Review: Strymon Volante

Review of: Strymon Volante

Reviewed by:
Rating:
5
On May 23, 2019
Last modified:May 24, 2019

Summary:

 

Strymon are widely regarded as leading pioneers in the realm of DSP guitar effects processing, and the Volante Magnetic Echo Machine is the latest long-awaited pedal release from the distinguished builder. Acclaimed Strymon pedals like the TimeLine, BigSky, Mobius, DIG, Riverside, and others have arguably set and upheld the modern standard for what is to be expected from high-end digital guitar effects, and in this review I’m setting out to see if Volante carries Strymon’s torch of excellence and raises the bar yet again.

 

Moments In Time

Something that initially set Strymon apart from other DSP pedal makers was that their pedals seemed nearly future proof. When their flagship TimeLine hit the scene and propelled the builder to notoriety, it helped usher in an era where the quality of software algorithms, unrestricted by the limited processing power in older digital pedals, would be the determining factor in what makes a pedal’s sounds superior to others. This is a big part of the reason why the TimeLine and Strymon’s other major pedal releases are still in production and going strong to this day. Strymon’s algorithms were and still are on par with the best there is.

Of course, many casual pedal enthusiasts who quickly “flip” pedals for the latest hyped up release are still clamoring for a TimeLine 2 despite the fact that the original is still a formidable delay pedal. But while successor pedals to the builder’s “Stryfecta” of flagship releases would certainly be welcome at some point, what the Volante represents is a focused attempt at improving on certain concepts Strymon has attempted before.

When looking at the Volante and the totality of what it is, it seems there are several key milestones in Strymon’s history that led to the inevitable creation of this monumental pedal. The El Capistan dTape Echo is an early moment of relevance, being Strymon’s modern classic tape delay emulation pedal that is still highly regarded years after its initial release. (A comparable dTape machine also makes an appearance in the TimeLine.) The BigSky is Strymon’s flagship reverb pedal, but it also had a cool algorithm called Magneto that was the builder’s first foray into a multi-head echo concept. Then the Deco came out which simulates reel-to-reel studio tape machines. Strymon then released their first Eurorack module, also called Magneto, which went even deeper into multi-head echo than ever before. All of this history and experience with vintage style delay and echo effects laid the groundwork for what was to come.

 

The Final Word in Multi-Head Echo?

With so much experience in the area of vintage tape delay and multi-head echo emulation, Strymon was in a unique position to put their formidable collective experience into the realization of Volante. Before I even played the Volante, I had a feeling that this could be Strymon’s most important pedal release to date. If anything, it certainly represents the culmination of all their expertise and experience in this singular area, and by that recognition alone, I believe Volante stands as the definitive Strymon pedal and is indeed the most important release from this builder since the original TimeLine. Yes, that’s a bold statement to make and somewhat of a spoiler for the rest of this review.

Now let’s talk about why Volante is the final word in digitally emulated multi-head echo pedals. It all starts with the sounds and sound quality this pedal offers.

 

Welcome To The Machines

The Volante immediately recalls more than a few similarities with the famed Binson Echorec and few notable tape echo machines. With its 4 playback heads, primarily green LEDs, and that characteristic green finish, comparisons with the Echorec are obvious. Furthermore, the 3 Type options for drum, tape, & studio distinguish between styles of echo inspired by the Echorec’s magnetic drum echo, vintage tape echo units like the Roland Space Echo RE-201 & RE-501, and high-end studio tape machines.

The Volante’s Type options are at the core of determining the type of delay echo sounds you want to achieve with the pedal. For something very clean and modern, you might want to go with the studio Type option. If you’re chasing that Echorec sound, the drum Type is the obvious choice. The tape Type option offers a response somewhere in the middle. Strymon DSP wizard, Pete Celi, alluded to Volante being like an El Capistan on steroids, and I think that’s an adequate comparison at the very least. So whether you’re seeking sounds from the Echorec, Roland Space Echo, or other classic echo unit, the Volante could be regarded as a one-stop workstation for achieving echo sounds that span generations of vintage delay tones.

