Tag: Modulation

SolidGold FX Ether Review

A lot of cruel fates can befall a gig. But unless you’re a complete pedal addict or live in high-gain-only realms, doing a gig with just a reverb- and tremolo-equipped amp is not one of them. Usually a nice splash of reverb makes the lamest tone pretty okay. Add a little tremolo on top and you have to work to not be at least a little funky, surfy, or spacy. You see, reverb and modulation go together like beans and rice. That truth, it seems, extends even to maximalist expressions of that formula—like the SolidGold FX Ether.

The Ether is tricky enough to bewilder if you’re not careful. The three modulation modes—tremolo, harmonic tremolo, and vibrato—all feel, sound, and interact with the reverb differently. An economical but mildly complex control set definitely demands that you put in a little study. And few settings fit neatly into tidy categories like “vintage spring emulation” or “light hall.” But what the Ether lacks in super-intuitive operation it makes up for in surprises and a fluid user experience that can drag a player in new directions.

Slo-mo psychedelic power pop improvisation with SolidGoldFX Ether using vibrato, tremolo, and harmonic tremolo with many reverb decay and modulation speed and level mixes. Generated with Rickenbacker 330, black panel Fender Tremolux, and Universal Audio OX with a Vox AC30 cabinet emulation.

Deep Thought

For guitarists accustomed to simple pedal reverbs, the Ether will take some work to master. There are just five knobs for tone (color), modulation depth and speed, reverb decay, and a wet/dry mix that functions as the level for both the reverb and modulation. A 2-way toggle switches between the three modulation modes or introduces a shimmer effect. What looks simple on the surface, however, belies great complexity among the available sounds. The modulation depth control alone, for instance, is full of tricks. It controls modulation waveform intensity but can also significantly re-cast the voice and response of the three modulation voices. In addition to intensity, depth also changes the shape of the modulation. On one side of noon the pedal generates sawtooth waves; on the other side, softer sine waves. Somewhat counterintuitively, waveform depth is most intense at clockwise and counterclockwise extremes and least intense closest to noon. Additionally, the noon position is a quasi-random waveform in vibrato mode, a square wave in tremolo mode, and a flutter triangle wave in harmonic triangle mode. So, while it’s fun to twist knobs at random to see what you can conjure, getting some semblance of control over the sonic outcome takes paying close attention to how these variables relate to each other.

There are cool, subtle sounds in Ether, even if subtle isn’t exactly a specialty.

The knobs are sensitive, too. This is great for fine-tuning settings when you have an intuitive, muscle-memory-based handle on how the controls work. But they can feel twitchy at first. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reverb decay and level. They each have considerable range. But the lowest level and decay settings primarily yield big reverb sounds. There are cool subtle sounds in the Ether, even if subtle isn’t exactly a specialty. On the mellower side of the Ether’s envelope, I dialed in a reasonable-enough facsimile of an old Fender black-panel spring reverb set to noon, as well as some really cool tile-like, fast-reflection sounds. But the differences between them on the level and decay controls were small and it can be hard to nail in-between sounds reliably. If you largely live your reverb life on the subdued side of splashy, you might want to look elsewhere.

The Ether’s controls are expansive on the modulation side as well. But each modulation mode also moves through very different ranges of intensity. Vibrato modulation, for instance, sounds very intense at high depth settings in relatively dry mixes. Harmonic tremolo voices, however, need a much wetter signal to stand out prominently. Regular tremolo settings tend to require high effect levels (which means you need to mind your reverb decay settings as well). Again, these differences make practice key. But relinquishing control can be just as satisfying. The harmonic tremolo reverbs can span phasey washes and noirish throb. Standard tremolo, while not the most radical effect, provides fast-twitching or hypnotic icing to metallic hyper-springy surf-ish settings. Vibrato’s reverb settings, meanwhile, can range from surreal, robotic modulations to sweet near-rotary sounds. Finding the points where these sounds intersect and mingle is a joy if you have the time to spare.

The Verdict

Apart from the Ether’s lack of low-key, conventional reverb sounds and interactive, trickier-than-it-looks controls, it’s hard to not fall under the device’s spell. If you have time to kill, getting lost in the mega-expansive controls, many combinations of modulation textures, and fields of reverb-based overtones can create pure joy. If you’re inclined toward option fatigue or dread getting lost in quirky controls onstage, there are simpler ways to get your reverb fix. But if it’s big-to-bigger spaces you’re after and the ability to render them distinct, mutant, and wild with washes of tremolo, vibrato, and phasey textures, the Ether is an almost endless amusement park of clanging, bouncing, ringing, and resplendent modulations.

