MOOG MF Trem Minifooger Review – Best Analog Tremolo Pedal?

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The guitar effects industry is and always has been an eye-filling landscape pockmarked with never-ending, cavernous rabbit holes. Some of us who traverse this plane seeking a sound all our own find ourselves unproductively wrapped up in ancillary selling points, designating ever-changing value and brokering favor based on how high the latest offering sets the bar. I’m particularly guilty of ignoring some truly great pedals in favor of sleek, artfully adorned pieces of hype that I ended up dissatisfied with just as often as I was pleased. The mercurial nature of the consumer-level pedal nerd is not a universally bad thing for the craft of effects-building or for music itself as we often crave and demand new combinations of effects and new ways to use them. While the industry is happy to oblige this demand, an intuitive return to the basics of what makes a core effect great is seldom met with less than a sigh of refreshed relief and familiar nods in acknowledgement of “Yes, I know exactly how I’m going to use that!”

The updated classic has been the crux of many a great company in this, the golden age of guitar effects. For example, MOOG (counterintuitively pronounced “mōg”) has stood conspicuously tall as an innovator in the music industry since the company’s inception in the 1950’s and has lead the charge into modern music without rest, frequently releasing products that build on previous works and change what we think is possible in any piece of music hardware.

For guitarists, the Moogerfooger line of effects pedals, first released in 1998, have become a boutique pedal lover’s wet-dream, offering flexibility and unreal tone, albeit in a massive package. MOOG later released the Minifooger line in 2013 to great critical acclaim, packing simplified interpretations of their legendary Moogerfoogers in enclosures designed to fit comfortably on a pedalboard. The Minifooger line included Delay, Drive, Boost, Ring Mod, and Tremolo and in 2015 was bolstered by Chorus and Flange units and an art update. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Minifooger 03 MF Trem, an intuitive and diverse tremolo that lives up to the MOOG family name.

Features:

  • 100% Analog Circuitry built around a balanced modulator and Sub-Audio VCO (voltage controlled oscillator)
  • Harmonically eclectic range spanning into bass and synthesizer voices
  • True Bypass
  • Four Knobs for Shape, Tone, Depth and Speed
  • Expression input control for Speed (+5VDC)
  • Compact and lightweight

MOOG is the sort of company that can get away with giving their product a name that is literally a number and the function of the product, as opposed to a whacky nickname. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sh*t out of whacky pedal names (I browse Reverb listings in the morning for a laugh) but when you’re flexing the bicep of a company name like MOOG, people will trust anything that comes after it. Luckily for us, MOOG is also the sort of company that is not just known for their innovative and high-quality music products, they practically invented the innovative and high-quality music product.

Skin deep, the Trem is an unapologetic exercise in utilitarian design, bearing an angular black and silver countenance that would make Sol LeWitt smirk in appreciation. As if weaponized, the Trem possesses a bolted-on faceplate with its function and place of origin printed on. Unsurprisingly the cast aluminum enclosure is tightly constructed and appropriately lightweight, making it perfect for travel. Knobs for Tone, Speed, Depth, and Shape are in their logical, upward-facing configurations; the Trem’s mono I/O, 9V power in, and expression pedal input are all top-mounted to save room, effectively making the total footprint (provided you are using elbowed 1/4” cables) a respectable 3”x7”. The importance of size in this case is nothing to sneeze at, considering the tone inside these negligible borders is anything but negligible.

Check out MOOG for more info about the MF Trem!

SOUND & PERFORMANCE:

Let’s talk knobs. With a dedicated pot crossfading the Shape of the modulation from smooth rise/sharp fall to sharp rise/smooth fall, you can dial in a subtle optical tremolo vibe or go ham and knock chunks out of your signal at will. The Tone knob is a low-pass filter affecting only the Wet signal, holding dominion over the entire harmonic spectrum of the signal. This determines how lively the Trem’s reaction is when presented with the harmonic content and dynamics of your playing. Speed is pretty obvious, while Depth is actually a Wet/Dry control. The MF Trem relies on phase cancellation and addition, so as you crank the Depth, more frequencies will be added and cancelled by the Tremolo effect. The Depth and Speed play off of one another in intuitive ways with the Depth slowly doubling the tempo of the modulation the further into full-wet territory you go. To get the most out of the Trem, an expression pedal or control voltage is an absolute must. The expression opens up a much wider range of speeds, pushing the effect into the Ring-mod realm of modulation. Changing the speed in real-time yields beautifully disorienting rotary feels; it was also really fun to dial in a quarter-to-triplet modulation with the output control on my expression pedal and change the tempo in real time.

MOOG includes a printed list of suggested knob positions when they ship the MF Trem, so I’ll run through those as well with my feedback on each.

RAY GUN

The “RAY GUN” configuration has our Shape and Tone knobs maxed, the Depth at noon and Speed set at about 2 o’clock. The sharp rise/smooth fall waveform feels pointy, adding a succinct urgency to the tone. With an expression pedal, this configuration is less of a tremolo and more of a low-frequency ring mod, adding an oscillating metallic chime to your playing even with the treadle heeled. Sweeping up and down through the frequency spectrum after a fuzz is a particularly nice way to add some thickness to your dynamics.

HARD TREM

This configuration is similar to the RAY GUN in that the Tone and Speed are set to five and three respectively, but it calls for the Depth to be brought to nine and the Shape brought back to three. The smoother decay of the waveform rounds out the edges of the Tremolo while still retaining the abruptness of the cancellation. I also noticed while setting up this configuration that the shape knob slowed down the tempo of the modulation the closer you are to the center of the pot. This might be a function of the waveform being lengthened from one end as you dial the Shape knob back for a smoother, er… shape.

OPTO TREM

Next I dialed the shape even further back, to noon. This is where the waveform becomes smooth from its attack to its release. This flavoring, with the knobs nearing the center, is an example of one of the more mild tones the Trem is capable of. If you’ve got a whammy bar and a spring reverb, you’ve got a whole effects loop here.

REVERSE

Crank the shape hard left for a smooth attack and abrupt cutoff, like quick little swells overtaking your tone. Paired with an expression you can get some pretty dope Leslie vibes at higher speeds that cool off into the reverse feel for which MOOG nicknamed the configuration. I really enjoyed putting this after a full wet reverb to get a sound like building momentum while falling down a mile-long exhaust shaft.

MOOG boasts that the Minifooger line’s extended range capabilities make them a perfect addition to bass and synth utilities, as well. At band practice I had the chance to plug a MOOG Sub Phatty synth into the Trem, and unlike many other guitar effects on the market that would fizzle out when confronted with the vastness of a synth’s voice, the Trem’s function remained fundamentally the same, even pushed into extremely low octaves. With such an extensive range of instruments readily affected by it, I’d say the MF Trem is perfectly suited for its $139 price point.

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Overall-Rating-4.5

The MOOG Minifooger MF Trem yields nearly every feel in the tremolo family, even extending into the realm of limited phase and ring-modulation. The way the knobs interact to generate vastly varied tones, even when parameter changes are slight, is a degree of building artistry that reflects MOOG’s synthesizer history in a simply articulated way. Its flexibility makes it the perfect addition to any pedalboard and may even have the analog-leaning studio engineer ready to invest. The market today is soaked in tremolos with similar features, so to give the MF Trem a perfect score I would have liked to see some sort of tap-tempo feature. Failing that, if you’ve been seeking a decked-out, versatile, small-enough-for-your-baby-‘board pound of flux, you’ve found it.

That concludes our review of the MOOG Minifooger MF Trem. Thanks for reading!

Keeley Loomer Fuzz/Reverb Review – Best Shoegaze Pedal?

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I was 3 months old when My Bloody Valentine exposed the unprepared world to their textural shoegaze masterpiece, Loveless. I didn’t grow up bathed in the wash of interlaced fuzzy drones, nor did I spend the springtime of my youth entering a trance state behind Kevin Shields’ wall-of-sound, but I promise you that when I did first did hear it, I was somehow overcome with waves of nostalgic bliss. It’s very important to me to know that in the age of Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a record like Loveless was made and inspired an entire generation of musicians to experiment with sonic textures, becaming a source inspiration for nearly every band I look up to regardless of genre. If you haven’t heard that record, go forth and listen to Loveless at your earliest convenience. Everything in this review will make just as much sense if you don’t, but you owe it to yourself to experience the oppressively atmospheric wash that My Bloody Valentine invented. It is arguably the entrance of shoegaze into the world of accessible music, and you too will find yourself hearing the precursor to countless undisputed champions of modern music.

Many of us to this day still struggle to suss out that distinct wall-of-sound tone borne of Kevin Shields’ exhaustive studio work and bolstered throughout by the now-mythical Alesis MidiVerb and the Yamaha SPX90. Few companies have even tried to pull it all off in one package, leaving a hole in the market that is anything but shallow. Keeley’s Loomer, named for the second track on Loveless, aims to fill the void here, featuring both a thick Big Muff Pi inspired fuzz circuit with tone-sculpting response options and three different and unique reverb modes that are not quite what they seem on the surface. Keeley’s been getting zealous with their artist-based/ “neo-vintage” workstations lately, their latest releases including the Jimi Hendrix-inspired Monterey and the Dark Side, a foray into the realm of Pink Floyd. The Loomer is one step further into this grand, tone-copping experiment, and I think we’re all happy that Keeley stepped away from the more traditional guitar pedal vibe to attempt a riskier direction.

Features:

  • Three Reverb Voices: Focus, Reverse, Hall
  • Three Fuzz Response options: Flat, Scoop, Full
  • Seven Parameters:
    Level – Controls the output volume of the Fuzz circuit
    Fuzz – Controls the gain
    Filter – Controls the tone of the Fuzz
    Blend – Controls the amount of wet signal is blended from the Reverb circuit
    Decay – In Focus mode, this is both the Reverb decay time and the feedback for the dual delays. Reverse repurposes it as an 8-way switch for decay times ranging from 150-500ms, and in Hall mode it serves as the Decay time. So basically it’s a Decay knob.
    Warmth – Tone control for the Reverb
    Depth – Multi-purpose knob, controlling the amount of shimmer in the Hall reverb or the depth of modulation in the Reverse and Focus
  • Expression pedal input
  • Version 1 features a TRS input for inserting effects by use of a TRS Y cable, Version 2 replaces this function with an order switch
  • True bypass
  • 9v Powered

Check out Keeley Electronics for more info about the Loomer.

Okay, for housing two foot-witches and seven knobs, this thing is TINY. With elbowed 1/4” cables in the top mounted inputs, the effective area taken up by the Loomer is about 4.5”x4.5”, making for a ton of tone in a tiny package. The Loomer’s dense metal enclosure features a saturated pink homage to Loveless’ album art, and the blue LEDs next to the foot-switches detract nothing from the haunting decor. I thought it was extra clever on Keeley’s part to reverse the filter of the Warmth knob, making the dark (low-range) tones the furthest point clockwise and the brighter (high-range) tones counterclockwise, as if to insist we push the Loomer to its darkest capabilities.

You may be wondering where in the loop you can put the Loomer, considering conventional wisdom tells us Overdrive and Fuzz should be near the start of the chain, while Reverb should be dead last, leaving room for modulations, pitch-shifters, etc., throughout the space in between. Originally, Keeley included a TRS input to allow for signal-chain experimentation, but due to popular demand, they opted to replace this option with a button that swaps the fuzz and ‘verb on the fly.

I am actually writing this review with the TRS version in hand, so I can’t write about how well the swap button works, but I can tell you that through use of the TRS input, I can do fundamentally the same thing. More on swapping the reverb and fuzz later.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but if I have to have one of the two, I think I’d actually prefer the TRS input over the order button to add my own flavor to the signal chain or to re-order the reverb and fuzz with an effects loop switcher. That said, for most regular guitarists, the convenience of a button to swap the order of the fuzz and reverb on the fly can’t be understated. As Gabriel mused in his initial write-up of the Loomer, “Perhaps we can have them both?” Both are pretty neat options, so I’d like to see it if popular demand insisted upon it.

SOUND & PERFORMANCE:

On the right half of the Loomer is a 3-knob Big Muff-based circuit, the same circuit featured in Keeley’s Dark side workstation. You get a Level and Fuzz (gain) knob to control your input level, and a Filter knob to control your tone. The Filter knob is really intuitive, sweeping through a wide range of effective frequencies. Beneath the knobs there is also a neat little response switch that toggles between flat, full, and scooped responses, taking the fuzz circuit from a “nice-to-have” to a full-fledged contender ready to go toe-to-toe with any fuzz pedal on your board. This is a very versatile Muff inspired circuit.

The Scoop voicing refers, of course to a mid-scoop, leaving us with just the highs and lows of the frequency spectrum, making for a super aggressive, metal-worthy tone. Of all the voices, I found that this one was the least liable to turn to muddy mush when I cranked the fuzz knob. The Flat voicing offers a much more, well, flat EQ curve, giving you a relatively less responsive range of harmonic content. Meanwhile, Full responds openly to your playing, yielding warmer tones than the other two voices. All of them are high-gain, compressed, hairy options and which one you use primarily will largely be a matter of personal taste.

On the other half of the Loomer we have the meat of the whole enchilada: the reverb section. Now, the reverb consists of Decay, Warmth, Blend, and Depth parameters; all save the Blend knob have different functions depending on which of the Loomer’s three signature reverb voices you’re using. The Depth knob, which controls the more musical aspects of each voicing, is also controllable via expression pedal.

FOCUS

This gives you reverb into a dual delay into a quad-chorus. Now we’re getting exponential! The Focus is the ethereal reincarnation of the “Soft Focus” patch on the Yamaha FX500 multi effects processor, more affectionately known as “The Sound of the 80’s.” Seriously, playing with this voice clean felt like playing in a Genesis cover band. I promise that’s a good thing.

Studio engineers and atmospheric musicians alike have known since time immemorial that running a reverb through a delay garners long wispy tails of air. The dual delay aspect of this voicing is set to 250ms on one side, and 380ms on the other. This creates a thick blend of indiscernible wet signal. The quad chorus of the Focus adds even more body to the already luscious wash of reverb/delay, turning longer trails into impenetrable thickets of warble. The depth knob controls the depth of the chorus, meaning you can amplify the intensity of the effect when an expression pedal is plugged in. I’d love to be hearing this in Stereo right about now, but it’s a blast to play in mono, typical of how most guitarists play anyway.

REVERSE

This voicing got the most airtime in Keeley’s advertisements and tech demos leading up to the Loomer’s release and for good reason: the Reverse patch is badass. Based on the reverse effects of both the Alesis MidiVerb and the Yamaha SPX90, the Reverse is technically not a reverse reverb. Where traditional reverse reverbs applied in a studio environment are reversed wet reverb trails, the reverse voicing on the Loomer is technically a delay whose repeats play back affected by a volume swell. That swelling effect is made even crazier by the envelope-controlled vibrato, which will bend the note of your repeats upon responding to the attack of your playing. Keeley boasts that this is designed to simulate the pitch-bending of a trem-bar on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar. In that vein, the Warmth knob is meant to affect the tone the way a rhythm pickup tone pot on a Jazzmaster would. Coupled with the Filter control on the Fuzz half of the Loomer, the options for tone-sculpting are open and plenty.

