Frontline Effects Boxes
Frontline effects are being distributed in the UK by Strings and Things, and promoted as 'sound effects at sensible prices'. Although there's little that's unusual in their layout or design, they are relatively inexpensive, and some stand out as being better than other pedals costing perhaps 50 per cent more. It's worth looking out for discounts on the recommended prices, because if any appear there are going to be some very good bargains available. We've looked at ten units: seven are straightforward pedals, the other three using slimmer casings and neglecting the footswitch to-produce a Graphic Equaliser, Pre Amplifier and Drum Synth.
The pedal design is fairly conventional. Die-cast case, matt black finish, chrome jack socket input and output from right to left, clip-on battery cover for a 9V cell, and a sprung footswitch panel. In each case the switching is by silent FET, and an LED at the top of each effect indicates when it's operating. The footswitch is tensioned by two springs and held in place by two crosshead screws, and there is the usual 9V DC input socket on the back of each pedal. Internal construction varies, but miniature pots are in use in line with all other Japanese pedals.
This has two controls, Level and Drive, and is finished in beige. There are two circuit boards, wrapped in foam but not secured in anyway, which is unfortunate as they tend to slide about when changing batteries. Most of the work is done by two 4077s, with the Drive control giving a limited amount of distortion at the higher settings. Single coil pickups don't benefit much from the pedal in itself, although of course it's intended to help overdrive a valve amp largely, or in conjunction with the Distortion box described below.
The finish is again in beige, with controls for Level and Distortion. Here the fuzz effect is much greater, harsher and more penetrating. In conjunction with the Overdrive it's very easy to produce screaming infinite sustain with various degrees of fuzz effect, and by itself the Distortion gives a nice thick fuzz without blurring arpeggios into a mess. A tone control would have given more overall variation to the fuzz rather than having to alter the degree of fuzz by using the guitar's tone controls.
This is one of the better pedals, finished in orange with three controls for Rate, Depth and Feedback. The LED goes from bright to dark to indicate the rate of phasing, an unusual and valuable feature, and the variation is from about one cycle every six seconds to ten cycles per second. The maximum depth isn't enormous, but use of Feedback gives the phase a nice rounded tone, and fast tremolo effects are available with the feedback down. Internal layout is much better, with a single large PCB which is well insulated from the case. The circuit's largely transistor-based, with a preset available which can be tweaked to increase the phasing effect.
Finished in green and with two controls for Rate and Intensity, the Frontline chorus like most pedal units is pretty subtle. The intensity control could well have been left off because it will almost always be set at full: the flashing LED reveals Rate limits similar to those of the Flanger and Phaser. Construction is also similar to these two: the Chorus is only £3 cheaper than the Flanger, which is much more versatile.
Finished in red and with controls for Level and Sensitivity. The compressor will keep a sound under a set limit (set with the Level control) with its readiness to shut down to that level determined by the sensitivity control. Once you've connected a compressor you turn everything UP — then a fuzz continues to sound long after it would have become inaudible, simply because the volume going into the compressor is much greater than the level being allowed to get out. Increases guitar sustain, smooths off piano response, cuts down unwanted noise to some extent (although not as a purpose-built noise gate would). Based on a single 3080 and again using a good tidy PCB.
First of the three non-pedal units, the Pre-Amp comes in a slimmer matt black case with jack socket In and Out, two Phono socket Line Outs, and Volume, Bass and Treble controls. The very simple 2-transistor design doesn't give a significant treble boost, but does allow an increase of volume and a re-balancing of Bass and Treble elements. If both Treble and Bass are turned down there's no sound at all, even if the volume control is turned fully up. The crossover point is about 400 Hz. Applications would include equalising a piano such as the Hohner Pianet T which has no onboard tone controls, matching instrument outputs to a hi-fi system or line level mixer, changing levels of clock pulses and so on.
