We’re back with another builder roundup, and this time we’re focusing on Free The Tone. I’ve had a lot of experience playing most of this builder’s guitar pedals, and I want to share some insights into why I think Free The Tone are one of the world’s premier pedal builders.
Build Quality – Free The Tone is one of the world’s top pedal builders in terms of build quality and reliability, making products that are designed with the needs of professional musicians in mind.
Free The Tone founder and lead engineer, Mr. Yuki Hayashi, has long been sought after for building high-end performance rigs and integrated switching systems for many notable professional guitarists in Japan. No attention to detail is spared in Free The Tone pedals when it comes to reliable performance, and the builder maintains a high degree of consistency in this area that few other companies can match.
Perspective – This is an elusive aspect of Free The Tone, but it’s something that sets this builder apart from others. The builder’s entire approach to pedal design often results in new and surprising design choices that offer a unique alternative to other comparable products while still adhering to the common needs of professional guitarists. While their products seem first and foremost to be targeted towards demanding professional musicians, they innovate in subtle ways that offer new possibilities and push innovation forward. This stems from a perspective that is broad in scope and always in consideration of the whole. I’ll explain further…
The Sum of Its Parts
When I spoke to Mr. Yuki Hayashi at The NAMM Show 2019, I recall praising Free The Tone’s obscure RM-1S Ring Modulator, an obscure pedal that is one of the best sounding ring modulators I’ve ever heard. I presumed that since a certain rare NOS part in the RM-1S was a key factor in the sound attained by this pedal that it must have been the most important aspect of the pedal. But Yuki professed that it wasn’t the reliance on this component that made this pedal so special. In fact he insisted that the components aren’t what matter at all.
Yuki referenced a past experience of his in working with a reputable British company that made studio consoles. Their engineering process was approached in a way that when things weren’t sounding right, they’d re-evaluate the entire circuit as a whole as opposed to simply fixating their view on components and small value changes. It can be vastly expensive and time-consuming to re-work entire circuits from the ground up if something seems a little off, but this is a highly disciplined practice that requires an engineer to maintain an honest perspective of self-criticism and an ability re-evaluate every decision made during the process of creating a new design. This approach has long become internalized in Yuki’s work and is an essential aspect of Free The Tone’s philosophy of design. While little details can be important, Free The Tone maintain a strong focus on viewing the big picture as a whole as opposed to becoming trapped in the minutiae.
When I revisited their website during the writing of this article, I was reminded that this has always been Free The Tone’s core ethos…
“…Instead of focusing on single components, we will approach the entire system design in a comprehensive way, which embodies the meaning of our slogan ‘THE HOLISTIC APPROACH TO SYSTEM DESIGN’”
Premium Sound Quality – This is an aspect of Free The Tone that has always impressed me. This builder’s effects are consistently of a caliber that I consider among the best in class in terms of audio quality and fidelity of sound. Originally, I noticed this in terms of how Free The Tone put so much effort into their buffering and bypass, offering their unique “Holistic Tonal Solution” circuit on most of their pedals which maintains a consistent tonality and signal integrity whether a pedal is activated or bypassed. While the first few pedals I played from Free The Tone were solidly impressive, the quality of sound they later achieved in their Flight Time, Tri Avatar, and PA-1Q series further solidified an impression I had that the builder was making dramatic strides in their designs.
And with all of that, I’m going to make my best attempt at ranking Free The Tone’s best pedals currently available and give a nod to a few of their best discontinued treasures. My goal is that this article will give you more insight into one of the builders I hold in very high regard and potentially guide you towards a pedal you may find inspiring.
And with that being said, here are the Top 10 Best Free The Tone Pedals.
Future Factory RF Phase Modulation Delay
Pedal: Future Factory, Product No.: FF-1Y, Effect Type: Dual Digital Delay
The Future Factory is the 3rd digital delay pedal from Free The Tone, following the Flight Time FF-1Y & FF-2Y pedals. It produces an incredibly hi-fi digital delay experience that somehow manages to surpass its venerable predecessors thanks to additional sound design possibilities and flexibility.
