PedalMania 2017: 27 New Stompboxes Reviewed! - GuitarPlayer.com

PedalMania 2017: 27 New Stompboxes Reviewed!

Each year following the avalanche of new gear that rolls out from Winter NAMM, the staff at GP checks their notes and comes up with a list of new stompboxes to review for our annual Pedalmania roundup.
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Each year following the avalanche of new gear that rolls out from Winter NAMM, the staff at GP checks their notes and comes up with a list of new stompboxes to review for our annual Pedalmania roundup. True to form, for 2107, we’ve left it open to all types of pedals—from simple boosters to some of the freakiest boxes a twisted brain could devise. To our way of thinking, it’s all good when it comes to effects, because the inspiration they often provide can, at the very least, fire you up for that monthly gig at the local brew pub or possibly inspire something much bigger—like writing a tune for your next record that might not have happened if you’d been washing the car instead of messing around with a new pedal.

The 27 stompboxes in this roundup come from all sectors of sonic galaxy, and the list includes some real audio Argonauts—the DigiTech FreqOut, GFI Specular V2 Reverb, and Electro-Harmonix Blurst, to name a few.

All of these pedals were put through their paces on gigs and/or in our studios, using humbucker and single-coil guitars from Epiphone, Fender, Framus, Gibson, Gretsch, Lâg, and PRS—along with a range of amplifiers that included a Carr Mercury V, Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Mesa/Boogie TC50, various vintage Marshalls, an Orange Tiny Terror, a Vox AC30, and a Vox AC10C1. —ART THOMPSON

BAE Hot Fuzz
$225 street

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BAE makes high-end studio gear, so it’s surprising that the company developed an unapologetic noise machine. Or maybe not. BAE founder Mark Loughman embraces ’70s vibe and bluster in his mic preamps, Neve-inspired channel strips, compressors, and other designs, and he had a dream of capturing a fuzz sound akin to what he heard in the Isley Brothers’ “Summer Breeze.” The Hot Fuzz—which is hand built in the USA and struts the look of vintage-stompbox cool—is the manifestation of that reverie, and it rules. It’s as rugged as a Triceratops, the knobs turn smooth and tight like precision instruments, and it delivers a mighty righteous fuzz tone and a walloping treble boost. I couldn’t find a bad tone in this box. You can pull back the Juice for dynamic AC/DC-like overdrive, or slam the control for blistering fuzz that’s still bold and articulate. Hit the Hi-Freq Boost, and you get awesome, Mick-Ronson-like cocked-wah aggression. My pedalboard wishes the In and Out jacks were right/left, instead of the reverse, but it will just have to deal with it. The Hot Fuzz is simply too extraordinarily remarkable to worry over trifles. baeaudio.com — MICHAEL MOLENDA

BOSS DS-1-4A
$59 street

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BOSS is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its compact pedal series that debuted in 1977 with the OD-1 Overdrive, PH-1 Phaser, and SP-1 Spectrum. The DS-1 followed in 1978, and the limited-edition DS-1-4A is just as ferocious, sonically relevant, and tonally invaluable as the originator. Right out of the box, and with its three knobs (Tone, Level, and Dist) all left at 12 noon, this box just screams. You’re done. Rock on. Everything is ballsy and menacing and huge and ear catching—almost as if the distortion sound was already mixed and mastered on a hit track. That said, tweak-y types will enjoy the musical Tone control that can calm the scorch, or pile on the midrange burn. There’s also plenty of signal level on tap for boosting solos and riffs over the noise of a live band. The DS-1-4A is only available throughout 2017, and it revels in its “special-ness” with a black chassis, gold knobs and lettering, and a silver thumbscrew for the battery compartment. At just $59, this distortion is not only a spectacular value—it’s an essential instrument for your tonal toolbox. boss.info —MICHAEL MOLENDA

