I decided to do something different this year, something very hard to do.
While there were hundreds of new pedals that came out in 2018 and at least a few dozen great releases, I’ve narrowed my attention with this year’s roundup to focus on just 5 of the very best pedals.
I could argue in favor of longer lists, particularly if my goal was to pick the best pedal of the year in each category of effect (delay, reverb, fuzz, etc.). But there may not always be a truly revolutionary or essential product released in a given year for each effect type. For example, I’d still argue that the best tuner pedal this year is the Sonic Research ST-300, a pedal that’s a few years old now. And besides, the more you add to a list, the more you dilute its relevance. It’s especially important to be concise when picking the very best of the year.
By constraining myself to picking only 5 pedals, I’ve forced myself to scrutinize pedals even more closely. I’ve tested and re-tested the pedals on my short-list, trying to uncover all the benefits and drawbacks of each one. In the end I’ve chosen 5 pedals that are leading in innovation and offering guitarists new sounds and new ways of approaching their instruments. If you’re just looking for your next 3-knob overdrive pedal, look elsewhere. If you want to push the limits of the sounds you can coax from your guitar, read on.
The main purpose of this article isn’t to generate more hype for builders’ latest releases; it’s simply to showcase the very best releases of the year. I want to shine a spotlight on a few builders and products that are pushing boundaries and giving musicians innovative new tools for making music. My commentaries on each pedal summarize what you can expect if you’re not already familiar with each release. And along the way I’ll provide relevant constructive criticism that may help companies improve their offerings.
If you’re looking for bold new pedals, these are my uncompromising top picks.
Here are the Top 5 Best Pedals of the Year 2018…
Red Panda Tensor
The Red Panda Tensor is essentially a pitch-shifter and looping pedal with the ability to compress and stretch the duration of audio to warp your sound in various ways. Think forwards and backwards looping, tape-stop effects, and rapid-fire stuttering glitchiness. Plug in an expression pedal and you can do old-school Whammy style pitch bends and dive bombs (as well as control any combination of knob parameters thanks to a recent firmware update). Also, with the newly released Remote 4 controller, you can save and recall multiple presets or gain access to the Tensor’s newly expanded looper functionality. (Disclaimer: the Remote 4 just came out, and I haven’t tried it yet; I fell in love with this pedal long before and didn’t know about Red Panda’s intentions to release this expanded functionality. Strangely, a few months ago I was thinking that more looper control options would improve the pedal, so it’s great to see this implemented.)
Regarding the Tensor’s pitch-shifting, this was an aspect of the pedal I was highly anticipating after first playing a prototype nearly two years ago at Winter NAMM 2017, yet the finished pedal somehow surpassed my expectations. I’m a huge fan of pedals like the DigiTech Whammy V and the Electro Harmonix HOG2, and while those pedals may win against the Tensor when it comes to polyphonic pitch tracking accuracy, the Tensor takes the overall crown for a more subtle reason. When you play through either of the former pedals with a fully-wet blend, intending to quickly shift from your fretted note pitch to a pitch-shifted interval, those pedals have more of a tonal coloration and latency, even if these aspects are arguably negligible. The Tensor on the other hand is amazingly transparent and more responsive than both of the aforementioned pedals; you can leave the Tensor activated with the Blend maxed and may not even notice it’s on until you sweep the expression pedal to shift your pitch up or hit the Hold foot-switch to trigger a loop or glitch effect. Any noticeable coloration is surprisingly subtle. And while the Tensor’s monophonic pitch-shifting is incredibly smooth when you’re not applying vibrato or hitting two or more notes in unison, when you do play in a way that induces a glitchier sound, it still has an endearing quality akin to that of the earlier Whammy pedals.