The Future Factory is a digital delay pedal with two delay lines that you can use in series in mono or parallel in stereo. This is a huge benefit in that it gives you two discreet delay paths in one pedal. The series operation will appeal to traditional mono guitarists as you’ll have a pair of stackable delays which can achieve a lot rhythmic variation thanks to 10 different tempo divisions on each delay line. Stereo guitarists will have the delay lines split on each side of the stereo field and can use any of 10 tap divisions on each side as well. You can also dial in either or both of the delay lines in milliseconds if you want to add your own preferred variation or dial in some other specific time value for your delays.
The Flight Time pedals are highly regarded for their clean digital delays and modulation with flexible tone control. The Future factory expands in these areas in a few notable ways. The new “RF Phase Modulation” function adds a dynamically controlled element to the LFO controlled modulation, letting your playing trigger a smoothened resetting of the LFO which adds an interactive element to the sound. It’s subtle but noticeable and is especially nice in stereo.
You also get a dedicated Tone parameter and separate 3-Band EQ sections for your delays. These are implemented in the signal path differently in mono and stereo to provide users maximum utility. I especially appreciate that the EQs also have different frequency options for the 3 bands in addition to the expected level controls. This lets you carefully create the perfect digital delay tones whether you opt for the simplicity of just using the Tone controls or combining that with the deeper EQing functionality.
A feature that has made the Future Factory a further standout for me is the stereo Panning. (Mono users get a solid Tremolo effect instead.) While the modulation and RF modulation already create really nice stereo delay sounds, the Panning adds even more movement to the overall sound. It gives the stereo delay sound more dimension and further contributes to making the Future Factory my current favorite modulated digital delay pedal.
Another really neat addition is the Soft Clipping. If you’re using the Future Factory in a traditional mono setup, you’ll definitely want to explore this option as it warms up the digital delays with a bit of grit. If you crank it you can get even more bite and sizzle. It doesn’t get overwhelmingly brash when playing normally, and it’s generally subtle throughout most of the Gain knob’s range. But you can dig in really hard to get a cool trashy delay sound that can be tastefully tamed with the EQ and the dynamics of your playing.
Since the Soft Clipping adds some compelling extra flavor in mono, some users may wish that the Future Factory had dual matched clipping circuits for stereo use. But since the greatest strength of the pedal in stereo are the immaculate clean sounds, I think most guitarists can overlook this omission. When I use delays in mono in front of an amp or in an amp’s effects loop, I’m more open to distorted delay textures for interesting and novel sounds, but when playing in stereo using digital delays, I prefer very clean delay tones. I suspect that the Soft Clipping was added for extra appeal in mono but seen as not as relevant for stereo usage where the main draw are the RF modulation and panning aspects which shine in large part because of how clean and hi-fi the pedal sounds. For these reasons the Future Factory can almost be viewed as two separate pedals, depending on whether you plan to integrate it in either a mono or stereo setup.
In addition to the wide range of sounds the Future Factory offers, it also gives you tap tempo (optional per delay line), 4 onboard presets (128 via MIDI), external MIDI control, MIDI In or Out, Kill Dry, Trails, an EXT jack for expression pedal and other control possibilities, and more. It’s a deep and rewarding pedal with a lot of options for dialing in great delay sounds and integrating in any kind of setup.
PA-1Q Programmable Analog 10 Band EQ (series)
Pedal: Programmable Analog 10 Band EQ, Product No.’s: PA-1QG (guitar), PA-1QB (bass), PA-1QA (acoustic – untested for this article), Effect Type: Graphic EQ
I was greatly impressed when I first saw the original PA-1QG Programmable Analog 10 Band EQ for guitar, a 10-band analog graphic equalizer built with Free The Tone’s impeccable sound and build quality and with digital control for saving and recalling presets. And after I played it I concluded that it was without a doubt the best 10-band graphic EQ pedal money can buy.