Spaceman Explorer Review

Spaceman effects tend to be cherished, treasured, and, in some cases, driven to insane resale market prices because they reliably sound fantastic. But Spaceman pedals are also rare creatures. And even its most popular pedals tend to come and go—often disappearing before real players can beat collectors to the punch. The analog, 6-stage optical Explorer phaser, however, is the unusual Spaceman pedal that is reappearing in the wild after a hiatus. It returns in a more compact enclosure. But this time out the Explorer offers access to six additional waveforms that build on an already expansive modulation vocabulary.

Not So Simply Red

I love one-knob phasers. They are a sure-fire means to mindless fun, and one less thing to worry about when drifting off amid some psychedelic-jam reverie. That mindlessness comes at a cost, of course. A classic Small Stone or Phase 90 tends to sound just like it’s supposed to and little more. So while you can extract everything from rotary speaker sounds to staccato pitch shifting with such a circuit, they’re usually imprinted with a specific voice and phase coloration—what you hear is what you get.

The Explorer brushes aside those constraints in very cool fashion. For starters, the mix control helps you render the phase effect nearly subliminal. That enables you to use pretty extreme phase voices in low-key ways—a beautiful means to apply the effect to add motion in a spare mix. The Explorer also comes with an output volume control. This means you can overcome any perceived volume loss when using intense waveforms. But it also gives your signal a slight—and slightly dirty—bump even when the effect mix is low. The volume gives you options in that direction, too. And although there probably won’t be hordes of players dying to use the Explorer at less than unity gain, the ability to do so opens up interesting arrangement possibilities in which you can move from straight-ahead clean passages to quieter effected chapters in a song without missing a beat. It also gives you a means to mate the Explorer more easily to an unruly or unpredictable fuzz.

The Explorer’s wave-shaping options are abundant and powerful. The rate control generally falls in line with most classic analog phasers in terms of range—moving from molasses sweeps to insectile stutters. Resonance, of course, adds vowelly emphasis to the waveforms. Its effect is strong enough that I tended to leave it in a modest 8 to 10 o’clock range. But it can also help put a phase over the top in a crowded effects mix and help add rhythmic emphasis. The Explorer’s range control is, perhaps, the hidden gem. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s essentially a filter that enables you to thin out or add a low-end bump to the signal. But the extra low end can be a beautiful sweetening agent with slower phase rates (which get chewier and dreamier with more low end) and gives you extra wiggle room for tailoring the Explorer to different guitars, amps, and effects in your chain.

The extra low end can be a beautiful sweetening agent with slower phase rates.

Crest-to-Trough Awesome

The Explorer isn’t the only contemporary phaser with the option for multiple waveforms. But there is something about the essential sweetness and clarity of its voice that makes the differences among these wave types feel more distinct. The sine wave is smooth-snaky and sounds dreamy at slow rates and sitting low in the wet/dry mix. Ramp-up and ramp-down waves have a pronounced “reset” pulse at the peak of each wave that tends to reinforce certain rhythm-based approaches. Triangle generates pretty, precise, and steady heartbeat pulses that make lots of room for picking detail at dryer mix levels, but it also sounds awesome at more stroboscopic rates and higher intensities. The square wave at a 50-precent rate and with a healthy heap of low end from the range control is another favorite—and with the resonance just right, you can get a very bubbly auto-wah effect. The alternate phase patterns, which are accessed by powering up while holding down the footswitch, are all worth investigating as well. And the arpeggiated phases, in particular, are especially cool—lending textures that evoke everything from bouncing ball bearings to tinkling glockenspiels.

The Verdict

The Explorer often distinguishes itself by living at a cool intersection of organic and mechanical precision pulses and sounds. But the abundant tone-shaping options mean you can fine tune these tone crossovers like a surgeon. It’s fun, too. The right sound rarely feels out of reach or impossible on the Explorer, so the search seldom feels like work. For anyone that has suffered the limitations of 1-knob phasers but been intimidated by more complex alternatives, there are a lot of cool compromises here. The Explorer is expensive. But it’s a high-quality U.S.-made pedal that reflects a lot of thought and experience. It may just tempt you to sell the rest of the phasers in your collection, too—a smart, constructive way to offset the cost, if you ask me.

Walrus Audio Mako M1 Review

Depending on your appetite for adventure, the Walrus Audio M1 modulation machine can look like a thrill ride or a very nasty little thing. The knobs and switches—as well as the graphics and text that describe their function—are packed like sardines onto the face of the pedal. And depending on your settings, the two bright LEDs can pulse like an entire Fillmore liquid light show stuffed into two little fish eyes.

