By Jake Behr –
Review of: EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run
Reviewed by: Jake BehrRating:5On October 30, 2017Last modified:October 30, 2017
For the better part of the last year and a half, my existence as an effects aficionado has trembled in the shadow of a great rectangular force, its chthonic tendrils gently coaxing me into fantasies laden thick with ambient wash. I am, of course, referring to EarthQuaker’s much sought after atmospheric cornerstone, the Avalanche Run. If you need any introduction to the Avalanche Run, you should consider your knowledge of modern guitar effects woefully lacking, but I’ll humor those out of the loop.
The Avalanche Run is a Stereo Delay/Reverb with 3 impressive voices, multiple expression controls, and tap-tempo, which is a first for EarthQuaker Devices. It has been lauded as one of the best delay pedals on the market today by merit of its simple playability and wide tonal wheelhouse. I’ve been chomping at the bit to see if it deserves such praise, and while I’m confident that EQD, who have been cranking out pedal after pedal to the tune of “modern standard” for thirteen years, wouldn’t falter on such an ambitious product, I plan to pull no punches as I tease out what makes the Avalanche Run one of the best.
- 3 Voices controlled by center toggle:
Normal: Digital Delay into Plate Reverb
Reverse: Reverse Delay into Plate Reverb
Swell: Auto Volume Swell into Delay into Plate Reverb
- 6 Parameter Knobs:
Time: Sets the time of the Delay repeats inside a range of 0ms to just below of 2000ms
Repeats: Sets the repeats from 1 to infinity
Tone: Standard tone control for the delay
Delay Mix: Volume control for the Delay repeats
Decay: Controls the tail length of the Reverb
Reverb Mix: Volume control for the Reverb circuit
- Side-mounted Expression in with 6 controllable Expression parameters: Delay Mix, Reverb Mix, Repeats, Decay, Time, Toggle (Crossfades from Normal to Reverse)
- 6 bypass configurations: True Bypass, Short Tails, Medium Tails, Long Tails, User defined (set by Repeat knob), Sound on Sound
- Tap Tempo
- 6 repeat subdivisions
- Controllable Self-Oscillation (hold tap tempo)
- Stereo I/O
- 24bit 96kHz ADAC for analog/digital conversion
Build & Sound Quality:
The Avalanche Run is EarthQuaker’s loving pseudo-expansion upon their gifted ambient baby, the Dispatch Master. The reason I say “psuedo-expansion” is because while EarthQuaker worked hard to emulate the Dispatch Master in some important ways, the Avalanche Run is built around an entirely original DSP, which Jamie Stillman and the ‘Quakers worked on for “at least 2 hours.” If I’m being as crude as possible, we’re looking at an analog-voiced digital delay running in series through a reverb. However, if all you’re looking for is a plain ole delay/reverb combo, a common package to an ever-increasingly frustrating degree in the effects world, you needn’t invest in the Avalanche Run to accomplish what the Dispatch Master and its contemporaries easily have locked down. That’s not why we’re here. We who recall the Dispatch Master fondly remember the vast open spaces it dropped us into, and the thought that EQD is giving us more of that excites me to no end. Indeed, those atmospheric feels and much, MUCH more are all contained inside the Avalanche Run. The real draw to the Avalanche Run though is its incredible flexibility, which serves not just as the boldest entry in its list of actionable talents but the very nature of the thing itself and places it head and shoulders above a huge portion of the market. I know that sounds vague, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. The payoff is huge.
So, what have we got on the face panel? On the top row from left to right there are controls for the Time of the delay (which goes from 0ms to just shy of 2000ms,) Repeats (1 to Infinity,) what sounds like a standard Tone knob that can roll off either the highs or lows, and a Mix for the delay signal, which will not just blend your dry tone with the affected signal but also attenuate the dry down to naught when dialed past 3 o’clock. On the bottom we have a hard rotary that determines what the expression input does, a Decay to control the length of the reverb, a Mix which functions identically to the delay’s, and another hard rotary knob that splits up the tap-tempo into one of 6 time divisions. I’m an expression guy, so what stands out to me here are the expression-controllable parameters that the Avalanche Run offers. EarthQuaker has given us six here to play with, and each adds a new way to play. The Decay and R Mix settings control the length and mix of the reverb respectively, and are great for organically deciding how much of the mix you want to take up in real time. Toggle crossfades the signal from the standard delay repeats to the reversed repeats, effectively enabling you to effortlessly wield two modes in one. My favorite expression control has to be the Time, which will open up a world of pitch-altering time warps. Not to be forgotten are the D. Mix and Repeat controls, which are most useful for dipping the delay in and out of the way of your raw playing.