Carl Martin Greg Howe’s Signature Lick Box
$266 street

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Greg Howe has cemented a reputation as both a solo shredder and first-call sideman for Rihanna, Lady Antebellum, Justin Timberlake, et al. When he wanted a personally voiced pedal with high gain and crunch channels that could also be combined, he called Carl Martin. The result includes those two channels, along with a third, adjustable Boost channel. The mid-voiced crunch comes after the high gain, overruling the high gain’s voicing, to beef up solos and help them cut though the mix. The pedal runs on a 9v power supply, which is then boosted to 12V for extra headroom. Howe may have had the channels tuned to his taste, but I found them malleable enough to suit a wide range of preferences. The Crunch channel delivered guitar volume- and pick-attack-responsive blues tones, as well as classic-rock rhythm grit. Depending on its tone and gain settings, the High Gain channel spat out sizzling metal, laid on lush, articulate fusion tones, or served up endless sustain. The Boost comes last in the signal chain, so engaging it with either or both of the others on doesn’t add gain, only up to +12dB of volume. The sonic variety afforded by mixing channels, Level, Gain, and Tone might make this the dirt box you desire. carlmartin.com —MICHAEL ROSS

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Cast Engineering Casper Delay
$199 street

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Though digital, the Casper is designed to produce analog sounding delay tones. Three “Ghost Lit” knobs glow eerily when the effect is engaged, as they dial in delay time, feedback, and wet/dry mix. An interior trim-pot controls whether—and how fast—the feedback goes into self-oscillation. To my ears, Cast Engineering has produced a digital delay with all the warmth and grit of an analog or tape unit. The name’s subtitle, “a ghostly delay,” seems appropriate, as the repeats lurked in the shadows even with the mix well past noon, helping me create Lanois-style lushness, Edge-type rhythms, and spooky dub-style effects. A drier mix delivered Gilmour-ish grandeur for solos, and the effect’s 700ms of delay let me go from slight slap to ambient wash—all of which worked equally well before or after distortion. In an era when companies offer boxes that deliver a multitude of delay types in one package, why settle for a one-trick-pony pedal? It might be because that pony is a thoroughbred—gorgeous and inspiring. cast-engineering.com —MICHAEL ROSS

Diezel VH4
$299 street

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Designed to deliver the sound of the Diezel VH4 amplifier’s third channel, the pedal version features the same complement of Gain, Bass, Middle, and Treble controls; a Deep knob for adjusting ultra low frequency content; a Presence control for tailoring the highs; and a Master volume. The unit has guitar and power amp outputs (the latter exploits its capabilities as a preamp), and a 12v adapter is included (battery power is not an option, but it can handle up to 18 volts). If you seek pornographic levels of sustain you’ve come to the right place. The VH4 has ridiculous gain and output, and the excellent EQ makes it super easy to get diabolical tones that should suit any metal devotee’s taste for midrange suckage and wall-shaking low end. No matter how fiercely it’s dialed, however, the distortion stays clear, focused, and amazingly touch responsive. Obviously, you don’t buy a pedal like this for a roots-rock gig, but there’s enough flexibility here to make the VH4 suitable for practically anything you care to throw at it. If you like having more power under the hood than will likely ever be needed, the VH4 is definitely your kind of pedal. diezelusa.com —ART THOMPSON

DigiTech FreqOut
$179 street

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We knew this pedal was going to be pretty sensational when we first saw it demoed at NAMM—which is why we selected it as one of our “30 Superstars for 2017” in the April issue—but to actually have it in your hands brings on a stratospheric level of rampant delight. The FreqOut is probably the most “pure fun” pedal I’ve encountered in years. Sure, it’s “just” a feedback generator, but the control over that one trick can be transformative if you like adding strange beauty and explosive carnage to your music. You can set the onset and level of the feedback, choose a harmonic (Sub, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, Nat Low, Nat Hi), defeat your direct-guitar signal (feedback only), and work the switch in momentary or latching modes. There’s so much aural sorcery in here that it’s near impossible to reveal every musical application. I used it like an EBow for soaring melodies, deployed Sub for resonating synth-like lines, dialed in a fast onset for robot noises, and unleashed caterwauling feedback to punctuate chords and riffs. I’m still figuring out all the ways I can get weird with this thing, and I love it almost as much as I adore movie-theater popcorn. digitech.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