It’s worth pointing out that when you initially flip through the different Type options, you may not notice much of a difference at first, especially if you have the Repeats set low. The Type options have the most effect on the feedback regeneration of your echos over time. What often defines the sound of any great vintage echo effect is the distinct sound of how a unit’s echos change, degrade, and bloom over time. Try pushing the Repeats knob up to around 1-2 o’clock, and then listen to how the Type settings dramatically change the way the echos decay. (On a technical side note, you’ll also notice how the repeats continue echoing as you flip the Type switch. It’s as if you’re suddenly feeding your echoes from one type of echo machine into the Record Head of another machine. This could be used creatively; for example, let echoes from the drum Type degrade to a certain point, and then switch to the studio type to preserve a particular echo sound as the repeats trail away.)

While the Type options let you select the virtual echo machine you’re using, there are several other ways to interact with the sound of your echoes. Let’s start from the top… as in from the moment your sound source enters the Volante.

 

Clean Echoes vs Tape Saturation

The Rec Level knob adjusts the gain of a pair of Class A Analog JFET preamps that set your input level and massage your signal before it’s fed into the virtual Record Head. This singular control lets you dial in a wide range of sounds from pristine clean echo to full-on tape saturation. At lower Rec Level settings, you can preserve the audio quality of your input signal, particularly useful when using the studio echo Type. It starts to sound a bit hotter as you raise the knob, increasing until you discover some gritty saturation and even trashier echo sounds when you really dig in while playing. The initial echo repeats will reveal what the Rec Level is doing to your guitar signal, and you’ll hear textural changes in your echos as your saturated guitar tone cycles through Volante’s feedback matrix.

 

Tone Shaping with Volante

I’ve talked a bit about the different sounds that can be achieved from Volante’s echo machine Type options and the analog input processing, but that’s just scratching the surface.

Volante’s Low Cut & Wear knobs are the two most important knobs used to shape the general tonality of the pedal. While the Type options have more noticeable effect on the echos as they Repeat over time, these two knobs are used to contour your overall delay sound. The changes in tone can be subtle or dramatic, depending on what you’re going for.

The Wear knob is named to recall how tape ages over time, losing its pristine full-range sound after extended use and becoming progressively darker. The Wear knob simulates this effect by reducing the upper frequency range, essentially rolling off high end. You can use the Wear to darken a normally brighter studio tape echo, hone in on your ideal mid-range sound of an oscillating drum or tape echo, or tame the harshness resulting from cranking the Rec Level to scorching tape saturation. This powerful parameter is not to be underestimated.

The Low Cut knob is an obviously named control that cuts the low-end by applying a high-pass filter to your repeats. I generally find high pass filters to be essential for delays meant to be used in a studio environment, and I’m glad Strymon included this powerful weapon in Volante’s arsenal. The Low Cut can be used to clear the low frequencies of echos to make room for your guitar and other instruments in a live or studio mix. It also provides an essential role of helping attenuate the sound of repeating echos. Drum echos in particular are known for a characteristic build-up of lower frequencies (when using high Repeats settings), and the Low Cut knob lets you easily find the sweet spot where your echos can bloom in the lower to higher mid frequencies while not overpowering other bass focused elements in your mix. Of course, you can always reduce the Low Cut to minimum if you want to indulge in an ominous resonating echo presence.

 

The Modern Sounds of Vintage Echo

Before I discuss the degraded echo sounds that stem from using Volante’s Mechanics function, I want to touch on some opinions about how musicians of today approach the sounds of emulated vintage echo units.

I recently talked to one of the world’s foremost experts in restoring vintage Binson Echorecs, and his view seems to be that the ideal sounds of those classic machines as heard on countless classic records come from well maintained echo units with fresh playback drums and perfectly aligned heads. Most surviving Echorec units are a far cry from the era-specific sounds people are searching for unless we’re referencing a unit unit that has been immaculately maintained and/or expertly restored via means that is both costly and, due to the scarcity of parts and expertise, out of reach for most people even if you could afford it.