A graphic EQ can be a simple and effective way to contour your overall tone. But before the PA-1Q series came along, musicians could only get one static EQ curve from other analog graphic EQ pedals. But with Free The Tone’s Programmable Analog 10 Band EQ, you can now create a unique tonal template for any combination of pedals or sculpt the perfect EQ curve to compliment any guitars you switch between during a show.
Imagine running the PA-1QG early in your signal chain. If you’re switching between guitars with various humbucker and single-coil combinations and with varying tonal profiles in general, these guitars may not always compliment all of your pedals or work equally well with your amp. With a PA-1Q you could recall a specific preset for each guitar that more closely matches the tonality of your guitars or changes the characteristics of your instruments by adding or subtracting certain frequencies by +/- 12dB. Or you could simply match their volume levels by cutting or boosting their overall levels or attenuating certain problem frequencies. The 4 onboard presets are easily accessible via a dedicated Preset foot-switch, so having a few tonal templates for your guitars is very convenient.
The PG-1Q pedals also give you access to 99 presets via MIDI. If you put the PA-1QG later in your chain, you could ensure that you have a tonal profile that always highlights the best aspects of your sound with any combination of pedals you use. If you want to use a lot of presets, this pedal is ideal to use with a MIDI Effects Switcher (such as Free The Tone’s ARC-53M), so each time you recall a new switcher preset of different effects and pedals, the PA-1Q could switch to a perfect EQ curve to compliment your sound. This is immensely valuable for guitarists obsessed with chasing the perfect tone.
Even if you just need one basic EQ sound, the PA-1Q is the definitive 10-band analog graphic EQ pedal for adding or removing frequencies while not altering your tone in an undesired way. The presets just further add to the utility of the pedal and make it far exceed the basic graphic EQ pedals that came before.
There are Bass and Acoustic variations in the PA-1Q series as well–the PA-1QB and PA-1QA, respectively. I’ve played the PA-1QB and find it thoroughly impressive for sculpting lower end bass content. I haven’t personally tried tried the PA-1QA, so I don’t have an informed opinion about it based on firsthand experience. But Considering how well the guitar and bass versions perform, I’d imagine the PA-1QA is also solid and reliable and may be worth a look for acoustic musicians.
While there are a few ways to approach EQing (parametric EQ also being popular), when it comes to analog graphic EQ pedals for guitar, the PA-1QG is paramount.
Tri Avatar Multi-Dimensional Chorus
Pedal: Tri Avatar, Product No.: TA-1H, Effect Type: Chorus
Free The Tone’s Tri Avatar Multi-Dimensional Chorus is a true studio grade chorus pedal in stompbox. It’s inspired by certain legendary 80’s rack chorus units, notably the Dytronics/Dyno-My-Piano Tri Stereo Chorus and Roland Dimension D. The Tri Avatar is all about big lush chorus sounds that are especially gorgeous in stereo.
The “Multi-Dimensional” aspects of the Tri Avatar are in reference to its stereo sound and the sequential nature of the pedal’s 3 modulated voices moving in tandem in a sequence 120 degrees apart. These 3 voices are also spread apart across the left, center, and right of a stereo field. Thanks to this arrangement, the Tri Avatar produces a huge stereo chorus sound. While the pedal does function well in mono and does have a great sound for general mono chorusing duties, it’s the stereo sound that makes this pedal breathtaking to behold and powerhouse chorus pedal for musicians who truly love this effect.
Each of the 3 chorus voices has its own Depth control, so you can dial in subtle or more prominent chorusing across the stereo field. A Hi-Cut control darkens the sound for a more vintage chorusing flavor. There’s a dedicated Rate knob that controls the speed of all the voices at once while keeping the LFOs in perfect alignment. And the Dry Mix can push the chorus up to a 50/50 blend for an even chorus balance. The Preset foot-switch gives you quick access to 4 sounds (which are also recallable via MIDI). And you can use an expression pedal to control the Rate or Hi-Cut.
