There have been a smattering of new Guitar Synth pedals recently - including at the January NAMM show, so I thought it would be opportune to do a round-up of some of my preferred choices - the significant new ones, and some older favourites.
I’ve deliberately left out a few of the larger usual suspects here - including the Boss SY-300, Glou Glou Moutarde and Hologram Infinite Jets Resynthesizer - all of which I’ve featured before. Instead I’ve focused more on the compact and medium enclosure size pedals - which are more practical for pedalboard placement - which is always one of my own key considerations.
I have acquired 2 synth pedals to-date - both in this listing - the DigiTech Dirty Robot, and the 10-dial (5 x dual-concentric) Pigtronix Mothership 2. And while I get on really well with the Dirty Robot, I’ve struggled to get on well with the more versatile and capable Mothership 2. Analog Guitar Synth pedals can be notoriously tricky to dial in, and it’s well known that many players struggle to fully gel with these.
As mentioned several times, I’m an avowed pedal-tweaker and typically like having as many dials as possible - as I do have the patience and due-diligence to take the amount of time needed to dial things in properly. However if the task of dialling in different tones is too complex or too fiddly - this can become tiresome - which does seem to be the case somewhat for me as regards the Mothership - which I do still like, but can find somewhat frustrating to use!
When the Meris Enzo arrived last year, I thought that this was the best guitar synth offering to date for my own needs and preferences, but my failure to get along well with the Mothership sort of made me hesitant about acquiring the Enzo. My current state of mind is that the Enzo is still the frontrunner for me here, and I’ve sort of determined that I will be acquiring it later this year, likely alongside the also highly appealing Subdecay Octave Theory.
There are obviously some pedal-makers who are more at home with synth-style pedals and have numerous offerings in that area - say like Electro-Harmonix, and there are often 2 or more significant choices available from those makers - as is represented in this listing.
I’ve tried to provide as balanced an overview as possible, and attempted to cover the maximum amount of ground - as there are numerous different types of synth-style pedals from hybrid octavers to wave generators, oscillators and sequencers, and essentially fuzz harmonizer/modulators (Schumann PLL-style) amongst the key flavours.
Will be interesting to see where I am at at the conclusion of this overview.
Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand and then pedal name:
This is a somewhat unusual pedal - an 8-Step sequencer with 6 modulation style modes - Oscillation, Resonant Filter, Tremolo, Pulse-Width Modulation, Digital Time Modulation and Pitch-Shifter. It's capable of some really quirky things while also easily able to provide some really musical and melodic content - per Mike Hermans' demo above. As part of Alexander's NEO range this come with numerous secondary functions and presets onboard, and has been on my wishlist for a while - although it is still something of a 'nice-to-have' rather than essential status for me. I may just acquire one of these - some day when the price is right!
This pedal was out relatively briefly a couple of years ago - before Banana Effects essentially moved on to really just focusing on mini pedals. This is a cool take on a sort very basic Schumann PLL style pedal - a lot simpler, and somewhat different to EarthQuaker's approach with the Data Corrupter. There's 3 core components here, a 2, 3 or 4-Step Sequencer, Resonant Filter, and x1 to x4 Octaver - with further settings for Rise or Fall (Up/Down), Mid, Fast and Slow rate toggle, then Rate and Volume knobs. You can actually get some really cool tones out of this one - which seems fairly straight-forward to operate. I believe it was discontinued early last year or the previous year, although examples do pop up on Reverb.com now and again for around £300 equivalent - at the time of writing there is one on offer for £310. This is a Japanese pedal - so beware of import charges unless buying locally.
This is a largely of the 'modulate fuzz' type synth as I like to call it - where you can get the pedal to sound very straight-up fuzz-like - but where the correct amount of tweaking yields very pleasant synth-like sounds - here particularly in arpeggiator mode. DBA calls it a low fidelity 8 bit pitch transposer, and there are 4 modes here - Normal, Octave Down, Octave Up and Arpeggiator with just 3 simple dials - Volume, Mode and Pitch. I feel it is somewhat over-sized and over-priced for what it offers, but as with all of these - mileage can vary, and it certainly does offer up some cool tones.