I found the envelope-controlled vibrato to be a little oppressive without the use of the expression input. The rationale behind the use of the trem-bar on the strum is a matter of feel, not bending every note indiscriminately. Thankfully, we can control the intensity of each pitch-bend with an expression pedal, but that adds a layer of mastery we must surmount before truly unlocking the potential of this patch. What’s really beautiful about this setting is the way the repeats push the harmonic distortion of your signal when the Loomer is placed in front of a just-barely-overdriven amp. You know the sound of two notes a semitone away from one another behind an overdrive? Yeah? The Reverse voicing is like a constant wave of that. With the Warmth dialed toward dark and the fuzz filter just a hair past noon you get a really thick ambient rhythm tone.

HALL

The Hall voicing of the reverb half of the Loomer is a long Hall reverb with an octave-up shimmer that can be blended into the tone at will with the Depth knob (and the expression pedal as I’ve been harping on about.) There’s an undeniable musicality to slowly bringing in that choir of angels that I love to utilize as often as possible, sometimes to inappropriate effect. But getting carried away is arguably a worthwhile endeavor considering how much sheer fun results from the excess.

The brighter the warmth, the colder the shimmer will be, so I like to dial back that sharpness with the knob set toward the dark end. This keeps the shimmer from getting in the way of your playing no matter how much wet signal is blended into the chain.

SWAPPING CHAIN ORDER 

Originally included in the V1 Loomer’s box was a split TRS cable, which, should you choose to accept it, allows you to do one of two things:

1: Add an effect/effect chain between the fuzz and the reverb halves of the Loomer or…

2: Swap the fuzz and reverb halves of the Loomer (and also add effects between the two if you like).

The former is fine. It makes perfect sense to the sane mind; use the well-balanced and fully featured fuzz at the beginning of your chain, add your own tremolo, phaser, what-have-you in the middle, and end the chain with the beautifully rendered reverb. Boom, pedalboard complete.

To the more adventurous (read: less sane,) the latter is too tempting to ignore in favor of what makes sense. I am one of these people. I love just a teensy bit of fuzz after any reverb. It helps to pop you out of the mix if you’re getting washed out. If you want to get really crazy, the Hall sounds downright terrifying if you crank the fuzz, and what was once a chamber of cherubs singing praises to the universe has been distorted into banshees emerging from a disturbed burial site when you bring the shimmer into the mix. The Reverse can be made to sound identical to the rhythm tone in Loveless’ “I Only Said,” confirming the Loomer as the fastest route to a shoegaze baseline. The Focus’ nuances actually flattened out a little bit when fuzzed out, which I expected, but the way the quad chorus pushed the fuzz made for a brilliant and spooky lead tone replete with clippy, oversaturated modulations pulsing underneath.

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Overall-Rating-4.5

Wielding a fuzz that sounds massive no matter where you point the knobs and reverbs that are simple enough to be used by any genre but packed with experiment-worthy twists, The Keeley Loomer is bursting at the seams (screws?) with dark mysterious energy. The Loomer is the bread and butter to any shoegaze or post-rock project; it sounds like a black hole in a cathedral at its most extreme. I mentioned before that I think I’d have preferred Keeley stick with the TRS input as opposed to the order swap button, and I stand by that, but each guitarist has their own needs and reversing the order on the fly is arguably more convenient than running a cable from the output to the input and plugging your guitar and amp into the split TRS cable. Maybe Keeley could have gone stereo with the Loomer to get the full range of syncopation with the Focus and Reverse voices, but My Bloody Valentine recorded most of their heavy guitar tracks in mono, so that particular gripe is moot. The inclusion of an expression pedal input allows the guitarist a true musical flexibility that many other reverbs with similar sound quality at similar price points just don’t offer, and with a full-fledged fuzz attached, you can’t ignore it.

That concludes our review of the Keeley Loomer. Thanks for reading!

Effectrode Blackbird SR-71 Review – Best Pre-Amp Pedal?

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The Effectrode Blackbird SR-71 is a two-channel tube preamp pedal inspired by the “Blackface” Fender Twin Reverb and a certain highly sought after Dumble amp. Effectrode is regarded as the premier guitar pedal builder when it comes to implementing real vacuum tubes in their “audiophile pedals”. The Blackbird is one of the builder’s flagship pedals with a range of tonal options that allow it to be integrated with a guitar amp as an additional preamp. It can even act as your pedalboard based amp solution or tube tone recording solution when in both cases used in combination with your preferred method of speaker cab simulation. I had high hopes for this pedal, and it lived up in a big way. We’ll get to the details soon, but first, let me ask you this…

Is “Good Tone” Purely Subjective?

I’ve played a lot of pedals in recent years. (That’s somewhat of an understatement.) Yet while I have a lot of experience with guitar pedals, I generally don’t like to assume that I possess any more expertise on the subject than any other tone-chasing guitarist; I just know what I like and what sounds good to my ears. But I have noticed that I’ve become much more discriminating over time. Perhaps I have indeed acquired a greater ability to discern good tones from bad, as subjective as we may assume good tone to be. But I’d argue that there is an objectivity to good tone versus bad, just as you might claim that there is more artistic merit to a Rembrandt painting than a 4-year-old’s doodling. Some pieces of masterfully crafted gear stand out “tonally” with their sound quality expressing a sonic detail and universal appeal that transcend the crude efforts of lesser luthiers, although the reasons why may be difficult to communicate in language.

I won’t ramble down the rabbit hole of that point. I just brought up that musing for two reasons. First, it’s because the Effectrode Blackbird seems to be an immaculate creation. Within less than 10 minutes of plugging in to this pedal, I had already crowned it as one of my personal top 5 favorite pedals, and it’s since become a staple in my own guitar rig. That’s perhaps greater than any critical praise I could give. And that’s also a big deal to me because, like I said, I’ve play a lot of pedals. The other reason is that regardless of my personal opinion, I believe that the Blackbird has objectively good qualities that set it apart from most pedals. Frankly, I find this product so good that it’s intimidating to write about as I fear that I may not be able to express its merits accurately. It’s not about writing a “convincing” article or about whether or not my words “sell” you on the idea of this product. Yes, this is a very special instrument. Yes, I think every guitarist should experience it. And it’s the seemingly esoteric and ineffable qualities of the Blackbird I fear you may not get out of this article. Even watching a demo video won’t convey what you experience when playing it for yourself. Just keep that in mind going forward.

Features:

Two Truly Independent Channels: Add multiple channels to your vintage/boutique guitar amp! The clean channel is a replica of the classic ‘Blackface’ circuit Leo Fender created from the RCA Receiving Tube Manual and is beautifully warm and glassy sounding. The overdrive channel is an improvement on the hot-rodded tube circuitry found in Dumble amps and packs a huge degree of flexibility ranging from warm and fat blues drive tones, through classic rock crunch, to harmonically-saturated sounds.

Classic Tone Stacks: Each channel has it’s own dedicated Bass, Mid and Treble controls based on the interactive tonestacks found on the ‘Blackface’ amps.

Tube Buffered Output: For connection to guitar amplifier. This output is a low impedance tube cathode follower stage with +10dBu of gain and is capable of driving long cable runs with lowest possible tone loss.

Transformer Balanced Out: For superb professional quality direct recording. Triad transformer isolated balanced output (600Ω impedance) with +6dBu gain allowing direct connection to mixing desk, PC sound capture card or power amplifier. The transformer is driven by audiophile discrete class AB transistor circuitry (the only solid-state components in the entire signal path) and imparts some additional sweetness to the guitar signal – in fact, speaker emulation often isn’t even necessary when recording direct, just a some eq and a little reverb can create incredible, full-bodied tones.

Adjustable Bias: External switch allows biasing to be selected for 12AX7, 12AU7 or 12AY7 tubes installed in the overdrive channel. Internal bias trim pot allows further adjustment for other types of dual stage miniature B9A tube such as 12AV7, 12AT7, etc. Swapping tubes allows the fundamental character of the drive channel to be altered to replicate a wide range of vintage guitar amps and create new sounds too.

Tube swapping: The tone and gain characteristics of the Blackbird pedal can be fine-tuned by interchanging tubes – the pedal is designed for easy access to the tubes for this purpose. In the time it takes to change a light-bulb the core tone of the overdrive channel can be tailored to your exact requirements – from subtle break-up, to mellow blues and vintage or saturated modern rock distortion, this pedal has wide versatility and all by simply removing a tube and replacing it with a different type.

All Tube: The Blackbird is an entire tube preamp section in a pedal format. The signal path is 100% pure analogue built with vacuum tubes operating at amp plate voltages. D.C. powered tube heaters ensure absolute quietest possible operation.
Audiophile Components: Absolutely no skimping on the quality of the components – polyester capacitors and instrumentation grade metal-film resistors are used throughout the audio signal path. Find out more about the Effectrode engineering ethos on component quality here!

Dakaware Knobs: Authentic phenolic Dakaware, Chicago 1510 knobs custom manufactured for Effectrode in the U.S.A using the original 1940s moulds.

Extremely compact: The Blackbird is small enough to carry in a gig bag with your cables, tuner and other tools of the trade. You’ll be sure of unparalleled tone wherever you roam and it makes a great backup as a spare rig. No guitarist should leave home (or be at home!) without it!

Housed in a real metal box: The Blackbird is built to last and for rigorous touring – each preamp pedal is housed in an aluminum alloy enclosure which powder-coated with a stoved epoxy silkscreen.

True Bypass Switching: With Effectrode’s unique ‘anti-pop’ or ‘thump’ footswitching circuitry utilizing sealed, gold-contact relay to eliminate the possibility of dirty contacts degrading the sound and minimal internal audio path.

Includes 12V Wall-wart Power Supply: High quality low-noise switched mode 12VDC at 1.5A wall-wart compatible with all our pedals. Accepts 100V to 240VAC mains input and comes with different mains outlet adaptor plugs, so there is always a plug that fits the country that you are playing in.

Named after the coolest plane ever built!: The Blackbird SR-71 operated at Mach3+ to allow the pilot to outrun ground-to-air missiles! Like it’s counterpart the Blackbird vacuum tube preamp puts you in control of your core drive sound.

I’ll give most of my commentary about the Blackbird’s features in the next section where I’ll discuss them in relation to the sounds this pedal produces. I just want to touch briefly on the design of this elegant instrument. Effectrode pedals generally have a functional, understated appearance, and that’s the case with the Blackbird. The enclosure is a bit wide, so it’ll need some accommodation on a tight pedalboard. Fortunately, all the jacks are top-mounted for convenient access and to ensure there’s no potential wasted ‘board real estate on each side of the pedal. The face of the pedal is packed tightly; control knobs and foot-switches are densely spread a bit past the left two thirds of the pedal’s surface. On the right side is a roll-bar protected trio of glowing JJ Electronic 12AX7 tubes protruding up from within. My only area of concern with the layout is that the 2 foot-switches are a bit close to the classy looking Dakaware knobs of the clean channel. Restrained performers won’t mind, but rowdy showmen will need to step a bit more carefully or consider using an external TRS 2-button foot-switch for channel switching/bypassing if the close proximity is an issue.

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Opening the pedal doesn’t offer a view of the components, but be assured that what’s on the other side of the PCB is as densely packed as possible to keep what’s basically an actual “amp-in-a-box” (at least the pre-amp anyway) in as small of an enclosure as possible. You will discover the Bias trimpot, a Volume trimpot, and a jumper for changing switching functions. We’ll discuss the details of these internal options as we go.

Visit Effectrode for more info about the Blackbird SR-71.

Sound & Performance:

Let’s talk about the general sounds the Blackbird offers when used as a pre-amp in front of a traditional amp. I generally prefer cleaner amp tones that are in Fender Bassman or Blackface territory, and I’m currently running through either a Rivera Venus 5 or Venus Recording with the amp’s EQ voicing set for a Blackface style sound. For testing I used an American Standard Strat with DiMarzio HS-3 in the bridge & a Gibson Flying V with Seymour Duncan ’59 (neck) and JB 35th Anniversary (bridge) pickups.

Effectrode-Blackbird-SR-71-Review-Best-Pre-Amp-Pedal-03Clean Channel

Activating the Blackbird over a neutral clean amp sound adds further to the distinct Blackface style characteristics I’m pretty accustomed to. There is a very nice shine to the sound, a brilliant “glassy” tone that reveals some of the best Fender Twin Reverb style tonality you’ll hear outside of a pristine specimen of the actual amp. The Blackbird’s Clean Channel boasts a familiar tonestack found in those classic amps, so veterans with experience playing the Fender originals will be at home here. In addition to the Bass, Middle, & Treble controls is a single Volume knob (no Gain needed) for matching levels or applying a little boost if you want to hit your amp a little harder to induce some overdrive.

What I find especially appealing is that the Blackbird doesn’t compound your clean tone into a muddy mess when stacking it with a clean amp foundation tone. It’s surprising how incredibly low the noise floor is, and I’ve found myself often using the Clean Channel “always on” as an essential component to my clean sound when playing the Blackbird in front of a tube amp. Also, if I’m switching from a humbucker to single coil equipped guitar, I may use the pedal to add or remove certain frequencies (particularly treble) while setting the Volume to a matched level to that of the other guitar. This adds a lot versatility for performing guitarists who use multiple guitars on stage or anyone who’d find an additional clean sound appealing. And it’s generally useful if your amp’s base clean sound needs a little extra sparkle.

There’s also a Presence flip-switch that can add some instant brightness to the Clean Channel. It applies to all of the pedal’s various channel voicings, so it may not be suitable to leave on in all situations. I’ll discuss its use in a moment.

Crunch Channel

The Crunch Channel is a hot-rodded Dumble flavoring (the Dumble amp it’s based on in particular being itself an evolved Blackface Fender). This channel adds a dedicated Gain knob to the control scheme and with it a range of saturated tones to explore. There are also 2 unique configurations for this channel: Classic & Creamy.

The Classic mode yields an appropriately “classic” range of drive tones. Go here for the types of saturation you’d associate with blues rock and classic rock guitar. The Creamy mode offers a more modern sounding saturation with heaps of gain on tap. It’s worth going into the nuanced differences between these modes in relation to settings. I expect the Classic mode to be a favorite for many guitarists, so let’s start there.

Effectrode-Blackbird-SR-71-Review-Best-Pre-Amp-Pedal-04Classic: With the Gain set left of noon, the Classic mode gives you a great, alternate clean setting if you dial in the EQ a bit differently than the Clean channel. Pushing the Gain just past noon will give you a hint of bite when you dig in. Somewhere around the 1-2 o’clock area is perhaps my favorite setting for the Gain. You’ll get a nice grit that responds well to your playing dynamics; it’ll also clean up a bit when cutting your guitar’s volume knob. Background noise is relatively low around this area, too, and the sound is tight and punchy. As you push the Gain towards around 3 o’clock and higher, the sound becomes progressively louder and brighter. At this point it’s worth mentioning that this mode may come alive a bit more for humbuckers here as you’ll notice more treble bite and note articulation. You can tweak the Gain and Treble to get your top-end just right. It’s worth noting that these settings should be considered starting points as it’ll be essential to listen carefully to find the sweet spots in relation to the guitar(s) you’re using.

