Original Photo by Mikael Altemark
You probably wouldn’t think twice if you saw a band using a laptop these day: products like iRig2 and Native Instruments Guitar Rig, as well as various iOS devices mean that it’s possible pedalboards could one day become a thing of the past.
Pedals are, on the whole, expensive, require power, heavy and can go wrong. However, it’s still widely believed they sound better than their digital counterparts. For all the ease that the emulation market brings something is lost, not only in the sound quality but in the interaction.
In this article, we have a look at some forgotten gems, vintage finds, rarities, sonically-bizarre bargains and overlooked classics of the pedalboard and desktop FX world.
Before their outings in the modular world, William Mathewson Devices focused on guitar pedals. The Geiger Counter (named after the instrument used for measuring ionized radiation) is one of their more outlandish creations.
A distortion at heart, but really it’s so, so much more. It includes both sample rate and bit depth reduction (found in many modern DAWs) and it also includes wave folding and wavetable modulation, something not found anywhere else in guitar land.
Sounds fantastic on the aforementioned guitar for those Reznor inspired industrial metal, or run drums through it for a more lo-fi sound.
New York's Electro Harmonix are one of kind. Famed for their genre-defining fuzz pedals, no company has stuck to their guns like these guys and enjoyed the same commercial success. It’s possible to dedicate whole articles to their products so I’ll fleetingly mention just a few.
The Memory Man has been a flagship echo of theirs, and the Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai is no disappointment. Chain this up with a Freeze or Superego, a volume pedal and maybe their Polyphonic Octave Generator and you’ve got instant Eno!
After their website mysteriously going down within the last years, it’s not easy to find much information on these guys. However it’s one certain product of theirs, the BISCUIT, I want to focus on.
A cute little stereo 8-bit multi-fx box with sample rate reduction, waveshaping, delay, pitch shifting and it has an analog multimode low-pass filter. Best of all, these can be further twisted with the onboard MIDI-syncable eight-step sequencer.
Certainly an acquisition for the distortion fetishists, this is not to everyone’s taste. However one thing it isn’t is a one-trick pony, sounding great on drums, guitars, synths or any sort of loops you want to inject some movement and life into. Clocked with a DAW, have it set up on a self-oscillating send of ultimate destruction.
Another pedal manufacturer that turned to the eurorack darkside is SnazzyFX. These west-coast inspired noisemakers debuted their larger-than-life pedals at NAAM 2010 (and I was lucky enough to meet the mad scientist Dan Snazelle himself).
The Wow and Flutter (a faulty-tape echo simulator), The Mini Ark (a guitar synth) and Tracer City (modulation source… and that’s just scratching the surface) is a trio of utterly inspired units that really fulfill a function like nothing else on the market.
Coming in at just under $500 each they’re not cheap and their dimensions don’t really allow for the devices to be the missing piece on your pedalboard, so perhaps better suited for studio use. That said the sound is unparalleled, especially for those who want to do something a little left-of-centre.
Perhaps better known for their economy Mini series, Danelectro has released some beauties over the years. I want to draw particular attention to this sixties-inspired collection: a reverse delay, sitar emulator, talk-box and flanger.
Modestly-priced units, it’s not easy to find fault with these. I mean, where else can you find an inline talkbox that weighs less a Panzerkampfwagen? And reverse delay is normally reserved for huge, Eventide-like units. Best of all they can be found on the ‘bay for less than the price of a Hendrix reissue.
Korg Kaoss Pad Series
This might seem like low-hanging fruit to some, but the Kaoss Pad series is one of the most underrated and reasonably-priced effects manglers out there. Back in 1999, the idea of an X-Y pad, mainly aimed at the DJ mark to highly exaggerated resonant low-pass filtering, was actually welcomed.
The original units vary in price and are cumbersome to power. Also, because of their DJ-centric focus they are sadly RCA only. However the original Korg Mini KP is not only battery powered but can be acquired for as little as $80.
Probably the most underused but greatest sounding ‘verbs out there. Spring reverbs (as the name suggests) work by feeding your signal through a metallic spring.
Common on older Hammond organs and guitar amplifiers, the effect is synonymous with Tarantino soundtracks and desert heat, great in anything from surf rock to dub, on guitar to vocals to snares. These sound particularly great when fed back into themselves, creating huge, self-oscillating tones.