This Argentinian pedal-maker was new to me as of this feature - it does have a decent range of 13 or so compact and medium-enclosure pedals including this Pixel Guitar Synth and the equivalent Byte Bass Synth pedal. Alongside Level, Blend and Aliasing dials the key dials are Wave Shape - Triangle, Square, 'M'wave, Sawtooth Down, Sawtooth Up and 8 Bit Digital; and Octave - Down, 4th, Uni and Up. It's a relatively simple pedal to use, well-priced, and it yields a number of really cool usable tones - definitely worth investigating.
This has been actually my main synth pedal to date - it is fun and relatively easy to use with its 3 dual-concentric and one regular dials - covering Dry/Wet Mix, Modulation, Frequency Start & Stop, Sensitivity, Time and a 3-way variable position Drift - going from Sub through Square to Octave style oscillation with plenty of decent in-between values. I have found this pedal a joy to use and really easy to hit upon great tones - it's a very solidly-built great value proposition with stereo output bonus and a really cool candidate for your first guitar synth pedal if you are interested in investigating the genre!
This is a really very simple three-Octave synthy style pedal - with Down, Up and Sub (2-down) Octaves, and further controls for Level, Filter (Tone) and Base (Squared input signal level). There is a variety of this sort of octave-style synths on the market, but this one is probably the most versatile tone-wise for its form-factor. Not much more to report here other than these are generally very well received and easy to use.
This was / in fact still is a genius interpretation of the somewhat complex Schumann Harmonizing Phase-Locked Loop circuit effect - combining dual oscillators with octaves, square-wave fuzz and frequency modulation. The 8 dials and 2 x toggle-switch layout is really well thought out and actually relatively easy to get to grips with - and this pedal is actually significantly different from the forthcoming slightly more of a fuzz really Beetronics FX Swarm which I'm definitely getting. The Data Corrupter too has been on my wishlist pretty much since it launched - although I feel that the enclosure is just a tiny bit too large, and surely it warranted a second footswitch here for some of the additional flexibility available on the slightly more detailed FTelettronica clone. In any case a really cool pedal with straddles numerous genres and types.
Electro-Harmonix is probably the leading proponent of guitar synth pedals with well over 20 offerings within that category alone. Last time around I featured the Superego, and have also touched on the Superego+ before which are more of the analog oscillation engines type synths. Where I've decided I really prefer EHX's _9 line of pedals - where you have a rotary mode switch alongside just 4 parameter dials. I've always found this style of synth pedal easier and more fun to engage with / dial in. The newest Mono (Monophonic) Synth is slightly different with its 11 modes on offer - Nu Wave, Unison, Blast, Twin, Bass, XOX, Wub, Tinnier, Lair, Ghost and Buster - alongside Dry and Synth Volume dials, Sensitivity, and changing 'Ctrl' parameter dial. This is the perfect pedal for those 'dubstep' type sounds / basslines! Note that this is monophonic only so no good for chords / pads.
EHX's range of '_9' synth style pedals has generally been very well received, and there are 5 of these to date - B9, C9, KEY9, MEL9 and SYNTH9 - all offering 9 different emulations / simulations each of well-known and classic organ, keyboard and synth tones. Of the 5, the Polyphonic SYNTH9 is my favourite variety with its OBX, Profit V, Vibe Synth, Mini Mood, EHX Mini, Solo Synth, Mood Bass, String Synth and Poly VI patches. You get the main rotary mode dial alongside Dry and Synth Volume knobs, and then 2 variable CTRL1 and CTRL2 parameter control knobs. Some players take issue with these pedals, and there is occasional criticism that the tracking does not always work flawlessly. But there are a tonne of players who love these and get some really amazing results from them. The SYNTH9 has been up and down my wishlist a few times. Until I do a 'Year of Synth' this is likely to remain a 'nice to have' rather than essential - but it's a really cool synth pedal generally whichever way you want to look at it.
I believe this is Robert's first proper foray into synth pedals - with this 3-wave mode modulated fuzz style guitar synth. There is a 3-way wave-shape / mode rocker at the foot of the pedal - Square, Saw and Sine wave shapes. You then have a Frequency Cut-off Filter knob and 3 further controls - Level, Attack and Blend - with a Chaos toggle-switch which significantly changes sensitivity / type of detection used for more extreme tones. I feel this is another great first synth style pedal as it is fairly straightforward to apply and dial in, and yields cool useful tones very easily.
