PIGTRONIX HAS A REPUTATION FOR developing unorthodox products that enable musicians to either do things that they couldn’t do previously, or do things they did previously in entirely new ways, and these two pedals definitely continue that tradition. “Synthesizer” stompboxes of various types have been around for decades, as have pedals that let you change the attack, sustain, and decay characteristics of your instrument—but the Mothership and Philosopher King provide new takes on both of these classic concepts.
The Mothership Analog Synthesizer combines a VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator), a sub-octave generator, and an “intelligent” ring modulator into a single pedal. The VCO is switchable between triangle and square waveforms, has controls for Level, Tune, and Fine tune, and covers a range from two octaves below to two octaves above the input signal. An adjustable Glide function allows you to slide between pitches in various ways, including Whammy-style via an optional expression pedal. The Ring Mod effect can be triggered by either the VCO or the inputsignal, meaning it can track the pitches that you are playing—and it retains whatever musical interval you set it to no matter what note you play, in effect making it an analog harmonizer. Ring Mod is also linked to the Glide (and Whammy) function. The Sub Octave section provides a fat foundation derived from the fundamental tone, and you can route those low frequencies—along with those generated by the ring modulator—to a discrete Sub Out, where they may be connected to, say, a bass amplifier or a separate mixer channel. Taken together, these functions add up to a basic monophonic synth—though they would be even more synth-like if an ADSR (Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release) section was also included.
Enter the Philosopher King, which combines the compression and distortion circuitry found in the Philosopher’s Tone pedal (which received an Editors’ Pick Award in the July 2009 issue of GP) with some of the—you guessed it—ADSR functionality of the discontinued Pigtronix Attack Sustain pedal, and several additional features. The Swell control determines how quickly what you play goes from silence to full volume, and the Fade control does just the opposite. The Hold control interacts with Fade, introducing pure (post-compressor) signal into the mix in varying amounts, while the Sensitivity control sets the threshold at which the input signal triggers the Swell/Fade cycle. Three mini-toggle switches provide further control over the Swell/Fade cycle: Speed Range selects between Slow and Fast times, One Shot determines whether muting your instrument retriggers the cycle or not, and Auto Reset allows continuous modulation cycling as long as an input signal is present. A Release LED turns off to alert you when the Swell/Fade cycle is underway.
The controls for the Philosopher King’s compression and sustain section are identical to those found on the Philosopher’s Tone, except that the Blend control is now labeled Compression (it still determines the compressor ratio or balance between clean and compressed/distorted signal). Volume sets the output level when the pedal is on, Treble boosts or cuts at 2kHz, Sustain adjusts the compressor threshold, and Grit adds distortion. What is more, you can connect optional expression pedals to control the Swell and Fade times, and even amplitude modulation, which can also be regulated remotely via a CV (control voltage) signal. There’s even a CV output for sending the amplitude modulation voltage to another device if you really want to go nuts. And going nuts is the name of this game, as both pedals are at their best when coloring way outside the lines in the tonal coloring book, particularly when used together.
The Mothership’s VCO tracks relatively well overall, and quite well for a device of this sort, even when playing in the guitar’s low range. Naturally, picking cleanly and avoiding extraneous sounds such as string noise and non-muted strings helps keep things tidy, but even so, the VCO generates odd non-pitched sounds when playing on some settings, and all by itself on others (though some of those sounds are actually kind of cool). The VCO sound can also mute suddenly if you aren’t careful, and the Glide function can behave a little eccentrically, especially at longer glide times—but hey, that’s half the fun. The Ring Mod and Sub-Octave functions, on the other hand, tracked like a bloodhound, and accessing the Whammy function with a Roland EV-5 expression pedal also proved successful. I had a blast playing with the Mothership, and managed to get lots of fun and interesting sounds out of it, but overall it is better suited to studio work than live performance unless you can handle a little unpredictability and don’t mind having to tweak the VCO pitch now and then. My only concern—really more of a consideration— is that the Mothership requires a proprietary 48-volt/520mA power supply, making it incompatible with pedalboards utilizing a central power source.
The Philosopher King possesses the same uncanny clean sustaining capabilities, smooth overdrive, and ability to play well with other pedals (particularly fuzz and distortion pedals) as its smaller cousin the Philosopher’s Tone. The Swell function works well, producing smooth volume swells ranging from relatively fast to more than three seconds, and with differing characteristics depending on the settings of the Swell and Sensitivity controls and the Slow/Fast toggle switch. Also, on some settings the swell takes place each time you pick a note or chord (note that the King is the first polyphonic ADSR pedal), and on others the swell happens only once, after which the envelope stays open until you pause or mute, allowing you to play extended passages without the swell effect. It takes a while to find the sweet spots and to get the hang of picking and muting exactly right—but once you do the results can be very beautiful. The Fade function, which may be used independently for stutter sounds or in combination with Swell for a variable waveform tremolo, works equally smoothly, and can even be set to fade only to a predetermined Hold level rather than entirely. Using the EV-5 to control Swell and Fade worked perfectly.
Chaining the two pedals together led to even more great sounds, particularly with the King first in the chain to drive and help stabilize the VCO, but using the King to sustain and fade the synthesized sounds in and out also yielded compelling results.
These are great products that further Pigtronix’s prime directive of providing musicians with inventive new analog tools to realize their creative potential—and because the Philosopher King has such an impressive feature set, including the ability to handle chords as well as single notes, it receives an Editors’ Pick Award.
CONTACT Pigtronix, (631) 331- 7447; pigtronix.com
PRICE $649 retail/ $479 street
KUDOS Cleverly combines three great sound processors. Lots of control options.
CONCERNS Requires proprietary power supply.
PRICE $399 retail/ $295 street
KUDOS Fantastic sustain and flexible amplitudeshaping capabilities. Lots of control options.