A survey of electronic treatments
A survey of selected analogue and digital effects, compiled by ES&CM's editorial team.
Coming to terms with the wide variety of effects currently available is becoming increasingly difficult for two basic reasons. Firstly, there are a great many manufacturers who make similar units at equivalent prices, and secondly, the range of electronic devices that are contained in these effects is severely limited! For instance, any analogue effects which require some kind of delay to be introduced must rely on one of the bucket brigade chips from either Reticon, Mullard or one of the Japanese giants such as Matsushita (Panasonic). So, although once there was a time when a fairly good idea of the quality of an effect could be gained through an assessment of the bits inside, this is no longer true — most manufacturers have got their acts together regarding internal construction, leaving evaluation as a highly subjective business. Consequently, what is presented here is a personalised comparison of some of the many effects — digital and analogue — around at the moment.
We begin the survey with a brief look at the new programmable effects unit from Sequential Circuits — the PRO-FX series 500. This rack mounted system is possibly beyond the reach of most readers, yet we felt is worth including as a guide to the direction in which effects are heading — more control over the operation. The PRO-FX consists of a central control rack with support for two slave racks incorporating up to 10 modules. Effects are literally plugged into the bus at the back of each rack and can then be selected either manually or via the programme mode footswitch.
Contrary to what has been implied in other reviews, at the time of writing there is still only one such set of effects in this country — the production models have still to arrive. Thus we were confined to evaluating the prototype, and whilst this is preferable to no review at all, it did mean that comments regarding noise and bad signal level settings have been waived pending a full assessment when the production models are available.
The main feature of the SCI Model 500 is the inclusion of micro-processor controlled module selection. Each effects module is allocated a slot in the machine's memory, but that's not all; each knob on each effect can also be remembered by the unit and these can be recalled or changed as desired. For example, to set up a single effect combining distortion, phase shifting and reverb, you select a location (eg, 1:1) that's not been allocated (nothing programmed in it), press the record button and adjust the controls to the way you want the individual effects to sound. The system then stores all the control settings and 'calls' them '1:1'. Each time '1:1' is selected via the footswitch or panel buttons, this same combination of control settings will be duplicated, regardless of the actual position of the knobs.
As mentioned above, a few problems were encountered with the prototype unit, but those effects that could be tested (delay, distortion, parametric equaliser and reverb) were all quite excellent. The delay, which takes up three slots, competes favourably with the various stand-alone units. Delay time can be set to a maximum of two seconds (with reduced frequency response) and modulated by sine, square or envelope. This last feature can give rise to some strange sounds, as well as the more usual flanging effects.
Overall the series 500 is an extremely versatile effects control system, with a host of well designed features that warrant a fuller review in a subsequent issue (OK — Ed.).
In complete contrast to the PRO-FX, the Reagun effects are individual units with integral footswitches and controls. The range comprises Distortion, Over Drive, Parametric Eq, Compressor, and four stereo effects: Chorus, Flanger, Delay and Phaser. In common with most other effects of this type the units can be connected together to form a serial line — pity Reagun don't supply a board and jack-to-jack connectors (or were we just not sent them!) Once they're all connected together, it's dead easy to switch in and out those that you want, though you can't switch more than one at a time without falling over!
Of all the individual 'floor' effects tested, these stood out for ease of operation and no-nonsense sounds — just enough depth, to be convincing, without the risk of feedback or clipping. The phaser and flanger were excellent, with the others at least matching the performance of the competition. Certainly good value for money.
If the Reagun effects win our recommendation for footswitched units, then the rack-mounted modules from Vesta Fire must definitely receive the commendation for this category. Despite the fact that the individual effects are not programmable, it was difficult to fault them (incidentally the spectrum analyser shown in the photograph was not included in the test, but just happened to be on the rack).
Even the argument that they cannot be operated 'on the floor' does not hold water since the effects have a footswitch input on the back. Indeed, this facility probably makes them easier to use, as the rack can be placed near the amp so that the controls may be easily changed.
The modules supplied to us were Limiter, Delay, Parametric Eq, Flanger/Chorus and Noise Gate. The last of these, the Gate, may not seem to be an effect in the true sense, except that it includes a 'keyed' input, which permits triggering of the gate via a control signal. Thus you could gate on and off white noise through a phaser every time a drum was hit.