The Tri Avatar is simply one of the most notable pure chorus pedals currently available, particularly for stereo use.
String Slinger Overdrive
Pedal: String Slinger, Product No.: SS-1V, Effect Type: Overdrive
In celebration of Free The Tone’s 15th Anniversary, the builder released 2 overdrive pedals, the String Slinger and Fire Mist. I want to talk about the String Slinger first.
This pedal was designed with the goal being to achieve the “best American blues sound”. It’s a simple 3-knob overdrive with an expected Drive, Tone, & Level configuration, and this pedal is the cleaner and milder of the builder’s 2 new overdrives. While it nods to classic “Black Face” amp sounds in inspiration, Free The Tone went deeper in their research and development to achieve a new take on those classic sounds.
While I typically favor overdrives with mid and higher gain capabilities, I fell in love with the mildness of the String Slinger. With the Drive all the way down and the Level at unity, you can achieve a very clean sound when engaging the pedal. Forget the transparent myth; there’s definitely an accentuation of the mids happening which allows your guitar to pop a bit in the midrange, but the pedal remains true to your guitar’s character. It’s also commendable how clean and quiet it is at low Drive settings. Once you begin pushing up the gain, you’ll get a bit more grit and warmth, but it’s really smooth all the way up into the upper range of the Drive knob. The Tone knob also provides a smooth high-end roll-off, so you’ll always be able to achieve a perfect drive sound without any trace of harshness. And while I generally keep the Level around unity-ish and use the pedal mainly for a slight mid-boosted overdrive from the pedal, there’s plenty of gain on tap from the Level knob if you want to use it to induce overdrive from your amp in conjunction with the pleasing tones from the pedal. And it’s definitely a great overdrive for stacking in general, pairing with the Fire Mist and other pedals quite nicely.
The String Slinger and Fire Mist are both extremely rugged and sturdy with a heavy chassis and have beautiful custom brass knobs. These feel like premium pedals in every sense, and Free The Tone further emphasizes on their site that the materials and specifications used were chosen for their effects on overall tonality. And speaking of the Fire Mist…
Fire Mist Overdrive
Pedal: Fire Mist, Product No.: FM-1V, Effect Type: Overdrive
The other pedal Free The Tone released for their 15th Anniversary is the Fire Mist Overdrive, a pedal designed to capture a “true British rock sound”. Similar to the String Slinger, the Fire Mist is a 3-knob overdrive with Drive, Tone, & Level controls. But the similarities to the String Slinger are only cosmetic. The Fire Mist is an entirely different machine under the hood.
Think of those classic early Marshall tones. The Fire Mist captures a great low to mid gain amp experience. It never gets too hot, even with the Drive cranked, but it can achieve higher gain tones than the String Slinger. I’d say that the Fire Mist has a warmer and rounder sound, and this pedal also stacks well with other pedals, particularly if you hit it with a boost or another drive like the String Slinger. It gives a straight ahead sound that you can color with your amp’s EQ controls, and the Tone lets you roll off high-end if you prefer darker tones or just need to tame some bright single coils.
I find that the Fire Mist also pairs well with the PA-1QG as amp-like overdrives typically benefit from deeper tone control, and an EQ pedal can really help reshape the texture to achieve the perfect sound. What’s also fascinating to me about the Fire Mist is that is shows a progression from the cleaner sounds of the American inspired String Slinger to the dirtier British rock arena. I’d actually be curious to see Free The Tone release more pedals in this series of premium amp inspired drive pedals as I wonder what they could do with pedals that kick the gain up a notch further. Still, the Fire Mist is a solid pedal for fans of vintage British tones and another great offering from Free The Tone.
