Review: Boss SY-1 Synthesizer Pedal

Most effect pedals simply enhance your guitar’s tone, but the SY-1 lets you conjure up entirely new voices.
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Boss revolutionized the world of polyphonic guitar synthesis in 2015 with its SY-300 guitar synthesizer, the first true synth processor for guitars that works with a standard, rather than a hexaphonic, pickup. With its deep feature set, the SY-300 remains an ideal way for guitarists to dig into tone-twisting territory, though it does require knowledge of analog synthesis to get the most out of it. 

Now comes the SY-1, a smaller plug-and-play synth stompbox for guitar and bass. While it eschews the SY-300’s vast tone tweaking, the SY-1 has a simple but effective control set that gives you plenty of ways to shape its sounds to suit your style.

At the heart of the SY-1 are a whopping 121 synth tones arranged in eight banks that include bass, string, organ, lead, pad and bell settings, sound effects and sequencer patches that produce rhythmic pitch and filter changes. The variation control lets you select from 11 styles of each synth type, making a rich and varied palette of sounds accessible at the turn of a knob or two. This alone is cool, but a pair of dual concentric controls makes the SY-1 even more versatile. 

The first lets you set the levels of the direct and effect signals independently, while the second offers tone/rate and depth controls. The tone/rate knob governs a setting’s EQ and modulation speed, depending on which variation is selected, while depth sets the filter’s response to picking dynamics. With the depth control fully counterclockwise, the filter opens slowly in response to picking attack, causing the sounds to bloom gradually, while turning the knob clockwise makes the filter open faster for wah-style effects. 

In addition, the depth control becomes a two-octave chromatic pitch control when the variation control is set on 11. Altogether, this is a tidy and effective control set with an impressive range.

Several other useful features are here as well. The pedal switch turns the effect on or off, and, when held down, it continues to play the effect until you let up on it. The expression/control jack lets you connect an expression pedal, a single foot switch to take over control of the sound hold feature, or a double foot switch to control sound hold and a setting’s pitch or tempo. The guitar/bass switch on the front of the unit optimizes the SY-1’s settings for either instrument. Finally, there are send and return jacks to patch in an external effect.

It probably bears a reminder here that the SY-1 is a synthesizer, not a sampler, and like a keyboard synthesizer its sounds are evocative of the instruments labeled on its control panel. That said, many of them deliver pretty convincing tones, including most of the organ and some of the bass and string sounds, and all of the synth types can bring new depth to performances or recordings. 

Of course, it’s the analog synth tones that are the SY-1’s calling card, and they’re here in force, from the convincing “Satisfaction”-like fuzz I dialed in with a pad tone to the wild ring-modulated tones in the sound effects bank. The sequencer effects were among my favorites, creating everything from subtle rhythmic filter shifts to bubbling “Baba O’Riley”-style arpeggiations.

The tone, rate and depth controls are highly effective at shaping the sounds to your sonic requirements. Turning the tone control clockwise raises the filter cutoff, making tones brighter and more cutting, while dialing it in the opposite direction helps them sit nicely in a mix. The rate control was great for ramping up the organ rotary-speaker effects and adjusting the rate of the sequenced patterns, while the depth control allowed me to “play” the synth’s filter response through picking dynamics. 

As mentioned earlier, the depth knob acts as a chromatic pitch control for all tones in variation 11, and I had a lot of fun using bass, string, organ and lead tones to play harmonized guitar lines. The SY-1 opened up all sorts of new ways to explore everything from leads to arpeggiated fingerpicked patterns, all of it with latency-free performance and glitch-free tracking.

Most effect pedals simply enhance your guitar’s tone, but the SY-1 lets you conjure up entirely new voices, and therein lies its magic. If you’re seeking tonal inspiration for composing or ear-catching sounds for performance or recording, they’re all here on tap. No matter your fluency with synthesizers, the SY-1 is easy to use, versatile and fun, and earns our Editors’ Pick award.


SY-1 Synthesizer Pedal

PRICE $199.99 street

CONTROLS Effect/direct volume, tone/rate, depth, variation, type, guitar/bass voicing switch
I/O Input, output, effect loop send and return, expression/control jack, 9-volt AC adaptor (sold separately)

KUDOS A wealth of sounds for convincing instrument tones and effects. Simple but effective control set allows a high degree of tone tweaking