Effectrode-Blackbird-SR-71-Review-Best-Pre-Amp-Pedal-05Creamy: This mode immediately became my personal favorite when I first played the Blackbird as I always seem to gravitate towards more heavily saturated tones. However, I came to discover that I find the Classic mode more suited to bringing out a single-coil like clarity from humbuckers, and the Creamy mode’s saturation really works well for adding a more humbucker-like thickness to single-coils. Regardless of what guitar and pickups you use, Creamy mode provides a more harmically rich saturation that contrasts the Classic mode’s more focused and tamer tones. This mode has more complexity and richness. It also has a looser feel that isn’t too spongey. The Gain is usable all the way up to maximum settings. Despite my confession to having a propensity for gain, I don’t typically advocate for turning the Gain “to eleven”, but the wide range of excellent gain tones extends throughout the knob’s sweep which is very rare in any amp or pedal. Just be mindful; while the background noise is pretty low until around 2 o’clock, if you’re going for full saturation, some background noise will creep in.

Presence

Before moving on I need to mention the Presence switch again. This is handy for tweaking the overall response of the Blackbird to a brighter or darker rig. If your amp is a bit too warm and dark or you’re playing some vintage humbuckers, this can add a little brilliance. If your single coils are already bright enough and/or you’re playing through a modern clean amp, leave the Presence off. While I sometimes enjoy a brighter and more full-range sound, I generally find myself keeping the Presence off as the Treble knobs can add a sufficient brightness if I need it. If anything, it might be nice if there were internal Presence dip-switches to further contrast the Classic & Creamy tones, but that’s hardly anything to complain about considering the flexibility of the EQ controls.

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Integrating Blackbird Into Your Rig

The Blackbird has 2 operating modes that affect the way the bypassing and channel selection works. An internal jumper lets you choose from the default mode or an “always on” mode. Let’s discuss the differences.

Default Mode: The default mode lets the Bypass foot-switch activate & bypass the pedal. The Channel switch will select from the Clean & Crunch channels. In this mode you use the Classic/Creamy flip-switch to select the voicing of the Crunch channel. The Default mode is the standard mode of operation when using the Blackbird in a rig with a guitar amp that already has a sound you enjoy. The foot-switches will thus let you have the sound of your amp with the pedal bypassed, the Clean channel, and the Crunch sound with your preferred voicing selected.

“Always On” Mode: I’ve dubbed this “always on” mode because it allows you to keep the pedal on at all times and use the Blackbird as a permanent preamp in your guitar rig. In this configuration the Channel foot-switch will select from the Clean and Crunch channels as expected while the Bypass foot-switch lets you switch from Classic to Creamy. This gives you access to all 3 preamp sounds and is ideal if the Blackbird is to become a permanent fixture of your sound. It’s worth mentioning that the Classic/Creamy flip-switch is now a master power switch for activating/bypassing the pedal in case you still want to deactivate it without opening the pedal again. It may be useful to deactivate it in the studio if need arises; the flip-switch will act like a “standby” switch on an amp..

I’ve switched between both operating modes on occasion, and there’s one concern to be aware of for guitarists that expect to use the “always on” option for quick access to both the Classic & Creamy modes. It’s fine that the Classic & Creamy modes share EQ controls; however, the Gain knob produces significantly different volume levels between the two modes. This makes it challenging to match levels. I find that the Gain works best somewhere around 1-2 o’clock as the levels are somewhat comparable here before the Classic mode spikes in volume as you increase the Gain. This is also an ideal position for moderately high Gain with low noise. Surprisingly, there’s an internal Level trimmer that reduces the volume of the Creamy mode. While this trimmer seems to thin out the Creamy tone a little which could be useful to further augment the sound if you prefer the slight difference, I’d generally suggest keeping it at max for the highest output level. While I’ve tried to be open to another possible benefit of this function, I maintain a position that it would probably be more useful as a Level trimmer for the Classic mode to better match its volume to the Creamy setting. This would theoretically add greater flexibility for matching Classic & Creamy levels.

External Control

There’s an input labeled EXT. SELECT that allows you to plug in a TRS latching foot-switch to take control of the Blackbird’s foot-switch functions. This allows you to control the pedal remotely with an amp-style 2-button foot-switch. Some effects switchers also allow amp control functions. The Blackbird is ideal in these scenarios. I’ve been using a MIDI enabled effects switcher with a DAW (Ableton Live) to automate my effects changes. It’s nice that the Blackbird can be controlled this way for optimal performance use in a complex guitar rig, and this option has become indispensable for my own needs.

Direct Out

In my research I found a Blackbird review online from a typically reputable publication mentioning that the Blackbird has a “speaker-emulated” output. The Blackbird does not have a speaker-emulated output. The author also complained about the “harsh” distortion of the pedal in isolation. If you were to connect a standard distortion pedal or any tube amplifier’s distorted preamp directly into a mixer, you’ll hear a brash, unfiltered distortion. Same with the Blackbird. That’s just how amps sound before a speaker filters out the harsh frequencies.

What the Blackbird does have is an ultra low noise ¼” TRS transformer isolated balanced direct output. This allows direct connection to a mixing desk or audio interface for further processing of your audio signal. The Triad Magnetics audio transformer also imparts its own subtle characteristics to your tone while providing an additional +6dBu of volume output. Surprisingly, in one recent rig setup I found myself running the Blackbird from the Direct Out into the Strymon BigSky with that pedal’s Cab Filter enabled. The tones were excellent, certainly gig-worthy. It’s worth exploring both output options in your setup, just be mindful of the extra +6dBu volume boost on the Direct Out if you’re feeding it into other pedals.

As Effectrode states on their website, you may not even need “speaker emulation” when using the Direct Out, “just add some eq and a little reverb”. Speakers are essentially analog, mechanical filters, so if you’re recording in a pinch without access to a mic and speaker cab, recording from the Blackbird’s Direct Out and applying some EQ can yield results from solid to excellent, depending primarily on your mastery of EQ. Any fault in the recorded tones from the Direct Out are no fault of the pedal itself. Also, be aware that there’s something to be said about possibly noticing a lack of power amp feel by just running a preamp into a cab sim or EQ, but the tradeoff will often be a minor concern for the convenience the Blackbird offers.

Effectrode-Blackbird-SR-71-Review-Best-Pre-Amp-Pedal-07Landing the Blackbird

As we wrap this up, it is with regret that I can’t give you any feedback about switching the Blackbird’s tubes as I didn’t have any on-hand to test it with. I very much enjoy the stock JJ Electronic 12AX7s, and I imagine few guitarists will find them necessary to replace. The pedal sounds incredible as is. I did, however, make a few small tweaks to the internal bias while listening just to make the pedal sound a little tastier to my ears. If you’re a tone chaser with a small collection of vintage amp tubes, you can try swapping tubes for various 12AX7, 12AU7, 12AY7 and even 12AV7 and 12AT7’s if you’ve got them. You might find a way to make a great thing even better.

My only real concern as stated previously is that I’d like to see an option implemented to better help with balancing the Classic & Creamy modes’ output levels when switching between them. Also, I’d imagine some guitarists might like different Gain settings between Classic & Creamy modes; I personally like upping the Creamy’s Gain sometimes. To get a bit more creative with my wish-list, since I love the Creamy side so much, it would be nice if I could select between two different Gain and/or Volume levels. I’m really reaching here, and that’s not a complaint by any means. Just for having access to the pristine Clean Channel and even only one of the excellent Crunch Channel sounds, the Blackbird is a can’t miss pedal.

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Overall-Rating-5.0

The Effectrode Blackbird is in a class of its own when it comes to real all-tube preamp pedals. The Clean Channel is an immaculate rendition of Blackface Fender tones. The Dumble inspired Crunch Channel is excellent in either Classic or Creamy mode. There’s plenty of tonal options to perfectly integrate the Blackbird into a rig with your favorite guitar and amp. You may even be tempted to leave the amp at home and seek out a cab-simulated solution for your Blackbird centered pedalboard or home recording setup. The transformer isolated output isn’t a mere novelty and adds indispensable flexibility for recording or signal routing. As I write this final paragraph, I’m stretching my memory to ensure this last statement is still accurate, but it seems safe to say. The Effectrode Blackbird is one of my personal top 5 favorite guitar pedals and gets my highest possible recommendation for any connoisseur of great guitar tone.

 

That concludes our Effectrode Blackbird SR-71 review. Thanks for reading.

Top 17 Best Guitar Effects Pedals of Winter NAMM 2017

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Here we are. Another year of NAMM. Another roundup of the best guitar pedals of this year’s show.

After covering The NAMM Show for several years, I’ve noticed that it takes more to impress me than it once did. I’m not a brand loyalist, and I don’t really get excited about a pedal just because it’s a new release from a fan favorite builder. I maintain a healthy skepticism towards the builders that have innovated in the past, looking for any indication that they’re resting on their past successes or running out of ideas. Ultimately, I seek out pedals and gear that may inspire new perspectives on creating music with guitar, the “best guitar effects” that will produce the sounds in music yet to be heard.

There were several pedals at the show that are pushing boundaries (and not just musically as I’ll discuss more near the end of this article). While there were many more pedals at this year’s NAMM Show than listed here, this article will focus on the very best pedals, narrowed down even further than previous Best Pedals of Winter NAMM lists to place greater emphasis on the innovative guitar pedals that are most deserving of your attention.

As always these initial impressions do not constitute a final review verdict in any way. The busy NAMM Show floor isn’t an ideal listening environment, and many of these products are still in development and may change and evolve before their actual release. But overall I feel positive about this assessment, and it should give you a great starting point for researching the best guitar pedals from Winter NAMM 2017 for any new additions to your pedalboard.

Now here are the Top 17 Best Guitar Effects Pedals of Winter NAMM 2017!

 

Empress Effects Echosystem

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I’d been waiting on this announcement for quite a while: a successor to the Empress Effects Vintage Modified Superdelay. But what Empress Effects unveiled at Winter NAMM 2017 is something on a whole different level warranting a new name for a new generation of delay tones. This isn’t a novel update to the Superdelay. It’s the Echosystem Dual Engine Delay, and it’s shaping up to be a game changer.

What sets the Echosystem apart from the multi-algorithm delay pedal pack? Well, let’s start with the fact that it’ll give you 25+ delays modes out of the box. You can use these modes individually or use 2 delays at once in dual parallel, dual serial, or left/right. The possibilities for stacking delays are staggering.

Let’s get back to the Superdelay (and VMSD) to contrast and elaborate on the known improvements made. While I was a huge advocate for the merits of the Vintage Modified Superdelay, it was mono only. The Echosystem has stereo I/O. The VMSD wasn’t MIDI enabled. The Echosystem will support extensive MIDI implementation. And if you’re a fan of the classic Superdelay sounds, you can expect to see plenty of them here. The user generated multi tap possibilities will return as will my personal favorite algorithm, the reverse octave up (it wasn’t in the NAMM units, but Empress Effects assured me it’s on the way). Expect to see some of the builder’s renowned tape delay sounds making a return.

The Echosystem sports a similar design to the company’s hit Empress Reverb. You can expect to find the pedal’s 25+ delay modes indicated by the RGB LEDs next to the 12 mode types. All the expected classic delay types are covered: Digital, Analog, Tape, Reverse, and many more. There will be Delay + Reverb types as well. Whisky (similar to the Reverb’s “Beer” mode) is where the more outlandish and bizarre delays will reside (like the must hear “stutter” delay). Kudos to Empress Effects for a dedicated Lo-Fi section as the sounds at NAMM are already promising. And yes, there will be a dedicated Looper function to come. Expect to see more forum voting for new modes as well.

Not even scratching the surface here, but let me make a closing statement. As excited as I was about the Empress Reverb, my expectations for the Echosystem are above and beyond, and this may be the new digital delay to beat when it drops this Spring.

 

WMD Geiger Counter Pro

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So what happens when you take an analog distortion engine and feed it into a computer to be filtered, bit-crushed, and mangled by 700 or so wave tables? I’ll tell you what happens. Faces melt. Heads explode. Old worlds are destroyed, and new ones are formed form the ashes. The WMD Geiger Counter Pro is the sound of armageddon and sonic revolution happening simultaneously.

Been waiting on this pedal… for… ev… er. But fear not as the delivery of its payload is imminent. The Geiger Counter Pro is your post-rock, post-apocalyptic survival tool-kit. So many options here. You’ll be tweaking this one for a long time to come.

Dedicated “Samples” & “Bits” knobs induce bit-crushing. Crank the Bits clockwise for a Gate, sure to come in handy when dropping megatons of gain on your audience. The Bank & Table knobs dial in the wave tables for mathematic destruction – or deconstruction – of your audio signal. This will decimate your sound beautifully, resulting in harmonically complex textures. There’s also a dedicated Filter for some some classic synth-style low-pass filtering. This’ll tame the extremities and maybe get you jonesing for the epic WMD Protostar. There’s also a dedicated knob for the optional Tone circuit and a Mix control.

You can save and recall a host of presets from the pedal itself. With deep MIDI implementation you can take even deeper control on the pedal. Got a modular synth rig? There are 2 assignable CV ports (that are also expression pedal compatible) for crazy external control possibilities. WMD is about to drop a bomb on the pedal world. Brave guitar players will dare to detonate the Geiger Counter Pro; those who can’t handle it: take cover.

On a side note, as my expectations for this pedal are very high, it’s important that I mention the one area of pre-release constructive criticism I have. The Samples knob has a huge range of great ring-mod style tones to be dialed in. The Fine button near the knob jumps the range to a smaller area in the upper register. Since it sounds so great using the Samples knob to tune the pitch to a note that’s in key with what you’re playing, it might be interesting if the Fine button allowed “fine tuning” in the range where the knob is currently set instead of jumping to a different register with a limited tuning range. Just a curiosity of mine that might allow more flexibility.

 

Red Panda Tensor

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The Tensor is the most exciting Red Panda pedal since the Particle. Yeah, I just said that. When I heard that this pedal could do “tape stop” effects, I was excited and had to check it out. When I discovered that it could “stretch” your playing, I was more deeply intrigued. When I heard the smooth expression pedal controlled pitch-shifting in selectable intervals spanning -2 to +2 octaves, I was blown away. When I sampled and played audio via the Hold function and had it loop, play in reverse, and bounce back in forth, well, I was already communing with the clockwork elves, so I can’t really explain how beyond stoked I was. But when I returned from this all too brief journey and heard about something else that might make it into the production version, I imagined musical possibilities that could make the Tensor one of the most creative and inspiring pedals released for years to come. As it stands, the Tensor will be amazing. But if you’re really intrigued, cross your fingers with me in hoping it becomes a perpetual bridge to the fractal universe.