What I’m getting at is this–most engineers don’t have access to an immaculately maintained Echorec for a 100% authentic emulation. Also, the degraded tape sounds of many modern tape algorithms weren’t as cherished in days past as they are today. For example, if a tape machine in a professional studio started sounding old and worn, the tape would likely be replaced, and/or the machine would be further serviced as needed. “Wow & flutter” and tape quality degradation were defects to be avoided, not dialed in.

But many modern musicians like lo-fi noise, “wow & flutter”, and other irregularities that come from what many would argue are poorly maintained echo machines. So what gives?

Well, to start, lo-fi sounds do have appeal for some people. Think about how people often hear charm in lo-fi vinyl record sounds, even applying grainy lo-fi noise and limited range tone filters to studio tracks to achieve the sounds of a record needle skipping over particles of dust coupled with a shoddy record player and speaker.

Now consider the fact that most modern musicians only have access to poorly maintained echo machines. I’d argue that many modern emulations of vintage echo include low-fidelity echo features partly because the machines that engineers have available for reference also have irregularities and defects due to age and poor maintenance.

And let’s not forget the influence of modulated digital echoes from 80’s rack delays. Guitarists really started to appreciate modulated delay sounds with the advent of modulated delay. While wow & flutter were generally wanted to be minimized, musicians suddenly wanted their echos to have a chorus-like modulated quality. Yes, these sounds may sometimes have been used to add a fluctuating tape element to otherwise digital sounding delays, but my point here is that this influence may have further inspired musicians to appreciate the combination of modulation with tape echo tonality.

In any case it seems like we’ve collectively begun to look upon the imperfect sounds of time-worn echo machines with endearing admiration. Sure, that old tape echo or Echorec you found on Craigslist that’s been in someone’s garage for several decades probably sounds kind of busted compared to a brand new unit, but let’s just call that “mojo”. After all, it’s still the “real deal”, right?

I’m suggesting that the appeal of sounds that come from poorly maintained, defective, or broken echo machines is a modern phenomenon. If you want the authentic echo sounds of old, you likely shouldn’t be dialing them in by cranking up the “tape modulation” or aggressively reducing audio fidelity. But if you do want the sound of what a vintage echo machine would mostly likely sound like today, then by all means, degrade the audio as much as possible. The neat thing about Volante–it can do it all.

 

Volante’s Virtual Machinery

The Volante puts its own figurative spin on what the sounds of a NOS echo machine might sound like if you were to bring one into the modern era via a time machine. But you can also virtually age the machine as well thanks to Volante’s Mechanics knob. Sure, degraded echo sounds were the bane of recording engineers and the poor souls who had to maintain a studio’s echo units. But modern guitarists seem to love grit, noise, and all manner of nasty artifacts.

Volante’s Mechanics knob adds subtle tape speed fluctuations and noises from “friction, creases, splices, and contaminants”. The modulated aspects are bit more sporadic and random than what you’d hear from conventional LFO based modulated delays. The parameter is more true to creating modulation and other irregularities due to various machine wear that happens through years of use or neglect.

The Mechanics knob combines well with the Low Cut and Wear knob to further reduce the tonal range for a degraded echo sound. And you can max the Rec Level to push the tape saturation into heavier distortion to really make things get nasty. You can also lower the Tape Speed to half for a lower fidelity tape sound. All these aspects combined serve to create an echo machine that a listener would definitely think has seen better days. And with the simple change of a preset, you can make it sound just like new again.