As for tone, the 24-bit 96khz analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters in the Avalanche Run deliver a smooth digital delay, and the analog dry through ensures that your dry signal remains completely intact when it comes out the other end. Used in stereo, the lush vibes produced fresh out of the box were immediately gorgeous and had me lusting for more. The repeats aren’t quick to break up completely when set to infinity outside of the self-oscillation feature which is activated by holding the tap-tempo. That said, even when I did reach that point of complete saturation, the breakup was luscious enough to bolster my already solid confidence in the analog emulation possibilities inherent in modern digital delay. At any rate, any high-frequency fizz was easily dispelled by rolling back the Tone pot. I couldn’t be 100% sure if I was hearing quantization “zipper” noise (thanks to Paul Uhl for hooking me up with that term via his review of the Empress Reverb,) when tweaking the Time mid-oscillation, and the fact that I was unsure was enough to convince me of the power present in the AR’s enclosure. The Avalanche Run is comfortably used like a traditional wash, with appropriate levels of both delay and reverb blooming under your playing, but either the delay or reverb can be isolated and played independently from the other and sound fantastic.
EQD also wisely included the capability to change what happens when the Avalanche Run is bypassed by unplugging it, setting the ratio knob to your preferred bypass style, and plugging it back in while holding the bypass. While four of the six settings are simply tail length variations and the fifth is a “true bypass” setting, the Sound on Sound mode will allow your repeats to continue indefinitely in one output and be affected actively by the knobs/oscillations/expression/voice changes. Meanwhile, your dry guitar signal runs from the other output, allowing you to play clean over the drone or loops on the fly. You can do this multiple times and create some very lush soundscapes as well as change the subdivision and voicing at any point to garner glitchy chops in the signal. It’s like playing two instruments at once.
Keep in mind that bypassing the Avalanche Run while in Sound on Sound mode will always recycle your repeats unless you switch it into one of the other modes. This is mitigated temporarily by quickly tapping the tap-tempo twice, but I found that if I left it bypassed, it would still ramp up repeats after a bit of time had passed. If you don’t plan on having the ‘Run on constantly, you may find yourself unintentionally fighting old repeats as they build from nothing.
Avalanche Run Delay Modes
Normal mode is the basic delay run into the reverb and is as close to vanilla as any of the modes get. Don’t let that blasé turn of phrase fool you; an avalanche of vanilla will crush a man as quickly as chunky monkey. If you’re seeking that Space Echo tone, seek no further, as the Normal mode makes a meal of it. The Time expression is particularly well-served here. While the Time knob will jump straight to where it is set, the expression ramps slowly to its final destination, making for beautiful cascading time warps that remind me of EQD’s Rainbow Machine. Of course, if you’re feeling masochistically conservative, you can set the time knob back for a terse little slapback, which has always made sense paired with plate reverb, and no one would judge you. The rest of us will just be over here catapulting to the pleiades.
Reverse is kind of exactly what it sounds like: a reverse delay run into the reverb. You can’t achieve the pitchbends that you can in the Normal and Swell modes, but if you do a little investigating, you’ll find that the Reverse mode unleashes a secret ring-mod/bitcrusher setting that is exclusive to this voice when you dial the Time all the way back. The modulation will respond very strongly to where the repeat and tone knobs are set, becoming more reactive as you roll beyond the lowest most repeat setting. Armed with this knowledge, you can make some pretty cool, squashed out chirps playing with the Time via your expression. The only conceivable drawback to this is that the resonant frequency almost never chimes at a consistent tone whenever you leave the ring-mod zone by extending the time (toe down on the expression,) and returning to heel, but I didn’t mind the weirdness. To me, it was songwriting fuel; I’ll admit that that’s subjective, but if you’re not looking at the Avalanche Run for organic inspiration, you’re doing it wrong. This minor quirk might have been a function of some minimum voltage threshold that the Avalanche Run’s expression in has to meet before it jumps into the ringing tone, but it seems more likely to be a function of the sensitivity on the expression pedal I was using; EarthQuaker does recommend the MOOG EP-3 expression pedal I have for use with their units, but it’s possible that the TRS signal just wasn’t consistently sent at the same voltage every time. Before we stray too far from the topic of the Time parameter as it pertains to the reverse mode, dialing it just before it starts getting ring-y wrung out a very sweet, almost-chorus-almost-harmonic-trem wobble which when set to a darker tone blended so well with the reverb that I had a hard time moving on. I drew a diagram in my notes for personal use. Also, very useful in the Reverse mode is the D. Mix expression which when pushed to the toe plays back only your reversed repeats; you can probably imagine the real application of this feature.