I feel that overall this synth pedal may still be the one to beat - with its 4 modes - Polyphonic, Mono, Arpeggiated and Dry, and alongside multiple primary and secondary parameter functions. Pitch/Portamento/Glide, Filter Range/6 Filter Types, Dry/Wet Mix / Delay Level, Sustain/Ring Modulation, Filter Envelope/Bandwidth/Resonance, and Modulation/Delay Feedback. In fact the only thing really missing here is switchable onboard presets. There is some preset capability - but you need to acquire the additional Meris 4-Preset Switch (+£115) or some other midi-switcher - which takes the price up to a somewhat disconcerting £435 which I personally don't feel is particularly good value in this context - that and the fact that for some reason Meris pedals are at least £20 more than they should be in the UK. You normally get a sort of $ to £ equivalency in the UK so that $299 = £299, but in this instance $299 = £319 - which is just wrong, considering the currency exchange rate etc. There was always something niggling me about this pedal - and the above combination of factors are still proving something of a hurdle. I had all but made my mind up to get this pedal, but had forgotten about the preset thing - and I really don't believe you're getting your money's worth for the £435 you need to spend to get the best use from this pedal. Meris could easily bring those presets onboard if it wanted to - and allow you to cycle through them by pressing down both footswitches simultaneously like Stone Deaf FX does for its Syncopy and Tremotron pedals. Right now I'm thinking I should wait for V2.
I've come across this Swedish maker - Fredrik Lyxzén a few times - and in particular this specific synth pedal. Fredrik typically specialises in DIY Pedal Kits and PCBs in particular - while more recently he has taken to providing fully assembled pedals too with a compact but neat range currently of 6 pedals. The ItU pedal features 3 x toggle switches at the top - one to enable Octave Down, then Octave Up, and a 3-way LFO toggle for Triangle/Off/Square. You then have 8 further control knobs to tune the synth - Mix, Sub, Gate, Rate, Level, Filter, Track and Warp. This is a pretty decent proposition for what it offers - I still think it could do with a second Chaos or Havoc footswitch for more outlandish extremes, as well as onboard presets to preserve the cool sounds you found.
I have to say that this pedal was a little bit of a disappointment for me - I still mostly like it, and am keeping it. It gets very occasional rotation, but is the source of much frustration after prolonged periods of dial-tweaking. It was launched with much fanfare and with some excellent demos around a couple of years ago. It should be much lauded for its control topology alone - featuring 10 controls in 5 dual-concentric knobs - Square Wave/Sub, Clean Level/VCO, Output/Glide, Dynamics/Tune, and Timbre/Sweep. You then have a 3-way mode toggle - Octave, Manual, Unison, alongside a Sync on/off toggle. All seems very clear and straightforward, the dials work well and are clearly marked, but somehow I still struggle to dial in and replicate my preferred sounds. No matter who you are, there will be one or two pedals you just never properly gel with, and despite much perseverance and patience I never seem to have got quite fully to grips with this pedal - whereas I can deploy the Dirty Robot q.v. very easily. I still haven't given up hope, and hope that one day inspiration will strike, and I somehow get a handle on what I've been missing. I've noted from other reviewers that this pedal is a little hit-and-miss - some think it's wonderful, while others like me have struggled to get along with it properly. While I was considering this one, Pigtronix launched its Ring Master pedal - which is a sort of Ring Modulation Synth with mostly the same form factor as the Mothership. I deliberated long and hard which one I would likely prefer an get more use out of before - I decided on this one - but it really was touch and go at the time, and even now I'm wondering if I would have got along better with the Ring Master - but the experience of the Mothership is sort of holding back further investigation. I need to fully get to grips with the Mothership or part ways and move things along ...
I decided to feature Pigtronix's newest synth type pedal - the Resotron versus its Ring Modulator / Ring Master half-brother which is also in contention. The control topology here is somewhat simpler - you have 5 regular-sized knobs - Cutoff Frequency, Glide, Peak, Sensitivity and Blend, alongside 2 x 3-way mode switches - HPF/BPF/LPF and Envelope Up/Pitch/Envelope down. Finally you have a small button for engaging an LFO oscillator. That combination of parameters actually gives you a surprisingly varied palette of textures and tones - and I would now probably get this pedal over and above its somewhat more complicated siblings although considering what has happened in the past, I may change my mindset on that any day soon too.