EarthQuaker Devices Space Spiral
$195 street

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For the wacky sonic alchemists at EarthQuaker, designing a conventional or ho-hum delay would be as inconceivable as wearing Dockers to a hipster’s cabal. (Well, unless they were being ironic.) The Space Spiral, therefore, is a modulated delay that artfully travels from ’50s rockabilly to early ’80s digital rack processors, and off into the galaxies of weird. Using just the delay controls (Time, Repeats, Mix), you can evoke primal slapbacks and faux tape-echo effects that are appropriately dark sounding, but also stout and clear. In other words, you get the vintage, fleshy warmth, but without losing the intelligibility of the repeats in a crowded mix, or when using super-saturated guitar tones. Adding modulation with the Depth, Shape, and Rate knobs is where otherworldly sounds happen—even though a subtle touch will keep you grounded in new-wavey territories of chorus/flangestyle repeats. Un-subtle knob twists can create noise nightmares perfect for a David Lynch soundtrack, beautiful ambient undulations, tortured pings, or even detuned madness so epically cool that it’s almost musically unusable. The Space Spiral certainly challenges your tonal preconceptions, and it’s a fantastic tool for destroying comfort zones and giving your right brain a kick the ass. earthquakerdevices.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

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Electro-Harmonix Blurst
$137 street

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If you don’t know that Electro-Harmonix is at the forefront of mind-blowing, wacky, and inspiring effects, you haven’t been paying attention. Their stuff just doesn’t sound like other companies’ stuff, and this pedal is no exception. The Blurst is a modulated filter, which is like an envelope filter, but instead of the filter’s response being controlled by your playing dynamics, the Blurst employs an internal oscillator to wreak its sonic havoc. It adds up to a pulsating, undulating, funkifying, yowyow trip that will instantly add a layer of otherness to your guitar parts. There are three waveforms—triangle, rising saw-tooth, and falling saw-tooth—and controls for Volume, Blend, and Resonance. You can vary the speed with the Rate knob or the Tap Tempo footswitch. You can get a subtle phasing, a vibey trem, a trippy auto-wah, or dance-party EDM throb depending on how you set these knobs. You can also govern the Range, Rate, or Filter with an expression pedal. All of these are cool, but controlling the Rate really made my day. Think about a Leslie on some awesome psychotropic drug, and you’ll get an inkling. The Blurst is another winner from these twisted geniuses. ehx.com –MATT BLACKETT

Emma Electronics DiscumBOBulator
$199 street

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Aiming to improve upon their celebrated original, Emma gives us the DiscumBOBulator V2 a “flawlessly funky” auto wah/envelope filter. They upped the ante by increasing the headroom (so it can handle any instrument signal), expanding the dynamic range, and adding an independent switchable boost of up to 10dB, so you can easily bring your funk to the fore. The ‘BOB is super simple to use, and there aren’t really any bad sounds. The old-school auto-wah sounds on clean single-note lines are a blast. I was able to get cool, talky, “Charlie Brown’s teacher” tones. With various settings on the Sense knob, I could smack a chord and let the envelope gradually close—or open, thanks to the handy Up/Down button. Feeding a dirty amp, the D-BOB performed like a champ, with cool growly, yowly, squawky sounds, and great tracking throughout. The Boost is a smart feature, and it can be used even if the auto wah is bypassed, but I wish it were a little louder. Also, the DiscumBOBulator elevated the noise floor of my rig slightly, but those are small gripes on an otherwise inspiring pedal. godlyke.com —MATT BLACKETT

