The Rivera Sustain Shaman is an anomaly among guitar compressor pedals. While most compressors of the “Level/Sustain” variety follow the tired trail of the old Ross/Dyna Comp pedals from the 70’s & 80’s, this pedal is something altogether different from what you’d expect from a typical guitar comp. First off, the circuit topology of the Sustain Shaman is rooted in rack-mounted VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) studio compressors as opposed to the typical OTA (Operational Transconductance Amplifier) based compression pedals. Then there’s the control layout which features, in addition to the aforementioned Level & Sustain knobs, dedicated controls for Attack, Effect Blend, & Tone for a versatile, modern layout. What’s more, the Sustain Shaman offers 2 separate channels, each with their own Attack & Sustain knobs. Channel B also has a flip-switchable “Super Sustain” mode that I can’t wait to try out. Let’s jump right in find out if this is the best modern compression pedal available.
- Studio Grade VCA Compression
- 2 foot-switchable channels with dedicated Attack & Sustain knobs
- Channel B features “Super Sustain” mode for increased sustain
- Effects Blend knob for true “New York” style parallel compression
- Tone knob sets desired brilliance of the compressed signal
- Level control adjusts output volume and can provide a signal boost
- True Bypass for letting your signal pass unaffected when disengaged.
- Powered by 9-volt battery or 9VDC power adapter.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Sustain Shaman (as well as any other Rivera product) before you even plug it in is that it’s built like a tank. Rivera uses custom folded stainless steel enclosures for all their guitar pedals (including their Metal Shaman) that allow the knobs to be recessed lower than the foot-switches to prevent accidentally kicking them when you’re stomping on the pedal on a dark-lit stage.
The graphic decals are brightly colored and attractive. Although I originally had some lingering concerns about them peeling, the ones on my Metal Shaman haven’t peeled up from the edges after a year-and-a-half of regular use. They should be equally durable here.
There isn’t too much to see when glancing inside the pedal as most of the components face inward. Mr. Paul Rivera also conceals the most secret aspects of his circuits with black epoxy, but the visible WIMA caps are evidence of the premium components used in the Sustain Shaman’s construction.
Although, the pedal can be powered by a 9-volt battery, I’d recommend sticking with a power supply as you have to remove 8(!) screws to replace the battery. But you’re not still powering your whole pedalboard with batteries are you?
Sound & Performance:
The first thing you’ll notice when plugging in and activating the Sustain Shaman is how surprisingly noise-free your signal remains. I compared the Sustain Shaman to 4 of the best OTA compressors on the market today, and the Sustain Shaman had a lower noise floor than all of them. Also, the foot-switches, while having a nice satisfying click when you press them, are incredibly silent in use, meaning they don’t taint your signal with an overly noticeable “pop” when you engage the pedal. What’s more, the pedal is very transparent when it comes to its impact on your overall tone, yet it does impart an almost hi-fi quality to your sound. These qualities are examples of Rivera’s premium building all around with an emphasis on quiet operation and pristine audio fidelity.
On the left side of the pedal are the familiar Level & Sustain knobs, similar to old 2-knob OTA compressors (with an additional Attack knob which also appears on some 3-knob variants). Sustain is basically a Ratio/Threshold style control that determines how heavily your signal is compressed. Level adjusts your make-up gain and overall output volume level with a moderate amount of clean boost on tap if you need it. Attack determines how quickly the compression kicks in and puts the squash on your signal. Dialing in a faster Attack puts a harder squeeze on your initial pick attack; a slower Attack setting lets the compression come in gradually. (We’ll talk more about the Attack when we get to the Super Sustain section.)
In addition to those more common compression pedal controls are Effect Blend & Tone knobs. The Effect Blend lets you blend in your wet and dry signals for parallel compression. This studio style method of using compression has become increasingly popular in stompbox compressors, and it’s just as handy here for dialing in the perfect blend of a more heavily compressed signal with your unadulterated guitar tone. The Tone knob is useful for putting a little sparkle on the top end of your sound. It’s not overly colored and doesn’t really mask your guitar’s sound. It just adds a little sheen. Keep it in the 10 to 2 o’clock range for the cleanest, most transparent sound.
Having 2 channels is especially rare on a compression pedal, and this is one of the things that really sets the Sustain Shaman apart. Essentially, you can dial in a great always-on compression sound on Channel A. Try a somewhat fast Attack that lets your transients come though (around 9-11 o’clock is good) with a lower Sustain setting for light to moderate compression. Then on Channel B you could dial in a much longer Attack with a higher Sustain setting for lead tones that ooze with sustain. But there’s one more trick up the Sustain Shaman’s sleeve that is this pedal’s ace-in-the-hole…
On Channel B you’ll notice a conspicuous little switch labeled “Super Sust.” for activating the pedal’s Super Sustain feature. This is a must-try feature as it’s more than a mere gimmick. My assumption was that this switch just increases the sustain, similar to the effect you’d get by cranking the Sustain knob. (Maybe that is all it’s doing.) But it can be used with the Sustain knob maxed out to take your guitar sound over the edge. Yes, it increases sustain. The key to using it is dialing in a longer Attack setting so that the compression comes in gradually. As expected, the noise floor does come up a bit, so this may not be your ideal setting for clean passages (That’s why there are two channels!). But add some Super Sustain in front of an overdrive pedal or dirty amp, and this thing rips! I tried to mimic this effect by maxing the Sustain/Ratio on several other compressor pedals but couldn’t really get a similar level of sustain. Rivera has something really special here that more guitarists need to experience. You can also try using the Super Sustain function with a lower Sustain setting or with the Effect Blend to find more subtle sounds that still benefit from added sustain.
The Sustain Shaman surprised me in a big way. I honesty wasn’t too excited about this pedal at first because I mistook it for just another Ross/Dyna Comp inspired pedal. That was a huge error on my part! The Sustain Shaman is in that top handful of studio style compressors (with some modern twists) and deserves to be taken notice of. It’s top-notch all around. My only wish would be to see a smaller, single channel version with 1 foot-switch. I could picture a row of 3 knobs with 2 more knobs and the Super Sust. switch right below. It’s reasonably small as is, but these days it seems many guitarists want their pedals as compact as possible. But if you’ve always wanted an exceptionally clean compressor with access to multiple settings and “Super Sustain”, Rivera’s Sustain Shaman is the pedal to get.
The Rivera Sustain Shaman beats all of the best Ross/Dyna Comp inspired compressors in terms of its low noise level and wider range of sounds available. If you want a super clean & quiet, modern compressor with familiar controls and studio grade sound quality, this pedal is for you. If you’d benefit from having 2 distinct compression sounds for your rhythm and lead tones, this pedal is for you. And if you’re interested in the ultra-modern, infinite-sustaining compression of this pedal’s Super Sustain function, this pedal is definitely for you. The Sustain Shaman is perhaps the best kept secret in the world of compression pedals and deserves an audition.
That concludes our Rivera Sustain Shaman review. Thanks for reading.
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