The Tensor’s Hold function makes it easy to trigger short loops (up to 4.8 seconds) for quick bursts of stuttering repeats. For example, in Record mode with the Hold foot-switch set to Momentary, you create a loop by simply pressing Hold to record it and releasing the foot-switch to play it back. You could then use an expression pedal to “tape stop” the loop and flip it in reverse. Or you could just quickly tap the Hold foot-switch with each new note or chord to create cascading bursts of stuttering loop fragments. The Time knob can speed up or slow down the loop, and the Pitch knob shifts the pitch of the loop up or down. Both of Tensor’s foot-switches can be easily assigned to Momentary or Latching to suit how you want the pedal to respond during performance.
Another unique draw of the Tensor is its deep MIDI functionality. The Tensor’s MIDI implementation for parameter control is perhaps the most well executed and strictly MIDI compliant implementation I’ve seen in a pedal; other pedal builders should take note of Red Panda’s flawless implementation of MIDI CC functions. With MIDI CC messages you can control all of the Tensor’s surface parameters and “secret” functions like semi-tonal pitch-shifting, pitch glide, and the extended looper controls. With a cheap USB/MIDI adapter you can get all this running on your pedalboard with a MIDI compatible effects switcher.
While MIDI-over-USB in a guitar pedal may not be as pedalboard friendly or standardized as 5-pin MIDI or ¼” TRS MIDI (meaning I probably wouldn’t want to see USB MIDI as standard on every MIDI compatible pedal), this aspect of Tensor opens up a world of possibilities for laptop musicians and DAW users. When I first connected the Tensor to an iMac via USB, the pedal was instantly recognized by the computer’s Audio MIDI Setup utility. You can then select it as a MIDI output destination from Ableton Live 10, Logic Pro X, or your DAW of choice and achieve the fastest possible MIDI communication with the pedal through its direct connection to your computer. This makes MIDI automation incredibly responsive and facilitates some inspiring possibilities. But one downside of this is that I’ve experienced added signal noise every time I’ve connected the Tensor to my iMac. I don’t have this issue with other pedals. (For example, the HX Stomp’s MIDI-over-USB is noise-free.) While you can do some cool things by sequencing the Tensor from your computer, these possibilities might be limited to one-time studio tricks unless the pedal’s receptivity to noise interference is alleviated. I’ll update this section if I confirm that this issue has been addressed as this inherent flaw is the only glaring strike against what is otherwise a perfect pedal.
It’s worth emphasizing that even without all the mind-boggling MIDI possibilities or the expanded functionality offered by the Remote 4, the Tensor is a bold and creative pedal that fulfills Red Panda’s vision of helping musicians create new sounds. The Tensor is a tour de force. Now can the Red Panda Particle V2 come out already?
Line 6 HX Stomp
With the Line 6 HX Stomp, the DSP modeling pioneer sought to take their acclaimed Helix amp & effects modeling and contain it within a pedalboard friendly stompbox for guitarists and bassists. They’ve definitely succeeded there, but the totality of what they’ve accomplished with the HX Stomp has greatly exceeded even my demanding expectations in many ways.
The Line 6 HX Stomp was a late-2018 release, yet I’ve already seen it find an essential place in my guitar pedal rig. As a matter of fact, the HX Stomp is easily the most important pedal in my signal chain right now. It has replaced 3 other pedals, and I’m finding myself feeling committed to making this pedal my dedicated “amp-in-a-box” for all my current and upcoming musical endeavors. With 60 detailed Helix guitar amp models (and tons of cabs, mics, & bass amps), the HX Stomp may make you forget all about miking cabinets in the studio and lugging heavy amps to gigs. And why do either when you could get all your live tones from the same piece of gear you used to record your music in the studio? And that’s not even taking into consideration the plethora of effects in this thing. The HX Stomp may be the pedal of the year for many musicians based simply on the far-reaching ground that it covers and the impeccable quality with which it delivers in nearly all areas.