Fulltone Mas Malo
$127 street

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I love pedals with backstories—call it the curse of being a journalist. Although the flame-red finish and pepper graphic are relevant clues, the Mas Malo (“More Bad”) is actually named after one of Fulltone founder—and spicy food fanatic—Michael Fuller’s favorite Mexican restaurants. Not surprisingly, the pedal is one scorching machine that delivers white-hot fuzz tones. However, Fuller also took pity on more tender “gastronomical types” by designing the Mas Malo to offer less-piquant overdrive sounds. For example, I turned down the Heat control (which re-biases the first transistor in the circuit) to about 8 o’clock, and the Drive knob to 11 o’clock, to craft a guitar sound very close to that of Badfinger’s 1970 rocker “No Matter What.” No need for Rolaids there. Then, I got brave and dimed the Drive and Heat controls for an onslaught of harmonically rich saturation that shrieked like demons burning in hell fire. Call a doctor! If that level of mayhem is overkill, take heart that you can dowse the inferno somewhat by softening your picking attack or turning down your guitar’s Volume. The Mas Malo is a badass, but it also has a soft side. fulltone.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

GFI Specular V2 Reverb
$329 street

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The V2 improves on the original Specular Reverb, by adding user-presets along with three new atmospheric reverb modes (making for six in total), with the added benefit that the reverb algorithms have been improved to provide very long decay times without sacrificing clarity. This rather deep pedal basically has a “normal” reverb that is shared by the Modulated, Shimmer, Echo, Tremble, Voices, and Infinity modes. Blending these modes into the reverb signal allows for some very evocative sounds, which, thanks to 24-bit processing, are also very pristine. Blend, Decay, Damping, and Intensity controls facilitate a rainbow of effect from trippy tremolo pulsing to synth-y pads to eerie harmonies and much more. The Infinity mode allows you to capture a “snapshot” of whatever you’re playing, hold it indefinitely and play over it, and then swap in a new sound on the fly whenever you want. The presets (eight total) are easy to configure using the Preset/Bypass and Select/ Atmosphere footswitches, and, by activating the Auto Intensity Sweep function, you effectively have an “extra hand” moving the Intensity knob back and forth while you play. True bypass and powered by an optional 9v adapter, the Specular V2 is an ambitious reverb pedal that’s custom made for sonic explorers. godlyke.com —ART THOMPSON

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JHS Ryan Adams Signature VCR
$269 street

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Decked out in an appropriately gnarly color and design scheme, the aptly named VCR is not only a nod to the “cool” 1980s, it’s also a pretty rad multieffects pedal. Voiced to conjure Ryan Adams’ fondness for the guitar tones of the Cure, the Smiths, and other ’80s new wavers, the VCR delivers a potent volume boost, a juicy chorus, and a hall reverb (“VCR”—get it?). You can switch any one, two, or all three of the effects to “standby” mode, and activate the chosen effects with a single foot stomp. This machine is like a super-mondo portal of dreams, as the ambient hall reverb has a long decay (you can only adjust the effect level), and the chorus produces everything from subtle thickening to extremely modulated, Cocteau Twins-esque shimmers. Crafting lush, animated, and evocative landscapes of sound is almost effortless. A “secret” lo-fi switch inside the chassis diminishes the robust low-frequency tones, providing a steely, high-midrange quality (which I liked best). You have to buy in to Adams’ concept here, but if you’re hella into ’80s guitar sounds—or simply dig lathering on vintage effects—the VCR is one outrageous time warp. jhspedals.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

Joe Gore Cult Germanium Overdrive
$199 street

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One germanium transistor and one knob add up to make the Cult a surprisingly versatile pedal. Gore says it’s descended from the ’60s-era Dallas Rangemaster, but adds that it is electronically different, and definitely not a treble booster. The latter point was readily apparent when playing the Cult with single-coil and humbucker guitars, as it sounds surprisingly beefy throughout the range of its Gain control. The Cult is super responsive to picking and guitar volume-knob sweeps, and it feels less compressed than typical ‘Screamer-based pedals. Distortion is always present once you kick it on, and I like how the tone stays firm and non-frazzy—even when cranked up to max for a healthy boost of volume and sustain. This pedal did a great job of expanding the clean-to-mean range of a Fender Deluxe Reverb (and without overwhelming its core sound), and it really roared when driving into the gainier modes of a Mesa/Boogie TC50. People join cults for all sorts of reasons, and it’s easy to get sucked in once you experience this charismatic overdriver. joegore.com —ART THOMPSON