 

Source Audio Ventris Reverb

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So you’re familiar with the Nemesis Delay, right? It’s one of the best delay pedals to come along in recent years. Well, Source Audio are about to release the similarly awe inspiring Ventris Reverb. This is another example of a pedal that looks very promising and may further exceed expectations before its release.

The biggest wow factor of this compact treasure trove of reverb is that it boasts an extra processor from the Nemesis Delay. This gives you true reverb spillover when changing from one preset to the next, a dream come true for guitarists who use multiple reverb sounds within a single song. While the Ventris looks like it may allow users to run two reverbs in parallel (and in stereo), I’m hoping Source Audio can crack the code to allow stacking reverbs in series (and in stereo, of course).

Like the Nemesis, the Ventris has presets, MIDI implementation, Neuro App connectivity, and a host of onboard parameter knobs that negate the need for menus. In addition to the Neuro App, a desktop compatible app is on the way for arguably more convenient preset editing.

Expect the reverbs onboard (and the ones to come via the Neuro App) to be stellar. It won’t be a question of whether or not this pedal is any good. I’m expecting greatness. But if I find a worthy excuse to forgo stacking the Eventide H9 & Strymon BigSky for series reverb, the Ventris may greatly exceed my loftiest expectations.

 

Chase Bliss Audio Brothers

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For those of you waiting for Chase Bliss Audio to stop innovating, don’t hold your breath. Brothers is a veritable playground of analog dirt/boost circuits that can be run separately, in series, and/or in parallel. The pedal has 2 sides, a JFET side & an IC side, each providing Boost, Drive, & Fuzz modes that were conceived by different minds. Mr. Joel Korte of CBA tackled the IC side (B), giving us a nice vanilla boost, a Tube Screamer inspired overdrive, and a ’77 IC Muff style fuzz. The JFET side (A) was designed by Wes Kuhnley and Peter Bregman of Resonant Electronic Design. Essentially, side A provides interpretations of the company’s Graviton Boost, Manifold Drive, and Acceleron Fuzz. That’s a whole lotta dirt in a single pedal that could potentially wipe a whole slew of pedals off your pedalboard. Will all the routing possibilities considered, that’s like 33 different dirt options from a single pedal.

As Chase Bliss Audio did with the Tonal Recall at Winter NAMM 2016 before its Spring release, Brothers was shown at this year’s NAMM to get more feedback. I’m personally enjoying the sounds of the circuits when combined in series or parallel. (Disclaimer: I’m also helping CBA beta test it before release.) The trajectory is looking solid for yet another hit as Brothers is certainly unlike any dirt pedal to become before it and will likely be much greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Neunaber Iconoclast

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Neunaber is known for making some of the best reverb pedals you’ll hear, the Immerse being their most recent and notable offering. The Iconoclast looks to further extend Neunaber’s hold on the end of your signal chain by boasting what is arguably the most advanced speaker emulation technology in a dedicated compact pedal to date.

With overdrive, pre-amp, and amp-in-a-box pedals achieving increasingly spectacular sounds in recent years, sounds that are more than sufficient for recording with or running live in an amp-less direct to mixing board guitar rig, an advanced speaker simulation pedal of this quality is long overdue.

You’ll notice that there’s no foot-switch as the Iconoclast is an “always on” sort of effect. The pedal’s 3 middle knobs labeled Low, Mid, & High provide dead simple contouring of the frequency response of your virtual stereo speaker cabinet. The Gate knob lets you cut noise from your signal chain. A Headphone knob sets the volume for the dedicated headphone output, useful for late-night bedroom jamming or running an extra stereo signal to some other destination.

That’s only the tip of this immense iceberg. Connect the Iconoclast to your computer via USB, fire up the Iconoclast Software, and take complete control over the tonal sculpting that this innovative pedal offers. I experienced this at NAMM and got a taste of the dynamic interaction between audio signal and the Iconoclast thanks to its real-time on-screen feedback. While our ears have grown accustomed to flawed and irregular frequency responses from actual speakers, it was intriguing to see a grotesque, jagged speaker impulse response juxtaposed with the smoother and tonally balanced EQ curves from the Iconoclast. You can use the editor to sculpt a smoother, more balanced version of your favorite IR. You can also tweak the many Gate and Output parameters for ideal response and integration with your guitar setup.

It’s not surprising that Mr. Brian Neunaber has taken such a hi-fi approach and displays great expertise in this area considering his background developing professional speakers for QSC Audio. The sounds produced by the Iconoclast are beautiful and yet another compelling reason for leaving the amp at home when gigging.

 

Catalinbread Belle Epoch Deluxe

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The Belle Epoch pedal was Catalinbread’s compact digital emulation of the legendary Echoplex EP-3. That pedal is dead now. Catalinbread just killed it. Long live the Belle Epoch Deluxe Echo Unit CB-3.

Okay, the story isn’t that simple. And many folks will undoubtedly still love and appreciate the original Belle Epoch just as countless music fans still love the classic recordings that contain sounds made with an Echoplex.

The Echoplex is famous for two reasons: beautiful delay echos & equally beautiful tonal coloration when used as a preamp. Catalinbread has attempted to distill the essence of both in two distinct products.

Mr. Howard Gee spent months studying the circuitry of the iconic EP-3, painstakingly attempting to reproduce a component accurate recreation of the famed unit heard of countless iconic recordings. In the Belle Epoch Deluxe, you’ll get a static EP-3 preamp sound along with a glorious emulation of the kinds of delay echos heard from a vintage Echoplex along with some DMM style modulation thrown in. Howard had only to follow his muse and trust in the many loved records and tones that have become part of his DNA. I don’t think he was led astray as the sounds at NAMM were killer.

I know there are guitarists who will gripe about there not being tap tempo. Did Jimmy Page have tap tempo? No. If you want glorious runaway echo oscillation, it’s here. If you want expression pedal control over delay time or feedback, the CB-3 has it. If you want a mojo that’s been lovingly crafted and unattainable from your typical multi-algorithm delay with digital tape echo mode, you’ve gotta hear this. And if you just want a killer Echoplex preamp sound and don’t need the delay, then keep reading…

 

Catalinbread Epoch Pre Preamp/Buffer

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Catalinbread went the extra mile and made a little something extra during pursuit of the EP-3 holy grail. The Epoch Pre is meant to be the ultimate pedal solution for any guitarist who wants the distilled sonic elixir of EP-3 preamp tone on their pedalboard.

Just as guitarists would set an Echoplex on their amp to run directly into it when pre-amping, the Epoch Pre is meant to add that final tonal touch to your guitar signal before it hits your amp.

The Epoch Pre uses the same large components and up-converted voltage as the Belle Epoch Deluxe, hence its seemingly larger size for a “boost” pedal. And while this pedal boasts the same Echoplex flavor as the Deluxe, the Epoch Pre takes the EP-3 preamp concept a bit further.

The Early/Later button lets you get early EP-3 sounds with that characteristic mid-range bump or later sounds with a broader frequency response. The Bias lets you go from the classic EP-3 sound to a hotter, wider sound. The Boost foot-switch gives you a second preset amount of boost. The optional Buffer lets you drive long cables back to your amp. The Balance controls volume from minimum to noon settings and creates subtle frequency and phase shifts at higher settings. You even get two outputs.

Catalinbread may have just released the ultimate EP-3 inspired booster pedal.

 

Atomic Ampli-Firebox

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Atomic & Studio Devil previously teamed up to release the Atomic AmpliFire, a powerful DSP based amp & speaker simulator that put plenty of quality sounding emulations on your pedalboard. While the AmpliFire is an excellent solution for leaving your amp at home in favor of a unit that’ll fit on your pedalboard, it was still a bit larger than some guitarists would prefer. If size was your most notable gripe with the AmpliFire, the Ampli-Firebox may be the solution for you.

Essentially, this pedal trims all the fat, cutting out the onboard effects (except for an amp-style Reverb) while maintaining a full set of of amp-style controls. Guitar pedal junkies are increasingly ditching multi-channel amplifiers in favor of a single great clean amp foundation and using pedals for overdrive and distortion tones. If that’s all you need, the Ampli-Firebox can give you that clean amp with speaker cabinet sound and run the signal to the FOH (front of house) mixing board via the ¼” output or XLR output. If you need a Boost, there’s also a dedicated foot-switch and Level for that as well.

The AmpliFire provided several amp options, many of which are very, very good. The Ampli-Firebox can accommodate up to 9 amp models accessible via onboard flip-switches. A Cab switch also lets you select from 3 different speaker cabinet impulse responses. (Amp and speaker sounds can be selected/changed via USB connectivity.) While this pedal will let you play through a gig-worthy single amp option (with boost), I wish Atomic included a MIDI input for allowing easier selection of the 9 amp models from a switcher when gigging. I’m sold on the idea of having one excellent amp sound at my feet, but I’d rather not do “the bend” and mess with knobs/switches when playing a gig. This will be an excellent product. A 1.5 hardware update with a MIDI in will be even better.

 

Fox Pedal Novaplex Delay & Quiver

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Been waiting on the Novaplex Delay for a while. And now Fox Pedal have another interesting looking pedal to watch for: the Quiver Harmonic Tremolo.

Essentially, these are two digitally controlled effects pedals with some deeper functionality. The Novaplex is a digital delay; the Quiver is an analog harmonic tremolo. Both pedals feature tap tempo, plenty of parameter controls, tap divisions, and Modulation on the Novaplex and Waveform options on the Quiver, respectively.

Back at Summer NAMM 2016, when Fox Pedal first teased the Novaplex Delay, there was an intriguing external control pedal (the Storehouse) that was intended to allow preset selection on upcoming pedals. Now, if you look carefully near the bottom right knobs of each pedal, you’ll see “MIDI”. There’s a dedicated full-size MIDI input jack on both of these pedals. I was shocked to see this at Winter NAMM 2017. So many builders claim they simply don’t have room for a full-size MIDI jack on compact pedals, but Fox Pedal is attempting the task. Effects loving guitarists who want ultra-compact MIDI enabled pedals, these will definitely be worth watching out for. And, yes, they look gorgeous as always. (Note: forgot to snap photos of these while at The NAMM Show. This photo is from the Fox Pedal Instagram account.)

 

Amptweaker PressuRizer

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I love guitar compressor pedals. It became an area of study for me to discover the nuanced differences that various types of compressors can have on the sound of a guitar and understand how compression changes my approach to playing guitar. While there are relatively few compressor pedals that push the creative boundaries of how compression is applied, the Amptweaker PressuRizer is definitely one such pedal that offers a few noteworthy deviations from the norm.

The PressuRizer boasts a compression chip from THAT Corp, the company known for the kind of high grade VCA compression whose lineage can be traced back to the legendary dbx 160 compressor units. The key parameter controls are the Sustain & Volume knobs, similar to the basic approach of an old OTA style comp like the MXR Dyna Comp or Ross Compressor. Then there’s a Wet/Dry Blend knob that blends in your compressed signal with your dry signal for New York style parallel compression. The Tone knob has a greater range of usability than most with the unique ability to apply a subtle mid scoop to the compressed signal for a less cluttered, more transparent mid-range.

There are a few other surprises that offer even more performance flexibility. The Limit section lets you activate an optional Soft or Hard limiter-like effect that further tames dynamics. The Bloom section lets the wet signal increase from silence at a Fast or Slow speed; with a blended wet/dry signal, this helps retain a natural pick attack with increased sustain. For guitarists who like to leave their compressor “always on”, you’ll appreciate that you can hold the foot-switch to activate an “always on” mode that lets the foot-switch be used for an optional clean boost when needed. The pedal even has a smart relay bypass that recalls previous bypass status, a very convenient consideration for guitarists who use effects switchers. This pedal will surely be gold.

 

DigiTech FreqOut

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The DigiTech FreqOut sounded awesome at NAMM. If you’ve ever tried inducing singing harmonic feedback onstage, you’ll know of the few challenges involved. First, it helps to have deafening volumes, far louder than what may be allowed in a smaller club venue or that would be preferred for ideal cabinet miking. Heaps of gain helps. And if you can soundcheck early, you’d also want to make tape lines on stage of where to stand to induce the exact feedback notes you want to hear. Forget all of that. The FreqOut can induce controlled feedback at any volume or gain level in any of its 7 available harmonic pitch intervals.

Essentially, the FreqOut looks at your signal and hones in on those preferred harmonics to create its singing feedback pitches. It’s ideal to use in momentary mode where you step on the foot-switch at those precise moments to add a majestic beauty to sustaining notes. If you kill the dry signal you can induce ebow-like sounds as well. Gain & Onset knobs control how much feedback is blended in and how long it takes for the feedback to increase to full intensity, respectively.

The FreqOut isn’t the first feedback inducing pedal to hit the market, but DigiTech has certainly created what will likely be the best feedback pedal released to date.

 

Rainger FX Deep Space Pulsar

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The Rainger FX Deep Space Pulsar reminds me of years past, driving to band practice while listening to Daft Punk’s Discovery. That record and Homework were the precursors to my growing interest in electronic dance music over the years and sparked my interest in applying studio effects and sound design techniques to live guitar. Sidechain compression is one such effect that has long been a staple of dance records, and this pedal does one thing: pumping, throbbing volume attenuation similar to the effect of using side-chain compression.

The pedal includes a kick drum mic for integrating this pedal into a live setting with an acoustic drummer. Just plug the mic into the pedal and place it into the sound hole of the kick drum to let the drummer’s kick hits induce the pedal’s pumping effect. A Pad switch lets you increase the sensitivity to pick up softer kick hits.

If you don’t have a kick signal to feed into the Deep Space Pulsar, you can use the included Igor foot-pad to tap in a tempo. It’ll even allow corrective taps to keep the pulsing on the beat if you’re manually syncing along to a rhythm source.

What I’m most excited about is the possibility feeding the pedal a kick drum from a DAW (like Ableton Live) or a drum machine. Lately I’ve been using an Empress Effects Compressor in my signal chain to get that side-chain compression effect by feeding a kick drum from my laptop through the audio interface to the pedal. My one wish is for the Dip to have a dynamic sensitivity option so that you could feed it a quieter or louder kick drum for gentle or hard driving pumping.

The Deep Space Pulsar is the first pedal since Rainger FX’s own Minor Concussion sidechainer that focuses solely on this effect. You can also invert the ramping effect for a trem-like sound that some musicians may find use for. The Deep Space Pulsar is a compelling little pedal to consider if you’re a sidechain compression enthusiast.

 

DigiTech CabDryVR

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The DigiTech CabDryVR is a dual cabinet simulator that has some noteworthy features to make it worth considering for an end-of-signal-chain replacement to using a real speaker cab. It features a selection of 14 guitar and bass cab impulse responses, 7 for guitar & 7 for bass. Cab A & B are output via 2 separate outputs. This allows you to match cabinets on both outputs or use 2 different cabs for your stereo setup; pair with 2 different preamp or amp-in-a-box pedals for a sound similar to miking 2 separate amps for a stereo spread. I’d also imagine that a band with 2 guitarists could run into each signal path for 2 distinct sounds from the same pedal. Or maybe feed a bass and keyboard into the bass cabinets, also.