The HX Stomp’s bright and spacious LCD display gives users 6 blocks for selecting effects and amp/cab/mic models. You can even load impulse responses if you have some go-to favorite speaker emulations you prefer using. I was skeptical that the 6 blocks might be limiting, but I’ve only reached the pedal’s DSP limit on a few rare occasions like when attempting to run 2 amp/cab/mic blocks in parallel with some other stereo effects. If you’re really trying to get a dual amp sound, try using a mono amp block and a stereo cab block with different combinations of cabs, mics, and mic placement. But the HX Stomp can handle some pretty powerful signal chains of DSP hungry Helix quality effects. For example, 6 blocks consisting of a pitch, overdrive, amp/cab/mic, stereo modulation, stereo delay, & stereo reverb could all be run with ease. The HX Stomp is by no means skimping on processing power, and no other pedal this size can do anything close to what the HX Stomp can manage in terms of DSP multi-effects processing.
And about the effects – the HX Stomp has a formidable collection of modeled effects spanning the history of Line 6 all the way back to sounds from the DL4, FM4, and M series pedals (among others). It should come as no surprise that the modern Helix effects grab the most attention, particularly Line 6’s detailed delay and reverb algorithms which sound absolutely gorgeous in stereo. And the Helix quality pitch and harmony effects sound pristine. Also, while the HX Stomp brings back those early digital drive sounds from the DM4 Distortion Modeler (The Edge is a notable user of those algorithms), the revamped Helix quality overdrive, distortion, and fuzz effects come closer to rivaling many of their real-world counterparts. I’d argue that some of these modeled effects even surpass the pedals they were inspired by.
The HX Stomp is very versatile in terms of how you can implement the pedal in your rig. It could be a compact multi-effects unit to compliment your existing amp; the “4-cable method” will even let you apply some HX Stomp effects in front of your amp and some in your amp’s effects loop. And if you’re tired of lugging a heavy amp to your gigs, it can’t be emphasized enough that the HX Stomp’s amp and cab models are more than worthy enough to make this single pedal your all-in-one amp+effects unit for stage and studio. The HX Stomp is a more than capable virtual amp for your pedalboard, allowing you to easily run your signal direct from the pedal (with Unbalanced or TRS Balanced cables) to an audio recording interface or the FOH mixing board.
Navigating the HX Stomp is pretty simple and intuitive once you learn the basic functions of its few knobs and buttons. Foot control is easy, too, thanks to the pedal’s trio of assignable foot-switches (and optional expression pedal and/or external foot-switch control). The HX Stomp forgoes the “Command Center” functionality that made the HX Effects more of a pedalboard control hub. You can either control HX Stomp directly, or you can control it from a MIDI effects switcher. In my testing the HX Stomp performs very well when used with an effects switcher. You can easily control its functions with CC commands, activating and bypassing individual blocks as well as the entire pedal. There are options for Analog Bypass (true bypass via switching relays) or DSP bypass. You can also use your switcher to activate the Tuner. Presets can be easily recalled by program changes, but be advised that there isn’t currently an option to have preset labeling start from “001”. This means preset recall will be off by one digit (PC1 = 000, PC2 = 001, etc.) when using some professional MIDI effects switchers and certain other MIDI gear. I’ve suggested the 001 preset numbering option to Line 6 to ensure maximum ease of use with all MIDI gear and will update this section if that’s rolled out in a future firmware update.
I can’t overstate how astounded I am by the HX Stomp as an all-in-one pedalboard solution. It’s easily the most powerful and sonically versatile pedal to come along since the Eventide H9, and I’d be quick to recommend the HX Stomp to anyone as a top pick for a desert island pedal. My only real concerns with the entire package are some performance issues I’ve encountered when testing the pedal as an audio & MIDI interface. The unit froze once when using several audio/MIDI features simultaneously, and choppy audio playback coming from my DAW had me reaching back for my Focusrite interface and just running HX Stomp’s audio outputs into that unit. I’ve already brought my findings to the attention of Line 6, and I expect that with a few little firmware tweaks, the HX Stomp will be firing on all cylinders very soon as a worthy audio & MIDI interface for the recording guitarist. Fortunately, the pedal’s standalone performance as a smaller sized multi-effects unit are unmatched, and I’ve experienced no notable performance issues in that area.