Danelectro offer a cheap floor unit or, for eurorack world, befaco, Doepfer, Intellijel and Thonk are all viable choices. However for the more ambitious among you, you can even build your own DIY spring ‘verb for next to nothing!
Like the Kaoss pad, these were originally billed as desktop devices for DJs, motion-controlled units that offer a plethora of effects that rival their rack-mounted counterparts.
Sitting somewhere between a theremin and a Kaoss Pad, there are preset patches to choose from including all of the likely candidates like echoes, pitch-shifters and modulations, as well as some more esoteric effects like formant filters and vocoders.
The original concept was for them to be used as an insert between CDJ and mixer but they could just as easily be used as an auxiliary send on a mixing desk or sit on a more experimental pedalboard.
Sadly let down by no MIDI or USB capabilities, the ease of use and portability more than makes up for it. The patches regrettably can't be edited but sound great and are really useable. However at just under fifteen years old now and having been discontinued a long time ago, they retail for as little as $100 on eBay which is an absolute bargain.
BOSS compacts tend to straddle a middle ground between genius, value for money and tried-and-tested ideas from their past. However sometimes they stray, and the PS (Pitch Shifter) series that was released in 1992 is certainly in the genius category.
Now on their sixth iteration (the imaginatively titled PS-6), it’s really the older models that are worth digging for. The PS-2 is famed for the ‘Slowdive sound’ but the PS-3 is the real keeper. In particular its ‘inverse pitch shifting’ where it’s possible to reverse just the wet signal. An essential for drone rockers out there.
Since the Moog Minimoog burst onto the scene in 1970, guitarists have looked on in awe like primates circling a monolith. The story starts in 1977 when Roland and ARP released their first excursions into the market, the GS-500 and Avatar.
Guitar synths have all the makeup of a traditional synth, oscillators with all the expected waveforms, filters, LFOs and envelopes, the difference being the notes aren’t triggered by a keyboard but by your electric guitar. This has forced guitarists to learn to play monophonically and chords are normally a no-no.
Now all the sonic possibilities of synthesizers are available to the rock guitarist, and of course these sound fantastic pumped through a Marshall stack with cavernous reverbs and asynchronous delays.
The short-lived existence of Frostwave has sadly made them a pain to find (and the boutique effects market is rarely easy on the wallet) but if you can find any of these effects boxes for a reasonable price I would strongly recommend getting them.
Their production line consisted of The Blueringer (ring modulator), Funk a Duck (envelope filter), The Resonator (MS-20 clone low-pass filter), Sonic Alienator (distortion/bit depth/sample rate reducer), Fat Controller (two-channel 8-step CV sequencer) and, most interestingly, a CV theremin called the Space Beam. Long discontinued, they live on in the hearts of those who own them.
Another discontinued array of lost treasures. The ModFX series were desktop devices was released in two stages, the original seven effects were later added to by another seven prototyped/never released models.
The ones to look out for are the multi-fx Bitrman (phaser, compressor, frequency shifter, ring modulator, comb filter, sample rate and bit depth reducer - is there anything it doesn’t do?!) and Metavox (simply, a vocoder). If you come across any of the never released series, they might be worth a few bucks if you hang on to them!
What let these units down is their unwieldy power supplies, but being otherwise lightweight made up for this. Stereo in and out is a definite bonus if you want to hook up to your laptop.
Disbanded Brit company Lovetone made much sought-after guitar pedals in the mid-nineties to early-noughties and boasted such users as Kevin Shields, Radiohead, Bootsy Collins and Sonic Youth, to name but a few.
Their range of colourful looking and oddly named devices stood out from the crowd not just for their sound but, unlike other pedals on the market, they had CV allowing integration with modular systems and much more varied modulation potential.
The effects pedal scene has been dominated by all the usual suspects for sometime now, and while there’s nothing wrong with the tried and tested Boss compacts, Line 6 4-series or whatever’s flavour of the month, it’s nice to dig around in pawnshops and secondhand stores to find something a bit more unique.
With analog, you run the risk of repair costs, noisy pots and erratic behaviour, but the latter in particular can be very appealing to some. There’s a plethora of oddities and rare finds that can transform guitars, basses, synths, vocals and drums into something new and breathe life into even the most predictable of mixes or live shows.