Ambi Space Digital Reverb
Pedal: Ambi Space, Product No.: AS-1R, Effect Type: Reverb
The Ambi Space is stereo digital reverb with dedicated Preset foot-switch in a compact pedal with top-mounted jacks. It’s a very smartly designed pedal that really impressed for how it provides gigging musicians a lot of sounds and convenient control in a very small package that doesn’t take up much pedalboard space.
The pedal has 6 reverb modes: Spring, Plate, Room, Hall, Cave, & Serene. The first 4 offer solid renditions of the classic types. Spring in particular sounds like a more modern hybrid take on that classic while Plate, Room, and Hall seem like authentic examples of those expected styles of reverb. Cave & Serene are a bit different as Free The Tone created unique reflection patterns for those algorithms to offer new ambient reverb sounds. They’re definitely worth auditioning if you’re looking for new sounds that may inspire you.
The Ambi Space has a dead simple control setup, and this may be one of the pedal’s bigger strengths for many users. There’s no menu-diving or sub parameters. You get Pre Delay, Decay, Tone, & Mix parameter knobs. That’s it. And this is all most users really need to dial in a solid sound. Four sounds can be saved as presets which can be easily recalled from the dedicated Preset foot-switch.
The Ambi Space is a reverb pedal designed for simplicity and effectiveness while offering great tones, a small foot-print, and ease of use.
Flight Time Digital Delay
Pedal: Flight Time, Product No.: FT-2Y, Effect Type: Digital Delay
I’ve long regarded the Flight Time as the best modern digital delay pedal for simple dry or modulated delay tones. Despite the fact that the Future Factory has arrived, the Flight Time FT-2Y is still in production, and it still offers some compelling value for players who just want a straight forward digital delay pedal.
The Flight Time is a standard mono delay pedal and excels when placed in front of an amp or in an amp’s effects loop. It provides pristine clean repeats and has deep tonal filtering options if you want to darken the tone for a warmer vintage style delay sound or roll-off the low-end to keep your lower frequencies from getting cluttered with delay repeats.
The Flight Time also features gorgeous modulation, and this is what makes the pedal a really compelling solution for players wanting classic rack-style modulated delay sounds. I have often felt that this pedal set a new modern standard for modulated digital delay sounds. Of course, that bar has been raised again by the Future Factory, and I suspect that musicians may gravitate to the newer offering.
But the Flight Time still has a few unique and noteworthy features. The Delay Time Offset lets you slide the repeats forwards or backwards. This changes the feel slightly for a rushed or looser delay sound while the repeats remain in time apart from each other. Then there’s the realtime BPM Analyzer which lets the pedal respond to external audio (via a mic on the pedal) to correct the tempo. This could be a novel solution to keeping in time with a drummer who drifts in and out of time although the pedal also has tap tempo should you need to manually set tempo on occasion.
The original Flight Time (FT-1Y) was the pedal that really showed Free The Tone had an expertise that extends beyond just analog effects design, and the updated FT-2Y still stands as an excellent digital delay pedal. And you’ve gotta admit–that control interface is just so cool for those who can appreciate the retro aesthetic.
Silky Comp Compressor
Pedal: Silky Comp, Product No.: SC-1, Effect Type: Compressor
The Silky Comp Compressor has long been my favorite OTA compressor pedal. It’s a simple 3-knob compressor with controls for Sustain, Attack, and Level. Sustain lets you dial in just the right amount of squeeze. Attack lets you ensure that your transient pick attack comes through. Level keeps your output consistent or can provide a boost when you kick the pedal on.
The Silky Comp is a premium hand-made pedal with each unit bearing Yuki Hayashi’s signature. While some builders have added Blend and Tone controls to OTA compressors, this one keeps things as simple as possible while still adding the extra utility of the blend control. The simple circuit topology is likely a big factor into why the Silky Comp is one of the quietest OTA comps around. It’s a solid and reliable compressor for those looking for that classic pedal compressor sound.
