Free The Tone have a continuously growing reputation for creating ultra high-quality audio solutions for professional guitarists. Their ARC-3 Audio Routing Controller has become a staple on many pro pedalboards in Japan thanks to its high sound quality, tank-like construction, and incredible versatility. Now Free The Tone have released the ARC-53M, a downsized version of their flagship ARC-3 that retains the versatility, sound quality, and reliable performance of its older sibling in a package that’s streamlined for maximum efficiency.
The ARC-53M has a lot going for it, offering a pretty incredible feature set for a product of its size that looks likely to find its onto many pedalboards just like the ARC-3. The ARC-53M offers 5 independent effects loops, 1 of which is independent for separate routing. It was 3 momentary/latch terminals for amp channel and effects switching. And it can send up to 4 MIDI program changes and 4 MIDI continuous controller messages per preset for taking control all the latest MIDI compatible guitar pedals. There’s a dedicated Mute foot-switch for silent tuning. And that’s all just scratching the surface really although it’s already enough to make the ARC-53M a contender for the best MIDI guitar effects pedal router/switcher around. Here’s a complete rundown of its features before we dive into our Free The Tone ARC-53M review.
- FREE THE TONE HTS original HTS circuit implemented
- Number of Effect Loops: 5 (4 x series loop + 1 x separate loop)
- Number of Presets: 20 banks x 10 presets (total 200 presets)
- Control Terminals: 3 (switchable Latch or Momentary)
- Input Impedance: 1 MΩ (HTS-IN)
- Output Impedance: Less than 200Ω
- Power Supply: Dedicated AC adapter（For USA: FA-1220D-JA/For UK: FA-1220D-UK/For Europe: FA-1220D-EU）
- Power Consumption: 12 VDC, approx. 400 mA (max.)
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 330 x 60.5 x 92.5 mm, 12.99 x 2.38 x 3.64 inches (incl. protuberances such as footswitches, jacks, etc.)
- Weight (excl. AC adapter): approx. 1.1 kg (38.8 oz)
- MIDI program change numbers and MIDI control change numbers can be sent simultaneously.
- Number of MIDI Program Change Number Parallel Sends: 4 (MIDI Send Channels: CH1–CH4 fixed)
- Number of MIDI Control Change Number Parallel Sends: 4
- Silent-click custom footswitches are adopted. These switches respond quickly to follow fast operation.
- The distance between the footswitches is 70 mm. By changing switch mount angles of the first and second rows, superb playability is obtained on this compact body.
- A special panel is provided for changing settings or selecting presets. Operability is drastically improved by reducing the levels of edit menus as much as possible. This greatly reduces the amount of time spent editing.
- Edit functions (copy, delete) for presets and banks are provided.
- By switching Display modes, the MIDI program change numbers for each channel that is currently being sent can be checked at a glance.
- The LED for each footswitch is covered by a lens to prevent sweat or other moisture from entering directly into the internal circuits. Also, a felt sheet is attached to the back of the display unit for further protection.
- High-strength molded plastic phone jacks are used to ensure safe and long term use.
- A Universal AC adapter, which supports voltages of 100–240VAC, is included.
- To prevent accidental operation of the control panel while playing, a LOCK function makes it possible to lock the operation buttons.
Sound & Performance:
I don’t like to rush into reviews. I like to spend some time with a product to really get a feel for it. And with the reputation that the ARC-3 already has, I really wanted to take my time with the ARC-53M to see if it was everything I expected it to be. I have to admit I was a little intimidated by what I thought would be a pretty steep learning curve, but I shouldn’t have been worried. The ARC-53M is definitely one of the easiest MIDI pedal switchers to use right out of the box. For the accompanying demo review video I even restored the ARC-53M to its factory defaults so that I could show just how quickly you can configure presets and use MIDI to control your pedals.
The ARC-53M has 5 total effects loops, the first 4 of which are wired in series. The 5 loop is special in that it can be routed independently from the other 4 loops. This allows for several useful applications. You could use loop 5 as an input selector for different guitars, which further allows for triggering entire different chains of effects when switching guitars by pressing a single footswitch. You could also use it as an output selector to send your guitar signal to different amps with corresponding combinations of effects suited to each amp. You could also use loop 5 in front of the other loops to use with a pedal that works best when receiving a high-impedance signal. Fuzz pedals, for example, typically sound best placed before any kind of line buffer. Putting a fuzz pedal in loop 5 in front of the other 4 loops would essentially allow you to achieve the best possible fuzz distortion tone while still being able to achieve the benefits of the HTS circuit with your other pedals.