If simplicity is your muse for the moment, M1 might not be the best travelling pal. But before you move on too fast, plug the M1 in. Twist any one of those knobs any direction you’d like and play a simple D chord. My guess is that, as terrifying as the M1 might look, it’ll take just that one strum to hook you. Because the M1 is fun. Lots of fun. And even if you never use its deep and impressive sound-crafting tools to fullest potential, the M1’s sounds and smart design still make it a cornucopia of easy-to-source, immersive modulations.

Walrus Audio Mako M1 Review by premierguitar

  1. Three chorus voices: Traditional, dual chorus, and tri-chorus, each played at various depth and rate settings with occasional tweaks to lo-fi and tone settings.
  2. Three vibrato voices: Traditional vibrato, vinyl record, tape vibrato, and pattern tremolo each played at various depth and rate settings with occasional tweaks to lo-fi and tone settings.
  3. Three tremolo voices: traditional tremolo, harmonic tremolo, and pattern tremolo each played at various depth and rate settings with occasional tweaks to lo-fi and tone settings.

Damn the Navigation Aids! Full Speed Ahead!

I could spend most of the space in this review describing the primary and secondary functions governed by the M1’s 11 switches, knobs, and toggles (not to mention the stereo I/O, MIDI in/thru jacks, and a USB jack for firmware updates). But the M1 is deep enough that the job is best left to the thorough, downloadable manual available on the Walrus web site. This excellent piece of documentation is worth cruising even before you buy the M1 to see if the deeper functions merit your investment. However, if you choose to take the plunge and explore M1 as intuitively as possible, the manual is a well-written map for your trip through modulation wonderland. Should you meander too far from the trail, it’ll likely get you back on track fast.

At the M1s core are six modulation voices. Chorus, phase, tremolo, vibrato, and rotary speaker sounds are all represented along with a modulated filter setting. Each voice spans pretty and demented sounds, and each is full of surprises. In their most traditional incarnations, the digital emulations of analog effects are beautifully accurate and replete with rich overtone detail. Secondary functions abound on the M1 and making the most of them really does require some study of the manual. But one of the best things about the M1’s designs is that if you get into the weeds with these secondary functions, it’s generally easy to get back on track using the pedal’s rate and depth modes, which lends a sense that it’s OK to proceed fearlessly.

Even in small measures, many of the lo-fi sounds can shape straightforward modulation in very cool ways.

Diving for Pearls

If and when you do get the courage to explore M1’s deeper possibilities, there’s much to enjoy. The primary path to this deeper functionality comes via the tweak and tune knobs and their associated switches. Both controls change function depending on what you select with the switch below. Tweak enables you to choose between sine, triangle, and square waveshapes; quarter-note, triplet, and eighth-note tap divisions (there are a wealth of subtle rhythmic textures here); or one of three modes for each basic program. These modes include tri-chorus in chorus mode, different horn/drum virtual miking configurations in rotary mode, tape- and warped-vinyl-inspired vibratos, harmonic tremolo, and high, low, and bandpass filters in the filter program, just to name a few. On the tune side, the 3-way switch enables the knob to be configured for adjustments to tone, wave symmetry, or “X” functions that include everything from stereo phase effects to phaser feedback and tape flutter. Should you start to worry about losing your place as you get into these deeper realms, remember that the M1 has the capacity for nine onboard presets (easily accessed using the A/B/C bank switch and the two footswitches in concert) and 128 total presets via MIDI.

Yet another realm of tone possibilities lives in the lo-fi strata of functionality. Accessing these functions on the fly is a little more cumbersome as they require selecting a function via the 3-way switch, holding down the bypass footswitch, and then using the tweak or tune knob to add the lo-fi element to taste. Not all these functions will serve all players. A lot of them tend toward the noisy, junky, and weird side of the sound spectrum. But even in small measures, many of the lo-fi sounds, like age, space (reverb), drive, and noise, can shape straightforward modulation in very cool ways. Once set up it’s easy to mix in these textures with the lo-fi knob. Don’t be afraid to set up highly weird sounds and add them incrementally.

The Verdict

One of the M1’s great achievements is that it can serve two muses—the obsessive, micro-level sound designer, and the reckless, intuitive sound tripper—simultaneously. This is no insignificant thing. And Walrus deserves praise for accomplishing this design feat in a compact stompbox. But the highest praise may be due for Walrus’s ability to make M1 so much fun and so sonically satisfying. And Walrus’s ability to walk this engineering and design tightrope makes the otherwise steep-looking $349 price a relative bargain.

Strymon Zelzah Review

The Electro-Harmonix Small Stone was my first weird pedal. Initially I gravitated to the Small Stone because it seemed so utterly immodest, but I soon came to treasure its more subdued settings and its ability to communicate a strange, mysterious melancholy.