So that concludes a small roundup of the best Free The Tone pedals currently in production. So I can push this list to a “Top 10” for fun, here are 2 of the best Free The Tone pedals that have been discontinued. These are a couple of my personal favorites that I’ve played and also showcase more of the history of this builder. I’m also hoping these pedals may return in some form.
2 of the Best DISCONTINUED Free The Tone Pedals
SUGIZO Signature Ring Modulator
Pedal: Ring Modulator, Product No.: RM-1S, Effect Type: Ring Modulator
This is one of the more obscure Free The Tone pedals that many musicians around the world may be unaware of. The SUGIZO Signature Ring Modulator was a collaboration between Free The Tone and Japanese guitarist, Sugizo, who is most well-known for his work in the bands Luna Sea, Juno Reactor, and X-Japan, as well having a distinguished solo career. The pedal was only available to the Japanese market in a strictly limited run of 280 units and sold out within a few hours of the pre-sale going live.
The story goes that Yuki Hayashi made an original ring modulation unit for Sugizo in 1998 which the guitarist used extensively. Then about 10 years later, Sugizo asked if Yuki could make an updated unit that would sound even better when playing in higher positions on the neck, would have even better sound quality, and would be smaller in size than the original large ring modulator unit.
So development of the new Ring Modulator began, but the project almost ended in failure as there was a specific NOS part that was missing to recreate the sound of the original unit. Luckily, a vendor found a bag of the NOS component, and so the project continued. Finally, it was nearly 20 years after Yuki built the original unit for Sugizo that a prototype of the RM-1S was completed. And within moments of trying the new Ring Modulator, Sugizo declared that it sounded better than the original. Thus, the remaining stockpile of NOS components, possibly the last in existence, were used to create the small run of 280 Ring Modulator pedals.
Having been lucky enough to play one for myself, I can confirm that this pedal sounds excellent. Critical to the usability of this pedal is the Fine control which works in tandem with the Shift to fine tune the perfect harmonized interval for the base reference pitch you’re playing in. The Gain control seems to function like a standard Level control, but it can help drive the sound of the pedal into the rest of your signal chain to achieve more harmonically rich sounds. This in conjunction with the Mix helps you shape the texture of your overall signal and get the ring mod voicing set just right with your guitar sound. The two optional Filter settings let you cut out certain frequencies to further contour the overall texture of the ring modulation.
I really, really like the sound of this pedal and wish more people could experience it. I fantasize about another bag of that elusive NOS component turning up and Free The Tone either producing another batch of the RM-1S or drawing upon their work in the digitally controlled analog PA-1Q series to make a version of the Ring Modulator that could store user presets. While that is unlikely to happen, at least Free The Tone were able to create the RM-1S at the request of Sugizo and share it with the fortunate musicians who have been able to play one and enjoy a ring modulation experience unlike any other.
Matt Schofield MS SOV Special Overdrive
Pedal: MS SOV Special, Product No.: MS-1V, Effect Type: Overdrive
In closing I want to give a shout-out to the MS SOV Special, the original signature overdrive of renowned blues guitarist, Matt Schofield. This pedal was built around Mr. Schofield’s favorite custom SOV-2 overdrive pedal, replicating the sonic characteristics of his personal unit and adding in Free The Tone’s HTS circuitry. It’s a 3-knob overdrive affair that keeps things simple, but it greatly succeeded at what it was intended to provide: excellent modern blues overdrive tones.
The MS-1V pedal brought guitarists the hallmark overdrive sound that Matt has favored for years, and even after it was discontinued, a version was re-released in the MS-2V which has also been discontinued. And the original classic SOV-2 has been discontinued as stated on the Japanese Free The Tone site. But considering the reputation behind the variations of this circuit, I’m hoping (and predicting) that the “SOV” series makes a comeback in some form.
That concludes our roundup of the 10 best Free The Tone pedals. Visit Free The Tone for more info about their products currently available.