MOD Kits Step Ladder
$37 Direct

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The Step Ladder is a passive input attenuator (i.e. it does not attenuate the output from an amplifier), which lets you preset the amount of guitar signal that hits your amp. The simple, build-it-yourself kit features high-quality components for excellent reliability, and a true-bypass mode provides the maximum signal level when the attenuator is off. The Attenuator pot and two toggle switches allow you to adjust the amount of signal attenuation when the unit is active, and treblebleed capacitors in the circuit retain the high frequencies even at maximum attenuation. Placed between the guitar and amp, the Step Ladder worked great for anything from getting a slight boost while playing single-note lines on a steel-string flat-top, or for jumping from clean to overdrive—much as you might do with your guitar’s volume knob—when plugged into a cranked-up vintage Marshall. The Step Ladder’s compact size (3 3/4" x 1 1/2" x 1 1/4") takes minimal space, and battery-free operation ensures that it’s always ready to go. modkitsdiy.com —ART THOMPSON

Morley DJ Ashba Skeleton Wah
$145 street

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Morley has always made bulletproof electro-optical wahs, and their switchless feature is a major boon for clumsy folk like me who seem incapable of clicking a switched wah on and off during the heat of a live performance. (I love all of my wahs, but the vintage Vox and Dunlop models tend to stay in the studio.) Like my hero Mick Ronson, Ashba works his wah brilliantly as a tone enhancer, as well as to punctuate certain lines and add drama to solos. Voiced to Ashba’s specific tonal requests, the Skeleton Wah doesn’t have a huge frequency range between low-end gurgles and treble sear, but it sits very musically in the low-mid to high-midrange area. As a result, you can get to the screaming bits very fast, and still have enough low-to-high play to evoke vocal-like warbles. If you want a bit ‘o’ boost to your wah sweeps, an internal Level trimpot can make that happen. At first, I was put off by the pedal’s snowwhite finish—I’m a native San Franciscan who strictly follows the city’s “everything black” ethos—but then I discovered that the Skeleton Wah glows in the dark. Wow. Converted! morleypedals.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

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Neunaber Iconoclast Stereo Parametric Speaker Emulator
$249 street

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This digital processor uses user-controllable filters to simulate speaker cabinets. You can put the Iconoclast on your pedalboard and plug direct into a P.A. or DAW, use it to practice or write songs in isolation (via the headphone jack), or employ it in tandem with a load box to track an amp without having the roar in the room. There are no presets, so you’re free to craft your own cab tones—although acquainting yourself with how Neunaber defines the Iconoclast’s controls helps. Low, for example, dials in the size of the virtual cabinet, Mid simulates amp damping (with the resulting midrange-frequency cuts or boosts), and High emulates the high-frequency damping inherent in guitar speakers. Meticulous tweakers can avail themselves of the USB jack and Iconoclast Software for more incisive tone shaping on a Mac or PC. Using the Radial Texas-Pro and Fulltone Mas Malo as “preamps,” I was able to produce organic, warm, and ballsy guitar sounds with zero evidence of the bright, less-than-satisfactory sizzle that usually accompanies a distortion pedal run direct through a DI or mic preamp. If you’re skeptical, check out Pete Thorn’s Iconoclast demos on YouTube. I’m already a believer. neunaber.net—MICHAEL MOLENDA

NEXI Industries WWA-01 Wah
$99 street

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Designed in the Netherlands and manufactured in China, the NEXI Wah is very light, but super tough, and it has two large rubber pads to keep it firmly planted on any carpeted or wooden stage. It features all-analog circuitry with a rather narrow sweep, but that’s a good thing, as it keeps you firmly in the sweet spot where most all wah effects shine—the low and high midrange frequencies. Rhythm parts were funky, and lead riffs had all the warble and expression one could ask for without ever being muddy or ear piercing. I really liked how the Wah sounded. It always seemed right-in-the-pocket for whatever part I wanted to play. Like all the NEXI pedals, the Wah is designed as a stand-alone effect, or ready to be plugged right into the NEXI The Solution pedalboard with its dedicated Powerplugs and “clip in” pedal ports. Smart. Our test model was an early version, and it produced an audible pop through amplifiers when the pedal was engaged, in addition to a significant decrease in signal level. NEXI assures us these glitches have been resolved in current production models. nexi.eu —SAM HAUN