Swell mode sums the wet and dry signals to mono and runs the whole thing through a voltage-controlled auto-swell, which cuts the attack off of the front end of the signal path. The Mix knob on the bottom row now serves to control the attack on the swell, allowing you to dial in the length of the attack to great effect when coupled with the R. Mix setting on the expression rotary knob. The Toggle expression is also particularly potent here, if only because it essentially allows you the benefit of all three voicings in a musical capacity. While the manual claims that this voicing reacts to pick attack, that is an oversimplification: the initial pick transients will trigger the swell but attack on any notes played over a held chord will still be audible. That said, Swell mode was the perfect choice to round out the ambience generated by the Avalanche Run, adding that last washy option so eagerly sought by shoegazing guitarists everywhere while eliminating the need for any volume knob play.
How could EarthQuaker Devices have improved upon this almighty cascade of atmospheric snow? I have a few nascent thoughts. Foremost in my mind is the lack of savable presets on this goliath. While the footprint is only about one-and-a-half the size of a standard EQDevice (a net win if you plan on replacing your delay and/or reverb,) the enlarged space needed to accommodate the 8 knobs and tap-tempo is still quite a chunk of real-estate for just one active voicing, even with those top-mounted jacks that EQD got right so long ago. The Avalanche Run has so much to offer in its enclosure, and while you can play it like a separate instrument no matter which voicing you’re using, it seems like a missed opportunity to lack a quick way to change over to another setting even with the expression set to Toggle. Also, tap-tempo I/O for syncing up with the rest of our boards would have been a huge boon. Much to my dismay, EQD is still putting “dumb” relay switches in their devices, meaning that when you power down your board, the Avalanche Run won’t remember if it was on or off. So if you’re running an effects loop, you’ll have to make sure you turn it back on before you start your set.
While I’d never detract from the sensible choice to keep the reverb dead simple, it could have done with another parameter; if not the obvious tone-stack, then maybe a pre-delay or a blend for a hypothetical modulation? I get why there’s no bypass on the reverb; the focus is rightfully placed on the beautifully rendered digital delay and the ‘verb is meant as simply a smoothing tool to unleash that sweet, sweet ambience, so I’m not suggesting EQD should have taken a more standalone perspective on it. What I am suggesting, however, is that the reverb could have enjoyed a little more limelight. If I’m indulging in my wildest fantasies, I would have also loved to have seen a parallel/series switch for textural experimentation purposes. Of course, without another parameter on the ‘verb that doesn’t seem all that important to me.
I’ll be the first to admit that barring my preset and relay complaints, my suggestions for possible feature additions are eclipsed entirely by what is in the Avalanche Run. In other words, they only really make sense as suggested features in an overdone, imaginary Avalanche Run Sr., so please don’t mistake my musings for disappointment. Far from it. I could speculate (baselessly) that considering the digital nature of the ‘Run, a bigger, more integrable version is pinned amongst other insane concepts for future products on Jamie Stillman’s “next project” dartboard, but rather than torture all parties involved I will simply squash that thought before my head explodes. The Avalanche Run is still so new, and there’s already so many different directions EarthQuaker could go if they wanted to expand on a previous product; I mean, have you seen the EarthQuaker pedalboards they set up in music shops? Talk about perspective. The hidden mantra of EarthQuaker has always struck me as “amazing tone first, functionality a near-tie second, bells and whistles non-placing,” so I’m not really holding my breath for anything completely un-EarthQuaker, like MIDI functionality or savable presets. However, if the Avalanche Run and post-Run digital pedals like the Space Spiral or Transmisser are any indication, EarthQuaker is dead set on flexing their DSP muscles and to me, that implies that anything is possible. At any rate, while EQD is pumping out brilliant, affordable pedals, one can dream!
The EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run is an auditory daydream, designed to be explored but never truly understood yet straightforward enough that it still plugs-n-plays as quickly as you can tear your old delay and reverb pedals off your pedalboard. Bolstered by EarthQuaker’s sterling reputation and uncompromising quality, three fine voices, sensible parameter choices, stereo I/O, clean headroom, extensive expression options, and hidden tonal rewards, it stands proud among not just the most flexible pedals out there but some of the best all-around guitar effects pedals at this price point. I’m absolutely loathe to say this, but the shrewd guitarist could build a stereo tour board around one of the ‘Run voices, an expression pedal, a compressor and a nice overdrive or two and be done buying guitar effects forever. Forget I said that! It’s just really really good! If its reputation alone is any indication, I’d wager that it’s good enough to stand the test of time in both studio and performance applications. Mark my words: to not at least give it a try is to do yourself a lifelong disservice.
That concludes our EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run review. Thanks for reading!