An optional HTS input allows loops 1-4 to take full advantage of Free The Tone’s unique Holistic Tonal Solution circuitry as featured in the ARC-3 and Free The Tone pedals such as the Red Jasper Overdrive and Matt Schofield MS SOV Special. The HTS circuit is designed to provide a consistent sound image throughout the effects chain, compensating for any inconsistencies in impedance between various pedals when engaged or bypassed. I typically try to explain HTS as being like a buffer that doesn’t suck your tone. While I was initially skeptical about the HTS circuit after riding the true-bypass bandwagon for so long, I find myself really appreciating its implementation. Since it stabilizes impedance when pedals or the ARC-53M’s loops are engaged or bypass, it seems to help provide some of the most silent switching you’ll ever hear… or not hear. Of course, if you’re still not ready to join the likes of Matt Schofield and hop on the HTS train, the ARC-53M provides a standard input which bypasses the HTS circuit. That will also provide you an opportunity to a/b the two for yourself and come to your own conclusions about the merits of the Holistic Tonal Solution.
All 5 loops have dedicated footswitches which can be used in Direct mode to activate/bypass individual effects loops in realtime. The footswitches are spaced far enough apart to be pressed without concern about hitting the wrong one in a live situation, yet they’re close enough to keep the overall width of the ARC-53M surprisingly small for a 5 pedal switching device. When in Preset mode the 5 footswitches let you select between 5 different presets of various loops. There are 2 footswitches on the top row labeled Mute and Shift. Mute lets you silent the signal at the output, very useful for silent-tuning when using a tuner connected to the Tuner output. The Shift footswitch lets you switch from presets 1-5 to 6-10 in each of the 20 available banks. This allows the ARC-53M to provide quick access to 10 presets of various effects pedal combinations and MIDI commands.
With so many quality MIDI-compatible pedals available, a product like the ARC-53M is becoming ever more essential for guitarists who want to make the most of such pedals. Each ARC-53M preset can send up to 4 MIDI program changes and 4 MIDI continuous controller (CC) messages. This allows incredible flexibility for activating/bypassing MIDI-compatible pedals and selecting the pedals’ presets from a single footswitch press from the ARC-53M. The ARC-53M performs exceptionally well via MIDI and can be programmed from its surface panel within mere minutes to take full control of your various MIDI pedals. It can even receive MIDI commands if you’d like to, say, select the ARC-53M’s presets from an external source such as a sequencer program (such as Ableton Live) or another MIDI controller.
While MIDI is pretty easy to use on the ARC-53M, you’ll want to cross reference the manuals of your MIDI-compatible pedals to make sure they’re set up properly or to find out which MIDI messages to to use send from the ARC-53M. For most basic uses this involves just picking a MIDI channel on the pedal (1-4), sending program changes to select presets, and figuring out which CC messages to send to activate/bypass the pedal. You can also simply use a MIDI-compatible pedal within one of the ARC-53M’s effects loops if you want to activate/bypass it without using CC messages.
The ARC-53M can also be used for amp channel and effects switching via it’s 3 latch/momentary control terminals. These settings can also be saved per preset for even more control of your rig. There’s also a Mode switch input in case you’d like to use an external momentary footswitch for handsfree selection between Direct and Preset modes. While you sometimes might want to experiment with different loop combinations in Direct mode, you’ll more than likely rely on the ARC-53M’s Preset mode for quick single footswitch switching between various combinations of effects during a live performance.
While the ARC-53M does have a few sub-menus to navigate during in-depth setup, most of its general functions can be accessed from the buttons on the top panel. It’s really much easier to program than I had anticipated. There are dedicated buttons for selecting loops, the 8 total MIDI messages, and latch/momentary control commands, making it extremely fast and simple to program presets. LED lights give you visual cues of which loops, MIDI-messages, and control commands are active on any preset. The Store button offers one-touch saving which is super convenient. There’s even a Lock button which ensures you won’t accidentally alter your carefully configured settings.
The ARC-53M is an exceptional product on all fronts. The only minor concern I have is that it doesn’t seem like you can switch banks handsfree via footswitches. You still have convenient access to 10 presets in the selected bank, more than enough for most needs. But if you plan on using tons of presets from 4 MIDI-compatible pedals during a long set while making hefty use of the ARC-53M’s 200 available presets, you may wish for a more convenient way to select presets from all of its 20 banks. Of course guitarists who adopt complex MIDI rigs might simply select the ARC-53M’s presets from another controller, recalling higher numbered banks in the process.
All being said, Free The Tone have designed a very cutting edge product. Let’s see the final result.
The Free The Tone ARC-53M Audio Routing Controller is one of the most fully-featured effects pedal controllers/switchers available for guitarists. It’s efficiently designed with thoughtful footswitch placement. It looks great and is built rock-solid, drawing upon the proven reputation of the ARC-3 in features, reliability, and performance. The ARC-53M is also an essential tool for modern guitarists who want to take full control of the latest high-end MIDI-compatible pedals. It can even switch channels and effects on your amp, making it the ultimate central control hub for your entire rig. Without a doubt the ARC-53M is worth serious consideration if you’re looking for the best MIDI guitar effects pedal router/switcher available.
That concludes our Free The Tone ARC-53M Audio Routing Controller review. Thanks for reading.
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