Pigtronix Disnortion Micro
$129 street

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The Disnortion Micro is like some crazy James Bond-inspired, super-secret miniature armory of doom to clandestinely destroy villains and save the world. It’s nuts how many distortion and fuzz sounds this tiny titan produces, and it’s even crazier that you can seamlessly morph from Lynyrd Skynyrd to saturated black metal with the push of a button. Based on the original, three-footswitch Disnortion that was manufactured from 2005-2015, the Micro serves up six Fuzz Shape options (Flat, Mid Bump, Low Pass, Treble, Mid Scoop, Low Pass Bass), but that’s really 12 possibilities, because you can also choose between Parallel routing mode (articulate ’70s-style roar) or Series (extreme saturation and filtering) for each shape. I had a blast starting with the tamer Parallel sounds—which are dynamic, punchy, and awesome—and then clicking to Series to see how far out and absolutely blistering the tones became. I usually opted for the wild side, and these transformations were available before I even touched the Volume, Gain, and Drive Tone knobs, so there are even more tweaks on tap. Until Q Branch crams an entire pedalboard into an e-cigarette, I’m certain the Disnortion Micro will be the standard-issue fuzz armament for Bond’s spy team. pigtronix.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

Radial Engineering Tonebone Texas-Pro
$169 street

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It sometimes cracks me up how Radial tends to “over-engineer” everything they make, but it’s fantastic that those crazies go the extra mile to serve the needs of guitarists. For example, the Texas-Pro is not only over-built to withstand a beating by an enraged silverback gorilla, it also offers an effects send/return on the Boost circuit so that you can incorporate a delay, reverb, or other pedal for punching-up your solos—a neat trick for fly gigs or any situation where you can’t lug your pedalboard. Controls include Level, Tone, Drive, a Range switch, and a user-selectable Boost up to +22dB. The overdrive sounds are dynamic, meaty, organic, articulate, and mighty. There’s not an unusable tone in this box. The 3-way Range switch isn’t subtle—thank goodness—and Vintage gets you drive with a cool midrange emphasis (modeled after an Ibanez TS9), Modern delivers chunkier low mids, and Maximum unleashes a feral barrage of lows and high mids. You can definitely get from Texas to Britain and beyond on the “overdrive menu.” I was also impressed by how “alive” the overdrive tones sounded. They roared right out of my amp as if aching for a brawl. Go Texas! tonebone.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

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Seymour Duncan Andromeda Dynamic Delay
$299 street

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Seymour Duncan’s new delay pedal is well named. Though the control surface looks daunting at first, I quickly found a universe of usable and lush delays that were easy to create and manipulate. With options for both Analog and Digital delay types, controls for a plethora of delay parameters including Trails On or Off, plus cool features like Mix, Saturation, Tap Value and Tone (very rare in a delay pedal) the Andromeda will follow you anywhere your musical muse takes you. The Andromeda can do so much that it would almost take an old-school encyclopedia to detail its every move. Some of my favorite uses were picking a Delay Type, and then deciding whether I wanted the sound to be warm analog or pristine digital; using Dynamic Expression to animate the onset of delay and modulation with my pick attack; setting Saturation to add some buzzy fury; and actually having a Tone knob to clarify repeats if a huge guitar sound started to overwhelm the effect. My only concerns are cosmetic. The green-on-black graphics are nearly impossible to read on a dark stage, and the tiny black buttons for Bank/Preset, Trails, and Dynamic Expression virtually disappear on the Andromeda’s black panel. seymourduncan.com — SAM HAUN