 

 

The Multi-Head Experience

Strymon came up with a simple and effective interface for dialing in Volante’s echos and delay times. Two rows of 4 Playback & 4 Feedback buttons are used to activate any of the 4 playback heads and indicate which heads will re-enter the record head and feedback matrix. You can also push and hold a Playback button to alternate whether its echos play at full or half volume. If you’re running in stereo, another cool trick is to press and hold a Feedback button while turning the Time knob to pan the Playback heads anywhere in the stereo field. Having stereo panned playback heads adds some remarkable spatial ambience to the Volante’s sonic palette, and this aspect is definitely one of the pedal’s most powerful modern advantages.

The multi-head Playback assignments combine with the Spacing knob options to achieve all kinds of standard intervals and syncopated echo patterns. Dotted eighths, stereo ping pong delays, triplets, and unconventional patterns are waiting to be dialed in. And of course in addition to the Time knob, you can use Tap Tempo or MIDI Clock to sync Volante in time. The 3 Speed options come in handy here, too, to let you easily half or double the tape speed for instant slow down or speed up effects.

 

Volante’s Spring Reverb

The Spring knob adds some extra ambience to the whole package, adding spring reverb and increasing the level as you turn it clockwise. It’s more than solid, fulfilling the duties demanded by all but the most “purist” leaning analog spring reverb fans. It’s drippy with plenty of bounce, and it sounds killer in stereo. Wish you had more more control? There’s a sub parameter for Spring Decay that can morph between a short decay and extra long reverb ambience. Dial it in real short to showcase more of that snappy spring drip; it’ll seem more pronounced with less Reverb Decay when you crank the Reverb.

 

I/O Connectivity, MIDI, SOS Mode, and More

The stereo I/O is a huge draw of Volante, especially considering that you can individually pan the Playback heads. And of course, the twin JFET preamps are a nice touch to ensure discrete and even processing of the left and right audio channels.

I like that Strymon added dedicated MIDI I/O jacks as seen on their larger pedals. This ensures that you’ll be able to easily integrate Volante into any MIDI setup for external control. There’s also MIDI over USB in case you’re planning to use Volante on your desktop to add some high quality echo flavor to your DAW. There are tons of extra perks for MIDI users including individual CC control for bypassing of the Echo & Reverb effects and deeper control over each Playback head’s volume level, among other things.

The Sound On Sound mode is another fun addition, letting you loop audio and play it back while splicing in more recorded audio to play over. It offers some neat tricks like reverse playback, an infinite mode option that perpetually loops audio without degradation, and some cool mechanical startup and slowdown effects that are heard when playback is paused and unpaused. My only gripe here is that the SOS mode is mono only. With all the effort put into the stereo aspects of this pedal (and the fact that even the TimeLine functions as a full stereo 30-second looper), it’s just disappointing that the SOS mode can only be used in mono. Yes, SOS mode is still a lot of fun, and the mono only aspect isn’t an issue if you’re running the Volante in a mono rig, but the glaring omission of stereo SOS looping is the one ding in the Volante’s otherwise impenetrable armor.

I’ve never even talked about the Volante’s Favorite foot-switch which lets you quickly recall a favorite sound saved among one of the 8 presets linked to the 8 surface buttons. (There are 300 preset slots accessible via MIDI!) Then you have deep expression control possibilities for taking control of Volante’s knob functions. You can also use Strymon’s MultiSwitch Plus for preset selection or Transport Mode (to control SOS functions). There’s just so much to talk about as Volante is simply the most feature packed dedicated echo pedal that’s been released to date. But if I had to sum it all up…

 

 

Summary:

The Strymon Volante is the culmination of all of the builder’s experience in creating vintage inspired echo effect, resulting in what is arguably the best overall dedicated echo pedal in its class in terms of sound quality and features. While Volante respectfully nods to all of the iconic echo machines that came before it, the pedal opens up possibilities that no other echo unit could ever dream of achieving. With the flexibility of its intuitive surface parameters and knob arrangement, those 4 selectable playback heads with wide-ranging Spacing options, huge tone shaping prowess, and versatile connectivity options and external control potential, Volante is an undeniable force that sets the modern standard for vintage inspired echo.

That concludes our Strymon Volante review. Thanks for reading.

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