On Cab B the Small Combo 1×8” speaker is replaced with a Dry option for a direct through sound if running one side into an amp and the other to a different destination with cab emulation. Both Cabs also have individual Level & Size knobs for adjusting volume and perceived size of the cabs. It sounded pretty nice in DigiTech’s amp-less demo rig at NAMM. I’m expecting it to live up in actual use as well.

 

Dwarfcraft Super Wizard

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On the wild west coast where Winter NAMM 2017 took place, this mysteriously shrouded pedal beckoned me to plug in and make some bizarre sounds. Unfortunately, the harsh NAMM conditions (i.e. noise levels from nearby booths) can make it difficult to really hear the nuances of the gear you’re trying to listen to. But from what my ears struggled to hear on the chaotic NAMM show floor, the Dwarfcraft Super Wizard made enough of an impression to be included here.

The Super Wizard comes from a pedigree of the builder’s previous releases that should give you an idea of what to expect that’s probably better than what I can explain. Dwarfcraft previously took their insane Pitchgrinder and transformed it into the calamitous Wizard of Pitch, a pitch mangling sonic assault weapon. They stuffed the Wizard of Pitch into the Super Wizard and combined it with their Minivan Echo, a lo-fi digital delay with oscillation and mangled delay sounds. The result is a chaotic instrument that warps your guitar into ambient, soundscapey new textures. A couple momentary foot-switches give you real-time performance control over the insanity that ensues when you activate the pedal.

 

Electro Harmonix Blurst

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I’m a big fan of synth style filtering, particularly low-pass filters. The Electro Harmonix Blurst Modulated Filter brings you an analog low-pass filter with adjustable resonance. Instead of being envelope controlled (like an auto-wah or auto-filter), the Blurst is LFO controlled for automated rhythmic filtering. Tap tempo and 3 Tap Divide options provide flexibility for live syncing. The 3 Shape options let you choose from triangle, rising saw-tooth, or fall saw-tooth waveforms.

Perhaps the most exciting aspects of the pedal are the expression pedal modes. These give you the option of controlling either the Range, Rate, or Filter. Controlling the Filter via exp pedal disengages the Rate & Range knobs for a manual sweeping through the entire frequency range. This sounded killer at NAMM. While the Blurst definitely supports CV input for control over the selected exp pedal parameter, I’m hoping to get confirmation that CV control also allows control over the full filter sweep. If so, this pedal will be a force to be reckoned with if hybrid modular/CV rigs are your thing.

 

So those are the 17 best all-new guitar pedals shown at Winter NAMM 2017.

But there’s one more pedal I’d like to tell you about that wasn’t exactly new for NAMM but still worth mentioning…

 

Rabbit Hole FX A ‘Merkin Fuzz

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This rad little stars ‘n stripes themed fuzz pedal wasn’t new for Winter NAMM 2017. It actually came out this past October. But while looking for pedals that push boundaries in some way, the A ‘Merkin (or just ‘Merkin for short) caught my attention. Here’s why…

Rabbit Hole FX is a pedal builder from Durham, North Carolina. You may have heard in 2016 that NC passed something called HB2, the “bathroom bill” that sparked a statewide civil liberties uproar primarily because many viewed it as a “deeply discriminatory” attack against LGBTQ citizens. This led to boycotts of the state by businesses and performers which resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenue. Pro-equality voters made their voices heard in the gubernatorial election this past November, ousting seated governor Pat McCrory, a vocal supporter of the bill. Organizations like EqualityNC are still working diligently to repeal HB2 and promote equality in the state of North Carolina. Rabbit Hole FX is currently donating 100% of profits from sales of the A ‘Merkin Fuzz to EqualityNC. Not “a portion of” or some small percentage – ALL profits.

This is a big deal for several reasons. First, overturning and preventing discriminatory legislation seems like a pretty good idea. I’m sure patriotic Americans and anyone who respects civil liberties will agree. But the gesture represents something else worth talking about.

Rabbit Hole FX is a small boutique pedal builder. The A ‘Merkin Fuzz is only their second pedal offering. Newer businesses generally place a big focus on profits and expansion, but Rabbit Hole FX saw an opportunity to make a difference in their local community and took action. With only 2 products currently available*, one of their two income streams is being donated to this cause in its entirety.

Big companies sometimes donate small percentages of profits to charitable institutions. For companies with large capital reserves, such contributions may be quite sizable. While a greater monetary sum donated to a worthy cause can have a larger impact and significantly contribute to positive change, I’d argue that a smaller contributor who’s given a greater percentage of their available resources is more committed to making a difference and is likewise more deserving of any bestowed recognition. Imagine the impact it would have if more companies contributed a greater portion of their resources to making a tangible difference in the world.

Today there is no shortage of issues that need attention. One person can only do so much. A single small business can only do so much. Many people working towards common goals can do a lot more.

Big props to Rabbit Hole FX. I hope their dedication to the fight against injustice inspires other companies to take a stand for issues they believe in.

*The Chaosmic Fuzz is the builder’s first release. The A ‘Merkin Fuzz is the second. The upcoming Rabbit Hole FX Phaser was shown at Winter NAMM 2017 and will be the builder’s third release.

Best wishes to everyone in 2017. May your musical journey be one of progress.

Cheers,

Gabriel

 

Now check out the Top 15 Best “Pedals of the Year” 2016!

DigiTech Obscura Altered Delay Review – Best Stereo Delay Pedal Under $150?

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DigiTech: we all know the name. It sounds like the kind of company you expect to be a front for a Captain Planet villain’s fishy operations, but to guitarists it is the name of a benevolent industry crux. Boasting the iconic Whammy, post-2013 DOD revival, and looping solutions like the JamMan and TRIO, DigiTech is a guitar effect pedal monolith.

Lately, DigiTech seems to have been leveraging their long history of gear wizardry to push their catalog even further into the boutique direction tonewise, and it shows in their latest releases. Today we’ll be taking a look at the Obscura Altered Delay.

Features:

  • Four Unique Delay Types:
    Analog – Classic sound of a vintage bucket brigade analog delay circuit
    Tape – Emulates a classic tube tape echo
    Lo-Fi – A low-fidelity delay that has limited bandwidth and reduced bit-depth to approximate the effects of low sample rate and 8-bit signal processing used in vintage digital delays
    Reverse – A delay where the repeats are played backwards. No dry signal is present when REVERSE is selected.
  • Tap Tempo with Beat Divisions
  • Repeat/Hold
  • Compact Size with Soft Click, Vacuum-Style Footswitch
  • Easy Access Delay Tails On/Off Switch – Enables buffered bypass which allows Delay signal to continue being heard after the effect is bypassed
  • True Stereo I/O
  • True Bypass circuitry preserves your tone in bypass
  • High-Voltage operation for uncompromised signal quality
  • Stomplock™ knob guard locks your tone in place and prevent tampering or accidental knob adjustments onstage
  • Custom-cut Hook and Loop Pedalboard Pad to attach and lock your pedals to your pedalboard

Upon opening the unassuming brown box that houses the Obscura, we are greeted by a gleefully sinister orange and brown screen print on a reflective pale yellow housing. The artfully foreboding Obscura is also artfully designed; a tiny and densely constructed enclosure sporting six knobs, two of which are dual-concentric for more available parameters to tweak. I’ve often said I’d like to see more stacked knobs on the market for the sake of conserving space, and it would seem DigiTech satisfied this urge preemptively. The stereo I/O jacks are side-mounted, and the soft-touch switch doubles as both your on/off and a tap tempo. There is also a Tails switch, handy for guitarists who’d like a choice between either muting the decay of the repeats or allowing them to subside naturally when the pedal is bypassed. For the plug-and-play types out there, the Obscura also comes with a neat little rubber block that keeps the knobs from being kicked accidentally onstage. I know it’s been said before, but what the hell; it looks like an angry little cube man, and I couldn’t be more tickled about it.

Visit DigiTech for more info about the Obscura.

Sound & Performance:

That skeleton on the Obscura? That’s an accurate representation of who I was shortly after playing with it for an hour or two, stripped of my insulating, preconceived notions as to what was possible coming from a digital unit in an enclosure smaller than a standard Hammond box. Most importantly, I no longer doubt that a digital delay can be as oven-fresh warm as any analog module it attempts to simulate.

In Analog mode, I was treated to smooth, gooey delay trails. With the degrade knob maxed your signal becomes a dirty wash of aliased repeats, made even more blendy with the tone dialed back to a darker setting. Play over this ad nauseam and you’ll never tire of the ambient simplicity you reap. The true stereo nature of the Obscura adds a dimensionality that’s lacking in many digital delays attempting to pull off analog tone. This makes it a win for those of us looking to upgrade from the familiar “black boxes” in our stereo rigs.

I love Tape. The Degrade knob adds a wow and flutter modulation, just like a real tape delay, and can get into some pretty warped chorus territory. So sweet.

Lo-Fi is a gritty mess of overdriven ambience floating on a bed of 8-bit repeats. The Degrade controls the distortion of the repeats via a bit-rate reducer. Great for simulating the dirty delays of days gone by.

The Reverse kills your dry signal completely and spits out backwards repeats. If you’re going for the whole psychedelia thing, this is a no-brainer. The key knob here is the Time knob, which sets the length of the signal being sampled. Dial it back for a choppy, clipped sound, and dime it for long, weird whines. Also worth noting is the degrade knob’s tape saturation function, which adds vintage-style harmonic distortion to your repeats.

I knew that the Obscura could pitch-shift (and boy, did I pitch-shift loudly and often,) but initially I had no clue as to the ambient possibilities inherent in the Repeat Hold feature. Crank the repeat knob past 3 o’clock and the Obscura will oscillate as loudly and as brightly as you please. With the tap tempo active, the time knob becomes a division control that switches between eighth, dotted eighth, and quarter notes, which will change the LED color from green to yellow to red, respectively. The tap is cool in the sense that the feature is there, but uncool in the sense that you have to tap the power switch twice to access it. What I’d like to see is a relay that memorizes not just the on/off status of the pedal, but also if the pedal was in Tap-Tempo mode, making use in an effects loop more convenient. I wouldn’t mention this if it weren’t particularly inconvenient for those of us who would only use it in a loop with tap tempo active.

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Overall-Rating-4.0

The Digitech Obscura is a great addition to any pedalboard missing a lil’ time-based juice. For those of us looking for a workhorse delay that fits a better-than-average range of singular niches the Obscura makes perfect sense for its price range; it executes the voices it aims to simulate better than most of the competition and it does it with a range of high-end features and inside of a footprint smaller than your iPhone. I think the tap tempo feature could have been better executed with a separate footswitch, but the size of the pedal makes this understandably difficult, if not impossible. Also as a matter of taste, I’d love to see optional ping-pong repeats in a stereo delay pedal. All these aside, DigiTech did a kickass job with this little guy, and you’d be remiss to ignore it.

That concludes our review of the DigiTech Obscura. Thanks for reading!

DigiTech Polara Reverb Review – Best Stereo Reverb Pedal Under $150?

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HARMAN is a pretty massive music gear conglomerate, stewarding music tech brand giants like Lexicon, AKG, and, most importantly to pedal loving guitarists, DigiTech. Where many companies have deflated and vanished into the inner workings of such superpowers, HARMAN seems to have encouraged the geniuses under their umbrella to flourish and continue doing what they do best. Occasionally, and in the case of DigiTech and Lexicon, that means teaming up in an intramural endeavor to make tasty effects for use in the studio and on stage.

The Polara Reverb is one such example of the possibilities inherent in the combined efforts of Lexicon (known for their Reverbs,) and DigiTech (known for their guitar pedals,) working together.

Features:

  • Three Parameters:
    Level controls the volume of the affected signal
    Liveliness controls the frequency response
    Decay determines the length of the reverb trail
  • Seven Lexicon Reverb voices:
    Room – Fast decaying reverb; great for a touch of ambience.
    Plate – Renowned studio reverb found on classic recordings.
    Reverse – Reverb in reverse; quietly crescendos to full volume.
    Modulated – Lush modulating reverb ideal for chords.
    Halo – Shimmering reverb with cascading octave shifts.
    Hall – Large encompassing reverb with warm decay.
    Spring – Classic “surf” reverb; great for Rockabilly too!
  • Tails On/Off Switch
  • True Stereo I/O
  • True Bypass circuitry preserves your tone in bypass
  • High-Voltage operation for uncompromised signal quality
  • Stomplock™ knob guard locks your tone in place and prevent tampering or accidental knob adjustments onstage
  • Custom-cut Hook and Loop Pedalboard Pad to attach and lock your pedals to your pedalboard

The Polara is solid and tiny, housed in the same enclosure as its ambient sibling, the DigiTech Obscura. It seems so tank-like that I feel like I could hurl this thing from a moving car and play a gig within the same hour. There are four appropriately sturdy, smoothly sliding knobs and a tails switch. Side-mounted switches are pretty standard on a stereo pedal like this. I would have liked to have seen the Polara made a little taller to fit a top-mounted I/O configuration to save space, but that complaint is really reaching; the Polara is larger than a Ditto but smaller than a Tube Screamer, making space a relative non-issue. The yellow and purple artwork display a dizzying psychedelia on the matte blue enclosure, inviting the viewer to bathe in its hypnotic guile. A neat touch is the included Stomplock knob guard to keep your favorite settings spared from accidental movement when onstage. And they look like grumpy blockheads to boot!

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Visit DigiTech for more info about the Polara.

Sound & Performance:

The big draw here is the ability to wield seven powerful Lexicon reverbs in a live scenario without lugging a rack around or running a laptop, especially for musicians who’ve been using Lexicon’s DSP in the studio. Each reverb is a neatly orchestrated instrument, distilled down to the essence of its rack/plugin counterpart.

Starting at 7 o’clock on the Reverb type knob, we have a vanilla Room reverb, emulating the tone of a medium-sized, reflective room.

The Plate is the fizzy, vintage wash that has seen somewhat of a revival in the boutique scene. With the liveliness turned low you can play over a soft, dark base that adds a gorgeous creepy element, and in the higher frequency ranges, becomes an all-encompassing sizzle.

The Reverse reverb kills the dry signal of your guitar and replaces it with an all-wet reversed reverb trail. I probably spent the most time messing with this one. It sounds like a ghost walking through you. This is great for spooky swells and ambient excursions and transitions near seamlessly from reversed to unaffected when you deactivate the effect.

Modulated ‘verb adds a flange-flavored reverb to the signal and helps to pop your tone out of a mix without too much of the mud commonly coupled with reverb. This is another effect that’s easy to get lost in, particularly in stereo.