Strymon’s new Zelzah, with its ultra-flexible controls and combinable 4- and 6-stage phasing modes, can generate many nuanced variations on these extremes and thousands of colors in between. It also generates immersive chorus and flange tones that make this a very powerful little waveform manipulator.

Purple Waves of Phase

Strymon has remained crafty about maximizing the utility and user-friendliness of their compact stompboxes. On the Zelzah, they use their now-familiar formula of six knobs, two footswitches, and two small toggle switches allocated to two primary functions. Much like Boss pedals, this uniformity in design inspires a certain confidence (at least among players that have previously used small Strymon pedals) that you can dive in and find your way through the forest without first spending a week with a manual. Because this is a Strymon, quality time with the manual is a good idea. There is deeper functionality to consider—particularly if you embrace its MIDI potential. But players keen to get on with creation can dive headlong into the Zelzah’s pleasures and get fast results.

The Zelzah is divided into a 4- and a 6-stage phaser section. The 4-stage phaser side is ostensibly the more streamlined of the two, with knobs for speed, depth, and mix. But the toggle functions makes things interesting fast. The classic voice does nice approximations of old-school analog phasers. But the addition of a barber pole phaser, which gives the aural illusion of phase cycles unwinding endlessly, helix-like, into space, opens up cool compositional possibilities and rhythmic phase effects. The envelope mode is awesome too, not least because it can be set to sit subtly in a mix. The speed and depth knobs double as range and sensitivity controls, and the modest-to-quacky range of effects is impressive.

The 6-stage side of the Zelzah is also simultaneously streamlined and full of surprises. The main attraction here, apart from the thick 6-stage phaser, is a voice switch that morphs between phase, flange, and chorus modes—all of which are excellent. There’s also a 3-position resonance switch that gives all three voices great mellow-to-extreme range.

While Zelzah’s MIDI functionality technically enables hundreds of presets, and you can hook up an expression pedal to effectively move between two preset sounds, you cannot store and recall presets on the unit itself. You’ll either need to delve into MIDI or use an external footswitch with which you can save a single preset. You’ll also need an external switch if you rely on tap tempo. Personally, I find the Zelzah’s basic controls intuitive enough that I don’t need presets or tap tempo much. Some habitual deep divers will, no doubt, be bummed.

Players keen to get on with creation can dive headlong into the Zelzah’s pleasures and get fast results.

The USB jack that enables MIDI connectivity is situated on the crown of the pedal. But there are also true stereo outs as well as a switch that moves the pedal from mono to stereo. Stereo operation is another joy well worth exploring in the Strymon. Just be prepared to allocate a whole week for spelunking these modulation depths.

Motion for Many Moods

The Zelzah’s possible modulation textures start to feel pretty limitless once you get acquainted with the controls—particularly because you can combine the 4-stage phaser with the 6-stage phaser, chorus, and flange.

The 4-stage classic mode is easy to navigate and awash with nice phase colors. The slow and mellow tones are great. So are the fast and intense ones. You hear a lot of detail in these modulations, too, thanks to the pedal’s super-low noise. The potential of the barber pole phaser piqued my interest most. Most barber settings have a frequency-narrowing effect that lends the phase a little more focus, which in turn makes the phase cycle feel more intense. I found a bunch of cool ways to use the tick-tock sway of some of these patterns as rhythmic underpinnings for riffs. And when using the barber pole in compound 4- and 6-stage phaser sounds, you can tune in cool whistling overtones on top. Phasers may be almost intrinsically psychedelic, but the barber pole effect genuinely tweaks your sense of space and time a little more intensely.

The envelope mode, meanwhile, is a riff factory. It twists simple licks in the same way any envelope filter would. But here, the breadth of phase sounds, the ability to keep the effect subdued, and the contouring effect of the phase waveforms take the Zelzah’s version to more malleable and mellow places.

Six-stage phase sounds are generally more intense than 4-stage tones. And with the variable resonance switch available to ramp up the weirdness, you’ll probably want to stop here for your most freakish phase experiences. Even with the resonance switch off, most 6-stage voices feature a detectable whooshiness. And, at mild and high resonances and deeper depth settings, things get ultra-chewy.

The nice chorus and flange effects on the 6-stage side can be made very mellow with the resonance off, but can also assume weird and intense personalities at high resonance and depth settings. They are a fantastic addition to the killer phaser sounds that make Zelzah a practical one-stop modulation shop.

The Verdict

If you’re on the fence between keeping your phase classy and subtle and indulging your wildest modulation urges, Zelzah can accommodate wild fluctuations between those extremes. The compound modulations are an endless well of unusual sounds. And the very rich chorus tones and flanger—and the ease with which you can summon and shape them—make the Zelzah a very fair deal, even if the $349 price initially gives pause.

First Look: Strymon Zelzah Multidimensional Phaser