Line 6 has long been one of the biggest names in digital modeling, essentially pioneering the concept. Their expertise has made the HX Stomp a very formidable multi-effects pedal that could compliment any pedalboard or become your whole rig if only a handful of effects are needed. And of course the most powerful weapon in the HX Stomp’s arsenal is its amp & cab modeling. It’s definitely the biggest draw for me and what cements the HX Stomp’s place as a next generation pedal that could take over your pedalboard and make you leave your amp at home when heading to the studio or playing out live. Line 6 is entering 2019 with a market leading multi-effects pedal, and I expect that a few other builders will be scrambling to catch up to Line 6’s commanding dominance in this area.
WMD Geiger Counter Pro
I’d been looking forward to the WMD Geiger Counter Pro since first playing a prototype way back at The NAMM Show 2015. After patiently waiting for years, the GC Pro finally arrived, and as expected, it’s a monster.
The Geiger Counter Pro is a distortion device that uses digital wavetables to saturate and distort your input signal, re-shaping the harmonic content to generate new textures and tones. There are 512 wavetables spanning 32 banks, yielding an incredibly wide range of sounds to explore. You can set a static wavetable or adjust the Table parameter to change the character in real-time. A Morph function smoothens the transition between wavetables, adding an expressive way to contour your sound via CV, expression pedal, MIDI, or by just grabbing the Table knob and turning it. The sounds can range from subtle drive tones to extreme distortion and splatty fuzz, even just straight-up chaotic noise. I’ll be quick to admit that most of the fun this pedal is found in conjuring up the extreme tones that easily spew from this pedal, but also, some of the less experimental wavetables evoke many shades of more mild overdrive flavors.
The Geiger Counter Pro is also a bit-crusher that lets you reduce Bit Depth & Sample Rate to crunch up your guitar (or other instrument), but this pedal is unique in how these aspects were thoughtfully implemented by WMD. The Samples knob reduces the sample rate in the signal path before it goes into the wavetable generator and bit reduction sections. Reducing the sample rate beforehand adds aliasing artifacts to the signal before it’s processed further. As you begin cutting the Samples knob, you’ll hear the upper frequencies change and seem to fold in on themselves. Then you can change the wavetable and hear those characteristics be affected in a different way. Lowering the Bits will square the sound and distort the signal, and raising the Gain will also add more distortion. The Bit Depth section can also be placed before or after the Wavetable, adding further flexibility to the sounds you can create.
While the Geiger Counter Pro’s wavetables offer a way to change the tonality of the pedal in terms of which frequencies are heard and accentuated, there are a couple other parameters that lend to shaping your tone in a more obvious way. The Tone knob can brighten or darken the wet signal before it’s fed into the digital processor. The Tone circuit is optional, so while some audio material (namely guitars) may benefit from some tone shaping, other sounds (drum machines, full audio stem mixes, etc.) may benefit from being mangled by the full-range onslaught of wavetable destruction. There are no rules. And in any scenario there’s still an excellent Low Pass Filter with a slightly resonant peak that can be used to roll off any harsh frequencies that may result from the pedal’s more extreme settings.
One of the best aspects of the pedal’s larger foot-print (which still manages to be pedalboard friendly thanks to the pedal’s top mounted I/O) is that it has 2 additional foot-switches that give users easy onboard access to the pedal’s 16 available presets. It can be annoying when builders make you buy extra gear to access basic features, but the Geiger Counter Pro was designed to give you quick access to all of its functions. Another case in point is the clever CV/EXP control routing of parameters. Two obvious LED strips have dedicated push-buttons for selecting which parameters you want to assign to the pedal’s pair of CV/EXP jacks. I’d imagine that a big part of why this pedal took so long to finish was that WMD were striving to ensure that this complex seeming beast would be as easy to use as possible.