Strymon Riverside Multistage Drive
$299 street

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The Riverside Multistage Drive is a fabulous sounding, super-flexible overdrive/distortion inspired by the cascading gain stages of tube preamps. Combining an analog JFET front end, a digital signal processor, and a few clever knobs and switches, the Riverside is capable of a truckload of killer tones—from throaty clean-ish sounds to massive crunch. It is supremely dynamic, so I could set the Gain switch to Low, the Drive knob high, and go from overdriven blues to rock raunch simply by changing from a single-coil to a humbucker. The ingenious Push switch lets you select from Norm (a more open sound) and Mid, which bumps the midrange after the analog front end for fatter, tighter, and meaner textures. You can hook up an external footswitch for a +6dB boost. You can also use an expression pedal to morph between any knob settings, in any direction. Strymon also provides a Favorite footswitch for a stored preset, giving you two drives in one (or four if you use a boost switch, or a million if you use an expression pedal). Try as I might, I couldn’t find a bad sound in this thing. You can get a great sense of what this pedal can do on the Riverside page of the Strymon website, where they have what might be the best product demo song I’ve ever heard. strymon.net —MATT BLACKETT

Tech 21 Q\Strip
$249 street

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This is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful, exceptionally constructed, and extraordinarily powerful guitar-preamp pedals I’ve ever come across. It’s like plugging your guitar into a high-end rack preamp in a professional recording studio. I’ve owned studios, I’ve used those tools, and I’m not joking. The Q\Strip offers comprehensive tone shaping with two parametric midrange controls (and mids are where guitars live, right?), Low and High knobs, and high- and low-pass filters. You can route signal through an XLR jack (with switchable phantom power and a -20dB pad) to a mixer, a 1/4" jack (with a switchable +10dB boost) to an amp or DAW, and a parallel 1/4" output for the option of reamping guitar tones. The Q\Strip is super quiet, and the dual-midrange controls let you dial in, say, a chunky low midrange (150Hz) and an articulate snap (3kHz), or surgically diminish any offending frequencies (mud, bark, sizzle, etc.). I used the Q\Strip as a “set and forget” preamp to tailor my amp’s sound for different club environments. I also deployed it as a kick-ass treble booster for solos, by cranking the Level control, and setting ferocious midrange and high-end frequencies. The “Q” is easy-to-use, musical, and a near-essential device for tone freaks. tech21nyc.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

TWA HS-02 Hot Saké
$189 street

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Featuring an audiophile-grade TL072 op-amp for enhanced clarity and definition, the U.S.-made Hot Saké advances the classic overdrive/distortion platform courtesy of active Mids and Tone controls. The unit also has Drive and Level knobs, along with a Low-Boost mini-toggle switch that adds a big dose of bottom-end when activated. It all makes the Sake’ a very capable and flexible distortion box that can field a wide range of styles. Tested through Fender Deluxe Reverb and Dr. Z Surgical Steel amps (the latter driving a Mesa 2x12 cab), the Saké impressed me with its thick-sounding distortion, and the kind of touch responsiveness that well suits those who like to leave their pedal on and ride up and down the OD ramp via the guitar’s volume. The Saké has tremendous gain and output. While milder settings facilitate the tones you’d typically use a Tube Screamer for (albeit without the midrange bump), when you wick it up the Saké turns into a formidable rock machine with gobs of girth, massive sustain, and a fuzzy edge that puts some serious teeth in your tone. godlyke.com —ART THOMPSON

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Vertex Dynamic Distortion
$179 street

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The Dynamic Distortion is a mash up of two iconic dirt pedals: the germanium fuzz and the TS-style overdrive. These two are related in that each offers exceptional touch sensitivity and cleanup with your guitar volume knob. Unlike most germanium fuzz pedals, the Dynamic Distortion allows the use of a buffer before the pedal without compromising the sound. At gain settings up to 9 o’clock, the pedal acted like a transparent boost, with enough level to push amps or other pedals into additional overdrive. Between 9 o’clock and noon, the effect entered more compressed Screamer territory, while noon and beyond introduced the full-throated roar of a germanium fuzz. At any gain level, the Dynamic Distortion cleaned up beautifully, offering varying musical grit at every guitar volume setting, and touch sensitivity at every gain level—even full up. A wide-ranging Tone knob let me sculpt the sound from smooth to spitty, and the well-designed unit remained quiet even at extreme gain levels. A trend among boutique pedal builders is towards exotic names that sound cool, but reveal little about what their stompboxes actually do. Dynamic Distortion is more than an accurately descriptive name, it is a promise fulfilled. vertexeffects.com —MICHAEL ROSS