This is another interesting take on a synth style pedal with separate Synth and Filter sections. The Synth consists of Octave Up and Octave Down Channels where the toggle selects the state of octave, and the Level and Decay dials control how much of that Channel / Octave is on and for what duration. You then have a Trem / Amplitude Modulation section which also allows you to apply modulation and control the amount of Dry signal. Finally the Envelope Filter / Sample Hold section can be switched to either option - to be controlled by Range and Velocity Dials. The two footswitches activate the two 'sides' of the pedal in effect. This is a pleasingly simple pedal to operate and with enough tonal variety to make things interesting. Probably not the most exciting synth pedal on this page, but probably a step up from something like the Bit Commander in many ways albeit in a slightly larger form factor with just 2 simultaneous octaves rather than 3.
And on to the last but now likeliest next candidate for me. When I did my first synth pedal overview I was eyeing up Subdecay's Octasynth pedal - but the new Octave Theory trumps that in several ways and looks like it may well be my next synth pedal acquisition. It has 11 modes as such split across 4 categories - LFO, Envelope, Shepard Tone and Manual. LFO has Random, Square, Double Square and Triangle options; Envelope is Up or Down; Shepard tone is Equivalent or Down; and Manual mode essentially takes the best of the Octasynth and improves it somewhat. Beside the main mode rotor switch there are 5 further controls - Filter Frequency, Amp Decay/Filter Depth, Filter Resonance, Volume and Octave Modulation - the last mentioned of which is directly related to the mode selected. Note that the 'Shepard Tone' mentioned is an effect which creates the auditory illusion that the tone is continually ascending or descending in pitch while the actual core pitch does not shift at all - it occurs when you get a perfect overlap / superposition of sine waves separated by octaves!
I've often said that I get a sort of catharsis and clarity in doing these features - they help me evaluate what is out there, and how well suited each device may be to my needs. Many a time I go into a feature expecting a certain fore-drawn conclusion when I come out the other end with a totally different mindset.
On this occasion I thought that I had already discounted the EQD Data Corrupter, and had pretty much definitely settled on getting a Meris Enzo this year. Upon further reflection though and looking back again through all the different options - big and small - I've decided that the next likely pedal for me to acquire here is the Subdecay Octave Theory, with the Data Corrupter back in contention again for a possible second choice. As to the matter of the Enzo - I've gone from really wanting it to being unsure, to really wanting it again, to right now parking it once more for a future decision.
I feel none of the existing synth pedals are wholly exactly right for my needs yet - and that includes the larger Boss SY-300 even. I feel we need more intuitive controls and interfaces in most instances - alongside onboard footswitchable presets. I feel that any pedal with multiple modes and a multiplicity of different tones onboard has to have presets for you to get the most out of the pedal. You cannot be dialling in the full complement of dials every time you want to play a different sound or effect.
So presets are a must, and an easy way to recall and select them. I can only see that working in 2 ways - per the Strymon and Boss workstations model of 3 x footswitch combinations with Bank Up/Down, or like Stone Deaf FX does it by changing presets when you press 2 footswitches at the same time - so we have possible solution for both 2 and 3 footswitch pedals.
On further sweep-back and if I ever were to do a 'Year of Synth' - then I would probably add the Alexander Colour Theory, the EHX Synth 9, and the Parasit Studio Into The Unknown to the list - the cool thing about the Colour Theory is that it already has presets.
I have a decent grounding in electronic music and synthesizers in general - and really just want an easy way of delivering those sorts of tones reliably via guitar pedal. We've seen some steps forward recently, and it's great not to have to equip your guitar with special pickups Roland GR-55 style any more - but I still feel we have a way to go to improve the reproducibility of those tones, and make them more reliably delivered and easier to set up and recall. I want something that is as easy to setup and manipulate, and pretty much sounds at a similar level to a decent high-end synth - obviously for a little less than the typical £2K going price for those!