The connectivity is a big aspect of what makes this a definitive wavetable distortion machine in any hardware format. Not only can you connect it to a Eurorack modular setup thanks to its dual CV inputs, the MIDI In allows you to control the pedal from external MIDI gear as well. Sadly, the Geiger Counter Pro VST was out of commission for the two Macs I tried to load it on, but I managed to easily set up a Max for Live device chain in Ableton Live 10 to test out the pedal’s MIDI functionality from my computer. Parameter control was immediate and responsive, and the pedal seems to work well with MIDI overall.
The Geiger Counter Pro is arguably an acquired taste, one for musicians who love finding new ways to manipulate and obliterate their instruments. While its greatest strengths are in its punishing extreme distortion and bit-crushing sounds, you can apply the Geiger Counter Pro in more subtle ways, too. I’ve been using it to filter other pedals, and you can stumble into plenty of wavetable settings that seem to bring out interesting frequencies and tones that you can’t really get from simply turning a tone knob alone. Few pedals come close to offering such a wide range of sounds, and the Geiger Counter Pro will give users an endless palette of sonic destruction for years to come.
In 2017 Meris entered the pedal game with 3 incredible offerings: the Ottobit Jr., Mercury7 Reverb, and Polymoon. We even gave special mention to Meris as the Best New Pedal Builder of 2017. Going into 2018 no one knew what to expect next from the SoCal based trio (yes, the company is currently comprised of only 3 magical people), but jaws dropped again when the Meris Enzo was unveiled.
The Enzo is a remarkably unique guitar synth pedal and pitch-shifter that also has a deep filter section, a 2 tap delay, and some ring modulation thrown in. You can even apply compression or chorus-like modulation to your dry signal in Dry mode. While the Polymoon pushed boundaries by being a delay with several other effects that could be applied to it at once, the Enzo differs in that while it’s primarily a guitar synth, it can function like a few different pedals depending on what you feel inspired by in the moment. You can also split your wet & dry signals to dedicated outputs for processing the synth sounds separately from your guitar.
The core of the Enzo and arguably its biggest attention grabbing aspect are the amazing guitar synth tones the pedal offers. The Mono and Poly modes in particular are shining examples of some of the best tracking and most sonically pleasing guitar synth textures I’ve ever heard in a pedal that relies on a standard guitar pickup. The Mono mode is incredibly responsive and feels more instantaneous than any other digital mono-synth I’ve played. Equally impressive is how well Mono mode handles string bending and vibrato. It’s exceptionally playable for monophonic synth leads or synth bass. The Poly mode is noteworthy for how well it processes dyads and triads to generate smooth chordal synth sounds; it’s great for lush pads, especially when you add in some Modulation, Delay, and Filter Envelope movement. The Arpeggiated mode is intriguing in that it uses your source audio material and the Tap Tempo rate to generate synthesized arpeggios based on the harmonic content and dynamics of your playing. While it can seem to produce somewhat unpredictable results at first, when you get it locked in just right with your playing, the results are mesmerizing and unlike anything I’ve heard from a standalone guitar pedal. All of these amazing synth sounds can be further tweaked with either Sawtooth or Square Waveshape voices, Modulation for detuned synth sounds, optional Delay (in mono & stereo), Sustain for longer note release times, Ring Modulation, and deep filtering. Speaking of the filtering…
It’s worth pointing out how incredible the Enzo’s Filter is before I mention the Dry mode. I really enjoyed the smooth feel of the Ottobit Jr.’s slightly resonant Low-Pass Filter, and the Polymoon has a great sounding Filter applied to its delays, but the Enzo’s Filter is much more in-depth than the filtering aspects in either of those pedals. This is fitting for the Enzo considering how synonymous filtering is with synthesis. Enzo’s Filter section has 6 options for Ladder & State Variable Lowpass, Bandpass, and Highpass filtering which deliver a lot of versatility. There’s even a Filter Bandwidth alt parameter for dialing in resonance ranging from a shallow rolloff to very “peaky” filtering like you’d find on a real hardware synth. I also like that the Enzo’s LPF options seem to sweep down closer to silence than the Ottobit Jr.’s Filter. The optional Attack & Decay Filter Envelopes can also be set to Triggered Envelope or Envelope Follower to respond to your audio signal in dynamic ways. The Filter quality is one of the more surprising aspects of the Enzo and can be used to affect your synthesized sounds or be applied to your dry guitar in Dry mode. It may also be tempting to plug a hardware keyboard synth into the Enzo just to try the different Filter modes – filter junkies from any musical background should take note.