Walrus Audio Monument Harmonic Tap Tremolo
$249 street

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Perhaps only the wacky sonic wizards at Walrus Audio would gaze at the landscape of Monument Valley National Park, and think, “LFO waveforms!” But that’s precisely what inspired this full-featured tremolo with five waveforms (Sine, Square, Ramp, Lumps, Monument), two modes (Harmonic for a Fender “brownface” amp vibrato and Standard for conventional tremolo), tap tempo, note-division settings (quarter, quarter-triplet, eighth, and sixteenth), an expression-pedal input (for controlling the speed of the LFO), and a cool momentary function (holding down the Bypass switch initiates the effect only as long as your foot is on the switch). Input signals are uncompromised—your tone remains your tone—and parameter options abound for experimentation. Some of my favorite settings were subtle undulations for animating arpeggios (Lumps/Standard), ’70s disco-funk staccato grooves with vibrato (Sine/Harmonic), synth-like sequencer bleeps and bloops (Monument/Harmonic), and stuttering chord pulses (Square/Standard). Whatever you’re going for, the Monument delivers it with impact, articulation, and clarity. It also plays well with other pedals. If you want to add a hint of quirkiness to your tremolo parts with modulation, delay, or other effects, the Monument will drive the pedal party with no glitches or mushy sound. walrusaudio.com —MICHAEL MOLENDA

Way Huge Russian Pickle Fuzz
$159 street

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Way Huge founder Jeorge Tripps’ desire to create a Swollen Pickle model with the essential vibe of the now-sought-after ’90s-era Sovtek classic fuzz pedal led him to track down the source of the Russian-made pedal’s smooth and creamy distortion: a particular Russian transistor that closely matched the sonics of the venerable (and recently discontinued) BC183C silicon transistor. Way Huge stockpiled enough NOS BC183Cs to make it possible to launch the new Russian Pickle Fuzz. Painted the same army-green color as the old unit—and featuring Volume, Tone, and Distortion controls (but with a standard footswitch in place of the oldie’s missile-launch button)—the Ruskie has loads of warm fuzzy grind, massive output, and a very effective Tone control that travels clockwise from beefy, mids-forward sounds to scooped metal tones with the high-end sizzle of a Katyusha rocket. You could do a blues gig with this pedal, or wick it up to evoke the battle of Stalingrad, and the Russian Pickle takes it all on with equal aplomb. jimdunlop.com —ART THOMPSON

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Xotic Soul Driven

$168 street

Sporting a mirror-polished metal case, this distortion/boost pedal carries Gain, Volume, and Tone knobs, along with a powerful Mid Boost control that lets you dial in just the right amount of midrange presence to keep your OD sound clear and present in the mix. There are also two internal DIP switches that let you increase the 125Hz bass boost in three levels: 2.4dB, 3.6dB, and 6dB. Suffice to say, if you need thundering low-end response, this is a pedal you’ll want to check out. Keeping the core sound of the guitar intact is one of the stated qualities of this pedal, and I dug how it preserved the unique signatures of a Tele, a Firebird, and a Les Paul (all running through Fender reissue Deluxe Reverb or a Mesa/Boogie TC50 head and 2x12 cab). Thanks to its wide range of distortion, this pedal can cover just about anything you throw at it. It has a slightly compressed feel that many players will love, and it responds very dynamically to changes in guitar volume. It also works beautifully as a clean booster with the Gain turned down. True bypass and able to run on 9v battery power or adapter of your choice, the Soul Driven is another score for Xotic of California. xotic.us —ART THOMPSON

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