We’re finally getting to the bottom of the pile of pedals released in 2016. Yeah, it’s the April 2017 issue now, but that’s an indication of just how many cool new pedals are released each year. Happily, this trio of stompboxes is still relevant and desirable, and they all sound fantastic. Hey, a year-old Ferrari is still a mean machine, and so are these kick-ass tonal processors.
STEREO BLACK CAT VIBE
The Stereo Black Cat Vibe ($325 direct) retains the same circuitry as the original Vibe favored by players such as Steve Lukather, Michael Landau, and Trey Anastasio, but adds another output jack for true-stereo operation. It can also run on either 12-volt DC or 12-volt AC (as the original Black Cat Vibe) power, which means the stereo Vibe is compatible with most brick-style DC-power supplies, and that means it’s now an easy fit for your pedalboard.
Despite its made-in-the-USA boutique design, the Stereo Black Cat Vibe isn’t just an expensive pedal to coddle in your home studio. This is a real gigging stompbox. You get a tough metallic-silver chassis, three big knobs (Volume, Intensity, Speed), a Chorus/Vibrato switch, and an input for an optional expression pedal for real-time Speed changes. Oh, and the on/off LED pulses in time to your Speed setting when the pedal is active.
I should admit that I seldom use chorus-vibrato effects live, as I find they can muddy up the sweet tones of my favorite Mesa/Boogie amp. However, the sound of the Stereo Black Cat Vibe is very articulate, very rich, and it doesn’t “blur” the natural tone of my amp or guitar—unless I choose to crank the knobs to their maximum settings and go wildly psychedelic and out of control. Fun! The pedal also responds very well to performance dynamics, giving you another way to add aggression or subtlety, simply by changing your attack on your strings.
The stereo operation of the pedal provides a very animated left/right spectrum when you use two amps (or two separate tracks on your DAW), and, additionally, it leads the way to getting three cool sounds. You see, in order to get different tonal “vibes” from Output 1 (the jack you use for a mono signal) and Output 2, the sound of Output 2 is slightly thinner, brighter, and more phase-y. So if I wanted a slightly weirder and more haunting tone than the Vibe’s excellent Chorus and Vibrato settings, I simply used Output 2 exclusively. Tricky. That said, fans of old-school Uni-Vibe sounds should be thrilled by the Stereo Vibe’s accurate and spacey reproductions of vintage Hendrix, Gilmour, and Trower tones.
KUDOS Great tone. Now works on 12-volt DC power.
MU-FX BOOSTRON 3
Though not much of a secret to pedal zealots in-the-know, Mu-FX is the new company of Mike Beigel, who, after co-founding Musitronics with Aaron Newman in 1972, went on to invent effects pedals such as the Mu-Tron III, Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, and other weird and wonderful devices. Starting in 1976, Musitronics also produced the Dan Armstrong effects line—the Green Ringer, Yellow Humper, Purple Peaker, and Orange Squeezer. But it swallowed a demon beast when it began manufacturing the original Lol Creme/Kevin Godley Gizmotron, a move that may have ultimately caused Musitronics’ demise.
Since starting Mu-FX in 2014, Beigel has continued to explore his often-whimsical creativity by blending pieces of his past with a firm commitment to the needs of today’s tone explorers. The Boostron 3 ($249 direct) is—wait for it—three effects in a rugged, multi-colored chassis that evokes the look of vintage Mu-Tron pedals (or, a ’70s idea of what a ’60s Russian Sputnik control panel might have looked like). The three effects are based on vintage processors: Blaster on the Alembic Stratoblaster clean boost, Squeezer on the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer compressor, and Slacker on a Pro Co RAT distortion. However, the parameter controls for each effect are relativity bountiful, and, as a whole, the Boostron 3 is more like a studio preamp than a stompbox. This can be a double-edged sword, of course, as your tonal options are varied, but it might take some dialing in to achieve your favorite settings.
The Blaster is activated by a toggle switch, so it’s either always on, or always off. There’s no footswitch for kicking the boost in or out while performing live. It’s perhaps a strange omission, but Mu-FX likely views this as a “secret weapon” that constantly drives your amp’s front end to a creamy-good sound, rather than something to use for a few extra dB during solos. You can also crank the Bright control to evoke a classic treble booster, à la Brian May.
The Squeezer is certainly not a transparent studio compressor, but I dug its warm, dark “squeeze” that was reminiscent of classic ’70s compression pedals. As with those beauties, you can get a slight “attack pop” if you go overboard on the Squeezer’s Juice knob, but that’s kind of an effect in itself. Sustain here is nice and organic, and the Output control adds a second tier of boost if you already have the Blaster active.
If you’re into distortion pedals with two or three knobs, the Slacker section might be confusing at first, but there are some awesome overdrive, distortion, and fuzz tones to be had if you stick it out. Much of the character is in the Mode switch, which offers Comp (a “limiting” overdrive—rather like the pushed-into-the-red guitars on the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”), Ext (a dynamic distortion with good headroom), and Dist (a savage yowl). If you get a tad confused in the heat of a performance, the Slacker’s LED keeps you alert with a red light for off, dark blue for Comp, light blue for Exp, and green for Dist. There are also three choices for a pre-set bass frequency: flat, cut, and boost. Everything interacts with the Gain and Level controls, so patient exploration can deliver everything from subtle natural-tube overdrive to full-on, buzzy RAT-like cacophony. There’s certainly enough tonal power in the Boostron 3 for it to upgrade its moniker to “Boostron Near Infinity.”
KUDOS Rugged. Great sounds. Versatile.
CONCERNS Can take a slight learning curve to unlock the pedal’s full tonal power. Somewhat beefy footprint on pedalboards.
SUPRO ANALOG HARMONIC TREMOLO
The revived and energized Supro brand has been making a lot of noise lately with its amps and guitars, and the company’s vintage vibe is maintained in its Tremolo pedal ($229 street), which can emulate the groovy pulse of the tremolo effect in the original Supro amps (Amplitude Mode), or evoke Leo Fender’s seminal tremolo in his early ’60s blonde and brown-face amps (Harmonic Mode). Even hipper, the Tremolo’s Gain knob lets you control the “preamp level” of the effect, which can be dialed in for some slight edge or outright saturation. The Gain circuit also has a handy “auto-compression” feature that keeps output levels consistent whether you go light or heavy on the preamp gain. You can set tremolo rate by the top-panel Speed knob or an optional expression pedal, and the rate is displayed on the Tremolo’s LED indicator.
I’ve found that many tremolo pedals are a bit flat sounding for my taste, but the Supro Analog Harmonic Tremolo has edge, character, and a vintage-sounding, tube-like quality. As a result, it seems to leap out of bandstand clutter and studio tracks to really own its spot in a live or studio blend—a real plus. In addition, whether I run my amp clean, overdriven, or saturated, I can dial in the Tremolo’s own dedicated gain stage to add more sonic interest and flavor to riffs, chords, and melody lines. Bottom line—this is a real exciting tremolo!
KUDOS Vintage sound. Excellent tube-amp emulation. True-bypass.