The Dry mode’s immediate benefit is that it lets you pitch-shift your guitar in the range of -2 octaves to +2 octaves. And the Enzo happens to be on par with the Red Panda Tensor for the fastest and smoothest pitch-shifting I’ve heard in a compact pedal. Musicians with access to both pedals might find it a worthwhile experiment to A/B them to draw their own conclusions. I will say that when it comes to using the pitch-shifting from either of these pedals to drop-tune your guitar a few semi-tones, the Enzo performs better with polyphonic playing and can better handle complex chords, vibrato, and pinch harmonics without inducing as much glitchiness. As a small point of constructive criticism, while the lag of the Enzo’s pitch-shifting makes it great for longer pitch sweeps, I wish there was an option for more instantaneous interval changing when controlling the pitch with the Pitch knob or via MIDI CC. As it is the Enzo is better suited for re-tuning and more gradual pitch-shifting than immediate note changing via pitch-shift. But in any case, if Meris takes their expertise further into the realm of pitch-shifting and real-time harmonizing, expect unexpected results that could contend with and possibly overtake Eventide, the company that invented the digital Harmonizer.
In Dry mode you can also apply compression to your audio signal with the Sustain knob. This is useful for helping achieve the smoothest possible pitch tracking, but be advised that it does raise the perceived output level, and the Enzo doesn’t have a master volume control. Perhaps an automatic volume output attenuation aspect would have been helpful to make the compression more useful on higher settings without increasing output volume. You can also add a hint of Modulation for a chorus-like sound (which also increases perceived volume slightly) or add in some fun Ring Modulation for metallic and dissonant guitar tones. And you can apply the sweet Filter and Filter Envelopes to your guitar (with the Portamento being used here to create ascending & descending pitch effects). And of course you can use the solid double-tap (or single-tap) Delay on your dry guitar tone and apply Modulation to the delays if desired. Using the Polymoon for a simple ¼ note ping-pong delay in stereo has become one of my go-to sounds, and the Enzo can also give you a taste of that as well.
From the perspective of viewing the Enzo as a standalone pedal, it’s a remarkable instrument considering that it has incredible synth sounds, an excellent filter, and some solid extra delay functionality among other things. I’ll admit though that I’d happily have traded the delay functionality for more waveshapes and/or synth tweaking parameters. The synth sounds are really that impressive to have me wishing for more, and I’d rather keep the Enzo near the front of my signal path with the Polymoon or other delay pedal handling delay duties near the end of my effects chain. And be aware that you’ll probably want to grab Meris’ Preset Switch or use the pedal with MIDI to gain access to saving and recalling multiple presets of the Enzo’s amazing sounds. Yes, it’s a drawback to not have easier access to multiple presets from the pedal itself, but it’ll be worthwhile to overcome for musicians who are enticed by what this pedal offers. The Enzo’s synth sounds are so inspiring that it makes me wonder if Meris will ever expand upon their synth framework in the future; with Enzo they’ve definitely solidified themselves as a builder at the forefront of guitar synthesis. Considering how far ahead of the game Enzo is, I’d love to hear where else Meris could take guitar synthesis in the not-too-distant future if they reapproach this concept in a future release. Now back to the present…
The Enzo does a lot and can be used in a variety of different ways despite appearing on the surface as primarily a guitar synth pedal. Perhaps the most profound aspect of the Enzo is that it shows Meris’ continued devotion to pushing the envelope (sorry, sorry, I had to), defying expectations, and creating some of the most inspiring and unique professional grade effects for discerning musicians who seek previously unimaginable new sounds from their pedals.