The other effects all produce very deep sounds with no discernable noise and a wide dynamic range — millivolts to several volts! The delay is particularly impressive for an analogue unit, and includes an overdrive circuit — rather a novel idea. All the units can be powered from a similar shaped PSU module or from their own internal batteries. Either way, they are ideal for studio or personal use.
Whilst reviewing the Vesta rack effects, it was suggested that we might like to take a look at a brand new — and untouched by reviewer's hand — stereo reverberation unit from the same stable. Designed really for professional use, it represents state-of-the-art performance from a device which surprisingly contains only springlines to obtain the effect.
At the time we looked at the unit there was only one in the country, with very sparse documentation. Suffice it to say that the sound produced by the unit was trouble free, deep and well worth a listen. In addition, investigation into the curious signal path switch (on the right in the photograph) is to be recommended — perhaps somebody can tell us what it does!
When researching which effects to include in the feature, a number of factors were involved (one being co-operation from the manufacturers/suppliers). In the case of the Next Effects, distributed by Peavey and supplied to us by Cramer Music, serendipity was the major causation. Consequently, we only had access to the four pictured effects and the programmer. The latter is the most interesting feature of these effects, though the unit we received did possess a few 'teething troubles'.
The Next EPS (Effects Programming System) allows up to eight effects programmes to be selected in turn. The particular programme chosen is indicated by a large seven segment display (numbers 1-8). Footswitches permit selection between two banks of effects, one to four and five to eight. Thus, as the literature suggests, you can arrange two sets of programmes — heavy and light.
The effects that we tested were all fairly comprehensive, though a little overbearing. The flanger produced a rather coloured sound and the chorus was difficult to set up, sounding more like a cheap tremolo in certain positions. With distortion (formerly fuzz) being such an 'old hat' effect, it was refreshing to see that the Next version had four very different settings. However, all of the settings produced quite a harsh sound — whatever happened to smooth distortion with long sustain? The real star of the Next effects we tested was the Compressor. Being a person who has, in the past, found very little use for these expensive luxuries, I was extremely impressed by this unit. It gives a wide range of attack and sustain characteristics, and is especially useful when changing from single notes to chords.
Available in the UK for some time, Guyatone pedals have just re-emerged in a new incarnation which is the smartest and most sensibly-designed yet. There are several ideas on display which haven't been seen before on inexpensive pedals, and prices in some cases have even come down compared to previous models.
The Distortion Sustainer has a typical matt black finish, die-cast case with silver fittings and a wide footswitch which makes a good target in the darkness of stage conditions — there's even a luminous sticker provided to help out! Internal construction is excellent with multi-way sockets in use instead of hard-wiring, and all the units should give long service. The LED 'effect on' indicator is normally red, turning green if the battery runs down, and the foot-switch uses a noiseless FET design.
The pedal has Level, Tone, Distortion and Sustain controls. Decent fuzz effects can be obtained without the danger of going too far over the top, and the initial attack can be suppressed to give a more even 'spread' to the sound. Tone can add a little sharpness at the top if desired, and a few example settings are given in the accompanying leaflet.
The Compression Sustainer could be just the solution to your guitar sound problems. Its controls for Level, Sustain, Tone and Attack allow it to increase sustain and level out notes by cutting down on the volume of louder chords. An effective 'punch' can be produced at the start of each note as the compressor circuit closes down, and the addition of a tone control makes the unit pleasantly versatile.
The Graphic Equaliser sounds a bit dull but is in fact a real treat. It has eight bands giving 12dB boost/cut with a centre detent, together with a Level control which comes into effect when the graphic is switched in. This means that in addition to boosting the treble for your searing solo you can increase the level to overdrive your amp as well. In effect you're getting free distortion for your money, and as the Graphic actually has a footswitch on it (unlike some other designs) it's a usable stage device rather than just a studio sound modification.
There are several other new Guyatones, including a Dual Delay which allows you to flick between two different echoes at will (but not to combine them). There's also a Stereo Chorus, Sonics Overdrive and 6-Way Power Supply, mostly at reasonable prices. Check them out!
