectre is the first Chase Bliss Audio pedal to forgo the option of using a 9-volt battery for power. There’s simply no room inside for a battery! You’ll need a professional pedal power supply for this one, but since most guitarists use power supplies anyway, that shouldn’t be a concern for most people.
Sound & Performance:
I consider this pedal a return to form for Chase Bliss Audio. Not that they’ve ever ventured off course, but for me, the Spectre recalls that feeling I got when playing the original Warped Vinyl for the first time. While the Wombtone & Gravitas do phasing and tremolo exceptionally well and benefit from Chase Bliss Audio’s unique ModuShape & Ramping functionality, the Warped Vinyl stole the spotlight for many guitarists due to its sonic originality. The Spectre, like the Warped Vinyl, also has a vibe and mojo that are completely unique to this pedal. I’ll be covering these unique characteristics as we dig in as they’re intricately associated with how various parameters function in use.
One thing to mention up front. The Spectre has a somewhat higher learning curve than previous Chase Bliss Audio pedals. As with other CBA pedals you can get away with finding great sounds by avoiding the dip-switches and just experimenting with the surface knobs & switches, but a basic understanding of the Spectre’s controls and how they interact will help you utilize the pedal to its fullest potential.
I’m Your Spectre, I’m Your Zero
First, the Spectre’s Zero & Width knobs are the 2 most important parameters to come to grips with. These 2 knobs adjust the delay times of the Spectre’s 2 bucket-brigade analog delay lines. The Zero knob sets the 1st delay line to a static delay time and ranges from about 0.5ms (all the way counter-clockwise) to about 2.5ms (fully clockwise). The Width knob starts at a static 2ms delay (fully counter-clockwise) and sets the max delay time that the LFO will modulate to, up to about 10ms when dimed. So when the Spectre’s LFO modulates the Width’s delay line against the Zero’s static delay time, the flanging (or chorus/vibrato) sounds will occur.
So where’s the elusive “zero point”? The Spectre is a “through-zero” flanger after all. In short, it’s generally around 1-2 o’clock on the Zero knob’s sweep. Notice that the minimum value on the Width knob, 2ms, falls within the range of the Zero knob’s 0.5ms-2.5ms delay time. The through-zero flanging sounds occur when both delay lines sync up and pass through the 2ms threshold.
Finding the precise “zero point” is easy. Make sure the Polarity dip-switch is “up” (or “OFF”, which is Negative Polarity), and turn the Width knob all the way counter-clockwise. Cranking the Mix helps, too. Regen can be set wherever, but you may want to leave it at minimum when starting out. Now start turning the Zero knob up past noon. You’ll hear a phased filtering sound until your signal sudden drops in volume and becomes nearly inaudible. You’ve found it! You’ve reached the “zero point”! So now what?
Through Zero And Back Again
So if the Zero knob is set to the “zero point” and you raise up the Width knob, say, to about noon, you’ll hear the flanger flanging. I’d recommend keeping the ModuShape switches at “Sine” as you’re learning, and keep Shift at noon, also. And be sure to take a moment to marvel how all this huge flanging happens within only a few milliseconds of delay modulation. From here, you can experiment with the Regen knob to hear how intense the flange gets as you push it up to more extreme values.
One of the coolest aspects of the Spectre is that it can go through-zero twice as the LFO modulates the Width. Here’s how it works…
Let’s say Zero is still set to the “zero point” at 1-2 o’clock which is about 2ms of delay. And Width is at noon which is in the ballpark of around 6ms. So the LFO is modulating Width from its static minimum delay of 2ms to about 6ms. Now if you increase the Zero knob to maximum, you’ll raise its static delay point from about 2ms to a full 2.5ms. This means that the “zero point” is now 2.5ms as this is the delay time at which the 2 delay lines pass over each other and cancel out. If you set the Width to somewhere between 9 o’clock to noon, you’ll hear the flanging effect pass through the zero point twice as it ascends and descends through the LFO sweep. The Spectre’s through zero flanging effects are gorgeous to beyond, and the sounds of passing through zero twice create even more inspiring possibilities.
The pedal really opens up as you understand what’s happening conceptually, so it helps to try to wrap your head about what I have attempted to explain so far.
You also may have heard that the Spectre makes “whale songs”. It does. The ethereal whale gods await your sonic communion. (Hint: crank the Regen knob!) I also found some cool “tremolo flanger” effects, too, as well as chugging, mechanical flanger tones. I could keep trying to explain with words the kinds of unbelievably cool sounds this pedal makes, but it’s really best left for you to explore. Over time your perspective will change from just turning knobs until something sounds cool to actually knowing how to find the kinds of sounds you’re looking for. The Spectre is a pedal that rewards patience and persistence, as you’ll always be able to find strange and unique sounds every time you play it. Just remember to save presets of the interesting sounds you create.
If you have the urge to dial in some less extreme sounds, the Spectre also does some great analog chorus and vibrato effects as well. To start, turn the Zero & Regen all the way down (counter-clockwise), and you can adjust the depth of the pitch vibrato with the Width knob. Keep the Mix around noon for a 50%/50% chorus blend, or turn it fully clockwise for a vibrato sound. The Spectre has it’s own pleasing color for an interesting variation of the kinds of sounds we’ve heard from the Warped Vinyl MKII. While analog chorus and flange effects are both rooted in bucket-brigade chip technology, each of these pedals have different root sounds and unique sonic qualities. Also, while the Warped Vinyl MKII has its dedicated Tone knob, the Spectre’s chorus & vibrato can be spiced up by adding in the Regen to feed the signal back into itself. This sounds epic on clean tones.
This has been a staple of Chase Bliss Audio pedals released so far, and it’s still the best analog LFO wave-shaping solution I’ve seen on a pedal. The Shift parameter is especially useful when going for flange effects that pass through the zero point twice as it can help you contour the rhythm of the movement. Be sure to experiment with the various sine, triangle, and square LFO combinations as well as this will add interest to the Spectre’s sounds. Try using a square wave on one side with a lop-sided Shift setting for weird flange sweeps that snap back to the opposite LFO position like a rubber band.
Once you understand how to get a basic flange sound dialed in, the Ramping can really take it to interesting new places. Try taking just one parameter like Zero, Width, or Regen and set it to Ramp via one of the dedicated dip-switches on the top side of the pedal. Be sure to flip the Bounce dip-switch “On” as well so that the Ramped parameters will modulate back and forth on their own at the rate set by the Ramp knob. Try setting the Sweep to “Top” for even more fun. This gets crazy pretty quickly. Again, just remember to save your sounds!
If you’re using a MIDI effects switcher, you’ll definitely want to take advantage of preset selection. There are 122 total slots that presets can be saved to/recalled from (2 are manually accessible via the Preset flip-switch between the foot-switches). In addition you can do other handy things like activate/bypass the pedal or control parameters via MIDI CC messages if you’re really adventurous. I’m a huge advocate for using a software sequencer like Ableton Live to automate pedals with custom programmed parameter changes. Spectre is game for any of that stuff. Just get an Empress Effects Midibox to unlock the potential.
Chase Bliss Audio is becoming one of the most hyped pedal builders around, but frankly, they’re one of the few builders that always backs it up. Each pedal they’ve released so far has been spectacular (no pun intended) and a huge success. The Spectre continues Chase Bliss Audio’s trend of releasing top shelf guitar pedals of incomparable quality and further secures their reputation as one of the most bold and innovative builders of today. But with the growing expectations of the guitar playing community looming large, it’s pleasantly surprising to see Chase Bliss Audio sticking to their vision and releasing the pedals they want to create as opposed to trying to meet outside demands of everyone with an opinion of what their products should be.
While the Spectre sounds amazing in every context I’ve played it in, there are a few areas where I’d like to offer some healthy constructive criticism. First, I found the lack of an output Volume knob a little troublesome. While the output is generally pretty even and close enough to unity-ish gain when the Mix knob is set low and up to around 50%, pushing it higher for fully wet flanging or vibrato results in a mild volume increase that should be taken into consideration during use. Also, I really wish the Mix had been Ramp-able as I’d love to modulate from the Wet to Dry signals as well as using expression pedal control to do. (Fortunately, the Mix is MIDI controllable, so there’s always that option for real-time Mix blend adjustment.) And at first I was disappointed when I tried out the Momentary mode. I was hoping for a customized mode that would allow the pedal add a smooth through-zero swoosh. Some pedals do this, but here it kicks in the effect wherever it’s currently sweeping through the LFO like with other Chase Bliss Audio modulation pedals. But this grew on me here with the Spectre as it lets you apply an abrupt moment of flange which is still very cool in its own right. It’s rad, just not what I was hoping for. Also, the dry side of the Mix isn’t pristinely clean and unaffected by any means; it has a warm analog color of its own, so take this into consideration when pairing with distortion or fuzz as it’ll alter the character of dirty sounds more noticeably. This can actually be another cool thing if you dial in your dirt around the Spectre.
I sympathize with the few tradeoffs that were made. The available parameters and the ones that are Ramp-able provide the most functionality that can be squeezed out of the form factor Chase Bliss Audio have used so far. The colored dry audio signal gives its character. And a customized through-zero Momentary mode would only work if the dry signal was pristinely dry, thus changing the character of the Spectre’s great tone. Not to mention this would be a programming headache for lone designer/engineer/programmer, Mr. Joel Korte, who dreams up and somehow executes these complex guitar pedal designs.
But none of my minor concerns warrant a drastic change in this design, meaning I hope Chase Bliss Audio doesn’t release a Spectre MKII any time soon. But this pedal sparked my imagination to wonder what they’d be able to do with a larger enclosure. It occurred to me that I’d really like to see a version in a larger form-factor with a pristine dry signal, an additional Volume knob, and Ramp-able Mix. A “Super Spectre” would be amazing if CBA ever creates slightly larger guitar pedals and feels the motivation to execute such a beast. In the meantime, this will most likely be the only analog flanger you’ll ever need. the Spectre is a monster of a flanger pedal and well worth getting acquainted with.
Let’s see the final result.
The Chase Bliss Audio Spectre is the most ambitious and inspiring pedal yet from this company and arguably one of the best analog flanger pedals you’ll ever hear. The unrelenting passion that went into fine-tuning the Spectre is evident from the moment you plug it in as the sounds it produces never cease to amaze. While a bit deeper and more complex than other CBA pedals, due to the intricacy of its through-zero operation, guitarists who explore what the Spectre has to offer will be rewarded with stellar flanging, chorus, and vibrato tones. Chase Bliss Audio continues to push analog pedal design to its limits, and the Spectre is yet another great example of a pursuit of excellence that pedal builders rarely strive for.
That concludes our Chase Bliss Audio Spectre review. Thanks for reading.
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