Dr. Scientist The Atmosphere
Okay, there were a few really great reverb pedals released this year, and I have a firm opinion about what I’d argue are the top 3 best reverb pedals of 2018. But in the end I decided that Dr. Scientist’s The Atmosphere wins as my overall pick to be included among the best pedals of the year. While it was still a difficult decision to settle on, I have several reasons for coming to this conclusion and crowning The Atmosphere with the highest accolades. It really comes down to several things that this pedal just does a little differently, things that add extra uniqueness and utility to this pedal that may give it wider appeal.
First, The Atmosphere features 16 different reverb modes built-in… Yes, sixteen different patches in a compact stompbox with top-mounted I/O jacks. There are a lot of cool sounds in this small pedal. The reverb patches are easily selected with the clearly labeled white Patch knob. The Atmosphere’s bold and bright LED screen shows which patch is selected. The parameters are all readily available and easy to access.
The sounds of the pedal cover a lot of ground, too. Classic flavored reverbs like Room, Hall, Spring, and Plate are included. While it seems like most of the patches already have some inherent modulation present in the reverb, there are several patches that modulate the reverb in various ways; these include Rotary, Vibro, and the Mod FX patch which has options for flanger, chorus, tremolo, and ring mod. The Oct patch produces octave up and down tones, useful for shimmer effects and/or deep droning reverbs. The Pitch mode adds dizzying pitch rising and descending effects; you can even set the pitch manually which is extra fun with EXP control. The Smear, React, Swell, and Aether provide unique sounds for ambient reverbs. The Aether’s reverse delay & reverb sounds are particularly inspiring as are the diffused sounds of the Smear patch. There’s a Gated reverb that cuts the reverb when you’re not playing, a cool Filter reverb with high-pass and low-pass filters, and an Alias patch that applies sample rate reduction to the reverb.
All of the patches have a unique pair of parameters (with their names displayed on the screen for each patch) and several shared parameters including Decay, Mix, Vol, and Tone. Kudos to Dr. Scientist for including the essential Volume parameter that is savable per preset and ensures that your Wet/Dry reverb Mix can be easily set to the perfect output level. The Res parameter is perhaps the most interesting as it adjusts the resolution of the DSP, warping the pitch and reverb audio quality. It reminds me of the Afterneath’s “Drag” knob or the Whateverb’s “Warp” knob, only The Atmosphere’s Res can be controlled via expression pedal or MIDI. Yes, it’s as awesome as you should already be thinking it is. You can even assign The Atmosphere’s internal LFO to modulate the Resolution. Speaking of that…
The Atmosphere has an internal LFO that allows you to modulate any of the pedal’s six parameters (not including the analog Tone control which acts as more of a global tone shaping control). The LFO is accessed by double-clicking the Patch knob to enter the pedal’s Main Menu Screen. From there you simply select the parameter(s) you’d like to assign to the LFO (or assign to EXP/CV). You can also select whether the LFO is on or off, set its waveform shape, and dial in its Rate & Depth. The LFO provides some compelling possibilities for adding more movement to your reverbs. Just assign parameters you want to modulate to the LFO and use the surface knobs to dial in the max range of sweep; parameter movement is also interactive with the LFO’s Depth. The Multi switch can be set to Tap Tempo if you want access to controlling the Tempo in real-time, or you could use MIDI Clock or send Taps via MIDI as well.