The TD-1 Tube Distortion and TD-2 Tube Overdrive look to the days of the vacuum tube and stacks of distorting Marshall amps in trying to reproduce the authentic valve overdrive effect in a compact pedal. Each uses a 12AX7 valve and so needs to be mains powered. They're not unusually bulky though, and are fitted with heavy steel foot-switches and chrome sockets.
The TD-1 only has two controls, for Gain and Level, which give a smooth but powerful fuzz at a level chosen to boost or reduce volume as desired when you switch the pedal in. The TD-2 is a little more versatile, adding dual concentric controls which offer Treble and Bass boost. The fuzz effect is therefore more subtle, but less forceful than the TD-1, and perhaps the ideal solution is to use the two in combination, which would supply a more than generous amount of feedback and distortion! The valves presumably won't last forever, but it's easy enough to unclip and change them.
One of the more appealing arrangements as far as floor effects are concerned is to mount them on a 'side-by-side' board. This is exactly what Washburn have done with their Accelerator Series. The board accommodates six units and has a separate by-pass switch with a green LED indicating the 'all pass' position. Standard issue with the board are Delay, Phaser, Stereo Chorus, Flanger, Graphic Eq and Distortion. Apart from the delay — a little muffled and about twice the price of the others — all of the effects performed extremely well. The phaser was subtle, yet operated over a wide sweeping range, the chorus was easy to set to an optimum 'multi-line' sound and the flanger was excellent, giving the full depth sadly lacking in some other units. Particularly noteworthy were the graphic equaliser and distortion, since both turned out to be the best of the bunch examined. Adjusting the Eq seemed to give a marked and later much missed enhancement to the sound from all the test sources. The distortion was much closer to the kind of effect that wouldn't keep attracting comments like 'What's that terrible racket!' — a definitive test if ever there was one.
Washburn turned out to be the second company who slipped us a 'soon to be released' effects unit for exclusive review (at that time). In this instance it was the WD-1400 digital delay, which provides switched and infinite delays from 1.75 ms to 0.9 seconds. The unit has built-in noise reduction and a tone control — felt to be surplus to requirements — on the front panel. Other controls include modulation and width to produce all the usual flanging effects. In addition there's a hold facility to keep a particular sequence repeating. This was especially liked, since it was possible to hold a note or chord and then change its frequency with the variable delay control. Moreover it was possible to adjust the modulation controls with the hold function in operation — it made for some really weird effects. Indeed, the only slight drawback about the unit was the price, but then possibly production models will become cheaper.
Aside from the keyboards used to assess the above effects, we decided to listen to most of them as nature intended — from a guitar. Several manufacturers were duly contacted and we collected three guitars that were available at the time. These were the Custom Masquerader from Shergold, the Thunder III from Westone (through FCN) and the Force 30VDL from Washburn. At markedly differing prices they represent a fair cross-section of popular guitar sounds.
The Shergold Masquerader, on the previous page, despite possessing a rather heavy and outdated appearance, is an excellent guitar. Cheaper than many others on the market, the action has got to be felt to be believed — it really is a rhythm guitarist's dream. The hardwood body is polyester-gloss finished and holds the usual control panel with volume, tone and 3-position switches. These controls single coil, out-of-phase and humbucking selections for each pick-up and between the two. Thus you can obtain many different sounds, though the switches are a little too bulky to allow quick changes between runs. With a few minor changes to the look and electronics, the Masquerader would definitely gain the acclaim it deserves.
The Force guitar was the most expensive of the three, with obvious allusions to Fender's Stratocaster. However, whether it was just an anomaly with the model received, or one of my 'off' days, there was no real contest. The switching on the Force was indeterminate and noisy, though the tone and volume controls were very smooth. The action was another plus point, but in a different way to the Masquerader. What did come across was sturdy construction and straightforward operation — it will probably best suit exponents of the screeching lead solo.
The third and newest of the guitars that we were sent, the Westone Thunder III, had the most complicated — or versatile, depending on the way you look at it — switching and control arrangement. It's virtually impossible to detail all the possible options within this space, but suffice it to say there are four pick-ups (one centre pair), four switches and three knobs. Despite the potential scope these facilities offer, the number of truly different sounds was quite small; though the selection was still more than adequate! The whole guitar is finished in a deep pearl silver — which looked pink to me — sheen, precluding the removal of the neck from the body. However, considering all these points, the Thunder III represents a good buy and is definitely worth a strum or two.
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