I thought going into this review that Halo would be my favorite; I am naturally biased in favor of octave-affected reverb. While I liked this voicing an awful lot, I thought it was surprisingly tame. I was hoping to see the liveliness knob take on a more active role in bringing out the lower octaves in the reverb when dialed back, but it simply muffled the higher octaves. It is pretty with the liveliness set anywhere past 11 o’clock, though.

The Hall reverb adds that cathedral warmth we all know and love, fading out into a cozy, vocal decay.

Last but not least is a particularly splattery Spring tone, which is precisely what you think it is. My tone ended up kind of harsh with the Liveliness turned up, but in the mid-range the Spring was tight over single-coils and a tube-screamer. It won’t make you sell your vintage tube spring reverb unit, but it’s fun and adds more versatility to the pedal.

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Overall-Rating-4.0

The DigiTech Polara sports simplicity and clarity that make it a fine addition to any pedalboard. The range of simple sounds it can pull off make it an easy replacement for a whole market of dedicated units, and the stereo spaces it conjures are glorious emulations that will transport your listeners to as spacious a paradise as you can dream. The only thing that really bothers me about the Polara is the reasonless shortage of knobs. With some of Lexicon’s studio plugins coming packed with as many as seven tweakable parameters, and some of DigiTech’s other products featuring dual-concentric knobs (I’m looking at you, Obscura,) the three-parameter configuration from an all-star crossover like this one just seems sort of… stingy. This is no doubt the product of a levelheaded studio mindset molded around the K.I.S.S. method, and while the Polara lacks the “crazy” to make it a game-changer for those looking to dig in and experiment, it does make for a great reverb, particularly for its reasonably asking price which is what it’s supposed to be. What DigiTech and Lexicon have done for us here is taken the brainwork out of establishing a great baseline reverb ambience for our guitar tone.

That concludes our review of the DigiTech Polara. Thanks for reading!

TC Electronic Sentry Review – Best Noise Gate Pedal?

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I probably shouldn’t open an article about guitar pedals this way, but tone be damned: silence is perhaps the most important tool in music. When I was in High School I had a choir teacher who would steel the more talkative singers’ resolve every concert by reminding us of her favorite metaphor: that each song was a painting framed in silence, made worthwhile by both its merit as a song and its appearance where there was once nothing. This assertion carried over into my guitar and band career, evolving into a scholarly appreciation for silence (and relative silence) in songwriting as well.

I don’t think anything illustrates the veracity of this assertion as much as a pause after a powerful phrase soiled by a persistent, unmusical hum. In a live situation this is tolerable to some but absolutely maddening to me, so purchasing a noise gate early on was an absolute must. While they are not the flashiest or most entertaining pedals by any stretch, you’ll be satisfied you held off on that crazy delay and opted for a gate if noise is an issue in your guitar rig.

Myriad builders have thrown their hat in the gating ring, each new challenger trumping its competition in size, functionality, and/or overall approach in some way. In 2015 TC Electronic released their take on a Gate in pedal form, the ominously named Sentry Noise Gate. As is the trend, it surpasses the silent underfoot tools on the current market and stands out as perhaps the best gating option this side of your pedalboard.

Features:

  • Three Customizable knobs
  • State-of-the-art Multi-band Noise Gate
  • Hard-Gate mode for instant noise removal
  • TonePrint Enabled
  • Send/Return Loop
  • True Bypass
  • Compact design
  • 9V/100mA
  • High quality components
  • Road-ready construction

Visit TC Electronic for more info about the Sentry Noise Gate.

Sound & Performance:

The Sentry shares its shape and size with the other compact TonePrint enabled pedals in TC Electronic’s library, sporting a sparkly granite finish on its aluminum enclosure. The face panel has a soft-touch footswitch and a voice switch to toggle between a traditional gate to remove hum indiscriminately, a hiss gate for taming high-frequency nonsense, and a user-generated TonePrint, which can be tweaked via the USB port on the top panel to be as sensitive or unforgiving as you please. The LED on the faceplate turns from green to red when the gate is closed for a truly responsive indication of whether your signal is being imperceptibly eaten alive or allowed to flourish. Three customizable knobs are factory-set to control the Threshold, Damping and Decay of the gate, but can be programmed to control any of the 30 parameters in the Sentry’s arsenal. There is also a set of loop in/outputs, for gating high-gain pedals without eating the sound of cleaner delays, reverbs, etc. Alternatively, you can use the loop to sidechain a different instrument to great creative effect.

After spending some quality time with the Sentry, I can readily say that you’ll be hard pressed to find a Gate closer to studio quality in a pedal format. TC Electronic really pulled out all the stops to approximate a studio gate. The Sentry is based on TC’s MD3 multi-band dynamic processing technology, which, perhaps most importantly, allows you to gate segments of the frequency spectrum as opposed to relying on the buckshot method of gating based on a broadband. This is something completely unique to the Sentry as far as pedals go, and has allowed me tighter control over my tone than any of my past gating solutions. Obvious problems like the hum of single coils are quickly dispatched with ease; in my case without ever needing to touch the TonePrint Editor software. However, particularly gross power-based hums or high-gain rigs will require use of TC’s TonePrint Editor to perfectly fine-tune the Sentry’s response to your audio signal.

While the three controls on the faceplate give quick access to a standard parameter set found on most Noise Gates, the TonePrint Editor contains 3 sets of EQ band controls for Threshold, Attack, Ratio, Damping, Hold, Release, and Knee, which makes narrowing down where in the frequency spectrum you’re hearing hum and how the gate handles that hum easier and more intuitive than any other Gate pedal. That said, I’d love to see a more parametric approach as opposed to the 3-band methodology; such vagaries as Low, Mid and High seem dated, and oftentimes required more work to get a clean Gated tone than I thought was necessary. While the 3-band approach is a step in the right direction, a hypothetical (and potentially unsupported by the current hardware) firmware update could see the Sentry utilized as both a parametric Gate and a well-lit path into many wallets. Imagine finding the exact frequency of that terrible hum, setting the threshold just low enough that it doesn’t cut into that frequency in your actual playing, then using a Q parameter to clean up anything you missed. The Sentry is already more than halfway there. Still, creating a custom user TonePrint with assigned knob parameters and response ranges gives you a level of noise gate control you won’t find in any other pedal.

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Overall-Rating-5.0

The TC Electronic Sentry Noise Gate has earned my recognition as the most intuitive gating solution in its price range. The gassier guitarists out there may not feel obliged to entertain the thought of a non-effect pedal taking up space on their ‘boards, but I would quell that reservation by pointing to the Sentry’s status as the current King of the Silent Hill. Coupled with out-of-the-box functionality and TC’s already familiar-to-most TonePrint Editor software, the plethora of parameters in the Sentry are easily tweaked to yield studio-ready silence where you need it and seamless re-entry where you don’t. The Sentry stands out as an essential addition to every rig, made only more alluring by its speculative potential to grow if TC Electronic decides to release future firmware updates.

That concludes our review of the TC Electronic Sentry Noise Gate. Thanks for reading!

Electro Harmonix The Silencer Review – Best Noise Gate Pedal?

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Electro-Harmonix is well-known for their affordable, industry-leading effects pedals. The sounds for which they are indirectly responsible are ubiquitous. The Big Muff Pi, The Memory Man, The Electric Mistress – All borne from EHX’s seemingly indelible drive to innovate and reimagine.

The Silencer… is less indicative of that drive but still stands out as a necessity. Noise gates are effective at eliminating hum, hiss, and string noise by filtering out any sound beneath a certain volume threshold. If you have a high-gain amp or pedal, or even if you’re getting hum from a poor power source, a noise gate should be part of your rig, end of story. While The Silencer functions exactly as any other noise gate does, it is one of the best noise gates out there at this price point: it’s smaller, lighter, and just plain prettier than most of its competitors.

FEATURES:

  • Noise gate with built-in effects loop
  • 3 knobs- Threshold, Reduction, and Release
  • Noise reduction is variable from -70dB to +4dB
  • Release time can be set between 8ms and 4 seconds
  • Built in loop- Send and Return to filter out hum from guitar and effects in two separate loops
  • Buffered output (via Send)/buffered bypass keeps your signal strong and clean
  • Powered by a single 9-volt battery or optional AC adaptor

When you take The Silencer (and included EHX sticker- woo!) out of its handsome, art-deco inspired box you’re regaled with a lightweight, rugged little unit. And when I say lightweight and rugged, I mean it. To the uninitiated it appears to be made out of some otherworldly alloy with the density of balsa wood and the durability and look of pig-iron. The front is a silver and white screenprint, and the footswitch latches with that satisfying click-clack we all know and love.

The three knobs control the following parameters:

Threshold: Determines the level at which the volume is attenuated. I’ve found this works best at around noon for most general purposes.

Release: Shortens or extends the decay of the signal for either a more natural fade at higher settings or a punchy cutoff at its lowest.

Reduction: Controls how much the overall signal is reduced. This setting might seem counter-intuitive to some, as the higher you go, the less signal you get.

Visit Electro Harmonix for more info about The Silencer.

SOUND & PERFORMANCE:

With my amp cranked to its highest-gain setting there is almost always a very unmusical hum that renders my tone muddy in any mix. Almost all reverbs modulate it into an instrument all its own, and pitch-shifters try to track it.

When I picked up The Silencer and used it right after my effects chain, the first thing I noticed was that this hum was almost immediately eliminated as if Electro-Harmonix had exorcised a phantom from my amp with this unassuming noise-gate as a proxy. Upon a closer listen, I noticed that the hum was still technically there, just attenuated out entirely between notes.

Even with its threshold at its peak, your playing comes through loud and clear; you do have to dial in a sweet spot to hear your gentle notes in the same phrases as your heavy ones. I’ve found that this is at around 12-1 o’clock. With the threshold at around 2 to 3 o’clock, the Silencer even rids you of obtrusive string noise. Those of us who embrace that noise may not have as much of a use for that function, but for those of you who think that dragging your fingers on the strings sounds particularly awful behind a delay, this is a godsend.
I noticed that at its lowest setting, the release knob doesn’t cut the signal off immediately. There’s a bit of latency there that is a function of the minimum 8ms release time. Not a huge loss, especially at low gain settings but still worth mentioning. I’ve also seen noise gates that execute other utilities, in particular offering the option to power other pedals via daisy-chain- but if that ability doesn’t concern you as much as size and build do, The Silencer is the way to go.

The way I use this pedal now, I plug my guitar into The Silencer’s input and run that signal through all of my pre-effects loop pedals, then in and out of my amp’s effects loop and back through The Silencer via the return and output to cancel all of the hum from my guitar, my overdrives and my amp. If your signal chain is a little simpler, it works just fine at the end- just make sure you’re putting it before any reverbs or delays. In my experience, you lose some of the more subtle and quieter nuances of your delay or reverb using any one noise gate as a panacea. In other words, you don’t want a high-threshold noise gate getting rid of the hum from your Electro Harmonix Metal Muff but also squashing out the trails of your EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath. Legends tell of an age long past when Periphery’s Misha Mansoor used 3 noise gates to get beautiful high-gain tone without sacrificing any subtleties, a convoluted solution to be sure, but an effective one!

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Overall-Rating-5.0

The Silencer from Electro Harmonix is an exceptional solution for cutting out signal noise and tightening up your sound. Noise gates have always been an invaluable staple in the world of guitar, and while tons of other companies are offering circuits that do what The Silencer does just as well, if you a want a noise gate that’s reliable, very effective at eliminating noise, and looks nice on your board, too, The Silencer is the absolute best choice in its price range.

That concludes our review of The Silencer from Electro-Harmonix. Thanks for reading!

Top 15 Best “Pedals of the Year” 2016

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While we frequently update lists of the best guitar pedals (fuzz pedals, delay pedals, reverb pedals, etc.) and even keep an updated list of the best guitar pedals currently available, we haven’t previously done a “Pedal of the Year” award or anything like that. Gonna do something like that, only better….

We’re rounding up the Top 15 Best Guitar Effects Pedals of the Year 2016.

What prompted this article was a bit surprising. It reminds me of when we first launched the “Top Fuzz Pedals” roundup. A rad pedal caught my attention: the Black Arts Toneworks Pharaoh. Discovering that pedal made me want to round up the best fuzz pedals on market and create a definitive “best of” list. These lists are always a work in progress as new pedals are always being released; there’s a lot to keep up with. But similar to our static Best Pedals of NAMM articles, we’re going to look back at the year 2016 and showcase the best pedals released during the year.

Of all the great pedals that arrived in 2016 (and there were plenty!), it was the Hologram Electronics Dream Sequence that surprised me the most. I got word of this pedal in January before The NAMM Show 2016. I was intrigued but skeptical of this debut offering from an unknown pedal builder, but the Dream Sequence certainly seemed like a promising pedal concept. When I finally got to spend of time with it near the end of 2016, it exceeded my expectations in a big way for being one of the few new guitar pedals to come out this year that points in exciting new musical directions. The Dream Sequence solidified Hologram Electronics as a builder to keep an eye on in 2017 and beyond.

This list is going to focus on pedals that are exceptional in many different ways, and each of these commendable pedals are a “Pedal of the Year” for making it into this list. But instead of trying to compare all the different factors possible for ranking them (tones, versatility, etc.), the ordering listed below focuses on pedals that inspire new approaches to making music with guitar. As the pedal market and media outlets become cluttered with “me too” releases and pedals that retread the same ground to death, Best Guitar Effects will make further efforts in this list and in our coverage in 2017 to focus on innovation as the most important criteria for judging the merits of new guitar pedals.

If you’re looking for new effects to take your guitar playing into new realms of creativity, surely some of these pedals will be worth further consideration.

Here are the Top 15 Pedals of the Year 2016!

 

Hologram Electronics Dream Sequence

Builder: Hologram Electronics, Pedal: Dream SequenceEffect Type: Pitch-Shifter/Octave Pedal

The Hologram Electronics Dream Sequence is one of the more exciting guitar pedals to be released in the past several years and probably the most exciting debut pedal since the Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl. While the Dream Sequence is a bit hard to categorize, it’s essentially a digital octave pedal that lets you sequence the octaves heard. It lets you blend your dry signal with 3 digital voices: octave down, middle octave (same as dry tone), & octave up.

Now there are plenty of octave pedals out there, but what makes the Dream Sequence so unique is that you can create and store presets that contain dynamic volume automation patterns for each digital octave voice. Imagine having a tremolo on each octave, but the movement can be any kind of rhythmic or polyrhythmic sequence you can come up with over 4 bars. You can even automate the various knob parameters to be saved with your presets. 12 onboard Factory presets give you a taste of the kinds of extreme pitch-shifting automation the Dream Sequence has in store for the lucid guitarists who awaken to its surrealism.

Now before you’re led on too much, it’s important to understand how you create the octave automation patterns. You create sequences of MIDI information using an external MIDI sequencer or DAW (digital audio workstation). Ableton Live works great, but Logic or any other DAW with MIDI works, too. If you’re going the DAW route, you’ll also need either a MIDI interface (you can find a cheap one for about $35) or dedicated audio interface with MIDI output.

I’ve written extensively about using Ableton Live with Guitar, and the Dream Sequence seems like it was made for this. While I prefer to run an automated effects rig and have used the Electro Harmonix HOG2 for similar functionality, only the Dream Sequence allows you to save patterns to the pedal for standalone use. You can create patterns in an Ableton Live set file, save them to the pedal, and still have a backup file of your favorite sounds for editing later. If you’re automating your rig like I do, you can just send the MIDI sequencing to the pedal in real-time and create extended automation for your music. For very complex automation patterns (or if you’re sending MIDI to other pedals, also, saving and recalling your sequenced patterns from the pedal may be ideal.

This pedal is a dream come true, and if it’s any sign of what’s to come, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on Hologram Electronics.

 

Strymon Riverside Multistage Drive

Builder: Strymon, Pedal: Riverside, Effect Type: Overdrive/Distortion Pedal

The Strymon Riverside is a late pedal release for 2016, but there’s no doubt it’s one of the year’s very best. As an all-in-one overdrive & distortion pedal that combines analog and digital wizardry into an all-new beast, this pedal is far too versatile to pigeon-hole as a simple dirt pedal as it covers an incredibly wide range of tones from mild, responsive overdrives to heavily saturated, amp-like distortion. While these sound like “buzz” words we’ve all heard again and again, it’s when you put the Riverside next to your preferred dirt of choice that you realize just how supremely versatile it is. It wasn’t meant to emulate a particular amp, overdrive, or distortion sound; it was engineered to surpass the range of usable tones found in any single drive pedal that came before it.

The Riverside is a simple enough pedal to use; anyone familiar with their amp’s control panel will know what to do here. In addition to the 5 amp-style parameter controls you’ll notice a couple switches. The Gain switch’s 2 settings – High & Low – completely transform the pedal into 2 different styles of dirt. The Gain switch along with the Drive knob are used to access a wide range of drive tones; the character and response varies depending on where the knob is set. While Strymon hasn’t gone into great detail about the magic taking place to achieve these varying tones, it’s at least obvious that the magic happening in the digital realm allows greater flexibility in articulating how the pedal responds at different knob settings. There’s an incredibly smooth range of sweet-spot tonality throughout the Drive knob’s range. It also cleans up remarkably well with your guitar’s volume knob; the pedal varies its response to your audio input level to retain musical dynamics. The Push switch gives you an aggressive kick in the mid-range and further adds to the great sounds available.

The Favorite switch gives you quick access to a preset sound. Use it for a boost setting or have a whole different sound available for quick recall. I’m a fan of the built in gate, a sub parameter that’s great for neutralizing noise with higher gain settings.

On a side note, big kudos to Strymon for implementing a smart relay bypass so that the pedal remembers its last bypass state when powering up. This is super handy when using an effects switcher as the Riverside will always remember to power on (like 3PDT pedals) when powering up your pedalboard at a gig. If there was just some kind of MIDI implementation for accessing more of the great sounds or at least the possibility of using a TRS dual foot-switch controller for remotely accessing both of the onboard foot-switch functions. Aside from all that, the tones are flawless and far ahead of the curve compared to digital drive pedals of the past.

 

WMD Protostar

Builder: WMD, Pedal: Protostar, Effect Type: Analog Filter Pedal

Here’s a long anticipated pedal that finally dropped in 2016. When the WMD Protostar was first unveiled back at Winter NAMM 2015, it was shown under the moniker Super Fatman, the latest successor to WMD’s earlier Fatman and Super Fatman analog filter pedals. The new (and way cooler) name arrived when the Protostar was shown at Winter NAMM 2016 before its release a few months after.

The Protostar is a big deal for a several reasons. First off, it’s an incredibly deep analog filter pedal that would be at home in a Eurorack modular synthesizer rig. And in keeping with its modular roots (while taking the modular aspect of guitar pedals to the next level), the Protostar has a 9 jack CV patch-bay for connecting to other CV pedals or integrating into a hybrid pedal/eurorack setup.

The Protostar offers a potentially overwhelming amount of possibilities at first glance. At the very least you can use it as an envelope filter to get those funky, quacky auto-wah effects. Or maybe try using the envelope to control other pedals via their CV or expression pedal inputs? What about adding another pedal into the Protostar’s effects loop? How about sending that LFO to control another pedal? Maybe control the Protostar’s LFO from a different pedal? This pedal does things you’ve never fathomed until you start plugging things in and experimenting with it.

Now, if the inevitable WMD Geiger Counter Pro will finally come out already. Maybe after Winter NAMM 2017.

 

Electro Harmonix Mel9

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Builder: EHX, Pedal: Mel9, Effect Type: Mellotron Emulator/Guitar Synth Pedal

I’ve sung the praises of the Electro Harmonix HOG2 & EHX POG2 countless times. Now EHX’s innovative polyphonic guitar synthesizer technology is on prime display in the Mel9, a guitar synth pedal that mimics some of the most popular sounds of the iconic Mellotron keyboard instrument.

Sporting a similar footprint and layout as Electro Harmonix’s other “9 series” pedals (B9, C9, Key9), the Mel9 gives you 9 presets that create sounds far removed from your typical electric guitar tones. It’ll take you from The Court of the Crimson King to Strawberry Fields Forever and even sing you the Moody Blues. Some standout modes include the first several presets: Orchestra, Cello, Strings, & Flute. But all of the presets offer an interesting range of unique textures to add to your music that you’ll only find in this pedal.

Attack & Sustain knobs set the response of the wet voicing, letting you adjust how quickly the synth textures ascend to maximum amplitude and decay after a note or chord is silenced. Dry & Effect levels let you set a perfect balance between your guitar sound and the effected signal, respectively. The Effect & Dry outputs let you sum the wet & dry signals to one output (used in a standard mono effects chain) or send the two signals to separate destinations for individual processing. I highly recommend getting creative with signal processing on your wet & dry voices.

The most adventurous guitarists use guitar effects pedals to transcend the range of sounds that can be produced by a guitar and amp alone, and the Mel9 offers a palette that will surely inspire. I’ve got nothing but love for guitarists who just stick with just a guitar and amp (although they’re probably not reading this anyway), but those of you who love effects are either imagining the soundscapes you’ll create with this pedal or have already added the Mel9 on your pedalboard.

 

Source Audio Nemesis

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Builder: Source Audio, Pedal: Nemesis, Effect Type: Delay Pedal

I had my eyes on the Source Audio Nemesis for the longest time. The company had shown this pedal at Winter NAMM 2015, Summer NAMM 2015, & Winter NAMM 2016 before it finally hit store shelves this past Spring. The Nemesis was well worth the wait, and it quickly became regarded as one of the best delay pedals among the many guitarists who’ve added it to their pedalboards.

It’s not even fair to make the Strymon, Eventide, & Boss references anymore as the Nemesis has shown that Source Audio stands on their own in terms of achieving an exceptional and diverse set of delay algorithms that are among the best you’ll find in any pedal. Still, the most noteworthy aspect of the Nemesis is that for a multi-algorithm delay pedal filled with so many great sounds, it forgoes any clumsy menus in favor of tactile, hands-on control. The convenient interface and compact size make this a stellar delay pedal for cramped pedalboards or smaller travel boards.

All the expected “big gun” features are here: 12 onboard delay types, MIDI functionality, presets, tap tempo, stereo I/O. I really like the optional effects loop. If you’re running a mono rig, this’ll let you add other effects to your delays.

If you do need more control, you can dive into Source Audio’s Neuro App for deeper editing. You can create and store presets and access 12+ other delay algorithms which you can “burn” onto the onboard types if there’s something you’d like to replace. You’ve gotta hear that Double Helix engine – wild sounds! And if you already love the Nemesis and want more, there’s apparently a Source Audio reverb pedal coming soon!

 

Chase Bliss Audio Tonal Recall

Builder: Chase Bliss Audio, Pedal: Tonal Recall, Effect Type: Analog Delay

Okay, I knew this pedal was going to be good. You knew this pedal was going to be good. It’s good, really good. Better than good. The Tonal Recall is epicness in pedal form.

The Chase Bliss Audio Tonal Recall is the most notable recent analog delay pedal that utilizes the reissued Xvive MN3005 bucket brigade chips, inspired by the ones used in the most sought after vintage EHX Deluxe Memory Man & Boss DM-2 pedals. Rather than just attempt to emulate (recall?) the sounds of those classic analog delay pedals, the Tonal Recall nods to these icons of tone while exceeding the usability of the older generation of analog delay pedals in nearly every conceivable way.

The Tonal Recall sports a smaller footprint than your typical tap tempo analog delay pedal with a built in tap foot-switch. It gives you a host of tap divisions, short & long delay times, and an interesting “both” mode that utilizes both BBD chips for a weird “BBD Reverb” style ambience. You can also save & recall presets and utilize MIDI for parameter control and external control of most functions. Chase Bliss Audio’s unique “Ramping” is on great display here as you can modulate various parameters for interesting delay movement.

The biggest draws for me are probably the Tone control and the low noise floor of the pedal. The Tonal Recall offers a wider range of tones than any vintage unit, from reasonably bright to very dark, and is quieter than those once great designs. “Purists” may still argue in favor of the dusty old pedal they paid more for on the secondhand market, but there’s no denying that the Tonal Recall is a landmark release of the modern guitar pedal era and one of the best delay pedals available today.

 

Empress Effects Reverb

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Builder: Empress Effects, Pedal: Reverb, Effect Type: Reverb Pedal

When I first heard the Empress Effects Reverb back at Winter NAMM 2016, I knew it was going to be something special. The big draw of this multi-algorithm reverb powerhouse is that its 12 selectable reverb types contain way more reverb algorithms you’d guess at a passing glance. There are currently over two dozen reverb modes available with more being voting on in the Empress Reverb New Features Voting Forum. Essentially, this lets you, the reverb loving end-user help design and create the sounds to come from the Empress Reverb in the future. In addition to reverb, forum voters and Empress have been collaborating on an upcoming Looper function that should add even more versatility to this unique pedal.

Back to the features at hand, everything you’d expect from stereo I/O to presets (35 total) are here. There’s even cab filtering for running the pedal without an amp, optional expression pedal control, and even MIDI functionality when used with the Empress Midibox.

As far as the sounds go, the Empress Reverb really shines with its otherworldly offerings. The Ghost mode is a very cool take on a resonant reverb. The forum voted “Destroyer” reverb is a cool pitch-shifting/bit-crusher ‘verb. This pedal has perhaps my favorite gated reverb. The Sparkle bank now has a +1/-1 octave shimmer ‘verb (“Glummer”), also forum voted. There are many creative alternatives here to just simply creating a space for your guitar to sit in.

 

TC Electronic Sub’N’Up

Builder: TC Electronic, Pedal: Sub’N’Up, Effect Type: Octaver/Modulation

As far as simple octave pedals go, the TC Electronic Sub’N’Up is one of the best I’ve ever played. And as far as polyphonic octave pedals so, it’s also right up there with the best I’ve ever played. Tracking is impeccable. Latency is non-existent. It sounds beautiful. But that’s just scratching the surface.

While the Poly & Classic modes give you a taste of the clean polyphonic tracking and grittier octaver sounds the Sub’N’Up is capable of, the TonePrint mode teases other possibilities with its mesmerizing organ-like modulated octaves.

Digging in with the TonePrint Editor lets you sculpt incredibly deep sounds flavored with modulation and saturation. You can even tweak the EQ of the various voicings for deep and articulate octave sounds. If you love octaves, you must try this pedal; it goes far beyond any other compact octave pedal in terms of the amount of great sounds it’s capable of.

Now if TC would just release a Sub’N’Up X2 version with more onboard TonePrints, an Up 2 voice, and exp control (& MIDI while we’re at it), you’d have a contender for the best octave pedal ever made. The Sub’N’Up surpassed my expectations in a big way thanks to a sound quality that’s far beyond its measly asking price.

 

Neunaber Immerse Reverberator

Builder: Neunaber, Pedal: Immerse, Effect Type: Reverb

Let me just say that Neunaber makes arguably the best sounding shimmer reverb algorithms available in a compact stompbox enclosure. The Neunaber Expanse series was notable for their many cutting edge algorithms (The “Wet” reverb is another winner). The Expanse pedals could be configured to any other single algorithm with Neunaber’s Expanse software. The Neunaber Immerse foregoes this software connectivity in favor of providing an onboard Effect Select knob that gives you quick access to 8 different reverb settings. The sounds include Wet, Hall, Plate, Spring, Shimmer A & B, +Echo, and + Detune. The sounds are all impeccable with a breathtaking sonic detail that exudes quality much greater than its compact size.

Yes, you can run this pedal in a mono guitar rig and get stunning reverb sounds, but the Immerse sounds majestic in stereo and must be heard. The I/O jacks are fully independent, letting you feed the pedal a mono signal, a stereo input on input jacks 1 & 2, or a stereo TRS signal via input 2. Likewise, you can sum the output to mono via output 1, or output stereo via both outputs or a stereo TRS cable on output 2.

Additional useful features include a Trails switch for reverb spillover and a Kill Dry Switch for outputting only a wet reverb signal. While Neunaber pedals typically had a 3-knob layout for dead simple ease of use, I greatly appreciate the extra parameter knob found in the Immerse. Dedicated Tone and setting-specific controls are a nice touch. Some guitarists will lament the loss of presets via the ExP Controller which isn’t compatible with the Immerse. While I also mourn the exclusion of presets, the ease of use the Immerse offers particularly if you just need one great reverb sound is hard to contend with in a pedal this size. And yes, MIDI compatible version with recallable presets would be amazing.

 

EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run

Builder: EarthQuaker Devices, Pedal: Avalanche Run, Effect Type: Reverb/Delay Pedal

EarthQuaker Devices has a long history of releasing pedals that span the bounds of pretty much any notable effect type you could think of. Sometimes they merge different effects to create new hybrid effects. The Dispatch Master is a classic example of this approach, combining delay & reverb in a single, simple to use pedal. The EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run is the builder’s boldest release yet, born from a new high-powered DSP platform that’s a harbinger of the sonic adventures EQD will take us on in the future.

The Delay section has 3 modes: Normal, Reverse, & Swell. Normal is your standard delay. Reverse does it backwards. Swell lets your picking dynamics influence the amplitude of your audio signal as you play for a lush, atmospheric ambience.

There’s a slew of Tap Tempo Ratio options and a dedicated onboard Tap foot-switch. An EXP knob lets you assign parameters for expression pedal control. Try using Reverse mode with exp pedal control of Normal/Reverse. This lets you retain the Tap oscillation when pressing & holding the Tap foot-swich. It sounds truly epic.

The Avalanched Run is one of the “shoegaziest” pedals around and arguably the best EarthQuaker Devices pedal released to date.

 

Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive Deluxe

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Builder: Mad Professor, Pedal: SHOD DLX, Effect Type: Overdrive Pedal

The Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive Deluxe was the most unexpected surprise of 2016 for me. “But isn’t it just an overdrive pedal? Well, yes, and that’s kind of the point. I don’t often get excited about overdrive pedals. Frankly, there are just too many overdrives out there, and relatively few offer something that stands out among the heap. But among relatively simple medium gain drives, this one impressed me.

The SHOD DLX forgoes a generic tone knob in favor of dedicated Bass & Treble controls. They’ve been cleverly implemented by Mad Professor with the Bass being pre-distortion to shape your tone going into the clipping section; the Treble comes after the dirt to shape your high-end and round off any harshness, useful with higher gain settings and/or brighter single coil pickups. While many overdrives promise to add an extra channel to your amp, this is one of the best pedals I’ve played for exactly that purpose. It excels at taking a clean amp into crunch territory or a crunch channel into a ripping lead. Insert your own reference to the tones being sweet as honey.

The Focus knob is perhaps the star here as it changes the character and response of the pedal significantly. Lower Focus settings are warmer and less distorted. Pushing the knob to higher settings invokes a hotter sound with a slightly more aggressive treble bite. These sounds are relative and highly interactive with your guitar and amp. This makes the Focus knob more essential as you can tweak it for an excellent response with humbuckers or single coils.

While the Sweet Honey Overdrive Deluxe does fall into that category of medium gain overdrive pedals, it’s noticeably more versatile than most one-trick-pony drive pedals. With the Drive turned down and the other knobs dialed in just right, you’ll notice that it’s surprisingly transparent (as worn out as that word is when trying to describe tonally neutral drive pedals). If you’re the kind of guitarist that uses 3 (or more) overdrive pedals to cover all bases, well, add this to your list of must-try pedals. The Sweet Honey Overdrive Deluxe is definitely worth checking out and just might make you replace one of your lesser overdrive pedals.

 

Keeley Electronics Dark Side & Loomer

Builder: Keeley Electronics, Pedals: Dark Side/Loomer, Effect Types: Fuzz/Delay/Reverb/Modulation

Keeley Electronics had a big hit with their Monterey Fuzz/Vibe/Wah Workstation. The Jimi Hendrix inspired tribute pedal apparently inspired another famed guitarist tribute that nods to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Deriving its name from the iconic Floyd record, Dark Side of the Moon, the Keeley Electronics Dark Side combines a muff inspired fuzz with some of the other classic effects Mr. Gilmour notably used in his career.

The Fuzz side has a killer Muff section. In addition to the expected 3-knob controls, a 3-position flip-switch provides options for Scoop, Full, & Flat for defining your response.

The Mod side gives you an excellent multi-head delay with the 12 head patterns of a certain legendary echo machine. If that isn’t enough to sell most guitarists (and it’s all I thought I’d need), there’s also 4 modulation effects (phase, u-vibe, flange, rotary), any of which can be selected instead of delay. You’ll noticed that the flip-switch groups Phase & U-Vibe on the right and Flange & Rotary on the left. The Blend knob is used to select which of the 2 effects you’re using, but you can adjust the blend to create a hybrid sound between the 2 effects. For example, you can create a unique phaser/vibe sound which sounds very cool considering those 2 effects have similar origins.

If the Dark Side wasn’t enough, Keeley snuck out another guitarist inspired workstation pedal, the Loomer, inspired by Kevin Shields’ guitar work with My Bloody Valentine. The Loomer takes that same great fuzz from the Dark Side and pairs it with 3 reverb modes to get characteristically “shoegaze” sounds. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the two as they’ll both appeal to fuzz lovers and fans of the guitar heroes they were inspired by.

Dark Side V2 & Loomer V2: It’s important to note that these pedals originally launched with a TRS I/O jack that was later replaced with an order switch. The TRS option allowed you to patch the fuzz before an amp while routing the Mod effect to the effects loop or elsewhere in your signal chain. The V2s’ Order switch allows “on-the-fly” position reversal between the Fuzz and the various Mod effects. This is particularly beneficial with the Loomer as it allows you to experiment with “reverb before fuzz” sounds without having to re-cable your guitar rig. This is certainly a fun and welcome change that casual pedal enthusiasts will appreciate.

 

DryBell Vibe Machine V-2

Builder: DryBell, Pedal: Vibe Machine V-2, Effect Type: Vibe Pedal

This is one is short and easy. DryBell took what was arguably the world’s best compact vibe pedal (the Vibe Machine V-1) and made it better. The Vibe Machine V-2 has a few subtle but essential improvements. The new Custom setting on the impedance switch adds a 3rd option to accompany the Bright & Original settings carried over from the V-1. The Original is dark like the old Shin-Ei Uni Vibe. The Bright setting gives you a more modern sound. The Custom setting is user adjustable to any setting within the range of the other two settings. Use this mode for a setting that’s perfectly suited to your “A” guitar. You can use the other 2 settings when they’re a better fit for your “other” guitar(s).

Perhaps the best surprise is that the V-2 offers tap tempo. You might have a standard single stomp foot-switch hanging around. If not, pick up a DryBell F-1L; it has a snazzy matching paint job, too. Plug it in to unlock tap tempo (or slow/fast ramping!). DryBell provides more info about this and the host of other features on their website.

Still hoping to see DryBell’s take on another effect type. In the meantime the Croatian builder’s pursuit of the ultimate compact vibe pedal has yielded an improvement that elevates the Vibe Machine to greater heights.

 

Dwarfcraft Devices Happiness

Builder: Dwarfcraft Devices, Pedal: Happiness, Effect Type: Analog Filter

Okay, okay, I’ve gotta sneak in one more. The Dwarfcraft Happiness is just too cool. In the mold of the crafty builder’s Twin Stags dual tremolo pedal, the Happiness is a filter pedal that has high pass, low pass, and band pass modes. While you generally use the effect with the pedal’s own internal LFO (modified with the Depth & Shape knobs, LFO speed controlled by Rate), I really like being able to manually control the FREQ parameter with an expression pedal. You can take a low pass filter from fully open in the toe down position through a darkening of your sound to silence at the heel position. My one gripe is that the Filter CV In doesn’t seem to share the same full sweep range achieved from the Filter XP Input. Still, a big draw of the Happiness is the CV I/O routing as you can connect the Happiness to your modular synth rig or other CV pedals like the Twin Stags or WMD Protostar. Input a synced LFO from another source or route the Happiness’ LFO to another destination.

Two other cool things worth mentioning. Crank the Rez (with the Master set very low!), and you can create crazy drones and squeals from the pedal itself to fuel your noise rock freak outs. And flip the Scramble switch and use the Speed knob to control the speed of a “sample and hold” style filter shifting. Dwarfcraft has a cool thing going with their CV lineup, and I hope we see more.

Hope you enjoyed our Top 15 Pedals of the Year 2016 roundup. Just might have to do this again if Winter NAMM 2017 is any indication of how good a year 2017 is going to be for guitar pedals.

 

Check out the Top 17 Best Pedals of Winter NAMM 2017!

TC Electronic Triple Delay Review – Best Multi-Engine Delay Pedal?

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At a glance you may believe that you are experiencing Déjà vu: we already covered the TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay and Looper, so why review what must certainly be the same thing? Your confusion is valid: today we’ll be covering a pedal whose birth stemmed from the worldwide success of the Flashback X4, but I assure you without hyperbole that the TC Electronic Flashback Triple Delay is a horse of a different color.

I like ambient tones. Since my first marathon viewing of Andy Othling’s Ambient Tips series on Youtube, I’ve been obsessed with the technical skills behind achieving beautiful, cascading soundscapes. Obviously, the most basic core effects in this school of guitar are 1) Reverb, and 2) Delay. Stacked delays in particular have been utilized in the studio and onstage to create choir-like waves that flow into one another and serve as a breathing wash for your guitar playing to float over. There are plenty of delay options to get you there if you have the money and pedalboard real estate to spend on two or more delay pedals. But then, of course, you run into the on-stage tap dancing routine that comes with activating and tapping/dialing in two tempos before your cue – certainly entertaining for the audience but exhausting for the guitarist.

Enter the TC Electronic Flashback Triple Delay: More than just a mouthful! It is 3 independent delays in tandem or parallel to one another, timed by one tap tempo. This integrated concept in one pedal is something I haven’t seen anywhere else on the market and fills the stacked delay niche so snugly for its price point that I couldn’t help but cough up the cash when the opportunity arose. Of course, the “Triple” part of the Triple Delay is only the beginning of the treasure trove that is this feature-rich unit.

tc-electronic-flashback-triple-delay-review-best-multi-engine-delay-pedal-02FEATURES:

  • Three independent delay engines
  • 11 different subdivisions
  • Toggle between having your delays in series or in parallel
  • TC Electronic TonePrint enabled
  • Beam enabled (more on this later)
  • Tap Tempo
  • 12 Delay types and 4 Slots for TC Proprietary TonePrints
  • True Bypass (Optional Buffered Bypass Dip Switch in housing)
  • Analog-Dry-Through
  • Expression pedal input
  • Stereo in- and output
  • MIDI In and Thru ports

Housed in TC’s modern and easily recognizable X4 body (also used in their new Ditto X4 Looper), the Triple Delay boasts a tour-worthy metal chassis with a sexy polished-sparkle blue finish and two-tone screen-printed face featuring a humorously appropriate crown one could assume signifies its regal TC bloodline with three tips representing the three simultaneous delays you can use at once. All four switches (three for each delay engine, one for tap tempo) are soft touch for easy toggling and the knobs are responsive and smooth. There are also two toggle switches between the knobs that control which delay engine you’re editing when you tweak the parameters, and whether the delays are in Serial or Parallel, respectively.

The 5 knobs on the Triple delay are as follows, from left to right:

Delay Type: Much like the Flashback X4, the Triple Delay comes equipped with 12 factory delay types: Tape, Tube, Space, Analog, Analog w/Modulation, Reverse, Dynamic, 2290, 2290 w/ Modulation, Slapback, Lo-Fi and Ping-Pong. You also have the option of setting up a custom TonePrint in the 4 “TP” slots. We’ll discuss this more later.

Time: This knob controls your delay rate and overrides the tap tempo. The max delay time is 7 seconds.

Repeats: Controls how long the delay goes on. At its extremes it can be one repeat or infinity, and it will self-oscillate when the delay rate is short enough to overlap, but I noticed that you don’t get the iconic analog delay pitch-shifting effect when you turn the time knob clockwise on any of the factory presets.

tc-electronic-flashback-triple-delay-review-best-multi-engine-delay-pedal-04Mix: This knob determines how much of your analog signal comes through proportionally to the affected signal. The beauty of it is how little it affects the actual dry signal as it’s turned further clockwise thanks to TC’s design choice to include analog-dry-through: your guitar’s inherent tone is only accented by the Triple, not overcome by it.

Subdivision: This parameter determines the rhythm of the delay time- the options range from dotted quarter notes to alternating dotted eighth and sixteenth notes.

Visit TC Electronic for more info about the Flashback Triple Delay.

SOUND & PERFORMANCE:

Tape is exactly what you’d anticipate, warm and wobbly like the tape machines of old, while the Tube option offers a dark, antique delay tone. Space draws its inspiration from the Roland RE-201 Space Echo; it does indeed add a degree of “space” to your tone and executes classic-sounding ambient oscillations flawlessly. The Reverse setting is Beatles psychedelic. Lo-Fi is gritty and degraded, applying a high-pass to the signal to achieve a filtered tone. The Slapback is in your face and gets closer to a chorus the tighter you dial in the delay rate. Dynamic gets out of your way and only fills out the empty spaces between notes. Ping-Pong jumps between stereo channels, and as such, only benefits in a stereo rig. Finally, the 2290 is the studio delay that made TC Electronic a household name in the industry, and offers crisp, clear delayed notes.

Each delay type stands out as distinct from the others, with the exception of the w/mod options. This model might have been better served by adding different varieties of delay (like a panning stereophonic delay or maybe a delay signal pitch-shifted up or down an octave,) and leaving the modulation options in the TonePrint editor instead. But there are only so many practical delay options, so I can’t fault them for including two modulation options as opposed to some invented delay at this price point. And let’s face it, the mod options do offer some very sought after styles of delay, especially if you’re a fan of The Edge-style 2290 w/ modulation tones.

tc-electronic-flashback-triple-delay-review-best-multi-engine-delay-pedal-03What’s important about all of these delay options, of course, is the primary function of the Triple Delay: to play three different delays at once to create a truly unique delay sound. If you flip the Serial/Parallel switch up to Serial, you get each delay feeding into the next for a never-ending onslaught of glorious, ambient delay. Turn it down to Parallel and you’ll have three delays affecting your dry signal independently and each sort of doing their own thing. Both of these options are best used with delays that are pointedly different from one another. For example, Delay 1 might be a Reverse TonePrint with a long tailed low-pass filter, a tight delay, low mix and repeats at 12 o’clock to create a drone underneath your playing. Delay two is the factory Ping-Pong playing eighth notes to add a stereophonic element, and Delay 3 is a 2290 with vibrato playing dotted quarter notes. In serial, the individual delays create a polyrhythmic wall of sound that might best serve as a pulsing pad-like effect to replace a traditional guitar sound, but when you switch to parallel, the delays operate independently and sound more like peaks and valleys of sound.

We already covered TC Electronic’s proprietary TonePrint Editor software in our Flashback X4 review and Flashback Mini Delay review, but I’ll reiterate: The TonePrint Editor makes TC Electronics’ pedals some of the most flexible on the market today. There is a bit of a learning curve, as some of the terms might be unfamiliar to the uninitiated, but once you start digging in the tweakable parameters are near-unprecedented and you can make nearly any sound you can imagine. The sheer selection of famous users uploading Triple Delay TonePrints to TC Electronics’ website is baffling as well and continues to grow steadily, so one never runs out of options there, either.

The Triple Delay also offers MIDI IN/THRU with clock and CC support, though the inability to program serial/parallel changes with MIDI commands is a little disappointing. It would be great to see TC Electronic add even more MIDI functionality via a firmware update. Also, considering the pedalboard real-estate this behemoth consumes, it really hurts that there isn’t some way to save and select banks of triple-delay presets as this would really help maximize the utility of this pedal from its space on your board.

tc-electronic-flashback-triple-delay-review-best-multi-engine-delay-pedal-05

Overall-Rating-4.0

The TC Electronic Flashback Triple Delay is more than an offshoot or alternate version of the Flashback X4 and stands alone as a unique and versatile unit that maximizes the functionality of the TonePrint software and factory presets. Despite some physical limitations like the lack of a tone knob that some other high-end delays include, the Flashback Triple Delay stands above as one of the more innovative units today thanks to its trio of delay lines that can be used in Serial or Parallel modes. No one else in the industry is doing what TC Electronic is doing with the Triple Delay in this price-range. If I had my druthers, the Triple Delay would include some delay algorithms unique to this model, banks of presets, and some expanded MIDI support would be nice, but really those are gripes that shouldn’t hold you back from trying this innovative, one-of-a-kind delay pedal experience.

That concludes our TC Electronic Flashback Triple Delay review. Thanks for reading.