Another big reason The Atmosphere won as my overall top reverb pick this year is that seems to be a very performance friendly unit with the gigging guitarist in mind. Yes, I love stereo reverbs, but most guitarists are running mono rigs, and The Atmosphere is a straight-forward mono verb. I like that the Multi switch can be set to scroll through the pedal’s presets, so if you don’t have a MIDI effects switcher, you can still access your presets without buying an external piece of gear. I mentioned that the Tone control is more of a global tone parameter. Performance spaces all have their own unique room sound and might be brighter or darker depending on various factors from the space’s construction materials to the density of people in your audience. The Atmosphere’s active treble Tone control can brighten your reverb’s tonality in darker rooms and dampen the reverb if the room is already bright. And this master Tone setting will apply to all of your presets used during a gig. It doesn’t have a sweet spot; it sounds smooth and musical throughout its range and is arguably a secret weapon for quickly dialing in the tone for your entire array of patches.
The MIDI possibilities open up a lot of The Atmosphere’s potential, and Dr. Scientist put in a lot of effort in this area. Of course I had to dig in and push the pedal to its limits with MIDI control. I did find a threshold by sending lots of MIDI data where the pedal can behave strangely, but for 99.9% of MIDI users, this won’t be an issue. Still, I sent The Atmosphere a steady stream of moderate MIDI automation for 2 straight hours, and the pedal kept on working just fine. And by spending so much time down the MIDI rabbit hole with this pedal, I stumbled into some really cool sounds. I sent the pedal some random Filter stepping automation that made it sound like an old Maestro Filter Sample/Hold was being applied to the reverb. And I was able to use the Resolution’s MIDI CC to jump between 32kHz & 16hHz for some cool octave warping; it sounded extra wild alternating that with the Pitch verb’s octave changes. And yes, the pedal worked reliably when testing more commonly used MIDI functions like preset selecting and activating/bypassing from a MIDI effects switcher; those are features that most MIDI users will be accessing, and The Atmosphere seems solid here. My only little gripe is that Presets 1-16 are selected by Program Changes labeled 18-33 on professional MIDI effects switchers from Boss, Free The Tone, etc. I’d love to see the pedal reverse the Default/Preset selection order and make the common end user consideration for offset PC numbering so that PCs 0-15 (typically labeled as 1-16 on most pro MIDI gear) select the pedal’s 16 user Presets with Defaults selected by PCs 16-31 (commonly labeled 17-32). The current configuration isn’t a deal-breaker by any means, simply a small consideration that could facilitate even greater ease of use.
There’s a lot of GAS and hype surrounding nearly every new boutique pedal that comes out these days, but thankfully, The Atmosphere is a pedal that lives up to the stratospheric expectations surrounding it. Dr. Scientist did a commendable job putting so much functionality in such a small pedal while making it inspiring and fairly easy to use thanks to knobs for all of its main parameters and screen labeling for each patch’s CTRL 1 & 2 functions. Definitely give this one some play time if you’re considering your next reverb pedal. You’ll likely find several sounds in it that inspire you, too.
I fought myself over this list for weeks. And I kept trying to squeeze in just one more pedal. But I knew if I did that, it would become a Top 6, then maybe a Top 10, or some other random number. If I had to pick one more pedal, maybe as a runner up, it would be the Chase Bliss Audio Thermae as I feel it’s another innovative release that offers some inspiring sounds. Other considerations included the Source Audio Ventris, an incredible sounding dual reverb pedal with massive customization potential when connected to the Neuro app. I also loved the Free The Tone PA-1QG, an excellent 10-band analog graphic EQ pedal with presets and MIDI. And several other crowd pleasing pedals were contenders for my extended list. Weighing out all factors, in the end I feel that the forward-thinking design, effects quality, and inspiration found in the 5 pedals on this list make this a definitive assessment of this year’s best and most innovative new pedal offerings.
The NAMM Show 2019 and Beyond…
While 2018 has been a stellar year for pedals, The NAMM Show 2019 is just around the corner. I’m already aware of a few exciting things that will be at the show and am sure that there will be many new surprises as well. You can expect to see a chronicle on this site of a select few pedals that will be worth keeping an eye on in 2019.
That concludes our Top 5 Pedals of the Year 2018. Thanks for reading.