In a similar box but arranged end-to-end, the Graphic EQ has six white-capped sliders representing six bands of tone cut or boost. These are centred at 100 Hz, 200 Hz, 400 Hz, 800 Hz, 1600 Hz and 3200 Hz. Each slider has a centre detent, and the levels marked are plus or minus 18 dB. This is a very useful degree of boost and cut, but this sort of graphic isn't suitable for use on music signals and so has to be used on a single instrument, in which case it would benefit from an in/out footswitch. Still, for non-selectable effects it can be very useful: to boost the bass drum or emphasise the cymbal on a cheap drum machine (100 Hz and 1600 Hz respectively), to improve the lower range of a portable keyboard or piano (100 Hz and 200 Hz), or to produce delicate guitar sounds and 'through a transistor radio' effects (1600 Hz). Construction is a little more elaborate than that of the other effects due to the sliders, but the basic design relies on 4558s.
The most expensive of the pedal units, the Delay has a green finish and standard controls for Delay (length), Repeat (number) and Mix. Maximum delay is about 250 mS, which isn't unusual, and shorter delays give a metallic reverb effect. Feedback doesn't occur too swiftly at top settings, which is a good point, and a single slapback echo can be obtained quite easily. The circuit's based on a single delay line, MN 3205, which is socket-mounted on the PCB.
Finished in blue and with Rate, Width and Feedback controls. The LED doesn't flash here, but the rate limits are about the same. Like the phaser, surprisingly quiet, adding almost no hiss or sweeping effect to the signal when switched in. Unlike the phaser it doesn't give the impression of trying to account for treble loss by boosting high frequencies, although there's certainly no significant loss of highs. A decent flanging effect with tube-like qualities at high resonance: the circuit in fact oscillates at maximum resonance, which may or may not be desirable. Fast sweeping and moderate depth gives a chorus effect which gives a reasonable 12-string impersonation from a six-string guitar. The Phaser and Flanger, like the Chorus described below, would be ideal for treating cheap polyphonic keyboards too. The Flanger's construction is similar to that of the Phaser, with two delay lines in use.
This design will be familiar to many readers, as it's turned up under various brand names over the years. It uses one of the slimmer cases and has a butterfly nut clamp on one side to attach it to the edge of a snare or tom, to a practice pad or indeed to any other surface which makes a suitable target. It's also possible to hit the casing of the drum itself to produce an effect; the piezo vibration pickup inside has a sensitivity control (on the top of the box) to accommodate all these possibilities.
There are six controls, the first being for Volume. The other bottom row controls are for VCO — the pitch of the internal audio oscillator, which can be adjusted over several octaves — and for Decay, the length of time a sound sustains, up to about 10 seconds. There's an internal modulation oscillator, and the first of the top three controls determines its Rate, from about 6Hz to audio frequencies. The next control, confusingly marked Mode, adjusts the modulation depth of this triangle wave, and the final control is Sweep. This is a VCA which pulls the pitch of the oscillator down from a selected height: small amounts of sweep give a realistic tom-tom skin bending effect, larger amounts give disco drums.
The drum synth is fairly versatile, although many of its effects aren't very musical. Fast, deep modulation gives ring modulator effects as the modulation oscillator approaches audio frequencies, and a decent bass drum can easily be produced. No white noise for snare or cymbal effects though. There are two circuit boards crammed inside, the piezo being located in a cut-out on one of them, and footswitch sockets on the top and one side to allow the Drum Synth sound to be added to or subtracted from your drum kit sound as desired.
An interesting range, with some models such as the Pre-Amp not easily to be found elsewhere. A simple four-channel mixer would have been useful as well. Standards of construction and design vary: the Phaser is probably the highlight of the range, with the matched Overdrive and Distortion (possibly in conjunction with the Dynamic Compressor) also representing good bets.
Frontline effects are distributed in the UK by Strings and Things, (Contact Details).
Retail prices including VAT are: Super Phase £37.95, Distortion II £22.95, Dynamic Compressor £26.95, Delay £73.95, 6-Band Graphic EQ £35.95, Overdrive I £19.95, Drum Synth £37.95, Chorus £46.95, Flanger £49.95, Pre-Amp £19.95.
Gear in this article: